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Tuesday June 7, 2011 11:40 AM

The Big Picture


Taking a look at the top centers available in the 2011 NBA Draft

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com

HOUSTON - The NBA Draft is right around the corner so the time has come to take an in-depth look at the players hoping to hear their names called out by Commissioner David Stern on the night of June 23. To help with the process, Rockets.com is once again enlisting the help of NBA draft expert Jim Clibanoff.

The formula is simple: our man Clibs will break down the draft position by position, offering his thoughts on the top prospects, while sprinkling in a few feelings on some lesser known players who might be worth a closer look in the draft’s later stages.

Today’s feature focuses on the center position, an area of need, in some form or fashion, for nearly every team in the NBA. One final note: players' height and weight are taken, when possible, from the NBA’s combine measurements, with each prospect’s listed height rounded up to the nearest inch while wearing shoes.

Enes Kanter – Turkey: 19 years old, 6-11, 259

I’ll say this up front: I don’t think Kanter is a franchise player that you build your team around. I don’t think there is a player in this draft that has that designation.

That said, Enes Kanter is a talented, young post player with what appears to be a very good work ethic, a good personality and a face-up shot to complement his low-post game. But where we’re cheated as evaluators is our inability to see how good a rebounder Enes Kanter is. Without seeing a college game, you can’t say with certainty how talented a rebounder he is. Obviously you can look and see what he did for the under-19 Turkish national team and how he led that tournament in rebounding, but you’d have so much more concrete evidence, or a more solid foundation when you’re projecting rebounding when a guy does play in the American college system.

A great mark for rebounders is getting a board every three minutes. If he gets a board, as a rookie in the NBA, every 2.8 minutes, we’re going to have one feeling about him, whereas if gets one every 4.4 minutes then we’ll have a completely different feeling about him. So that’s a critical unknown in evaluating his game.

The other part of his game is his ability to face-up and shoot. So the question becomes: what’s he going to rely on at the NBA level? Is it going to be a proper distribution of inside-outside game, or is he going to be a low-post behemoth who can complement that with an occasional face-up where you’ll have to get out there and guard him? Or is he going to be like Mehmet Okur, someone who was not a great rebounder but loved to face-up and shoot it? It’s really hard to tell. So this is a guy where there’s a lot of guesswork involved with him, but when you look at the work ethic and the physicality, you feel more comfortable taking him over a lot of other players.

If you’re concerned about the lack of bounce, because he clearly is a more grounded player than many of the elite NBA athletes in the low post, you just have to look at the success that Kevin Love and Marc Gasol have had, because those guys can rebound; they rebound at a very high clip – obviously Love was the best rebounder in basketball this season and Marc Gasol, who was dogged early in his career by questions about his weight, has become a very consistent NBA rebounder. So if Kanter can become that solid board man, maybe you’re getting a somewhat lesser version of those guys. One comparison I came up with: if the face-up shooting touch projects ahead and the rebounding does as well, perhaps he could have some sort of Bill Laimbeer kind of existence.

I’d also say with Kanter’s work ethic, there’s not a huge bustability factor. I think back to the No. 1 pick in the 1998 draft, Michael Olowokandi, who most people would agree was a bust, he averaged 8.3 points and 6.8 rebounds in 26 minutes per game over his career – I don’t think Kanter’s downside is that great. Worst case, he turns out to be a 10 and 8 guy or 12 and 8 – that’s not what you ideally hope for from the 4th overall pick in the draft but, again, this isn’t shaping up to be the strongest draft.

Jonas Valanciunas - Lietuvos Rytas: 19 years old, 6-11, 240

He’s got more of an all-around, versatile skill set. He’s looking more and more like he’ll be able to hang in the low post in the NBA. I don’t find him to be a terrific rebounder, but he’s got good hands and he’s got all the things you want in a big guy. He’s not overly explosive, but if proper attention is given to his development then I can definitely see him being a solid starting center in a couple years, though not as a rookie, however.

I’d like to think he can end up being a better version of Spencer Hawes. He’s a guy who can pass and shoot, but he’s not a consistent tough guy in the low post. I think Valanciunas can be a better version of that.

