By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Jun 21 2009 8:03PM
Most NBA two guards are like the drummer in Spinal Tap or Darren in Bewitched: eminently replaceable.
The necessary skill set -- score in space, come off screens, good feet and lateral quickness on defense -- is, unfortunately, possessed by any number of players. While there aren't many skilled 7-footers and even fewer point guards under 6-foot, there are hundreds of 6-foot-3 to 6-foo-6 two guards who have some ability to put the ball in the basket. So they aren't rare.
Even the greatest twos have had to take a back seat in the draft. Michael Jordan, famously, went third in 1984, behind Hakeem Olajuwon and Sam Bowie. Kobe Bryant was a high schooler when he entered the draft, but still lasted until the 13th pick in the heralded 1996 draft. In fact, in the last 40 years, only three shooting guards -- Austin Carr (1971), Doug Collins (1973) and David Thompson (1975 )-- have been the first overall pick, compared with 20 centers and 10 power forwards (Blake Griffin will be the 11th), four points (John Lucas, Magic Johnson, Allen Iverson and Derrick Rose) and three small forwards (Mark Aguirre, Glenn Robinson and LeBron James).
This year's crop of eligible twos is viewed as good, if not great, with some firepower (Kentucky's Jodie Meeks dropped 54 on Tennessee). There is less certainty that a superstar will emerge, either from the domestic ranks or from the foreign-born players, almost all of whom are expected to go in the second round. But this is a group that could produce several solid pros that might well help a team win a championship down the road with their ability to defend.
To recap: the rankings are mine, based on my conversations over the past several months with more than 30 NBA general managers, player personnel directors, scouts and coaches, along with college coaches whose teams have played against the draftees' teams in the past year. In exchange for their candor, I'm not quoting them by name. Players are listed at the position they are expected to play most in the NBA (which is why Chase Budinger is listed here as a shooting guard instead of a forward, the position he played at Arizona). The measurements are from the Chicago pre-draft camp last month; height is in shoes.
If the draft had been right after the NCAA tournament, James Harden might have been in some trouble. A couple of poor outings had some NBA personnel types wondering if Harden was as good as he'd shown during the regular season for the Sun Devils. But a solid showing in Chicago and excellent individual workouts have reminded most folks what they liked so much about the sophomore guard, and he's now not likely to get out of the top five, with Oklahoma City, picking third, a strong possibility.
"His basketball IQ is off the charts," says a Southeast Division scout, and that phrase is echoed independently by others.
Physically, some scouts think of Harden as a left-handed Paul Pierce -- a scorer that doesn't have muscles sprouting from everywhere, but tested well at all the measureables in Chicago and who can produce big numbers on the court.
"He's a guy that doesn't have to put a minute of practice into his game and he's going to beat every guy that puts in hours, because the game comes so naturally to him," says a Central Division executive who's seen Harden many times. "At adidas Nations (an annual 18-and under skills and development camp held in Dallas), he didn't show up for warmups, just walks into the gym, walks into the game and proceeds to drop 40 on them."
Says a Northwest scout: "A lot of guys don't like him because he's not a great athlete, or maybe don't know what his upside is going to be. But he's a very smart player. He's very content to play with others. I'm not sure that's a bad thing. He can pass and make guys better. There may be very few starters like that off the bat, especially as a rookie."
Like most rookies, Harden will have to adjust to the quicker pro game.
"The biggest question with him," the Central executive says, "is if you watch every one of his scoring possessions, he needs the ball in his hands for a while. What will be an adjustment for him is that the two position in our league, they're not going to give you 11 seconds to get your shot off. It's not going to be built around you. You're going to have to swing the ball around. (Pierce) can get his shot off in two seconds. He's not going to mess around."
By comparison, DeRozan, the USC freshman, is a very good athlete who's still learning how to play the game. He's linked with Toronto, picking ninth; the Raptors just traded Jason Kapono to Philadelphia for Reggie Evans and Toronto is in dire need of wing players. But whatever team takes the 19-year-old will have to likely wait a year or two while he develops. Some teams still list DeRozan as a small forward, but more have him listed as a two.
