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David Aldridge

Harrison Barnes is the best small forward prospect this year, but he decided to stay at UNC.
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Small forward class becomes a big puzzler without Barnes

Posted Apr 18 2011 8:10AM - Updated Jun 23 2011 8:55AM

In an NBA Draft of uncertainty, small forward is the most uncertain position. The top prospect announced Monday morning that he's staying in school for his sophomore season, eschewing the opportunity to be a top three -- maybe top one -- pick. Players currently not projected as NBA threes may well wind up being the best threes in the end.

"In this year's Draft," said a longtime pro scout, "there's no clear cut star" at the position.

North Carolina freshman Harrison Barnes probably had the best chance. The highly touted prospect, who overcame a slow start to come on strong for the Tar Heels down the stretch of the ACC regular season and through the NCAA tournament, helped get Carolina to the Elite Eight before losing to Kentucky. The 18-year-old Barnes, though, said Monday that he would return to Chapel Hill for his sophomore season, as teammates John Henson and Tyler Zeller had already decided to do.

"As an 18-year old, I'm in the early stages of my life journey," Barnes said Monday in a press release from the school. "I'm honored and blessed for the chance to play in the NBA. And because of my family, teachers, passion, and work, I have the ultimate dream of one day playing and experiencing a fulfilling career in the NBA.

"Opportunities, both beneficial and life changing, can seem to make the next phase of my journey an easy decision. But I am a student-athlete at the University of North Carolina. I'm here to experience college life, grow as a person, receive a quality education, and be part of the greatest basketball family in college sports. The experiences I've enjoyed on and off the court will be invaluable. These experiences will help fuel my journey in the NBA and beyond.

"I look forward to meeting the challenging journey in the NBA, but my decision on November 13, 2009, still holds true. I'm focused on being a student-athlete. And my decision is to continue this part of my journey at the University of North Carolina."

If he were to change his mind, Barnes would have until next Sunday to enter the Draft. (Colorado sophomore shooting guard Alec Burks -- like Barnes, the top prospect on the Big Board at his position -- is also uncertain about putting his name in.) So, allowing for the possibility that kids can be persuaded to alter their thinking quickly, I will keep Barnes in his top position among small forwards until the 24th. If he doesn't have a change of heart, he'll be removed.

Just as a reminder: This is neither a predictor of Draft order, nor a mock Draft, which waste everyone's collective time -- especially when done before the lottery. Depending on need, what they currently have on their roster and team philosophy, some teams could, for example, prefer a Kawhi Leonard over a Jordan Hamilton. Some may prefer taking a senior like Duke's Kyle Singler. What the Big Board tries to establish is the consensus of NBA personnel people that I trust as to which players at which positions are most ready to make the jump to the pros right now; that is, if there was a game tonight, the players who could contribute now -- not in three years -- are listed higher.

Most scouts project Derrick Williams as a power forward -- not a small forward -- in the NBA.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Players are also listed at the position that most NBA folks believe they will play in the pros, though many could play multiple positions. For example, most scouts I've spoken with have Arizona's Derrick Williams listed as a power forward, not a small forward, even though everyone believes that he will play both forward positions in the NBA. That's why he and Kentucky's Terrence Jones aren't on the small forward board and will be listed in two weeks with other power forwards.

In order to provide a realistic board, I am, with the blessing of the higher-ups at, also now including underclassmen in the Big Board that I believe, based on conversations with pro and college coaches, NBA personnel types and other sources, are either defnintely going to be in the Draft or are seriously considering it. The Big Board will also adjust as we approach the Draft, based on individual workouts, player performance at group events like the pre-Draft workout in New Jersey at the end of the month, the Chicago pre-Draft camp in June and other factors.

