Friday April 1st, 2011

Kyrie Irving, Derrick Williams and Harrison Barnes are all considering their NBA futures, whether in the draft this June or in 2012. They are the top American prospects and yet, despite their promising pro careers, all three are envious of Kemba Walker, Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, who enter the closing weekend in Houston with more college basketball to play.

There are four first-round prospects heading into the Final Four, including Connecticut's thin freshman swingman, Jeremy Lamb, who has made a late run that could vault him into the first round should he decide to turn pro. The most accomplished prospect -- and arguably the MVP of the NCAAs entering the Final Four -- was Kemba Walker, the 6-foot-1 UConn guard.

Here are some scouts' views of the four players:

Kemba Walker. "He's taken a team that's really average -- I think UConn is not very good this year -- but he's put them on his back and carried them through the Big East tournament and now the NCAAs," a Western Conference NBA executive said. "He's a winner and he's tough. He's just little."

Despite his listed height, all three scouts I surveyed this week referred to Walker as being shorter than 6 feet. All predicted he'll be picked among the top 10 in the draft, though they all added they wouldn't choose him that high.

"He's a score-first player, and part of that is because he has to be -- if he wasn't getting 25 a game, UConn would be in the NIT," the Western executive said. "I'm not convinced that he can make the transition to become a point guard in the NBA. Plus, he takes a lot of hard shots that would be contested shots -- shots he won't be able to make in our league.

"There's a lot to like about him. He'll defend, he'll fight you, he'll take every big shot. But he's a 5-10 scoring guard."

All three scouts questioned whether Walker could fulfill the expectations that go with a top-10 pick. Would he become a starting point guard on a winning team?

"I would be nervous handing him the keys to the car as my starter," the executive said. "Would I love to have Kemba as my guy off the bench? In a heartbeat. I call guys like him 'bubble starters.' Let's say your starting point guard gets hurt -- could Kemba start for 12 games in his place? Yes. Would you want him starting for 82 games? No."

Said an Eastern executive: "He's a wonderful piece to have on your team, but he's not a cornerstone. He's a volume shooter who is going to be a backup point guard. I admire him because he's tough and confident and he plays so damn hard, and if he's used properly he could be a great change-of-pace guy coming off the bench. But if you take him so high, then the expectation becomes that you have to play him as your starter because you don't take a point guard in the top 10 to be your backup."

Another Eastern executive shared those views.

"The general consensus is that his value is higher because he's playing so well at the right time," he said. "Us NBA guys, we make draft mistakes based on what a player does in the NCAA tournament, and we make free-agent mistakes based on the playoffs -- in both cases we don't look enough at what they did all year.

"He has blinding speed, he's improved his shot and he's got that chip on his shoulder that you want guys to have. But I do think the length and quickness of NBA starters will affect his game."

Brandon Knight. The 6-3 freshman point guard hit big shots to lead Kentucky into the Final Four. Knight is expected to go in the late lottery.

"Kemba has size issues, but this kid has very good size," an Eastern executive said. "He's long, he has good quickness, he's rangy and there's a lot to like physically. He's not a monster athlete, but he has enough. What I don't like is his handle. He's not a true point guard, and he's another guy I view as more of a backup."

Said another Eastern executive: "He's a volume shooter who plays the game almost like it's a video game -- one-on-five, sure, I'll pull up and shoot it."

How much has his ability to make big shots helped his stock in the draft?

"It has helped him, because it gives him precedent -- there are chances of him being able to replicate that in an NBA playoff series," the Eastern exec went on. "But you can't put stock in one game. It's just like if he had missed that big shot -- should that hurt him?"

Said the Western executive: "He has great range and he's morphing into a point guard -- they promised they would play him there when they were recruiting him because that's where he'll have to play in the NBA. He plays really hard, he has good feet and will try to defend the ball, and he was a great student in high school, a workaholic. There's a lot of things to like about him.

"At the same time, he's very right-handed and he's not a playmaker. He's not going to get into the teeth of the defense and pitch out for shots. But if you get him in pick-and-roll and they go underneath on him and cheat on him, he'll make shots all day long."

Terrence Jones. The Kentucky freshman is a 6-foot-8, 244-pound 'tweener. "He got off to such a great start, he was almost like a top 6-7 player over the first six weeks," the Western executive said. "Now he's more in the 9-14 range.

