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2014 NBA Draft: Nate Duncan’s Big Board

Basketball Insiders’ Nate Duncan ranks the top prospects on the eve of the 2014 NBA Draft, and adds a few likes and dislikes.

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Here is my final big board of the top nine prospects, a ranking of how good I think the prospects are without regard to team fit or where they will actually be selected. Why only nine? Since my primary focus is actual NBA basketball, I did not have time to get into many of the prospects lower in the draft in the greatest detail after the NBA season ended. But this is based on watching hours of tape of each of the consensus top-10 prospects, in addition to other prospects who intrigued lower in the draft. The board also considers analytics models from Kevin Pelton, Layne Vashro, Andrew Johnson, and Dan Dickey.

The prospects are grouped into tiers, but note that this is a little different than the tier system used by some NBA teams and ESPN’s Chad Ford. For me, the purpose is merely to indicate where there is a big drop off in talent from one player to the next. Ford’s tier system rates overall talent level and is also used to indicate that teams should necessarily select another player in the tier if they fit more with team need.

Tier One

1. Jabari Parker

The newest pride of Simeon Career Academy is the most polished offensive player in this draft. He has a ton of moves and executes them all smoothly and quickly. Parker has crossovers, spin moves, step backs, postups, hesitations, jab steps, rip throughs, fadeaways and a solid jump shot with a high release. He also is quicker than he appears given his slightly doughy body. He has been compared to scoring forwards like Carmelo Anthony, Paul Pierce and Glenn Robinson, and he is certainly right in the range with those players. If anything, he is more skilled than Anthony and Robinson, particularly off the dribble.

My general philosophy is that players who can play up (i.e., play a bigger position) generally should, as that creates the most matchup problems. Parker has power forward size at 6’9 with a 7’0 wingspan while weighing in at around 250 pounds. As a power forward, Parker is unlikely to be a great defender, but he’s a little bigger than guys like Anthony and Pierce so he should be able to hold his own against most power forwards. And he should take back whatever he gives away defensively playing the four on offense. In time, Parker should be effective as both the ballhandler and the screener in pick and roll. He did not have a ton of assists at Duke, but displayed solid vision on occasion and has the handle to facilitate the sort of hesitations needed to create and exploit openings coming off the pick.

Parker is the most likely player in this draft to average 20 points per game and to be an All-Star. Anthony is probably the best comparison for Parker–if anything Parker is a slightly better prospect at this point. On a per 40 minute basis, Parker slightly outperformed freshman-year Carmelo in every major category except assist rate. From a subjective standpoint, Parker is a better dribbler and passer than Anthony was at this stage. While he hasn’t the upside of a top-five player in the league due to his athletic and defensive limitations, Parker could easily be a top-15 player. Given how likely he appears to reach that ceiling, he deserves the number one pick in the draft.

2. Dante Exum

Last week’s scouting report on the East Melbourne product encapsulates most of my thoughts on him. He has the highest upside of any player in the draft outside of Joel Embiid on account of his blinding quickness, as he will be the quickest player in the league over 6’5. He also has an improving shot with solid form and is used to taking longer threes since he grew up with the FIBA three-point line. He also shows the vision of a pure point guard, allowing him to make the incisive passes needed to excel at the position.

His defense is going to be even more awful than the typical rookie’s at first due to his lack of high-level experience, and I did see some worrisome signs that he doesn’t always play hard in the floor game. But his lateral quickness will allow him to be a great defender if the effort is there. I think it is very possible Exum becomes a better player than Parker, but the greater certainty provided by the Chicagoan means he should be the number one pick.

Tier 2

3. Marcus Smart

At 6’4 and 227 lbs. with a 6’9 wingspan and awesome quickness and leaping ability, Marcus Smart will be the most athletic point guard to enter the league since John Wall in 2010. And make no mistake, Smart can handle the point just fine on both ends. Although it was an underutilized skill at Oklahoma State, he is very solid running the pick-and-roll for himself or others. His finishing is outstanding for a guard; he shoots 65 percent at the rim. Smart draws heaps of free throws, rebounds like a small forward (including on the offensive glass, where he can get up for tip dunks), has a gargantuan steal rate, and is relatively younger for a sophomore, making him a lot closer in age to some of the freshmen prospects than one might think.

All of this makes him an analytics darling, ranking number one in Pelton’s draft rater. His only real weakness is shooting, although that was exacerbated by the fact he took some awful shots at OSU. It is possible that was part of a counterproductive effort to prove to scouts he could shoot. Still, his solid free throw percentage means that he should improve, even if his left thumb-heavy form needs a lot of improvement.

At the NBA level, Smart should be unstoppable off the dribble and an excellent defender and ball hawk at either guard position. His strength and competitiveness might even allow him to be a change of pace defender on threes in certain matchups. With the injury to Embiid, Smart ranks a clear number three on my board.

4. Joel Embiid

Before the latest injury to his navicular bone in his right foot, Embiid ranked a clear number one on the board. While the Hakeem Olajuwon comparisons are a little overblown due to Hakeem’s vastly superior athleticism, Embiid’s defensive potential, skill level and awesome per minute production would have been too difficult to pass up.

