By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Jun 23 2009 11:37AM
Kevin Garnett is a dream and a curse.
When KG came straight out of high school and into the pros in 1995, he hastened the demise of the modern NBA center. His all-around court skill made him a defensive demon, able to roam and use his length and speed to help and become one of the league's top stoppers. But Garnett was never one to post up; his best offensive game in the halfcourt was facing a defender and taking most of them off the dribble, or fading on the baseline for a jumper.
That was great. For him.
Unfortunately, far too many other 7-footers, who didn't have KG's wondrous game, decided they too would spend their lives outside of the paint, hoisting 3-pointers when their teams needed them to get their rear ends down low and grab some rebounds and bang with the other big boys. Too many that didn't have Garnett's crazy work ethic became ghosts, their potential done in by their lack of will. With no fundamentals to fall back on, a lot of big men never did what they should have done, and what they probably would have done 20 years ago -- have solid, productive NBA careers as true centers. (Picked right ahead of Garnett in '95: Rasheed Wallace. Very good NBA career. But what if 'Sheed had made a nightly habit of abusing opponents inside? Unlike many of his generation, 'Sheed had the fundamentals, the footwork, to do work in the hole.)
It annually leaves center as the weakest position in the draft, and this year is no exception. While there could be 10 point guards taken in the first round (and, admittedly, that's an unusually large number), there might just be two true centers taken in the first round -- and I'm not sure one of those two plays much like a center, at least in college. The others use what they have, but will have to overcome speed liabilities to become regular contributors to their team's rotations.
It wasn't that long ago that every team seemed to have an above-average center. I mean, Bob Lanier was a Hall of Famer and his teams were never good enough to get to a Finals, because he banged his head against the wall every year playing against the likes of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Dave Cowens, Wes Unseld, Willis Reed, Moses Malone, Bill Walton, etc. If a center like Darryl Dawkins came out this year, wouldn't he be the first pick?
But you never know. Maybe Hasheem Thabeet, who'll go second to Memphis (or whatever team trades into the second spot) or third to Oklahoma City, will hasten a renewal of the true center, someone who knows his place, and doesn't leave it.
No, I don't believe that, either.
To recap: the rankings are mine, based on numerous conversations over the past several months with more than 30 NBA general managers, player personnel directors, scouts and coaches, as well as college head coaches and assistant coaches whose teams have played the draftees' teams in the last year. Measureables are taken from the Chicago predraft camp last month; those players with # by their heights and weights were not in Chicago, and their numbers are taken from their team's official Web sites and/or reputable basketball sites.
Personnel types always compare draft prospects to someone already in the league. It's kind of shorthand, which gives you some idea of what they see when they're evaluating players. Many times, the comparisons have merit, but sometimes, they're facile; a quick, small guard almost always conjures up the name Allen Iverson; a slow but skilled white forward has "Larry Bird" stamped on his forehead in a nanosecond. (Which reminds me -- why are white guys always compared to other white guys, and black guys to other black guys? For example, is there that much difference in the games of J.J. Redick and, say, Shawn Respert?)
Anyway, Hasheem Thabeet is Dikembe Mutombo. (See? I just did it!)
The 7-foot-2 Connecticut junior has the Mutombo resume: smart, new to basketball, African native (Thabeet, Tanzania; Mutombo, Congo), former soccer player, incredibly impactful defensively already (Thabeet finished second in the nation in blocks this season; Mutombo finished fourth in the nation as a junior and senior), with an offensive game that is a work in progress. Like Mutombo, Thabeet will go within the first five picks, a stopper in a league perenially short of stoppers.
"I can always play defense," Thabeet said during the Chicago predraft camp. "Nobody told me how to play defense. I always think I'm ready to play defense...I think that if I come to your end I'm not going to score, [but] you're not going to come to my end and score."
Scouts know that Thabeet can block shots in space. They wonder about his ability to bang and compete against grown men with some years on him. Many pointed to a February game against Pittsburgh when Thabeet, seven inches taller, was cut down to size by DeJuan Blair, who got 22 points and 23 rebounds against him -- and made Thabeet into a YouTube sensation by flipping him over as the two were going for a rebound.
"He got schooled by a 6-7 guy," says one player personnel director.
But one game doesn't change the fact that Thabeet provides presence in the middle. A team like Memphis, which could move Marc Gasol to power forward if it takes Thabeet, or Oklahoma City, which desperately needs an enforcer in the middle, could go from a defensive sieve to solid overnight. And Thabeet vows his offensive skills will get better, too.
"I think I'm getting better," he said in Chicago. "The thing people don't understand is I had to make the transition from playing soccer to basketball, from just kicking not, you're not allowed to touch it. Now you're allowed to touch it and not allowed to kick it. So right now I'm just trying to get as much repetition as I can, and I think when the times comes I'll be ready."
But while Thabeet has mastered one end of the floor, Ohio State freshman B.J. Mullens is still finding his way at both ends. And that uncertainty has made him the most disagreed-upon player in the Draft. His supporters love him; his detractors hate him.
