Tuesday, June 24, 2014

NBA Draft Science

Well, the NBA draft is finally here this week to kick off an off-season full of questions. Will the Heatles break up, with LeBron moving back to Cleveland? Where will all the big-name free agents (Carmelo, Luol Deng, Pau Gasol, Lance Stephenson, Kyle Lowry) go? Will Minnesota trade Kevin Love, and if so, where? And most importantly, how long is this ugly Clippers saga going to drag on, and what will be the end result? In the meantime, let's all enjoy the deepest draft in many years, and potentially one of the deepest ever, with lots of good building blocks and a few potential big-time stars available. It should be a complete reversal of last year's uninspiring event, which featured a crop of players that might produce two or three All-Stars IF everything breaks right.

Any discussion of the best-ever NBA draft classes has to start with these four: 2003, 1998, 1996, and of course, 1984 (in my lifetime, at least). Take a look at the ten best players (by win shares) from each of those classes, keeping in mind that many of the '03 guys are still playing, as are some of the '98s and '96s.

1984: Michael Jordan (214), John Stockton (208), Charles Barkley (177), Hakeem Olajuwon (163), Otis Thorpe (106), Sam Perkins (105), Kevin Willis (82), Michael Cage (74), Jerome Kersey (70), Alvin Roberton (52). TOTAL: 1251

1996: Kobe Bryant (173), Ray Allen (145), Steve Nash (130), Allen Iverson (99), Peja Stojakovic (83), Marcus Camby (82), Stephon Marbury (78), Shareef Abdur-Rahim (71), Zydrunas Ilgauskas (66), Jermaine O'Neal (66). TOTAL: 993

1998: Dirk Nowitzki (185), Paul Pierce (144), Vince Carter (116), Rashard Lewis (91), Antawn Jamison (88), Mike Bibby (73), Cuttino Mobley (52), Al Harrington (43), Matt Harpring (42), Rasho Nesterovic (40). TOTAL: 874

2003: LeBron James (169), Dwyane Wade (105), Chris Bosh (96), Carmelo Anthony (83), David West (70), Kirk Hinrich (51), Kyle Korver (50), Boris Diaw (43), Nick Collison (41), Josh Howard (38). TOTAL: 746

Not only did each of those four drafts have three or four Hall of Fame-caliber players, they had quality further down the line (the eleventh-best player from 1996 is Derek Fisher, who's right behind O'Neal). I don't know that this year's class will turn out to be as good as 1984 (four players who are all in the discussion for best ever at their position) or 1996 (nine of those ten - all except Camby, who was a four-time All-Defensive selection and the 2007 DPOY - made an All-Star team), but there is a lot of talent available, and several teams should come away happy. Before we take a look at the individual players, let's delve into a little draft philosophy.

DRAFTING ON POTENTIAL

The NBA, more than any other league (even baseball, I would say), loves to draft players based on potential. Every year, some lottery team drafts a 19-year-old because he's seven feet tall and can walk and chew gum at the same time. But while scouts and general managers and occasionally owners fall in love with these young giants, they so rarely put appropriate developmental systems in place throughout their franchises in order to make sure that these young players maximize any of that potential. When those players fail to make the grade, they are blamed, even though very few teams in the league put any serious thought into how to coach up their raw prospects. We're going to look back at some notable first-round misses over the past dozen or so years and see if we can figure out any patterns as to why those players failed, starting with 2011.

Jan Vesely (6th overall, 2011, Wizards): The "Dunking Ninja" has never developed one iota of confidence in his shot, and was dumped on Denver for Professor Andre Miller, PhD. His legacy will ultimately be open-mouth kissing his girlfriend after getting drafted.

Bismack Biyombo (7th, 2011, Bobcats): "Groomed" by one of the league's worst franchises, Biyombo has likewise never developed a shred of offense beyond dunking.

Hasheem Thabeet (2nd, 2009, Grizzlies): 7'3" worth of stiff, Thabeet has never averaged more than 3.1 points per game.

Anthony Randolph (14th, 2008, Warriors): I believe that is was only this season, over five years after he was drafted, that the league collectively realized that he would never be anything other than a freak athlete.

JaVale McGee (18th, 2008, Wizards): Despite being the progeny of two basketball players and having otherworldly athleticism for a seven-footer, he has very little idea of how to actually play basketball. Also dumped on the Nuggets, for Nene.

