NBA Big Board 3.0: Race for No. 1 grows tighter

Thursday January 16th, 2014

As the 2013-14 college basketball season progresses, the NBA lottery picture continues to take shape.
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This year's prospective draft class may be one of the deepest, but the fight for the top spot is becoming a three-man race.

There is Duke's Jabari Parker, the do-it-all forward with the diverse offensive game. There is Kansas' Joel Embiid, the overpowering big man who has rapidly developed into perhaps the best center in college basketball. And there is Embiid's teammate Andrew Wiggins, the silky small forward and the once consensus No. 1 pick, who has battled exceedingly high expectations.

As the calendar turns to 2014, most NBA executives who spoke to for our Big Board 3.0 agree that these three have separated themselves from the pack.

"I think Julius Randle is an All-Star and I'm dying to get a closer look at Dante Exum," a Western Conference general manager said. "But those three guys [Parker, Embiid, Wiggins] are elite. Right now, they are a cut above everyone else."

(Note: Arrows indicate movement up and down since last Big Board; * indicates player is new addition.)

Chris Mannix's NBA Draft Big Board
Jabari Parker
Duke, Freshman (6-foot-8, 235 pounds)
Last Big Board: No. 3

A disclaimer: With so much talent at the top of this draft, positional need will be a major factor at deciding who goes No. 1. But more and more executives are warming to the idea of Parker as the top pick. Parker has cooled off after a stellar first two months of the season, but teams continue to praise his versatility, intelligence and ability to handle a lot of responsibility on offense. Most scouts agree that Parker is best equipped to make an immediate impact in the NBA.

Joel Embiid
Kansas, Freshman (7-0, 250)
Last Big Board: No. 6

Remember in October, when Jayhawks coach Bill Self described Embiid as a “young Hakeem Olajuwon?” That statement, while remaining a little hyperbolic, isn’t sounding so ridiculous anymore. Embiid is a tenacious defender with natural instincts on that end of the floor. And while his offense is a work in progress, scouts have commented on his fundamentally sound form, which should translate into bigger numbers as his career progresses. One NBA personnel man said he believed that if Embiid continues to improve, he will be on a lot of teams' boards as the No. 1 pick.

Andrew Wiggins
Kansas, Freshman (6-8, 200)
Last Big Board: No. 2
Wiggins continues to be something of an enigma. There are games that he will dazzle with his shooting, athleticism and ability to score off the dribble, like he did in a 22-point, five-rebound effort in Kansas' win over Kansas State last Saturday. In other games, Wiggins has a tendency to drift and disappear. When Wiggins is on, there is no one -- no one -- as talented in college basketball, but does he have the killer instinct so many NBA greats (Jordan, Kobe, LeBron) possess? That instinct is what could be the gap between good and great with Wiggins.
Dante Exum
Australia, 18 years old (6-6, 188)
Last Big Board: No. 4

Exum has reportedly decided to enter the NBA draft, according to ESPN's Chad Ford. Scouts love his effortless first step, athleticism and vastly improved perimeter game but question his position. That question will remain until Exum participates in individual workouts, where many executives will get a first live look at him. Still, the son of former North Carolina forward Cecil Exum -- a teammate of Michael Jordan's in the early 1980s -- is expected to go in the top five.

Julius Randle
Kentucky, Freshman (6-9, 250)
Last Big Board: No. 1

Despite a rough two-game stretch that saw Randle score a combined 15 points (on 6-of-17 shooting) in wins over Mississippi State and Vanderbilt, Randle continues to showcase dynamic scoring ability, whether off the dribble or in the low post. There is relentlessness to his offensive game, which was evident in Tuesday’s loss to Arkansas. Randle has been a beast on the glass, too. However, NBA scouts are starting to notice Randle’s weaknesses, particularly defense -- John Calipari benched him briefly against Arkansas for not defending -- and shot blocking (0.7 per game). Calipari-coached college players tend to improve as the season progresses, and Randle will need to make strides in those areas to get back in the top-three discussion. 

