Today, the most serious NBA draft analysis in the world takes a look at the Dennis Green All-Stars, who are basically the exact opposite of the Upside All-Stars. These are guys who don’t have a ton of room for improvement but who will be drafted in the first round because they’re already very good. In 10 years we’ll look back on the 2014 draft and these guys will make you say: “Yep. They are who we thought they were.”
Jabari Parker (Duke)
As of today, Jabari Parker is the best player in the 2014 NBA draft and I don’t think there’s a close second. Julius Randle showed flashes of being able to contend for the captain slot on the Dennis Green All-Stars, but Parker was the only guy in college basketball I believed could’ve joined an NBA team overnight in the middle of the season without missing a beat. All season long, Parker was compared to Carmelo Anthony, which is one of the most perfect basketball comparisons in the history of … basketball. They’re both listed at exactly 6-foot-8 and 235 pounds. They can both score against anybody anywhere on the court. They are both strong rebounders. They are both mononymous among basketball fans because of their unusual first names (although projected second-rounder Jabari Brown plans to let the world know that he’s the one great Jabari, and I wish him luck with that). They’re both awful defenders. They both have last names that are common first names (Anthony more than Parker, but still). They are both good ball handlers, especially for their size. They were both one-and-done college stars. They both lost to Mercer in the first round of their only NCAA tournament. (No, wait — that last one doesn’t seem right. Let me double-check that.)
I’ve been involved in a ton of NBA draft discussions where Parker is dismissed as “Carmelo 2.0” as if that’s a bad thing. I guess I get it. We have a pretty good idea of what kind of NBA player Parker will be and it’s more fun to debate how good the high-upside prospects like Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins will be. I won’t deny that Parker’s ceiling appears to be lower than that of several other players in this draft. But it’s also worth reminding ourselves that no other draftee’s cellar will be as high as Parker’s. As long as Parker stays healthy and doesn’t become a massive pothead, you’re guaranteed to get 20-plus points every night. If you put a gun to my head and told me to pick the 2015 NBA Rookie of the Year, the only reason I’d hesitate to say Parker is because I’d freak out and ask why you were threatening to kill me over something so trivial.
Parker’s ceiling is lower than many other projected lottery picks because his poor defensive play won’t be easy to fix. When looking at a player’s strengths and weaknesses, we often break offensive skills into components. For example, a prospect might be a great spot-up shooter who struggles off the dribble in isolation but who’s expert at using ball screens to create space for his shot. That sentence alone touches on three separate aspects of a player’s offensive game, to say nothing of his ball handling, court vision, or movement without the ball.
When we look at defense, though, we often just say a player is either good or bad and leave it at that. But defense can be broken down. There’s pick-and-roll defense. There’s post defense. There’s help-side defense and understanding rotations when teammates get beat. There’s one-on-one defense. You get the idea. Well, I bring this up to say that Jabari Parker is bad at pretty much all of it.
I believe a lot of Parker’s problems on defense stem from him being slightly overweight. If he can turn 10 to 15 pounds of baby fat into muscle, it would make a big difference. At Duke, Parker often seemed a step slow while guarding his man or like he was taking plays off to save energy for offense. Then again, he also struggled all season with defensive concepts, so Parker will have work to do beyond simply getting into better shape.
My guess is that he’ll just adopt the Carmelo/James Harden/David Lee approach to defense, which is to outscore the guy you’re guarding and then tell your coach, “If everyone else on the team did that, we’d win all the time.”
Shabazz Napier (UConn)
If you read anything I wrote during March Madness, there’s a good chance you know I like to compare Shabazz Napier to Kemba Walker. These comparisons were initially meant to remind people that even though Napier did pretty much everything for the 2013-14 UConn Huskies, there would never be another Kemba. After all, Kemba’s play in March 2011 made him a college basketball deity and set the standard for individual players carrying their teams to national titles. As UConn’s season developed, though, I slowly found myself buying into the “Shabazz is Kemba” parallel, and when I finally took the plunge on it, I did so for one reason: balls.
Yes, balls. Napier proved time and time again this past season that at least 40 of his 175 pounds come from the oversize titanium sack in his jock. The guy is as fearless a basketball player as you will ever find. (And to be clear, he’s the good kind of fearless. Marshall Henderson was also fearless, but in the Leeroy Jenkins, “I want to be the hero so badly that I ruin everything” way.) Like Kemba before him, Napier made so many big plays at pivotal moments that I began to wonder if he used them for sustenance. Napier’s hero-ball act for an improbable national champion put his name right up there next to Kemba’s in college basketball lore.
