8 Rookies Already Looking Like 2014 NBA Draft-Day Steals
Although NBA Summer League is only a small sample of games, some rookies are already emerging as 2014 draft-day steals.
This year's talent pool was deep, so several teams were fortunate to land quality prospects late in the first round and even in the second. The competition in Orlando and Las Vegas showcased a handful of players outperforming their draft status.
Our list of burglaries includes a quartet of combo guards and shooting guards, along with a couple of prolific power forwards and underappreciated swingmen. The Los Angeles Lakers were particularly lucky, as they pulled off two thefts in this draft.
Which NBA newcomers are already looking like steals?
Rodney Hood, Utah Jazz SF
Drafted: No. 23
Rodney Hood had some subpar shooting nights in Las Vegas, but he still looked like a steal for the Utah Jazz.
He simply passes the eye test with his command and ability to thrive with or without the ball. Hood's sweet outside jumper was on full display during a 29-point outburst against the Milwaukee Bucks. In addition to his seven triples, he dished five assists and snagged two steals.
Later on in the week, the 6'8" forward showed he can score and impact the game without shooting from deep. He operated smoothly in Utah's system and caught the attention of Salt City Hoops' Ben Dowsett:
His offensive repertoire is far from limited to just his shooting...Hood possesses an excellent basketball IQ and feel for the game and is a competent, if not particularly explosive, ball-handler capable of initiating an offense himself at times. His work in pick-and-roll sets might be the most underrated element of his game...
Hood could have been drafted as early as the late lottery, and we wouldn't have batted an eye or called it a reach.
But he landed 23rd and gives the Jazz a ton of value for that draft slot. Expect him to be a dependable component of Quin Snyder's rotation, as he'll stretch the floor and make sound plays as a swingman.
Cleanthony Early, New York Knicks SF
Drafted: No. 34
The Las Vegas Summer League was a chance for Cleanthony Early to prove he's first-round material.
He did just that, looking the part of an NBA small forward and giving the New York Knicks some juice offensively. Early shot 50 percent from beyond the arc, flourished in the open floor and finished strong around the rim.
At Wichita State, the 6'8" prospect wasn't viewed as the craftiest or most instinctive player around. But in Vegas, people noticed how well he moved on the floor with and without the ball.
"He's constantly moving," said SNY.tv's Keith Schlosser. "He has bounce. You don't catch him standing around much, which is positive."
Knickerbockers president Phil Jackson also had high praise for Early, per Daniel Mogollon of AllMediaNY.com, saying, "He’s got a future in this game. He moves really well. I think people are going to like the way he runs, the way he moves on the floor."
He won't be featured right out of the gate, but Early will continue to show why he deserves a spot on the depth chart—and why he should have been drafted sooner.
Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers PF
Drafted: No. 7
While he didn't put up colossal numbers in Las Vegas, Los Angeles Lakers rookie Julius Randle made some impressive plays and flashed star-like potential.
Using his quickness and power, the 6'9" forward effectively attacked the rim from every angle. Randle exhibited an improved face-up repertoire, including the ability to drive right and finish with his right hand.
Leading up to the draft, Randle's relatively modest wingspan was viewed as a stumbling block that would hamper him against lengthy opponents—especially on the defensive end. Thus far, his athleticism and timing have served him well, and he definitely has the motor to hold his own as an interior stopper.
If there's one summer league sequence that best showcased his star quality, it's the fourth quarter of his final game. Through three quarters, he was 0-of-8 against the Denver Nuggets. Then he left his stamp on the game with 12 fourth-quarter points to lead L.A. to victory. He physically dominated Denver, getting to the basket at will.
"Julius Randle completely took this game over," said Mike Trudell of TWC SportsNet. "He changed the game."
The Lakers didn't land as high in the lottery as they hoped, but they're extremely fortunate someone as gifted as Randle was still available at No. 7.
Mitch McGary, Oklahoma City Thunder F/C
Drafted: No. 21
It's kind of understandable that most first-round teams passed on Michigan's Mitch McGary, considering his back issues and small sample size of playing time.
But it looks like the Oklahoma City Thunder nabbed another highly valuable big man.
The 6'10" power forward was healthy and productive during the Orlando Summer League, finding the hoop on offense and protecting the rim on the other side. His superb court awareness and scoring touch allowed him to make a big impact on OKC's offense and average 14.8 points per game.
Most importantly, his back was in great form, as John Zitzler of Basketball Insiders noted:
McGary was very active and didn’t show any signs of the back injury that caused him to miss much of his sophomore season. The Thunder surely did their due diligence in regards to McGary’s health prior to the draft, but seeing him be so aggressive...is certainly a welcome sight for the team. McGary is has always been praised for motor and the energy he brings to a team, and that has been on full display during Summer League. Despite coming off a significant lay-off, McGary hasn’t seemed fatigued at all.