Kosta Koufos (23rd, 2008, Jazz): Has never gotten over his aversion to being near the basket despite being 7'0", 265.

Yi Jianlian (6th, 2007, Bucks): Chairman Yi drew rave reviews after posting up chairs in his pre-draft workouts, but couldn't shoot better than 42% from the floor against actual human beings in five seasons.

Patrick O'Bryant (8th, 2006, Warriors): Benefited from a hot March Madness run by his school (Bradley), causing the Warriors to overlook the fact that he only averaged a 13-8 in the Missouri Valley despite ostensibly being an athletic seven-footer.

Mouhamed Sene (10th, 2006, Sonics): Drafted in the lottery even though he had only learned to make a layup off of the correct foot a year before. Rather predictably played in just 47 NBA games.

Oleksiy Pecherov (18th, 2006, Wizards): Shot under 40% from the floor in three seasons (again, at seven feet) and was nicknamed the "White Hole" for his inability to pass.

Johan Petro (25th, 2005, Sonics): Never grabbed more than five boards a game despite being an "athletic seven-footer."

Andris Biedrins (11th, 2004, Warriors): Stiffer than reinforced titanium, Beans played in all of six games this season for the Jazz as a 27-year-old, in what should be the height of his prime

Robert Swift (12th, 2004, Sonics): Perhaps even stiffer than the guy drafted immediately in front of him, the high schooler from Bakersfield played in 97 career games.

Pavel Podkolzine (21st, 2004, Jazz): Traded immediately to the Mavericks, this 7'5" giant with a pituitary gland condition played just 28 MINUTES in the NBA.

Darko Milicic (2nd, 2003, Pistons): Probably the most famous of these guys, Darko's legendary workouts convinced Joe Dumars to take him over Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and Dwyane Wade, three future Hall of Famers who went 3-4-5.

Nikoloz Tskitishvili (5th, 2002, Nuggets): Skita was at the forefront of the craze with tall players who couldn't get off the bench for their European teams, and he never even averaged four points a game in his brief career.

Kwame Brown (1st, 2001, Wizards): I take it back, maybe Kwame is the most famous of these guys. Taken by Michael Jordan immediately in front of Tyson Chandler and Pau Gasol, Brown shot under 50% for seven teams in his career.

DeSagana Diop (8th, 2001, Cavaliers): Another raw African import who jumped from high school to the pros without first learning how to play. Hung around for awhile as a spare big man off the bench.

What do you notice about all those names? The first thing that should pop out is how frequently the same teams keep appearing: four drafted by the Wizards; three each by the Sonics and Warriors; two by the Jazz; and one by the Nuggets in addition to the two that they traded for (and gave up quality players to do so). I didn't mention Greg Oden in this list primarily because being a bad basketball player was never his problem (as it was for all of these guys); he just had a body that was predisposed to break down.

Basically, if I were a player in this draft who had a lot of potential but maybe not a lot of immediate ability to play in the NBA, I would be scared to get drafted by pretty much any team except the following: the Spurs (duh); the Thunder (also duh); the Celtics; the Pistons (Stan Van Gundy alert!); the Mavericks; the Heat; and maaaaaaybe the Blazers, Lakers (they have money to throw at things), Sixers (a Spurs offshoot), Rockets, Hawks, or Suns. That's a dozen teams that inspire any confidence, and just six that inspire any significant amount. If a team is going to draft someone based entirely on what he might become, they need to first build the structure to at least ensure that they've done their part to get him there.

THE PROSPECTS

NBA teams, as I discussed in my piece about the Kings' strategy for the draft, typically rate prospects in tiers, so that's what we'll do here, with players in each tier ranked as I would rank them. I'll also compare them to Chad Ford's Big Board rating, and provide a comparable player for both a "floor" projection and a "ceiling" projection. Without further ado...

Tier 1: Potential Franchise Centerpiece (1)
#1) Joel Embiid, C, Kansas (7'0", 250 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 2
Floor: Greg Oden
Ceiling: Hakeem Olajuwon
Analysis: Anyone who follows the NBA closely will tell you this, but if you want to try and project which big men will succeed in the league, watch them run. Watch Serge Ibaka, or Hakeem, or Dwight Howard, or Andre Drummond, or Tyson Chandler. They move gracefully, and quickly. Then watch Hasheem Thabeet, or Andris Biedrins, or Robert Swift, and it looks like they're running in concrete shoes. Those guys don't typically make it.* Embiid belongs to the first group, and he has an outstanding feel for the game on both ends for someone who's only been playing basketball for four years (much like Olajuwon). He can both sprint and move laterally very well, challenges shots anywhere near the basket, and is an exceptional passer and shooter for someone his size and with his lack of experience. Unfortunately for Embiid, of course, he suffered a stress fracture in his foot last week, which will assuredly cause him to drop from "definitely going first overall" to perhaps out of the top five. Foot injuries for big men are scary.

