Point guards under the radar as 2014 Draft talk begins
POSTED: Mar 24, 2014 12:56 PM ET
Young Dante Exum of Austrailia has as much talent as he does question marks.
Oh, is it time to start talking about the Draft already?
Man, who doesn't love three months of mindless speculation, lies, agent manipulation and wild overhype? I know I do!
But here we are again, to start putting together a Big Board of Draft prospects. Never has the Draft created more controversy and intrigue, given the incessant talk this year about tanking and the potential of a group that could be the best class to enter the NBA since the LeBron-Carmelo-Wade-Bosh of 2003.
If you've followed along over the years you know that we now add undergrads that are likely to declare for the Draft, or that most around the league believe will declare before the deadline, in the position evaluations. This is, mercifully, not a mock draft, but the preponderance of mock drafts makes it unlikely a kid who's on the fence is going to go one way or another based on what I write. (The listing "Some Scouts Like" will refer to players who are not certain to declare, but who are viewed as potentially draftable if they do. Emphasis on "potentially.") We want to be as accurate and as early as possible with what we think is the correct ranking of all the likely entrants in the Draft.
We go 1-5 when making our assessments, so we'll start again this year with point guards, and go every other week with the other four spots, alternating with the Morning Tip.
*After the Chicago pre-Draft camp, we will update the Board with official heights and weights, and add player wingspans as measured there. For now, player heights and weights are their listed ones from their schools or teams.
DA's Big Board Schedule
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.
For example: UCLA's 6-foot-9 sophomore, Kyle Anderson is a point guard in college (he's a finalist for the Bob Cousy Award, given to the nation's top point guard). And he'll certainly handle the ball a lot as a pro whenever he's drafted. But more NBA teams with whom I've spoken list him as a power forward prospect as a pro -- some compare him with the Spurs' Boris Diaw, who displayed point forward skills early in his career with Atlanta and Phoenix, but is now a more traditional frontcourt player. So we will list Anderson as a power forward on the Big Board.
Again: This is not a mock Draft. They are a complete waste of time, especially this long before June. No one has any idea what will happen between now and then; we don't even know all the teams that will be in the lottery, much less in which order they'll be picking. We don't know if there will be a major injury that will impact what a team wants or needs, (Of course, I will humiliate myself yet again and post a mock Draft just before the June 26 extravaganza. Y'all seem to like it.)
In the interim, 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 but who may have first-round talent or otherwise have an impact on the teams that select them if they overcome perceived shortcomings.
• "Some Scouts Like" are players who are not certain to declare, but are viewed as potentially draftable if they do -- with an emphasis on "potentially."
• All measurements are the official ones available after the Chicago pre-Draft combine. Measurements for players who did not attend the pre-Draft camp are from their respective university or team.
RANK | NAME | SCHOOL/TEAM | CLASS/AGE | HT | WT > Projected
1. Dante Exum | Aus. Inst. of Sport | 18 | 6-6 | 193 > Top 4
2. Marcus Smart | Okla. St. | Sophomore | 6-3 1/4 | 227 > High lottery
3. Elfrid Payton | La.-Lafayette | Sophomore | 6-3 3/4 | 185 > Late Lottery / Mid 1st
4. Zach LaVine | UCLA | Freshman | 6-4 1/2 | 181 > Mid 1st
5. Shabazz Napier | UConn | Senior | 6-1 | 175 > Mid 1st
6. Tyler Ennis | Syracuse | Freshman | 6-2 1/2 | 181 > Mid-late first
7. Vasilje Micic | Mega Vizura | 20 | 6-5 | 200 > Mid-late first
8. Jordan Clarkson | Missouri | Junior | 6-5 | 186 > Late 1st / Early 2nd
9. Deonte Burton | Nevada | Senior | 6-1 1/4 | 193 > 2nd Round
10. Russ Smith | Louisville | Senior | 6-0 ¾ | 160 > 2nd Round
Sleepers: Xavier Thames, 6-3 1/2, 187, San Diego St.
Some Scouts Like: Jahil Carson (SO) 5-11, 180, Arizona State; Oliver Hanlan (SO) 6-4, 184, Boston College; Marcus Paige (SO) 6-1, 175, North Carolina
This is not a Draft deep with point guards.
Fortunately, that's not a problem for most NBA teams.
