Top draft prospects going out quietly

One bad tournament game doesn’t mean much to pro evaluators, writes Sam Smith of Though the way the top college players mostly weren’t dominant even in losses or had a major impact, if not worrisome, suggests they are far away from being high l

Jabari Parker had a storybook ending to his freshman basketball season. That is if the story was the Titanic.

Unsinkable Duke lost badly in the first round of the NCAA tournament and Parker had as bad a game as he’s had in years: four-of-14 shooting, zero assists, benched for lack of defense, virtually no impact on the game.

Yes, folks, Parker is now more than likely to be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft.

Which tells you more, perhaps, about the greatest draft class since Anthony Bennett was the No. 1 overall pick.

Parker hasn’t made any decision on whether to go pro, though his coach talked about him after the game as if he were a former student. As I’ve often written, I hope he stays for his personal life experience sake and to mature as a basketball player.

But this potential 2014 draft class, so celebrated just months ago, is beginning to look very uncertain and one in which there may not be a no brainer impact player among the bunch.

Or, I tanked the season for these guys?

One bad tournament game doesn’t mean much to pro evaluators. Though the way the top players mostly weren’t dominant even in losses or had a major impact, if not worrisome, suggests they are far away from being high level pros.

Many top NBA players have lost early in their tournament years. Though few have gone out as quietly as some of the top players in this class. Mark Aguirre had eight points in DePaul’s 1981 loss to St. Joe’s. And Aguirre then was the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA draft and went on to average almost 25 per game his first seven years in the NBA. Though he’d been in college three years averaging almost 25 per game and previously in a Final Four.

It’s also why pro scouts watching the tournament say not only are these “upsets” no surprise, but they send a message about the problem with the draft. So many top players, like Parker, are so young that they can be outplayed by upper classmen, like Mercer had in their win over Duke, who are stronger and more mature. Like actual NBA players. It sends a signal they are not ready for the NBA, where they’ll face more men and every game.

Still, many scouts and executives believe Parker probably has the best chance of being the top pick—assuming he decides to leave college—because he probably is the safest pick. He may never be a truly great player. But he’ll certainly be a good player, a player who should be a starter and maybe even an All-Star. That’s why as the first big weekend of the tournament closed, more pro scouts seemed to be looking at Parker as the top pick and perhaps Kentucky’s Julius Randle as No. 2.

That’s because Randle also has a ready-made NBA game as a post player with strength. And while Randle may not have the so-called upside of some others, he should be a productive pro and safe pick. You can get fired for a Bennett. When your guy is an early leader for rookie of the year, it least it could get you another contract.

Some watching this tournament have been surprised watching Andrew Wiggins. If you didn’t know his name you wouldn’t have him one of the top five players in Sunday’s Kansas loss. Certainly, the college game can be a mess with some of the coaching and style of play that hurts talented players. But rarely have there been NBA stars who’ve had so little impact as playmakers in their big college games as in this tournament. You’d have to be concerned bringing in Wiggins and selling him as the game’s next great star, though the consensus is he remains a high lottery pick. But you may have to wait a lot longer than you hoped.

Similarly with Kansas center Joel Embiid, who sat out the tournament with back problems. He’s to most scouts the potential breakout star of the draft. But as one executive said, “If he can’t make it through a 20-game college season, how’s he playing 82?” Another raised the name of Sam Bowie, a center injured in college who was supposed to be cleared by doctors before the draft. It was years before he was, made worse that he was selected before Michael Jordan. The consensus of pro scouts has been that Embiid has the best chance to be that major star. But you’d be sweating passing on Parker to take a risk on a guy with a history of back problems at such a young age, some scouts note. Worth the risk?

Indiana’s Noah Vonleh is also considered a potential top five pick, though some have wondered aloud if you are projected as a top pro shouldn’t you be able to at least get your team into the tournament?

