Three weeks from Thursday, middle-aged men will gather in rooms with landline phones and spend hours talking about 18- to 24-year-old men. They’ll discuss the physiques of the young men, as well as their other attributes, and then they’ll decide who they’d ideally like to spend the next decade with. These decisions will be announced for a television audience of millions, and after each young man is selected he will parade across a stage while wearing a goofy hat. The TV viewers will then offer their opinions about the young men to anybody who will listen.
If that doesn’t get you pumped up for the NBA draft later this month, then maybe my NBA Draft All-Star teams will. Here’s the premise: For the next three weeks leading into the draft, I’ll pick a category that a handful of draft-eligible players fall into and then pick a starting five for that team. We kick things off today with the Upside All-Stars, which looks at guys who maybe aren’t the best players right now but who have the potential to be NBA studs.
Andrew Wiggins (Kansas)
You’d have to go back a few years to Harrison Barnes at North Carolina (and maybe even further back than that) to find a college basketball player who was scrutinized as much as Wiggins was last season. Ever since he decided to spend his one-and-done NCAA career eating Yello Subs and watching whatever Charlie Weis tries to pass off as football, Wiggins has been THE talking point in college basketball.
The Wiggins debate took off in the second game of Kansas’s season, when he played against Jabari Parker and Duke. Wiggins dealt with foul trouble in the first half, Parker played well, and Duke took a two-point lead into halftime. On Twitter, that haven of rational thought, fans rendered a verdict: Parker is clearly better. How Wiggins was ranked no. 1 in this class is baffling. It’s Parker over Wiggins any day of the week. Then the second half came. Wiggins shut Parker down on defense, proceeded to score 16 second-half points, and Kansas ran away with an 11-point win. Some argued that the second half proved that Wiggins was every bit as good as the hype. Others — people who like being wrong — maintained that if Wiggins were actually that good he would’ve dominated Parker for the entire game.
As the season progressed, the debate raged on. Wiggins was overrated because he wasn’t lighting up the scoreboard, because he didn’t have a reliable jump shot, and because he seemed to be passive on offense too often. Then again, he was underrated because he was a lockdown defender who could go for 17 and 19 in a close win at Iowa State. And then he was overrated because he was supposed to be the best prospect since LeBron James yet he only scored three points and grabbed two rebounds against Oklahoma State. Yet he was underrated because Bill Self is a defensive coach who runs a team-oriented offense that limited Wiggins’s opportunities to shine. Oh, but he was overrated because he only had seven and five in a blowout loss at Texas. Then he was underrated once again when he dropped 41 points at West Virginia. And, of course, he was overrated when Kansas lost in the second round of the NCAA tournament. Wiggins was labeled overrated and underrated so much that he became college basketball’s version of Community or the Foo Fighters.
It’s too soon to make any final judgments on Wiggins, but if you’re in the overrated camp and can’t figure out why he will surely go in the top three of this year’s draft, consider these points:
1. Wiggins’s strength will probably always be his defense. So even if he remains an inconsistent or sometimes passive presence on offense in the NBA, he could still end up being the league’s best perimeter defender in three to five years.
2. This happened:
Zach LaVine (UCLA)
Here are the power rankings of my thoughts while watching UCLA play throughout the season:
1. Bill Walton and Dave Pasch are the best announcing tandem in college basketball.
2. If someone references Steve Alford’s son who plays for UCLA, you have to ask them to specify which one.
3. Aaron Craft wants to know why America made him the butt of all the “This guy has been playing college basketball for the past decade” jokes instead of the Wear twins.
4. Kyle Anderson is the anti-Wiggins in that his numbers are absurd yet you’ll never be wowed by his game.
5. If Jordan Adams would have come back for one more year, he would’ve been a first-ballot Hall of Fame member of the Khalid El-Amin All-Stars.
6. Ben Howland had a week to prepare and a starting lineup of Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook, Josh Shipp, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, and Kevin Love, and UCLA still lost by 15 in the 2008 Final Four to what was essentially just Derrick Rose and Chris Douglas-Roberts.
This isn’t meant to be a criticism of LaVine. It’s just that I imagine this conversation happened all over America this season.
Person 1: Have you been watching UCLA this year?
Person 2: Yes. They could be pretty good.
Person 1: Yeah, I mean their fourth-best player will be a lottery pick. That’s all that needs to be said.
