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David Aldridge

Center prospects like Enes Kanter have the ability to tantalize -- and torment -- NBA execs long after Draft day.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

As usual, center crop has bevy of high risk-reward prospects

Posted Jun 23 2011 8:58AM

LaRue Martin.

Sam Bowie.

Joe Barry Carroll.

Michael Olowokandi.

Shawn Bradley.

Kwame Brown.

Frederick Weis.

Nikoloz Tskitishvilli.

Almost every team has a horror story about a young big man gone wrong.

For every Bill Russell, it seems, there are a half-dozen Kent Bensons. Part of that is obvious and not especially telling; there has one been one William Felton Russell, and everyone else is a poor facsimile. But because so much hope is invested in the biggest of the big men who play the game, their failures seem to resonate longer and carry more weight. The risk-reward doesn't seem to be worth it. There are never a lot of good center prospects in an NBA Draft. This year is no different. But NBA teams are creatures of habit, and their habit is always to take a chance on a big guy.

Big guys take longer to develop, if they do at all. Because of that, they can look really bad early in their career, which makes the general managers that took them look bad. Which makes it a lot easier to go for a surer thing, like a wing player who can put the ball on the floor or shoot. But eventually, bigs come off the board. And this year's crop features a couple of intriguing international prospects who could wind up being worth the investment -- in the buyout of their international team contracts, and the time it will take them to reach their full NBA potential.

To reiterate: we are now ranking underclassmen as well as seniors, in order to give you a more accurate look at the top prospects and potential Draft position. All underclassmen on the Big Board are those who kept their names in the Draft after the May 8 deadline to withdraw.

Also, because the folks at have asked me nicely, I am going to try -- try -- a mock draft after Tuesday's lottery is complete. It is not something I feel comfortable doing, because nobody has any idea of what trades are going to be made between now and the June 23 Draft. (How many teams are going to want to trade their first-rounders -- especially teams in the bottom third of the first round who don't want to commit guaranteed money to a guy that's likely not going to play much, and certainly not in a possible lockout year?)

We don't know who's going to be hurt. We don't know (yet) what promises have been made to what players. But they asked, so I'll try.

Again, though, the Big Board is a not a predictor of when players will be chosen; team needs always come first. A team that already has a physical forward or center could go for a more finesse (or stretch) four in the Draft, and vice versa. The rankings, based on conversations with NBA and college scouts, pro and college coaches and general managers and personnel directors, addresses 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 now, not in three years.


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.

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. I have included Maryland's Jordan Williams among the centers after originally listing him at power forward a couple of weeks ago; a number of teams have indicated to me that they have Williams listed as a center, because he likely won't be quick enough to guard most fours in the NBA and will have trouble scoring from that spot as well. Some teams have Bismack Biyombo listed as a five, but more of the teams I spoke with had him as a four, so he'll stay at the four spot on our Big Board, while Jonas Valanciunas and Enes Kanter are listed as centers.

"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 this week.

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

Rank Name School/Team Class/Age Height Weight Wingspan
1 Jonas Valanciunas Lietuvos Rytas 19 6-11 240 TBA
2 Enes Kanter Fenerbahce Ulker (Turkey) 18 6-11 259 7-2
3 Nikola Vucevic USC Junior 7-0 260 7-5
4 Jordan Williams Maryland Sophomore 6-9 247 7-0
5 Jeremy Tyler Tokyo Apache 19 6-11 262 7-5
6 Keith Benson Oakland Senior 6-11 217 7-4
7 Rick Jackson Syracuse Junior 6-9 216 7-2
8 Josh Harrellson Kentucky Senior 6-10 275 TBA
9 Greg Smith Fresno State Sophomore 6-9 253 7-3
10 Michael Dunigan Kalev/Cramo Estonia 21 6-10 238 7-3

SLEEPER: Gary McGhee, 6-10, 250, Pittsburgh

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

You ask college scouts, GMs and other NBA types about Jonas Valanciunas, and you hear the same sentence, over and over. He plays hard. And that is what excites so many about the now 19-year-old Lithuanian.

Valanciunas has been on the radar of NBA personnel since leading Lithuania to the Under-16 European championship in 2008, where he won Most Valuable Player honors, followed by a strong turn at the Nike Juniors and a strong showing at the Under-19 European championships in 2009. He more than held his own against the other big NBA center prospect this year, Enes Kanter. Last year, he repeated the feat in leading his native country to the Under-18 title.

