Holding Court - Projected top NBA draft picks eliminated early
MANILA, Philippines - Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Marcus Smart. What do they have in common? Besides being projected to be among those who’ll be picked in the top three or seven (in Smart’s case) in the NBA draft this June, their season has ended prematurely after their teams have been eliminated in the first week of the NCAA Tournament.
That the collegiate tournament is called March Madness can’t be any more fitting considering what happened to these future NBA stars’ teams. Could anyone have expected Duke, Jabari’s team, losing in the first round to Mercer, or Wiggins’ Kansas squad losing to Stanford in the second round?
But more than their heavily-favored teams’ losing to lower-ranked outfits, the surprise losses could have a bearing on the draft fate of these coveted youngsters. Could their early ouster make them change their minds about joining the NBA draft this year, and if it doesn’t, could talent evaluators have second thoughts about picking them where they were earlier slotted?
The answer to the first question is a bit iffy, while the answer to the second is, no, the draft status of these players would hardly be affected by the early exit of their teams. If this were the case, guys like Kevin Durant, Shaquille O’Neal and James Harden wouldn’t have been drafted early in past years because of their teams’ less-than-stellar showing in the NCAA Tournament.
Andrew Wiggins, for example, wasn’t all that bad although some say he laid a big, fat egg in his second-seeded team Kansas’ 60-57 loss to No. 10 Stanford in the second round, where he just had four points on 1-for-6 shooting, four rebounds and as many turnovers. In the Jayhawks’ 80-69 victory in the first round over No. 15 Eastern Kentucky, the 6-foot-8 Wiggins had 19 points (7-of-13), four rebounds and two blocks. For his freshman season, Wiggins compiled averages of 17.1 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.5 assists.
The issue is not about talent, as many agree Wiggins – the most highly-regarded high-schooler in 2013 whose father Mitchell started for Houston when the Rockets lost in the NBA finals to Boston in 1986 and once played in the PBA for the Ginebra franchise in 1994 – has the biggest upside among his contemporaries, which include Parker, Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and his own teammate Embiid.
“I think Wiggins has the most upside of any player in the draft. His physical gifts are unteachable. His defensive potential is off the charts and while his offense still needs polish, all of the weaknesses in his game are fixable,” ESPN’s draft specialist Chad Ford says. “I’ve been using the comp of a young Paul George all season.
“Wiggins has all of the tools NBA scouts look for in an elite prospect. He possesses extraordinary athletic abilities,” Ford continues. “Wiggins will come into the league and be a top five percent athlete. He’s an explosive leaper, has an amazingly quick second jump, has speed and superb lateral quickness. The NBA is loaded with great athletes and few could hold up to Wiggins. Wiggins also is an incredibly fluid player. The game is effortless to him. Whether he’s playing offense or defense, he can make unique plays without breaking a sweat.
“As a defender, Wiggins is already one of the best in college basketball. He uses his length (a seven-foot wingspan) and quickness to lock down opposing players. It’s rare to see a college freshman get the nod from his coach to guard the other team’s most potent offensive threat. Time and time again Wiggins has completely shut them down.”
Perhaps it would have been a little different if Wiggins’ teammate, Embiid, the best big-man prospect in the nation, did not miss the Jayhawks’ last six games, including those two tournament games, as Kansas could have conceivably gone deep into the postseason with the 20-year-old Cameroonian in harness. In 28 games with the Jayhawks, Embiid averaged 11.2 points, 8.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 2.57 blocks in just 23.1 minutes, and he could have well made the difference between a second-round exit and a Final Four gig.
“Embiid has excellent NBA center size (seven feet, 7-5 wingspan, 250 pounds with room to grow) and athleticism,” NBC Sports’ Kurt Helin said of the big man, who learned the sport just in 2011 but has shown moves associated only with the great Hakeem Olajuwon and Tim Duncan. “He is already a good rim protector and rebounder because of his size and mobility, but he has the potential to be a defensive force in the paint, he can run the floor, and while he is still raw on offense he has shown growth and has a drop step, jump hook and some other moves that take advantage of his mobility. He has a lot of potential, it’s just a question of how much of it he can fulfill.”
And how a back injury (reports say it’s a stress fracture of the vertebra) that had forced him to miss seven games in his freshman year gets healed.
Parker, another blue-chip prospect, was also frustrated with No. 3 Duke’s 78-71 upset loss to No. 14 Mercer right in the opening round that he told ESPN’s Andy Katz his career is “incomplete,” leaving the door open for a possible return to the Blue Devils, who next season will unveil their own elite big-man recruit Jahlil Okafor, a 6-10, 265-pound center who helped the US Under-19 team to the FIBA Under-19 World Championship title in Prague, Czech Republic last year and was named a member of the All-Tournament Team for his play.
