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Ranking the Top 10 Dark-Horse 2015 NBA Draft Prospects

Daniel O'BrienFeatured ColumnistAugust 20, 2014

Ranking the Top 10 Dark-Horse 2015 NBA Draft Prospects

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Most NBA draft junkies have already taken a sneak peek at the 2015 class, especially the exciting freshmen at the top or prominent upperclassmen. But some of the most fascinating prospects are still flying under the radar as they prepare for the 2014-15 season.

    Some are overshadowed by their own blue-chip teammates, and others are on unheralded teams within their conference. And several of them are being heavily undervalued on most mock drafts.

    Which dark horses are poised to mix things up and deserve more attention? We broke down the top candidates in order of draft range and showed why they're the biggest sleepers in the country.

10. Aleksandar Vezenkov, Bulgaria SF (1995)

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    Vitals: 19 years old, 6'8", 188 pounds,

    Draft Ceiling: Late first/early second round

     

    Aleksandar Vezenkov isn't going to blow by anyone in the NBA or explode acrobatically for rebounds or fast breaks. And defensively, his team will have to hide him or put him on undersized power forwards.

    But he knows how to play effectively in a team concept, and he's a gifted shooter. Vezenkov drilled 39 percent of his triples from the international line in 2013-14 with Greek club Aris.

    His NBA appeal stems from an awesome combination of size and perimeter touch.

    "The 6'8" combo forward is a gunner who does most of his damage from beyond the arc," said Rafael Uehara of UpsideMotor.com. "Vezenkov has very good mechanics and a quick trigger off the catch...Good elevation leads to a high release point that makes it hard for opponents to contest his shot effectively."

    We don't have grand plans for him to land in the mid-first round and take over the league. But he could be a terrific role player to space the floor and seamlessly work with star teammates.

9. Mouhammadou Jaiteh, France F/C (1994)

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    Roberto Serra/Iguana Press/Getty Images

    Vitals: 19 years old, 6'11", 249 pounds, 7'4" wingspan

    Draft Ceiling: Late first/early second round

     

    French big man Mouhammadou Jaiteh is still improving, which means he'll be even more intriguing come June than he already is now.

    He isn't blessed with prolific scoring moves or astounding athleticism, but he's getting better at all the important parts of the game. Jaiteh can finish strong on the interior using his 250-pound frame and 7'4" wingspan, and he's expanded his face-up driving skills. His size and strength make him a presence on the boards, and he has promising pick-and-roll tools.

    Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress.com watched Jaiteh up close at the 2014 EuroCamp and noted the youngster's progress:

    When he's dialed in, his sheer size allows him to be a factor around the rim as a finisher and rebounder...His post game appears to have improved some, as has his footwork and ability to make decisions and put the ball on the floor from the midrange...Averaging 6.7 points and 4.3 rebounds per-game for Nanterre in the French League, Jaiteh's ability to gain high-level experience and continue to improve his skill level should help him improve his standing among scouts...

    If he continues to grow as a low-post offensive weapon and defensive stopper, his stock will rise enough to get him picked in the middle of the draft.

8. R.J. Hunter, Georgia State SG (Junior)

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Vitals: 20 years old, 6'5", 180 pounds, 6'9.5" wingspan

    Draft Ceiling: Late first round

     

    Last year, the Sun Belt conference produced dark-horse NBA draft prospect Elfrid Payton. This year, the league will showcase Georgia State's R.J. Hunter.

    The coach's son is a phenomenal shooter, sporting a quick release and extensive range. He's not afraid to pull up from beyond NBA range or sink deep catch-and-shoot chances in transition. Hunter maintained a 40 percent rate from three-land despite a high volume of attempts (7.7 per game).

    One scout told Jeff Borzello of CBS Sports that Hunter is the "best shooter in the country."

    Although he isn't an extremely creative ball-handler, he drives and finishes with either hand, and he can also hit turnarounds and floaters. He has a great feel for the game, which will serve him well as an off-guard in the NBA. Hunter is quite adept at shooting on the move.

    He might have trouble getting past opponents in the NBA, and he won't be an exemplary defender. However, he's not a bad athlete, and he has great instincts on both sides of the ball.

