Grading 10 Top NBA Draft Prospects in Each Key Category

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistFebruary 23, 2015

Grading 10 Top NBA Draft Prospects in Each Key Category

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    USA TODAY Sports

    With a generous helping of conference play in the books, we're delivering report card grades to the top 2015 NBA draft prospects.

    These young studs were judged in every key phase of the game, and their grades reflect widely varying skill sets. Although many of them are the same age, they're in different stages of offensive development, defensive aptitude and shot-making skills.

    While we used statistics to help arrive at some of our assessments, the grades are also based heavily off skills demonstrated on film. What kind of noticeable strengths and weaknesses have they exhibited, especially against the toughest competition?

    Our list of top 10 NBA prospects includes the college players with the most NBA appeal and consistent statistical production.

    The report cards are meant to reflect how proficient the players are right now, not how good they could be in the future.

    Prospects are listed in order of projected draft value, not their grades.

Kevon Looney, UCLA PF (6'9", Freshman)

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Shot Creation: B-

    Shooting/Finishing: B+

    Rebounding: A

    Passing: C+

    Defense: B

    Awareness: A-

    Draft Projection: Late lottery

    Kevon Looney's report card looks less than stellar because he's still so raw. Right now, his physical tools and glimpses of potential versatility drive his draft appeal.

    The UCLA freshman is an above-average ball-handler for someone his size, but he has trouble consistently creating for himself and teammates. Looney only converts sporadic drives, and his post-ups are in the early stages of development.

    However, he earned high scores in rebounding, shooting and awareness because he has a nose for the rock and a knack for hitting triples. Bruins coach Steve Alford talked to Jack Wang of the Los Angeles Daily News about Looney's inclination to work off the ball:

    "Kevon’s a unique individual in that he does his best when he’s playing off of everybody. When you go to him in certain areas, I don’t think he normally looks as good as he does when he’s playing off of people—when people can create for him and he gets to slide and do the things he likes to do."

    While he's an "upside" prospect, Looney has proven he's more than just a big body with some scant basketball abilities. His 13 double-doubles and 43 percent three-point shooting indicate tangible inside-out potential.

Justise Winslow, Duke SF (6'6", Freshman)

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Shot Creation: C+

    Shooting/Finishing: B

    Rebounding: A-

    Passing: B+

    Defense: A

    Awareness: A

    Draft Projection: Mid-to-late lottery

    After a rough January in which he was banged up, Duke's Justise Winslow has stormed back into the top tier of draft prospects.

    Most of his offense still comes from broken plays and transition. He struggles to consistently generate separation and find mid-range opportunities in half-court scenarios. (He's hitting 14 percent of two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com.) However, Winslow finishes strong on straight-line slashes, and his three-point shooting has provided a nice boost over the past three weeks.

    In February, Winslow is 6-of-9 from three-point range thus far, which is encouraging to pro scouts. His three-point shooting suggests he'll be far from an offensive liability in the NBA.

    In the other areas such as rebounding, passing and defense, he's a high-effort player who's sharply alert. He maximizes his strength and agility on defense by forcing opponents to their weak spots, and he's also a dynamic weak-side helper.

    Winslow's NBA ceiling will be determined by how much he can improve in the "shot creation" department. Can he develop at least a couple of change-of-direction or change-of-pace moves to comfortably set up his own shots?

Mario Hezonja, Croatia SG/SF (6'8", 1995)

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    Getty Images

    Shot Creation: A-

    Shooting/Finishing: A

    Rebounding: B

    Passing: B+

    Defense: B

    Awareness: B+

    Draft Projection: Mid-to-late lottery

    In recent weeks, Croatian swingman Mario Hezonja has started to shed the "risky" label. He looks much more like a surefire top-10 prospect.

    He's torching opponents from long range, exhibiting a superb feel for catch-and-shoot opportunities as well as step-back triples. The 6'8" gunner is drilling 43 percent of three-pointers in Euroleague play and 44 percent against ACB (Spanish League) competition.

    Hezonja is also proving he's more than just a shooter who can leap. He can make plays as a facilitator, as Draft Express video analyst Mike Schmitz explains in his film breakdown:

    "His value as a shooter goes well beyond standing in the corner and making spot-up threes," Schmitz said. "He's comfortable in the pick-and-roll and can read his defender off of screens. Hezonja also made a few nice passes to the roll man."

    As he gains more playing time and experience, he'll become a quality multidimensional wing. There's nothing in his report card that should turn off lottery teams in need of a productive man at the 2 or 3.

Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky C (7'0", Junior)

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Shot Creation: C

    Shooting/Finishing: B

    Rebounding: B+

    Passing: C+

    Defense: A+

    Awareness: B+

    Draft Projection: Mid-lottery

    At this point, NBA teams know not to expect the world from Willie Cauley-Stein on offense. He's not going to make innovative moves from the elbow or unleash advanced post footwork to generate buckets.

    Nevertheless, he's not a lost cause. As a role player, he can sporadically convert the simple post moves, and he can also demolish opponents if he gets momentum toward the rim. His athleticism lends itself to pick-and-roll success.

    Defense has been his forte from day one, and his foot speed and range continue to astound us. Jonathan Tjarks of RealGM.com talked about how special his skills and physical tools are:

    It doesn’t matter what position they play - John Calipari can sic Cauley-Stein on any player in the country and change the complexion of the game.

    In a game against Providence, Cauley-Stein hounded LaDontae Henton, a 6’6" small forward, to the tune of three points and three rebounds on 1-of-8 shooting. ... Imagine if DeAndre Jordan was the best perimeter defender in the NBA and you can see the impact Cauley-Stein has at the NCAA level.

    Cauley-Stein averages 2.3 steals per 40 minutes as a seven-foot center. Most Division I guards would kill for his agility and quick hands.

    One area to keep an eye on moving forward? Rebounding. He hasn't been overly impressive on the boards, and he should work for better positioning to corral caroms more effectively.

Kristaps Porzingis, Latvia PF (7'0", 1995)

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    MANUEL GOMEZ/Associated Press

    Shot Creation: B+

    Shooting/Finishing: A

    Rebounding: B+

    Passing: B

    Defense: B

    Awareness: B+

    Draft Projection: Mid-lottery

    Just because Kristaps Porzingis' report card is full of B's doesn't mean he's not an upper-echelon prospect.

    He has a bright future, and many of his current shortcomings are things he can address in the coming years. Fortunately, one of the Latvian forward's greatest current strengths is scoring the ball.

    Last spring, he showed some flashes of three-point shooting, which is always impressive to see from a seven-footer. This season, Porzingis is starting to really dial in from beyond the arc, hitting 33 percent in ACB play and 46 percent in Eurocup play.

    He can also operate on the inside, using his length and soft hands to convert close-range attempts.

    "Porzingis actually has good fotwork [sic] and touch on his post moves, and his very high release point gives him some opportunity," noted Derek Bodner of Draft Express.

    Defensively, he must work on consistency. Sometimes he's out of position away from the ball, or he's overzealous and commits fouls. The good news is that he has the physical tools to compete as an NBA post defender.

Stanley Johnson, Arizona SF (6'7", Freshman)

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    Elaine Thompson/Associated Press

    Shot Creation: B+

    Shooting/Finishing: B+

    Rebounding: A

    Passing: A-

    Defense: A-

    Awareness: A

    Draft Projection: Mid-lottery

    Stanley Johnson's versatility makes him one of the best wings available in the draft. He can handle the ball, rebound and defend. His shot is improving as well. 

    Long-range shooting was a big question mark surrounding him as the season began, and the Arizona freshman has calmed our fears. He's making 48 percent of his two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com, and 36 percent on three-point tries. Johnson's release point is still low, however, and his shot is too flat sometimes.

    Although he's not a point guard, he's often Arizona's most dangerous playmaker. Johnson can slash to the tin through traffic, and he also has the vision to create 2.7 assists per 40 minutes in conference play.

    Johnson's defense is viewed as one of his greatest strengths. He relishes being a stifling stopper and crashing the boards. But he didn't get an "A+" or "A" because he occasionally gets beat away from the ball and foiled by speedy guards.

    Overall, the star freshman is worthy of top-10 consideration because he'll be able to play multiple positions at a high level on both offense and defense.

Emmanuel Mudiay, China PG (6'5", 1996)

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    Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images

    Shot Creation: A+

    Shooting/Finishing: B-

    Rebounding: B

    Passing: A-

    Defense: B+

    Awareness: B+

    Draft Projection: Top-five pick

    Although Emmanuel Mudiay's short stint in China didn't give us a crystal-clear picture of how he'll translate to the NBA, at least it illustrated his main strengths and deficiencies.

    For instance, it's pretty clear that he's a top-tier creator off the dribble. He combines his elite foot speed and agility with shifty ball-handling skills to slice through defenses. Mudiay can generate offense for himself or teammates with equal ease.

