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A Look at the Top 2015 NBA Draft Prospects

Who are the top prospects projected to go high in the 2015 NBA Draft? Yannis Koutroupis gives some players to watch.

Yannis Koutroupis

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Last month, the 2014 NBA Draft featured a number of players who had become household names after years of being hyped up as potential stars. Players like Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker were selected and the class was regarded as one of the best in recent memory.

Well, the 2015 NBA Draft is shaping up to be loaded with talent as well. The class features a number of potential franchise-changing players, particularly in the paint, and it’s never too early to start looking ahead at the next wave of draft prospects. Here are some players to keep an eye on over the next year, as they may be top picks in the 2015 NBA Draft:

Jahlil Okafor – 6’11, 272 lbs. Center (Duke)

Okafor will enter the 2014-15 NCAA season as the favorite to end up the top overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He’s the most fundamentally sound and skilled low-post player to come around since Al Jefferson. While lacking the overall talent level of a DeMarcus Cousins or the pure athleticism of a Dwight Howard, Okafor possesses something just as important: true go-to scoring ability. In a league where most centers are asked simply to focus on defense, rebounding and finishing the easy attempts that come their way in the interior, Okafor will immediately become the cornerstone of any offense. He has incredible touch, can finish with either hand, knows how to use his body and has a vast array of post moves he’s already become adept at executing. Already quite experienced at dealing with double-teams, Okafor also understands when to pass out and re-post, choosing when to attack wisely.

Despite being the most dominant player in his class for a few years now, Okafor still has his detractors who knock him for his lack of athleticism and defensive effort. He isn’t overly explosive, but he’s far from a below-the-rim player. When he wants to, Okafor is very capable of going over the top of defenders and finishing strong at the trim. However, what he really excels at is creating separation, absorbing contact, shielding off shot blockers and using his touch to score.

The defensive concerns are legitimate, as Okafor is far more dominant on the offensive side of the court than he is on the opposite end. It’s going to be his play defensively that likely makes or breaks his chances at being the number one overall pick. He doesn’t have to block multiple shots a game, although he does appear to have at least average shot blocking instincts at worst. What’s more important for Okafor is to be a solid one-on-one defender in the interior, a willing helper and an active rebounder.

Blessed with incredible natural strength, physical peers for Okafor up to this point in his playing career have been few and far between. In preparation for the next level where players with similar physical attributes are far more common, he’s going to have to dedicate himself to improving his strength and conditioning. He’d be wise to start that process while at Duke, where anything short of a Final Four appearance in presumably his lone season there will be viewed as a disappointment. He’s joined by a dynamic recruiting class, a solid group of returners and has one of the best of all-time coaching him Mike Krzyzewski. Everything is in place for him to meet the great expectations set for him; he just has to seize the moment.

Karl Towns – 7’0, 248 lbs. Center (Kentucky)

Far from a traditional center like Okafor, Towns embodies the new-age big man, who can do a little bit of everything and is more comfortable away from the basket than he is right next to it. His versatility and skill set are off the charts, as he can shoot the ball from all over the floor and can even handle it a little bit. He also has a high basketball IQ to go along with his impressive skill set and physical attributes.

Although much different than Okafor, they share similar weaknesses as Towns could stand to chisel his frame and make his presence felt more on the defensive side of the court. Still, far less skilled and talented big men have gone in the top five of recent drafts and there’s little reason to think that Towns won’t go in that range, whenever he decides to declare.

It may seem a bit foolhardy not to assume that a top ranked prospect from Kentucky wouldn’t bolt after a single season, as Wildcats head coach John Calipari has coined the term “succeed and proceed” with many of his best players leaving after one year. But Towns is walking into an extremely deep frontcourt, where there does not appear to be any possible way to give every player the minutes they deserve. Leaving out Towns, who in my opinion has the highest upside of any Kentucky player next season, Calipari already has Alex Poythress, Marcus Lee, Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Trey Lyles to split minutes up for at the power forward and center positions. With the six of them, Calipari has three different combinations of power forward/center combos that would start at most other D-I schools. Towns has always talked about how important his education is for him and how seriously he is going to the academic requirements that come with being a student-athlete. If he doesn’t get the kind of playing time he’s hoping to as a freshman, that could lead him to stay an extra year than originally anticipated.

It seems like every year there is a top-ranked prospect who shocks everyone by passing up on the making the jump to the league right away and Towns could be the next, especially given the logjam he’s going to have to fight through on the Kentucky frontline.

