As the official draft biographer for the Sports Xchange, you can view my complete reports on the athletes available for the NBA draft at the CBSSports.com draft site. In ranking these players, I took into consideration their pro potential, and not who will go first in the draft. In preparing those reports, I have my own thoughts on who will be the next stars in the NBA.
This article looks at the top best combo guards who will hear their names called this Thursday. Most of these players are what the industry calls "tweeners,"—too short or light to be an ideal two-guard and lacking outstanding ball handling skills to be a pure point guard. Most will see action at both back court positions, but only a few will have a defined role entering the 2011-12 season until they become acclimated to the pro game.
Cream of the Crop: Kyrie Irving, Duke
Positives are, Irving has a lean, angular frame with developed calf and thigh muscles, long reach and room for additional bulk without it affecting his overall quickness. Despite lacking great elevation, Irving knows how to compensate with good determination and above average slashing ability to get to the basket and draw contact with his inside game.
He plays with good balance and body control and, while he is not explosive with his initial step, he has the quickness to push the ball on the open floor. Irving has a great work ethic and attitude, bringing energy to the court and leadership to the locker room. He shows the balance and foot speed to run the court and can easily get by opposing guards and into the paint.
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Irving has very good ball-handling skills and excels in one-on-one matchups. He needs to get better elevation and improve upon a low release point but, when uncontested along the perimeter, he shows good range with his jump shot. He plays at a high basketball IQ level and, while he might hold on to the ball too long at times, his passes are quick and crisp.
Using his body lean and balancing well when flying by defenders, especially off the dribble, Irving does a good job of weaving through traffic to take the ball from one end of the court to the other. He will fire the spot-up jump shot with good consistency, but has the ability to drive to the rim, as well. He knows how to use his cross over action to create room for his shots and is a top-notch passer with good court vision.
Has good control with the ball in his hands, showing the crafty moves to slip through tight areas and feed and dish the ball off to his teammates. Irving also shows the quick feet and stop-and-go action to pull up off the dribble and is equally effective shooting from either side of the basket (ambidextrous). He tends to drive to his left well and consistently finishes with his off-hand.
Irving has the large, soft hands to secure the ball and turn quickly in catch-and-shoot situations. He stays low to the ground while driving to the basket and his sudden change-of-direction agility allows him to suddenly pull up and get off a quick jumper with ease. Thriving on the fast break and knowing how to vary his speed, gets the defender off-balance.
He has the valid speed to elude defenders coming off the screen on attempts to get to the rim, and is a scrappy defender when taking on other point guards, as he does a nice job of staying in front of his man, along with the wing span to alter a few shots. Irving gets most of his steals because of keen anticipation skills, as he generally takes good angles when playing defense.
He has the lateral quickness to get to the boundaries quickly and uses his long reach to get around the ball handler and strip the ball from his opponent. He shows quick spin moves that surprise a lethargic forward on his charge to the basket, and takes proper angles in attempts to slash towards the basket.
Negatives are that he is a solid technician, but lacks the explosive feet demonstrated by last year's top pick, John Wall (Washington) and is a bit turnover prone for a point guard (27 in 303 minutes of action last season). Despite having good quickness to get into the open, he will be relegated to point guard duty and has to rectify his "shoot first, pass later" mentality.
His turf toe injury limited him to just 11 games of college action and, while he showed good scoring ability in high school, he does have problems when challenged by more physical defenders and must work hard to improve his core strength to be more effective in transition or when driving to the basket.
Irving does have a good wing span and active feet, but is not a high elevator and could struggle to get off his perimeter shot if a bigger defender matches up tightly with him. Although an exciting scorer, he needs to locate his teammates quicker, as he is prone for playing out of control and tries to drive into tight areas when he should be kicking the ball out.
He has a good handle on the ball early in games, but will over-dribble and turn the ball over when he hesitates in attempts to feed the sphere. While improving, he still has just adequate three-point range and can get in a bad rhythm when his jump shot is misfiring. Coming off the dribble, his jumper is lacking and he is not a great defensive presence.
With just adequate leaping ability, he's not going to be able to alter the shots from bigger opponents. He acts like a two-guard, but at 6'2", he's not going to be able to go up and get his shot off versus small forwards or two-guards, especially since he looks deliberate taking his show and fires from a lower-than-ideal release point.
Irving is by far the elite point guard in the 2011 draft, but lacks the explosive quickness featured by other elite point guards taken in recent drafts, like Derrick Rose (Chicago) and John Wall (Washington). Irving played well within the Duke's system and is at his best on the open floor, but needs to develop more patience for the half court game. To me, he's a point guard in size, but yearns to let that shooting guard take over his game.
