King's Court: NBA Scouts Weigh in on Potential of College Hoops' Biggest Stars

Jason King@@JasonKingBRSenior Writer, B/R MagJanuary 28, 2015

USA Today

Listen to any broadcast of a Duke basketball game, and you'll hear commentators fawning over the strengths of Blue Devils center Jahlil Okafor, the likely No. 1 pick in this summer's NBA draft.

But what about his weaknesses?

Kansas forward Cliff Alexander was projected as a top-five pick when the season opened three months ago. What's caused him to slip? Who is Kentucky's fastest-rising prospect—and why are there still concerns about Kentucky's Willie Cauley-Stein?

I spent a large chunk of Monday and Tuesday talking to four NBA scouts about a handful of the nation's top draft prospects. I gave each eight to 10 different names and asked them to comment on each. Speaking on the condition of anonymity, here's what they had to say.

 

Cliff Alexander, Kansas, Fr., PF

Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

Alexander scares me. He's a question mark. Is he Darnell Jackson? That's who he reminds me of. He's undersized, and he can't really step out away from the basket [on offense]. He doesn't really have offensive skills. I'm not sure about character issues yet. I don't have a solid feel for him. He's a really good college player who has been doing well lately. But I don't know what hole you plug him in. He's got to be a power forward, I guess. Saying all that, I think he'll be a first-round pick this year. But I just don't know how his game is going to translate.

 

Ron Baker, Wichita State, Jr., PG/SG

WICHITA, KS - JANUARY 25: Guard Ron Baker #31 of the Wichita State Shockers drives to the basket against guard Chris Caird #25 of the Drake Bulldogs during the first half on January 25, 2015 at Charles Koch Arena in Wichita, Kansas. Wichita State defeated
Peter Aiken/Getty Images

He reminds me of Coby Karl a little bit. The thing that worries me about him is defense. Who does he guard? He can't apply pressure on the ball and still contain guys. He's got to be a guy that backs off a little bit and plays angles in order to keep guys in front of him. If he gets up chest to chest with someone, the guy is going to blow by him. 

Still, he's so smart, and he creates space from defenders just with his skill level—going right, going left, using screens, all the things that so many guys don't do.

I think he's got a place in the league. He's probably a second-round guy, but you never know. I think he can play both guard positions. He can be a backup point. He's got those kind of skills. Wichita State's coaches tell me that he's the toughest kid they've ever had. And they're not the type to blow smoke.

 

Devin Booker, Kentucky, Fr., SG

Jan 24, 2015; Columbia, SC, USA; Kentucky Wildcats guard Devin Booker (1) shoots a free throw against the South Carolina Gamecocks in the second half at Colonial Life Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

I love Booker. You could make an argument that he's the third-best shooting guard in the draft. He's a high-level shooter, and his defense is improving game by game. I don't know what more you could want from the guy.

He's putting it on the floor a little bit. But he also isn't trying to do too much. He's not under the same amount of pressure as guys like Stanley Johnson and Justise Winslow to put it on the floor, because he doesn't really need to. He just needs to get his shot off.

He's a decent-enough athlete, and he's got a frame he can build on. He's a good scorer, but he's not selfish; he wants to get his teammates involved. And he works his butt off on defense. He stays in front of his guy; he slides his feet. He does everything you want a shooting guard to do.

 

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky, Jr., C

 

LEXINGTON, KY - JANUARY 6: Willie Cauley-Stein #15 of the Kentucky Wildcats drives to the basket against the Mississippi Rebels in the first half of the game at Rupp Arena on January 6, 2015 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Joe Robbins/Getty Images

At the end of the day, it comes down to consistency. It's like an NBA guy playing in a contract year. Is this a one-year burst? Is this the real Cauley-Stein? Or is this a guy turning it on when he has to?

That's what we, as scouts, have to decide. Shoot, maybe he's trying to decide who he really is, too.

If you're going to pick him for what he's done this year, he's a top-seven guy, for sure. But I don't think we're going to get the truth on Cauley-Stein until next year. He'll have his money, and we'll be able to see if basketball is still important to him.

 

Sam Dekker, Wisconsin, Jr., SF

 

MADISON, WI - JANUARY 15: Sam Dekker #15 of the Wisconsin Badgers throw down a two handed dunk during the first half against the Nebraska Cornhuskers at Kohl Center on January 15, 2015 in Madison, Wisconsin. (Photo by Mike McGinnis/Getty Images)
Mike McGinnis/Getty Images

Dekker is a much better athlete than people give him credit for. He's a guy that needs freedom. In that system, he doesn't get that freedom. I'm not saying the system is bad, because they're very successful with it. But Dekker is explosive with the ball, very aggressive.