In his one year of college DeRozan struggled early.
"Early he was trying to feel his way," says a Pac 10 coach whose team played against USC this season. "He's a terrific athlete, of course, but he wasn't scoring as much. He got more comfortable. He started making more perimeter shots. You knew he was dynamic on the fast break and he could create, but once you got him in the halfcourt, because he wasn't as confident, you could slow him down."
As the year went on he became more comfortable in the mid-range game, and that impressed some of my guys, because he had to take a lot of jumpers in practice to get better so quickly. And he showed what he was capable of in the Pac-10 tournament, with 63 points in three games in leading the Trojans to the tournament title and the automatic NCAA tournament bid.
"He put that team on his shoulders," says an approving Northwest Division scout. "He can get to the top of the basket off the dribble. He's got a big heart. Looks like he has the will [Dwyane] Wade has."
Another college head coach whose team played USC this season calls DeRozan "a pro type guy, a workout type guy" who will only get better with time.
"He's not going to be overwhelmed athletically, and you can always make guys in the NBA better shooters," said the coach, who is quite familiar with the NBA game. "You can't make guys bigger, faster, stronger. No question he got better as the season went along, as he got used to the game. He's only going to get better and better, and in a year, [you'll] have a guy with that kind of athleticism that can guard some of the freaks out there."
Duke's Henderson isn't an athletic freak, but he's an exceptional athlete that might be the best defensive two guard prospect coming out. His skills would fit in with any number of teams, from the Knicks (picking eighth) to New Jersey (11). Henderson improved every season in Durham and had several good outings down the stretch for the Blue Devils. Even though his last game was a tough 1 of 14 night against Villanova in the NCAAs, many scouts tend to overlook a guy's worst day, just as they may dismiss his best one. It's kind of like being a swimming judge, where you throw out the high score and the low score.
Even worse for Henderson, he's had to hear from Ellington, one of his best friends, about North Carolina's national championship. The two went to high school together in Philadelphia.
"I'm good friends with all those guys, especially Wayne," Henderson said in Chicago. "They try to give me [a hard time], especially with them having the better end of the wins since I've been in school with them. But they're pretty cool dudes. They cut me some slack."
One of my Central Division guys says Henderson is the most explosive and poweful of the two guard prospects.
"He doesn't have the smoothness or the polish Harden has in his game," the Central guy says. "But he has the force, the power, the athleticism Harden does not have. He can go over you, through you. I don't know how good he is going to be getting his own shot off for himself."
One ACC coach whose team played Duke last season says Henderson needs to work on his left hand.
"He's really not good going left," the coach says. "He's really good going right because he's so strong. Nobody in the college game could stop him even when we knew it was coming. He couldn't help them against pressure. He really couldn't. He's not really a two. He's a two that will come in and defend and he'll rebound better than most twos. He'll complete because he's athletic."
Louisville's Williams has moved up a lot of draft boards in the past couple of months, with Charlotte, picking 12th, seeming to center in on him. He seems to have that quirky style that Gilbert Arenas has made famous, but he also knew when to get serious. One of my guys whose team is picking in the top 10 said that Williams had the best interview of any of the dozens of prospects his team conducted.
"I heard at Chicago he was a little off center but he was great when he was with us," the top 10 guy said.
One Big East assistant coach whose team played Louisville this season raved about Williams.
"I love him. I love his intensity," the scout said. "I think he plays hard. Going into the season he probably thought he was better than he was. As the year went on he started realizing this is what I have to do, not only myself but for the team. he became more of a team player instead of a me player, a selfish player. He shot more in the flow of the offense this year than in the past. In the past he was more selfish. I think he can really defend. At the next level, with his size and quickness, he can really be a defensive player and in transition he can get the ball and score."