7. Kenan Sipahi, Kosovo PG (1995)

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    Layne Murdoch/Getty Images

    Vitals: 19 years old, 6'4", 180 pounds

    Draft Ceiling: Late first round

     

    While he didn't see substantial playing time for Turkish club Fenerbahce Ulker this year, Kenan Sipahi has done plenty in international competition to warrant NBA interest.

    The Kosovo-born point guard starred for Turkey's under-18 team in 2012 and 2013, using his sharp vision and passing ingenuity to lead the attack. In 2013 he buoyed the squad to the FIBA Europe U18 gold medal, won MVP honors and landed on the All-Tournament team.

    FIBAEurope.com described Sipahi's knack for fooling opponents: "With assassin-like stealth, Sipahi retained a modest stat line while coming up with the big plays every time it was required to lead Turkey to gold..." He was recently called up to Turkey's national team and figures to be a dangerous quarterback during the 2014 FIBA World Cup.

    Sipahi does a nice job of finding shooters while he's driving, and he's also great at drawing the defense and dishing to cutters on the baseline. He can also keep defenses honest by driving all the way to the rim, and he has enough size and agility to create jumpers off the dribble.

    His instincts and inventiveness won't be enough to make him a standout in the NBA, but he's going to surprise a lot of people when he transitions to the big stage.

6. Olivier Hanlan, Boston College PG/SG (Junior)

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    Rich Barnes/Getty Images

    Vitals: 21 years old, 6'4", 188 pounds, 6'5" wingspan

    Draft Ceiling: Late first round

     

    It was a trial-filled year for Olivier Hanlan in 2013-14. He was often over-taxed on a weak Boston College squad, and as a result his shooting percentages dipped and his draft stock suffered.

    As a junior, he'll become more efficient from beyond the arc and as a passer. Hanlan's creativity and control off the dribble will do the rest, as he relentlessly creates scoring chances near and far from the basket.

    Chris Mannix of Sports Illustrated praised the combo guard's shooting touch and knack for drawing contact: "Olivier Hanlan has a nice-looking shot from the college three. Gets to the free throw line a lot, too."

    To be exact, Hanlan went to the charity stripe for 7.1 free-throws per game (7.9 per 40 minutes). He's great at using hesitations and pump-fakes to get past the first line of defense, and he consistently finds creases to slice through on his way to the hoop.

    Defensively, he's not an impressive prospect, but he has enough size to check 1s and most 2-guards. Upgrading that end should be his top priority, because the offense will inevitably take care of itself.

5. Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona C (Junior)

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    Steve Dykes/Getty Images

    Vitals: 21 years old, 7'0", 243 pounds, 6'11" wingspan

    Draft Ceiling: Mid-to-late first round

     

    Arizona center Kaleb Tarczewski has been lurking in the background of the draft discussion the past couple of years, but now he's ready to take the next step as a legitimate NBA big man prospect.

    He hasn't been a focal point of the Wildcats offense, but he's become increasingly skilled around the rim. The 7'0" junior owns an imposing combination of power and fluidity, as he has great hands around the hoop. Tarczewski has a basic yet effective set of low-post moves and baby hooks.

    "He is a throwback big man who has a little Marcin Gortat to his game," said Doug Gottlieb of CBS Sports. "He is agile for his size and has nice post moves. When the ball is in the air he seeks the ball and is a terrific rebounder. Tarczewski runs the floor well, will pass out of double-teams and defends well without lowering his hands."

    As his collegiate progression continues during 2014-15, he'll look more like a valuable rotational asset for NBA clubs. Playing at Arizona has prepared him to run the floor in transition, so he'll be well-equipped to produce in the Association's uptempo style.

    You're not going to find many centers with his body control and presence around the rim, so don't be surprised when he sneaks up the charts.

4. Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina SG (Sophomore)

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    Lance King/Getty Images

    Vitals: 19 years old, 6'5", 214 pounds, 6'9" wingspan

    Draft Ceiling: Mid-first round

     

    After standing out as one of the top freshmen in the SEC, South Carolina shooting guard Sindarius Thornwell will bring more production and consistency as a sophomore.

    Everything he does on the floor is smooth, whether it's shooting, slashing or passing. He can weave through defenders and finish at the tin, but he's equally dangerous finding long-range opportunities. Thornwell shot 37 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman, which bodes well for his future as a 2-guard.

