Well, you never know.
A year ago, the first name mentioned among potential stars at small forward before the Draft was Duke freshman Brandon Ingram, a high Lottery pick to be sure. And, Ingram may well wind up living up to the hype. But his rookie year in the NBA was humbling. And several other guys who weren’t taken nearly as high are still playing for their respective teams in the playoffs, while Ingram slogged through a 26-56 season with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Successful threes come in all sizes. Jaylen Brown, taken third, is a high-flier who had the good fortune to be taken by a good team, the Boston Celtics, as he learned his craft and got comfortable shooting 3-pointers. Taurean Prince had to grind his way into the Atlanta Hawks’ rotation as a defense-first small forward with a rapidly expanding offensive game. The Chicago Bulls’ Paul Zipser could shoot, but the second-round pick had to become more of a playmaker to earn more minutes -- which he has.
The point is, there’s no template for what makes an effective small forward in the NBA. And this year’s group of small forwards in the 2017 Draft are as eclectic as ever. There are snipers and grunts; rebounders and shot blockers, strong tough guys who can lock you up and blossoming wings with amazing length just touching the surface of what they can do. They won’t all make it in the league; in fact, most won’t. But there will be surprises. There always are.
ICYMI, here are the other evaluations:
And so you can mark your calendars, the NBA's Draft Lottery is on May 16.
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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.
We include underclassmen that are expected to declare for the Draft, or are at least thinking strongly about it. No one who hasn't thought about declaring is going to be swayed by seeing his name on a Draft board. So we include everyone.
Players are listed at the position at which NBA people believe they'll play as pros.
For example: when I originally did the small forward Big Board, I thought that Syracuse forward Tyler Lydon was more likely to play the three in the pros. But most scouts and team execs with whom I’ve subsequently spoken have strongly said they believe that Lydon will, at least for now, have to play more power forward than small forward. So I took him off of the small forward Big Board (with everyone originally behind him moving up a spot, and Kansas State’s Wesley Iwundu moving into the number 10 spot) and put Lydon on the power forward Big Board.
Players who declare for the Draft have until May 24 -- 10 days of the end of the NBA Combine, which was from May 9-14 in Chicago -- to pull out of the Draft as long as they don’t sign with an agent. This rule was instituted last year to give players more time to make a more informed decision about their potential Draft status after talking with and working out for NBA teams at the Combine.
Again: This is not a mock Draft (though one of those is, sadly, coming). No one has any idea what will happen between now and June 24; we don't know if there will be a major injury that will impact what a team wants or needs. What follows is a rough consensus of what NBA personnel people, GMs and coaches, and college coaches that I trust -- and that, obviously, can't be quoted by name -- believe is the pro potential for this year's crop of college and international players.
• "Sleepers" are players almost certain to go in the second round, or may go undrafted, but who could nonetheless make a roster or otherwise have an impact on the teams that select them if they overcome perceived shortcomings.
• "Some Scouts Like" will refer to players whose intentions are not yet known for certain, but who are viewed as potentially draftable if they do. Emphasis on "potentially."
• If a player was not invited to the Combine, his height and weight is his listed one from his school and/or his pro team if he's an international prospect.
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David Aldridge's Big Board 2017: Small Forwards
Rank | Name | School/Team | Class/Age | HT | WT > Projected
1. Josh Jackson | Kansas | Freshman | 6-8 | 207 > High lottery
2. Jayson Tatum | Duke | Freshman | 6-8 | 205 > High lottery
3. Jonathan Issac | Florida State | Freshman | 6-10 | 210 > Mid-lottery
4. OG Anunoby | Indiana | Sophomore | 6-7 | 232 > Mid/late first round
5. Semi Ojeleye | SMU | Junior | 6-7 | 241 > Late first round/Early second round
6. Devin Robinson | Florida | Junior | 6-8 | 189 > Second round
7. Dillon Brooks | Oregon | Junior | 6-6 | 220 > Second round
8. Jaron Blosssomgame | Clemson | Senior | 6-6 | 218 > Second round
9. Wesley Iwundu | Kansas State | Senior | 6-7 | 225 > Second round
10. V.J. Beacham | Notre Dame | Senior | 6-6 | 193> Second round
SLEEPERS: Malcolm Hill, 6-6, 225, Illinois; Peter Jok, 6-5, 202, Iowa; Aleksander Vezenkov (21), 6-7, 225, FC Barcelona; Kris Jenkins, 6-6, 235, Villanova
SOME SCOUTS LIKE: Paris Bass (21), 6-8, 200, Erie Bayhawks (D League)
Iguodala-like traits mark Jackson’s game
To the shock of absolutely no one, Kansas freshman Josh Jackson officially declared for the Draft Monday. A guy who’s almost certain to be a top-three pick, the 6-foot-8 Jackson would have been crazy not to come out.
