Center prospects have skills to (someday) make solid impact in NBA

We come to the end, and to the beginning.

Some of the league’s most well-known franchises — the Los Angeles Lakers, the New York Knicks, the Philadelphia 76ers (and, in a wholly different place in the standings, the Boston Celtics) — have waited for Tuesday’s NBA Draft Lottery for potential redemption, restoration, for a rebirth. They have fallen to the depths, not even in the same league, it seems, with Golden State or Cleveland, and even removed from those who would challenge the Warriors and Cavaliers.

But a single ping-pong ball can change all of that. A chance to get a dynamic player at the top of the Draft would send the trajectories of those once-proud franchises back due north. (In the case of Boston, already deep in the playoffs, a lucky drawing Tuesday could give the Celtics, who own the Brooklyn Nets’ unprotected first-rounder, a chance to get even richer; somewhere, Red Auerbach puffs away, tipping his stogie in Danny Ainge’s general direction.)

Centers are not part of that top-three dream. The position, once the cornerstone for most franchises, has become marginalized as the league has gotten smaller, its practitioners relegated to the occasional rim run or duck-in as guards and shooters dominate the game. Yet there’s still a place for a big man in the game, and this year’s Draft has players who can, in time, have an impact. Most will take time. But a big, strong man who can move other big, strong men is still valued, and a lot of the top young bigs in this Draft could go anywhere from the bottom of the Lottery to the end of the first round.

This marks the final position ranking going into Tuesday’s drawing. The previous four Big Boards are all in the archives.

ICYMI, here are the other evaluations:

Point guards

Shooting guards

Small forwards

Power forwards

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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.

We include underclassmen that are expected to declare for the Draft, or are at least thinking strongly about it. No one who hasn’t thought about declaring is going to be swayed by seeing his name on a Draft board. So we include everyone.

Players are listed at the position at which NBA people believe they’ll play as pros. For example: when I originally did the small forward Big Board a few weeks ago, I thought that Syracuse forward Tyler Lydon was more likely to play the three in the pros. But most scouts and team execs with whom I’ve subsequently spoken have strongly said they believe that Lydon will, at least for now, have to play more power forward than small forward. So I took him off of the small forward Big Board (with everyone originally behind him moving up a spot, and Kansas State’s Wesley Iwundu moving into the number 10 spot) and put Lydon on the power forward Big Board.

Players who declare for the Draft have until May 24 — 10 days after the end of last week’s NBA Combine in Chicago — as long as they don’t sign with an agent. This rule was instituted last year to give players more time to make a more informed decision about their potential Draft status after talking with and working out for NBA teams at the Combine.

Again: This is not a mock Draft (though one of those is, sadly, coming). No one has any idea what will happen between now and June 24; we don’t know if there will be a major injury that will impact what a team wants or needs. 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, or may go undrafted, but who could nonetheless make a roster or otherwise have an impact on the teams that select them if they overcome perceived shortcomings.

• “Some Scouts Like” will refer to players whose intentions are not yet known for certain, but who are viewed as potentially draftable if they do. Emphasis on “potentially.”

• If a player was not invited to the Combine, his height and weight is his listed one from his school and/or his pro team if he’s an international prospect.

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David Aldridge’s Big Board 2017: Centers

Rank | Name | School/Team | Class/Age | HT | WT > Projected

1. Jarrett Allen | Texas | Freshman | 6-10 ¼ | 234 | Late Lottery/Mid first round

2. Justin Patton | Creighton | Freshman | 6-11 ¼ | 229 | Mid/late first round

3. Bam Adebayo | Kentucky | Freshman | 6-9 ¾ | 243 | Late first round

4. Caleb Swanigan | Purdue | Junior | 6-8 ½ | 246 | Late first/Early Second

5. Ike Anigbogu | UCLA | Freshman | 6-9 ¾ | 252 | Second round

6. Thomas Bryant | Indiana | Sophomore | 6-10 ¾ | 248 | Late first round/Early second round

7. Tony Bradley | North Carolina | Freshman | 6-10 ¾ | 249 | Early second round

8. Anzejs Pasecniks | Gran Canaria | 21 | 7-1 | 227 | Second round

9. Amida Brimah | Connecticut | Senior | 7-0 | 230 | Second round

10. Kennedy Meeks | North Carolina | 6-10¼ | 270 | Second round

SLEEPERS: Luke Kornet, 7-1, 250 , Vanderbilt; Moses Kingsley, 6-10, 230.