This is why Napier is going to be a steal in this year’s draft. Never mind that he’s undersize and doesn’t have NBA-level explosiveness. Never mind that he tends to commit some careless turnovers. That only means he won’t ever be the best player on a NBA title contender, but we already knew that. Napier has a great feel for the game on both offense and defense. He plays his ass off. Even though he’s an able scorer with deep shooting range, I think he’ll be able to impact games at the next level without even taking a shot. He’s also a walking bundle of intangibles, most notably whatever talent it is that allows him to make every shot he attempts in crunch time.
Shabazz Napier may never be an NBA All-Star. But put him on an established playoff team that needs a better point guard (like the Heat, Pacers, or Rockets) and watch him thrive. He won two national titles in his three years of postseason eligibility, and he did it despite being malnourished. Imagine how good he’ll be once he can afford more than one meal every other day.
Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State)
Last week I wrote about the most enigmatic draft prospects, and in a weird way Marcus Smart belongs with both that group and the Dennis Green All-Stars. That’s because it seems like there are two different Marcus Smarts. The Smart I think I know was the most talented point guard in college basketball and a guy I’ve compared to LeBron James because of his overwhelming size advantage and his ability to log double-digit points, rebounds, or assists every time he steps on the court. That Smart has flaws — he’s a streaky shooter and tries to force his offense a little too much — but is also a savvy leader who would do anything to win. That Smart cares just as much about locking down his man on defense as he does about scoring 30 points. That Smart doesn’t have much room for improvement because he’s already really freaking good.
The other Marcus Smart, though, has one of the worst on-court demeanors I’ve ever seen. Casual sports fans learned Smart’s name when he pushed a Texas Tech fan in February and sparked a nationwide discussion about fan decorum and race (because Smart said the fan called him a slur, though it’s hard to confirm the fan used the n-word based on video of the altercation). What was lost in that larger discussion was that Smart had already earned a reputation for inappropriate behavior on the court. Big 12 fans already considered him the conference’s biggest villain, thanks to his frequent flopping, the time he kicked a chair in frustration over a foul call, and the way he seemed to show up his teammates when things went poorly for the Cowboys. That’s why those who followed Smart throughout his career at Oklahoma State thought his push against the Texas Tech fan looked less like an isolated moment of weakness and more like just the latest installment in a series of immature decisions.
As much as I hope Smart has figured out how to play without the extracurricular nonsense, I suspect his petulant streak is here to stay. That doesn’t mean he’s going to push fans and kick chairs regularly in the NBA, or that he’ll ever do those things again. And just about all hotheads mellow over time. But Smart’s explosive tantrums are only half of the problem. Remove the chair-kicking and Smart still has the flopping gene. He still has the part of him that drives wildly to the basket, throws his arms up when he realizes he hasn’t beaten his defender, and then glares at the referee as if to say “Do you know who I am?” when a foul isn’t called. Meanwhile, the other team is streaking down the court to score, and Smart can’t be bothered to get back on defense until the ref acknowledges him.
It’s possible Smart is just an extremely intense competitor who’s still learning how to control his temper. But there’s no way to justify the way he often carries himself as if he’s more important than everyone else on the court. Smart doesn’t need to do that crap. If he can develop his jump shot, there’s no telling how good he can be. I expect him to lead the NBA in point-guard rebounding by his second year in the pros, and there’s a decent chance he’ll be one of the best 3-to-5 defensive point guards in the league by then as well. Part of me hopes Smart sucks in his rookie season, though, and that a slice of humble pie will get him to settle down. When Smart plays like he thinks he’s God’s gift to basketball, it’s painful to watch. But when he plays like just another guy who’s out to prove himself, Marcus Smart is crack for basketball addicts.
Julius Randle (Kentucky)
Of all the Dennis Green All-Stars, Julius Randle has the best argument for not belonging in this group. There’s a decent chance that five years from now, he will be a significantly different player from the Randle we saw at Kentucky this year. For starters, even though he shot 21 percent on 3-pointers this season, Randle has a solid natural stroke. But at the college level, he was almost unguardable in the post, so it made little sense for him to step out and launch jumpers. He has the mechanics to be a reliable shooter from 15 to 20 feet, so with an offseason of practicing thousands of jump shots and a coach who encourages him to expand his game, Randle’s offensive versatility could really blossom.
