Draft Preview: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope

Georgia soph shooting up draft boards as scouts dig into his resume

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope
Could the Pistons take Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with the No. 8 pick?
Chris Graythen (Getty Images)
(Editor’s note: Eleventh in a recurring series leading to the 2013 NBA draft. Coming Friday: A look at a group of players with a chance to thrust themselves into the conversation for being picked by the Pistons at No. 8)

In the 2010 draft, there were four small forwards considered worthy of being picked in the lottery. They went in this order: Wesley Johnson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Gordon Hayward and Paul George, which matched predraft evaluations. Three years later, the order of those picks likely would be exactly reversed, with George a lock to be the first taken.

Coming into the 2013 draft, there is the same near unanimity among NBA front offices that the top two shooting guards available are Ben McLemore and Victor Oladipo. The Pistons probably won’t get a chance to draft either one with the No. 8 pick, though so much is uncertain about this year’s draft that no one would be stunned if one managed to slip through the top seven spots.

The No. 3-ranked shooting guard, by most accounts, is Georgia sophomore Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Three years from now, will Caldwell-Pope prove to be the most promising young NBA player of the bunch?

Both Caldwell-Pope and McLemore came out of high school two years ago, though McLemore was a Kansas freshman last season after being academically ineligible for the 2011-12 season. Caldwell-Pope was widely seen as the better prospect back then, ranking No. 12 in his high school class by both Rivals.com and Scout.com to McLemore’s 34 and 55.

While McLemore and Oladipo played on loaded top-10 teams that, in fact, would go on to secure two of the four No. 1 seeds for the NCAA tournament, Caldwell-Pope toiled for a 15-17 Georgia team that lost in the first round of the SEC tournament and had no other legitimate pro prospects on the roster. McLemore and Oladipo’s teams were seen early and often by NBA scouts, not just due to their magnetic draw but that of a number of teammates with potential NBA futures, as well.

Those scouts saw Caldwell-Pope on consecutive nights in New York early in the season when Georgia joined UCLA, Indiana and Georgetown in the Legends Classic at Barclays Center. Georgia lost two close games and Caldwell-Pope had as many downs as ups. He made 9 of 28 shots, 18 of them launched from 3-point range. He was a long way from a sure thing to leave Georgia after the season at that point, and almost nobody would have considered him a lottery pick at the time.

As the season unfolded, the 6-foot-6 Caldwell-Pope kept improving, though, and despite Georgia’s 9-9 SEC record, he was voted the league’s Player of the Year over Kentucky’s usual assortment of McDonald’s All-Americans. The only other Georgia player ever to win the award: Dominique Wilkins. Over a four-game SEC winning streak that spanned January and February, Caldwell-Pope averaged 21.3 points and shot 67 percent with more than half of his attempts from the 3-point arc.

The more you peel the onion on Caldwell-Pope, the more intriguing he becomes as a possibility for the Pistons at No. 8. They’ve made made no secret of their desire to add perimeter athleticism and shooting, which is why McLemore made sense for them had they won the No. 1 pick in the May 21 lottery. Caldwell-Pope brings the same qualities, even if scouts might not be quite as certain he’ll be able to harness that athleticism. While many scouts question if McLemore is capable of playing with a level of aggression to take full advantage of his natural scoring gifts, they talk with admiration of Caldwell-Pope’s motor.

Caldwell-Pope couldn’t match the explosive 42-inch vertical leaps recorded by both McLemore and Oladipo at the Chicago draft combine last month, but he was the fastest of the three in the three-quarter court sprint – only Miami point guard Shane Larkin was faster among all players – and the quickest of the group in the lane agility test.

Caldwell-Pope averaged 18.5 points and shot 37 percent from the 3-point line, up significantly from his freshman numbers of 13.2 and 30 percent. Given the way he really took off in the second half of his sophomore season, it’s worth wondering if Caldwell-Pope doesn’t have even greater room for growth.

Still, scouts see holes in his game. He’s not a strong ballhandler, perhaps explaining why he’s quick to pull the trigger with his jump shot and less likely to take it all the way to the rim. But the Pistons, Arnie Kander in particular, are big believers that ballhandling is a skill that can be improved season over season throughout a player’s career with dedicated drill work. Caldwell-Pope’s size and athleticism would seem to give him vast potential as a slasher if his ballhandling would allow it. If he gets that part of his game ironed out, he could be this draft’s Paul George.

“Showing teams I can do more than just shoot the ball, that’s really going to help me out,” Caldwell-Pope said in Chicago. “They know I can shoot the ball. They’ve seen tape. They know I can shoot the ball, they know I can create my shot, but showing other aspects – like defending, rebounding, getting in the passing lanes, steals, quick hands and defending on the perimeter – is going to really help.”

As it stands, the general sense is Caldwell-Pope comes to the NBA as a better defensive player than McLemore, though Oladipo stands alone as a potentially elite perimeter defender. McLemore is the more finished product than Caldwell-Pope with textbook form on his jump shot. He displayed very good rebounding instincts in college, averaging 7.1 boards for the Bulldogs, and flashed quick hands and defensive instincts in picking up two steals a game.

The wild card is how scouts think they would view Caldwell-Pope compared to McLemore and Oladipo had he been able to play with other talented players. There are doubts about Caldwell-Pope’s decision making and shot selection, questions he admitted hearing from NBA personnel executives in Chicago, but it’s tough to determine how much of that was dictated by Georgia’s roster.

Caldwell-Pope is eager to get to the NBA and see what it’s like to play with scoring threats around him, particularly interior scorers.

“It’s going to help a lot,” he said in Chicago. “Most teams won’t really focus on one player because they’ve got multiple players to defend and that will open up a lot of things for me. … Playing inside-out basketball is really going to help. If you’ve got a big man who scores the ball, you’ve got to defend, and if you’ve got a shooter, you’ve got to pick and choose who you’re going to defend.”

If the Pistons draft Caldwell-Pope at No. 8, it would set up another series of decisions for them. Brandon Knight, the eighth pick two years ago, finished the season as the starter at shooting guard. Would drafting Caldwell-Pope signal a move back to point guard for Knight and, perhaps, alter Joe Dumars’ strategy in pursuing his own free-agent point guards, starter Jose Calderon in particular?

As Caldwell-Pope makes the rounds of NBA teams leading to the draft over the next two weeks, it will be interesting to see what buzz is generated. He said in Chicago that when he and the Georgia coaching staff contacted the NBA for feedback as he pondered entering the draft, his initial ceiling appeared to be the middle of the first round with no guarantees he’d go before the second round.

Now it seems unlikely he’ll get out of the top 20 and at least even money he’ll go in the lottery. Can he build momentum even further and begin to challenge the conventional thinking that McLemore and Oladipo are at the top of the shooting guard pecking order? The Pistons have picked players each of the past three drafts who weren’t supposed to be available to them. Maybe this year they’ll turn the tables and pick a player who only recently established himself as lottery worthy.