Posted Jun 22 2010 9:55AM
For Wes Johnson, the transformation happened at the Vince Carter Nike Skills Academy in June, 2009. That's when the idea of playing in the NBA someday morphed into the certainty that he would be a pro, and soon. When he arrived at the camp in Orlando, a recent transfer from Iowa State to Syracuse, he was behind other more prominent names like Wake Forest's Al-Farouq Aminu and West Virginia's Devin Ebanks. After Johnson held his own, the light went on.
"I didn't know where I was going to be at, what round, but I knew I was going to be in the NBA after that," he recalled at the Chicago pre-Draft camp a month ago. "I just felt like, playing with all those high-level guys, and all the hype that they had, and I was competing and doing well, I was like, 'Yeah, I'm going to play in the NBA.' The confidence I had in myself just took off from there."
A year later, Johnson has leapfrogged his brethren and is the top small forward prospect in Thursday's NBA Draft in New York, expected to go no later than fourth in the first round and heading up what may be the Draft's deepest position. Aminu, just 19 years old and a third-team all-American last season, is right behind Johnson and could sneak into the top five himself. He's certain to go in the top seven or eight, seemingly tailor made for Golden State at six.
Nevada forward Luke Babbitt has skyrocketed into the top half of the first round after a strong season in Reno. Butler forward Gordon Hayward's run to the national championship game solidified his spot on NBA scouts' radars. Fresno State's Paul George is the sleeper of the bunch; Ebanks is likely to go later in the first round after helping the Mountaineers reach the Final Four last spring.
Johnson's game seems tailor made for the NBA. His athletic ability is "off the charts," according to a college coach whose team played Syracuse last season. Johnson thrived in the open court at Syracuse, but struggled some when teams got more physical with him. But for a team like Minnesota, picking fourth, Johnson's game would be a great compliment to the Wolves' physical big men Al Jefferson and Kevin Love, and as his shooting improves he could see some time at shooting guard as well.
"When he was going up and down and finished on the break I thought he was as good as anybody," a college coach said of Johnson. "He didn't have to shoot a whole lot of threes, but he's got a good stroke. I think he could play the two or the three (in the NBA). He's got good size."
Determining whether Syracuse players will be good defenders in the NBA always involves a little guesswork until they're out of Jim Boeheim's matchup zone, but Johnson's frame and build should give him a chance. Even playing zone requires some footwork and lateral movement.
Said a Pacific Division scout: "Offensively he's a little better three because the ballhandling isn't real accomplished. It depends on who he's playing with. If he's playing with a guy that dominates the ball he can be a spot-up guy. Defensively, nobody knows, but he's 6-foot-7, he's long. He should be able to guard people. He should be adequate if he has the desire."
Aminu puts NBA scouts in mind of Shawn Marion, an extremely long (7-foot-3 wingspan) player who'll have to get more of his points on the move in the pros instead of in the halfcourt. He had considered leaving Wake after his freshman season but stayed in school another year, a move that paid dividends.
"He got better his second year, which you don't always see," said an ACC coach whose team played Wake and Aminu last season. "He's still coltish. He's still young and still figuring it out, but those moments in the game when he does figure it out and he's not deferring, then just look out. He's long, he's athletic, he's got enough skills to get by and get by you, and if he goes to the board with any kind of ferocity he usually gets something done. He's strong enough. You can't really keep him away. He's probably got every tool in the kit.
"(But) he's still not totally comfortable in the post and I don't know that he ever will be, and he's still not totally comfortable facing the basket."
Babbitt''s stock has been on the rise for the past month, since he showed at Chicago that he more than measured up athletically to the other small forward candidates. Sources indicate that the Clippers, picking eighth, and Memphis, picking 12th, are interested in Babbitt, who said in Chicago that he has "bits of Paul Pierce and Stephen Jackson" in his game, and that he understood when people who didn't know better stereotypically compared his game to other white players' games.
"It's natural," Babbitt said. "That's the first thing that would pop into someone's head. You watch a player and that's what you see. So it's a natural thing. It's not anything more than that."
Said Babbit's college coach, David Carter: "I think his athleticism really surprised a lot of people. The first time you see him you probably don't see it. They want to know about his work ethic, his passion for the game, and athleticism is another thing they've been asking about -- explosiveness, footwork on the perimeter. What position does he play at the next level? He would be a great small forward at the next level, because he's not big enough (Babbitt weighed 217 pounds in Chicago) to play the four. Is he quick enough to guard the perimeter? I think he can."