Aaron Gordon
Arizona, Freshman (6-8, 210)
Last Big Board: No. 9
One Eastern Conference executive said Gordon "is Shawn Marion. He's athletic, he can defend and he will find ways to score." Gordon is economic with his scoring (9.6 attempts per game) and has developed into a strong rebounder. Any conversation about Gordon includes his jump shot; it has been unreliable and it may force him to be an NBA power forward, where it won’t be such a liability. Still, Gordon’s absurd athleticism has NBA execs eager to mold him. 
Dario Saric
Croatia, 19 years old (6-10, 223)
Last Big Board: No. 11

Scouts who have seen Saric this season remain impressed. Saric is having a terrific season in the Adriatic League, averaging 15.5 points (fourth in the league) and shooting 56.7 percent. Saric is dynamic in transition, a take-the-ball-off-the-rim-and-go point forward type who can score and create off the dribble. There were many questions about why Saric withdrew from the 2013 draft and stayed in Europe despite being projected as a low lottery pick. With his stock continuing to improve, that decision looks like a smart one.

Marcus Smart
Oklahoma State, Sophomore (6-4, 220)
Last Big Board: No. 5
Smart has picked up his production again after a mid-December lull in which his scoring numbers dipped and his turnovers increased. He posted 46 points combined in back-to-back wins over Texas and West Virginia last week. The turnovers are still a problem -- Smart’s 1.53-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio ranks (gulp) 236th nationally -- and several scouts commented that they would like to see him be more of a playmaker when he penetrates. But Smart’s superior size and ability to score through contact make him most coveted pure playmaker in the draft.
Noah Vonleh
Indiana, Freshman (6-10, 240)
Last Big Board: No. 8

Scouts were disappointed in his five-point clunker against Michigan State on Jan. 4, but Vonleh rebounded nicely with double-digit scoring games against Penn State and Wisconsin. Vonleh’s rebounding numbers have dipped slightly since early December, but he has still been strong on the boards and a terror to box out in the paint. As for his post game, it’s still a work in progress.

Gary Harris
Michigan State, Sophomore (6-4, 205)
Last Big Board: No. 7

Plagued by injuries for parts of the last two seasons, Harris is finally starting to get healthy. His scoring has spiked (17.8 points), but his shooting percentage (40.4) and three-point percentage (32.7) are down from last season. Still, though a little undersized for an NBA two-guard, Harris has a pure stroke. He was off in recent wins over Minnesota and Northwestern (1-of-14 from three-point range), but in the two previous games Harris knocked down 7-of-13 from beyond the arc against Indiana and Ohio State. Harris is a volume shooter, and his efficiency numbers need to improve, but teams love his ability to spread the floor.

Willie Cauley-Stein
Kentucky, Sophomore (7-0, 244)
Last Big Board: No. 13

Preseason opinions on Cauley-Stein were consistent: Big, can rebound and protect the rim, needs work offensively. Today? Pretty much the same. Cauley-Stein has been a shot-blocking fiend (3.6 per game) while improving his shooting percentage (65.6, up from 62.1 as a freshman). But there is still no discernible post game and his free-throw shooting (45.7 percent) is still horrid. The mobile Cauley-Stein is capable of being a solid NBA defender, but can he develop into more? That’s the question. 

James Young
Kentucky, Freshman (6-6, 215)
Last Big Board: Unranked

Young sure isn’t shy -- he leads the Wildcats in field-goal attempts -- and his shooting (38.8 percent) and three-point percentages (32.1) leave something to be desired. But the left-hander has good size and a good-looking shot, and there is a strong belief in NBA circles that he will develop into a consistent shooter by the end of the year. If he does, Young has all the other tools (off-the-dribble scoring, defense, rebounding) to be a solid NBA player. 