But no matter what level of basketball he plays at, Randle’s bread and butter will always be the wrecking-ball mentality he brings to the paint. After he scored 27 points and grabbed 13 rebounds against no. 1 Michigan State in the third game of his career, I wrote that he “carries himself like everyone in the world took his lunch money, and the only way to get vengeance is to grab boards and get buckets.” Thirty-seven games later, nothing has changed. Randle still plays at one speed every second he’s on the court, and that speed is destruction. He’s 6-9 and 250 pounds of terror. He moves as fluidly as a guard and can really be stopped only by cramping. (There were at least three games this season when Randle had to sit long stretches due to cramps, which is something I’m sure NBA fans on Twitter would never hold against him.) He had 24 double-doubles for Kentucky and only two games in which he didn’t score 10 points or grab 10 rebounds. That might not sound so impressive to NBA fans who are used to 48-minute games and 24-second shot clocks, but take it from a guy who watches a ton of college basketball: That’s insane.
It’s a foregone conclusion that Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, and Jabari Parker will be the top three picks in this year’s draft. As far as I’m concerned, Randle is the best of the rest right now. If I’m a Lakers or Celtics fan, I’m crossing my fingers that the Magic take Marcus Smart with the fourth pick, and all signs currently suggest that Orlando loves Smart. From there, I’m hoping the Jazz select Dante Exum. Then the Celtics and Lakers will get Randle and Noah Vonleh in some order. It wouldn’t be the Wiggins-Parker rivalry that fans of the Celtics-Lakers rivalry had hoped for, but it would be compelling nonetheless. Randle and Vonleh would probably match up against each other when the Lakers and Celtics play — they are from the same high school class; they played at rival colleges; and one is a highly touted beast who led his team to the Final Four (Randle), while the other is overflowing with potential and eager to prove himself after an unsatisfying year at Indiana (Vonleh).
Doug McDermott (Creighton)
The man they call Doug McBuckets is essentially a slightly worse version of Jabari Parker. That’s not the most flattering compliment, but it sure beats the comparison to Adam Morrison that McDermott has had to endure for the last couple years. Speaking of which, let’s dismiss that right now — Doug McDermott is no Adam Morrison. Many fans have linked them because McDermott played for a mid-major, he led the country in scoring, he wore no. 3, he was sacrilegiously compared to Larry Bird throughout his career almost solely because he is white, he wore a T-shirt under his jersey, and he battled a scorer from Duke for national player of the year awards. But McDermott will have a better NBA career than Morrison for several reasons.
(By the way, as the former president of the Adam Morrison Fan Club, I’m obligated to remind you that Morrison dropped 30 on the Pacers and had five 25-plus-point games his rookie year. Then he tore his ACL at the beginning of his second season and was never the same after that. I won’t pretend he was destined for stardom, but I remain convinced Morrison would have had a decent career if he hadn’t blown out his knee.)
McDermott is a much more versatile scorer than Morrison ever was. Some scouts dislike McDermott’s game because they believe he’ll be a ’tweener in the NBA. Yes, he’s slower than most wing players and smaller than most power forwards in the league, but that will be a problem only on defense. On offense, McDermott isn’t a ’tweener — he’s a matchup nightmare. He has range to damn near half court. His post game is multifaceted: He can bang on the block and score off drop-step moves, or he can turn and face and knock down an imitation of the Dirk Nowitzki one-legged fadeaway. McDermott can drain pull-up midrange jumpers. He can score one-on-one from the perimeter. He can curl off screens and bomb catch-and-shoot 3s like a shooting guard. He can hit floaters. You don’t become the fifth all-time leading scorer in college basketball by being one-dimensional.
Granted, because McDermott isn’t a transcendent athlete, physical and explosive wing players like LeBron, Tony Allen, and Paul George won’t have trouble keeping him in check. But this assumes that they’d guard him in the first place. In truth, because McDermott is destined to have trouble guarding his position, he’ll never be the best player on an NBA team. So let’s hypothetically cast him as a role player — which is more realistic. Let’s assume McDermott goes eighth to the Kings, as many mock drafts are predicting, and let’s assume the Kings’ starting lineup remains unchanged except for McDermott starting over Derrick Williams. If that happens, the kind of athletic defenders who would shut down McDermott would match up against Rudy Gay, and the man called McBuckets would have every opportunity to live up to his name.
That’s an ideal situation for McDermott. If he’s expected to be Doug McFranchise, he’ll struggle and his team will win 15 games for the entire season. But if he can be the second or third option, and if he can be better than terrible on defense, he’ll be a handful for teams that have only one elite wing defender.