NBA Big Board 4.0: Shuffle near the top as 2015 March Madness tips off
Some scattered thoughts after spending a couple of days in Columbus, Ohio, watching D’Angelo Russell for a feature in this week’s Sports Illustrated:
• Russell is a pure playmaker. Buckeyes coach Thad Matta told me he wasn’t sure what position Russell would settle into entering the season; there isn’t much debate now. Though Russell shares the backcourt with Shannon Scott, he is the team’s most accomplished passer. He has a phenomenal ability to read defenses coming off a screen, and fires passes with impressive velocity. He is an assist-producing machine; one NBA executive told me Russell could become a consistent double-digit assist man at the next level.
• He can shoot it, too. NBA executives love to scrutinize shooting form, and by all accounts, Russell’s is solid. Some scouts suggested a few tweaks, but none thought any kind of overhaul was needed for a player who has made 41.5% of his threes this season.
• Is he athletic enough? This was likely the most consistent criticism. Russell has good size (6’5”) for an NBA point guard, but scouts wonder if he has enough athleticism to regularly defend playmakers that seem to become more dynamic by the year.
On to SI.com’s NBA draft Big Board 4.0:
• MORE NBA: Jazz keep rising in latest Power Rankings
Last Big Board: No. 1
Okafor has been feeling some heat from Towns and the fast-rising Russell, but just like in October, his hold on the top spot remains solid. Okafor shook off a sluggish start to March with a 28-point, eight-rebound effort in Duke’s loss to Notre Dame in the ACC tournament. He continues to impress scouts with his play in the post and with his defense, and while still rough around the edges, he has improved as the season has progressed.
Last Big Board: No. 3
Proponents of Towns—and there are lots of NBA executives on this list—love his offensive potential. He has a startling number of polished post moves, and as his body develops several scouts project him as a dominant scorer who can consistently make his free throws (81.4%). Will he surpass Okafor? Probably not. But Towns’s talent will make it tough to pass him, too.
Last Big Board: No. 4
As has been noted before, Mudiay’s injury-plagued season in China has kept him off the NBA radar. It hasn’t created skeptics—scouts are still enamored with his scoring point guard potential—so much as curiosity. He returned from China this week and plans to begin his workouts to prepare for the draft next week. A strong combine will likely cement Mudiay’s place as the first point guard off the board.
Last Big Board: No. 2
Russell’s playmaking skills are unparalleled in this draft class. He thrives in the pick-and-roll and in transition, with a preternatural ability to see plays develop before they do. He struggled in the regular-season finale against Wisconsin last week and was so-so in a Big Ten tournament loss to Michigan State. Still, Russell is the type of point guard prospect teams will try to move up to get.
Last Big Board: No. 5
Johnson rallied from some pedestrian performances in January to put up strong numbers in the Pac-12 tournament. Defense continues to be his calling card; his physique reminds some scouts of Ron Artest. But Johnson was also surprisingly solid from the perimeter (36.6%) and showcased a knack for getting to the free throw line (5.0 attempts per game). Scouts will watch Johnson closely in the tournament.
Last Big Board: No. 6
Is he Dirk Nowitzki or Andrea Bargnani? That was the rhetorical question one international scout posed last week. Offensively, Porzingis has showcased Nowitzki-like range and runs the floor well. The more skeptical scouts expressed concern about his rudimentary low post skills. Porzingis has started to fill out his 7’1” frame nicely this season and is another player who would benefit from a strong combine.
Last Big Board: No. 7
Hezonja’s inconsistent playing time maddens team executives who make overseas trips to watch him, with basketball politics often cited as the reason the talented swingman isn’t regularly receiving 30-plus minutes. He is a terrific isolation player who has made major improvements this season playing off the ball. Hezonja is a scorer with three-point range; it’s hard to see someone like that falling too far in the lottery field.
Last Big Board: No. 9
Like Johnson, Winslow’s primary appeal is his defense. He is a tenacious defender who sniffs out a pick-and-roll well—no small thing in the NBA—with the size to defend most small forwards. Offensively, he remains most effective in transition but is efficient in the half court and is making a solid 39.6% of his threes this season. Winslow will seamlessly fit into a lot of NBA systems.