George was able to dominate in the post at Fresno State, but when college teams tried to put bigger defenders on him he showed an ability to come off of screens. He will have to improve on that in the NBA, work on keeping his turnovers down and show that he can play with players from more successful programs -- the Bulldogs finished under .500 (15-18) last season in the WAC and lost in the first round of the conference tournament.
"The system he came from, they didn't win much," an Atlantic Division executive said. "Not too much exposure. That's a big question with him. He didn't play against the big-time guys. How is he one day matched up with all these big time guys? But he's got pretty good skills. He's got good size for his position."
By contrast, Hayward, the 6-foot-8 sophomore, won huge at Butler, as the Bulldogs went all the way to the NCAA title game before losing in the final seconds to Duke. Hayward did everything for Butler, and in workouts and drills against other pro prospects in the last month, he's shown he can hold his own athletically.
"He's got all these moves and skill and you can tell he knows how to play," the Atlantic executive said of Hayward. "That's the difference between the Joe Alexanders (drafted eighth overall in 2008 by Milwaukee) and him. Some people would say he has to play the four but I would say three. Defensively he would struggle a little bit and I would actually play him (defensively) at the four. Going against the Shawn Marions every day, Rashard Lewis, he's going to struggle a little bit."
Said a Northwest Division executive: "He's a better athlete than he shows. He'll have problems strengthwise but a lot of guys do coming out. He has such as smooth gait, a smooth way, that people don't think he's a good athlete, and he tested pretty well in Chicago."
Hayward also impressed teams during the interview process.
"It's been kind of nervewracking," he said in Chicago. "You go in and you're sitting in front of the head coach of the NBA program. I've been watching on TV my whole life, so you see some of these guys, and it is kind of nervewracking at first. But it's fun at the same time. They're interviewing you about playing basketball for the rest of your life. So that's something that's fun for me."
A cut below the elite group of threes are forwards like Washington's Quincy Pondexter, the next solid pro prospect from Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar. Pondexter doesn't have the offensive game of Brandon Roy, who came to the NBA in 2006 and quickly became a star in Portland, but he'll make the league as a defender who comes off the bench and gets up and down the court in transition. He will have to improve his shooting to get teams to play him honestly -- "we played him as a driver," said a college coach whose team played Washington last season.
"I look at him like a David Wingate type," a Northwest Divison scout said. "He's going to give you more on the defensive energy side than a shooter."
Connecticut's Stanley Robinson has more athletic ability than Pondexter but will also have to be a rotation player in the pros. Robinson had an up-and-down career at UConn -- he was kicked off the team after his sophomore season by Coach Jim Calhoun for no other reason than Calhoun thought he needed to grow up, and spent the first semester of his junior season working in a scrap metal factory before being reinstated. But Robinson matured his last two seasons and will make his bones in the NBA with a huge vertical leap and arms that will get him buckets off the glass.
"He was probably the biggest question mark in the Big East," said a Big East assistant coach whose team played Connecticut last season.
"He should have been much better than he was," the coach said of Robinson. "He's the kind of guy that somebody's going to take and hope that he becomes a player. Streaky shooter. His ballhandling is suspect ... and you just never knew which guy was going to show up. We really didn't focus on him as far as shooting on the perimeter although we made sure to box out and put a body on him ... I think he has all the tools to be a very good player.
"If you look at all the guys at that position in the draft, there's nobody physically or athletically that's better than him. You compare him to Wes [Johnson], physically and athletically, Stanley's off the chart. But in terms of productivity, Wes was much better."
One last intriguing name is Da'Sean Butler, the 6-7 senior forward from West Virginia. He was projected as a top-20 pick throughout his senior season, as he and Ebanks led the Mountaineers to the Big East tournament championship, an upset win over Kentucky and a berth in the Final Four. But Butler tore his ACL in the national semifinal game against Duke and obviously won't be playing next season. However, a few NBA teams are looking to get an additional second-round pick in hopes of drafting Butler there, letting him rehab for a year and seeing if he can regain his form.
"He's a great kid," a Northwest Division executive said. "He's going to work his butt off. I heard he had great interviews. Now, is he going to come back and be what he was, because he wasn't a great athlete before he got hurt."
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