Oklahoma’s Marcus Smart had his share of controversy, though it’s minor to the pros. But not much improving his shooting and also losing early, it’s asked if you want to trust him as the point guard to run your team?

The point guard from Australia, Dante Exum, supposedly is being targeted and hidden away because of Lakers’ interest. He has the same agent as Kobe Bryant, who was manipulated in the draft to the Lakers. But what kind of kid decides not to play a year to prepare for the draft?

Michigan State’s Gary Harris has had injuries and pro scouts love the shooting of Creighton’s Doug McDermott. But each one asks about McDermott who in the NBA can he defend as he is too slow for small forwards and too small for power forwards.

Welcome to the formerly greatest draft class.

NBA news and notes

-- Suddenly, one of the top free agents this summer is looking like the Raptors’ Kyle Lowry, whose 13 fourth quarter points Sunday carried the Raptors over the Hawks and gave Lowry a career best nine straight games of at least 19 points. Lowry always has been a tough competitor whom teams liked. Then they’d inquire about him and lose interest. It was a whisper campaign of, ‘You don’t want that guy.’ He constantly challenging coaches and teammates, the ultimate angry young man. But that’s seem to have changed as Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri told the Toronto Sun last week: “Sometimes you’d see his body language and I’d think, ‘Why is he like that?’ You would hear the stuff about him, about the coaches he doesn’t get along with and that kind of thing. I told Kyle, when (NBA) people talk about you it’s not like they dissect your game or kill your game. A lot of people who talk about you are talking about maybe the attitude or the problem with coaches. It’s never the game. I tell Kyle (now), ‘You were almost an All-Star this year and that baggage, everybody has put that away. Next year, when it comes to being voted in as an All-Star, they’ll look at that and say that’s in the past. Next year, baggage is not an issue.’” Shockingly, even days before the trading deadline, the Raptors still were considering trading Lowry because he is a free agent and some in management still wanted to miss the playoffs to get a chance to draft native Canadian Wiggins. Lowry still could leave as a free agent. And the Raptors do have a starting guard in reserve in Greivis Vasquez. … Toronto still remains in position to win the Atlantic and have a first round playoff home court, though the Nets now trail by just one in the loss column to win the division with Brooklyn’s win in Dallas Sunday. The Nets also are tied with the Bulls in losses and playing the best in the East the last two months, which has been mostly lost in all the Phil Jackson stuff with the Knicks.

-- The losing Hawks Sunday got a break when the Knicks blew a big lead to the Cavs and lost at home Sunday. The Hawks remain three games—but four fewer losses—ahead of the Knicks for the final playoff spot. The Hawks currently hold the tiebreaker on conference record. … Luol Deng returned from a sprained ankle with 13 points and good fourth quarter defense on Carmelo Anthony Sunday. But it’s stunning to watch in the Cavs’ guard-oriented game how rarely Deng even touches the ball. Deng can be on the court five or six minutes straight and not touch the ball once. … Mr. Tough to Figure remains Jeff Green with a dozen games both of at least 25 points and single digits. … The Mavs remain excited about Monta Ellis, one of three Mavs in franchise history to average at least 18 points and five assists. But only one has done it more than once, former Illinois guard Derek Harper, who did it three times and remains one of the most underrated players ever, a two-time all-defensive team player who increased his scoring average every season his first eight seasons in the NBA and never was an All-Star, like Ellis. … The Mavs’ Sunday loss to the Nets leaves them a half-game ahead of the Suns for the final Western playoff spot with the Mavs closing the season at home against the Suns and then in Memphis, which is now tied with Dallas for the last two playoff spots.