 

I just don't know how consistent he is shooting the ball. I don't know if he's going to be the guy you want shooting a three in a clutch moment. Maybe if he has his feet set and has a bunch of time. But again, people don't realize how athletic he is. I think he's got a real good, strong body. And the fact that he grew to 6'9" over the summer makes him even more valuable.

If you asked 10 people about him, seven would probably love him, and three would probably be leery, wondering what position he's going to play. But I love him.

 

Jerian Grant, Notre Dame, Sr., G

 

SOUTH BEND, IN - JANUARY 03: Jerian Grant #22 of the Notre Dame Fighting Irish goes to the basket as Charles Mitchell #0 of the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets defends from behind at Purcell Pavilion on January 3, 2015 in South Bend, Indiana. (Photo by Michae
Michael Hickey/Getty Images

He's great on ball screens, and he's got great vision. But he's not exceptionally quick. He does show some athleticism in the open floor, but he really struggles to get around quickness. That's what makes him more of a rotational player.

He also needs to improve his jump shot. He needs to show he can knock down an NBA three with consistency. Right now, he looks like he'd be a 34 percent shooter from NBA range. But there's nothing about his jump shot that says it can't improve. It's all about his work ethic and willingness to get into the gym and get it down.

I think he could go in the first round or early second round. Maybe 25-35.

 

Aaron and Andrew Harrison, Kentucky, Sophs., Guards

 

James Crisp/Associated Press

I wouldn't draft either one of them in the first round.

I see Aaron Harrison as a solid shooting guard. He's just so streaky as a shooter that you can't rely on him. He can go 0-for-4 and then 3-for-4, and it all averages out to a decent shooting percentage. But it's hard to rely on him like you would a Devin Booker or a D'Angelo Russell. He's got some toughness that you like because he hits shots in big moments. Defensively, he's improved. But he's still an average defender. I'm not big on him.

With Andrew, he's got good size for a point guard at 6'5". But he turns it over a ton, he forces passes that aren't there, and he doesn't seem to handle pressure well at all. He's somewhat of a front-runner. Everything needs to go well early on for him to have a good game. If he struggles early, he's not a guy that's going to play well in the second half.

 

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona, Soph., F

 

Ben Margot/Associated Press

It sounds like he could be back for another year. Some people are really down on him for his inability to knock down shots. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist really hurts him. Everyone is seeing a guy that can't shoot and doesn't have many opportunities to score other than in transition and when cutting to the basket. 

I think Rondae is a better passer. For a Philly guy, he's kind of Cali-cool. Almost too cool for school. You just want to see him hunker down and be a beast defensively, rebound and cut and run up and down the floor. But it appears that offense is really important to him.

That's where the disconnect is. Everyone is seeing a guy that is viewed as a defensive specialist that cares too much about offense and is trying to be something he's not.

 

Dakari Johnson, Kentucky, Soph., C

 

James Crisp/Associated Press

Guys have him all over the board, but I think he's solid. He's tough. He keeps his game simple. And he's willing to pass out of the post. He's still young, one of the youngest guys in the draft. His body is getting better. I've seen him make at least three or four transition dunks after running the floor.

For those that want to question his athleticism, he sure gets up and down for a guy that's supposedly not an athlete. He's just not a freak athlete.

He primarily rebounds through effort and his body. But I'm OK with that. He's got a frame to build on. He knows who he is. He's not an exciting player. But he's a solid player that could be at the tail end of a rotation for 10-12 years. I'm not sure he's a first-rounder, but I could see him going early in the second round.

 

Stanley Johnson, Arizona, Soph., G/F

 

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 23:  Stanley Johnson #5 of the Arizona Wildcats drives against Rashad Vaughn #1 of the UNLV Rebels during their game at the Thomas & Mack Center on December 23, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UNLV won 71-67.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Ge
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

He's an excellent athlete who is improving as the year goes on. He's tough. I've seen him in the past play point guard and play well. But he needs to work on his handle. He's realizing that is what keeps him from being a secondary ball-handler for Arizona right now.

But when it comes to receiving the ball on the perimeter and making plays, he can do it all. Especially as his jump shot improves, and with the direction he's going, I think he will.

The other thing that makes him attractive is that he's an elite defender. He can legitimately guard 1 through 3 [point guards, shooting guards and small forwards].

 

Tyus Jones, Duke, Fr., PG

 

Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

The guy makes great passes and understands how to get his teammates going. He understands where they like the ball, how they like it, how long to hold on to the ball to draw a defender and then kick it, or "I need to get this pass off right away so we can swing it and move the ball quickly." He's got the whole package when it comes to getting other guys involved.