Cliff Alexander – 6’9, 254 lbs. Center (Kansas)

With the departure of Joel Embiid, the center position is wide open at Kansas for Alexander to come in and dominate right away. Set to turn 19 years old early in the season, there will only be a handful of players in the NCAA who can handle his combination of brute strength and standout athleticism. It’s young monsters like Alexander who are the reason why rims are reinforced the way they are now, otherwise he’d be tearing them down with regularity. When he gets the ball in the interior, he’s thinking one thing and one thing only: finish strong.

At 6’9, Alexander does not have the size for the center position. NBA teams would prefer for him to be on the other side of 6’10, however a 7’4 wingspan and 9’0 standing reach will go a long way in helping make up for the fact that he may only be 6’8 without shoes on. What will help teams look past his actual height more than anything, though, is the way that he plays. Alexander is aggressive and borderline mean on the court. He knows one way to play and that’s by putting everything he has out on the floor for every second that he’s on it.

In order to be more than just a rebounder and finisher at the next level, Alexander is going to have to step outside of his comfort zone in order to expand and refine his offensive game. Right now, he’s primarily a finisher. If he can develop a reliable jump hook and even a mid-range jumper, we’re talking about someone who could fight his way into the number one pick discussion. Defensively, Alexander makes a much bigger impact than Okafor or Towns, which bodes well for his stock as long as he can show significant offensive improvement over the course of the year.

Given his physicality and motor, a primary concern for Alexander will be learning how to avoid and play through foul trouble. If he can’t adjust to the way the game is called at the collegiate level, he’ll get picked apart for his other weaknesses even more and see his stock tumble as a result.

Emmanuel Mudiay – 6’5, 200 lbs. Point Guard (China)

Mudiay shocked the basketball world this summer by announcing that he would not be attending SMU and would instead pursue playing internationally in preparation for the 2015 NBA Draft. Mudiay was originally viewed as a trendsetter, being the first top-five recruit to commit to SMU and Larry Brown. However, now he’s going to be blazing down the same trail Jeremy Tyler and Brandon Jennings did with mixed results.

As much as Mudiay has disputed reports about his academic eligibility, the recent closing of his prep school says it all. So, he may have been forced to take this route, but will be paid handsomely as he recently inked a $1.2 million contract with the Guangdong Southern Tigers.

While the money may not have been as great as it is in China, other overseas leagues probably would have been better for his development. The CBA does not start until December and the league has a reputation for being more about the show than actual player development or great competition.

The hope was a year under Brown at SMU would help develop Mudiay’s point guard skills, specifically improving his decision making and shot selection. At 6’5 with a great handle and ability to get to the rim virtually whenever he wants, playing under the structure and discipline of Brown could have helped make Mudiay much more efficient and potentially even the number one overall pick.

Mudiay is losing out on that and putting himself in a position where he’ll have a lot of questions to answer and things to prove during the pre-draft process. A consensus among scouts and executives is that he won’t be able to help his stock as much playing in China as he would have been able to in the NCAA. There’s just as much to like about him as a prospect as there was before all of this went down, but aside from the $1.2 million, it’s looking like he’s headed toward a throwaway year developmentally. The risk associated with taking him out of China will likely be far greater than it would have been out of SMU after a year under Brown. Not only could that knock him down a couple spots, but it all but removes him from top pick discussion.

Myles Turner – 6’11, 242 lbs. Center (Texas)

There’s a handful of talent evaluators who feel like Turner could end up being the best big man in the class, which is great praise considering the ceilings of Okafor, Towns and Alexander. The potential is certainly there as he has a lot of impressive tools, including the ability to score inside and out beyond the three-point line, great rebounding instincts, a solid understanding of the game and good size and length for his position.

At Texas, Turner is going to have to put all of these things together and consistently impact the game like he is capable of. There’s no reason why he shouldn’t be one of the most productive big men in college basketball next season, but he’s going to have to give Rick Barnes reason to keep him out on the floor as he’ll have competition for minutes with Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley. Those upperclassmen may not have the same potential as Turner, but Barnes, whose seat isn’t scorching hot but far from cold, needs to win. He’s not going to sacrifice playing time for more productive players just to develop Turner. But if he goes out and earns the minutes, he’ll see the floor more than either one.

Turner’s playing time could be decided by his defense, as he will almost certainly be one of the top offensive options for the Longhorns from day one. If he can’t hold his own in man-to-man defensive settings or help adequately in the pick-and-roll, Turner could fall out of the one-and-done discussion due to being too much of a project to take in the top 10.