"He has a bit of a Michael Beasley feel for me as an undersized '4.' He's a good athlete but not off the charts. His greatest asset is his ability to dribble when a '4' has to guard him. He's pretty mobile with the ball, he will rebound and he can score some. He's not a good shooter, but he'll make just enough that you have to defend him, and that will enhance his ball-handling because he'll dribble-drive you."

One Eastern executive viewed Jones as a backup power forward.

"He'll be a rotation guy -- he's a tough, aggressive multiskilled player, but he doesn't have any expertise in one area," the exec said. "That's what bugs me a little bit -- he's talented enough and he has enough of a motor, but I wonder where he'll play."

More of's Final Four coverage

The other Eastern executive predicted Jones will wind up veering to small forward.

"He'll be a '3' because he needs the ball, and he's not going to be able to post up the '4' men in the NBA. He's an [Al-Farouq] Aminu type of player, where he does a lot of things as a unique-sized guy and you have to account for him.

"He makes other players better. I love his competitiveness and how he wills his team. But he has really big blind spots that [coach John] Calipari has worked on with him all year. The biggest one is being selfish, and sometimes that's because you want the last piece of cake, and sometimes it's because you don't trust your teammates. It really comes down to trust: The coach draws a play up and trusts you to run it, but sometimes this guy will break it off."

Jeremy Lamb. The 6-5, 185-pound freshman has played his way into first-round consideration, if he should decide to enter the draft. "His dad, Rolando Lamb, was a really good player at VCU, so the lineage is good," the Western executive said. "He scores easily, he's long, he's bouncy. He's in the top five right now of players I've ever seen make runners -- he's up there with Steve Nash and Juan [Carlos] Navarro. A pretty good shooter but not a great shooter. He looks like he weighs 130 pounds."

Said one of the Eastern execs: "He has a really frail body. Someone said to me he's Reggie Miller, but Reggie was such a nails-tough guy, and this kid will never be that. But he's a better athlete than Reggie. If he came out now, I'm not so sure we wouldn't screw him up. He would be fed to the wolves."

But the other Eastern executive believes Lamb will turn pro, in part because wing players need to take advantage of their opportunities in the draft.

"Stanley Robinson [the former UConn forward who went No. 59 last year as a senior] had a chance to be a top 15-20 pick, but he stayed in school and it screwed him up," the executive said. "Guys like Jeremy Lamb go high every year -- Gerald Henderson did it, Paul George did it, Xavier Henry went high; Elliott Williams didn't have two knees [he needed surgery as a rookie] and he got drafted No. 22.

"We say these guys should stay in school, and in terms of his player development he should go back to school. But if he has a chance go in the top 20 or in the lottery, we all know he won't go back to school."

The questions are fabricated, my answers are for real.

"Is there anything wrong with not entering the draft, even though I would have been a high pick? Aren't the NBA experts always telling us to stay in school and develop our games for another year?" -- J.S., Columbus, Ohio

Jared Sullinger, I appreciate your interest in returning to school in hopes of winning a championship with Ohio State as a sophomore. But it's probably no coincidence that you were wary of a potential lockout wiping some or all of the next NBA season.

If there is a lockout, beware: The NBA scouts -- including the GMs -- will be watching you more closely than ever next season. They'll have a lot of time on their hands, and they'll be nitpicking your game more than ever. My advice is to not wait until after next season to work yourself into NBA shape for the draft, as so many prospects do -- you should do that for next season. You need to show improvement in your skills as an eventual NBA power forward, because if there is any sign that you've plateaued next season, then your stock will be viewed as regressing.

"Why is everyone so worked up? All they need me to do is defend and rebound, and I'll be able to do that when I'm 45. Not that I will play when I'm 45, but I'm not saying I won't, either." -- S.O., Boston

Shaquille O'Neal, without any intent on your part, you have made yourself the story for the Celtics, who need your paint presence desperately. But it's not just about fulfilling your vital role in the playoffs.

You need to be able to return to the lineup while helping Boston win home-court advantage in a potential rematch with the Lakers. The in-conference races are less important -- your Celtics will believe they can win at Chicago or at Miami in the Eastern bracket -- but if you wind up meeting your former team in the NBA Finals, you know you and the Lakers won't be able to knock each other out in six or fewer games. And you also know home-court advantage could make all the difference in Game 7. The home-court race between Boston and L.A. (which leads the Celtics by two games) is the most important aspect of the season's final two weeks.