Because he's shorter, he'll take a couple of dribbles away from the passing angle to get the defender out of the way, then he'll step back into the angle real quick to get the pass away. It's just high-level stuff. The problem is that defensively, there's nothing there.

You're also losing a lot with his size. He's not that quick laterally, he's not that strong, and he's small. He's not an elite athlete. Guys that small...Isaiah Thomas and Muggsy Bogues and Nate Robinson and Steve Nash...those guys had elite quickness, where they could at least blow by people.

Tyus is not at that level, and that's what worries me the most. A guy like Matthew Dellavedova is an elite passer and an average athlete, but he's 6'4". I would hope a guy like Tyus would make a roster as a third or second point guard.

The sad thing is that he's so tied with Okafor, and this thing has always been about them doing everything together. I'm worried he's going to make his decision based on what Okafor does. Their families are so tight, and everyone has always dealt with them as a unit. I'm not sure if anyone is getting through to Tyus and his family and making his family realize that they're not in the same situation as Okafor and that their future is going to be very different. I'm not sure that reality has sunk in yet.

 

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin, Sr., C

 

Andy Manis/Associated Press

Kaminsky is all about finesse. I think he's going to be a stretch 4 man, a guy that can step out and knock down shots. He's got tremendous range, especially for a guy his size. You watch him and don't realize how big and tall he is for what he's doing. He can make the three, and he's got excellent ball-handling and passing skills on the perimeter.

I don't think you're ever going to be comfortable using him as a banger. He's a finesse guy who, if he gets the ball on the block, is going to turn and face the post and try to score over or through a guy. I don't think there are a lot of guys his size that can do what he can do, especially shooting the ball.

He's not streaky; he's just a really good shooter. Against Nebraska, he blocked a shot, corralled the loose ball, dribbled coast-to-coast and threw a lob to Dekker to finish the play. I mean, good gracious! I think Kaminsky could be a lottery pick, and I think Dekker is a first-rounder, too. I'm just not sure where.

 

Trey Lyles, Kentucky, Fr., F

 

Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

The kid is really, really good. Out of the Kentucky group, you could make the argument for taking Trey Lyles over Cauley-Stein. Defensively he's not nearly as good, but it's the exact opposite on offense. He's a power forward playing the 3 [small forward] right now. How many guys can do that? Jarell Martin at LSU is the only one even trying. Trey is doing a darn good job of it.

With his size he could defend 3s, 4s and 5s. He can shoot it, pass it and put it on the floor. He's a plug-in guy. He's not going to do much to jump out at you. He just goes with the flow and picks his battles and gets his points.

Other than Dakari Johnson, he's probably the most consistent guy on the team as far as what he's going to. I'm watching a tape of him now, and he just drove it from the top of the key, all the way to the paint, and then he kicked it to a teammate on the baseline. How many 6'10" guys can do that?

I think he's a sleeper. You don't hear a lot of talk about him. He's getting buried at Kentucky right now. But I think a lot of guys are purposefully not talking about him so the buzz will be kept down, and then maybe someone can get him at No. 10 or 12 when he may actually be a top-five guy.

 

Jahlil Okafor, Duke, Fr., C 

 

DURHAM, NC - DECEMBER 29:  Jahlil Okafor #15 of the Duke Blue Devils defends a drive by Justin Drummond #4 of the Toledo Rockets during their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium on December 29, 2014 in Durham, North Carolina.  (Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty I
Grant Halverson/Getty Images

He's mature beyond his years. The skill set he has for his age isn't unprecedented, but it's been a long time since we've seen it. Even the guys that get there in the pros, most of them don't have it at 18.

I think he's ahead of where Pat Ewing was as a freshman, offensively for sure. Most everyone saw Patrick as being this warrior, defensive guy when he was young. This guy has the whole package on offense. The reverse side is that, defensively, he's got a lot of work to do.

Duke doesn't really force its one-and-dones to play tough defense. At Kentucky, they start with defense first and let their natural offensive ability carry them. Duke is just the opposite. Their defensive foundation has always relied on juniors and seniors to lead the charge. But they're not asking these freshmen to do much of anything defensively, which kind of bites them in the butt. So I'm not sure Okafor has ever really been taught how to play defense. He's not a rim protector. They just hope he stays in there and clogs the middle a little bit.

He'll improve as he gets in better condition. That's where he's taking his breaks, on the defensive end. So conditioning will go a long way for him. Otherwise, he's just got to learn more. But he's still the No. 1 pick.