Rodney Hood
Duke, Sophomore (6-8, 215)
Last Big Board: No. 14

Hood continues to be a consistent threat from the three-point line, connecting on 46.8 percent this season. He doesn’t dazzle with superior quickness or athleticism, but he has displayed a polished mid-range game and an ability to get to the foul line (five attempts per game) and make his free throws (84.7 percent). Scouts are split on his NBA position, but two executives from likely lottery-bound teams said they would be shocked if he got out of the top 14. 

Montrezl Harrell
Louisville, Sophomore (6-8, 235)
Last Big Board: No. 12
Oh, if Harrell had a post game. Harrell has an NBA body and is a strong rebounder. He has worked to add a variety of post moves, studying film of everyone from Hakeem Olajuwon to Carmelo Anthony. But in games, Harrell’s most effective offense comes in the paint, where he is able to outmuscle opposing forwards at the rim. At this point, Harrell seems unlikely to develop much more this season. But his physical tools are impressive.
Adreian Payne
Michigan State, Senior (6-10, 245)
Last Big Board: No. 19

Payne’s scoring has dipped of late -- he posted a combined nine points in back-to-back games against Penn State and Indiana recently -- and he has missed the Spartans’ last two games with a sprained right foot. But Payne had a strong December, averaging 21 points over a five-game stretch, and last week chipped in 18 points and six rebounds in a win over Ohio State. Payne’s strength is his perimeter shooting (he’s connecting on 43.9 percent of his treys), and teams will be watching closely at the combine to see if his range extends to the NBA three-point line. 

Wayne Selden
Kansas, Freshman (6-5, 230)
Last Big Board: No. 16

Selden can get lost on a Kansas team that could have two of the top three picks in the draft and has a tendency to disappear (six points in a loss to San Diego State, seven points in a victory over Iowa State). Combine that with a head scratchingly brutal free-throw percentage (53.7) and skeptics have plenty of ammunition. But then he has moments, like back-to-back strong performances against Oklahoma and Kansas State last week, that make you think the big, physical two-guard has a bright NBA future. The key for Selden will be establishing some consistency the rest of the way. And, of course, figuring out how to make free throws. 

Sam Dekker
Wisconsin, Sophomore (6-7, 220)
Last Big Board: Unranked

Dekker’s versatility, athleticism and three-point potential are appealing to a lot of league execs, though they would like to see more consistency from a player whose three-point percentage has fallen from 39.1 last season to 35.1 this season. Dekker has a pretty-looking jump shot and needs little space to get it off. He still struggles to create off the dribble, though, and his mid-range game needs some work. 

Jerami Grant
Syracuse, Sophomore (6-8, 210)
Last Big Board: Unranked

Grant has NBA blood in him: He’s the son of one former NBA forward, Harvey Grant, and the nephew of another, Horace Grant. Grant is a spectacular athlete whose numbers have skyrocketed since emerging as a regular in Syracuse’s rotation. The Orange are deep and talented, so Grant is asked to play a supporting role, and he hasn’t made a three-pointer all season, a question mark for a perimeter player. But his athleticism and his skills in the open floor are enticing. 

Zach LaVine
UCLA, Freshman (6-5, 180)
Last Big Board: Unranked

A strong first month of the season catapulted LaVine into the national spotlight, creating some buzz that the Bruins' freshman might be a one-and-done. “We [scouts] joke about how big this kid has become in the media,” a scout said. “He’s a prospect, no doubt. But he has a lot to prove.” LaVine wows with his speed and athleticism, but his half-court game is unpolished and execs are eager to see how he performs with more eyeballs on him. 

Doug McDermott
Creighton, Senior (6-8, 225)
Last Big Board: No. 17

Few college players have been more productive than McDermott, who once again is posting big numbers for the Bluejays (25.2 points per game) and making some scouts wonder if we are looking at the next Kyle Korver. But here’s a constant question heard about McDermott: What are teams going to think at the combine, when he doesn’t test well athletically? What if he gets beat up in individual workouts? And is he going to be able to defend NBA small forwards? McDermott is a prolific college scorer, but even the executives who love him wonder when in the draft he is worth taking.



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