Among the others, North Carolina's Ellington eased concerns about his size by measuring 6-5 1/4 in Chicago. No one questions his stroke, which could be the best of all the two guard prospects. Scouts think the fact that Ellington played with other likely pros at Carolina like Ty Lawson and Tyler Hansbrough means he'll have less of a learning curve coming into the NBA than others. If he were to go to a playoff team like San Antonio, for instance (the Spurs don't currently have a first-round pick, having dealt this year's first to Oklahoma City in the Kurt Thomas trade), he might fit in better because he knows how to play with higher-caliber talent.
By contrast, Taylor, the Central Florida star, was his team's first, second and best option all season. But Taylor is a lights-out scorer (26.2 per game for the Golden Knights) who had a strong showing at the Portsmouth Tournament in April.
I'll go with the opinions of two Conference USA coaches whose teams played against Taylor last year.
Coach 1: "He's the one guy in the conference over the last two or three years that's not afraid of taking big shots, and can make big shots. I just think he'll be a great scorer in the NBA. He's competitive, he's athletic. He's not a great defender, but that's the only thing that would be a knock on him. Everything went through him the last two years. He's got great legs. He can find his shot. He can go get points."
Coach 2: "He was their only real option. He was playing with an extreme lack of talent around him. He's a great shooter, got deep range. Works hard on the defense end, but tried not to get in foul trouble. He can really shoot it. Not a great handler, but he seems to be able to get where he wants to go. Good pullup. He's strong. I think he could have been a very nice player on any team in the country. He got better every year. Great work ethic. He plays hard. Knows how to come off screens ... He knows how to play. He might be a surprise. When he missed a shot you felt like you dodged a bullet."
Meeks surprised a lot of NBA types by staying in the draft instead of returning to Kentucky and a chance at a national championship with new coach John Calipari and a cupboard full of likely NBA players like returning forward Patrick Patterson and recruits John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins. The thought is that some team has made Meeks a promise that it will draft him if he is on the board when their turn comes.
"He's more athletic than most people think," a Southwest Division personnel director says. "He can really, really shoot it and he's an underrated driver. People respect his shot. He just uses his shot to get to the rim ... it was a very weak SEC [last season], but still, you've got to respect it. He's a yes sir no sir guy. If he's the 10th guy on your bench he's not messing up your practice and you can feel pretty decent about the guy."
Arizona's Budinger will make the transition to NBA shooting guard, but scouts think he showed he could come off screens well enough in college to make the adjustment.
A Pac-10 assistant coach whose team played Arizona last season says that Budinger will probably get better shooting in the pros as he gets older. A Pac-10 head coach says that Budinger showed an ability to compete more his junior season that leaves the coach convinced he'll be able to play at the NBA level.
"The thing he showed was he does have the tenacity to play," the head coach says. "With him, you hear all the things -- not as tough, kind of a surfer guy, not really a player. But when he started off the season struggling, he went into a mode most players can't do. He came out with a tenacity and really competed. At the end, he was at his best."
LSU's Thornton scored 30 in the NCAAs against Butler and has an NBA-ready body that has scouts comparing him, physically, with a Mitch Richmond.
"He's a volume scorer," says one scout. "He's a little bit wild, a little streaky. When he gets going you can't stop him. he'll get six, seven buckets in a row on you quick, from all kinds of distances. But he needs a lot of shots to get a lot of points. A very poor man's Ben Gordon."
The Ukrainian Gladyr averaged a little more than 16 a game in the Russian Superleague for Mykolaiv, where he showed some toughness and catch-and-shoot ability, and decided at the last minute to stay in the NBA draft after a good performance in Italy at the Reebok camp last month -- which usually means someone in the second round promised they'd take him. (That's good sometimes for players, who can play in the NBA for a year on a non-guaranteed deal and then re-sign the following year for more money than they can make in Europe.) But most scouts think the 19-year-old should remain abroad for at least a year or two to get a little stronger.
Among the imports, Congolese guard Christian Eyenga, who played for a DKV Joventut-affiliated team in Spain this season and might catch someone's eye in the second round. University of Mississippi guard David Huertas left school after the season to play in Puerto Rico, and showed well at the Reebok camp in Treviso. He can score and has some supporters back home.
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