 

Kelly Oubre, Kansas, Fr., SF

 

Dec 30, 2014; Lawrence, KS, USA; Kansas Jayhawks guard Kelly Oubre Jr. (12) dribbles the ball during the second half against the Kent State Golden Flashes at Allen Fieldhouse. Kansas won 78-62. Mandatory Credit: Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

I'm getting on board with Oubre. He came into school with a reputation that was impossible to live up to. He's got really good potential. He's a high-level player, although I think he's years away. If he comes out, I think he's a potential lottery guy. I'm just not sure about his motor.

I've mentioned that to people, and some of them respond by saying, "Oh, he's got a motor. He's just so smooth that he doesn't look like he's playing hard."

I'm just not sure, though. I'm lukewarm on his energy level. I know some people that have coached him and they say he settles way too much for jump shots instead of using his athleticism instead and going to the goal. Nevertheless, he's pretty much what was advertised. He's got star potential down the road.

 

Terran Petteway, Nebraska, Jr. SG

 

LINCOLN, NE - NOVEMBER 25: Terran Petteway #5 of the Nebraska Cornhuskers finishes a slam dunk during their game against the Nebraska-Omaha Mavericks at Pinnacle Bank Arena November 25, 2014 in Lincoln, Nebraska.   (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
Eric Francis/Getty Images

In the game I watched, he scored 20 points in a half, and I still walked away wondering if he was good or not. The thing that bothered me was that when he doesn't have the ball he's not involved.

I don't know what position he can guard. He can score, but I don't know if that scoring relates to beating guys off the dribble. He does a great job with the east-to-west stuff, crossing over, backing up and sizing up the defense.

Still, I'm not crazy about him. There's something lacking. I just don't know if his scoring will make up for his flaws in other areas.

 

Jakob Poeltl, Utah, Fr. C

He's got a long way to go. He's not a Cole Aldrich, where he's all stiff and mechanical. He's a little bouncier than that. He's just young and learning. I think he's further away than a lot of the other prospects at his position.

 

D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State, Fr., PG

 

Jan 17, 2015; Iowa City, IA, USA; Ohio State Buckeyes guard D'Angelo Russell (0) drives to the basket against Iowa Hawkeyes guard Mike Gesell (10) and center Adam Woodbury (left) and guard Anthony Clemmons (5) during the second half at Carver-Hawkeye Aren
USA TODAY Sports

He's phenomenal. He needs to improve his point guard skills in terms of his thought process and making the game easier for guys around him. But he has tremendous vision. He has the handle to get to where he wants to go and can make some incredible passes. But he's not coming down the court thinking, "I'm going to call this play to get so-and-so a shot." Or, "It's time to get our bigs going. I'm going to get them involved." He's not thinking like that yet.

Right now, he's just using his natural vision and his ability to get the ball where it needs to be. His scoring is top notch. He can shoot off the bounce. His spot-up jumper is solid. He can shoot from mid-range or off curls. He can drive. He's an average athlete, but he's good enough. He makes an argument to be anywhere in the top six.

 

Wayne Selden, Kansas, So., SG

 

Charlie Riedel/Associated Press

I'm just not a big fan. As a guy that values defense, I love him. I think he can guard. He's the prototypical shooting guard in that he's strong and athletic with the size you need for that position. But I don't know what he gives you offensively. He's just so inconsistent—not just as a shooter, but at everything. I've seen him have some big games, and as much as anyone I've seen, he has a chance to be drafted too high.

He's one of those guys that you better be careful with if you're going to take him in the first round. He's got some serious bust potential.

 

Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky, Fr. F

 

LOUISVILLE, KY - DECEMBER 27:  Karl-Anthony Towns #12  of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrates by flexing his muscles during the game against the Louisville Cardinals at KFC YUM! Center on December 27, 2014 in Louisville, Kentucky.  Kentucky won 58-50.  (Phot
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

He's almost like an overseas kid, to some extent. Everything you look at and evaluate with him is geared toward the long-term future. I'd kind of lump him in with Kevon Looney, Myles Turner and Kelly Oubre...guys you don't feel great about right now but are excited about three and four years down the road. I would rank him the highest out of that group.

He's shown some toughness. Everyone thinks he just wants to shoot on the perimeter, but I've seen him bang. I've seen him take contact on his shoulder and finish with a hook. I've seen him scrap for rebounds. I've seen him battle back from a bad first half to have a good second half.

He needs to strengthen his lower body because right now he's using his upper body to try to be physical with people. Once he strengthens his base, he'll be more of a physical presence. He's got a really good skill set. He's got decent footwork, and he's got a hook shot. He's also got a nice touch in the paint, where he can make shots off the backboard or whatever else he may need to do.

