I don't know if this is a bad NBA draft or just a mediocre one that's been overly maligned, but I'm certain that it's an easy one for GMs to botch. There are no locks for stardom and only a few for starter-dom. There will be a few shrewd picks and far more flops, and no one will know on draft night which is which. Kentucky center Nerlens Noel is likely to go No. 1 because of his projectable defensive value, yet the Cavaliers are so enamored with him that they're already shopping their pick. When a frail center with limited offensive ability -- who's coming off an ACL tear and won't be available to play until Christmas -- is atop most big boards, it does not say much for the projectability of the rest of the Class of 2013.
The variance of opinion on prospects is so wide this year that I've heard Victor Oladipo, Ben McLemore, Anthony Bennett, Otto Porter Jr., Alex Len, Trey Burke and even C.J. McCollum as the answer to who'll be the best future starter out of the rest of the Lottery Pick pool. Ask scouts who's the best mid-to-late first-round big man, or who's the best shooting guard after McLemore and Oladipo, or who's the best diamond-in-the-rough point guard, and so many different names get mentioned. Everyone has a few guys they like and a lot of guys they're highly uncertain about, and after watching hundreds of hours of college hoops this season, I have my own crew of pet prospects. In a draft with so many questions, these are the guys I like as the answers:
1. Assuming Noel is off the board at No. 1, who's the best future pro from the rest of the players in the Lottery-Pick discussion?
It's Georgetown's Otto Porter Jr., my favorite player in this draft and the only prospect available who offers the combination of being a good fit for his position (small forward); a proven high-usage, high-efficiency scorer who can shoot threes (making 44.1 percent in Big East games) and attack on the interior; and an elite defender. As a sophomore last season, Porter was the most complete player in college basketball, which was remarkable given that he was just 19 -- 4 months younger than McLemore and eight months younger than Shabazz Muhammad. I don't think it was a coincidence that Porter played with such savvy, so early, after avoiding the AAU system altogether. He arrived in college untainted and under-hyped, and within two years his game surpassed that of nearly all the summer-circuit stars in his class.
As high as I am on Porter, Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim is even higher. Boeheim is not known as a criminal over-praiser of competition, either. In a pre-Final Four press conference, he declined to take the bait about a guy in contention for the No. 2 pick:
Q: Obviously the matchup with Trey Burke, how is that going to play out?
Boeheim: I don't pay much attention to matchups. It's teams. Teams play. Trey Burke has had a great year. Michigan is a great team, probably the best offensive team in the country. It will be a great challenge for us.
Praise, but more of the crankily honest variety. Burke had great year. Michigan was the best offensive team in the country -- the stats backed that up. Now, here's Boeheim after beating Georgetown in the Big East tourney semifinals, getting set up to praise Orange small forward C.J. Fair but instead going full man-crush on someone else:
Q: Coach, C.J. was basically shut down by Otto Porter the whole game and then had those two huge plays, including the steal at the end. What did that mean for the game?
Boeheim: Otto Porter ?? I hate to say this in some ways, but I was talking today before the game, I think he's the best all-around player I've seen in this league. I don't think I've seen a better all around player. The guy plays defense. ... I think he's a great defensive player. I think he's a great passer. I think he obviously can shoot the ball, and he just ?? really, I don't see a weakness in his game from a perimeter point of view of a guy that I've seen in this league over the years.
There's been so many great players, but centers, power forwards, point guards, two guards, but I don't think I've seen a better small forward in this league. He's just a complete player. If we were still in this league, I'd be saying that to get him out. But we're not.
If you somehow missed decades of bitter Big East basketball, then I should remind you that Syracuse hates Georgetown and vice versa, and I can also recall that in the hallway right after that press conference at Madison Square Garden, Boeheim told a few reporters that he was not pleased with the way ex-Hoyas coach John Thompson Jr. had conducted himself following the final regular-season meeting between the two teams. But for Porter, it was all love, and the advanced stats back up the praise about his defense. He was the rare small forward who posted high percentages in defensive rebounding (19.0), blocks (3.0) and steals (3.3) -- production that should translate to the next level. And while he won't be looked at as a go-to scorer in the pros, the way he carried Georgetown through the heart of the Big East season, frequently using more than 30 percent of possessions with offensive ratings in the 140-plus range, showed that he could handle being the focal point of an offense.
2. After Noel and Len, there's a big group of post prospects who could go between picks 10 and 30: Cody Zeller, Steven Adams, Mason Plumlee, Kelly Olynyk, Gorgui Dieng, Jeff Withey and maybe even Mike Muscala. Which of them will make the biggest impact in the NBA?
The Zeller and Adams bandwagons have been filling up following the combine, but the answer is Olynyk. I'm surprised that a 7-footer with such advanced offensive skills -- his drive-and-spin game is so good, and he's an excellent finisher at the rim -- is only a fringe Lottery Pick at the moment. They called Olynyk "The Clinic" because he was the most efficient high-usage scorer on any ranked team, a guy who shot 66.0 percent on the interior and delivered in face-up, low-post and transition situations. His 123.3 offensive rating on 30.3 percent usage put him in Michael Beasley/Blake Griffin territory for great seasons by recent college big men.
Olynyk is 22 years old but this is the first season in which his game has matched his body. He was a high-school point guard (hence his ballhandling and shooting skills) who had a growth spurt, struggled early at Gonzaga and then blew up after a redshirt year in which he added significant strength and developed his neural system. He came back as a fully coordinated giant who could be a high-reward pick despite his defensive shortcomings. If you need a rim-protector outside the top 10, go with Dieng, but if you want the most intriguing 7-foot scorer to come out of college in years, go with Olynyk.
3. Three college point guards are locks for the first round: Burke, Michael Carter-Williams and Shane Larkin. But the huge group of second-round or undrafted point guards should produce at least one diamond in the rough. Who will it be out of Phil Pressey, Pierre Jackson, Peyton Siva, Nate Wolters, Isaiah Canaan, Myck Kabongo, Erick Green, Lorenzo Brown and Ray McCallum?
It's South Dakota State's Nate Wolters. He was the best high-usage point guard in college not named Trey Burke, and Wolters' stats (123.5 ORating, 30.3 percent usage, 2.5-to-1 assist/turnover ratio) compare favorably to other mid-major points who successfully made the jump, such as VCU's Eric Maynor, Cleveland State's Norris Cole and Weber State's Damian Lillard. Wolters won't make like Lillard and win Rookie of the Year, but Lillard thrived in large part because he had such a great grasp of the pick-and-roll coming out of college, and Wolters' patience and feel for playmaking in those situations is already fantastic.
He lacks explosiveness but has good size at 6-foot-4, elite ballhandling skills (especially his lefty hesitation dribble) and the ability to make unorthodox runners and floaters from mid-range -- his versions of the teardrop/scoop game that has come in quite handy for Stephen Curry in the NBA. Wolters doesn't have anything like Curry's jumper, but his revamped three-point shot is respectable and he has the ability to go on huge, Curry-like scoring sprees, such a 53-point explosion against IPFW in February, presented here in glorious 360p:
He's been a cult hero of advanced statheads like myself -- resulting in backlash from flat-earthers who only see an unathletic small-school point guard -- but I think we'll be validated in a few years. If you're a halfcourt team in need of a backup point guard, Wolters is the smartest second-round pick you can make.