Enes Kanter is perhaps the most physically mature center prospect, but he has the lowest ceiling.
Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

In a year where international prospects are among the best in the Draft, Valanciunas may well be the best of them, drawing comparisons to the Bulls' Joakim Noah because of his motor. Guys who play that hard usually get better at the things they're not good at now. The 6-foot-11 teenager is skinny, though, and will need to live in the weight room for a couple of years.

The biggest question about Valanciunas may be his contract. There are conflicting reports about how hard it will be for him to get out of the remaining three years of his deal with Lietuvos Rytas.

"The buyout's not bad," said a Central division executive, "but it exists, and it has many years on it."

Valanciunas may be worth the wait, but it's a gamble in a league that still remembers how Orlando has been left high and dry by Spanish star Fran Vazquez -- the 11th pick in 2005 who has yet to move to the NBA. And the looming lockout creates another set of uncertainties for international players -- and their agents -- who will think long and hard before signing an NBA contract with the possibility of not getting paid for a year. It may make more sense to stay in Europe and enjoy the guaranteed payday.

Valanciunas may be worth the risk.

"Whoever gets him, they're going to have a player," gushes a Pacific Division executive. "First of all, he has a motor. He plays hard and he has a huge (7-foot-6) wingspan. The only thing right now is he's light in the (behind). But he's got great hands. He's not a stiff; he's got a touch. He runs. Whether he can contain the post right now, I don't know; he's so light. But he's got a lot of (stuff) going for him."

Said another Pacific Rimmer: "That kid can play. Are there some considerations about his contract? Yes. But his age is legit. He's thin looking but I see him having good strength in the body he has. In two years, he could be cut pretty well. They don't lift (weights) the way we lift. He's not going to be Dwight Howard, but I see him as a kid that's not going to get pushed around in our league."

Lietuvos has used him in uncoventional ways, playing him almost exclusively inside instead of moving him around the perimeter, throwing him lobs instead of having him take jumpers. He doesn't come off of screens; frequently, he's the one setting the screens. The result is a player who may have a much quicker adjustment to the NBA game than most international players.

Josh Harrellson vastly improved his game last season and could be a pick-and-pop big man.
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

In addition, those who have seen Valanciunas play describe him as playing with a great spirit and bounce to his step. In layup lines, when European players are more rigid and strict in their movements, Valanciunas has been known to go between his legs, go behind his back and put on a dunk show just like his NBA brethren frequently do.

Said a Pacific scout: "I really love the kid. He's not the greatest athlete in the world, but neither is Marc Gasol. He is really skilled. His upside is off the charts. And he's Lithuanian, so he really likes to play. He is so talented, and the first to practice and the last to leave every day. He's probably not as ready to play as Kanter because Kanter is physically more mature, but Kanter has a ceiling."

Speaking of which, Kanter has taken his own circuitous route to the NBA, having been declared ineligible by the NCAA last November before playing a game for Kentucky, a ruling twice upheld on appeals by the school. Kanter's family had accepted $33,000 in benefits while he played for the Fenerbahce club in his native Turkey in 2008-09. Kanter and Kentucky argued that most of that money went for the school he attended while playing. The NCAA wasn't moved.

That decision has created a schism between NBA types, who haven't seen Kanter play since then, other than his star turn at the Nike Hoop Summit in Portland last year.

"To take a kid that high who essentially hasn't played in a year and a half, and the last game he played in was a JUCO game, it will take a very strong GM to draft him," a Central division personnel director said. "I don't know how many of the GMs with top 10 picks have ever seen this kid play. At the end of the day, he might be a riskier pick than Valanciunas."

Kanter was allowed to practice this season with Kentucky, however, and NBA scouts were allowed to attend many of the workouts. Many days, Kanter worked out against senior Josh Harrellson, another top center prospect. That has alleviated the concerns of a few teams.

"Me personally, I wouldn't be concerned," said a Pacific division exec. "Most of the people who have done their homework have been able to see him in person. I did. Anybody who thought they may have been interested should have been there. I bet you anybody in the top five was in those practices more than once. And (Kentucky coach John) Calipari practices most of the time. He went against Harrellson. But you could have seen him go against Vanderbilt or Florida and you might not see him go up against a guy better than Harrellson. Sometimes there's a roadblock that says, 'We shouldn't draft this guy.' There's none of that here."

Another scout says the rust is a concern. "But again, you look at him, the one time we could look at him, at the Hoops Summit, and he dominated the game," said the scout, who evaluates Kanter like other European prospects in recent years that didn't play very much for their teams but were able to demonstrate their skills to NBA scouts in practices before the Draft.

