For many potential draftees, there is a disconnect between college success and what NBA talent evaluators think of them. Whereas gaudy college statistics boost some players into the top of the lottery, others slip to the back half of the second round because of off-court issues or physical limitations. Former lottery pick Adam Morrison is one of the many examples where college stardom was mistakenly perceived as evidence of NBA viability, whereas former Washington star Isaiah Thomas was a steal for Sacramento with the last pick in the 2011 draft.
With some distance, it’s clear Morrison was not worth a lottery pick. He should have been recognized instead as a “good college player.” While superstars on their respective campuses, good college players are not often held in high regard by NBA teams. Here are 11 players in this year’s draft class who fit that description.
After a strong showing at Australia’s World University Games last summer, Bairstow blossomed into one of the top big men in the nation. He more than doubled his scoring average and boosted his rebounding, blocks, assists and field goal percentage while earning First-Team All-Mountain West honors. Bairstow’s offensive skills, toughness and strength, a product of his rigorous training regimen, have seen him rise into consideration for a late second round pick. But a lack of top-end athleticism may result in Bairstow going undrafted. Put it this way: Fellow Aussie Dante Exum will have an NBA home long before Bairstow does.
Russ Smith, Louisville
SI.com Big Board rank:44
Smith’s combination of high-usage, high-efficiency offense and pesky defense earned him Ken Pomeroy’s player of the year award the last two seasons. He led Louisville to a Final Four in 2012 and a national championship in 2013. He made "Russdiculous" – a nickname for his reckless, but effective, style of play – go mainstream and had a big hand in coach Rick Pitino’s getting a large, red "L" tattooed on his back. He posterized a projected lottery pick on a rival team. You may also know him as the BasedKing. Yet on Thursday night, don’t expect to hear Smith’s name called before the second round. His size (6-foot-1, 160 pounds) and questionable decision-making could scare teams away.
Kilpatrick was one of the lone bright spots on a Cincinnati team that was often brutal to watch run offense. A first-team All-American in his senior season, Kilpatrick helped the Bearcats match Louisville atop the American Athletic Conference standings with a 15-3 record (Cincinnati was awarded the No. 1 seed in the conference tournament on a coin toss!). NBA talent evaluators have their questions about Kilpatrick, chief among them whether he can improve defensively. Kilpatrick’s age (24) won’t do him any favors on draft day, either.
Few foresaw San Diego State emerging as one of the top teams in the country last season. But behind strong, consistent play from Thames, including a 31-point effort in an overtime win at Utah State, the Aztecs earned a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and fell six points short of knocking off No. 1 seed Arizona in the Sweet 16. San Diego State’s stunning victory at Allen Fieldhouse in January raised Thames’ profile, though he still remained a relative unknown for many fans. Similarly, there hasn’t been much buzz surrounding Thames in regards to the draft. The 2014 Mountain West Player of the Year is unlikely to be drafted.
Napier’s recent rise up draft boards caused some hesitation. The former Huskies star is projected to go at No. 19 to the Bulls in SI.com’s latest mock draft, which sort of undermines the spirit of this exercise. But after deeper consideration, Napier is too decorated of a college player to exclude. Though he won his first national championship alongside Kemba Walker in 2011, Napier was the engine behind the Huskies’ 2014 title run. Napier also beat out Kilpatrick for the inaugural AAC player of the year award and was named a first-team All-American. A college basketball season that began with breathless hyping of a purportedly loaded freshman class ended with a 22-year-old senior capturing the nation’s attention. For reasons related to basketball and not.
Forgotten amid the flurry of upsets on the 2014 tourney’s first weekend was the thrilling game between No. 11 seed Providence and No. 6 seed North Carolina on March 21. If you didn’t watch, know that you missed one of the best individual performances of the postseason, a 36-point, eight assist, five-rebound masterpiece from Cotton that nearly saw the Friars upend the Heels. That game came less than a week after Cotton led Providence to an unlikely Big East Tournament championship, in which he was named Most Outstanding Player. Even more impressive, Cotton led Division I with a 96.4 minutes percentage last season. Best case: the 6-foot, 163-pound Iron Man sneaks into the back half of the second round.
Arizona’s 2013-14 season – and Johnson’s college career – ended with Johnson holding the ball a fraction of a second too long (after he was called for a controversial offensive foul seconds earlier) as the clock ran out on a tough Elite 8 loss to Wisconsin. Focusing on that game, though, overlooks Johnson making the leap from starter to stardom while helping mold Arizona into the top team on the West Coast. His ability to lockdown a range of perimeter threats was a driving force behind the Wildcats ranking No. 1 in points allowed per possession and effective field goal percentage defense last season. But at 6-3, 198 pounds, Johnson is small for an NBA shooting guard. He probably won’t go off the board until the middle of the second round.
Let this serve as a reminder that Fred Hoiberg had a boatload of offensive talent at his disposal last season. After spending the first three years of his college career at Marshall, Kane transferred to the Iowa State, where he emerged as a force at point guard and helped the Cyclones nearly derail Connecticut’s national championship run in the Sweet 16 with 16 points, nine assists and eight rebounds. Ejim scored a Big-12 record 48 points in a February win over TCU and earned conference player of the year honors. Both players could be facing a harsh comedown as they transition to the pro-game, though. Neither Ejim nor Kane is projected to be selected in the draft; Ejim’s size (6-foot-7, 219 pounds) and Kane’s age (25) are the biggest knocks.
Off-court issues – suspended for violating team rules for the second time in less than a year last June – clouded the beginning of Wilbekin’s senior season at Florida. After missing five games to suspension, Wilbekin helped Florida lay waste to a weak SEC and was named the conference’s player of the year. He keyed Florida’s No. 2 efficiency defense while averaging a career-high 13.1 points. The Gators will miss Wilbekin’s heady point guard play and clutch shot-making next season. Still, NBA teams won’t hesitate to pass on him. Questionable athleticism and offensive shortcomings have hurt Wilbekin’s standing. It’s looking like he will be searching for a professional contract as an undrafted free agent.
The first Syracuse player projected to be taken Thursday – point guard Tyler Ennis -- has one year of college experience. The second – small forward Jerami Grant – is considered a project who lacks refined offensive skills. Fair is a four-year college player who logged a ton of minutes, outscored Grant and Ennis by 4.4 and 3.6 points a game, respectively, and earned second-team All-America honors last season. While his athleticism has piqued the interest of NBA scouts, positional fit is a significant concern. With Fair having played in a 2-3 zone defense at Syracuse, it’s fair to wonder whether he’ll be able to guard NBA small forwards. And though Fair consistently scored in double digits against college defenses, improving his perimeter shooting will be key as he faces stiffer defensive competition at the next level.
Statistical support provided by Kenpom.com