*Roy Hibbert is the exception that proves the rule.

Tier 2: Multiple All-Star Appearances Likely (5)
#2) Andrew Wiggins, SG/SF, Kansas (6'8", 220 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 1
Floor: Kawhi Leonard
Ceiling: Kobe Bryant
Analysis: The most explosive athlete in the draft, bar none, Wiggins still has some growing to do as a player. His perimeter shot needs more consistency, and he has to stay lower to the ground with his dribble in order to make use of his awesome explosiveness. That said, he can absolutely guard almost any guard or small forward in the NBA right now, which is rare for such a young player. If he never develops the killer instinct of a Kobe or a Durant, he'll probably wind up as Tracy McGrady, only with better defense. That's not a bad career to have.

#3) Jabari Parker, SF/PF, Duke (6'8", 240 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 3
Floor: Shareef Abdur-Rahim
Ceiling: Carmelo Anthony
Analysis: The dude gets buckets, pure and simple. Parker scored a hair over nineteen a game for Duke (only the ninth Coach K player to average that many) in a variety of ways: he can get out and finish in transition, and handle the ball himself on the break; he can step out and shoot from distance (although his three-point shooting can be inconsistent), and he can post up and play with his back to the basket. He's going to score points in the NBA, there's no doubt about that. The question is whether he can get in a little better shape (he probably needs to trim about 5-10 pounds) and play solid defense. Parker was often asked to play center at Duke, but that doesn't excuse often late rotations and lack of communication, two factors which contributed heavily to an uncharacteristically bad defensive output for the Blue Devils. Regardless, his scoring chops make him an attractive target for any team in the top five, although Utah would absolutely love to have him more than anyone, given the fact that he is a Mormon.

#4) Dante Exum, PG, Australia (6'6", 195 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 4
Floor: Shaun Livingston
Ceiling: John Wall
Analysis: Of anyone who might possibly get selected first overall, we know the least about Exum, as his scouting report basically boils down to last year's Nike Hoop Summit and FIBA U-19 Championships (where he performed very well). From what we've seen, it appears that he has excellent quickness and athletic ability for such a tall point guard, and can finish at the rim or pass. Like Wall, his ceiling comp, Exum is an inconsistent shooter at this point, including from the free throw line, but that is something that Wall was able to improve pretty significantly over the past couple of seasons. Hopefully Exum can, too. Orlando is the most likely team to roll the dice on him (and eventually pair him with Victor Oladipo - yikes), but he could potentially slip down to Boston or the Lakers.

#5) Noah Vonleh, PF/C, Indiana (6'10", 245 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 5
Floor: Channing Frye
Ceiling: Chris Bosh
Analysis: Unlike most American big men, Vonleh entered college with a pretty well-developed perimeter game, and spent his freshman season working on being a post player. He has a 7'4" wingspan and Dr. J-sized hands (massive), yet was still a 50% shooter from the college three-point line. He doesn't block as many shots as his long arms and vertical (37") would suggest, but he is a terrific rebounder, and could potentially go as high as second overall if the right team falls in love with him, although it's more likely that the conversation starts with Orlando or Utah at four or five.

#6) Julius Randle, PF, Kentucky (6'9", 235 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 6
Floor: Kurt Thomas
Ceiling: Zach Randolph
Analysis: Randle was absolutely unstoppable on the block for the Wildcats this season, drawing near-constant double and triple teams thanks to his teammates' inconsistent perimeter shooting, yet still finishing plays through contact on a regular basis. He made his way to the charity stripe almost 300 times, making over 70%, and was the NCAA's leading rebounder at almost ten and a half per game. He doesn't always get his shot off from a high vantage point, which is something that he's going to have to fix if he doesn't want to get it swatted a lot, but I see him having a David West-like career. I can't imagine that he'll slip past the Lakers at number seven.

