2011 NBA Draft: L.A. Lakers Should Target These 10 Sleeper Prospects
When you’re the two time defending NBA Champions as the Los Angeles Lakers are, you have about as much chance of securing a future NBA All-Star in the college draft as VCU does of winning an NCAA title. Then again, most “experts” didn’t even have VCU making the field of 64 and now the Rams are laughing all the way to Houston, home of the Final Four.
The mark of any great sports franchise is often measured not just in how many championships a team wins, but in how they maintain a consistently strong, winning record after their big stars age and leave the game.
The Lakers clearly have their collective sights set on going the distance this spring. They have a more than solid nucleus of players that may well carry them deep into the playoffs for several years to come. Pau Gasol (29), Lamar Odom (31), Ron Artest (31) and Kobe Bryant (32) all have the desire and potential to play at a high level for another few years.
But then what? Remember those lean years after Magic Johnson, James Worthy, Kareem Abdul Jabbar and the rest of the Showtime Lakers retired? They weren't pretty.
One of the ways this franchise can continue to stay near the top of the NBA heap is by drafting talented newcomers from the college ranks with the hopes they'll find a diamond in the rough.
This year’s crop of eligible college players is slightly weaker than past seasons and the top players will be long gone by the team Los Angeles gets to its first of three second round picks. Still, there are always “sleepers” – players who were not given a chance to make it in the pros or didn’t play for a big-time college program and may have been overlooked by the scouts.
The Lakers drafted two such players in 2010 – Derrick Caracter and Devon Ebanks – both of whom may develop into solid NBA contributors but the book is still out on both.
Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak has his work cut out for him.
Take a look at some of the potential sleepers the Lakers may want to pursue this coming June. There certainly are a lot of them. Identifying the one that will grow into a solid NBA player is anyone's guess.
10. Cam Long, Senior Guard, George Mason University
If you're looking for a decent sized shooting guard with refined offensive skills and tremendous upside potential, look no further than Cam Long.
What really stands out about the 6’4”, 190 pound Long is the rapid improvement in his all around game from his junior to senior year.
During the 2010-11 season Long averaged 15.1 points on 48 percent shooting from the field, including 43 percent from 3-point range. Compare that with last year’s averages of 12.2 points on 38 percent from the field and 31 percent accuracy from beyond the arc.
Although he played in the rather weak Colonial Athletic Association, Long did have some stellar games against formidable competition. He scored 16 points on 5-of-7 shooting in a tournament loss to Ohio State. In that game, Long was 4-of-6 from 3-point range.
In a January 22, two-point win over James Madison, Long scored a career high 30 points on 8-of-9 shots from the floor, including a perfect 4-for-4 from beyond the arc.
Long is a team player with a strong work ethic. He'd fit into the triangle offense, which figures to still be in place next year even if Lakers Coach Phil Jackson is not.
9. David Lighty, Ohio State Senior Guard
Freshman Jared Sullinger got all the attention this year for Ohio State, including a big, can't miss feature in Sports Illustrated. Yet, it's the 6'5" senior David Lighty who really held the Buckeyes together this season and may be one of those diamonds that will shine in the NBA.
Lighty averaged 12 points and four rebounds per game for Ohio State this year but it was his enthusiasm for the game that really impressed his coaches and fellow teammates.
Thad Matta, coach of the Buckeyes, is taken by the energy that Lighty brings not only to the games but to practices as well. He's also impressed by the 43 percent accuracy Lighty had from beyond the arc for the season.
"I say to him every day, 'If I had one-tenth of your energy, I would be the happiest person in the world,'" Matta told ESPN.com's Brian Bennett. "And I only want one-tenth of it. He's been that way from day one. In his five years, we've practiced at damn near every hour of the day. And I don't care if it's 6 in the morning or 10 at night, he's the same guy."
In their 32-point win over George Mason in the tournament, Lighty took charge when the Rams decided to focus their double teams on Sullinger and teammate Jon Diebler, scoring 25 points and hitting all seven of his 3-point attempts.
Lighty is usually given the toughest defensive assignment for the Buckeyes and his strong defensive and hustle should earn him at least a few tryouts with NBA clubs. The Lakers may give him a long look.
8. Rick Jackson, Senior Forward, Syracuse University
The 6'9", 240 pound Jackson stepped it up a few notches this season for Syracuse and will warrant some serious looks from NBA teams in search of muscle and offense in the paint.
The Philadelphia native averaged 13.1 points and 10.3 rebounds this year for the Orangemen. In four years at Syracuse, Jackson has always shot at least 53 from the floor -- this year it was 59 percent. Jackson also blocks 2.5 shots per game and dishes out 2.2 assists.
DraftExpress.com ranks Jackson to go 23rd in the second round of the upcoming draft.
According to the website: "Jackson's value on the NBA level would be as a high-energy rebounder. He put in the work last summer to dramatically improve his pro prospects and maximize his opportunity to have a breakout year by shedding a few pounds. Jackson's skill set hasn't changed too much, but his new physique has allowed him to be more aggressive and look like a radically different player because of that."
7. Nikola Vucevic, Junior Forward, USC
The 6'10" Vucevic really strengthened his NBA chances with an outstanding junior season at USC.
If the 260 pound forward is still available when the Lakers get to their first second round pick, the guess here is that Kupchak and company will pounce on him. The brass has seen Vucevic play down the street at USC's Galen Center and they know just how much he has improved in three seasons at Troy.
Vucevic fits in well with the Lakers style of play. He's a versatile forward who developed a nice outside shot to go along with relatively strong rebounding skills.
Vucevic averaged 17.1 points and 10.3 rebounds per game this past season. He also really shined from beyond the arc, hitting on 35 percent of his attempts and 51 percent overall from the floor.