Last Big Board: No. 11
How often are three defensive-minded prospects in the top 10? Cauley-Stein is the best of the bunch, a tough, physical interior presence gifted with the quickness to step out and defend guards on the perimeter. It’s hard to see him developing into more than a rim runner offensively, and whichever team drafts him will need a more offensive-oriented big to play alongside him. But several scouts agree: Cauley-Stein is as safe a pick as there is in the draft.
Last Big Board: No. 10
Kaminsky always generates a fascinating discussion among NBA types. The ones who love him see a heady power forward who can space the floor and keep the ball moving. The ones who don’t see a solid scoring big man who could be physically overmatched and a defensive liability at the next level. The fact is, Kaminsky measurably improved in his senior season and frequently plays his best in big games. He’s a lottery pick.
Last Big Board: No. 14
Oubre had two big chances to wow scouts in matchups with Top 25 teams Baylor and Iowa State last week. He struggled in both. The absence of Cliff Alexander (due to an NCAA investigation) has put more pressure on Oubre in the paint, and that will continue with Alexander out of the tournament. Scouts have been impressed by the physical Oubre’s steady improvement since the start of the season. His three-point shooting needs work (36%), but he has been getting to the free throw line more regularly recently, including a whopping 19 times against TCU.
Last Big Board: No. 13
Turner’s three-point, two-rebound effort against Iowa State—a game in which he played 2 ½ minutes in the second half—was the latest big-game stinker for the talented power forward. He put up some big numbers this season, but flopped in big games far too often. Texas sneaking into the tourney is an opportunity for Turner to erase that reputation and get NBA teams refocused on his impressive offensive skills.
Last Big Board: No. 8
Plenty of NBA execs will hope for UCLA to make a deep run in March, if for no other reason than to get a longer look at Looney. The freshman struggled mightily in the Pac-12 tournament, totaling 10 points and eight rebounds in two games. SMU, the Bruins’ first-round opponent, is a terrific rebounding team; NBA scouts will watch closely to see how Looney performs.
Last Big Board: 15
Booker continues to push himself into the lottery discussion. He is among the draft’s best three-point shooters (42.9%), and after some February stumbles he seems to have regained consistency. He has one of those pure shooting strokes NBA executives love—remember the gushing over Ben McLemore two years ago?—and if he continues to make shots during a likely lengthy tourney run, he could move deeper into the lottery.
Last Big Board: 11
Statistically, Grant’s numbers are down from last season, which ended in December due to an academic-related suspension. But he continues to put up impressive performances in big games, most recently a 24-point, 10-assist effort in a win over North Carolina in the ACC championship. His slip down the board last month was a combination of scouts’ growing interest in younger prospects and some questions about whether Grant has the skills to be a full-time NBA point guard.
Last Big Board: No. 16
Got to love Louisville, which honored Harrell, a junior, on Senior Night this month. Harrell is likely gone, of course, after improving on a breakout sophomore season. NBA scouts still wonder how the aggressive, high-energy forward handles playing against length, which makes Louisville’s showdown against UC-Irvine—and 7’6” center Mamadou Ndiaye, who anchors the Anteaters’ zone—one of the more interesting first-round matchups.
Last Big Board: 17
Portis acquitted himself well in two games against Kentucky’s big front line over the last three weeks. There is nothing spectacular about Portis’s skill set, but he is a solid scorer who can step outside (46.4% from three-point range). He is also a quality rebounder and shot blocker.
Last Big Board: N/A
Dunn has charged into the first-round conversation over the last two months; this month he makes his debut in the top 20. Snake-bitten by injuries his first two years out of high school, Dunn has lived up to his considerable potential this season. He has a quick first step and natural playmaking abilities. His three-point shot needs work, but he is a solid mid-range shooter who has connected on 48% of his shots. With prototypical size, Dunn’s rapid rise may not be finished.
Last Big Board: N/A
Hey, look, another Wildcat. Like most Kentucky players, Lyles’s numbers (8.4 points, 5.1 rebounds) are not eye-popping, which is a product of limited playing time. But scouts love his soft touch from the perimeter and his rebounding potential. Multiple execs cited Lyles as a potential steal in the back half of the first round.
Last Big Board: No. 18
A broken foot ended LeVert’s season in January, a major disappointment for some executives who were anxious to see how he finished the year. LeVert has solid two-guard size and shot well enough from three (40.5%) to convince several scouts that he can do it on the next level. His mid-range game needs work, but he is a nice developmental player for a team picking in the second half of the first round.