The injury changes much of that.* First there is the chance Embiid never really recovers, or that he reinjures the foot. But even if he returns at full strength, the expectation is he will miss much of the upcoming year. For a player who was being drafted so high based on his potential rather than what he is now, missing nearly a full year of development time at a crucial age could really lower his ceiling.

*We will assume that physicals uncovered no further issues aside from the foot issue and the supposedly healed stress fracture in his back.  Obviously more injuries mean a further downgrade.

Nevertheless, the Cameroon native still has that same upside, even if it is less likely now that he realizes it. While this list was compiled without regard to the actual draft order, I believe Orlando and Utah at four and five should swing for the fences with Embiid if he is available. While those teams have some reasonable pieces (and I like Utah’s better than Orlando’s), neither of those teams have anyone on board who projects as even an All-Star at their peak. Winning championships, or even becoming a contender, requires successful risk-taking. Embiid could absolutely flame out, but how else are either of these small-market squads obtaining a superstar? This is an especially salient question considering both will likely have a mandate to improve next year instead of picking up another high lottery pick in 2015.

Unfortunately, the incentives of employment dictate against drafting Embiid. While I am not saying this is the philosophy of either organization, it is much easier for a GM to keep hitting singles in the draft and point to his solid draft record to maintain employment. If Embiid is drafted and he completely flames out, it could well lead to the firing of the GM who drafts him in the top-five. But if the goal is to potentially win a championship instead of continued employment, Embiid should get drafted in the top four.

Tier 3

5. Andrew Wiggins

As my scouting report on Wiggins indicated, I believe Wiggins’ offensive ceiling is lower than some believe due to his lack of moves and feel for finishing inside. Analytics models agree with me, as I have not seen a pure numbers-based approach which ranks him higher than tenth, and Pelton ranks him 19th.

That said, Wiggins will be an excellent defender, should evolve into at least a good standstill shooter in time, and is a monster in transition. Even if he never evolves into more than an awesome 3 and D guy who can also finish alley oops, he won’t be a bad pick here. And that seems his floor–he could still evolve to be Paul George offensively. While I do not think he has the upside to be a truly great scorer, it must be acknowledged that most disagree with me. In some respects, ranking Wiggins fifth is an acknowledgement that the consensus of other scouts on Wiggins’ upside is so much higher than my own. That potential puts him ahead of Aaron Gordon and Julius Randle.

6. Julius Randle

The full scouting report on Randle provides more ammunition for this ranking. But in summary, Randle is the second-most likely player in this draft to average 20 points per game, though Smart and Exum both have much greater upside. He is a bull in the paint, but also is pretty explosive and has a very high skill level for a 19-year-old power forward. Although he lacks much defensive upside, his scoring and rebounding should translate. In this range, that is an excellent pick.

7. Aaron Gordon

The San Jose native’s best attribute will be his ability to defend positions two through four at an elite level. Although he is unlikely to be much of a star creating offense for himself due to his poor shooting and somewhat subpar finishing on drives, he is above-average at everything else. He is a near nuclear athlete, with a 39-inch vertical that accurately portrays his leaping ability. He hits the offensive glass, can grab and go in transition, and is fantastic filling the lanes or finishing dumpoffs inside with dunks. He is also an excellent interior passer.

While he handles the ball well and can attack in transition, he doesn’t have the greatest shake to really get by guys. Some have envisioned him as a handler in the pick and roll, but I do not think he has that level of feel or more importantly the shooting to keep defenders from going under the screen. And of course his execrable free throw shooting is a huge issue. Research I did a few years ago indicated that sub 60 percent free throw shooters almost never become decent jump shooters unless they also improve their free throw shooting. And he may well have some mental issues that could prevent that, because his form doesn’t look that terrible. Ultimately, it is hard to believe he will ever develop into much more than a standstill three-point shooter from range.

Nevertheless, Gordon’s defensive versaility, young age for a freshman, and his nice passing touch make him well worthy of this ranking despite his lower ceiling as a scorer.

Tier 4

8. Jusuf Nurkic

Nurkic dominated the Adriatic League this past season as a 19-year-old. At 6’11, 280 pounds with a 7’2 wingspan, he has true center size and then some. A more thorough description of his quick feet and postup skills is contained within my scouting report, but he is quite firmly the second-best center in the draft. While he is reported to have some maturity issues, his physical tools are exceptional in every aspect except jumping, while he also has a nice touch. Pelton’s model also loves him, ranking him the third-best prospect in the entire draft.

9. Noah Vonleh

This space previously explained why Vonleh should not be drafted in the top-five range where he is currently projected, but also stated that he started to make sense later in the lottery. His quick feet, excellent measurements, rebounding ability and potential as a shooter are undeniable. A later pick makes the lack of upside from the limitations in his instincts as a scorer and rim-protector easier to live with. He still projects to develop into a starter in the league, and there is still some limited possibility he can turn his physical tools into stardom. It just seems unlikely given his overall lack of feel.

