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Chris Dortch

San Diego State coach Steve Fisher says Kawhi Leonard is a very hard worker with loads of potential.
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Upcoming draft may have next wave of late-lottery stars

Posted Apr 30 2011 10:27AM

Many analysts have dismissed the upcoming NBA Draft as weak, but a few have opined that it may yield its fair share of rotation players.

I tend to agree with the latter outlook, and furthermore, it's reasonable to speculate that, among those potential rotation players, a star or two could emerge.

Because of my background, most of the information I gather on draft-worthy players comes from their college coaches who have the benefit of seeing them every day, knowing their work habits, learning what motivates them, and ultimately, deciding whether they have realistic potential to succeed at the next level. Over the years, the coaches I've spoken with have been surprisingly candid. It does them no good to overstate potential.

In preparing for the latest draft, I've spoken to the coaches of a number of players who figure to be selected in the late lottery to middle portion of the first round. Based on those conversations, here are three players I think are headed for a starring role:

Alec Burks, Colorado

There seems to be some consensus that the 6-foot-6 Burks is the top shooting guard in the draft. My colleague David Albright recently listed Burks atop his Big Board list, and he did so with good reason. Burks is D-Wade waiting to happen. The Big 12 wouldn't disagree.

"I thought he was a big-time player," Kansas State's Frank Martin said of the first time he laid eyes on Burks as a high school player. "When I watched him play, I thought he had tremendous skills and an unbelievable ability to put the ball in the hole in various ways. At the time, he was a 6-3 kid. What I didn't know was he would grow to 6-6."

"He's a big-time player," Iowa State coach Fred Hoiberg said. "A prototypical wing in the NBA, just the way he plays. He does such a good job of drawing fouls and drawing contact. He handles the ball extremely well, and he's great in transition. And he shoots the ball."

Burks does shoot the ball, but much like Dwyane Wade, he's not a great 3-point shooter. Wade has made a comfortable living without being a knockdown 3-point shooter because he does so many other things well. If Burks can add another 25 pounds of muscle to get to D-Wade's chiseled 225, he's going to be a load.

Colorado coach Tad Boyle says Burks doesn't shy away from hard work, whether it's in the weight room or the practice floor.

"He's got a work ethic," Boyle said. "He wants to be great. He takes on challenges. And he loves challenges."

Burks is about to embark on the challenge of his life, but what's comforting to the team that drafts him, says Boyle, is the fact Burks is a proven commodity.

"Alex has had proven production at the highest level of college basketball," Boyle said. "And he's got an unbelievable ceiling. He's got potential, and he's got production. If you're looking at the NBA, if you're drafting or looking at a guy, it's always scary when they've haven't produced but have a world of potential. And it's always scary when they've produced, but have they maxed out their potential?

"Alec has got those covered. He's produced at a high level and he's got big-time potential."

The knock on Burks' perimeter game can be backed up statistically; he made just 30.8 percent of his 237 jump shots this season, according to data compiled by Synergy Sports. But he made 48 percent of his floaters and 59 percent of his shots around the basket. Burks is crafty, too, and unpredictable. This year he drove to his right 49.5 percent of the time and to his left 50.5 percent of the time. Opposing teams trying to work up a scouting report on Burks couldn't get a handle on his tendencies.

Burks also gets to the free-throw line, a plus at any level of basketball. This season he averaged nearly seven made free throws per game, which ranked him among the top 20 in Division I.

As far as Burks' jumper, Boyle isn't worried.

"He's got to become a better shooter," Boyle said. "But everybody's got to become a better shooter. His range can improve, but I've seen him make them in practice. If that gets better, to go along with the fact he can get to the rim and get by his man, plus his great ball skills [Burks led Colorado in assists]. He's can become a load."

Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State

At 6-foot-7, Leonard may seem to be a tweener, but his huge hands, 7-foot-1 wingspan and leaping ability level the playing field, allowing him to guard multiple positions. And, like Burks, he possesses a work ethic that is a separator in the college game and NBA alike.

"From day one, nobody worked harder," San Diego State coach Steve Fisher said during the NCAA Tournament. "He is a gym rat who is constantly trying to get better, which is why from year one to year two he was significantly better and determined to get even better as he goes along.

"He's got huge hands, and pursues the ball like no other player that I've coached. When he gets his hands on the ball, he will usually get it. He's a hard guard because he can score on the bounce, he's good with the ball, he can post you up and he's just good enough to where you're hesitant to back off him and give him an open shot from the perimeter."

Leonard also has the great intangible, as former San Diego State assistant coach Justin Hutson, now the associate head coach at UNLV, told me this week.

"The kid wins," Hutson said. "He won in high school, and he won in college. He's a great leader. By example, not by many words. But he's got that will to win you just can't teach. You have to be born with it."

Jordan Hamilton, Texas

Like Leonard, Hamilton made great strides from his freshman season to his sophomore season. His college hoops debut was at times sensational and at times rocky, mainly because his game was immature. Disappointed in himself, Hamilton went to each of his teammates, apologized for being a crummy teammate and promised to get better. How often do you hear about a player doing that?

"He was going to prove to them that he was going to be a great teammate," Texas coach Rick Barnes said during the NCAA Tournament. "He's done that. He's worked hard. He's really tried to work hard at the game."

Hamilton, like Burks, has great size for the two/three position, but unlike Burks, he's already proven he can stroke it from 3. He shot 38.5 percent from behind the arc this season, a direct result of improving his shot selection. Hamilton put together some of his more impressive games against the Longhorns' top non-conference competition: 25 points and seven rebounds against Illinois, 28 points and eight boards against Pittsburgh, 24 and 10 against North Carolina, 20 and 11 against Connecticut.

"Jordan Hamilton can score no matter who's in the gym," Texas assistant coach Russell Springmann said.

True, but Hamilton's improvement came as a result of not worrying about how many points he was going to rack up.

"I think he realized, 'I can bring a lot more to the table than just scoring the ball,' " Springmann said. "And we told him that he was short-changing himself if he didn't realize how many ways he could actually affect a game. If you just rely on shooting the ball, when happens on a night when you're not scoring? How are you going to impact the game? For him, he can see the floor, he can pass the ball, he's a rebounder; he's not relying strictly on jump shots. He can score in the post. He's a strong kid, stronger than some people realize.

"I think he's got tremendous upside. He's got a chance to be very, very good."

Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook. You can email him here, follow him on Twitter and listen to the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Hour.

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