As a defender, he is not one who can play much bigger than his size indicates. But, while his position takes a few years to develop the skills for leading an offense, he has very good basketball IQ, when he plays in control. He still needs to work on his outside jump shot (get a higher release point) and be more selective from the three-point range. He is still too "shoot first" conscious and needs to scan the court better to locate open teammates but, like Chris Paul, look for his overall game to continue to improve.
Most Underrated: Malcolm Lee, UCLA
Positives are, he has experience at both guard spots, but is more suited for the off-guard position, where his size (needs to add strength) and lateral quickness should create mismatches vs. slower two-type defenders. Lee over-thinks too much when he has to play long minutes at the point and this leads to a high turnover rate. With his impressive court speed and leaping ability, he is better served being out front on fast breaks rather than serving as the ball facilitator.
Lee is just an adequate perimeter shooter but, if he can keep his elbow closer to his body (usually shoots with it too far to his outside) and get his jumpers off at a high point (hangs too long in the air and will release the ball more when heading downward), he could develop a very effective mid-range game. He also does a very good job of using his athleticism and quickness when he gets out in transition on the open court, as he is too quick when leading on the break for slower off-guards or small forwards to prevent him from finishing when he tries to fill the lanes (seems to have better vision and confidence in the open than in tight areas).
Lee is an above average defender, especially versus perimeter shooters, as he excels at using his lateral agility and speed to press the opponent and come up with a nice handful of steals in the passing lane. You can see on game films the cat-like moves he possesses when changing direction—when he uses his length to get to the rim, he is equally effective using either hand to score. An athletic shooting guard with a long wingspan and good leaping ability, Lee runs up and down the court with good urgency and, when he's in control, he can get most of his points shooting from mid-range or pulling up and executing a jump shot from the weak-side.
He has the leg drive to attack the basket (does not have problems dealing with contact, but would be even more effective when he adds strength) and can finish in transition, especially when going to his lay-up. Lee has the upper body strength to box out the smaller opponents (just needs to use it more) and likes to get the ball and fire it playing off screens.
He can draw contact on the way to the basket, showing a quick release point and good arch on his free throw shooting (showed marked improvement from the charity stripe, making 77.8 percent of those chances after hitting on only 41.7 percent as a freshman). Lee is better shooting from the right side of the basket, but can execute a nice fade-away from the left side when pulling up off the dribble.
Negatives are, Lee played the second part of the season with a small cartilage tear in his left knee that required late March surgery and also suffered a head injury from an errant elbow vs. Michigan State in the NCAA Tournament that needed three staples to close up a cut, leading to his second half statistical drop-off last season.
Like most of the recent Bruins draft picks, he played in a controlled system, preventing him from developing and advancing his offensive game. After suffering from a flat jump shot and pressing later in the season to get his rhythm back, Lee resulted in poor game management and led some scouts to question if he is a true point guard or more suited for combo back court duties instead.
He has three-point range, but lacks accuracy, and when his jumper went flat, he started using an unorthodox release, shooting the ball from his hip, and his perimeter shooting suffered (finished his career by making just 27.8 percent of his three-pointers). Lee seemed much more effective as a shooter and also cut down on his turnovers when he was moved from the point to the off-guard position prior to his injuries.
While the NBA covets big point guards, he might be a liability if required to be the main ball-handler, as he is not a great decision-maker in the Russell Westbrook mold—another former Bruin who struggled while at UCLA. Most of those decision issues occur when pressured and in a crowd, as he is really not a precise passer and, for some reason, he will hop or leave his feet while executing the pass, leading to accuracy problems.
What impresses teams the most about him is his defensive prowess and overall athleticism but, in three seasons, his skill set has yet to make an impact in his overall game. Despite applying good defense, he needs to add strength if he is to take on bigger two-types in the NBA.
Compared to J.R. Smith, Lee does not have the bulk that Smith possesses, but his frame is still filling out—if he is to stay at the two-guard spot, more weight on his lanky frame is needed. Like other recent Bruins (Russell Westbrook, Jrue Holiday, Darren Collison and Arron Afflalo), they all struggled in coach Ben Howland's system, only to go on to solid pro careers.
Lee just seems more comfortable operating as a shooting guard and, while his mechanics need refinement, he displays good mid-range ability along with good finishing ability around the basket. He is not the best creating his own shot off the dribble and gets out of rhythm when the defense begins to pressure him, but is much, much better in transition and catch-and-shoot situations. He has the leaping ability to finish at the break and is able to score with the transition lay-up.
