Truth be told, no one is safe when it comes to the NBA draft. Not the players whose careers are often scrutinized in accordance with where they were picked. And certainly not the executives whose reputations are forever tied to each selection. Risk is a part of the equation no matter the prospect, even when it's a big man like Kentucky's Anthony Davis, who is widely seen as a "can't-miss" talent.
But as the league's talent evaluators continue their preparations for the June 28 draft, many of them will undoubtedly be drawn to the players with the fewest question marks. This group is the focus of the last of a three-part series in which I've divided 30 potential first-round picks into three risk-based categories and provided a brief breakdown of each player. I've labeled these players the "Safe Bets" -- their skills are obvious, their weaknesses clear, and there appears to be some degree of clarity when projecting their career.
Translation: You know who they are as players. At least you think you do.
As was the case in the previous two categories, players are listed from top to bottom based on an inexact and subjective formula: perceived amount of risk coupled with talent and upside.
1. Hitting The Jackpot (four players): The talent is immense and the upside is as trustworthy as there is in the draft. Click here for Wednesday's story.
2. The Gambles: (15 players): In short, this is where the risk gets weighed against the reward. Questions about these players' games -- and, in some cases, their attitudes or off-court issues -- might give NBA decision makers cause for pause, but getting it right could result in a major payoff too. Click here for Thursday's story.
3. The Safe Bets: (11 players): These players might not make any All-Star teams, but talent evaluators say they're the easiest to project. So if you like the skill set and don't want your bosses to be surprised, you feel comfortable picking from this pool.
Here are the Safe Bets:
Harrison Barnes, North Carolina, sophomore small forward (6-foot-8, 215 pounds): No one is predicting the next coming of Kevin Durant, but Barnes is seen by most as a high-level scorer whose skills should translate at the next level. He averaged 17.1 points last season, but left Tar Heels fans wanting more at the end as he shot just 32.8 percent in four NCAA tournament games. Still, executives are confident he'll be a productive pro even though he's not a great athlete and his dribble-drive game needs work.
"Is he going to be an All-Star? I don't know, but it's not like he's going to be a bust either," a front-office source said.
Damian Lillard, Weber State, junior point guard (6-2, 185): With all due respect to Eastern Washington product and current Pistons guard Rodney Stuckey, the Big Sky Conference isn't exactly known for pumping out NBA talent. Lillard is the latest exception, having proved to be one of the nation's best scorers (24.5 points on 46.7 percent shooting). More important for him, he's atop the short list of quality point guards in this draft and could find his way into the top 10 as a result. Lillard is a score-first point guard who can shoot and penetrate, his athleticism is underrated and he's shown good playmaking skills.
Tyler Zeller, North Carolina, senior center (7-foot, 250): As Tar Heels legend Larry Brown would put it, Zeller plays the right way. The ACC Player of the Year is far closer to solid than he is spectacular, but the well-rounded offensive game, smarts and consistency could make him a lottery pick. Zeller improved every year, averaging 16.3 points, 9.6 rebounds and 1.5 blocks as a senior.
"He's not going to be an All-Star by any stretch," a front-office source said, "but you'll be satisfied."
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State, sophomore power forward/center (6-9, 280): No one questions Sullinger's savvy and skill, but his lack of size and athleticism dog him more now than they did when he passed on the draft a year ago. He was considered a top five pick then, but the shine might have come off his game despite the fact that he had a very similar season statistically (17.5 points to 17.3 as a freshman, 10.2 rebounds to 9.2). His conditioning has been a problem at times, even with Sullinger's improving his physique last offseason. Most of all, though, the discussion about Sullinger concerns position.
"He's another undersized 'five' [center]," a front-office source said. "And I don't think he's going to be able to be a 'four' [power forward]. He plays below the rim, has great skills, but is he Oliver Miller? He's supposedly in great shape, and he still can't run [very well]."
Kendall Marshall, North Carolina, sophomore point guard (6-4, 180): We offer this not-so-inspiring commentary on Marshall from one talent evaluator: "He's just OK." Now consider the reality that he could be taken in the top 10, and you have all you need to know about how weak this draft is at point guard. Still, general managers who saw the impact of Ricky Rubio in his rookie season with the Timberwolves might be tempted to ignore Marshall's lack of athleticism or consistent shot and select him because of his passing prowess. He ranked second in the country in assists per game (9.7) and led the nation in assist-to-turnover ratio (3.51 to 1). His value was evident after a broken right wrist kept him out of the Tar Heels' final two games in the NCAA tournament, an overtime victory against Ohio and a 13-point loss to Kansas. Without Marshall, North Carolina averaged 10.5 fewer points in transition, according to ESPN.com.
Dion Waiters, Syracuse, sophomore shooting guard (6-4, 215): Waiters was the James Harden of college basketball last season, a top-notch sixth man who averaged 12.6 points for an Orange team that finished 34-3 and fell to Ohio State in the Elite Eight. Despite Waiters' inconsistent shooting touch, some scouts view the athletic, dynamic scorer as a great fit for the NBA. He's expected to go from the mid-to-late first round but has "lottery-type talent," one executive said. There are some questions about his style (lots of isolation play), and Waiters admitted that he "put myself before the team" during his freshman season. But some NBA personnel men point to his willingness to come off the bench as a positive sign that he's willing to do what's best for the team.
Jeff Taylor, Vanderbilt, senior small forward (6-7, 225): Taylor qualifies as one of the few lockdown perimeter defenders in the draft. He is more than quick enough to handle guarding multiple positions, and he becomes an even more intriguing pick because of his improving offense. Most of his scoring came from attacking the rim in his first three seasons at Vanderbilt, but he started developing three-point range as a junior and made it a weapon as a senior when he shot 42.3 percent from beyond the arc while averaging 16.1 points.
Moe Harkless, St. John's, freshman small forward (6-8, 208): The uber-athletic Harkless could stand to be more efficient on offense, where he averaged 15.3 points but shot just 44.5 percent overall and 20.2 percent from three-point range in his Big East Rookie of the Year season. But his impact elsewhere entices front-office types who watched him average 8.6 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.6 steals for 13-19 St. John's.
Marquis Teague, Kentucky, freshman point guard (6-2, 189): With the way the NBA is being ruled by the Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook types, point guards who can't defend are being exposed more than ever. Teague has the ability to slow speedy point guards while applying pressure himself. While his regular-season numbers weren't spectacular (10 points on 41.2 percent shooting, 4.8 assists and 2.7 turnovers), he produced better when it counted most (13.3 points on 45.9 percent shooting, 4.8 assists and 2.5 turnovers in six NCAA tournament games). He could be a quality pick late in the first round.
Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure, senior power forward (6-9, 225): Nicholson is a poster boy for staying in school. He improved in all four seasons and capped his college career by leading St. Bonaventure to an Atlantic 10 championship and its first NCAA tournament appearance in 12 years. He is potent on both ends of the floor, averaging 18.5 points (while adding a three-point shot during his senior season), 8.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks.
Draymond Green, Michigan State, senior power forward (6-7, 230): He is undersized and lacks athleticism, but the well-balanced body of work is tough to ignore. Green took major strides every season, evolving into a reliable go-to guy with good shooting range who averaged 16.2 points, 10.6 rebounds and 3.8 assists as a senior, including 17.7 points, 13.7 rebounds and 6.0 assists in three NCAA tournament games.