McGary's not a superstar in the making. He's not that kind of steal. But he will help streamline the Thunder offense as a key role player, and his physical presence will wear down opponents. As long as he stays healthy, he'll be one of the best late-first round selections in 2014.
Nick Johnson, Houston Rockets G
Drafted: No. 42
Compared to most second-round draft picks, Houston Rockets guard Nick Johnson has an awesome blend of explosiveness, ball skills and instincts. In hindsight, it's surprising that someone so versatile was drafted in the 40s.
Throughout summer league, the Arizona product proved he's capable of scoring and facilitating at a high level. He was comfortable driving to the rim, shooting, setting up teammates and defending aggressively. Johnson notched double figures in 14 of 15 games, and he also averaged 3.5 assists and enjoyed seven multi-steal games.
Houston quickly realized it had a second-round steal, so it recently signed him to a three-year guaranteed contract, according to Shams Charania of RealGM.
Johnson is undersized for a 2-guard, and he doesn't have the full collection of point guard skills, but he's going to do more than survive in the NBA. He's an upper-crust athlete who also makes smart plays and supplies stout defense.
Even early in his career, Johnson will give Kevin McHale support for the backcourt, a valuable reserve who's polished and talented on both ends of the court.
Gary Harris, Denver Nuggets SG
Drafted: No. 19 by CHI (traded to DEN)
When Gary Harris fell to No. 19 in the draft, he immediately hit our radar as a big-time steal candidate.
Judging by his scoring productivity and defensive prowess in the summer league, he's worthy of that status. The Denver Nuggets rookie didn't shoot efficiently in Las Vegas, but he displayed scoring instincts, playmaking ability and backcourt stoppage.
He moved crisply without the ball, used screens for catch-and-shoot chances and was devastating when he operated from the wing. Harris connected from deep, found mid-range buckets and also slashed to the rim a few times.
The aggressive approach drew plenty of fouls and paid dividends, as noted by Mike Griffith of MLive.com: "A very bright spot for Harris was his ability to get to the free-throw line, as he attempted 30 free throws, making 27 of them (90 percent)."
As for defense, Harris backed up his reputation as a two-way prospect. He swiped 2.6 steals per contest and committed just 3.2 fouls.
Once his shot selection and rhythm catch up with the rest of his game, he's going to be a top-tier shooting guard.
Jordan McRae, Philadelphia 76ers G
Drafted: No. 58 by SAS (traded to PHI)
On draft night, nobody took a chance on Tennessee guard Jordan McRae until the San Antonio Spurs plucked him at No. 58. And then they quickly shuttled him off to the Philadelphia 76ers, who had already acquired five other draftees earlier in the evening.
Although McRae was a highly productive performer in the SEC, his stock was low entering the draft. A slender frame, suspect ball-handling skills and mediocre athleticism turned everyone off.
Consider his stock revived in a big way. The 6'6" shooting guard averaged 21 points per game during the Las Vegas Summer League, including 50 percent shooting and 38 percent from three-point land. His scoring numbers bested every top-10 pick who played in Orlando or Vegas, which is impressive even if his long-term ceiling isn't as high as those lottery studs.
Everyone underestimated his length and basketball DNA. Armed with a 7'0" wingspan and a knack for finding the hoop, McRae shot confidently over opponents and took copious trips to the charity stripe. He also made an impact defensively, highlighted by a four-steal effort against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The result? A place on the All-NBA Summer League Second Team and an opportunity for a legitimate role in the league. The Sixers pulled off arguably the best second-round heist of the year.
Jordan Clarkson, Los Angeles Lakers G
Drafted: 46th by WAS (traded to LAL)
We can only glean so much from the summer league, but it really looks like the Los Angeles Lakers got great value in the middle of the second round by trading for Jordan Clarkson.
The 6'5" guard generated offense in a variety of ways. His speed and handles help him get past his man and slash to the bucket, but he can also find his teammates. Clarkson has a great feel in the pick-and-roll as well as drive-and-dish sequences.
Even more impressive was his outside shooting. Clarkson proved he can score from NBA three range as an off-guard, hitting 8-of-19 (42 percent) from distance.
Lakers associate head coach Mark Madsen loved Clarkson's willingness to absorb the team's game plan and execute it, per Trevor Wong of Lakers.com:
I think he was one of the top players, not only on the Lakers team, but here at the Las Vegas Summer League...I loved his enthusiasm for the game and I loved his ability to learn. He learned every set, he learned multiple options out of each set for other positions. Now what Clarkson can do is he can tell people where to go on the court, and that's a sign of a point guard who's growing into the position.
It's not just that Clarkson put up 15.8 points per game and worked hard to learn the Lakers' system. He was comfortable on the floor and looked the part of a dynamic player, superior to most second-round prospects.
If he can continue to make plays during training camp and into the regular season, L.A. will have made one of the best thefts of the draft.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA draft for Bleacher Report.
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