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An Early Assessment of the 2014 NBA Draft Class

Highly heralded months ago, the tone has quickly changed in regards to this year’s rookie class.

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They say it takes three years to truly grade a draft, but the 2014 class had as much as hype as any since the star studded 2003 class that included LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh among other high-level players. That created expectations that, 20+ games into the season, they are falling drastically short of meeting. They’re far closer to going down as one of the most disappointing classes, rather than one of the best ever, if they continue on their current pace. In their defense, injuries have taken a toll on this class, and a lot of players have yet to receive a serious opportunity to prove themselves. However, whereas a lot of projections had multiple franchise players coming out of this draft, there’s reason to wonder if that will ever become reality. Until that changes, the overall outlook on this class will never be positive.

Here’s a deeper look at what we’ve seen from the class so far. :

If Rookie of the Year were handed out today…

Milwaukee Bucks forward Jabari Parker would likely run away with it. He’s been an integral part of the Bucks’ resurgence. After finishing with the worst record in the league last year, they’re now 12-12 and in sixth place in the Eastern Conference. While Parker’s averages of 12.5 points, 5.6 rebounds and 1.7 assists aren’t mind blowing, it’s important to point out that he’s only playing 30 minutes a night and is really being eased into a feature role by new Bucks head coach Jason Kidd.

Still, Parker has shown the potential to be a true No. 1 option in flashes, like when he went for 22 points on 11-15 shooting in a close loss at the Cleveland Cavaliers or when he dropped 23 points on 8-13 shooting in a road win against the Brooklyn Nets. He’s having a really strong December so far, averaging 14.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.8 assists while shooting 60 percent from the field. He’s gotten away from settling for threes, one of the chief complaints about his game during his lone season at Duke.

Parker made it clear prior to the draft that he wanted to be a Buck and play near his hometown of Chicago. It doesn’t look like the fit could be any better for both parties as Parker is the only lottery pick who can claim he’s at least close to meeting expectations.

The rookies who have let us down

Andrew Wiggins, the top overall selection, had a tumultuous offseason. From the second LeBron James re-signed with the Cavaliers, it became clear that he was no longer in their plans. Trade rumors for Kevin Love surfaced immediately and by the end of August, Wiggins had already been traded to the rebuilding Minnesota Timberwolves. His potential was great enough to go No. 1, but the Cavaliers didn’t think he could help them enough immediately to justify passing on one of the league’s most productive All-Stars. There were actually some cries that the Cavaliers could end up regretting trading Wiggins, but even during their recent struggles, there’s no second guessing going on in Cleveland.

That’s because Wiggins has proven to be as raw and unready as his biggest supporters feared. He’s caught heat from his head coach Flip Saunders for not playing hard enough, which has always been his biggest flaw. Wiggins doesn’t appear to have the killer instinct of a Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant, but the hope is that he blows up after a slow start in similar fashion to Paul George and Vince Carter.

The jump from the mid-major ranks in the NCAA to the NBA has been a difficult one for Orlando Magic point guard Elfrid Payton to handle so far. He’s received ample opportunity under Jacque Vaughn, a former NBA point guard himself who was thought to be a perfect fit to groom Payton, but has mainly showed how far away he is from being ready to be the starting point guard the Magic hoped for when they drafted him. Payton is shooting a woeful 37 percent from the field, 25 percent from deep and 46 percent from the charity stripe. If he were on a team focused on winning now, it’s hard to imagine he’d be seeing the floor half as much as he is with the rebuilding Magic. They’re showing faith and confidence in him right now, but at some point Payton is going to have to deliver or he’ll find himself watching like most of his other classmates.

While it may not be fair to call any second-round pick a disappointment, this draft analyst was expecting more from New Orleans Pelicans guard Russ Smith. A prolific player in college who stayed for four years and helped Louisville win a championship as a junior, Smith has been unable to carve a niche for himself on a team with one of the thinnest backcourts in the league. He’s been spending time in the D-League and recently had his chances of cracking the rotation made even worse by the signing of Gal Mekel. After a strong summer league in which he looked like a potential difference maker with his speed and scoring ability, there’s reason to wonder now if we’ll just have to watch the D-League in order to see him in action because it doesn’t look like his chance is coming since it hasn’t already despite the Pelicans’ dire circumstances.