Tier 3: Tier 2 Guys Still Under Construction (3)
#7) Aaron Gordon, PF, Arizona (6'9", 220 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 7
Floor: Dennis Rodman minus the crazy, or a bigger Tony Allen
Ceiling: Blake Griffin
Analysis: Reminds you of Griffin in how he wants to dunk basically everything, and has the insane hops to do it. The downside is that that's pretty much his entire offensive arsenal, because he can't shoot outside of eight feet (he was sub-50% from the line this year). He's also an excellent rebounder and will be a defensive stud right out of the gate; Gordon can guard pretty much any forward, which will make him very valuable for teams seeking someone to take on the challenge of harassing LeBron and Durant. He could go as high as third, but I would say more likely destinations are Boston (six), Los Angeles (seven), or Charlotte (nine).

#8) Marcus Smart, PG, Oklahoma State (6'3", 225)
Chad Ford rank: 8
Floor: Norris Cole
Ceiling: Deron Williams
Analysis: Another defensive stalwart, Smart is built like a strong safety and plays like one, too. He is big enough to handle any point guard in the league, and several shooting guards if paired with a smaller player in the backcourt. Smart gets to the line a ton but will have to fix his jump shot (sub-30% from three in both college seasons) in order to force defenses to respect him and give him a chance to beat them off of the dribble. I think all of the character questions related to his blowup at Texas Tech are overblown; Smart is the kind of player you want on your team. I can't imagine that he falls past Minnesota at thirteen, if he indeed gets that far.

#9) Dario Saric, PF, Croatia (6'10", 225 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 9
Floor: Nikoloz Tskitishvili
Ceiling: Boris Diaw
Analysis: That floor projection may be unkind to Saric (and I do expect him to exceed it), but I'm not quite sure what to make of a soft, relatively unathletic forward who only recently figured out his jump shot. He has incredible court vision, and on the right team it's easy to imagine him carving out a Diaw-esque career. It might, however, take him some time to get there.

Tier 4: Definite Value As Solid Rotation Players/Starters (5)
#10) Gary Harris, SG/PG, Michigan State (6'5", 205 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 10
Floor: O.J. Mayo with defense**
Ceiling: Eric Bledsoe with a better jump shot
Analysis: Harris' ultimate draft value may hinge on whether or not he has demonstrated to teams that he can play the point as a pro. He's a very good penetrator and shooter who can also be a lockdown defender, but he's a shade small to play the two. He did have an assist-to-turnover ratio of better than 1.5 this past season while playing off the ball, so there's reason to believe that he could indeed run an offense in the NBA. He can certainly defend point guards and shooting guards who are not of the Kobe Bryant/DeMar DeRozan size, so he should be able to play right away.

**Yes, I realize that "O.J. Mayo with defense" and "O.J. Mayo" are two completely different basketball players.

#11) Adreian Payne, PF/C, Michigan State (6'10", 240 lbs)
Chad Ford Rank: 16
Floor: Markieff Morris
Ceiling: Rasheed Wallace minus several dozen technicals
Analysis: Payne is one of my favorite players in this entire draft. He's a true big man who grew into a more versatile player as a junior and senior at Michigan State, shooting over 40% from behind the arc this year on plenty of attempts. Like every Tom Izzo player, Payne is tough and strong for his size, which is considerable; in addition to having an ideal power forward's build, he has a 7'4" wingspan. He demonstrated his toughness by playing the last two or three months of the season with undiagnosed mono, which makes his production look even better in hindsight. I imagine that he could play center in smaller lineups, particularly because he is also an explosive leaper. If he were 19 instead of 23, he'd probably be a top-five pick; as it is, I personally think he'd be great as high as eight (Sacramento). If he manages to fall all the way to the Thunder at twenty-one, watch out.

#12) Doug McDermott, SF, Creighton (6'8", 220 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 13
Floor: Kyle Korver
Ceiling: a moderately rich man's Wally Szczerbiak or a poor man's Jabari Parker
Analysis: Some Adam Morrison comparisons are probably inevitable, given that McDermott is also a white small forward who put up ridiculous scoring numbers in a middling conference, but his athletic performance at the combine should scotch those links. Dougie McBuckets got three feet off the floor in his vertical and had a great lane agility score (outdoing purported better athletes like Glenn Robinson III, James Michael McAdoo, Julius Randle, and Rodney Hood) to boot. He can score, pure and simple; he came within eighteen free throws (one every other game) and a triple of putting up 45%/55%/90% shooting splits this season despite every defense being entirely committed to trying to stop him. In a worst case scenario, he is a lethal catch-and-shoot guy and fourth option, but I think he can very well be a 15 ppg-scorer on a serial playoff team.