The Kansas freshman was as good as advertised in his one season in Lawrence, winning Big 12 Freshman of the Year and all-Big 12 first team honors. And while his numbers weren’t eye-popping (16.3 points, 7.4 rebounds and 3 assists), he was rock solid consistent most of the year for the Jayhawks, scoring in double figures in 33 of their 36 games, including double-doubles in his final two games, in the NCAA Tournament, against Purdue and Oregon -- which followed a 23-point effort in the second round against Michigan State, a game that meant a lot to Jackson, a Detroit native who’d been recruited heavily by the Spartans.
More to the point of NBA types, his defensive capabilities have drawn comparisons to Kawhi Leonard and Andre Iguodala -- and if he can develop a consistent jumper, one scout said, he’d be on a trajectory like that of Wolves forward Andrew Wiggins.
“I freaking love him,” said an executive of a team that should be fairly high in the Lottery. “This guy’s getting better as he goes, so I can’t see how he can’t be Iguodala -- a guy who can defend and pass, and who’s becoming a better shooter. I know the Kansas people, and in terms of work and all that stuff … they were absolutely in love with him as a kid -- not a little bit, a lot. He has Wiggins’ athleticism with character off the chain.”
There is some question about that character, however, as Jackson has been involved in separate incidents during his year in Kansas.
Jackson wound up involved in an incident involving his Jayhawks’ teammate, Lagerald Vick, and Vick’s ex-girlfriend, McKenzie Calvert, a member of the Kansas women’s basketball team, last December. Calvert reportedly threw a drink at Vick in a Lawrence bar. As she was leaving the bar afterward, Jackson allegedly followed her and then threatened her with physical violence. Jackson then, according to witnesses’ statement, then kicked at Calvert’s car while she was in it, causing damage to the vehicle.
Though he issued an apology through his attorney offering to pay for the damage to the car, Jackson pled not guilty last week to one count of misdemeanor property damage.
Jackson was then suspended from Kansas’ first game in the Big 12 Tournament in March, after informing the team he had struck a parked vehicle on campus in February and left without leaving his information for the owner of the other car.
NBA front office people say the two incidents don’t of and by themselves rise to the level of disqualifying Jackson from consideration for being taken high in the Draft. But they will investigate those incidents to see if they’re part of any kind of repeated pattern.
On the floor, the biggest concerns are with Jackson’s shot. He wound up shooting a healthy 38 percent on 3-pointers, but that came after he started just 9 of 38 behind the arc during the first half of the season.
“At the beginning of the year, everybody was backing off of him, letting him shoot the jumper,” said the coach of one team that played Kansas this season. “ … I don’t know if he put the work in at the gym or what -- he’s got that little hitch in his shot -- but like they say, all that counts is results. If he can get that midrange going, because he can rise over top of people.”
A Pacific Division executive echoed that sentiment, though others wonder if the deeper NBA 3-pointer will cause Jackson problems, at least initially.
“There’s a lot less of a concern now than there was in the early part of the season, maybe the middle of the season,” the executive said. “He shot 40 percent the last month, month and a half of the year (Jackson shot 48.1 percent, 25 of 52, behind the arc the last seven weeks of the season). He’s been the best player in his class. He has that kind of pedigree. If he can consistently shoot from NBA range, he does so many other things well he’s going to be a good NBA player.”
Jackson doesn’t have a pristine handle yet -- “you don’t want him to go past two dribbles, three max,” the college coach said. But he’s plenty good everywhere else.
“He’s kind of like Wiggins a little bit,” the college coach said. “Wiggins left after his freshman year; Josh Jackson is a better shooter (than Wiggins was at the same time). Josh has got crazy athleticism, but Wiggins is elite. They both can defend. They both rebound. They both do similar stuff. But Wiggins is more athletic, and Josh is more consistent.”