"Has anyone noticed we're still alive down here?" -- P.S., Charlotte, N.C.

Paul Silas, if you can lead your injury-dwindled team to the playoffs after all of its centers and stars -- including Gerald Wallace and Stephen Jackson -- have been traded or shut down, it will be a sensational coup. You're like the manager in that old baseball movie, Major League, who leads the Indians into the playoffs even as management is making his life miserable. In your case, management had a more sensible plan -- it was seeking to prepare for the next collective bargaining agreement -- but you have been doing that franchise an enormous favor by remaining competitive despite all of the reasons to fail.

Via the Euroleague. The Euroleague Final Four will be held May 6-8 in Barcelona, but Regal FC Barcelona won't be there. Ricky Rubio's defending champion fell 78-67 at Panathinaikos of Athens on Wednesday to lose its quarterfinal series 3-1 as Rubio produced three points and three assists in 30 minutes. "They won the series completely," Rubio said of Panathinaikos. "We didn't have any confidence, especially in this game."

Rubio has had a difficult season, by his high standards. He averaged 6.5 points (including 22.4 percent on 49 attempts from the three-point line) and 3.5 assists (assists being far more difficult to earn statistically in Europe than in the NBA), and his team wasn't able to repeat its championship form of last season. His NBA future remains a contentious subject, with the Timberwolves holding stubbornly to his draft rights in hopes of signing him next season. Among the NBA people who believed in him when he was a hotter prospect, I haven't found any who don't continue to think he'll be excellent in the wide-open NBA style.

That view is affirmed by former Real Madrid coach Ettore Messina.

"I like him a lot," Messina said. "He is struggling a little bit, he did not have a consistent season, and his shot has not improved as he hoped. His minutes went down a little bit. But this is the season before he goes to the NBA and that's why I expected it to be a difficult season for him, and even in this difficult season his quotes always showed him to be a mature kid.

"For sure he is going to be very good in the NBA. He can really drive and make the pass. He can create a lot of situations and he fits your game a lot. In defending he has long arms and he can steal the ball, and he will not suffer because of his up-and-down shot. He is very strong mentally."

It will be difficult for Rubio to watch the Final Four take place in his hometown without him, knowing what a memorable farewell he might have created by winning another championship.

"We will not defend our title at home and this hurts, since we were dreaming about this," Barcelona coach Xavier Pascual said.

Barcelona lost the home-court advantage in the quarterfinals against Panathinaikos coach Zeljko Obradovic, who is turning into the Euroleague's Phil Jackson -- next month he'll be seeking his eighth championship, and his fifth with Panathinaikos. Among the Greek leaders was 6-6 combo guard Nick Calathes, the former Florida Gator whose draft rights are held by the Mavericks.

"Calathes played four outstanding games -- especially in defense -- and was a key for us," Panathinaikos center Ian Vougioukas said.

Panathinaikos will meet Montepaschi Siena of Italy in the single-game semifinal. Malik Hairston, a former second-round pick out of Oregon who spent last season with the Spurs, led Siena with 25 points in its clinching 88-76 win over Olympiakos.

The other known Final Four team will be high-scoring Maccabi Tel Aviv Electra, coached by American David Blatt, who finished off Caja Laboral of Spain 99-77 while overcoming a recent season-ending knee injury to guard Doron Perkins. Maccabi will play either Real Madrid or Power Electric Valencia of Spain, who meet in a decisive fifth game Wednesday at Madrid.

How far can Derrick Rose go? As the likely MVP and leader of the East's current No. 1 team, the Bulls' point guard will face enormous expectations entering the playoffs. But is it fair to expect him to run the table when he has yet to have won a playoff series?

Here is a look at the last 20 MVPs, based on the year each won a playoff series for the first time: How far did the playoff run continue?

There are all kinds of variables here, including the fact that many of them didn't win the MVP until after they'd won a playoff series. But it's still worth noting that, among these exceptional talents, only five of them were able to reach the NBA Finals without previous deep-playoff experience. Most stars need one or more seasons of second- and third-round experience before they reach the Finals, much less win a title. In this case, Magic Johnson and Bill Walton have been the ultimate exceptions.

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