Harrellson wasn't much of a prospect last year, playing just 88 minutes for the Wildcats and never breaking into Calipari's rotation. He could sprint for only 45 seconds before getting winded. But Harrellson underwent a transformation last summer under the eye of Kentucky assistant coach and former 76ers swingman Kenny Payne. Working out up to three times a day, Harrellson lost weight and was able to go end to end for three minutes by the start of the season. And his increased workload from 1.2 rebounds a game to 8.8 per game this season was the largest jump in the country.

Nikola Vucevic's skills should give him an advantage in the NBA against slower centers.
Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

He won't wow anyone with anything he does. But when you look at the box score at the end of the game, you see that he had an impact most nights. He uses his improved body to move opponents out of the way and gets his hands on a lot of loose balls for putbacks and second-shot opportunities.

Some scouts who saw Harrellson at Kentucky's Pro Day earlier this month (Kanter did not work out then) were impressed with his perimeter skills and believe he could ultimately be a pick-and-pop player. But he'll have to be drafted by the right team and be allowed to grow in a system that will take advantage of his skills. Like many players, he would benefit from going to a good team late in the first round -- with the guaranteed money that first-rounders get as a bonus -- and work on his game for a year or two instead of being drafted early in the second by a bad team where he'd be expected to contribute more immediately.

USC's Vucevic is an in-between big man who will likely play more center than power forward in the pros. He's not quick or big enough -- he doesn't have much lift, either -- to be able to overpower fours in the post or run out to guard stretch fours in the short corner. But he's got skills, so he's probably got a better chance of contributing against slower, plodding centers.

"Some nights you might be able to put him at four," said a Southeast Division scout, "but those fours now, they're tall threes, the good ones."

There isn't a bigger question mark in the Draft than Tyler, who famously decided to challenge the system a couple of years ago by leaving San Diego High School before his senior season so that he could play overseas for two years until he turned 19, after which he'd be NBA eligible. But he failed to impress pro scouts at the adidas Eurocamp in Italy in June, 2009. And his season in Israel was a disaster, with Tyler playing just 10 games for Maccabi Haifa before quitting, upset about a lack of playing time. He rebounded this past season in Japan, playing well in a second-tier Japanese league where he was coached by former NBA coach Bob Hill.

"Being in Japan is amazing, especially in Tokyo," Tyler told The New York Times in early March. "Everybody is so positive, my coaches, my teammates. There are so many different things to explore here. I'm really enjoying my time here. Basketball is taking care of itself."

But Tyler's season in Japan ended with the devastating earthquake March 11 that killed tens of thousands. The Japanese league he played in suspended operations after the quake, and Tyler has been in the States the last two months preparing for the Draft. Questions about Tyler's maturity continue to make scouts leery, however, and he will have the opportunity to answer some of the bigger questions this week in Chicago.

"I don't know if a lot of people have had a chance to talk to him since the Eurocamp," one scouting director said. "In that camp, he was not good. He did not look like an NBA prospect. But a year's gone by. He had a good year overseas. He's got some workouts scheduled. When you talk about taking a chance, from picks 40-60, those are the picks you take a chance on. He's going to have to show people that his game and his character has matured since Treviso. Nobody doubted his talent in high school. If he had played in Italy, some people might have sought him. But nobody made a trip to Japan to see a guy that might not get drafted."

Oakland's Keith Benson intrigues scouts with his length and shot-blocking skills.
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

Oakland University's Benson may become a power forward, and he has to do the requisite improving of his strength, but he can run the floor and he can shoot it pretty well for a big man. And he already has a discernable NBA skill -- he can block shots. He finished second in the country in swats (3.6) per game last season and he has the length and instincts to transfer that to the pros -- a skill that is always in demand. But he has to also prove he can play night in and out; he showed a propensity for playing up and down to the competition in college. Syracuse's Jackson has a big body and his effort will earn him a look somewhere.

Fresno's Smith has a lot of doubters. He did not play well at the New Jersey combine last week. There aren't many people who understand his decision to leave school after his sophomore year. Only a few more understand Jordan Williams's decision to leave Maryland at a similar point in his career; he needs to improve his conditioning a great deal if he's going to be able to guard any big men at the next level. He does have good hands and did show an ability to rebound in the ACC, however, and that's a skill that usually transfers.

The 21-year-old Dunigan has his own questions to answer after abruptly leaving Oregon last year to sign with an Israeli team. The school began an investigation into whether Dunigan received extra benefits before the start of his junior season, but he left school before Oregon completed its inquiry. But because Dunigan left in September, he was too late to declare for the NBA Draft. So he played in Jerusalem before that team loaned him to Kalev/Cramo in Estonia, where he finished the season and played well.

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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