• John Wall, 6-4 freshman point guard, Kentucky. Three of the scouts think the world of Wall. "The only true star I've seen," said the No. 2 executive of an NBA team. "I thought he was very special when I saw him in person and the way he took command of the game. I didn't expect anything like that. He's a better version of Derrick Rose because his hands are so quick."
Another second-in-command NBA executive agrees that Wall could be superior to Rose, the reigning Rookie of the Year. "He's a better shooter than Rose, a better defender than Rose. He doesn't quite have that strength and body that Rose had, but give him a couple of years and he might even be quicker and faster than Rose. He has such unbelievable speed and quickness and length and intensity at both ends of the floor. Let me say he's far from being a perfect player and he has a lot to learn, but he's one of those guys who will be better served to play in the NBA than in college, because the open floor space and the way the NBA is designed will suit him better.
"He has to improve his shot, but he has the makings of a floor general: tough, aggressive, willing to put his neck out and be a leader. He is far from being organized and establishing a rhythm on the court, but he looks like he will be able to do that eventually. At the very worst case, he should become a starting point guard on a top team."
The same scout adds that Wall may define himself most at the defensive end: "I've heard guys say he could be Gary Payton. That's a hell of a thing to say, but he has that type of body and quickness."
Here is more of the same from a third scout: "Wall is up there with Rose, ChrisPaul and all of those guys. You get him and you'll have your point guard for the next 10-13 years based on his size, speed, length and basketball IQ. And he can defend. He's not a great shooter, but no one can stop him from getting where he wants to go on the court. And that, for me, is the greatest asset for a point guard, when you can collapse the defense and get into the paint, and then when they have to start helping, they're done. He reminds me of Micheal Ray Richardson -- that guy was the best; he was Magic Johnson when he played. That guy could get 15 rebounds and 15 assists, and he wasn't a great shooter, but he could get 20 every night. That's who Wall reminds me of."
But one scout isn't entirely sold on the presumptive No. 1 pick. Will he be able to execute plays at the slower pace of the NBA playoffs? "Wall is a broken-field runner," the scout said. "He's like a punt returner who zigs and zags and gets to daylight, but he's doing this against bad college teams. When he's forced to play half-court basketball, then we'll see."
• Evan Turner, 6-7 junior swingman, Ohio State. The scout who is skeptical of Wall believes Turner should be ranked as his peer. "Wall and Turner are Nos. 1 and 1a. Turner is going to be an All-Star. I have great faith in that. His size, his approach, his style of game -- all are suited to the pros."
On Dec. 5, Turner fractured the second and third lumbar vertebra of his spine when he fell flat on his back following a failed dunk in transition. He returned a month later after missing only six games. "You can see he's a guy who enjoys playing," the scout continued. "His ability to improve his shooting will control his greatness. He's like Oscar Robertson. He can have that type of impact. Oscar wasn't a guy people worried about when he went behind the pick and launched the bomb -- you almost preferred him to do that -- and that's how it is with Turner."
I mentioned this high praise to another scout, who responded as the devil's advocate. "Evan Turner is the most interesting guy in the whole draft, because a lot of guys feel that way about him and really like him. And then there are a lot of guys who absolutely don't like him. I'm wrestling with it. The reason you wouldn't like him is because he can't play without the ball -- he's a turnover guy. He so dominates his team and I wonder what that's going to mean in the NBA. And then you see he's not a deep shooter. His game is based on strength and aggressiveness, he's a very skilled guy and he's in relentless attack mode from the opening tip. How is that going to work in the NBA if he's playing out of control? He's a guy who has had triple-doubles including turnovers.
"But the other side of it is that you could put him at the point and, if he refines his skills, you could wind up with a guy who is bigger and tougher than BrandonRoy -- like Brandon Roy on steroids, a beast. Now, part of Roy's beauty is that he never tries to do what he can't do, he plays within himself and he's a smart player. This kid is like Roy unleashed, so watch out because he plays on emotion and he can be his own worst enemy. No matter what, he's not going to slip far because of all that talent."
The other two scouts fully endorse Turner as a top pick. "He's a point guard in our league, or a point-forward. He has the ball in his hands for Ohio State 90 percent of the time. He's strong, he can really, really pass, he's a great rebounder and he's tough. He's not a great shooter, but he can score 20 a night on tip-ins and mid-range jump shots. Why shoot threes if no one is able to stop him from 15 feet and in? If he works at it -- and everything I'm told is that he has a great work ethic -- he can learn to make enough threes and become a great player. He's a monster."
Added the fourth scout: "He has personality, charisma, he's a big guard who has no fear driving to the basket. He has to improve his outside shot, but he can do anything on the floor."