Honorable Mention: Stanley Johnson (Arizona), Kelly Oubre (Kansas), Kristaps Porzingis (International), Mario Hezonja (International) and Justise Winslow (Duke)

Make sure to look out for our continuing coverage of the 2015 NBA Draft, next up we’ll take a look at the top returners and best international prospects!

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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NBA Sunday: Kristaps Porzingis Sure Looks Ready To Be The Franchise

The Knicks hope Kristaps Porzingis can become their franchise. Thus far, he seems up to the challenge.

Moke Hamilton

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He stood in front of his mentor, isolated, just like they used to do in practice.

He’d seen the jab steps before and the head fakes—they were nothing new. And when Carmelo Anthony mustered the acceleration he still has in his 33-year-old legs to drive around Kristaps Porzingis, Anthony knew he had the 7-foot-3 Latvian big man beat.

Anthony triumphantly rose to the basket and delicately attempted his right-handed layup. Before he knew what hit him, though, Anthony’s shot had been sent to the free throw line.

The message was clear—Kristaps had taken the torch.

“It was fun,” Porzingis said about his confrontation with Anthony. “We went at it in practices a lot and one-on-one after practices.

“It was a lot of fun knowing what he was going to do and try to stop him.”

The Oklahoma City Thunder were much closer to the NBA Finals than the Knicks were last season, and removing Anthony from the Knicks and pairing him with Russell Westbrook and Paul George gives the Thunder a triumvirate that can at least conceivably challenge the Golden State Warriors. They are perhaps the only team in the entire league with enough firepower and defensive pieces.

So no, the Knicks may not be hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy anytime soon, but at the very least, the franchise seems to be in good hands—the big, soft hands of Porzingis.

As young NBA players come into their own and attempt to fulfill the lofty expectations that everyone has of them, the third year is the charm, almost invariably. And in that that year, a young player can’t control the other pieces that are around him—that’s why they shouldn’t be judged by their team’s wins and losses.

In that third year, a young player also can’t really control the frequency of his injuries. The simple truth is that many 21 or 22-year-old players simply lack the hardened bones of a fully grown adult that most men become after the age of 25.

But what the young player can prove is that he is prepared to shoulder the burden and take the fight to anyone who stands before him. Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks epitomizes this ideal better than any other young player in the league. He is absolutely fearless and it’s a pleasure to watch.

So is Porzingis.

Since the influx of European-born players began about 20 years ago, we have seen our fair share of “soft” European players. His talent aside (which is considerable), Porzingis has proven to be anything but, and that by itself can help players go a very long way.

In what must have felt like the longest summer ever, Porzingis saw the franchise that drafted him undergo an overhaul that resulted in a light beaming so brightly on him, you would have thought the third-year forward was starring in a Broadway musical.

Say what you want about Porzingis, but he has already done all that he can to notify everyone that have anything to do with the Knicks that his bony shoulders aren’t indicative of the weight he’s capable of carrying.

And in Oklahoma City, against his mentor, Porzingis did the heavy lifting.

“I saw energy,” head coach Jeff Hornacek said after his team’s opening night loss.

“He was great moving. He played 38 minutes, and maybe last year that would be a struggle. He would maybe get tired, and get some silly fouls, but even toward the end on that 37th or 38th minute, he was still up hollering, moving, blocking shots and getting rebounds, so he had a great game and we expect a lot more of that from him.”

Being a Knicks fan is something that nobody should wish on their worst enemy. The franchise has made scores of maneuvers that lacked wisdom and seemingly gone out of its way to alienate people beloved by the franchise. On top of it all, Knicks tickets are among the highest in the entire league.

Fans as passionate and dedicated as Knicks fans deserve a team they can be proud of and a front office that dedicates itself to putting winning ahead of petty feuds and politics.

The hiring of Scott Perry may signify just that.

So when the Knicks traded Carmelo Anthony and ended up getting back 10 cents on the dollar for his value, everyone should have prepared for a long season in New York City.

Coming in, Knicks fans once again found themselves in the unenviable predicament of having to talk themselves into believing that Ramon Session, Michael Beasley and Tim Hardaway were capable of giving this team feel good moments. And while they certainly are, they will surely pale in comparison to the amount of losses that the club accrues along the way.

If there’s one thing the Philadelphia 76ers have taught everyone, however, it’s that the losses don’t necessarily need to be in vain.