No position has been impacted as greatly by the league's recent set of rules changes as point guard. It was by design. Getting the ball into the hands of playmakers without those pesky hand-checking rules has opened up the game just the way the league's Competition Committee hoped. It has, of course, also changed what is now considered a point guard.
The classic, pass-first floor general is nearly extinct. The emphasis on the 3-point shot at all levels of basketball has made shotmaking a mandatory skill at all positions. Fortunately, there are still more small people in the world than large ones, so NBA teams have been able to fill the position quite well over the last few years. This may well be the era of the point guard, so varied are the skill sets of the league's elite at the position.
There's the ballhandling of Kyrie Irving, the scoring potency of Damian Lillard, the pure stroke of Steph Curry, the blinding speed of John Wall, the passing savvy of Ricky Rubio, the improvisational genius of Rajon Rondo. Tony Parker has mastered the art of shifting gears, with the position's best combination of speed, midrange game and exquisite footwork. Chris Paul leads like no man his size in the game. Russell Westbrook plays with power and rage; Mike Conley with finesse and guile. Derrick Rose's injuries the last two years don't change his status when healthy as a former league MVP.
But there are still a dozen teams out there with their point guard position in flux, either because of impending free agency or starters coming off of injury, or likely changes, such as the Lakers needing to find someone to succeed Steve Nash, whether or not they use the stretch provision to waive the final year of Nash's contract this summer. And they will have only a few players that are deemed impact players by pro personnel people.
Three point guards intrigue above the rest: Australian prospect Dante Exum, Oklahoma State sophomore Marcus Smart and Syracuse freshman Tyler Ennis. But each has questions.
Dante from Down Under
Exum, who won't turn 19 until July, excelled both at the Nike Hoop Summit and the Under-19 World Championships in the Czech Republic in 2013. He scored 33 points for Australia against Spain in the world quarterfinals, and more than held his own in Portland. He played in Canberra for a post-secondary school this season and decided last January to apply for the Draft rather than enroll at a U.S. college this year. He's already hired an agent and has been encamped in Los Angeles for the last few weeks -- and, given that his agent is also Kobe Bryant's agent, there's been more than a little speculation that the Lakers have targeted the talented teen.
"I bet you it's going to be a Dion Waiters situation where he's not going to work out for everybody; he's only going to work out for one or two teams," an Atlantic Division executive said. "He's not going to work out for Milwaukee. He's pretty good. All that stuff, for me, I like those kind of talented kids. But when you pick high up there, that's when you've got to know."
Top prospects for 2014 NBA Draft
He is skinny, but he is explosive, possessing a dynamic first step that will allow him to get into the lane. He's already an extremely creative passer. His shot is a work in progress, but scouts said it has improved in the last year, to the point where he could be a combo guard in the pros.
"He's a stud," a Southwest Division executive said. "He's a real one. He's not one of those maybes. He's like [Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins]. In the summer tournament, nobody could stop him. He was the best player in the world in the World Championships. He's got to gain weight, but that'll come. He's talented. You keep him as a combo, because you want him to learn both spots. I would just put him at the point and let him run it."
But it will take at least some powers of persuasion on the part of a team executive to convince his owner to pull the trigger on a teenager who has yet to play against men, and who spent the last year playing for Lake Ginninderra, the secondary school that is affiliated with Australia's Institute for Sport.
"Very few people saw him play. And that's going to be an issue," a Central Division executive said. "I don't care what anybody says. The fact that he hasn't played ... at least with Enes Kanter [drafted third overall by Utah in 2011], he didn't play the whole season for Kentucky [after being ruled ineligible by the NCAA], but he practiced every single day in Lexington. Teams could go down and see him play. I went to see him play and watch him play five on five with his team. You could see him and watch him play against four or five guys that were going to be pros."
A year later, Marcus still Smart pick?
Smart was expected to come out last year, when he was projected as a top-five overall pick. But he surprised everyone by opting to play a second season in Stillwater, a year that has been pockmarked by incidents.
He kicked a chair during a win over West Virginia in January, and briefly walked off the court after becoming frustrated by not getting foul calls.
Then came his infamous shove of a Texas Tech fan that had yelled insults at him during the Cowboys' visit to Lubbock Feb. 8. Smart was suspended by the Big 12 Conference for three games after the incident, though he came back and led Oklahoma State to key victories down the stretch of the regular season that allowed OSU to squeak into the NCAA Tournament. (Oklahoma State lost in the second round to Gonzaga last week.) Smart apologized after both incidents.