Pre-draft we all have lofty aspirations for guys and we come up with comparisons, but you never can really tell what’s inside of a guy and how he’s going to react when the level of competition is higher until he gets on an NBA floor. We have to see whether or not these guys cower away from physical play in the low post or whether it actually caters to them – there’s just that element of guesswork, and in the European system there’s not as much of a blue collar element to low post play as there is in the NBA.

Bismack Biyombo - Baloncesto Fuenlabrada (ACB): 18 years old, 6-9, 240

I know a lot of people have him listed as a power forward, but I actually list him as a center. He’s not talented enough right now to play the four-spot, in my opinion. Can he grow into that? Sure. I think this guy starts in as a short five, but maybe ends up becoming a four over time.

The obvious comparison is to Ben Wallace. Wallace was an undersized center his entire career, although he had the height of a four. I still remember when he was a rookie coming into the league, someone tried him at the three-spot and that’s remarkable.

I like his prospects because of the incredible physical element he brings to the table and the fact he’ll definitely block shots because he’s proven that at the ACB level. The level of competition he’s faced there is better even than what he’d have faced versus American colleges.

He’s almost the polar opposite of Valanciunas; Biyombo is a physical low post presence with explosion off the floor but he’s still really just learning the game. Will he be able to develop pure face-up basketball skills, or is he going to be like Ben Wallace was, who you loved his energy and physicality and toughness and ability to block shots even though he was not good offensively at all? That’s the question for him going forward.

Nikola Vucevic – USC: 20 years old, 7-0, 260

He’s a guy who didn’t really land prominently on radars until December or January of this season, despite averaging close to a double-double as a junior. He’s got the European element to his game where he can face up and shoot, but he’s not a softie at all. He’s not the most rugged tough kid, but he’s got a good balance between finesse and strength.

As a freshman he hardly even played on a team that had Taj Gibson and DeMar DeRozan on the squad, but he really emerged as close to a double-double guy, though not a really polished offensive player. He came back 15-20 pounds stronger this year as a totally improved player; great improvement which you rarely see. I’m not going to say he made a quantum leap but he certainly became much more comfortable with his new body and a new offense inside and out.

He really has a good soft shooting touch as well. He also has the advantage of having the European background while he refined his game in the American college system because so many times we find the soft European who comes over and is completely lost because the game is too fast or physical for him. At least this guy proved to be a very confident Pac-10 post player.

We used Okur’s game with Kanter and I think this guy is probably more like Okur when Mehmet likes to face up and shoot and isn’t the low post tough guy. I think Kanter is more going to be 12-feet and in and will be complimented by his face-up shooting touch; Vucevic, even though he rebounded it well collegiately, he’s going to be more a mid-post kind of guy who can face up and shoot. He’s probably better than a Kosta Koufos but if you want to call him a really watered down version of a Brook Lopez, that second tier kind of guy, that might work as a comparison.

Just as a barometer, I think this guy is probably going to end up better than Spencer Hawes because he did play three years and he does have the European background, whereas Hawes and Koufos only played one collegiate year. So he comes out at a time when he’ll be able to take advantage of that seasoning and exposure against solid college competition, instead of a guy like BJ Mullens coming out of Ohio State after one completely untested season.

Jordan Williams – Maryland: 20 years old, 6-9, 250

Some people might say, “Does he play the 4 or can he play the 5?” He’s a more grounded wide body who has slimmed down quite a bit from his freshman year and might even be slimming down more. He only measured out at 6-9 but it’s how big a guy plays. We have a saying that for every inch a guy is too short, he should be an inch wider and this is definitely a wide body guy.

Certainly he’s going to be a what-you-see-is-what-you-get player; he’s definitely a meat and potatoes guy who’s not going to have big upside. If his rebounding does project ahead – that’s the big question – then he can probably earn time as a third-string center and perhaps work his way up to a back up position. I think he’s a solid second rounder who, when all is said and done, we’re going to look back on his career and see a guy who averaged 6 and 3 or 6 and 4.