• Wesley Johnson, 6-7 junior forward, Syracuse. "Wesley Johnson has been the surprise of the year," one scout said. "He has a lot going for him -- size, skills -- and he's the reason behind Syracuse's 18-1 season. He has the potential to be very special, and I'm told he has a good basketball mind. At the end of the day, he can be a 20-point scorer, a good rebounder and a passer."
All four scouts endorse Johnson. "He's probably the best athlete in the draft," a team executive said. "He can shoot it, but at the same time he's shown a willingness to play within the team's system and not be selfish. He's another guy who's probably better off in the style of the NBA than in college. He's so freakishly athletically, he can hit a college three and he can pass it."
But the same executive expressed concern with Johnson's defense, as is often the case with prospects from Syracuse. "He's way, way behind defensively. Syracuse is actually trying on defense this year; their zone is the reason they're doing well. For a college team it's a great way to guard, but for us it doesn't help. You watch some guys in college and you can see they help to make the zone better, and then you watch other guys like Johnson and it looks like they're trying to hide in the zone, and that if you pulled him out of the zone and asked him to play man-to-man against NBA players, it could be scary. But I hear he's a great kid and willing to work."
Two of the scouts rate Johnson as the No. 2 player in the draft. "He is ShawnMarion," another scout predicted of Johnson. "He's an insane athlete who can make some shots, a much better shooter at the same stage of his career than Marion ever was. He's a little small -- he's 6-7 and slight -- but he can run. Last month, he got 19 rebounds [at Seton Hall], which is a big number at any level, but in the college game it's off the charts. He doesn't have a great handle -- he's a one-bounce player who can get from the wing to the basket. But he's not good in the open court; he's more of a straight-line player who is not very creative."
"Wesley Johnson is definitely worth talking about," said the scout who is skeptical of Wall. "He is a scorer, a complete package -- jack-of-all-trades, master of none. He grades out well in everything except for breaking you down and getting his own shot. A pretty good player."
• Cole Aldrich, 6-11 junior center, Kansas. The No. 4 spot is where the scouts started having trouble coming up with names. All agree that Wall, Turner and Johnson will share the top three picks, but Nos. 4 and 5 generate a variety of names with little conviction for any of them.
"I just don't think this is a very good draft," said one team exec who rates Aldrich as a potential No. 4 pick. "There is going to be a group of seven or eight guys who separate themselves, which means that teams will pick for need. The order of teams in the lottery is going to determine who goes where in this draft.
"Aldrich is a solid, safe pick as a guy who is going to show up every night," the executive continued. "He's big and long, he has good hands, he knows how to play. Is he a go-to guy? Is he going to have the upside to become an All-Star? I don't know. But everybody needs bigs who are long and play hard every night and run the floor, who can catch and finish, who hit their free throws. He's an energy player, and when you put all of that together, you can't help but rate him somewhere this high."
Affirmed another scout: "Aldrich is going to be in there. A lot of it depends on how far Kansas goes this year. But he's already an NBA player -- not flashy, but he's a big man who can do a lot of things."
• Willie Warren, 6-4 sophomore shooting guard, Oklahoma. Take your pick here. "If a team needs a big, they'll take Aldrich; if they need a point guard, they'll take Willie Warren," an executive said. Though Warren is listed as a shooting guard for Oklahoma, he has the potential to shift to the point in the NBA. "He is talented, he's quick, he can shoot it, and I think he can be a '1.' If he was in last year's draft with all of those point guards, I don't think he would be rated this high. But this year, after John Wall [and potentially Evan Turner], there is no other point guard. So he is going to benefit from the timing of the draft.
"But I will say," continued this exec, "a lot of [NBA] guys are down on Warren because of questions about character. [Oklahoma coach Jeff] Capel benched him one game this year and, instead of saying he had a headache or he'd banged his knee in practice, he chose not to explain it. Obviously there's some friction there, and the team is not as good without Blake Griffin. But Warren is a talented guy and, at the very least, he's going to be a top-10 pick."
Another potential choice for the top five is 7-foot Donatas Motiejunas, a 19-year-old Lithuanian playing for Benetton Treviso of the Italian league. "He's got the talent, the body, the feet," an executive said. "Maybe he should wait one more year before declaring, because he's still too fragile in his upper body. He gets pushed around too easily. But if he can go in the top five in a weak draft, maybe he'll come out. He has good touch with both hands around the basket, he can shoot the three and he loves to play."