SOME SCOUTS LIKE: Chance Comanche (So.), 6-11, 215, Arizona

Allen an ‘upside play’ in NBA

Please do not compare him to Tim Duncan.

Because Texas freshman Jarrett Allen is quiet at first introduction, and has a dry sense of humor, and has non-conventional habits — among his hobbies is a desire to build and take apart computers, and he hired the same representation as Duncan had throughout his two-decade NBA career — some have reminders of Duncan in their heads. That’s unfair to the freshman, a third team all Big 12 selection in his one season in Austin. He doesn’t have “The Big Fundamental’s” skill set. Nor will Allen be the first pick in the Draft, as Duncan was in 1997 after spending four seasons at Wake Forest. (Can you imagine someone as good as Duncan playing all four in college today? The world has changed so much in such a short time.)

But Allen will have plenty of time to make his own mark on the basketball world.

Playing on a poor Texas team, Allen nonetheless led the Big 12 in field goal percentage (56.7 percent). The Longhorns finished 11-22, well out of the money in the Big 12. But that hasn’t impacted Allen’s Draft stock as he’s expected to go somewhere in the middle portion of the first round. He has too much potential to sit for long.

“He’s an upside play; he’s certainly not a finished product,” a Northwest Division executive said of Allen, who turned 19 last month.

“His best days are ahead of him,” the Northwest exec said. “He’s very thin and that’ll change over time … very unorthodox. When I watch him, sometimes I don’t understand his footwork and how he shoots off the wrong foot, and sometimes the ball still goes in the basket.”

Allen’s overall numbers weren’t incredible, but he played better as the season went on, and he was really good in conference play, averaging almost a double-double (16.2 points, 9.8 rebounds). His season was highlighted by two huge games against Kansas — 22 points, 19 rebounds and three blocks in a January loss in Lawrence and 20 points and 11 boards in a loss in Austin in February.

Allen doesn’t have a huge build yet — he checked in at 234 pounds at the Chicago pre-Draft combine last week — but his body frame will probably be able to hold enough weight in the future for him to take a pounding in the pros. His offensive game is developing. And with one of the longest measured wingspans (7-5 ¼) in Chicago, Allen should have a defensive impact at the rim in the NBA.

The question hanging over Allen is a common one asked of big men: do you play ball because you’re tall, or because you love the game? Allen’s quirks can be interpreted as aloofness or not caring, something he went to great pains to dispel in Chicago.

“He doesn’t have a real high motor,” one Central Division scout said. “Kind of like Jekyll and Hyde during the season. He’s going to have to get stronger. But I’m concerned about his passion.”

“I think his love for the game is about a seven or eight out of 10,” said a Pacific Division executive whose team interviewed Allen in Chicago. “That’s actually his rating because I asked that question of him. I didn’t look at it as a total negative because the kid is a late bloomer in the game and he is still ‘discovering’ the game.”

“No 6-11, 7-footer, went into the league loving the game. The only question you have then is, do you like it enough to work at it? He’s a smart kid.”

Southwest Division executive, on Jarrett Allen

Part of those concerns are legit. But NBA folks can be weird: you get a sense sometimes that a player like Allen, a middle class kid from a two-parent household (his father played overseas after being drafted by Dallas in 1985), gets penalized because he grew up comfortable. (Michael Jordan and Grant Hill had pretty decent careers, I’d say.)