Despite poor shooting numbers last year, he has the speed and elevation that could cause problems for defenders trying to stay with him on his drives to the basket in the NBA.
Most Overrated: Isiah Thomas, Washington
Positives are that Thomas is a classic high flyer who compensates for a lack of size and bulk with superb quickness and the ability to glide through the air to the basket. Even though he barely touches six feet, he is a crowd pleaser with his one-handed dunks. He shows a sudden burst to the ball and his slashing agility to the basket lets him get past defenders in an instant.
Thomas is a good passer who shows good determination going to the rim and shows the court vision and pinpoint accuracy to fire the pass out without his man having to break stride. He is a scrappy player with the low center of gravity and long arms that he keeps active to disrupt and alter the opponent's shot.
Thomas penetrates the key well and is in such good sync with his teammates, he will generally feed the ball off with no-look passes. Like a spider the way he crawls up on a shooter, he keeps himself firmly in front of his man while reaching out to generate the steal. Thomas is definitely more of a lock-down type of defender who likes to mirror his opponent rather than allow cushion.
When playing off the ball, he is very disruptive when playing the press, doing a nice job of using his body to clog the passing lanes. Thomas is best when breaking his man down off the dribble and can simply fool an opponent out of his sneakers when he executes his hesitation moves. He has precise stop-and-go action to pull up and sink the jumper and has a dangerous crossover move and is very effective at changing direction and getting the ball off with either hand. Despite his size, he is a capable rebounder who gets very good elevation attacking the glass.
Negatives are that Thomas is a deft passer, but will get too confident in this skill and try some "highlight reel" plays that will generally result in a turnover. He has the range to shoot from the perimeter, but lacks consistency as he doesn't always set his feet before firing and is prone to rushing his shot when pressured, rather than feeding the ball off.
Thomas seemed to play with better control when senior shooting guard Justin Holiday was on the court with him to help with ball-handling (gets too fancy when allowed to freelance). Despite his perimeter numbers, he sometimes gets too deliberate with his release point and contorts his frame a bit, allowing the defender to get elevation to block his slow shot.
He is best working in the open court, as he tries to get too cute with the ball in one-on-one confrontations and will then over-dribble, allowing guards with a long reach better opportunities to steal the ball when playing in the half-court area. He shot better from the field as a junior, but early in the year he looked stiff and mechanical when moving laterally.
When compares to Nate Robinson (Oklahoma City) Thomas is not the dunker Robinson is, but is a better ball-handler. Robinson is the UW guard's mentor, and Thomas has a lot of the same traits, only better work ethic. Like Robinson, Thomas has blazing quickness up and down the court to compensate for a lack of size. He is a scrappy defender and decent passer with a good mid-range shot, but needs to settle down on the court.
He tries to get too fancy with his passes and, when forced out of the inside action, he tends to over-dribble waiting to take his shot on the perimeter, inviting the defender to steal the ball. He is too turnover prone (104 last season) and, considering that he is just under 5'9", he looks like a late second-round target. Going back to school and improving some of the rough areas of his game probably would not improve his draft stock. After all, the NBA is still a "big man's" game.
Import to Watch Out For: Adam Hanga, Albacomp, (Hungary)
Positives are that Hanga has very good size and long wingspan for a point guard (adequate for the off-guard slot, but not ideal for small forward, as he's competed at all three positions during the game). He has a quick initial step that he uses, along with his size, to create mismatches when penetrating the lane vs. smaller opponents. With his reach, leaping ability and wingspan, he provides a team with good versatility, as he has experience playing either backcourt position or small forward.
Hanga has good stamina getting up and down the court, but needs to do a better job of controlling the tempo of the game (gets out of control at times and needs to slow down the pace of the game) and likes to push the ball on the fast break. He drives well into the paint to finish at the rim—with his size, he could move to the three-spot in an up tempo attack, basically giving that team two point men on the court.
Hanga shows good balance and footwork slashing to the basket from his left side. He has the valid burst to force rotations to commit on his way to the rim, doing a nice job versus smaller defenders in using the glass to post up. When not pressured, he shows good handle of the ball and works hard to locate open targets to feed the ball on dish-and-drive situations.
He likes to have the ball in his hands, knowing he has the ability to drive to the basket or the vision to distribute the ball away from traffic. He works hard to distribute the ball and does a nice job of scanning the court (needs to make quicker decisions, though, as he will keep the ball on the floor too long, inviting opponents to steal the sphere). Hanga has a tight handle on the ball, able to find the seam in the defense to fire a pass through traffic.
