5 Draft Prospects Lakers Should Keep Their Eye on This College Basketball Season

Ben Leibowitz@BenLeboCorrespondent IIIJanuary 24, 2014

5 Draft Prospects Lakers Should Keep Their Eye on This College Basketball Season

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    As the 2013-14 Los Angeles Lakers continue to fall further and further from playoff contention, it’s time for the front office to focus full attention on the incoming NBA draft class.

    Due to a laundry list of injuries that went from ridiculous to downright laughable, the Lakers haven’t been able to carve an identity. As a result of those frustrations, the Lakers have compiled a 16-27 record.

    Head coach Mike D’Antoni utilized his 13th different starting lineup on Dec. 23 against the Phoenix Suns, according to Shahan Ahmed of NBC. That total has since ballooned to 21 different starting rotations with Kendall Marshall and rookie Ryan Kelly being thrust into the fold.

    The long-term outlook is bleak in Lakerland. The only players under contract for the 2014-15 season are Kobe Bryant ($23.5 million), Steve Nash ($9.701 million), Robert Sacre ($915,243), Nick Young (if he picks up his player option) and Kendall Marshall (if L.A. picks up his non-guaranteed contract for next year), per ShamSports.

    Needless to say, that isn't the makings of a playoff contender.

    General manager Mitch Kupchak and Co. can change the future, but only if they add a difference maker in the 2014 NBA draft.

Lakers' Draft Status

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    Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Spor

    Before discussing draft prospects Los Angeles should target, we must first get a sense of where the Lakers could wind up on draft night.

    Following a 109-102 loss against the Miami Heat Thursday, the Lakers have the ninth-worst record in the NBA. The lottery system could allow the Lakers to slide up or down from the No. 9 spot—depending upon how the Ping-Pong balls decide to bounce—but it’s fair to say they’ll wind up in the mid-to-late lottery.

    Due to that, big-name prospects like Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle will be excluded from this list. Those four guys are projected to go No. 1-4 in some order, according to mock drafts by CBS Sports’ Gary Parrish and Zach Harper.

    ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne suggested in a recent article the Lakers cannot afford to tank moving forward, and I agree the storied franchise won’t try to—especially once they get Bryant back.

    The following players’ projected draft stock varies, but these guys are considered realistic targets at the No. 5-12 pick range.

5. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky

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    Kentucky Wildcats sophomore center Willie Cauley-Stein is widely projected to be off the board within the first 10 picks of the 2014 NBA draft.

    At 7’0”, 244 pounds, the lanky 20-year-old has prototypical size for an NBA center, as well as room to grow. He put together a tremendous five-game stint of basketball earlier this season, averaging 12.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and five blocks from Nov. 17 through Dec. 1.

    Cauley-Stein was scoring efficiently, cleaning the glass and swatting shots, but he’s gone into a slump over his past three games.

    As Glenn Logan of SB Nation breaks down in a Jan. 23 article, the big man’s production has been on a downward spiral of late after a promising start.

    Cauley-Stein fouled out of an 87-85 overtime loss against Arkansas in just 18 minutes of action. He followed that outing by going 0-of-5 from the field for zero points against Tennessee. He played just nine minutes of the Jan. 21 contest vs. Texas A&M, racking up four personal fouls while scoring just one point.

    The potential is clearly present in the youngster, but he hasn’t played with much confidence lately.

    His funk may hurt his draft stock, but that could be a blessing for the Lakers moving forward. L.A. needs a defensive presence on the interior, and Cauley-Stein can certainly provide that if he’s developed properly.

4. Dario Saric, International

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    Another realistic draft target for the Los Angeles Lakers is 6’10” Croatian forward Dario Saric.

    The 19-year-old is a do-everything small/power forward who has the ability to spread the floor with a beautiful outside shooting stroke. In his past four games overseas in the Adriatic League, Saric is averaging 22 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 3.3 steals per game. He shot 7-of-16 from three-point range over that span (43.8 percent).