-- Quite the Western road trip for Josh Smith, ejected in Denver with the team leading and then the Pistons going on to lose; missing all eight free throws to lead a 10-26 team wide free throw shooting game in a six-point loss to the Suns; and then pulled from the game with an early shot clock three when trailing the Clippers by 10 in the third quarter and then yelling at interim John Loyer as he left the floor in the loss. The Pistons have lost 47 of their last 49 against the West and are 4-15 since firing Maurice Cheeks. So much for those preseason Pistons and Cavs playoff predictions. … Rumors lately that Chaucey Billups is hanging on to try for a coaching or management position in Detroit after this season. Isiah Thomas also remains of interest to new Pistons ownership as an executive as Thomas does have an enviable record in Toronto and New York as a draft expert. … Steve Kerr, the latest without coaching experience, is rumored as a possible Knicks coach with Jason Kidd and Mark Jackson having made the jump without previous coaching experience and Doc Rivers in 1999 and now considered one of the top coaches. … Talk about a franchise without much history. The Bobcats gave away Kelly Tripucka bobbleheads in their Saturday blowout win over Portland. Tripucka was a “star” for the expansion Hornets in Charlotte before retiring after three seasons. The Bobcats are probably the story of the season in East with yet another dominant win over a tough opponent. Rookie coach Steve Clifford is getting a lot of support for coach of the year. … One of the more interesting free agents will be Dallas shooting guard Vince Carter, shooting almost 40 percent on threes with a “modest” $3.1 million contract for this past season.

-- Lots of moaning about everyone making too many excuses from LeBron James after another Miami loss Saturday, the seventh in 11 games. Though this is what most everyone predicted. Going for their third straight title, the Heat is having a season similar to the Bulls in 1992-93 when the Bulls finished second to the Knicks in the Eastern Conference. The Heat is now 47-21 and after 68 games that season the Bulls were 48-20. Though Chris Bosh came up with a good one when he told reporters after the loss to the Pelicans: “No offense to the Pelicans, but we’ve been losing to sub-.500 teams for a month now. Defensively, we can’t stop a nosebleed.” Though for different reasons, the Bulls did break up after that season. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said James has “a lot of mileage” on him. One reason Michael Jordan left basketball after that season was fatigue after having to carry the team too much. … The Bulls face the Pacers again Monday after Friday’s loss in Indianapolis. The Pacers followed that up with their worst scoring game of the season Saturday in a loss to the Grizzlies. Indiana faces Miami after playing the Bulls. There’s still plenty of angst to go. … Appropriate comment from Warriors coach Mark Jackson after the Warriors’ 51st loss Saturday in their last 59 regular season games against the Spurs: "We fall in love with other teams during the course of the year. Yet here we go again with them sitting on top of the charts.” The Spurs have the league’s best record despite regularly resting top players and have won at least 50 games an NBA record 15 consecutive seasons and have posted a winning road record in a league best 17 straight seasons. Tiago Splitter playing for Tim Duncan had 17 points and 14 rebounds as the Spurs are now 28-0 when he scores at least seven points. He is the Spurs’ Keith Bogans, though no one actually calls him that.

-- Averaging about 30 minutes per game the last three in all wins with Dwight Howard out, though over losing teams, Omer Asik is averaging 11 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.3 blocks. Rockets teammates continue something of an emotional support group to encourage the frustrated Asik with James Harden saying he’s vital to the team and Jeremy Lin telling the Houston Chronicle: “If we didn’t have him, we wouldn’t have a center. Thankfully he stayed with us past the trade deadline. He is a very big part of what we are trying to do.” … Carmelo Anthony continues to give the Nuggets fits as the Knicks’ late run further reduces the value of the first round pick the Nuggets get this season from the Anthony trade. … Often it just requires a chance to play, which has been the situation with the Plumlee brothers in Phoenix and Brooklyn. And lately with Nikola Pekovic hurt, Minnesota rookie Gorgui Dieng in 31 minutes the last four games is averaging 12.5 points and 13 rebounds. He had 22 and 21 in a loss to Houston. … You know you’re in trouble when this is the headline in the local newspaper as it was in the Sacramento Bee this weekend: “It’s been almost a month since DeMarcus Cousins was called for a technical foul.”


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