#13) Nik Stauskas, SG/PG, Michigan (6'7", 210 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 11
Floor: Jason Kapono
Ceiling: Kevin Martin
Analysis: Stauskas can shoot from anywhere inside halfcourt, and as a sophomore proved that he can do more than just catch and shoot. He remade his body last summer and turned into an all-around offensive force, even showing the ability to run Michigan's offense when needed. There's a chance that he could play the point in the NBA, but it's much more likely that he winds up as a shooting guard. With only average quickness, however, the team that takes him will have to hide him defensively. His draft range probably starts with Charlotte at nine and continues down to the late teens.

#14) Tyler Ennis, PG, Syracuse (6'3", 185 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 14
Floor: Kendall Marshall
Ceiling: Jrue Holiday
Analysis: Ennis took a lot of people by surprise in this "year of the freshman" by forcing his way into the conversation for top college freshman with Wiggins, Parker, and Embiid. He did that by leading Syracuse with tremendous poise to a 25-0 start. He never seems to get rattled, and is a good if not great athlete who can direct any offense. The question, as with any Syracuse player, is how well he can guard his position.

Tier 5: Plenty Of Potential, But More Variance
#15) Zach LaVine, PG/SG, UCLA (6'6", 180 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 15
Floor: Gerald Green
Ceiling: Russell Westbrook
Analysis: Now that is a big difference between the floor (a crazy-athletic backup wing) and the ceiling (one of the ten best players in the NBA). Like Green and Westbrook, LaVine is ridiculously athletic with a lightning first step. He also has a good shooting stroke, and made a pretty good 37.5% of his three-point attempts in his lone college season. Also like Westbrook, however, he makes some puzzling decisions on the floor, and he quite clearly is not strong enough to handle the rigors of an 82-game NBA season, seeing as how he's two inches taller AND twenty pounds lighter than I am. I doubt that he'll ever reach his ceiling, but I do believe that he will exceed his floor.

#16) James Young, SF, Kentucky (6'8", 215 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 16
Floor: Daequan Cook
Ceiling: Arron Afflalo
Analysis: Before the college basketball season began, Kentucky coach John Calipari raved that Young was the best player on his considerably talented team. When you look at him, it's easy to see why; he's a smooth, athletic lefty who can shoot and guard both wing positions. His consistency, however, leaves a lot to be desired. Call me crazy, but an NBA-sized wing with his skill and athleticism, sharing the court with several other future pros should be capable of much better shooting splits than the 41%/35%/71% he put up for the Wildcats this past season. If he figures it out, Young could definitely be the third-best player on a contender. If he doesn't, he'll never be more than a heat check guy off the bench.

#17) Elfrid Payton, PG, Louisiana-Lafayette (6'4", 185 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 13
Floor: a poor man's Devin Harris
Ceiling: Rajon Rondo
Analysis: Payton was one of the stars for the USA Select basketball team last summer, playing with the likes of McDermott against international competition. He's a big point guard with excellent defensive abilities who can get to the basket against all kinds of players, not just the inferior competition in the Sun Belt Conference. The problem is that he can't shoot. Like, at all. As a sophomore in 2012-13, Payton shot 32% from behind the arc and 64% from the line, numbers that are acceptable from a low-post power forward, but not necessarily a point guard. As a junior this past year, those numbers actually went DOWN, to 26% and 61%, respectively. If Payton doesn't fix his shot, he'll never get much of a chance to use his high-level penetrating ability.

#18) Kristaps Porzingis, PF, Latvia (6'11", 220 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 18
Floor: Nikoloz Skitishvili
Ceiling: Luis Scola
Analysis: The word on the street is that Porzingis has received a promise from the Thunder to be drafted by them, probably with the twenty-first pick they have from Dallas. At just eighteen years of age and with a decidedly skinny frame, I think that it's highly unlikely that he actually plays in the NBA until 2016 at the earliest. He's a mobile, athletic seven-footer with a versatile skill set, but so was Skita, and look at how that turned out.