Tatum ready to help an NBA team now
After Jackson, scouts and front office types are split on whether taking Duke freshman Jayson Tatum or Florida State freshman Jonathan Isaac is the better play.
Both are immensely talented; the decision on which one to take likely depends on the state of your team and the current level of expectations. A team that needs to compete more immediately could take Tatum and sleep well, but a team with a little more time to build a roster might be willing to take Isaac -- who scouts think may take a little longer to reach his potential, but whose ceiling may also be greater.
“We probably have Tatum a little ahead,” a Pacific Division executive said. “He’s got prototypical size, length and strength. For a 19-year-old, he’s got an unbelievably good body. He looks like an NBA vet. He scores the ball so easily. He’s the best shooter of the three. He does need to get better defensively. He’s able to do both of those things, score from all ranges. The question is, can he combine all of that, be a three-level scorer (three-pointer, midrange and in the post)? From what I’ve seen he has a chance to do all three, even though he hasn’t done it consistently.”
No one, though, compares Tatum to Iguodala or Leonard defensively. His skill is putting the ball in the basket, which he did well for the Blue Devils, averaging almost 17 points a game, including seven games with 20 or more points, in a little more than 33 minutes a night. He didn’t dominate, but he was there at key moments late in the season -- 25 points and six rebounds against Louisville in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals; 24 points and seven rebounds against North Carolina in the semis.
Said a Southwest Division man: “I like him a lot. The game is natural to him. Can score and make plays for others. I am a fan. He will be a very good pro.”
The third team all-ACC and all-ACC freshman selection thus is a little higher on most Draft boards than Isaac.
“I think I’d lead towards Tatum, with a caveat,” a Central Division personnel man said. “I think Tatum could help you today. You could put him in for 20 minutes and he’d do just fine. Isaac could take some time. But he’s got real, real length and size to be special special. The safe choice would be Tatum. The flyer would be Isaac.”
Tatum shot just 34 percent on 3-pointers for Duke. NBA evaluators believe, though, that he can ultimately become credible enough to be a three-level scorer in the NBA -- on 3-pointers, from the midrange and in the post. (Indeed, some also think Tatum may be able to play some power forward in the pros.)
“I think Tatum’s better than he showed this year,” an Atlantic Division college evaluator said. “Duke struggled a lot this year. I think he was a victim of that. He makes buckets. He’s challenged east-west as a defender, but … offense is the currency of our game. I think he’ll score. He’s got a hundred ways to score. He can make buckets and he can make passes.”
The 19-year-old Isaac, though, is the choice of others -- a remarkably fast ascent for someone who was just 6-foot-3 as a sophomore in high school.
“I’d take Isaac even though he’s not a true three,” a veteran Central Division evaluator said. “He can do everything a three needs to do, but he can play four, too, because he has size. Much more well-rounded game than Tatum.”
Issac oozes with NBA potential
At 6-foot-10 (which does not include the frohawk he rocks), and 210 pounds, Jonathan Isaac does not have the girth and strength that Tatum has. But, he’s 19. Chances are he’s far from done putting on weight. The possibility of what he can become physically -- he has a 7-foot-1 wingspan -- leaves NBA types salivating.
“Isaac is a little bit more unique,” a longtime team executive said.
“How does his size and his body fit in? He’s got that [Kristaps] Porzingis-kind of game and build. Porzingis found a niche; does this guy find a niche at his size? You really have to use some vision to think about where he fits in down the road.”
Isaac shot 51 percent from the floor for the Seminoles, taking just eight shots a game.
“He has such a unique skillset at his size and his length,” a Northwest Division executive said. “He has more upside to Tatum when you’re drafting up there -- and I think Tatum is going to be very good. It’s hard to predict but I think he’ll be able to put some strength on and be able to be strong enough. Having seen him up close and personal I’ll probably have a better idea. But he is thin.”
And on a team that featured more than a couple of NBA prospects, including guard Dwayne Bacon and center Michael Ojo, Isaac didn’t force things.
“From everything we’ve been told he’s a really high character kid,” a Southeast Division exec said. “He’s the least accomplished of the three but he did have a good season. He’s not as assertive as Tatum or Jackson; part of that is his youthfulness. But he has two-way potential. Good hands, touch. He can play four if he adds some muscle to his frame. If you need help in a game today those two guys are probably more ready.”