    He needs to clean up the turnovers and exhibit better shot selection during some sequences, but the eye test says he's gifted and has NBA potential. Even though he's young, he has a keen sense of how to move without the ball, including flaring off screens and manipulating defenders.

    "Sindarius Thornwell is already pretty good, but he'll be an all-league player by the time he leaves South Carolina," said Jeff Goodman of ESPN. "Versatile, tough kid."

    Those all-league honors may come sooner than expected, and joining the pro ranks could be in the not-too-distant future.

3. Dakari Johnson, Kentucky C (Sophomore)

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    Vitals: 18 years old, 6'11", 263 pounds, 7'0" wingspan

    Draft Ceiling: Mid-first round

     

    Kentucky fans know Dakari Johnson can ball, and even amid a crowded frontcourt, the young anchor will increasingly impress fans, scouts and media this season.

    Armed with a strong base and solid fundamentals, the sophomore Wildcat is poised to make a huge dent against SEC opponents and show that he's ready to compete in the NBA. He has great skills for the pick-and-roll, and teammates can trust him with post-up touches.

    He was extremely effective on the glass and on the block during Kentucky's midsummer showcase in the Bahamas, as he looked light on his feet and more agile than ever before.

    "He's running better than he's ever run in his life," coach John Calipari told reporters of Johnson's improved conditioning, per Dan Bodner of WHBN 1420 AM.

    The Big Blue is home to Karl Towns, Willie-Cauley Stein, Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee and Trey Lyles. That's a lot of forwards and bigs, so it's easy to see why Johnson could get lost in the shuffle or underappreciated a little bit. Don't sleep on him, though, because he possesses the grown-man skills and body to play at the next level.

2. Delon Wright, Utah PG (Senior)

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    Ethan Miller/Getty Images

    Vitals: 22 years old, 6'5", 179 pounds, 6'6.5" wingspan

    Draft Ceiling: Lottery

     

    Delon Wright is a 22-year-old guard who plays for Pac-12 middleweight Utah, so he's not a household name or an overwhelmingly enticing draft star.

    But don't underestimate the power of a cagey veteran guard. Wright, who's a junior college transfer, immediately brought scoring and playmaking to the Utes and carried them throughout 2013-14. In fact, he led the Pac-12 in win shares and was fifth among all NCAA Division I ballers.

    He makes an elite impact because he's dynamic on both ends of the floor. Wright constantly produces points for himself and teammates on offense, and then he wreaks havoc defensively with his superb instincts and long arms.

    Wright shot just 22 percent from the college three-point line last season, so he has some work to do as a jump-shooter. But his size, elusiveness and overall scoring touch are tempting attributes for NBA general managers.

    Count on him to push Utah farther in the postseason this year and boost his draft outlook in the process.

1. Theo Pinson, North Carolina SF (Freshman)

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Vitals: 18 years old, 6'6", 188 pounds, 6'11" wingspan

    Draft Ceiling: Lottery

     

    Buy your stock now while it's low, because Theo Pinson won't be overshadowed for too much longer.

    He doesn't get as much attention as the top crop of talented freshmen, but the lanky slasher from Greensboro, North Carolina, has the moves and moxie to hang with anyone.

    The North Carolina newcomer can break down opponents off the dribble with his speed and agility, and then he elevates and uses his length to score in traffic. Pinson's jumper could be utilized better, but his basic form and delivery are solid.

    What makes him more valuable than many of his peers is his defense. ESPN recruiting analyst Paul Biancardi broke down the youngster's versatility:

    I have witnessed Pinson defending smaller, quicker players, keeping them out of the paint with his lateral foot speed and length. The 6-foot-6, 190-pound Pinson can chase shooters off of screens with his speed and agility while contesting shots with his wing span. If he is involved in any screening actions, point guard through power forward, he easily can switch.

    UNC fans will love his ability to create from the wing and supply high-level stoppage on the other end. His freshman campaign could be enticing enough to generate lottery buzz.

     

    Player measurements gathered from DraftExpress.com.

    For more NBA Draft coverage, follow Dan O'Brien on Twitter: @DanielO_BR

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