As an Atlantic Division executive put it: “you say you hate Lavar Ball, but then you don’t like this kid because he’s quiet?”

Those who like Allen don’t believe his demeanor or makeup will hinder him at the next level.

“No 6-11, 7-footer, went into the league loving the game,” a Southwest Division executive said. “The only question you have then is, do you like it enough to work at it? He’s a smart kid. He is like a no-worries, no maintenance kid. If you tell him to be in the gym at 9, he’ll be there at 8; not because he wants to please you, but just because that’s the kind of kid he is. He’s just a very smart kid. If he wasn’t playing basketball, he would have no issues, no worries. He’s shy and reserved, but if you loosen him up a little there’s some personality there. I think he cares more than people think.”

Patton a pliable prospect

More than a few NBA types have Creighton’s Justin Patton rated ahead of Allen. A recruiting afterthought coming out of high school — the scholarship offer from the Blue Jays was the only scholarship offer he received — Patton made the most of taking a redshirt season as a freshman and getting stronger. When he got back on the floor last season he got to work, finishing second in the country in field goal percentage (.676) and earning second team all-Big East honors. (It’s a good thing he shot the ball so well from the floor, because he only shot 51.7 percent from the foul line.)

“He interviewed well,” one Central Division executive said. “Tremendous upside. You give him a couple of years, he’s going to be really good. You can put him on the floor now; even though he’s got a learning curve. He’s got a lot of skill. When I saw him there’s parts of him that reminded me of Marcus Camby. He’s going to have to learn to protect the rim the way Camby did. But he’s got a lot of talent.”

Like almost every big these days, Patton may wind up playing some power forward as well as center.

“I have him as a four,” a Pacific Division executive said. “Narrow frame, real long. Late Lottery down to 20, you have to look at him. This kid could turn out to be something. He wants to face up. He doesn’t want to go down on the block and mix it up, and you can kind of see it in practice. That kind of tells me what he wants to be. I like to see him run to the trail, run to the spot. I like him as a face-up four.”

Patton had some very strong games — 25 points and nine rebounds in a win at St. John’s, 20 points and six rebounds against Providence. But after starting 18-1, Creighton sputtered in conference play and went out in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. (Part of the team’s struggles, to be fair, came after it lost starting point guard Maurice Watson, Jr., who was leading the nation in assists, to a torn ACL in January.)

“He’s a little soft, immature,” said a college coach whose team played Creighton last season. “We punked him. But he’s talented and can play above the rim … one of his better attributes is he’s a good shot blocker, good around the rim. He comes over to block shots. If he fills out, maybe you could give him a LaMarcus (Aldridge) type of game. But he’s got to get stronger.”

While some NBA teams agree that Patton may need to toughen up a little, they also aren’t holding that against him.

“If he was a tough (bleep) and skilled, he’d go in the top three,” one executive said. “He’s not. The warts are, he’s talented and a little soft. You have to know who you’re drafting and who they are. ‘Well, he’s soft.’ ‘Well, we know that. Why are you complaining?’ If you want a tough guy, then don’t take Justin Patton. Put a tough guy next to him. He can run, he’s skilled, he can pass, he can dribble.”

Swanigan becomes NBA-level big man

Purdue’s Caleb Swanigan has a different story, one out of Central Casting.

Grossly overweight and living in a homeless shelter in Utah as a teenager, Swanigan was literally rescued when his brother, Carl, reached out to Roosevelt Barnes, an NFL player agent that had helped the Swanigan’s older brother, to take Caleb away. Barnes had Caleb move into his home in Fort Wayne, Indiana. With four years of tough love from Barnes and improved diet, Caleb dropped more than 100 pounds and became a star on the court and a pro prospect.

The Big 10 Player of the Year and a first team all-American, Swanigan threw himself around all season, averaging a double double (18.5 points, 12.5 rebounds) and leading the nation and conference in rebounding. He did work no matter the opponent – 25 points and 17 rebounds against Michigan State, 26 points and 10 rebounds against Maryland, 21 points and 10 rebounds against Indiana — in leading the Boilermakers to the Sweet Sixteen.