The rookies who have surprised us

On most Basketball Insiders’ 2014 mock drafts, Clemson forward K.J. McDaniels was a lottery pick. We were that high on his talent and ability to help right away. Yet, because of concerns about his perimeter skills and potential to be a positionless tweener, he fell to the second round. That cost McDaniels the security that comes with being a first-round pick, but he fortunately landed with the Philadelphia 76ers. Not only were they willing to give him the option of becoming a restricted free agent this offseason, they’ve also given him ample playing time that he has thrived in. McDaniels is in the Rookie of the Year mix thanks to his averages of 9.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 1.0 steals and 1.5 blocks a game. Questions about whether he belongs in the league have been answered. He has a handsome pay day coming his way that should put him up there with the top 10 picks in terms of annual salary.

The other two rookies who have surprised the most are teammates on the Houston Rockets: Tarik Black and Kostas Papanikolaou. The fact that Black is still on the Rockets’ roster alone is a surprise, but he appears to be the new Greg Smith in town. Like Smith, he’s come in with a great attitude, willingness to learn and been as low maintenance as they come. He simply goes out there and does what Kevin McHale asks of him. He was really solid while Dwight Howard was out due to a knee injury and actually started a handful of games. For a player who was a perennial underachiever in college after disappointing stints in Memphis and Kansas, Black looks more like a late bloomer who is better suited for the pros than NCAA. He should be in the league for a long time, which is not something a lot of undrafted free agents have ever had the luxury of saying.

Papanikolaou came in as a relative unknown after being selected 48th overall by New York in 2012. He was very good internationally after that point, but far from a star who was a certifiable NBA rotation player. In another example of how strong of a scouting department they have, the Rockets tapped him as a good fit for their program and he has been extremely solid. He does a little bit of everything, and at 24 years old he is still far from peaking. The Rockets have a steal in him, just as the Nets appear to have in 2011 second round pick Bojan Bogdanovic, who has come in and established himself as one of the top rookies by scoring just over nine points a night.

Important members of the class we haven’t seen yet

When evaluating this draft class, it wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t point out that some of the better players in it have yet to take the floor, or only taken it for minutes in the case of Los Angeles Lakers rookie Julius Randle. After a really intriguing preseason where he got progressively better as it went on, Randle went down with a broken leg in the season opener that will keep him out the rest of the year. Randle would be seeing major minutes on this struggling Lakers team and potentially be in the Rookie of the Year race if he were healthy. Top picks Aaron Gordon and Marcus Smart have also missed some time with injuries.

Same goes for Joel Embiid, although the Philadelphia 76ers knew when they drafted him third overall that the chances of him playing before the start of the New Year were slim. Now we’re not even sure if Embiid is going to make his rookie debut this year. He may end up going the Nerlens Noel route and making his debut in what should be year two. It’s worked out well so far for Noel, who is 100 percent healthy and seeing extensive action every night as he works to develop into the face of the franchise the 76ers hope he can be.

For a short period, it looked like we may not be seeing much of Dario Saric, who the 76ers acquired in a draft night trade with the Orlando Magic, either this season. Saric signed a two-year contract in Turkey prior to the draft, so it was clear that he’d be overseas for the next 24 months. However, after sparingly playing in his first game of the season, there were rumbles that he could fight to get out of his contract and join the 76ers immediately. That didn’t happen and he’s settled in now, averaging 11.9 points and 6.4 rebounds a game. The 76ers stay in frequent contact with him and have to be pleased with how well he’s been playing as of late.

Phoenix Suns first-round draft pick Bogdan Bogdanovic is having a strong campaign for Fenerbahce, averaging 9.8 points, 2.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game. At 22 years old, the Suns hope to bring him over soon and utilize his versatile offensive skill set in their free-flowing, up-tempo attack.

At 7’3 with one of the longest wingspans ever recorded at 7’9, Cape Verde big man Walter Tavares is the sleeper we can’t rule out of making a major impact in the NBA one day. He’s averaging just over two blocks in 22 minutes a game in the ACB. He’s extremely raw, but at 22 years of age and a virtual newbie to high-level basketball, it wouldn’t be surprising at all if he starts to make some significant strides really soon and comes over as an immediate-impact player, whenever he does decide to make the jump.

Finally, we’re probably just days away from Turkish big man Furkan Aldemir making his rookie debut. The 53rd pick of the 2012 draft by the Los Angeles Clippers played just six games for Galatasaray before being let out his contract to sign a big money deal with the 76ers. With the recent trade of Brandon Davies, look for Aldemir to get a chance immediately to earn major minutes in the rotation. 76ers GM Sam Hinkie has loved him since his days back in Houston and was willing to take on the problematic Royce White in order to acquire his rights.

With several months still left in the NBA season, a lot can change. There are a lot of members from this draft class that just haven’t gotten their chance yet, but it’s far too early and they’re too talented to seriously make decisive judgments on. This could still go down as one of the better classes in recent memory, they just have a lot of ground to make up in order to get to that point after the first 20 or so games.

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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