Check out Basketball Insiders’ final mock draft here.

Potential Steals

While a full ranking of the entire draft was not possible, below is a list of players I believe will overperform their draft position:

Vasilije Micic

Readers should be well-familiar by now with my affinity for Micic’s game.  The 6’5 Serbian point guard projects to be the best passer in this draft, and has one of the best handles I’ve seen on a European prospect. He is also a crafty finisher at the rim, and has a solid jump shot compared to most point guards his age.  Micic needs to cut down on the turnovers and will likely be a  defensive liability but you can’t teach his feel for the game. He is far undervalued as a mid-second rounder right now, as I believe he should be the third or fourth point guard off the board.

Artem Klimenko

The mobile center has been stuck playing in the lower divisions in Russia, which has curbed his development since I first saw him at the 2012 adidas Eurocamp.  But seven-footers with his quick feet and touch are rare, and he has a good frame with low body fat that should be able to add some weight if he can get into a U.S. strength program.

T.J. Warren

I ran out of time to watch as much film of Warren as I would have liked, but he is a master around the rim.  Watching him immediately after Andrew Wiggins was jarring, as Warren has such beautiful feel for putting the ball in the basket off the drive.  It has been said that he has only average athleticism, but I thought he applied it better than most to get into the lane and finish.  His jumper needs work, although his poor percentage was exacerbated by pretty miserable shot selection from outside.  Nevertheless, it is realistic for Warren to be a 20-point scorer in the NBA if everything breaks right.  That is very rare for players drafted outside the lottery.

P.J. Hairston

Some of the projections really like Hairston, and I have agreed from a scouting perspective going back to his days at North Carolina.  Hairston is reasonably athletic and uses his big body to get to the basket at times, but his shot is the real star. Hairston boasts an accurate and versatile jump shot that he can squeeze off at a moment’s notice.  He is being talked about in the 20s, and at that range he is undervalued despite the character concerns which forced him to the D-League from UNC.

Potentially Overvalued Prospects

Dario Saric

Saric was being discussed in the 8-12 range before he signed a two-year deal in Turkey that appears likely to knock him out of the lottery.  As was noted in the scouting report, that was a little high for him given the lack of a standout NBA skill aside from his passing.

Tyler Ennis

Ennis too was being talked about in the lower half of the lottery, although that appears to have cooled with him often projected around the 20th pick.  While Ennis is a reputed as a nebulous “winner,” it is difficult to see how he actually impacts the game in an above-average way at the NBA level.  Aside from his passing, he doesn’t have above-average quickness, shooting or individual defense.  Finishing at the rim is also a particular problem.

Shabazz Napier

How high would Napier be drafted had UConn not won the national championship? Great tournament performances have often been the springboard to being overdrafted, and Napier seems the most likely candidate here.  Napier is now being talked about as high as the 15th pick to the Atlanta Hawks, but would have likely been a fringe first-rounder prior to the tournament. Overweighting tournament performance is particularly problematic when a prospect has four years of less inspiring performances before that tournament. Aside from his shooting (which is excellent despite his odd propensity to kick a leg out for no reason), Napier too does not have any particular standout skills.  In particular, finishing at the basket projects to be a problem for him.  At 22, there is less upside left to project.   I believe Micic the superior prospect to either Ennis or Napier.

Jordan Adams and Kyle Anderson

The analytics models love these two UCLA players, and perhaps that alone makes them worth a flier starting in the mid-to-late 20s.  But despite my respect for the analytics, their lack of athleticism really makes it hard to see how they can succeed at the NBA level.  Anderson has been compared to Boris Diaw, but it must be noted that 32-year-old fat Diaw is still much more athletic than Anderson is right now.  The Frenchman was a superb athlete in his youth, regularly throwing down alley oops when he played for Phoenix.  Anderson is not going to be able to stop anyone the way Diaw could, which means that he must be a focal point of the offense to make him worthwhile in the pros.  How many teams will find it beneficial to eschew their traditional offensive sets to let Anderson run the show, especially good teams drafting so late?

The scenario for Adams’ success is even murkier.  He is an even worse athlete than Anderson, recording an unheard of for a guard 24-inch standing vertical at the combine.  He was able to finish inside in college, but it was mostly through craftiness running the baseline, making cuts and offensive rebounding rather than beating anyone with the ball in his hands.  A lot of that was facilitated by having a big man in Anderson handling the ball and the Wear twins fanning out to the perimeter–in a normal NBA offense he will likely muck up the spacing. He is only an average shooter and does not project to be especially deadly beyond the arc.  Individual defense also is not his forte due to his lack of athleticism, although he does have preternatural anticipation for steals. Unless Adams can become money from downtown, is it hard to see how he gets his points in the NBA.

While I greatly respect the basketball IQ of both players and would like to see them succeed, the athletic limitations will likely sink them.

Nate Duncan is an NBA analyst, salary cap expert and attorney. He has also written for Sports Illustrated & ESPN, and a host on #NBACast

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