With the 2014 NBA Draft fast approaching, it’s time to start rolling out our positional rankings. Over the next week we’ll be looking at the top five players at each position in depth, starting today with point guards:
Dante Exum, Australia – 6’6, 181 lbs.
The amount of exposure Exum has received in the United States has been limited to the 2012 adidas Nations and the 2013 Nike Hoop Summit. However, NBA teams also got an extended look at him at the 2013 adidas Eurocamp and the FIBA U19 Championship. While that’s nowhere near the same body of work that the other top prospects in the draft like Andrew Wiggins, Julius Randle and Jabari Parker have compiled, he’s been good enough in those settings to vault his draft stock into the same range.
The first thing that jumps out about Exum is his great size and length for a point guard. He’s 6’6 in shoes with a 6’9.25 wingspan – nearly a half foot longer than the average for a point guard. For comparison’s sake, that’s two inches longer than the 2013-14 NBA Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, whose listed height is 6’6 as well.
That size and length gives Exum an advantage over just about every point guard in the league and the ability to make an impact in areas that most can’t, like in the post and on both the offensive and defensive glass. In order to do so, though, he has to get stronger and spend a lot of time in the weight room. If he can get into the 205-210 lbs. range, he’ll be properly suited to handle the physicality and strength of NBA competition.
He also possesses good speed, quickness, scoring instincts and touch around the rim. Exum almost certainly would have been the best point guard in college basketball this season; had we gotten a chance to see him in that environment, he may have played his way into the No. 1 overall pick discussion.
Playing college basketball would have given Exum the opportunity to showcase more of his point guard skills. We’ve seen very little of him in a structured system where his playmaking skills and ability to execute an offense can shine. He seems to have decent court vision and a willingness to hit the open man, but up to this point he’s done much more scoring than passing.
Like a lot of point guards, he’s better with the ball in his hands than without. Perimeter shooting is not a strength of his yet, although he has shown the ability to make shots out to the NBA three-point range. He’ll have to spend a lot of time working on the consistency of his stroke because early on in his career defenses will play off of him and dare him to shoot.
Exum is a high-character player who will likely impress teams – the ones he’s willing to interview with at least – when they talk to him and get to know him. He’s a true student of the game who studies his opponents and puts in a lot of time to improve in all areas. He has all of the makings of a future star, which is why he often draws comparison to the aforementioned Carter-Williams and Anfernee “Penny” Hardaway. He has an aura of mystery that stems from his lack of exposure, but we’ve seen far bigger risks and mysteries go high in the draft.
He’s represented by power agent Rob Pelinka, so expect them to be very careful and meticulous with the pre-draft process. They won’t work out for just any team, especially if they’re not drafting in the top eight or have a clear need at point guard. There are rumors that he could try to leverage his way to the Los Angeles Lakers so he can play alongside his newfound mentor Kobe Bryant. However, if the Orlando Magic end up ahead of them in the draft lottery, they could nab him beforehand.
Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State (So.) – 6’4, 225 lbs.
The likely No. 2 overall pick in last year’s draft surprised everyone by opting to stay at Oklahoma State for his sophomore season. A perennial winner in high school with two state championships on his resume, Smart couldn’t leave Stillwater, OK after his freshman campaign ended with an early exit in the NCAA Tournament. His main reasoning for passing on the draft was because he wanted to compete for a national championship this season, but he didn’t come close. The Cowboys were once again one of the most disappointing teams in college basketball, forcing Smart to leave without a single tournament victory in his career. This time his decision was clear cut because his stock had dropped and it was clear that he didn’t have anything more to gain from playing college basketball.
The decline in Smart’s stock is caused more by the improvement of this year’s draft class than an actual drop off in his game individually. Smart shot relatively the same from the field and three that he did as a freshman, but he did increase his scoring average by 2.6 points and improved his assist-to-turnover ratio despite playing slightly less.
Smart’s appeal largely remains the same, as he didn’t add any real new wrinkles to his game. He’s a bruising point guard at a chiseled 225 lbs. with above average height as well at 6’4. He’s adept at getting to the free throw line, making 8.1 trips a game this past season, although he did gain a somewhat justifiable reputation for flopping. He’s extremely athletic and capable of finishing above the rim, but what teams like the most about Smart is the way that he competes. He’s never going to leave anything in the tank; he gives it his all and should be able to fit into any NBA locker room because of the intensity he plays with and the work ethic he possesses.
Before the infamous fan-shoving incident, Smart was heralded for his character. He’s taken a hit because of that, but Smart is still pro-ready both mentally and physically. That was an isolated incident that he seemed to learn from. It’s highly doubtful you’ll ever see him in the stands like that again. And, after returning from a three-game suspension because of it, he played at an extremely high level.
His perceived upside isn’t what it was a year ago, but few players in this draft class are ready to contribute immediately like Smart. Any team needing a stabilizing presence in the backcourt and someone who can help develop a winning culture will greatly benefit from his addition.
Tyler Ennis, Syracuse (Fr.) – 6’2, 180 lbs.
Ennis was not one of the most highly talked about freshman in the 2013 recruiting class coming in. That changed midseason, though, as he was running Syracuse’s offense to perfection and helping keep the Orange undefeated through the first three months. While Exum and Smart may be ranked higher, Ennis is the best playmaker of the group. He sees openings that some never even think of, and for someone his age, he also plays with great poise. He finished with an incredibly impressive 3.22:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, making his choice to leave early very clear cut and easy to make.
