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!
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