“I give that kid credit,” a Pacific Division evaluator said. “He’s dropped a lot of weight, he’s got great hands and he’s got a skill set. Eventually, if he’s your backup center, you’re all right. The game slows down. And to be able to have a guy that can score on that block, and he’s proven he can step away and shoot it too.”

Swanigan expanded his game as a sophomore, shooting 45 percent on 3-pointers and 78 percent from the line. But measuring just 6-foot-8 ½ at the Combine, his future as a full-time NBA center is unlikely.

“To me, he’s a five that may be able to play some four because he can move his feet,” a Western Conference executive said. “He can’t shoot consistently from range, and you can imagine him having to go out and cover a guy 19, 20 feet away? It’ll take away from his strength, which is using his body to go in and get the rebound.”

Said a Central Division exec: “He was really good in college. (But) not sure what position he plays. Can he guard 4’s?”

NBA types think Swanigan could, potentially, be able to guard fives in small ball lineups, like when the Spurs play LaMarcus Aldridge at center, or when the Celtics surround Al Horford with four wings. Could he chase Kevin Durant? Probably not. But they’ll have to guard him at the other end, too.

“He’s a stone cold four,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “He’d be an undersized center. Made a lot of improvement this year; one of the smartest things he did was go back to school. I thought he could be a guy to sneak into the late first round. He’s going to rebound the ball. He really improved his outside shooting, although you don’t want him out there. He can make the 15-to 17-foot shot now. He’s going to be an energy player, a rebounder, a hustler. He actually does a good job of defending people by being in position. His feet are pretty good.”

Anigbogu a defense-first prospect

UCLA freshman Ike Anigbogu was a significant recruit for the Bruins out of Corona’s Centennial High School. A torn meniscus slowed his debut in Westwood, and with upperclassman Thomas Welsh starting at center, Anigbogu only averaged 13 minutes a game for UCLA in his one season. But he’s still a likely first-round pick in the Draft, with a frame that is already NBA ready. The success of players with little experience but who could physically handle the NBA game, like the Milwaukee Bucks’ first-round pick last year, Thon Maker, will only help Anigbogu’s Draft prospects.

And with the second-longest wingspan at the Combine (7-foot-6 ¼), Anigbogu is going to get a long look.

“He had injuries that contributed to not playing,” a Pacific Division scout said. “You can really just base it on his physical traits, the physical things he does well. Athletically, he’s off the charts. He’s got great feet, explosive, really good quickness. But he has to develop his skills — not that they’re bad, but right now he’s an energy guy. But he has superior athleticism.”

Still, Anigbogu will need some time, especially if he goes to a rebuilding team.

“When he played he had an impact on the floor, but he didn’t play more than 10, 15 minutes,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “I know some people like him. For our team, he’s a couple of years away. We interviewed him and he’s very intelligent. Very intelligent. But I’d be a little reluctant to take him in the first round based on his body of work. Offensively, he’s not going to give you anything. He’ll be a rebounder and a rim protector for what he can do, but he’s not going to give you any offense for a while.”

Adebayo a willing banger in paint

Like Anigbogu, Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo is a physical specimen, compared with a young Shawn Kemp. But Adebayo got more than twice as much playing time at Kentucky as Anigbogu did at UCLA. And with a team with likely Lottery picks De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, Adebayo nonetheless finished tied for 16th nationally in free throw attempts (236), and tied for 15th in the country in offensive rebounds (118), shooting almost 60 percent from the floor.

NBA types believe that, one way or the other, with his size, Adebayo will find a way to be on the floor. They think he’s going to be a terrific physical presence. “He knows who he is and what he’s going to have to do to be on the floor,” one personnel man said. “He does his dirty work. He’s not afraid of contact.”