But NBA types I spoke with are not moved by Smart's non-basketball issues. They were more impressed with his decision to go back to school and put off the pros for a year.
"The incident he had this year doesn't bother me at all," a Western Conference executive said. "If he believes what was said to him, I can totally understand his reaction. I love that competitive fire in him. He wants to win. He wants to tear your heart out. Controlling that emotion will be an issue, but over 82 games, you have that malaise, and you need somebody to help you tear through that."
That doesn't mean, though, that there aren't significant questions about Smart.
"With all of the things that appear to cause mixed messages on Marcus Smart -- the temper tantrums, the walking off the court, the incident with the fan -- to me, in terms of the actual NBA teams that are looking to draft this kid, the number one thing he's going to have to answer is. 'Why didn't you win?,'" an Eastern Conference general manager said. "'You bring back the same team from last year and you didn't win nearly as much. You didn't win in the conference tournament, and in the NCAAs, you're one and out.'"
Smart, who won two state championships in high school, gets high marks from NBA types for leadership, toughness, intensity and other intangibles that scouts love. But a point guard has to be able to score in today's NBA as well -- pass-first players like Kendall Marshall have struggled to find a home early in their careers, though Marshall has played well since joining the Lakers -- and Smart has yet to prove he can be a consistent shooter. He improved his shooting as a sophomore, but just to 42 percent.
And there's the other end of the floor.
"The rules changes are really going to affect him," said an Atlantic Division executive. "In college, until this year it was so much more physical in the frontcourt than the NBA. You could hip and grab and handcheck ... and he benefitted from that, because he's not overly quick and he doesn't have a quick first step. But he's got width and he's got strength and he's got that alpha mentality. How is that going to translate (to the pros)? He's going to have to learn angles."
Ennis following in MCW's footsteps
Ennis replaced Michael Carter-Williams, taken eighth overall by the 76ers, at Syracuse, and immediately made his mark on the Orange program with a game-winning shot at Pittsburgh in February. He led the ACC in steals and assists per game, and was named a freshman all-America by the United States Basketball Writers Association.
He's just 19, but like MCW, his potential is likely to wind up being rewarded with a lottery selection.
"In terms of understanding the position and playing the position, he's probably the best one," a Southeast Division executive said. "But he doesn't have the strength or athleticism (yet). He's not super quick. But in terms of understanding the position, he's probably the best one. He understands time, score. He delivers the ball on time to people when they're open. When he has to interject himself as a scorer, I've seen him in games, early in games, where he may not look to shoot at all, get C.J. Fair and those guys going. But late in games, he will interject himself. He's just got a good sense, a lot of poise. He's just got a calming sense on the court."
Ennis doesn't have blinding speed, but like all great point guards, he has quickness, an ability to get where he needs to on the court. And scouts say he plays with happiness, a very valuable commodity for the position.
"He's got an unbelievable feel for the game," said a college assistant coach whose team played against Syracuse this season.
"The game is really in slow motion for him," the assistant said. "He's a good enough shooter to keep you honest, but what makes him special is his poise. He can run the pick and roll with the best of him ... his poise is off the charts. I felt like [Eric] Maynor was the same way. The game was going in slow motion for him. The reads he made, even though the game was played at high speed, stuff really slowed down for him. He has a propensity for making big shots. He's not going to get rattled or throw the ball away, and he's going to make timely shots."
Like any Syracuse player, Ennis will have to show that he can play man-to-man and keep quicksilver guards in front of him, after spending this season in Jim Boeheim's matchup 2-3 zone.
"He's got long arms," an Eastern Conference GM said. "I'm more concerned if he defends. That's my concern with those guys that play in that system. They're usually not very good defenders."
And then there's more ...
• Serbia's Vasilije Micic, a 20-year-old who plays with Mega Vizura, a team in Serbia's KLS, has impressed with his passing skills. He's not likely a starter in the NBA next season, but he is certainly draftable, averaging 13 points and 5.8 assists this season. He led Serbia to silver medals at the Under 18 European Championships in 2011 and the Under 19s in 2012, making the all-tournament team. Last fall, he helped the Serbian national team featuring fellow potential draftee Bogdan Bogdanovic and former Nets center Nenad Krstic qualify for this fall's FIBA World Cup of Basketball in Spain.