#19) Clint Capela, PF, Switzerland (6'11", 225 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 27
Floor: Ian Mahinmi
Ceiling: Amir Johnson
Analysis: I'm ranking him this much higher than Ford does more because of how he fits into this tier than because of how sure I am about his ability to play in the NBA. Like any other international prospect, I've only seen highlight clips of Capela, but 20-year-olds with good springs and a 9'3" standing reach don't exactly grow on trees. The good news? He held his own for a player so young in France and Spain? The bad news? He looked completely lost playing against more experienced American kids at the Nike Hoop Summit. Don't be surprised if one of the teams with multiple first-round picks (Phoenix, Chicago, Boston) uses the draft-and-stash philosophy with him in the middle of the first round.

#20) P.J. Hairston, SG, North Carolina (6'5", 230 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 23
Floor: Ricardo Ledo
Ceiling: Isaiah Rider
Analysis: Those names should not inspire a lot of confidence, as both Ledo and Rider carried well-deserved reputations as head cases into the NBA. Hairston had plenty of bad habits at Carolina, getting caught with marijuana and twice caught speeding in cars that belonged to unsavory characters. It's notable that Carolina, whose athletic department has been more than willing over the past decade and more to fudge grades and overlook all sort of shenanigans by its athletes, decided not to seek his reinstatement this year after he was suspended, leading Hairston to play in the D-League. He's a strong, long-armed shooting guard with a pretty stroke who can guard most NBA wings, but any team thinking of drafting him should pause before handing an NBA paycheck to a guy whose decision-making and effort already leave a lot to be desired.

#21) Jusuf Nurkic, C, Bosnia & Herzegovina (6'11", 280 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 20
Floor: a poor man's Zaza Pachulia
Ceiling: Nikola Pekovic, although less scary-looking
Analysis: As my first high school basketball coach used to say of our center, "Well, he's tall." That's a bit unfair to Nurkic, who has advanced footwork in the post and good hands, especially for a teenager. But it's troubling that a behemoth of his size couldn't average six boards a game last year, and he's also probably carrying about fifteen more pounds than he should be. Nurkic needs to go to a team with an athletic power forward who can cover for his shortcomings in that area, or he'll have a good chance at joining the list of busts above.

Tier 6: Rotation Guys With Lower Ceilings
#22) Rodney Hood, SG/SF, Duke (6'9", 210 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 21
Floor: a more athletic Kyle Korver
Ceiling: a poor man's Jamal Crawford
Analysis: I would actually be fine with moving these next two players up to the fourth tier, but I do think that they probably will ultimately have lower ceilings than anyone in that group. Hood is an excellent lefty shooter with plenty of range who can be either a big shooting guard or a normal-sized small forward. He also has the athleticism to get to the rack, but rather puzzlingly was an ineffective defender this past season for the Blue Devils. He also could stand to be a much better rebounder for an athlete with his measurements. Regardless, he's one of the best shooters in the draft, and brings that size and athleticism to the table as well.

#23) Cleanthony Early, SF, Wichita State (6'7", 210 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 22
Floor: Jeff Green
Ceiling: Luol Deng
Analysis: Early is my favorite non-lottery prospect in the draft. He's got the requisite size and athleticism (40-inch vertical) to be an NBA wing, he was the best player for a team that went 65-10 over the past two years, and he is absolutely unafraid on the big stage; in Wichita State's Final Four loss to Louisville a year ago he dropped 24 and 10, and against Kentucky in this year's round of 32 he exploded for 31 and 7 on 12-of-17 shooting that included a vicious fast break dunk over the Wildcats' seven-foot shot-blocker, Willie Cauley-Stein. Plus, he plays good defense. Sign me up, please. Even though he's already 23, I think he's ready to step into an NBA rotation right away. Chicago could pair him with Jimmy Butler on the wing, and I think Oklahoma City would be stupid to pass on him at twenty-one (although they probably will thanks to this reported promise to Porzingis).

#24) Jerami Grant, SF/PF, Syracuse (6'8", 215 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 24
Floor: Jeremy Evans
Ceiling: Thaddeus Young
Analysis: Grant is a phenomenal athlete with NBA bloodlines (his father is Harvey and his uncle is Horace), but he's a bit of a tweener. Grant is a little small to play power forward in the NBA, but he doesn't currently possess a jump shot. On the plus side, he knows that, and played within his limitations at Syracuse, attempting only twenty threes in two seasons. He was a terrific defender along the back of the Orange's zone, and I'm confident that he'll be able to guard bigger wings and smaller power forwards right away. It may take a couple years for him to develop a reliable stroke, but Grant has a chance to be an excellent sixth man-type on a contender if he does.