UPDATE: POINT GUARDS (first posted March 21): To almost no one's surprise, Duke freshman Kyrie Irving, Connecticut's Kemba Walker and Kansas freshman guard Josh Selby have officially declared for the Draft -- Irving on April 7, Walker and Selby last week. Selby is listed as the sixth-best point guard prospect on the Big Board and will likely drop no further now that he's in. But it will be hard for him to crack the current top five of Duke's Irving, Connecticut's Walker, Kentucky's Brandon Knight, Duke's Nolan Smith and BYU's Jimmer Fredette.


A note on the rankings:
This is not a predictor of when these players will be taken. These rankings, based on discussions with dozens of NBA and college coaches, and NBA college scouts and team executives, address the question of how ready players are to play the position which they are assigned: in other words, if there was a game tonight, who would play better at that position tonight, not in three years. Players are ranked based on the position that the coaches and scouts believe is their best NBA position, and even then, there is always disagreement between teams.

"Sleepers" are players almost certain to go in the second round but who may have first-round talent or otherwise have an impact on the teams that select them if they overcome perceived shortcomings.

Players listed as "Some Scouts Like" category are those who are not certain to declare, but are viewed as potentially draftable if they do -- with an emphasis on "potentially."

For now, all measurements are the ones listed from a player's school or team. Official player measurements will be available after the Chicago pre-Draft camp in early June.

Editor's Note: Rankings now reflect June 14 update.

Rank Name School/Team Class/Age Height Weight Wingspan
1 Kawhi Leonard San Diego St. Sophomore 6-7 227 7-3
2 Chris Singleton Florida St. Junior 6-9 230 7-1
3 Jordan Hamilton Texas Junior 6-9 228 6-10
4 Tobias Harris Tennessee Freshman 6-8 223 6-11
5 Tyler Honeycutt UCLA Sophomore 6-8 187 6-9
6 Marcus Morris Kansas Junior 6-9 230 6-10
7 Kyle Singler Duke Senior 6-9 228 6-10
8 Jimmy Butler Marquette Senior 6-8 222 6-8
9 Bojan Bogdanovic Cibona Zagreb (Croatia) 22 6-8 218 TBA
10 Chandler Parsons Florida Senior 6-10 221 6-10

To view David Aldridge's complete Big Board, click here.

UPDATE, MAY 16: With Harrison Barnes going back to North Carolina (April 18) for his sophomore season, the new top small forward prospect is Texas' Jordan Hamilton, with San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard moving up to two and Florida State's Chris Singleton to three. Moving up as well is Lithuanian prospect Davis Bertans, who played on the European team at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland last month. Bertans didn't play great in Portland but showed impressive perimeter range playing for his Slovenian team this season. "Man, can he shoot," a Northwest Division scout said. Montenegran forward Nikola Mirotic is highly regarded, but he just signed a new deal to remain with his European team is expected to stay overseas for at least a couple of years before coming to the NBA.

Barnes' announcement that he'll stay at UNC likely will put the top spot up for grabs. Barnes earned the spot. When Kendall Marshall replaced Larry Drew, Jr. at UNC -- Drew, the son of Atlanta Hawks coach Larry Drew, then quit the team in the middle of the season to transfer to UCLA -- Barnes was the chief beneficiary.

Barnes is not an explosive player, nor does he have great size. But he is a solid all-around player who's shown a deft shooting touch, and an innate ability to play. Barnes is expected to be a solid pro -- whenever he comes out -- with a high basketball IQ. It's hard to find anyone who doesn't believe that Barnes would be a top five pick if he had decided to come out, even though he needs improving.

"He's going to have to develop some other aspects of his game," said a Central Division general manager. "He's a pure shooter right now. He came on as the season progressed. He doesn't do enough things to wow you. I haven't seen it. Even when he scored those 40 points (against Clemson in the ACC tournament), I was like, 'He's doing it effortlessly from the perimeter but he's not doing much else.' "

The smooth scoring touch of UNC forward Harrison Barnes has left most NBA scouts impressed.
Chris Trotman/Getty Images

Said a Western Conference scout: "As a shooter, his percentage is pretty mediocre. He doesn't beat people off the dribble at all. But he can play. I do think his shootng will get a lot better."

