INDIANAPOLIS—While the focus this weekend at Conseco Fieldhouse is on the chase for a Big Ten Tournament championship and a trip to the Big Dance next week, many of the players taking the floor here may stop for a moment to think about future visits.
NBA visits, that is.
As the tournament wears on and some of the Big Ten's finest players have a chance to show off their skills on the season's biggest stage, here (in alphabetical order) are ten conference players that have "next level" potential written all over them.
While Talor Battle might not have the size of a prototypical NBA guard (Battle is listed generously at six feet tall), he undoubtedly has the moves. Battle has basically had to take up the Nittany Lions' entire point production load this season after the graduation of double-figure scorers Jamelle Cornley and Stanley Pringle, and he has responded with a career-best 18.5 points per game, second in the conference behind some guy named Evan Turner.
Battle also pulls down 5.3 rebounds a game and leads the Lions with 4.2 assists per contest, and his stock is sure to rise during the 2010-11 season, his final year wearing the Penn State navy and white.
William Buford may be overshadowed by his more talented teammate (Turner), the likely National Player of the Year, but he has an NBA game all his own. Buford, who averages 14 points a game, got a chance to shine in a Big Ten Tournament semifinal victory over the Illini.
Buford tallied 22 points and 10 boards while playing all 50 minutes, and teammate Dallas Lauderdale said the sophomore is "really coming into his own at the right time".
"He's a great slasher and has a great mid-range game," said Lauderdale. "When everyone's focused on Turner, it leaves Buford wide open, and he's a big-time player in his own right."
Whether Buford heads to the NBA after only two seasons in Columbus or hangs around Ohio for another year or two, he definitely has the ability to make an impact on the professional level.
Of Purdue's sensational junior class, JaJuan Johnson seems to be the most sure-fire NBA prospect. The Boilermakers' big man is averaging 15 points and 7 boards, and creates a serious match-up problem for opponents around the league.
"He's a good player," Ralph Sampson III told me as he looked forward to squaring off with Johnson in the Big Ten Tournament semifinals. "Great jump shot, very active on the boards."
Johnson's teammate, senior Keaton Grant, said it's easy to get the ball to the dominating post player. "He has good hands," Grant said. "So versatile, it's easy for him to turn and shoot that mid-range jumper."
While Johnson may flirt with entering the NBA Draft after his junior year, expect him to ultimately stay in West Lafayette for one final season with classmates Robbie Hummel and E'Twaun Moore before making the move to the Association.
Jon Leuer, a do-everything player for one of the winningest Big Ten programs in recent memory, has both the inside and outside scoring touch needed to play in the NBA.
Leuer averages nearly 15 points a game for the Badgers, and his contributions are causing fans to tap Wisconsin as a possible sleeper in the upcoming NCAA tournament.
"He's a tough matchup," said Big Ten Network analyst Shon Morris of Leuer. "At 6'10", he can score with his back to the basket and put the ball on the floor.
"He's much more athletic than people think."
The 2008-09 Big Ten Player of the Year is one of the more obvious next-level prospects in the league's ultra-talented junior class. Kalin Lucas averages almost 15 points for Michigan State and has a penchant for hitting big shots at the biggest time (just ask the Gophers and Wolverines, who each had their hearts broken at crunch time during the past couple of months).
Lucas is a solid candidate to test the draft waters after this season, and a deep March Madness run could elevate his stock even further.
Demetri McCamey makes this list because of his playmaking skills: the Illini star is equally a threat to take games over with his scoring or his passing.
"I just want to take whatever the defense gives me," McCamey told me earlier this weekend. "If that's pulling up for a jump shot, fine. If it's getting my guys involved...I just try to feel out the game."
Wisconsin coach Bo Ryan said McCamey, who tied the Illinois school record with 16 assists earlier this season, "plays within himself", and the dual-threat guard is sure to get a look from NBA scouts when his college eligibility expires after next season.
While E'Twaun Moore may go about his business quietly in West Lafayette, he's about to finish his third straight season as the Boilermakers' leading scorer. Moore has an impressive ability to get to the rim, and his knack for putting the ball in the basket from anywhere on the floor should make him a solid NBA prospect after one final year in the Old Gold and Black.
"A guy like E'Twaun, once he gets it going, he's unstoppable," said Boilermakers point guard Lewis Jackson after Moore tied his career high with 28 points in a quarterfinal victory over Northwestern.
Moore's coach, Matt Painter, agreed. "He's been really consistent in his whole career, but he's really being consistent this year on both ends of the court."
DeShawn Sims has terrorized Big Ten defenses for the past four seasons, and the Michigan forward has all the post moves (with three-point range to boot) to secure a front-court spot in some NBA team's rotation in the years to come.
Sims finished the regular season in the top five in the conference in both scoring and rebounding, and he impressed onlookers at Conseco Fieldhouse this weekend...including Ohio State coach Thad Matta (after the Wolverines nearly upset the Buckeyes Friday before Evan Turner's late heroics).
"In my mind, the way that Sims started the game, that was like an NBA power forward right there," said Matta. "Match-up-wise, this is hard."
Opposing NBA coaches will be saying the exact same thing sooner rather than later.
While this may be the most surprising name on my list, Tisdale is the perfect example of one of basketball's oldest axioms.
You can't coach height.
The 7'1" junior averages 12 points, blocks a shot attempt or a two a game, and alters a few more. As teammate Demetri McCamey said, "He can shoot for a 7-footer, he's got skills, and it's really tough to stop him.
"Mike's a European-type center that can step out and hit the three. He's got a lot of moves on that seven-foot frame."
While Tisdale may not be the second coming of Dirk Nowitzki, his size and shooting stroke may very well earn him a nice paycheck after his Illinois career wraps up.
Last, but certainly not least, is Turner, who could well be a top-three pick if...okay, when he leaves for the NBA after this season. The Ohio State star averages 19 points a game, but also leads the league in rebounding with over nine per contest.
Turner has put on a show this weekend at Conseco Fieldhouse, hitting one of the most memorable shots in tournament history to knock off Michigan at the buzzer and following that up with a 31-point effort against Illinois in semifinal action.
Illini coach Bruce Weber had nothing but good things to say about one of the most talented Big Ten players in recent memory.
"He's versatile, and he's improved," said Weber. "I've watched him since his sophomore year in high school and he continues to get better and better. He works at it, he loves it, he's grown, he's stronger, and he's way better than he was a year ago.
"So he's got unlimited potential."
Or as Turner's coach Thad Matta put it, "The great thing about Evan: Evan doesn't want to just play in the NBA. Evan wants to be a great player the day he goes and have a great career."
Not much doubt about that.