Adebayo came on strong at the end of the year, posting double doubles in five of the Wildcats’ last 10 games, including the first two games of the NCAA Tournament.

“Right now he probably is a center and he’s going to be on the small side, but we seem to be getting smaller in the league,” a Northwest Division executive said. “He doesn’t showcase it in games, but he can step out to 12, 15 feet and shoot the jumper. He’s been working on that. He showcased it a few games in the season with rebounding. He’s got the body and the strength where he can probably bang with people.”

Bryant develops shooting touch

Indiana sophomore Thomas Bryant showed an increasing proclivity from the perimeter, shooting 38 percent behind the 3-point line. Averaging 12.6 points and 6.6 rebounds last season, Bryant is a likely second-round pick.

“He’s going to make it because he can shoot,” a Northwest Division executive said. “He’s going to be more of a stretch five. He’s slight, but he’s strong. He’s really wiry. He’s cut up; he’s done a good job in the weight room the last couple of years. He’s a decent athlete. He’ll get the rebounds that come his way. He’s a good shooter; they really encouraged him to do that at Indiana.”

And some notes on the others …

North Carolina freshman Tony Bradley declared for the Draft and appears to be staying in, although he averaged less than 15 minutes a game in his only season for the national champion Tar Heels. If he stays in the Draft he’s a likely second-rounder, with length and potential, especially if he is fortunate enough to go to a playoff team that could bring him along slowly. Fellow ACC freshman Omer Yurtseven, from N.C. State, is also a likely second-rounder if he remains in the Draft; the 7-footer played well at the combine and has stretch five potential.

Omer Yurtseven played for Fenerbahce in Turkey before coming to N.C. State; the NCAA docked him nine games after investigating his eligibility to play in college. He had problems defensively in college, but he’s going to be a center in the pros as well.

“I saw him before he went to N.C. State,” one scout said. “He’s a skilled kid. Even in Europe, he plays more back to the basket and facing. Can shoot the jumper out to 18, maybe the college three. He’s got a skill that we look for. Plays pretty hard. I think people are worried that he didn’t get a lot of time at State. There is a perception, whether good or bad, how tough a kid he is. He probably should go back to school. You’ve got a new system and a new coach that’s probably going to be good for you. If he plays the way he can play he’ll probably be a first-round pick next year.”

France’s 19-year-old Jonathan Jeanne is a likely second-rounder as well, after playing last season for a team in Eastern France. At 7-foot-1, with the longest measured wingspan (7-foot-6½ ) at the combine this year, Jeanne draws natural comparison to countryman Rudy Gobert, the Utah Jazz’s dominant defensive center. But it will take him a couple of years to get strong enough to play in the league.

“Jeanne doesn’t have the defensive presence that Rudy had at the same age,” a Southeast Division executive said. “Gobert also played and produced at a higher level of competition coming into the draft.”

But Jeanne has a similar upside — “huge,” a Southwest Division man said. “He needs to get stronger as his shot blocking and (improvement in) defensive quicks to defend pick and roll sets will be huge — he needs more game experience and weight gain.”

UCLA junior Thomas Welsh got most of the minutes at center for the Bruins’ star-laden unit last season and did well, shooting better than 58 percent from the floor. The former McDonald’s all-American led the team in rebounding (8.7 per game) and had a few high-profile performances in Pac 12 play, including a 20-point, 10-rebound effort at Oregon and 16 points and 16 boards against USC. If he remains in the Draft he could crack the second round, where he’s viewed as a potential rotation player in the pros.

“He’s a terrific 14-foot shooter,” a Pacific Division executive said. “Real smart player, good position defender, can block shots. Will be a solid backup if he comes out. He’s big. He kind of knows who he is. He gets to his spot and he had a point guard (Lonzo Ball) who could get him the ball when he got there. He’s improved every year and his skills have gotten better. He’s extended his range a little bit. His body’s getting a little stronger.”

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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