Another GM said Barnes may play some power forward in the pros, the same way Boston's Jeff Green does as a "stretch four" for Boston. "He's not athletic or mobile to be chasing guys off of screens. I think he'll end up playing four."

A college coach whose team played Barnes and UNC believes that Barnes will be a star in the pros.

"He's light on his feet," the coach said. "He can put it on the floor and create space. He can be a real strong young man. He's got a great demeanor for a freshman. He can take big shots and make big shots. He scores a variety of ways. He's got to be a better driver but he'll learn that. He doesn't know how to lower the shoulder."

Some teams have Texas forward Jordan Hamilton listed as a two guard prospect, but most of the personnel types I spoke with said that Hamilton will have to be a small forward in the pros. Hamilton is a big-time scorer who has alternately attracted and repelled NBA people. He's a scorer, but that might not be enough.

"He ain't guarding twos," a Southeast Division scout said of the 20-year-old Hamilton, who is expected to put his name into the Draft this week along with teammate Tristan Thompson, a solid power forward prospect. "Away from the floor, (Hamilton) is going to get exposed. I like his talent, but he's a uniquely selfish player. He scares the (bleep) out of me."

Said a Pacific Division executive: "I don't like him much. I probably would agree with (Hamilton playing) more three than two. But I didn't realize how small he was. That's the problem with the whole Draft -- the position doesn't match up with skills."

It's mostly a mixed review when it comes to assessing Texas star forward Jordan Hamilton.
Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Other scouts are more positive.

"He's a different talent level than a lot of kids we're talking about," said a Northwest Division scout. "He can get his shot. It may not be the most orthodox shot. He may not defend all the time, but he can defend."

This scout was particularly impressed with Hamilton's defensive effort against Baylor's LaceDarius Dunn during a Big 12 game this season, when Hamilton "just snatched the ball out of (Dunn's) hands," according to the scout. "He just got up and played him. LaceDarius tried to face him up and he just took the ball out of his hands. He has the ability to defend."

A Central Division exec concurred.

"The guy can score the ball, though," the exec said. "He's an undersized. A two-three or a three-two. He can score, which is what makes him so interesting. And sometimes he locks down."

Leonard, the burly sophomore from San Diego State, plays at the opposite end of the basketball pool from Hamilton. Leonard is all about defense, a defender with the strength and hands to be able to handle himself in the paint and in space -- and draw comparisons from at least one Eastern Conference executive to Ron Artest. Like Artest, the exec says, Leonard wasn't a great shooter in college. But he could get to be a little more consistent from the perimeter the same way Artest was for a good chunk of his pro career. End result: Leonard could go as early as the late Lottery.

Some scouts are projecting defensive maven Kawhi Leonard as a Ron Artest-type in the NBA.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

"This guy's not a great shooter," the executive said of Leonard, "but it's not broken."

Leonard's drive also impresses.

"He's relentless," said a Pacific scout. "I don't know how whoever gets him is going to play him, but he can do some things."

An Eastern Conference executive said: "In the college game he's a real physical defender, very handsy guy, likes to bump cutters and block people. I think he can guard out on the floor. I think he's a three all the way and he's gonna guard threes. He could get better. Right now it's not there. But he passes pretty good."

Coming on strong among pro scouts is Florida State junior Chris Singleton, whose athletic skill is much in line with recent players from Tallahassee, like the Knicks guard (and FSU alum) Toney Douglas.

"It's amazing," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said Saturday. "All of those guys that come out of Florida State, from (Seminoles coach and former Wizards coach) Leonard Hamilton, they all come out, they're competitors, they're hard-nosed, tough-minded, competitive guys. They're all the same. They'll kick your ass if you're not ready."

Singleton, a junior who officially declared last week on UStream, is right in that mold. Scouts say he's got a lot more to his game than might be taken from his averages of 13.1 points and 6.8 rebounds last season. His length and ability to run and move in space give him the potential to be an excellent perimeter defender.

