Draft Preview: Perimeter at 56

Blue expects to continue Marquette tradition a la Matthews, Butler

Vander Blue
Marquette guard Vander Blue
Andy Lyons (Getty Images)
(Editor’s note: Sixteenth in a recurring series leading to Thursday’s draft. Coming Wednesday: a look at big men who are candidates to be the pick at 56 in the second round.)

Just as UCLA once churned out dominant 7-foot centers for NBA teams and Penn State became a linebacker mill for the NFL, Marquette is gaining a reputation among NBA front offices for producing a certain brand of player: tough, gritty, blue-collar, team-first perimeter defensive aces.

Wesley Matthews, Jimmy Butler and Jae Crowder have already carved out NBA niches for themselves, each one propping the door open a little wider for the next. Who might that be? This year’s candidate is Vander Blue, who left Buzz Williams’ program after helping another typically ask-no-quarters Marquette team to the elite eight of the NCAA tournament with a season of eligibility remaining.

Blue is a classic fringe draft prospect, invited only to the NBA draft combine – typically for the top 60 draft-eligible players – when a number of international prospects were forced to decline their invitations. But if there’s a tiebreaker for teams picking in the 50s to consider – at a point in the draft where success is more miss than hit – the Marquette blueprint surely will work to Blue’s advantage.

And he knows it.

“I think I can bring a lot to an NBA team,” said Blue, whose appeal will be highest for teams that believe he can guard all three perimeter positions at an elite level. “At Marquette, I couldn’t really have the chance to play the point, but I’m more than comfortable playing the point. I think my size and athleticism can really bother smaller guards. I can run the team, I can rebound with ’em, I can get the ball out and I can do the dirty work.

“I can pick up full court. I’ll take the charge. I’ll do whatever it takes. Marquette has a tradition and I’m going to try to follow in the footsteps of Jimmy, guys like that. I’m going to guard the best player, do whatever it takes. Teams are looking for guys that come from Marquette.”

Blue has most scouts convinced he’s got the same pit bull mentality. Now they’re trying to figure out if he has more game than a few other Marquette players, Lazar Hayward and Darius Johnson-Odom, who weren’t quite able to make the transition despite a similar tenacity to them.

At a solidly built 6-foot-5¼ in shoes as measured at the combine, Blue blew away the competition, for the most part, in speed and quickness testing. Only two players recorded a faster three-quarter court sprint time, neither by more than two-hundredths of a second. Likewise, only two beat his lane agility time and nobody hung with him in the modified lane agility testing. His vertical leap was 37½ inches. Taken together, the numbers back up what the eyeball test suggests: Blue should be a defensive perimeter force.

At the 56th pick, that’s a pretty good skill set to sell to NBA teams.

If there’s a team picking ahead of that spot that sees Blue with the same offensive potential of Matthews or Butler, he could wind up falling somewhere between the Pistons’ two second-round picks at 37 and 56.

On that score, Blue showed progress as a junior after Marquette lost Crowder and Johnson-Odom to the NBA. His scoring went from 8.4 to 14.8 and his shooting from 41 to 45 percent. Blue began to show progress from the 3-point line, as well, going from one to four attempts per game and boosting his percentage from 26 to 30. Those aren’t dazzling numbers, but the trend is positive and should be enough to convince teams, combined with what they believe about his fire, that he’ll continue in that direction.

If the Pistons want scoring at 56, they might be more interested in players like Brandon Paul, James Ennis, Carrick Felix or Seth Curry.

Curry, like older brother Steph Curry, started his college career at a small school, Liberty, scoring 20 a game as a freshman before transferring to Duke. Though a very good shooter – Curry hit 44 percent on his 6.2 3-point attempts as a senior, when he averaged 17.5 points – he’s not in Steph’s ballpark as an all-around player, highlighted by his 1.5 assists average as a senior. He’ll have to be a shooting guard in the NBA, and that will tax his slight 6-foot-3, 180-pound frame.

But if he can make teams think he can reach the heights of his brother as a shooter, who is verging on becoming one of the NBA’s all-time greats in that department, he’ll have a long career as an off-the-bench sniper, at minimum. Michigan State fans won’t soon forget the exhibition he put on in eliminating the Spartans in March’s sweet 16, hitting 6 of 9 from the arc in a 29-point explosion.

If teams want a more classically sized shooting guard, Arizona State’s Felix will hold appeal. At 6-foot-6 and a good athlete, Felix, in fact, might be equally well suited to play small forward, as his 8.1 rebounds a game as a senior attest. Felix shot 37 percent from the 3-point line and averaged better than a block and steal per game, as well. He almost wound up a teammate of Curry’s at Duke, initially committing to the Blue Devils out of an Idaho junior college but failing to gain admittance academically.

Paul had a largely disappointing career after entering Illinois stamped as a future All-American. He’s got the size (6-foot-4, 201 pounds), athleticism (39½ inch vertical jump) and skill set (4.4 rebounds, 2.7 assists, 1.2 steals) to profile as an all-around shooting guard prospect who perhaps will flourish in the NBA in ways he couldn’t at Illinois. Scouts might give him the benefit of the doubt for the way he handled a coaching transition before his senior year, when he was asked to do things he hadn’t been under Bruce Weber. Paul has a pretty jump shot, but the results didn’t match the form; he shot just 32 percent from the arc.

Long Beach’s Ennis had a strong showing at the Portsmouth Invitational in April, earning an invitation to the combine, where he reinforced the notion that he’s worthy of being drafted, and especially if he lasts to the 56th pick. Ennis averaged 16 points and shot 48 percent, including 36 percent from the 3-point arc and 85 percent from the foul line. He’s got the size and enough athleticism to guard both wing positions, though he’s probably better suited to small forward at 6-foot-7; he’ll need to add to his 200-pound frame to stay there long term.

If the Pistons don’t find a point guard with their lottery pick from among Trey Burke, Michael Carter-Williams or C.J. McCollum, nor at 37 from among a deep pool of candidates, they could potentially find Peyton Siva, who quarterbacked Louisville to the NCAA title game, available at this spot, or Arkansas’ B.J. Young, who leaves following a disappointing sophomore season that began with the expectation Young would contend for a spot in the first round.

Another point guard possibility is Raul Neto, a 21-year-old Brazilian who had an impressive season in the tough Spanish ACB league.

Joan Sastre is another ACB league possibility, a 6-foot-7 small forward prospect from Spain. The European website Sportando.net reported last week that another Euro wing prospect, Latvian Mareks Mejeris, worked out for the Pistons.

Neto, Sastre and Mejeris might hold appeal to the Pistons if they see those players as being great value at 56 but not necessarily ready to play in the NBA in 2013-14. With five rookies on last year’s roster all expected back and cap space to add veteran help, the Pistons aren’t likely to commit three roster spots to rookies next season. They could allow Neto, Sastre or Mejeris to season in Europe while still retaining their NBA rights and monitoring their progress.