Person 2: Wait, what? I can’t tell if I’m more shocked by you thinking Kyle Anderson is UCLA’s fourth-best player or by you thinking he’s going to go in the lottery.
Person 1: No, dude. The lottery pick is Zach LaVine.
Person 2: Get the hell out of here. Are you shitting me?
Person 1: I don’t shit. Ever.
Person 2: You might want to get that checked out. Also, I don’t believe you about LaVine.
Person 2 (who was me in December) then started watching UCLA with the knowledge that NBA scouts are high on LaVine. Person 2 slowly started talking himself into it. I can see it. He is a freak athlete and has a pretty decent stroke. And am I crazy or is he still growing? How did I watch all of those games and not notice this?
Don’t feel bad, Person 2. You didn’t notice because LaVine isn’t anywhere close to the best basketball player available in this year’s draft. He is, however, one of the top two or three athletes and he can both handle and shoot the ball. Plus, he was listed at 6-foot-3 coming out of high school last year, yet he was measured at 6-6 a few weeks ago at the NBA combine and he’s still adding muscle. Add all of that up and you’ve got a player whose name won’t be mentioned on draft night without the words “potential” or “upside.”
Noah Vonleh (Indiana)
I will need to summon all the self-control I have to avoid using this entire space to gripe about how underused Vonleh was in Tom Crean’s offense at Indiana. I could write about how he was the best low post player in the Big Ten yet he seemed to get the ball on the block only two or three times a game. I could write about how Yogi Ferrell made just enough deep 3s in transition that Indiana didn’t seem to care that he missed two of those same shots for every one he made, and how those possessions could’ve been steered in Vonleh’s direction. I could write about how Stanford Robinson had more Big Ten games with double-digit shot attempts than Vonleh had.
Which makes it all the more remarkable that Vonleh averaged 11.3 points and 9.0 rebounds (best in the Big Ten) last season despite only playing 26.5 minutes and operating in an offense that rarely featured him. Before I go any further, take a look at how Vonleh’s measurements from the combine compare with these recent big men who went no. 1 overall and were considered to be physical specimens:
|Noah Vonleh||Anthony Davis||Blake Griffin||Greg Oden||Anthony Bennett|
|Height without shoes||6-foot-8||6-foot-9.25||6-foot-8.5||6-foot-11||6-foot-6|
|Height with shoes||6-9.5||6-10.5||6-10||7-0||6-7.5|
|No-step vertical||31 inches||N/A||32 inches||32 inches||24 inches|
|Max vertical||37 inches||N/A||35.5 inches||34 inches||24.1 inches|
|Body fat percentage||7.3%||7.9%||8.2%||7.8%||LOL|
Note: Bennett didn’t get measured at the 2013 combine, so I may or may not have taken the liberty of guessing what his numbers would’ve been.
Now seems like a good time to mention that Vonleh shot 48.5 percent from the 3-point line last season and showed that he can handle the ball pretty well for a big guy. Basically, Noah Vonleh is a physical marvel who has a knack for rebounding, who can score on the low block and shoot from outside, and who plays pretty solid defense (Big Ten starting centers only averaged eight points a game against Vonleh, which doesn’t tell the whole story but gives you a decent idea nonetheless). Put him in the right environment and give him a few years to develop his jumper and handles, and there’s no telling how good Vonleh could be.
Nik Stauskas (Michigan)
I know that including Stauskas on the All-Upside team might seem strange. He’s not a superior athlete like the others on this list, and his skills are already pretty well refined. But I’m standing by Stauskas’s upside for two reasons:
1. He makes strides every offseason
Stauskas arrived at Michigan as ESPN’s 76th-ranked recruit in the class of 2012, which is another way of saying he had the potential to be a pretty good player but Michigan fans weren’t expecting too much. (For reference, Indiana’s Hanner Mosquera-Perea was ranked five spots ahead of Stauskas.) Then, as a freshman, Stauskas averaged 30.5 minutes and 11 points per game on a national runner-up team that started five NBA players. When two of those players (Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr.) left following that season, fans wondered if Stauskas would be able to help fill the void by becoming more than just a spot-up shooter.
He answered that question by scoring most of his 17.5 points per game off the dribble this season. But Stauskas’s development into an off-the-dribble shooter wasn’t as important as his development into a playmaker instead of just a scorer. By becoming a more versatile scorer, Stauskas put himself in more positions to create for his teammates this season. The results? Stauskas almost tripled his assist numbers and led Michigan in that category this year.