Works well on the pick-and-roll and shows good precision kicking the ball out, as he knows how to elevate the ball over smaller opponents. Hanga does a good job of making the one-bounce passes from the perimeter to an inside shooter, moving well without the ball in his hands, using his size effectively to come off screens and create his own shot.
Hanga struggled at times from the foul line last year, but uses his frame well to absorb contact on the way to the basket. While still a work in progress with his defensive game, he is starting to develop better aggression and timing to reach out and block the shot (his wing span is an obvious weapon that he uses well to be disruptive in the passing lanes, as he recorded 166 steals in his last 69 games, but needs to learn how to use them better, as he can get out of control, resulting in hacking charges, piling up 191 personal fouls through 69 games).
He shows consistent range with his pull-up jumper coming off the dribble, but can be inconsistent with his release point. He has adequate ability to take his man off the dribble, putting through a lot of his baskets off his jumper. He has good leaping ability and, despite giving up some inches and considerable bulk vs. four- and five-type forwards, he somehow manages to get into position for the defensive rebound, using his strength to fight from getting boxed out.
Negatives are, has had good success driving into the lane versus smaller opponents—when he gets attacked by a more physical defender, he will revert to parking at mid-range where his unorthodox release and inconsistent shooting mechanics become more exposed. He has decent leaping ability, but won't be the type who can force his way inside and put down an emphatic dunk.
Hanga has good strength, but needs to attack the basket more often. When he does try to generate an inside game, defenders know he is going to be very predictable, as he does not show great confidence in his off-hand shooting mechanics. Most of his shooting inconsistency on his jumper comes from landing on one foot while his other is still elevated, causing him to be too off-balanced to get off a clean shot (does not always set his feet before executing his jumper, resulting in a lot of off-balanced shots).
He has better quickness shooting behind the arc when allowed space, but struggles coming off the dribble (poor foot placement). He might be a better fit as a combo guard, as he will get tentative when having to make quick decisions with the ball in his hands vs. rotating defenses. When he can't find an open outlet to pass the ball to, he will revert to over-dribbling, keeping the ball too loose and high, inviting the opponent to get into the passing lane for a steal or to simply just attack the ball.
Hanga is more of a shuffler as a perimeter defender, as he moves his feet well to mirror, but does not use his hands often and, when he does, he gets sloppy with them, resulting in hacking charges rather than steals. He needs to do a better job of getting into position on rotations (not the type who will face up, resulting in slashers having good success penetrating on him).
Compared to Marco Belinelli (New Orleans) Hanga is never going to be confused for being another Dan Majerle or Peja Stojakovic, but he has valid three-point range and a quick release. He is better suited as a swingman, seeing action at the point, two-guard and three-spot, depending on the tempo of the game.
He is not the most physically gifted player on the court, lacking NBA-type power to be effective crashing the boards or blocking shots as a front court performer. Slashers have good success penetrating on him and bigger forwards can out-muscle him inside. He does have the size NBA teams crave in a point guard and is an efficient ball handler in the open court. However, when he gets caught vs. double teams, he is hesitant to pass the ball out.
Best of the Rest:
Nolan Smith, Duke (Compares to Monta Ellis, Golden State)
If your team is looking for a combo guard, Smith is a nice fit. He does have a "pass first, shoot second" type of mentality, but in an up-tempo attack, he is not very good at creating his own shot. He can play minutes at the point, but is not the greatest at keeping in front of slashing guards, due to a lack of explosiveness.
He has a smooth, yet a bit deliberate, release and, while he can hoist the ball up from the perimeter, he needs to drive more to the basket in order to draw contact and get to the free throw line. He lacks the long wingspan to alter or block shots along the perimeter and must do a better job fighting through screens. He seems to have good awareness as a playmaker, but he might be better served coming off the bench to earn a few minutes at both backcourt slots than be relied upon to control the tempo of the game at the point.
Charles Jenkins, Hofstra (Compares to Rajon Rondo, Boston)
From a strength standpoint, Jenkins favorably compares to Celtics' muscle man Rondo, George Hill of San Antonio and Oklahoma City's Russell Westbrook. As a shooter, you can see that he can be another Rodney Stuckey (Detroit), coming off the bench to provide instant offense. As a defensive guy, he looks a lot like Baron Davis (Cleveland) with his ability to disrupt in the passing lanes. For us "old timers" who have followed basketball at all corners of the earth, he has lots of John Williamson (ex-Net) in his game, especially with that tank-like physique.
Ben Hansbrough, Notre Dame (Compares to Carlos Arroyo, Boston)
Hansbrough is the classic blue collar worker with a great work ethic. He is much stronger than his frame indicates, but a lack of an explosive first step and just adequate lateral agility might see him struggle to handle speedy point guards on the court at the NBA level.