His movements are a little funny, and his body is kind of funny. But bigs develop late. I'd get nervous in the top five with him. But he's worth drafting eighth or ninth. He could be an All-Star—or he could turn into Ed Davis.

 

Myles Turner, Texas, Fr., C

Dec 13, 2014; Austin, TX, USA; Texas Longhorns forward Myles Turner (52) fights for position against Texas State Bobcats forward Cameron Naylor (24) during the second half at the Frank Erwin Special Events Center. Texas beat Texas State 59-27. Mandatory C
USA TODAY Sports

He's not ready. He's not a pro right now. But with most of these guys, the biggest part of our job is to try to project them down the road, and he's got a chance to be a star. I have him in my top five. I love his size and length and skill set. He can shoot it, he's got a good combination of going in and out and he can defend at the rim.

(Another scout on Turner): He's great at catching, turning and shooting. He's got an excellent feel for where he is on the court and for where the basket is. And I love his timing when it comes to blocking shots. I don't like the way he runs. It's very awkward and labored. And I'm not sure he has a great feel for the game yet, a great understanding of when to play certain ways or when to shoot and when to run clock. I think he's a project but still a definite lottery pick. He's a tremendous kid who is going to work hard and accept coaching.

 

Fred VanVleet, Wichita State, Jr., PG

Scott Morgan/Associated Press

I like him. He's quick and athletic, but he isn't that explosive. His size bothers me. He reminds me of so many of the D-League guards out there. There are just so many 5'11" guards who are at a disadvantage. He'll have a chance to make a nice amount of money overseas, but I think it will be hard for him to catch on in the NBA. I'm not saying it can't happen, but the odds don't seem to be in his favor.

 

Rashad Vaughn, UNLV, Fr., SG

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 17:  Rashad Vaughn #1 of the UNLV Rebels drives against the Portland Pilots during their game at the Thomas & Mack Center on December 17, 2014 in Las Vegas, Nevada. UNLV won 75-73 in overtime.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

I like him. He's athletic and can really shoot. And he puts it on the floor well.

The thing about those Vegas guys is that if they're truly talented, they'll be better pros than they are college players. They've got zero discipline. Their coach just rolls the ball out there, and I don't say that about a lot of guys. Seriously, though...if you want to be the Runnin' Rebels, that's fine. But have a game plan. He's got 6'11" guys that can't shoot out there taking three-pointers.

Vaughn will be a good pro once he gets in a system with more structure and when he's around better players.   

 

Justise Winslow, Duke, Fr., G/F

Jan 19, 2015; Durham, NC, USA; Duke Blue Devils forward Justise Winslow (12) gets his hand on the ball as Pittsburgh Panthers guard James Robinson (0) tries to shoot in their game at Cameron Indoor Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports
USA TODAY Sports

He's struggling lately, and people keep saying he's hurt. But no one has been able to tell me what's wrong with him, and I've done all sorts of searches and haven't come up with anything. So I'm not sure whether the rumor about him being hurt is true or not.

I saw him in the Champions Classic. He proved he could excel coming off of ball screens, and he's able to make plays for others. He's a good perimeter passer with a solid IQ. The problem is that he doesn't do a ton off the bounce. If you cut off his first move, he doesn't have an alternative move. A lot of what he does is stuff he's predetermined. He doesn't really react to what the defense is giving him because he already has a plan set in his mind. Once he attacks the basket, he dribbles with his head down.

It wouldn't surprise me if he came back for his sophomore year. There's a lot to build on, and he'll be a really good defender at the next level. But he's also probably a top-20 pick if he leaves.

 

Christian Wood, UNLV, So., F

I really like him. He's a little under the radar. He's 6'10" or 6'11" and long and athletic with a very good skill level. He's just weak physically. He reminds me of a more aggressive Perry Ellis [from Kansas]. From all I'm hearing, he's coming out.

 

Delon Wright, Utah, Sr. PG

Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

He's got everything that you need, other than he doesn't shoot it well. I've seen so many guys get better at that when they get in the league, though. He doesn't have a broken shot. Mechanically, it's OK. He just needs reps. So I think he's got a chance to be good.

I had another scout tell me this week that he think's he'll go in the lottery. He reminds me of [Dallas Mavericks guard Rajon] Rondo. He rebounds because he's a 6'5" point guard. He's athletic, and he gets to the goal. He's as good of a defender as I've seen. He'll guard the ball, he'll guard off the ball, he's quick, he anticipates, he's got good hands. His only drawback is that he just doesn't have a lot of [shooting] range.

 

Jason King covers college sports for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.

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