A couple of long-shot sophomores mentioned by the scouts are 6-8 Butler forward Gordon Hayward and Georgetown big man Greg Monroe. Here's one scout on Hayward: "He creates for others, which is a rare thing at that size out on the wing. There are comparisons to [Mike] Dunleavy, who is a better shooter, but this guy is better laterally on defense, which is Dunleavy's weakness. He is one hell of a complementary player, although when you say someone is a '3' man in the body of a '4' man, that's usually an NBA death sentence. But this guy may be the exception."
Here's another scout on the 6-11 Monroe: "He's not a jumping-jack, but he's a good athlete who rebounds the ones he should get, and he's an average shot-blocker. What he has going for him is that he's one of the best-passing bigs I've ever seen. That makes him a great complementary player if you're looking for someone to blend in."
Another highly rated prospect is 6-10 Georgia Tech freshman Derrick Favors, who is viewed as a high-risk power forward by all four of the scouts who spoke to me this week. One scout sums up their doubts: "He's a very enticing player with length and great hands, and I'm sure he'll go in the top 10. But I wouldn't push to take him. He's one of those guys that you hope the team in front of you takes so you don't have to make the hard decision to pass him up. He's talented, but I haven't seen him play very hard. He should be getting 12 rebounds every night and getting some of them above the square. His motor needs to improve."
On to the rest of the Countdown ...
Note: Due to an abundance of mail I received about my midseason awards and All-Star selections, I'll respond to more of your questions Monday in a mailbag. Until then, here are a few to keep you occupied:
• What happened to Monta Ellis of Golden State? He should have made your top five surprises for All-Star selections. Your thoughts?--Tracy F., Oakland, Calif.
How could you leave David Lee off your All-Star roster? His stats are better than Al Horford's across the board, and he's become a legit 20-10 guy.-- Andrew F., Delray Beach, Fla.
You said the only meaningful competition for Al Horford at backup center for the East side is Kendrick Perkins. I know he's not on a winning team, but wouldn't you give Andrew Bogut a lot of consideration for the backup spot as well? Statistically speaking, he has performed better than both of them with averages of 15 and 10. And wouldn't it be safe to say that he has had as much or greater of an impact on his team than Perkins or Horford? When he scores 17 points or more, the Bucks are 11-2. Doesn't this show that he has been more valuable and important to his team than the other two?-- Matt G., West Allis, Wis.
I should have mentioned Ellis as a candidate because of the impressive numbers he's compiled. But there's no way a guy from such a bad team should displace someone like Steve Nash, Chris Paul or Deron Williams.
Horford is a center, while Lee is listed on the ballot as a forward and, therefore, is competing against a larger pool of candidates. It's hard to argue that he should be an All-Star ahead of Gerald Wallace.
You make a lot of strong points, Matt, and I did consider Bogut. But the East is so bad this year that I decided to focus on teams above or near .500. Shouldn't there be minimum standards for excellence? The simple answer to your question is that Bogut needs to score 17 points more often in order to drive his team to more wins and drive himself to the All-Star Game, and I believe someday he'll manage to do all of that.
• Would you agree that Andrea Bargnani is closing in on All-Star level in the Eastern Conference? After Dwight Howard, who else is there in the East? You could make an argument for Al Horford, I suppose, but, really, is Bargnani not worthy of All-Star consideration?-- Corddry T., London, Ontario
I think you put it well: Bargnani is closing in on that level. To get there he needs to rebound closer to double figures (right now he's at a lowly 6.4 per game, and 18th in rebounds per minute among Eastern centers), as well as develop more of an inside presence as a scorer. The other consideration when it comes to Bargnani as a future All-Star is whether Chris Bosh remains in Toronto. If Bosh leaves, then Bargnani may ultimately shift to forward, which will raise the standards he needs to achieve.
• Do you expect the next collective bargaining agreement to result in a proportional decrease of salaries and regular-season games? In my view, that would benefit the quality of play (back-to-backs should be banned, they are frankly unwatchable), the length of the players' careers and, given the ever lower attendance rates, the owners' pockets. Your thoughts?-- Gianmarco, Padua, Italy
The number of regular-season games will not decrease because fewer games would mean less revenue. The owners are demanding more revenue from the next CBA; they'll want a larger share of revenues overall and shorter contracts for the players. As much as the quality of play might improve without back-to-backs, the league is going to avoid any move that brings in less money.
• Ian, I'm wondering where things stand right now on the NBA's deal with Seattle that settled their suit against the Thunder ownership and the NBA. It appears to me that the NBA and Thunder are going to make out like bandits, since the economic downturn would dictate that Seattle will be unable to uphold its end of the bargain so the NBA will have no need to give Seattle a team and the Thunder won't be on the hook for another $30 million. Do you think this is correct, or is it still too early to tell?-- Robert, Portland, Ore.