If Ennis were another inch or two taller and an elite athlete, we’re probably talking about a top-five pick. However, what he lacks in size and athleticism he makes up for with his basketball IQ and court vision. He’s definitely capable of being a major contributor in the league, but only time will tell if that’s as a backup or a starter.
How you fit with a team is always extremely important, but it’s even more so for a natural facilitator like Ennis. While Mike Conley Jr. is the comparison I prefer for him in the best case scenario, he could also bounce around in a similar fashion to Kendall Marshall if he doesn’t land in the right situation. Like Marshall, though, if you put the ball in his hands and let him go out there and play his game with quality weapons, he’s going to produce.
After playing exclusively zone defense over the last year, Ennis is going to have to prove himself as a man-to-man defender. That’s where his lack of size and athleticism are the most concerning. If he proves to be a serviceable defender during this golden age of point guard play and consistently makes the floater in the interior, we’re probably looking at one of the better players in this draft class.
Elfrid Payton – Louisiana Lafayette (Jr.) – 6’3, 170 lbs.
Everyone is eager to find the next Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard, small school stars who went on to play their best basketball in the NBA. Like those two, Payton has proven to be a dominant player at the mid-major level at Louisiana-Lafeyette, leading them to the NCAA Tournament this past season after putting up 19.2 points, six rebounds and 5.9 assists a game. Few players in the country stuffed the stat sheet like he did, albeit against sub par competition on most nights. He did also impress in the FIBA U19 Tournament while representing USA Basketball.
What stands to help Payton’s transition to the premier league in the world is his speed and athleticism. He’s very explosive with the basketball in his hands, but is also a wiling passer and quality creator. Teams are going to have to live with him making some mistakes early on, though, because he is a high turnover player. Payton gave it away 3.6 times a game and finished with a 1.64:1 assist-to-turnover ratio, only a .4 improvement from his sophomore year. He justifies the leeway by impacting the game in so many areas and having such great potential defensively.
Had Payton played his career at a high major school and produced along the same lines, he’d be a certifiable lottery pick. There’s still the opportunity for him to be gone before the 20s roll around, depending on team needs. He’s only 20 years old, which is young for a junior. That will go a long way in helping teams look past the fact that they’ve only seen him against elite competition a handful of times.
Shabazz Napier – UConn (Sr.) 6’0, 170 lbs.
No player helped his draft stock in the month of March more than Napier did. By leading the Huskies to a second national championship in his career, Napier went from a likely mid-second-round pick to a near first-round lock. He’s still coming into the league with some clear weaknesses that have held other promising point guard prospects back, but it’s hard not to give Napier more of the benefit of the doubt based on his track record for success, toughness and competitive spirit. When the lights are on, he delivers, no matter how bright they may be.
Napier is a determined scorer who is flat out magnificent with the ball in his hands. He is quite experienced running the pick-and-roll, an important quality for every future NBA point guard. He’s steadily progressed as a three-point shooter, going from a .326 shooter a freshman to .405 as a senior. Off of the ball, he’s a bigger threat than the players listed ahead of him. He’s a factor on the defensive end as well, where his toughness and quickness really shine.
Throughout his career, Napier was never a pass-first point guard, and trying to groom him into such at the next level may be a mistake. That’s not his game, although he is very capable of making the right read and hitting the open man. He does have a tendency to trust himself more than anyone. The hope is that he will be able to find the perfect balance now that he’s going to be surrounded by nothing but fellow pros. He has a gift for scoring and has to use it while still handling the responsibilities all point guards have in terms of distributing and keeping everyone involved.
After playing at least 35 minutes a game over the last three years it’s going to be interesting to see if Napier can accept being a role player if he lands on with a contender late in the first round, where he is projected to go. If he’s willing to, he could easily end up being one of the top backup point guards in the league. He has the game and talent to make a major impact even in short spurts off of the bench.
The next five:
Deonte Burton, Nevada – An NBA-caliber athlete who is a terror off of the dribble. He has to improve the range on his jump shot, though, and prove that he can play winning basketball after only finishing over .500 once in his college career.
Vasilije Micic, International– A true playmaker whose court vision is on par, if not better, than the best this draft class has to offer in that area. He can also hit the three, but there are concerns about how well his game will translate overall due to his lack of NBA-caliber speed and athleticism.
Russ Smith, Louisville – A true scorer who is extremely fast, adept at getting to the free throw line and capable of hitting the NBA three. With the game of a shooting guard but undersized for even a point guard, Smith is a unique player who teams are going to have to accept for who he is.
Jahii Carson – Lightening quick and extremely difficult to stay in front of when in attack mode. A very capable creator, but is severely undersized without much range on his jump shot.
Semaj Christon – Long and athletic with really good potential on the defensive end. Concern is that he’s a tweener and more of an undersized shooting guard than point guard.
Honorable Mention: Jordan Clarkson (Missouri), Keith Appling (Michigan State), Aaron Craft (Ohio State), Bryce Cotton (Providence), DeAndre Kane (Iowa State), Justin Cobbs (California)
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