As a fifth-year senior and at age 23, he does not have youth on his side—but for a team looking for a scrappy floor leader to fill in at the point and also challenge opponents with his perimeter shooting skills, he could make a nice "front of the bench type" for a team needing quality depth for their back court.
Demetri McCamey, Illinois (Compares to Andre Miller, Portland)
McCamey seemed like two different players last year. He was a great ball facilitator with the deep range to park on the perimeter as the team got off to a nice start, but when the season unraveled the second half, he was publicly called out by his coach for a lack of effort and this has raised a few red flags with scouts.
His overall numbers say he can be an efficient point guard, even without good lateral quickness, but he needs to show better ball security and more consistent effort if he hopes to hear his name called in the second round and breaking training camp with an NBA team.
Brad Wanamaker, Pittsburgh (Compares to Brad Newley, Houston)
Like Newley, an Australian import who will add to the Rockets' shooting guard depth next year, Wanamaker is a classic blue collar type with experience at both guard positions, along with small forward. He might not be fast enough to play the point and too small to play on the wing, but he has excellent basketball IQ and that role player work ethic that makes him a nice addition to any team's rotation coming off the bench.
He is a physical inside shooter with decent perimeter range, but it is his aggression attacking the basket and slashers that add to his overall game. He is more quick than fast, but has had good success playing the style of open court action that most NBA teams utilize. He's not going to be one of the team's elite players, but few on that squad will work harder than Wanamaker.
Jacob Pullen, Kansas State (Compares to Damon Stoudamire, ex-Portland/Memphis)
Pullen is not as good of a ball-handler as Stoudamire was and has a much thicker frame, but he's not going to cut it as a 6'0" off-guard in the NBA. He has experience from high school there and won't embarrass himself if he has to put in some time at point guard, but that adjustment period could take time, making him a fringe second-round prospect.
He is a scrappy, aggressive shooter with a fine mid-range jumper but, even though he likes to draw contact, he lacks the size and power to play on the wing in the NBA. He will need time to adjust to life on the point—coming off the bench, he has the ability to be a consistent shooter along the perimeter.
DeAndre Liggins, Kentucky (Compares to Tony Allen, Memphis)
Like Allen, Liggins has the strength to get the tough inside baskets and is a proficient defender who can challenge both the guards and point forwards who attempt to attack the basket, as he will usually deny penetration. I doubt if he will earn too many minutes as a point guard, as he might have good ball handling skills, but his decision-making leaves a lot to be desired.
He was a marginal perimeter shooter until last year, but he is better served when he can power his way to the basket and draw contact to get to the free throw line. The problem is, his lack of accuracy at the charity stripe will often negate those opportunities.
Cory Higgins, Colorado (Compares to Leandro Barbosa, Toronto)
Higgins was a very effective off-guard in college but, in the NBA, he will be giving up considerable bulk to other "two" types and might have to adjust to life as a ball facilitator rather than playing the wing. While he lacks the size to play shooting guard, with his mid-range jumper and shooting stroke, he could be a valuable performer off the bench, getting a few minutes at both back court slots.
There is no one area of his game that really stands out, but for teams looking for a versatile role player with a keen scoring eye, Higgins could be a nice addition to an established attack.
POS OVR PLAYER SCHOOL CLASS HEIGHT WEIGHT POS
1 2 KYRIE IRVING Duke Freshman 6:01 180 PG/SG
2 33 NOLAN SMITH Duke Senior 6:03 189 PG/SG
3 35 MALCOLM LEE UCLA Junior 6:05 190 PG/SG
4 36 CHARLES JENKINS Hofstra Senior 6:03 220 PG/SG
5 50 ISAIAH THOMAS Washington Junior 5:08 185 PG/SG
6 52 BEN HANSBROUGH Notre Dame Senior 6:03 203 PG/SG
7 54 DEMETRI McCAMEY Illinois Senior 6:03 203 PG/SG
8 64 BRAD WANAMAKER Pittsburgh Senior 6:04 208 PG/SG
9 68 JACOB PULLEN Kansas State Senior 6:00 200 SG/PG
10 73 DEANDRE LIGGINS Kentucky Junior 6:06 180 PG/SG
11 87 CORY HIGGINS Colorado Senior 6:04 182 PG/SG
12 97 RANDY CULPEPPER Texas-El Paso Senior 5:10 163 SG/PG
13 102 CHAISSON ALLEN Northeastern Senior 6:05 193 PG/SG
POS indicates rating by position...OVR indicates overall rating (see CBSsports.com NBA Draft site for complete profiles and scouting reports).