You're right that the Thunder won't owe the $30 million now that that the Dec. 31 deadline has passed without the Washington legislature approving upgrades to KeyArena. The other part of the equation is something the NBA would like to reverse: The league would like to move a team back into Seattle, a large market with a long-term following for basketball. But it's going to be a rough sell because of the bad feelings that followed the Sonics' departure to Oklahoma City. Maybe I'm wrong, but I have a hard time imagining anyone of political power pushing for the return of the NBA to Seattle anytime in the near future.
Shareef Abdur-Rahim played 12 seasons with four teams, appeared in one All-Star Game and signed his name to more than $100 million in NBA contracts. He is in his second season as an assistant coach for the Sacramento Kings, working longer hours than he experienced as a player on their roster (through 2007-08) and for a much smaller salary (in the low six figures).
• On his pay cut. "An NBA coach makes pretty good money," he said. "There are not a lot of jobs where you can make the money that NBA coaches make. You look at the economy right now and the kinds of jobs people are going for ...''
He feels fortunate. "I did well when I played," he said. So well that he doesn't worry so much about how much money he is making now. "Someone was telling me the other day, if you can find something you enjoy doing, then you do that. And I enjoy doing this.
"I never really thought about doing it before. The organization asked me what I thought about it. I was in a situation where physically I couldn't play anymore [because of chronic knee problems]. I had been around the younger guys and maybe I had made an impact on them, so maybe I could try it and see."
• On adapting. "Sometimes you see guys doing things or not doing things, and as a player you were used to being able to physically make a difference in a game," he said. "But as a coach, you don't have that same impact anymore. So that's tough."
It isn't easy to persuade players to behave differently than he himself behaved when he was a player. "When I was a player, I picked up stuff at my own speed and matured at my own speed," he said. "And now I see guys doing the same thing."
• On getting players to listen. "I'm just enjoying learning and picking up different aspects of the game -- things I wish I would have learned or picked up when I played," Abdur-Rahim said. "If I'd done that, I think I would have done a lot better.
"It's just understanding the game and seeing the game in different ways -- what works, what doesn't work, ball movement ... all of the little nuances of the game that coaches talked about, but you didn't really appreciate how important they were. I watch the game from a different perspective now."
• From an NBA personnel scout: "When Stephen Curry went to Golden State, I think he went to one of the worst places he could possibly go. He's such a good kid, he's a student of the game and he really wants to be good, but I just think it's an emotional roller-coaster to play for that team right now. On the one hand, I can't see him being dragged out of his positive frame of mind, no matter how bad the situation. On the other hand, he's one of those guys you pull for. He comes from a disciplined system at Davidson, and even though his family had money and his father was a player, he's not a prima donna. So it's just too bad that someone with so much going for him is in that kind of situation they're in right now."
• From a GM: "It's obvious that a lot of teams are losing money. My understanding is that if you came in with a good-sized check, you could buy something like 12 teams in the league. The question is how big of a check you'd have to write. But I think if you were looking to buy an NBA team, now would be a good time, because you'd have a lot of owners who are willing to listen."
• What's the best way to develop young referees? Lately, I've been hearing complaints about lopsided officiating crews in which one senior ref is paired with two inexperienced refs. Naturally, I sought the counsel of Mavericks owner MarkCuban, the leading expert on NBA officiating. Though Cuban would not comment, he did confirm that he has noticed this trend. In fact, a game protested recently by the Mavericks -- a 116-108 OT loss to the Rockets in December -- was officiated by respected senior referee Ken Mauer, who is working his 24th season, and John Goble and Brian Forte, each in his second NBA season.
After that game, Cuban argued the referees improperly called a second technical foul on center Erick Dampier in OT, resulting in his ejection. Commissioner David Stern disallowed the protest because the technical was viewed as a judgment call.
I am told the NBA has been calling up officials from the D-League over the first half of this season to referee games as part of a program (written into the collective bargaining agreement) to prepare them for eventual careers in the NBA. The program will conclude this month, with no more call-ups for the rest of the season.
No one is against the idea of working younger officials into the NBA. The worries come when two younger officials are gaining on-the-job experience while making (in theory) two-thirds of the calls in an important game. On Wednesday, Goble and Forte were paired with 17-year referee Monty McCutchen at the Atlanta-Sacramento game.
A league insider said four referees retired before this season and were replaced by younger officials, further increasing the need to work new refs into the rotations. Even so, wouldn't it be in everyone's best interest to enable inexperienced referees to learn without having their presence dominate the game? In addition, wouldn't it be better to schedule them to games at the end of the season involving non-playoff teams? This is not meant to turn into a criticism of promising young refs like Goble and Forte -- on the contrary, this is about improving a system designed to help them.