There are still questions about his explosion, and Stauskas’s defense is somewhere in between “horrendous” and “James Harden.” But if Stauskas can identify his weaknesses and improve upon them at the same rate he has over the last three years, my calculations show he’ll be the next coming of Jordan by 2021.
2. He is apparently fat
The biggest shock to come out of the NBA combine was that Stauskas has 12.1 percent body fat. Considering the best I ever recorded was 13.8 percent, I’m in no position to judge the guy. (In truth, there’s a good chance it was actually 18.3 percent and I’ve conveniently forgotten.) This makes sense, though, because Stauskas is Canadian. I’ve been to Canada once in my adult life and during that trip I gained five pounds from mowing down double Big Macs (yes, that’s a real thing in Canada) and sucking on pure maple syrup at basically every meal. Between that and Canada’s wintry climate making a few extra pounds a necessity to stay warm at night, I get why Stauskas is a little beefy.
Still, it’s pretty amazing to think that Stauskas played 35.6 minutes per game and tore through one of the best conferences in college basketball without being in the best possible shape. The knocks on his game are his explosiveness and defense, and converting a lot of that fat into muscle could go a long way toward improving those weak spots. This is why I’ve got my fingers crossed that Stauskas is drafted by a team that plays in a city that is warm and has crappy food.
In unrelated news, Orlando has the 12th pick.
Joel Embiid (Kansas)
The no. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft will likely be a center who averaged 11.2 points per game last season. If that seems a little absurd, it should. Since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976, the lowest scoring average for a no. 1 overall pick drafted out of college was Anthony Davis’s 14.2 points per game on the 2012 national title Kentucky team. (For those curious about the rest of the top five: Patrick Ewing’s 14.6 in 1985, Derrick Rose’s 14.9 in 2008, James Worthy’s 15.6 in 1982, and Greg Oden’s 15.7 in 2007.) So if Cleveland is considering Embiid for the top overall pick — and there are signs suggesting that Cleveland favors Embiid — it’s definitely based on his upside and not his out-of-this-world numbers. There’s also this:
By now, we all know Embiid’s story. He grew up in Cameroon playing volleyball and soccer before Kevin Bacon convinced him to move to Florida when he was a junior in high school. As a 6-foot-9 16-year-old, he started playing basketball. He was supposedly pretty terrible that first year, which is something I don’t entirely believe, since two years later he was recruited by nearly every college coach in the country. Whatever the case, here we are now. Assuming nobody digs up records that prove he’s older than 20 and assuming that he passes his medical exams, Embiid is about to be a top-three pick barely three years after playing his first organized game.
If you watched Embiid play more than once this season, you probably understand the hype. He is a 7-foot monster who moves like he’s 6 feet tall, and he has a phenomenal shooting touch for a guy who probably still hasn’t internalized all the rules of the game. It’s not uncommon to hear people say “he gets better every time he plays” when talking about a young player, but in Embiid’s case that phrase was 100 percent true. Virtually every time he stepped on a court there was clear-cut improvement. I made this comparison in a column earlier in the year but it’s worth repeating: It was as though Trent and Sue from Swingers gave Embiid the same pep talk before every game.
Back-to-the-basket centers are basically the NBA’s version of running backs, which complicates the case for Embiid going first overall. The 2014 playoffs have turned Roy Hibbert into Hasheem Thabeet and Chris Bosh into Antoine Walker. They have driven the final nail into the coffin for the NBA’s big man era. But if that’s so, wouldn’t a guy like Embiid, who does all of his damage in the paint, handcuff modern NBA offenses? Teams like to spread the floor, set ball screens with their bigs, and then either roll the bigs to the basket or pop them to the 3-point line to stretch defenses. There are exceptions (Al Jefferson, Dwight Howard, Boogie Cousins), but the days of dumping it down to Shaq, Olajuwon, Ewing, and their ilk are dwindling. Does this make a player like Embiid a rare, valuable commodity or does it make him soon-to-be obsolete?
Of course, these questions hinge on the assumption that Embiid will be the same player in September 2014 that he was in March of 2014, and recent history suggests that’s a foolish assumption. Given how quickly Embiid has developed, there’s a decent chance that since we last saw him play, Embiid has morphed into the Monstar that took Charles Barkley’s talent and dunked on the Tune Squad from behind the 3-point line on five possessions. Now that’s upside.