"He will find his way to the court because he's so strong and athletic," said a college coach who played Florida State this season. "He's bigger than you think he is. He guards multiple positions. He will become better (in the NBA) through development and repetition. He has a good head on his shoulders. He seems to be a real leader and a real warrior. I think he's going to be an outstanding prospect. I think he can be a starter on a good team. He'll do all the dirty things to help a good team win."

FSU's Chris Singleton is drawing raves from scouts for his toughness, defense and court sense.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Said a Central Division exec: "I like him. He's got a reputation that he's supposed to be a superior defender. I don't know about that, but he's a good defender. I really like his interaction on the floor with his teammates. He looks like a real low-maintenance kid. Does some things well. Makes a three every once in a while, athletic, good length."

An Atlantic Division exec says at least one of his scouts isn't a big fan of Singleton's, because he plays "straight up," meaning he may not be balanced on the floor, and leaves himself susceptible to turnovers. But that defensive ability and length trump those concerns, such as when Singleton held Duke's Kyle Singler to 6-of-16 shooting in Florida State's 66-61 upset of the Blue Devils in January. Long, athletic guys who can defend can always find a home in the pros.

UCLA's Honeycutt is one of the bigger question marks -- but who also has one of the bigger upsides. He led the Pac-10 in blocked shots (2.06 per game) despite his rail-thin frame and position, which intrigues a lot of pro scouts. He puts some in mind of another former Bruin, Lakers forward Matt Barnes, who has played in the pros for almost a decade despite being a skinny small forward. Honeycutt's versatility makes him someone people want to see a lot more of.

"I saw Honeycutt have his career game (33 points, 9 rebounds in a one-point loss to Kansas last December)," said an Eastern Conference GM. "It was crazy how good he was. He does everything well. He likes to block shots, he rebounds it better than you think, he handles it better than you think. I think he's going to be a good player. Too bad he's not going to stay another year (though). He does good things to help you win. You wish he could stay and get better, because the body's an issue. He's never going to be a big kid but through the natural maturation process he's going to be okay."

The best of the rest include Tennessee's Harris -- "a talented guy," one Eastern Conference GM said -- who is expected to be a first-round pick, likely in the 20s, if he decides to stay in the Draft and hire an agent. Currently he hasn't, though he may be feeling familial pressures to leave school early and come into the pros, especially after the Volunteers fired former coach Bruce Pearl in March. Duke's Singler produced the same question from three different personnel types, not prompted by anything -- why can't he shoot a higher percentage from the floor? In four seasons at Duke, Singler never shot better than 45 percent -- and that was in 2007-08, his freshman season.

But most scouts think Singler warrants at least a look, because of his all-around ability.

"What you see is what you get," one GM said. "He never shot it as well as he should have. Maybe he just doesn't shoot as well as we think he should. You look at his stroke and it looks good ... You watch him on TV one time and he scores 22 points, and then you go to see him in person and he gets nine and struggles."

Singler will also struggle defensively, especially if he doesn't go to a team with a good system and good players. Scouts worry that he isn't strong enough to defend the post and not quick enough to guard others.

"He's got to play three (small forward), but I don't tihnk he can guard threes," the Atlantic exec says. "If he shot the ball great he can be a four (power forward) because he can create mismatches. But he doesn't shoot it that great."

Mirotic, 20, played well last year at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland and at the Under 20 European Championships for Spain. He helped it to a bronze medal, excelled this year for Real Madrid and has gotten some people's attention. But he's been non-committal about coming over to the States. Chandler, who was the SEC Player of the Year this season despite averaging just 11 points for the Gators, is a jack of all trades who hasn't quite mastered any, making him a so-so prospect. Butler was MVP at Portsmouth earlier this month, and Bogdanovich has good size and skill who reminds one Northwest Division GM of a poor man's Peja Stojakovic.

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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