So heading into this season, what Knicks fans should have been looking forward to and hoping for is nothing more than the installation of a culture that’s marked by effort, communication and selfless basketball—the hallmarks of the Golden State Warriors.

Aside from that, yes, they should have also come in with the hope that Kristaps Porzingis would take an appreciable step forward and prove himself to truly be a capable franchise cornerstone.

To this point, from the way he holds his head highly, despite a win or a loss, and the way he competes to the best of his abilities, despite his limitations. For now, it’s really all that could reasonably be asked of him.

When it was all said and done—when Porzingis looked the Knicks’ past in the eyes after the Thunder had soundly defeated his New York Knicks—Carmelo Anthony probably told him that he was proud of him and that he wished him all the luck in the world.

He probably told him to continue to work on his game and hone his craft and to block out the background noise.

And above all else, Carmelo probably told Kristaps that he believes he is capable of being his successor.

With his nodding head and serious demeanor, Porzingis, in all his glory, listened intently. Even more so, he believed every word. 

It doesn’t take all day to figure out whether the sun is shining—it’s an adage that remains as true in basketball as it does on a May Day in New York.

For Porzinigis, the bright sky and the beaming sunlight—he’s basking in it all. Not only has he becomes the Knicks’ franchise by default, he believes he’s capable of shouldering the burden.

In this town, that’s more than half the battle.

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Dejounte Murray: The Spurs’ Latest Steal

The Spurs have a history of drafting talented players late in the draft. Dejounte Murray is emerging as their most recent steal, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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It seems like almost every NBA season, the San Antonio Spurs end up selecting a player late in the draft who unexpectedly goes on to become a valuable contributor, sometimes even a star. The entire draft in itself can often be a crapshoot, but the lower the pick, the lower the chances of a team finding a solid rotation player. But with the Spurs, it’s as if they hit far more often than they miss.

Their pick from a year ago is shaping up to be no exception as the injury to starting point guard Tony Parker has opened up a huge opportunity for Dejounte Murray; one that he is taking advantage of.

There is a lot of preparation by analysts leading up to the NBA draft. Several mock drafts are created up until draft night itself. Murray was often projected to be a high first-round pick, possibly even a lottery pick. He had a solid freshman season at the University of Washington where he averaged 16.1 points per game, six rebounds, and 4.4 assists.

Draft night arrived and he ended up slipping to the bottom of the first round (29th overall), far later than he had anticipated. Following his selection, LeBron James himself, who is represented by the same sports agency as Murray, tweeted out some words of encouragement for the young rookie. He let Murray know that he may not have been drafted where he wanted to, but that he was with the best organization in the league.

Murray pretty much rode the bench last season as a rookie, which is not at all uncommon for a first-year player on a veteran team with championship aspirations. He was inactive for most of the final two months of the season. In the first round of the playoffs against the Memphis Grizzlies, and most of the second round against the Houston Rockets, he was relegated to garbage time duty. Perhaps if he’d been drafted as high as initially projected, he might have had a bigger opportunity at getting minutes right away.

That all changed, however, against Houston in Game 2 when Parker went down with the injury that he is still recuperating from. Murray was thrust into the starting lineup and he responded as well as an inexperienced rookie under the bright lights of the playoffs could. In Game 4, although the Spurs lost, he had eight points on 50 percent shooting along with three assists. He actually didn’t play in Game 5, but in the Spurs closeout Game 6 win, he poured in 11 points, ten rebounds, five assists and two steals while shooting 50 percent from the field.

Even though the Spurs were ultimately swept in the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors, Murray continued his steady play with 8.3 points, 3.8 assists, and three steals.

At the start of this season, Murray has taken his momentum from the end of last season and carried it over. He was given the starting point guard spot in place of Parker on opening night against the Minnesota Timberwolves. He responded on national television with 16 points on 7-8 shooting from the field, five rebounds, two assists and two steals.

It’s still too early to tell, but it’s highly possible that the Spurs have found their starting point guard of the future once Parker eventually decides to hang it up. At 6-foot-5, Murray is a tall point guard and his length gives him the potential to develop into an elite defensive player. He can score the basketball and he is improving his court vision and playmaking.

One area he could improve in is his outside shooting. Although he did shoot 39.1 percent from the three-point line last season, he only took 0.6 attempts. In his lone college season, he shot 28.8 percent from downtown. If he can improve his range and really begin to put together his entire package of skills, we’ll be talking yet again about how the Spurs bamboozled the rest of the league and found a draft-day gem.