    In ESPN Insider Chad Ford’s latest mock draft (subscription required), Ford has Saric going to the Lakers with the ninth overall selection. Due to the Croatian’s ball-handling ability, Ford likens him to a point guard, writing the following:

    Mike D’Antoni loves point guards. So how about a 6-foot-10 PG who passes, rebounds and is an aggressive scorer? Saric isn’t an elite athlete nor is he a dead-eye shooter, but he’s a wizard with the basketball, is putting up terrific numbers in Croatia and seems like a great fit on this young Lakers squad. Several Gms told me that if he were in college right now, he’d be at least four or five spots higher on our Big Board, so there’s value there.

    That’s admittedly high praise for an international athlete, considering that many (Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Zarko Cabarkapa, Jan Vesely) don’t pan out.

    With that said, the Lakers need to find value in the form of players who can bring multiple facets of the game to the table. At least at this juncture, Saric fits that bill as a ball-handling scorer who can also rebound efficiently.

3. Dante Exum, International

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    Although Lakers fans won’t want to hear it, Kobe Bryant’s storied NBA career is coming to an end. The Black Mamba won’t be able to play forever—evidenced by two debilitating leg injuries suffered in a seven-month span—so it might be time to start grooming his replacement.

    Australian standout Dante Exum may be the perfect candidate to learn under Bryant.

    The 6’6” combo guard isn’t the most NBA-ready prospect out there, but that’s to be expected considering he’s just 18 years old. What he brings to the table, however, is unrivaled quickness.

    According to NBAdraft.net, Exum is a “lightning quick combo guard with a deadly first step." The site adds that he “plays an incredibly controlled and smooth game, especially considering he is routinely the quickest guy on the court.”

    While NBA coaches can teach players to improve their shooting stroke or play within a given system, they can’t teach quickness. Exum has plenty of that.

    The most appealing aspect about him, though, is his youth. If Bryant embraces the young gun’s presence from the outset and takes him under his wing, Exum will have plenty of time to develop into an All-Star-caliber talent.

2. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State

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    Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

    Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart has compiled an impressive resume dating back to his freshman campaign last year.

    In fact, he was so impressive as a freshman that ESPN Insider Chad Ford had tabbed Smart to go second overall to the Orlando Magic in the first addition of his 2013 mock draft. Smart eventually decided to return to Oklahoma State for his sophomore season.

    Although some may think the 19-year-old made a mistake by choosing to stay in college over the payday that comes with being taken within the top five picks of the NBA draft, Smart has upped his game in his second season as a collegiate athlete.

    Here’s the comparison from Smart’s freshman campaign to the numbers he’s posted so far this year:

    2012-13 (Freshman): 15.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 3.0 steals, 40.4 percent field-goal shooting, 29 percent three-point shooting, 3.4 turnovers.

    2013-14 (Sophomore): 17.8 points, 5.8 rebounds, 4.4 assists, 2.6 steals, 44.7 percent field-goal shooting, 32.2 percent three-point shooting, 2.6 turnovers.

    With a year of experience under his belt, Smart has improved his shooting efficiency by more than four percentage points while also limiting his turnovers per game.

    The Lakers haven’t had a viable point guard on the roster since 35-year-old Gary Payton played one season for L.A. in 2003-04.

    They’d likely need to climb up a few spots in the lottery to have a shot at drafting Smart, but he could be the franchise point guard for years to come. One of the few negatives in his game right now, is flopping.

1. Aaron Gordon, Arizona

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    Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

    University of Arizona Wildcat Aaron Gordon has been very impressive as a freshman. He’s helped lead head coach Sean Miller’s squad to a 19-0 record, which ranks Arizona No. 1 in the nation.

    Gordon has thrown down highlight alley-oops, displayed a steady feel for the game and, most importantly, made an impact on the defensive end.

    As a team, the Wildcats rank fourth in the nation by allowing just 56.7 points per game. Gordon’s maturity and discipline on that end has been one of the keys to their success.

    The freshman has struggled from the free-throw line (45.9 percent) and three-point range (31.8 percent), but he finishes well at the basket and shows a good understanding of the NBA style by utilizing backdoor cuts that lead to alley-oop feeds.

    Again, the Lakers would probably have to engage "tank mode" in order to get him. If they’re put in a position where they can do so, however, they shouldn’t think twice.

    Gordon is a consistent two-way player who doesn’t have to score 20 points per game to make a meaningful impact. His poor free-throw shooting is a concern, but his raw talent should override that shortcoming.


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