"He played real well," a Western Conference executive said. "Real smart, very steady. Runs the team. Not a real scorer, but he runs the team, like a typical Euro guard. Will he make a team? Yes. Is he a backup or third [guard]? Depends on the team and his skills. I'd put him in the mix in the top seven point guards in the draft. He can come in and rise to the top four, or he can be seven. Depends on how he adapts to our game and style."
It's possible a good team with a late first-rounder could take Micic with the understanding he'd stay in Europe for another year or two before coming over, though he already is big enough to play in the NBA.
"You can't take the ball from him," the Western Conference exec said. "All these quick kids we've got, they're going to struggle with him. He's strong as hell, and he's confident."
Micic also could be hurt if teams didn't see him this season, as his game evolved. In a Draft with this much potential, using a first-rounder on someone who may well not start for you immediately, if at all, could be a tough sell.
"I love his upside," one general manager said, "but a lot of the decision makers, a lot of the GMs haven't seen him or aren't comfortable with him. If you're going to be taken as a Lottery pick and you're from Europe, no matter who it is, those GMs had to go see him in person."
Micic's passing and shooting aren't questioned, and he reminds some of Grizzlies guard Nick Calathes, who was taken in the first round by Dallas in 2009 out of Florida but played overseas the last four years before coming back to the States. As ever, there are questions about his defense, though.
"I don't know if he's going to be able to keep an NBA point guard in front of him at the defensive end, but if you use him off the bench playing 12 minutes a night I think you'll be fine," the general manager said.
• Freshman Zach LaVine plays the two for UCLA, with the 6-foot-9 Anderson doing a lot of the ballhanding, but projects as a point guard in the pros. Scouts think at least one more year in college would do him a lot of good, though the expectation is that he'll come out when UCLA's NCAA run is over.
"He's a very good passer," an Atlantic Division man said, of LaVine, "but he just doesn't have the body right now, the strength levels, physically, to compete against stronger guards. He's got real quick twitch muscles. He can get his shot off against just about anybody, and that includes our league. But you don't know if he's going to shoot off his back leg, or shoot it coming down. Reckless is what I would say. He can get it off effortlessly, but he's very sloppy in how he does it."
LaVine had several good outings for the Bruins during their non-conference schedule, including a season-high 21 points against Nevada in November, and he finished the season shooting 39 percent on three pointers. But he tailed off noticeably during conference play, and after scoring 14 points in UCLA's Pac 12 quarterfinal victory over Oregon, he hasn't provided much impact.
"I think he's got raw ability," a Southeast Division executive said, "but is so oblivious it's scary. Another year is a must, but I expect a full expressway of unders coming to the Draft."
Defensively, like most young players, LaVine has a lot of work in front of him -- like keeping opposing guards in front of him next season, should he come to the NBA.
"I question, right now, does he understand the game the way he needs to?," the Atlantic man asked. "Defensively, he's really going to struggle until he gets his strength level up. You can turn him around so easily."
• Louisiana-Lafayette sophomore Elfrid Payton, on the other hand, will have to earn his keep at that end of the floor. The Sun Belt Conference's Defensive Player of the Year, the junior guard was named to the Lou Henson all-America team, which honors top players from so-called mid-majors, and got the Cajuns to the NCAAs for the first time in nine years.
Some compare Payton with Rajon Rondo, but Payton isn't nearly the playmaker or creator that Rondo is. There's potential there, though.
"He's extremely young for his age -- a junior who just turned 20," a Western Conference executive said. "He's got good size, he's long, he's got all the tools to be a terrific defender. But he really struggles shooting it from the perimeter, so he has to be an elite attacker. He's a good athlete, but not like [Suns guard] Eric Bledsoe. But he's got a niche. He's got good vision, plays at good pace, he doesn't play out of control. He's got a lot of upside because of his age. He does a really good job of moving on from one play to the next."
Payton averaged 19 a game for Louisiana-Lafayette and led the Sun Belt in assists, ranking 14th nationally. NBA teams believe that his offense may well improve if he's around good players and competing every day; his college coaches rave about his leadership skills already.
But, he'll have to show he can make perimeter shots. While he shot 51 percent, he was a ghastly 26 percent on 3s.