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NBA Saturday: Jabari Bird Experiences The NBA Whirlwind

Jabari Bird entered a hostile environment Friday night after being on his couch just three days before.

Dennis Chambers

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When Gordon Hayward suffered a season-ending injury six minutes into the Boston Celtics’ season on Wednesday, he wasn’t the only player who saw his season changed in the blink of an eye.

“I was at home in California watching the game as a fan,” Jabari Bird said.

Bird was the 56th overall pick in last June’s NBA Draft. After playing his college ball at the University of California, the Celtics gave the 6-foot-6 swingman a shot to continue his career. After impressing throughout the preseason, Bird was signed to a two-way contract with Boston and returned home to the west coast.

That didn’t last long.

“After the game was over my phone was going off that I had to get on the quickest flight to Boston,” Bird said about opening night. “Got in 7:30 the next morning, suited up against Milwaukee, now I’m here in Philly.”

With the massive hole Hayward left in Boston’s roster due to his injury, the Celtics are going to have to turn to some unlikely performers throughout the season to pick up the slack. Bird didn’t light up the scoreboard or stuff his stat sheet, posting just three points and one rebound in 13 minutes of play. But down the stretch in a close game against the Philadelphia 76ers Friday night, Bird came up big on defense.

As the Celtics trailed the Sixers 61-53 with six minutes remaining in the third quarter, Bird subbed in for Jaylen Brown and was tasked with guarding J.J. Redick, who was in the midst of carrying Philadelphia with his lights out shooting.

After wiping away the Sixers lead and gaining an 86-84 advantage in the fourth quarter, the Celtics still had Bird sticking Redick. The Sixers’ shooting guard — and highest paid player — rose up for another three-point attempt which would’ve given Philadelphia a late lead and a momentum shift at home with a raucous crowd behind them. Only this time, Bird’s hand was in his face and the shot attempt didn’t find the back of the net.

In a big-time moment on the road, for a team facing a potential three-game losing streak to start the season, the unlikely rookie answered the call.

“Like I said before, he’s one of the best shooters in the NBA, really good perimeter scorer,” Bird said of Redick. “For the team to trust me with that responsibility, with us being down on the road needing to get a win, I was hyped up and ready to go. I was ready for the challenge.”

Placing such a responsibility like guarding Redick on a night where it seemed like the Sixers marksman couldn’t miss on a player who was sitting on his couch three nights ago seems like a bold strategy. Head coach Brad Stevens, however, knew what he was doing.

“All the way through preseason and training camp I felt like he was one of our better perimeter defenders,” Stevens said. “I think he has huge upside. His rebounding spoke for itself in preseason practices. His ability to guard off the ball, especially shooters coming off screens is just really good. He’s not afraid, and you knew he’d step up.”

Going from the couch to a red-eye flight from California to Boston, to the bench in Milwaukee, to the court in Philadelphia is nothing short of a whirlwind experience. With such a series of events, it’s hard to be coached into that moment. As a player, sometimes you have to just go out and play.

“I wasn’t prepared at all for tonight. Mentally I just had to lock into the game,” Bird said. “Coach just looked at me and said ‘Bird get Jaylen.’ ‘Alright.’ So that’s what I did.”

After signing Hayward to $127 million contract this summer, the Celtics were expecting the small forward to provide an elite scoring 1-2 scoring punch with Kyrie Irving. Obviously, at least for this season, Boston will need to move forward without that possibility. An opening night loss, followed by another defeat to Milwaukee the following night, had the Celtics 0-2 heading into Philadelphia and searching for answers a lot sooner than they may have anticipated just a week ago.

Bird’s journey during his first week in professional basketball represents how quickly things can change, and how the ripple effects of injuries and other moves have far outreaching waves.

“I was already packed, I was ready to go to the G-League,” Bird said. “We had training camp coming up. My bags were already packed, I was ready to get out the house. Then I got the call to go to Boston and I was like alright I’m ready to go, just gimmie a flight. And that’s what happened.”

All-star point guard, and Bird’s new teammate, Kyrie Irving doesn’t foresee the rookie leaving the clubhouse anytime soon. With the adversity the Boston Celtics have felt in the first week of the 2017-18 season, Bird’s addition and impact are a prime example of being ready when your number is called, and the culture this team is looking to create.

“Jabari is now probably gonna be on every trip with us,” Irving said. “Guys are gonna be called up and called upon to be ready to play. We just have to have that expectation that when we come into the game we’re gonna be able to play, and we trust one another and have each other’s backs.”

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