NBA scouting director: Draft deep, but no guaranteed superstar
Senior director of NBA scouting operations Ryan Blake helps teams identify and evaluate talent for the draft -- a task that has kept him particularly busy this year, because the 2014 class, he says, is loaded with quality.
SI.com caught up with Blake -- whose late father, Marty, was the league's director of scouting for more than 30 years -- to discuss his general impressions of this crop, his reluctance to label anyone a surefire superstar and his potential sleepers for the June 26 draft.
SI.com: The early conversation dating to last year was that this draft looked incredibly deep, particularly in comparison to the 2013 class. Is it still as strong as the buzz suggested?
Blake: It's absolutely deep. After the 60 picks in the two rounds, teams will have players they want for the summer league whom they feel could make the team in the fall. Agents' phones are going to be ringing off the hook. The cliché about beauty being in the eye of the beholder is true here, because we have that type of quality.
SI.com: Where does this class stack up with the past three or four drafts?
Blake: It's the strongest in terms of the upside of a lot of players, the potential for players to make an immediate impact and the number of players who can play for well over five years in the NBA.
SI.com: What do you think the Cavaliers will do with the first pick? What should they do?
Blake: It's really tough to say. Of course, they're going to look hard at Joel Embiid, who can be a Serge Ibaka type. But you have to also make sure that his back is OK. With Andrew Wiggins, you have a player who could be a Harrison Barnes -- who is going to continue to develop [after averaging 9.5 points this season, his second, for the Warriors] -- or he could be a Vince Carter or Tracy McGrady type, or more. Then you have a player like Jabari Parker who is ready to play. My feeling is that it's going to be between Wiggins and Embiid. The Cavs need a perimeter threat, but they also need help next to Anderson Varejao in the frontcourt.
These players are good, but teams want a home run. You have what I call "guessability" with at least the top three guys. You want a Kevin Durant or LeBron James or Tim Duncan [at the top of the draft], but you don't have those assurances in this draft. There's potential, and they could end up being that home run, but there are also question marks.
SI.com: Embiid, Wiggins, Parker and Dante Exum have been widely viewed as the top four players, in some order, though that obviously could change. After them, there's a logjam of power forwards that includes Noah Vonleh and Julius Randle. Which do you like best?
Blake: We don't have five positions in the NBA -- we have 13 to 17 positions, or roles within a traditional position. That's important to understand because the media, and scouts as well, sort of classify five positions. Do you consider Parker a small forward or power forward? Is Exum a point guard or an off-guard? Is Marcus Smart a point guard? What is a true point? Is Victor Oladipo a point guard? Orlando played him there as a rookie this season.
Vonleh is a heck of a lot different from Randle, a Zach Randolph type who will be powering inside. Will Randle be able to improve his jumper and develop his right hand? A team might think that Vonleh is better than Randle or has more upside. But if that team already has a player who does similar things as Vonleh, does it still take Vonleh? That's what makes this draft, with its depth and options, so interesting.
SI.com: What makes Exum such an intriguing prospect?
Blake: So much potential, so much athleticism. He's versatile as a long, quick guard who can get inside, play in the half-court, push the ball and pass. Now, he hasn't played against the college level for an extended period of time, and he's just been working out rather than playing games since last fall. When he came to the combine, he hadn't played for months and didn't even do drills beyond athletic testing.
A few years ago, Enes Kanter -- who sat out his one season at Kentucky -- wanted teams to know he wasn't afraid, and he worked out at the combine. The decision helped him -- and the teams interested in him, because it gave them more information. [The Jazz drafted Kanter third in 2011.] There are teams that won't have enough goods on Exum, and sometimes you can't just go, "What if?" They'll want to make a 100 percent [informed] decision.
SI.com: On the topic of international players: There's been a lot of talk about whether Croatia's Dario Saric will stay in the draft or withdraw by the June 16 deadline. What are your thoughts on Saric?
Blake: If we're talking about just his performance, Saric's stock is high. He's been playing that well. He led his team to the Adriatic League championship against big teams. He's a very skilled wing for that size [Saric is generally listed at 6-foot-10, 223 pounds], he handles the ball well, he can pass, he rebounds, he shoots the ball pretty well, he's confident. He's also been playing with professionalism.
Saric reportedly has an agreement with [Turkish club] Anadolu Efes. His dad has already said he's not coming to play in the NBA next season. He probably has a huge buyout, and NBA teams can put in only $500,000. Say his buyout is $1 million or more -- if he stayed in the draft, he'd have an invoice he'd have to pay mostly himself. What does it tell you that he's not even coming over for workouts? I expect him to pull his name out of the draft. However, if he keeps his name in, one of the seven teams with multiple first-round picks will pick him.
SI.com: Has there been a shift toward the use of analytics in the draft process and player evaluations?
Blake: Advanced analytics help us in many realms of basketball: acquisitions, tendency scouting and, of course, draft preparation. Some of those advanced analytics solidify the eye test, and other data might raise questions that challenge the eye test. A lot of those things help not just with your first-round picks, but also with your second-round picks and undrafted players.
SI.com: Which players do you like who haven't been as hyped entering the draft?
Blake: UConn's Shabazz Napier: He's a leader. Everybody has strengths and weaknesses, but you want a guy who is going to play to win and has the skill set and basketball mind. He can be that player.
Michigan State's Adreian Payne: A lot of people have been asking me about how he's older  for a rookie. Well, what does that mean? We have 35-year-old rookies [Pablo Prigioni joined the Knicks at that age in 2012]. Not every pick is going to be a franchise player. You can get a guy who is going to contribute for a number of years at an economical rate.
Kentucky's James Young: He shot only 35 percent from beyond the arc, but he has the potential to be better. He also does little things to make his teammates better.