So you’ve got Kanter at the top who projects as a solid NBA starter eventually, Vujevic who’s a solid back up eventually, then you’ve got Williams, a solid second or third stringer in the long run. So you’ve got three guys who aren’t really closer to each other in the draft, and they really span the full 60 picks because everything subsequent to that could easily go undrafted.

Jeremy Tyler - Tokyo Apache: 19 years old, 6-11, 260

It certainly was an interesting path to take to get where he is now. In Chicago, from all the media articles and interviews I saw, he’s proven to be a more thoughtful, intelligent kid, as opposed to a rash decision maker that said, “Screw it, I’m the man, I want to go play overseas for two years.” Instead, he seems to be an able student and knows that he’s learning the game and knows he’s continuing to get better. The first stop overseas was a disaster for him, the second he was under Bob Hill’s tutelage and is apparently working out under Hill right now and he’s continuing to get better.

He’s the equivalent of a guy who played one year of college basketball, so he’s very under-refined at the moment, but with the physical power and two years of growing into his body, the guy could be a Kwame Brown. Now Kwame Brown as the No. 1 pick was certainly known as a disappointment but at the same time he continues to get jobs and continues to be someone capable of getting some stuff done in the low post. It’s just how does Jeremy Tyler adapt to the NBA game in the low post as a young kid who had two international experiences and now comes to the highest level of basketball?

I said with Kanter we don’t know how good a rebounder he’s going to be; well we don’t know how effective a rebounder Jeremy Tyler will be until the ball goes up and we see him going up against NBA-caliber competition. I can tell you offensively he is still very raw but he’s got the physical being to be one day be effective. He passes the look test, that’s for sure.

Lucas Nogueira - MMT Estudiantes: 18 years old, 7-0, 225

Long, runs the floor really well. Has rumored to have a questionable work ethic but he really is an athletic specimen, though not from a jaw-dropping physique standpoint, but more from a finesse run, jump, sprint standpoint where he gets stuff done with energy but not refined polish. So he’s really a developmental guy who, wherever he’s taken, you hope someone has a plan in place and he ends up in the D-League getting that confidence where he can play against NBA grown men.

When someone lays some lumber on you and they’re 7-feet, 280 pounds and you’re an underdeveloped sprinter, that’s going to take you awhile to get up off the floor and go right back to work. Then you have to factor in the fact that we’re talking about someone coming from Brazil so there’s also a communication gap and a cultural difference between the NBA game and the international game that must be overcome. But right now the biggest thing is that the physical element is a huge issue for him in terms of his immediate NBA prospects. Whereas Biyombo is a man out there, Nogueira right now is a boy.

Deep sleeper: Gary McGhee – Pittsburgh: 22 years old, 6-11, 250

He’s one player I sort of feel is undervalued. He did absolutely nothing his first two years on those DeJaun Blair teams but then got legit minutes as a junior and really fit in well with the good guard core Pitt had this year. He’s 6-10, 6-11 with a great NBA body. He’s very stiff physically but plays his butt off and can really defend the post. He’s an average shot blocker but he’s willing to be a blue-collar banger. He knows his limitations. He can’t score, but isn’t what you want out of a third-string center is a guy who’s low maintenance and is going to push the backup and the starter, and if he gets thrown into the game he can give you six hard fouls?

It just seems so often NBA teams bring in untested young kids or Europeans who are soft, or other guys who are never going to get it, and here’s a guy who plays within his limitations, knows his limitations and does fill a role with his post defense. Every NBA team can use an upgrade in their post defense; not necessarily just shot blocking but a guy who’s willing to get in there and bang, and that’s what this kid can offer. So I don’t see him as a draftable player but I do see him as someone who can shock people and stay in the league as a limited producer but still a minimum salary, valuable piece.

Most people look at a guy and tell you, “He’s not going to make it because he doesn’t do this.” But instead of saying that, take a look at this other, less-appreciated talent that can go a long way. Scoring is so overblown that if a guy can’t score that’s usually the first reason to discount him. But if you can look beyond the inability to score, you may have a guy who can help. Joel Anthony was a guy we were high on coming out of Vegas because he could block shots, was physical and he could run the floor, and he’s become a pretty important player on the Miami Heat.

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