#25) TJ Warren, SF, North Carolina State (6'8", 220 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 19
Floor: Jarvis Hayes
Ceiling: Caron Butler
Analysis: Warren was the ACC Player of the Year this season over Jabari Parker, and with reason; the dude can flat-out get buckets. Warren dropped 25 per game this year, scoring in pretty much every way imaginable. It's easy to imagine him as instant offense off of the bench, which is likely where he'll come from given his iffy defensive skills. That's okay, because he should be able to outscore his opposite number more often than not.

#26) Shabazz Napier, PG, Connecticut (6'1", 175 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 25
Floor: Eric Maynor
Ceiling: Kemba Walker
Analysis: The Walker comparisons are almost too easy, given that both are small point guards who almost single-handedly willed UConn to national championships. But they are fairly apt, although Napier projects to be a better defender than his former teammate. Napier can do everything on the floor (for instance, he grabbed almost six rebounds a game for the Huskies), and like Walker, proved himself over and over again in crunch time. I'm pretty sure he can run the point for a playoff team, although he will probably never be a top-ten guy at the most stacked position in the league.

Tier 7: Unique New York (1)
#27) Kyle Anderson, PG/PF, UCLA (6'9", 230 lbs)
Chad Ford rank: 28
Floor: a less athletic Boris Diaw
Ceiling: a less athletic Jalen Rose?
Analysis: Anderson is the strangest player in this draft, and has been described by Ford as an "acquired taste." He's a point power forward with excellent scoring, rebounding, and passing skills, but can't really run or jump all that well. Anderson averaged a 14-9-7 this past season for the Bruins, and his positional versatility made life easier for Steve Alford in his first season coaching in Westwood. I have no idea (nor does anyone else) whom Anderson guards at the next level, but he should be able to create offense for himself and others. He might go in the mid-teens, or he might go in the middle of the second round; it all depends on how each team feels it can use his very unique skill set.

Tier 8: Lurking Sleepers (18)
KJ McDaniels, SF, Clemson (6'6'", 195 lbs)
Nick Johnson, SG, Arizona (6'3", 200 lbs)
Glenn Robinson III, SG/SF, Michigan (6'7", 210 lbs)
C.J. Wilcox, SG, Washington (6'5", 200 lbs)
Patric Young, PF/C, Florida (6'10", 250 lbs)
Joe Harris, SG, Virginia (6'6", 215 lbs)
Jahii Carson, PG/SG, Arizona State (5'11", 180 lbs)
Khem Birch, PF, UNLV (6'9", 210 lbs)
Jarnell Stokes, PF, Tennessee (6'9", 265 lbs)
CJ Fair, SF, Syracuse (6'8", 215 lbs)
Mitch McGary, PF/C, Michigan (6'10", 250 lbs)
Semaj Christon, PG/SG, Xavier (6'3", 185 lbs)
Jordan Clarkson, PG/SG, Missouri (6'5", 185 lbs)
Jabari Brown, SG, Missouri (6'4", 200 lbs)
Markel Brown, SG, Oklahoma State (6'4", 185 lbs)
DeAndre Daniels, SF, Connecticut (6'9", 195 lbs)
Spencer Dinwiddie, PG/SG, Colorado (6'6", 205 lbs)
Dwight Powell, PF, Stanford (6'11", 235 lbs)
Jordan Adams, SG, UCLA (6'5", 210 lbs)
Russ Smith, SG, Louisville (6'0", 160 lbs)

I'm not going to bore you with thorough analysis of all of these players, but I will point out a few that I like. Johnson was PAC-12 Player of the Year, and if he can demonstrate an ability to play point guard, he could become very valuable. He's an excellent athlete with NBA bloodlines (his uncle Dennis is in the Hall of Fame) who can shoot, defend, and handle the ball if needed. Robinson is another terrific athlete with good genes and a shooting stroke. Young should become a more athletic Reggie Evans; he looks like he's chiseled from granite, and was a four-year starter for Billy Donovan at Florida. Fair is athletic, smooth, and left-handed, but probably needs to become a more consistent three-point shooter in order to stick in the league. And McGary, of course, is something of an unknown since his resume basically consists of last year's run to the title game.

There you have it. While many of these guys probably won't live up to the billing here, this draft should produce a bumper crop of talented youngsters that will make the league better. It's rare that a draft class features multiple All-Star-caliber players AND a deep bench of capable rotation guys. So if you're free on Thursday evening, tune in and watch the NBA kick off the 2014-15 preseason with its always entertaining event.