    It's also readily apparent that he's not an NBA-ready shooter. Mudiay converted just 30 percent of his triple-tries for the Guangdong Southern Tigers, and his mid-range and free-throw shooting (58 percent) are also suspect.

    His shooting motion and delivery aren't abominable. There are just some mechanical fixes he must make, including his release point and shot trajectory.

    "Mudiay's jumper isn't broken, but it's never been consistent enough to ever qualify as a strength," said Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman.

    If he can refine his perimeter shooting skills, he'll be a lethal offensive asset in the Association.

D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State PG/SG (6'5", Freshman)

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press

    Shot Creation: A-

    Shooting/Finishing: A

    Rebounding: B

    Passing: A

    Defense: B+

    Awareness: A

    Draft Projection: Top-three Pick

    It didn't take long for freshman D'Angelo Russell to start wowing scouts at Ohio State.

    The southpaw playmaker is an enticing combo guard because he displays a mix of smooth shooting and creative court vision. He doesn't always drive as aggressively as he should (takes just 4.1 free throws per game), but he definitely owns slashing skills.

    Russell is a shot-maker from everywhere on the floor, including mid-range. According to Hoop-Math.com, he's hitting 40 percent of his two-point jumpers, which pairs nicely with his 43 percent clip from three-land.

    Fran Fraschilla of ESPN.com noted Russell's penchant for finding triples in transition. 

    "Most impressive is his accuracy from behind the arc on the move in the open court," said Fraschilla. "He has been just as accurate in transition as he has been in the half court. In fact, he is shooting 46 percent in fast-break situations.*"

    With an ability to see opportunities before they develop, Russell has proven to be a brilliant passer and dangerous scorer. His command of the game will help him adjust smoothly to the NBA.

    *Fraschilla's stat as of Feb. 6

Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky PF/C (7'0", Freshman)

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Shot Creation: B+

    Shooting/Finishing: A-

    Rebounding: A+

    Passing: B+

    Defense: A

    Awareness: A-

    Draft Projection: Top-three pick

    Karl Towns' versatility is exceptional for a seven-foot teenager. Most prospects his age and size don't have the polish or coordination to do what he does: serve as an inside-out offensive weapon and defensive stalwart for a major college program.

    As a critical cog in Kentucky's undefeated run, the talented freshman earns high marks across the board. He doesn't have any glaring weaknesses, but like any young player, there's room for improvement in some areas.

    For example, we were unwilling to give Towns an A+ on defense. He moves his feet quickly, blocks a truckload of shots (4.7 per 40 minutes) and cleans up the defensive boards, but he's undisciplined at times. The result is 5.7 fouls per 40 minutes, something he should try to improve entering the postseason.

    Towns has tremendous untapped upside, yet he's already an impressive power forward. He turns strong over his left shoulder for feathery soft baby hooks, hits pick-and-pop jumpers and passes the ball well for a post player.

    Whether he lands first or fifth in the draft, he's a superb value pick due to his combination of defensive length and offensive versatility.

Jahlil Okafor, Duke C (6'11", Freshman)

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Shot Creation: A+

    Shooting/Finishing: A

    Rebounding: B+

    Passing: B+

    Defense: B-

    Awareness: A-

    Draft Projection: No. 1 Pick

    Duke's highly coveted big fella is the best prospect in the field, but he's not without flaws.

    Some of his deficiencies are correctable, and some might stay with him throughout his pro career. It's important to point these blemishes out, but fortunately Okafor is so dominant in other areas that it may not affect his chances to go No. 1 overall.

    His underwhelming athleticism and poor lateral quickness limit his defensive upside, and it's especially apparent when opponents make him play away from the basket.

    "What will really hurt him at the next level will be managing the pick-and-roll," noted Jake Pavorsky of Liberty Ballers. "In Miami's win over Duke, the Hurricanes were smart enough to pull Okafor out of the paint and make him defend the pick-and-roll."

    When Duke's schedule switched from nonconference to conference opponents, Okafor's defensive rating went from 95.0 to 100.7. Part of that is due to correctable positioning mistakes, but it's also induced by his below-average quickness.

    Okafor's other problem area to fix is free-throw shooting, as he's hitting just 55 percent of his charity tosses.

    Now that we've highlighted his defensive shakiness, you can go back to gawking at his low-post dominance (hence the A's in shot-creation and finishing).

    Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all stats come from Sports-Reference.com/CBB and are current entering Feb. 22.

    Follow Dan O'Brien on Twitter for more NBA Draft coverage: @DanielO_BR

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