6. Shelvin Mack, Junior Point Guard, Butler
Shelvin Mack has the potential to be a solid NBA point guard, a position the Lakers surely must be thinking about for their future well being.
Derek Fisher is 37 and has been the heart and soul of the position for Los Angeles. After Steve Blake, the Lakers really don't have a young player to grow into that role. It could be Mack.
The 6'3" junior had an above average year for Butler which, in case you've been out of the country for an extended period without a laptop, has made it all the way back to the Final Four. A team needs an exceptional floor leader to make that happen -- score one for Shelvin Mack.
A solid playmaker with a deft shooting touch and the ability to penetrate the paint, Mack could even see playing time in his rookie year if he's taken by the Lakers. He averaged 15.9 points on a rather mediocre 41 percent shooting this year, though he also had 3.6 assists and an impressive 4.3 rebounds per game.
Heading into their semifinal showdown with VCU on Saturday, Mack had scored more than 20 points on nine separate occasions this year, including 30 (on 10-16 shooting) in a one point upset of Pittsburgh earlier in the tournament. He also put in 27 in the team's three point win over Florida in their Elite Eight matchup last weekend.
5. Klay Thompson, Sophomore Forward, Washington State University
Klay Thompson can flat out shoot. The Lakers can always use another shooter off the bench and Thompson might fill that role very well next season.
The son of former Lakers forward Mykal Thompson, Klay is a 6'6", 200 pound junior who averaged 22 points a game this year for the less than exciting Washington State Cougars.
Thompson shot 41 percent from three point range and that's an area the Lakers could most definitely benefit from. He also averaged 3.8 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals per contest for WSU.
Thompson had a number of nights for WSU when he was most of the offense yet he doesn't seem like a selfish player. He had 35 versus Portland, 36 against California, 31 in a loss to Butler and 30 against Arizona. Thompson hit his high water mark on March 10 when he went off for 43 points in a two point loss to Pac-10 rival Washington.
As DraftExpress.com reports: "On the offensive end, Thompson is still as dynamic a scorer as ever, except he's been more efficient and done a better job playing within his team's offense, showing improved discipline with his shot selection and opting to dish the ball off a bit more than he used to."
A great for the Lakers and he should be around in the second round of the draft.
4. Tyler Honeycutt, Sophomore Forward, UCLA
Tyler Honeycutt may very well have benefited from another year at UCLA but make no mistake: the lanky 6'8" shooting forward has tremendous NBA potential and he's decided to test those waters now.
Mitch Kupchak and the Buss family are all too familiar with Honeycutt, having seen him play over two seasons in Westwood under Coach Ben Howland. He averaged 12.8 points this season to go along with 7.2 rebounds.
Honeycutt's shooting percentage tailed off considerably this season as he nailed just under 41 percent of his shots. But one statistic that stands out was on the defensive side of the ball; he led the Pac-10 with 2.1 blocked shots per game and was extremely adept at recovering and blocking the ball from behind his opponent.
Honeycutt is a work in progress and has the capabilities to be another Tayshun Prince type of NBA player. He moves well without the ball and has one of the best catch and shoot motions in college basketball.
Honeycutt was just nine of 23 from the field in two NCAA tournament games, a win over Michigan State and a disappointing loss to Florida in the next round. But scouts will remember his 33 points on 11-15 shooting, including five three pointers, versus Kansas in December. This was a game he almost singlehandedly won on his own.
UCLA will miss Honeycutt next season -- but they may be able to watch him at Staples Center.
3. Marshon Brooks, Senior Forward, Providence
A number of draft experts think this 6'5" shooting guard could be the "steal of the draft", especially if he drops into the second round. The Lakers would be hard pressed to pass him if he's still available.
Brooks lit up Georgetown for 43 points on 17-28 shooting and then really exploded for 52 in a one point loss to Notre Dame on February 23. He had 26 games in which he scored more than 20 points and averaged just under 25 per game his senior year.
Brooks hit on over 48 percent of his shots from the floor. At 6'5", he can easily see over the defense and, though he likes to put up a lot of shots, he can pass the ball well and had 2.5 assists this year, well above the 1.4 from his junior season at Providence.
2. Justin Harper, Senior Forward, Richmond
The one eye popping statistic that really stands out here is the three point accuracy for a 6'10", 225 pound shooting forward: 45 percent.
Justin Harper could very well end up being a first round selection and the Lakers would miss out on a four year, mature college player who can score from just about anywhere and play a little defense as well. Harper averaged seven rebounds per game for the Spiders this season.
Harper increased his minutes and production every single year for Richmond. He was the model of consistency for his team and scored in double figures every game but two early in the year when his minutes were limited.
According to DraftNasty.com, Harper's "combination of length and athleticism make for a good mix on his way to the NBA. He very well could be one of the sleepers in this June's NBA Draft and has a chance to go in Round 2.
This is one major talent to keep an eye on. He's a sleeper now, but the league may wake up by June.
1. Alec Burks, Sophomore Guard Colorado
They call them "sleepers" for a reason. In the case of Colorado's big shooting guard, Alex Burks, it may be because his full potential is still in hybernation.
The 6'6" sophomore came into his own this year for the Buffaloes, averaging 20.5 points and 6.5 rebounds per game after a freshman year where he hit on 54 percent of his shots from the floor and averaged 17.1 points.
Burks would be a tremendous addition to the Lakers while being a project at the same time. But, then, very few young players who come out early are superstars in their first couple of seasons.
Burks has that type of potential. He poured in 36 against Big 12 rival Missouri and 33 in a two point win over Texas. He finished the season with seven straight games over 20 points.
Alec Burks is not short on confidence and his game will only get better. If he happens to be available when Los Angeles comes up to draft in the second round, the Lakers will get themselves a steal. And a future star.