"He'll end up in the top five," said a Southeast Division personnel man.
"He's gone from a guy that's gone from maybe a top five to 10 and he's gonna have to really hustle to get back up there," said a Southwest Division executive.
"I can't believe somebody isn't going to take this guy in the lottery," says a Central personnel director.
"I cannot for the life of me see how the NBA could take this guy in the middle of the first round and take DeAndre Jordan (an L.A. Clippers 2008 selection) in the middle of the second," says a Pacific scout.
At 7-foot-1, Mullens should have been an immediate impact player in the Big Ten. But while he played in all 33 games for the Buckeyes, he only started two, having been beat out by sophomore Dallas Lauderdale. He shot 63 percent from the floor, but averaged just 8.8 points. He shoots very well for a big man, and in today's NBA, that's increasingly a strength. But a lot of people wonder if he's mature enough to make the jump to the NBA after just one year of college.
Here is a typical, left-handed complimentish quote about Mullins, from a Southeast Division exec: "He's a 7-footer who can catch, run the floor. There's enough interest in the kid. I wouldn't be surprised if he went top 10. It's not that he's good, it's just that everybody else doesn't have that potential to be something good. He might end up being much better than Jordan Hill, Thabeet. But if he's not, at least you've got somebody you can trade."
Or, maybe the kid's 19 years old and hasn't figured out who he is yet. That happens, too.
The Internet has been abuzz with rumors that someone in the middle of the first round has made Mullens a promise -- Detroit at 15, Chicago at 16, Philly at 17. (This is what I love about this time of year; everyone's rock-solid "sources," almost all of which wind up wildly misstating, dissembling or flat-out lying. You've got three media outlets saying three different things. At least two of them, and maybe all three, are wrong. Just consider that, please, when you latch onto the next "exclusive.") But it will be a shock if he makes it to the high teens, just because of his shooting ability.
"Man, that guy's got such a great stroke," says a Central Division admirer. "A big guy that can shoot the ball like that ... he's not only a power forward who can stretch the defense; he's seven feet tall. He's a center that's going to stretch the defense. He's got a lot of things yet that he needs to work on. He needs to learn how to compete."
Utah's Nevill won't overwhelm anyone, but he is a load, he is smart and he had one of college basketball's most respected coaches, Jim Boylen, the former Rockets and Bucks assistant, teaching him how NBA teams want their bigs to play. Nevill showed what hard work and good coaching can do, finishing tied for eighth in the country in blocks and tied for ninth in field-goal percentage (60.7). It's given him a reasonable chance to stick in someone's rotation, and get drafted early in the second round.
"Don't give up on him," a Northwest scout says. "Boylen did a good job with him."
One college head coach whose team played Utah last season -- and whose team did a good job against Nevill -- nonetheless was impressed.
"He's huge, skilled," the HC said. "He's skilled, he's been coached well. He doesn't bring the ball down. The question is can he move laterally on defense? We thought he would have a tough time guarding [out front] and we put him in a lot of ball screens. But he will play in the league because he's really skilled."
Bryant, the West Coast Conference Player of the Year, also will struggle with the pace of the NBA game and with quick centers and forwards. You don't necessarily have to be able to score if you're a big man, but if you can't, you must be able to defend the post, like Scot Pollard did for many years. Bryant may not be able to score in the NBA, but if he can get his hands on the ball, it's his, as his 14.2 rebounds per game will attest. He had six games last season with at least 20 points and 20 rebounds, tops in the country. And he's worked tirelessly on his body, going from 355 pounds as a freshman to his current 280.
Doesn't mean he'll be drafted. But he'll get a look.
"He has the best hands of any kid I've ever had," said former Santa Clara head coach Dick Davey, now the associate head coach at Stanford. "He can catch with the best..his footwork on the low block is pretty good. He spent a lot of time working on his foot skills; because he wasn't a great leaper he worked on ways to get hmself free on the block. He's an excellent passer. They'll see how smart he is. He understand angles, he understands the game. He'll catch it one-handed; he'll catch bad passes."
Baynes, the Washington State center, is a lot like Bryant -- can score with either had, big, efficient in college. "Very deceptive for a big guy," says a Pac-10 coach whose team played the Cougars last season. And, like Bryant, he will have a tough time getting up and down the court quickly enough to be a factor on defense. Teams with halfcourt sets, that put a premium on executing on offense and getting back on defense, will be his best bet.
Sutan had a great tournament for Michigan State in helping the Spartans reach the national title game, and maybe his ability to step out to the foul line and shoot a little will get him noticed by an NBA team. A trip overseas may be more likely, though. Siler is enormous and dominated Division II competition for Augusta State, and had some moments at the Portsmouth Invitational. But he makes Bryant and Reeves look like Usain Bolt and Carl Lewis.
Cooper is an extreme longshot; Elonu improved greatly as a senior ("I didn't remember him before this season," said an opposing Big 12 coach) and is probably more likely to stick at power forward than center, but could conceivably play in the pivot when teams go small, as they do with increasing frequency. Faverani could see some second-round love.
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