"He can't shoot to save his life," one veteran scout said. "Now, he can score and I don't want to take anything away from him, but they're not a mid-major team. They're lower than a mid-major. I went down there for a few games and it's just different. It's not Shaka [Smart]'s team at VCU playing, it's Louisiana-Lafayette. His problem is he penetrates all the time, and teams play for that."
• Like Payton, Xavier sophomore Semaj Christon has good size for the position. And, like Payton, Christon's defensive chops and potential to run a team intrigue pro scouts. A unanimous all-Big East selection, Christon scored in double figures in every conference game this season.
"He's a guy that has some upside," an Eastern Conference executive said. "He's got to improve his shot a little bit, but again, intriguing size and some athleticism that plays, that you see in our league now. Just like the center is a dying breed in our league, the pure point guard is a dying position, too."
Christon can definitely get to the rim, and scouts believe he's one of the better athletes at the position. He dramatically improved his 3-point shooting -- up to 39 percent this season after he made just 25 percent as a freshman -- but that's still an area where he needs refining. He's not yet a knockdown shooter.
"He's a nice combo guard that can't score or shoot at our level yet," a Central Division executive said. "Right now, he is a big kid that can dribble. Reminds me somewhat of (Pacers guard) Donald Sloan with more talent."
Christon's demeanor and approach have also improved, scouts say.
"He can really defend," a Northwest Division official said. "He's got quick hands and length, decent feet. He's still learning how to run a team. He's just been an attacking scorer. Organizing and leading a team is something that's not natural for him."
• Missouri's Jordan Clarkson is a streaky scorer who has been up and down in his first season after transferring from Tulsa, but who was good enough to make second team all-SEC this season. He puts some scouts in mind of Indiana's George Hill. At 6-foot-5, Clarkson would be an average sized shooting guard; at the point, he has significant advantages at that size.
Scouts are now wowed by Clarkson's speed, but he can get to the basket and finish. He's also got the length to be a good defender and the smarts to run an offense. He will have to display he can handle the pounding of the pro game, though, and he'll have to show he can do more than what he's asked to do in Missouri Coach Frank Haith's offense.
"Just a lot like Ben Howland's teams, or John Thompson's teams, or Bo Ryan's teams -- you have to compute the system when you're talking about those coaches and those programs," one scout said. "With Haith, they push the ball. They want to have more possessions. They get across halfcourt in three seconds. That tends to give you confidence, because you know your coach isn't going to yank you when you miss a shot. But what happens when you come to the NBA and your coach will yank you?"
• Connecticut's Shabazz Napier contemplated turning pro each of the previous two seasons. It's probably a good thing he opted to return to Storrs and improve his game. As a senior, Napier was the American Athletic Conference Player of the Year and a first-team all-AAC selection, and has led the Huskies to the Sweet 16 after scoring 28 points in UConn's third round victory over Villanova.
"He's grown on me," an Eastern Conference executive said. "Didn't care for him early on in his career. Thought he was extremely selfish. But he seems to have matured, not only in how he plays, but how he interacts with his teammates. He scores, but he's a point guard. On the smaller side, not super fast, but clever. And he shoots well enough that you have to honor that, which opens up his ability to use that cleverness and get in the lane and score and score."
Scouts believe Napier is more in control on the floor than he was earlier in his career.
"He doesn't play as erratic anymore," one general manager said. "He's much more efficient. Now you look at him in his bad games, and maybe he just missed shots. He's gone from feeling he has to hit a home run every game to being comfortable hitting four or five doubles...I think he's considered much more responsible this year than last year at point guard, and that's a huge improvement."
Said an Atlantic Division executive: "there's a place now with the trending of those teams going a little smaller. He played in big games, played four years, played a lot of minutes. Is he a pure point guard? No. But he's got a place in this league, and I think he'll have success, because he's an athlete and he's been in that program and he knows what it takes."
• Nevada's Deonte Burton also has supporters, with his ability to score (as evidenced here). His athletic ability was always there, but he became a better floor general as a senior, winning Mountain West Conference Player of the Year honors for the second time. NBA teams, scouts say, now view Burton as more trustworthy and capable of running a pro team.
"He's improved," one scout said. "He was strictly a driver [before]. But he's gotten better with his shot. The coaches there liked his decision making compared with last year and the year before. Seems like he's learned and adjusted his game. He's had a real good year. If he shows up in Chicago and grades out physically, he's a guy that has a chance to really help himself."
Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.
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