It's vital to the talent-evaluation process, the tall task of analyzing young players so comprehensively and accurately that the odds of shooting a proverbial air ball with a pick are minimized. As Oklahoma City has shown as well as any other team in recent years by drafting Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Serge Ibaka, these selections can determine the direction of a franchise and an executive's job security (or lack thereof).
This year's draft is considered strong and deep, meaning owners everywhere will be expecting an impact player no matter how late they might pick. Despite all the hype, however, uncertainty still reigns and the possibility of landing a bust is as great as ever.
After speaking with several personnel men, I will attempt to quantify the level of variance with these prospects over the next three days, dividing 30 potential first-round picks into three risk-based categories and providing a brief breakdown of each player. Two quick disclaimers before I explain further: 1) Kentucky's Anthony Davis, in case you hadn't heard, is in a class by himself in this draft, even if he happens to share a category, and 2) Players are listed from top to bottom based on an inexact and subjective formula: perceived amount of risk coupled with talent and upside.
Here are the three categories:
1. Hitting The Jackpot (four players): The talent is immense and the upside is as trustworthy as there is in the draft. See below for an evaluation of Davis and the other three players in this group.
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. This story will run on Thursday. (Update:Click here for the 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. (Update:Click here for the story.)
Let's start, then, with the first category:
Anthony Davis, Kentucky, freshman power forward (6-foot-10, 220 pounds): As if his top-dog status hasn't been established already, I spoke with another general manager to inquire about Davis' incredible potential. To review, my May 1 report had executives comparing Davis not only to Blake Griffin but also to future Hall of Famer Kevin Garnett. Sure enough, the consensus continues.
"He could be every bit as good as KG," the GM said. "KG, [Tim] Duncan -- that's this guy's upside. There's no telling how good this guy is going to be."
Whereas most No. 1 picks have already showcased most of their skills by this stage, the fact that Davis didn't become a big man until a growth spurt during his junior year in high school likely means the evolution is just getting started. His defensive presence has been well-chronicled (he led the nation with 4.6 blocks), but the GM sees plenty of offensive potential as well.
"He'll start doing things in a couple of years, and you'll be like, 'Wow,' " he said.
Thomas Robinson, Kansas, junior power forward (6-9, 240): Robinson joins Davis in the top tier in this group in terms of prospect predictability. The breakout star of the 2011-12 college season, Robinson's production soared after the Morris twins, Marcus and Markieff, left Kansas for the NBA last year. He's slightly undersized for the power forward position, but he's made believers out of most executives not only because of his speed, strength and scoring skills but also because he's a relentless worker and phenomenal rebounder.
One executive deemed him a better version of Nuggets rookie Kenneth Faried, a high-energy forward who led the nation in rebounding in his senior season at Morehead State but still had his doubters entering the NBA as the No. 22 pick in the 2011 draft. Faried thrived in the second half of the season and helped Denver push the Lakers to seven games in the first round of the playoffs.
"Thomas Robinson is the same kind of guy -- undersized, big motor, but more skilled," the executive said. "Maybe you put him in the star category."
Or, as Markieff Morris told ESPN The Magazine in a November 2011 story, "He has the speed of Kobe and a body like LeBron's. Sky's the limit."
The Jayhawks' strong finish to the season helped boost Robinson, who had 18 points and 17 rebounds in their loss to Kentucky in the national championship game. He averaged 17.6 points and 11.9 rebounds (second in the nation) in 31.8 minutes for the season, a big jump from his sophomore averages of 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds in 14.6 minutes. Robinson, who can score with his back to the basket and when attacking in face-up situations, is inconsistent as an outside threat but has some range.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Kentucky, freshman small forward (6-7, 210): He was Robin to Davis' Batman at Kentucky, in large part because of his commitment to playing both ends of the floor (he was only fourth on the team in scoring at 11.9 points). It's unclear whether he can evolve into playing a lead role, but he has no shortage of casting calls because of his versatility and the leadership he showed during the Wildcats' championship run.
For all of the attention paid to Davis as Kentucky's top talent, Kidd-Gilchrist was regarded as the team's glue. Coach John Calipari routinely praised him for being the emotional leader, and Kidd-Gilchrist was the captain of the Wildcats' 8:30 a.m. workouts before scheduled practices.
It's hard to tell how good he can be offensively because of the deep surrounding talent at Kentucky, but he has been compared to New Jersey's Gerald Wallace in terms of his athleticism and attacking mentality. Kidd-Gilchrist had two of his best offensive games in the NCAA tournament, scoring 24 points on 7-of-15 shooting against Indiana in the Sweet 16 and 19 points on 7-of-10 shooting against Baylor in the Elite Eight.
He might have the best motor in the draft, and nothing makes scouts happier than a player who never stops. Kidd-Gilchrist is also a tenacious defender with a 6-10 wingspan. His inconsistent perimeter game is a concern, but his work ethic and approach have NBA teams drooling.
"He has all the intangibles," one assistant general manager said. "And he plays extremely hard."
Bradley Beal, Florida, freshman shooting guard (6-4, 205): After a celebrated high school career at Chaminade College Preparatory School in St. Louis, Beal's freshman year with the Gators was underwhelming in that he didn't live up to his reputation as a long-range marksman. But NBA teams remain high on his shooting ability, he shined in the NCAA tournament and he still averaged 14.8 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.4 steals for the season.
Beal finished in impressive fashion, scoring 20 points in a three-point loss to Kentucky in the SEC tournament semifinals, then averaging 15.7 points in four NCAA tournament games. He shot 60.5 percent (23-of-38) from the field and 42.1 percent (8-of-19) from three-point range in the Big Dance, raising his season marks to 44.5 percent and 33.9 percent.
Natural shooters with athleticism who hit the glass, defend and have a high hoops IQ are hard to come by, making Beal a possible top five pick. One front-office source said a lot of teams have Beal ranked ahead of Connecticut's Jeremy Lamb, who is also vying to be the best shooting guard in the draft.