Also in Isaac’s favor is the job that Florida State coach Leonard Hamilton has done in Tallahassee since taking over as coach in 2002. Since coming to FSU, Hamilton has developed several players who’ve gone on to NBA careers, including Toney Douglas, Bernard James, Al Thornton, Chris Singleton, Von Wafer, Okaro White and Malik Beasley. NBA people like players from schools where players have been pushed to get better -- and who have gotten better.
“If you get a Michigan State guy or a Marquette guy, you know they’ve been coached, been pushed with a certain degree of force … there are benefits to that, to know that a kid’s not going to crumble, not going to break under scrutiny.
Anunoby's defense a bright spot
Indiana sophomore OG Anunoby was a potential late Lottery pick until he tore his right ACL in a game against Penn State in January. The 6-foot-6, 232-pound forward nonetheless declared for the Draft, after averaging11 points and 5 rebounds in just 16 games. Obviously, teams will want to examine him before the Draft to get a sense of where he is in his rehabilitation.
“If he were healthy it would be different,” a Western Conference front office man said. “If you’re talking about (drafting him) toward the end of the Lottery, I don’t know if you can take a guy with that kind of injury. But, he’s a great defender. I’m concerned about him a little him offensively.”
Assuming a full return to health, Anunoby has significant potential as someone expected to be able to guard threes and fours at the next level. And with the success the Golden State Warriors and other teams have had switching successfully on defense one through five, a frontcourt player with that kind of skill level will be valued greatly. (Witness his work here picking up Kansas guard Frank Mason out top and staying with and in front of him during the entire play. A foul was called, but it wasn’t on Anunoby.)
“Physically, he’s got the strength and the power to play the four,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “There will be some matchups where he just doesn’t have the height, but he’s going to have enough versatility that (against) most backup fours, he’s going to be able to match up against them. The league is spacing and shooting; there’s not many power fours anymore. (But) I can’t see OG turning into Kawhi, personally. Kawhi was such a great rebounder in college, and that’s not what OG does.”
But Anunaby will have to show he’s capable of doing more offensively. His 3-point shooting cratered last season, from 45 percent as a freshman to 31 percent in his limited action.
“He can guard a three,” one college scout said. “But that guy has no way in hell of playing offensively at the three. I don’t like him because I don’t think he knows how to play. This guy is gonna be a four. That guy’s bigger than 230. His legs are huge. He looks like an NFL player.”
Shooting marks Lydon's game
Syracuse sophomore Tyler Lydon brings several potential skills to the table. He was fifth in the ACC in rebounding (8.6 per game) and sixth in blocked shots (1.4), while also shooting almost 40 percent on 3-pointers. Even though the Orange didn’t make the NCAAs this season that kind of versatility and athletic ability has Lydon pegged as a potential late first-round pick.
“He can really shoot it, but he’s not the most nimble athlete laterally,” one scout said. “But he does have an NBA skill.”
Kurucs shining in overseas play
Latvian forward Rodions Kurucs has been a pro for three years, most recently with Spanish powerhouse FC Barcelona, which has used him on its “B” team, Lassa, which plays in Spain’s second tier league, LEB Oro. (The Barcelona “A” team, with more proven talent and top prospects, plays in Spain’s ACB League, generally considered the best pro league in the world outside of the NBA.) Lassa was the first professional home of guard Mario Hezonja, who was taken with the fifth pick of the 2015 Draft by the Orlando Magic.
The 19-year-old Kurucs, who led Latvia’s Under 16 team to the title game at the 2014 European championships, has gotten decent playing time with Lassa, and would be a potential stash player for a team with multiple first-round picks, though he’s had a couple of knee injuries that have slowed him the last few years as he’s risen in international play.
“He’s skilled, versatile, can get on a roll shooting the ball,” a Southeast Division executive said.
The issue with Kurucs is, as with many young players good enough to play for a powerhouse organization like Barcelona, his existing contract, which has two years remaining. Some NBA teams fear that the buyout to get him out of the deal and allow him to sign with an NBA club is prohibitively expensive. Several scouts are planning to see Kurucs toward the end of this month; he’s just started Euroleague play with the parent club.
Ojeleye able to fill either forward spot
SMU junior Semi Ojeleye is a little older (22) than most prospects these days, but he was impressive for the Mustangs, winning American Athletic Conference Player of the Year and Scholar-Athlete of the Year honors. The transfer from Duke averaged 18.5 points and 6.8 rebounds (and shot 42 percent on threes) at SMU after sitting out the 2015-16 season while the Mustangs were banned from postseason play.
Ojeleye had some huge games -- 30 points at Temple in February, and a career-high 36 against East Carolina in the first round of the AAC tournament, which finished 30-5 after losing to USC in the first round of the NCAA tournament. At 6-foot-7, 235 pounds, Ojeleye could play both forward positions in the NBA. But right now, he’s contemplating whether to remain in the Draft or return to SMU for his senior season. He’d likely be a second-round pick at present this year.
Robinson boasts reliable 3-point shot
Junior Devin Robinson put his name into the Draft after averaging 11.1 points and 6.1 rebounds last season for Florida. He’s got good size (6-7, 190) for a three, and he shot the ball pretty well – 39.1 percent on 3-pointers -- for the Gators, leaving the possibility of him seeing some stretch four play in the NBA.
“He’s long, got a good looking shot,” said the coach of a team that played Florida this season. “He’s a bigger Bruce Bowen and a little more athletic. He’s going to make the corner three. He’s an unbelievable defender. Good footwork. Athletic, finishes decent around the basket. But he can flat out shoot the corner three. He needs to work on his ballhandling. But he’s got a good basketball IQ and pretty good instincts.”
Can Brooks’ game work in NBA?
Oregon’s Dillon Brooks declared for the Draft last week, after a storybook season where he was Pac 12 Player of the Year and the Ducks made the Final Four, losing a heartbreaker to North Carolina in the national semifinals. Brooks played power forward for Oregon down the stretch of the season, after the Ducks lost center Chris Boucher to injury, forcing forward Jordan Bell into the middle and Brooks to the four. But his NBA future is almost certainly at the three.
“I like his toughness, fearlessness and intensity,” a Pacific Division executive said. “I think he is a poor man's Jared Dudley...but I’m not sure he can guard wings effectively at this level.”
Brooks has some work to do to convince scouts he can make the leap.
“He’s as competitive as they come, as confident as they come,” a Southeast Division exec said. “But I do worry about how his game will translate. He was a college four who won’t have the size to play the four at our level. Has to prove he has the quickness and shot and ability to move his feet defensively to play against three. He’s competitive but at some level you have to have the skill level.”
Said another veteran personnel man: “he’s not in the same class of the other (top) guys. I don’t know where I’d put him. I like the other kid, Bell, just as much. That team, each player was so aggressive. They all played hard. They all competed. Well-coached team. Brooks is not the most athletic kid in the world, but he’s a tough nut. He’ll be in the league.”
Blossomgame must add 3-point range
Clemson’s Jaron Blossomgame thought about entering the Draft last year, but returned for his senior season, earning third team all-ACC honors while averaging 17.6 points and 6.3 rebounds. He had some big moments in big games -- 24 points and seven rebounds against North Carolina, 25 points and seven rebounds at Pittsburgh, 24 points and eight rebounds against Florida State. But he showed little ability to stretch the floor, shooting just 25.5 percent on 3-pointers.
“He’s kind of an undersized power four,” said one coach whose team played Clemson this season. “Not a great 3-point shooter; he goes out to about 14 feet. Isolates from the foul line. He’s got a strong right hand. I think it’s a little mechanical. He’s got a funky release off the corner of his hand. It’s correctable, but it’s not smooth at all.”
And some notes on the others …
• Notre Dame senior V.J. Beacham, an honorable mention all ACC selection.
• Illinois’ Malcolm Hill, who was second team all Big 10 as a senior after finishing third on the school’s all-time scoring list (1,817 points) and leading Illinois in scoring, steals and assists.
• Bulgarian forward Aleksandar Vezenkov, a 21-year-old prospect plying for the Barcelona A team in the ACB League who may put his name into the Draft.
• Iowa swingman Peter Jok, a first-team all-Big 10 pick who averaged 19.9 points for the Hawkeyes and was a career 38 percent three-point shooter over four years.
• Kansas State’s Wesley Iwundu, a third team all-Big 12 choice.
• Villanova hero Kris Jenkins, who won the national championship as a junior then watched his adopted brother Nate Britt do the same for North Carolina.
• L.J. Peak and Mikal Bridges are currently projected as late second-rounders.
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