Parker was far from the dominant freshman he was most of the season against the Bears, shooting just 4-of-14 from the floor (0-of-3 from long range) for 14 points while collaring seven rebounds and turning the ball over four times, not the kind of performance one would expect from what’s reputed the most NBA-ready member of his class. One knock about Parker is his poor defense, which has not even come close to his offensive prowess. At the end of that loss to Mercer, for instance, coach Mike Krzyzewski (pronounced su-SHEFS-ki) benched him during defensive possessions.
Still, every NBA team would love to have a 19-year-old stud with Parker’s strengths and weaknesses. USA Today’s Sean Highkin put it best when he said, “NBA scouts aren’t stupid. Ten years ago, one bad game in the tournament may have sunk Parker’s draft stock, but with so many more resources available in 2014, teams will look at his entire body of work in his freshman season at Duke. He averaged 19.1 ppg, 8.7 rebounds and 47 percent shooting for a team that went 26-9. Teams will see that he’s a gifted scorer with an NBA-ready (6-8, 235 pounds) body. Parker may not be the No. 1 overall pick, but he may not have been anyway. For most of the season, it’s been a three-man race between him and Kansas freshmen Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. There’s no clear frontrunner and there probably won’t be by June.”
Smart, on the other hand, got booted out of the tournament after his ninth-ranked Oklahoma State squad lost to No. 8 Gonzaga 85-77. The 6-foot-4, 220-pound Smart didn’t exactly have a bad game, notching 23 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and six steals while committing six turnovers. The weakness in his game may be reflected in his erratic shooting both from the floor (5-of-14) and the stripes (12-of-19). Who knows if he had made a few more of those?
But there’s no denying the all-around talent of the Cowboys’ combo guard, who has been compared by some to Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook but stayed in school one extra year despite having been projected as a lottery pick as early as last year. In 31 games as a sophomore, Smart, a member of the US squad that topped the FIBA Under-19 World Championship last year, averaged 18.0 points (on .422 FG and .728 FT shooting), 5.9 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.87 steals.
Two other highly-regarded players – Doug McDermott and Tyler Ennis – saw their season end after their teams lost in the second round.
McDermott, the projected consensus College Player of the Year and the nation’s leading scorer with a 26.7-point average, led Creighton to a 27-8 record and a No. 3 seed in his senior year as he became the fifth all-time leading scorer in NCAA history with 3,150 points, just 15 points behind Mississippi Valley State’s Alphonso Ford. But after collecting 30 points and 12 rebounds to carry the team coached by his father Greg to a 76-66 first-round victory over No. 14 Louisiana-Lafayette, McDermott’s season – and chase for the fourth spot on the all-time list – came to an abrupt end with an 85-55 blowout loss to a tall and quick Baylor squad, the No. 6 seed.
The 6-foot-8, 220-pound McDermott is a gifted scorer and is probably the best pure shooter in the college ranks. But doubts linger about his lack of athleticism that could hamper him on the defensive end at the next level.
Ennis, meanwhile, is one of the best playmakers in the country who as a freshman compiled averages of 12.9 points, 5.5 assists, 3.4 rebounds and 2.1 steals for third-seeded Syracuse. But after the Orangemen hurdled No. 14 Western Michigan in the first round 77-53 with help from Ennis’ 16 points, six assists and two steals, they ran into an aggressive Dayton club, the 11th seed, in the next round and bowed out 55-53, with the 6-2, 180-pound Ennis shooting just 7-of-21 for 19 points to go with four rebounds and three assists. The question about Ennis is the same question being posed about Smart – inconsistent shooting. But while Smart has the body to force the issue and get to the line, Ennis does not, at least at this point.
Just about the only highly-rated prospects whose teams are still in the hunt and who can therefore improve their draft stock by standing out while bringing their squads deeper into the postseason are Julius Randle of Kentucky and Aaron Gordon of Arizona.
Randle, a 6-foot-9, 250-pound physical specimen, has shone in No. 8 Kentucky’s march to the Sweet 16, tallying 19 points and 15 rebounds in the Wildcats’ opening-round 56-49 victory over No. 9 Kansas State, and posting 13 points and 10 caroms in their 78-76 triumph in the next round over previously unbeaten Wichita State, the top seed whose 35-0 record, the first such streak in NCAA history, came to a bitter end. For the season, the southpaw freshman has compiled averages of 15.1 points (on .503 FG and .705 FT shooting), 10.6 boards and 1.4 feeds for coach John Calipari’s charges, the 2012 national champions.
Gordon, on the other hand, also played a big part in No. 1 Arizona’s first two wins in the national tourney, putting in 16 points, eight rebounds, five blocks and three assists in the Wildcats’ opening 68-59 win over No. 16 Weber State, and submitting 18 markers, six boards, six handoffs and four steals in their 84-61 rout of No. 8 Gonzaga. Regarded as one of the best athletes and possibly the best defender in the college game, the 6-9, 225-pound Gordon, the MVP in last year’s FIBA Under-19 tournament while playing for the champion US team alongside Smart and Okafor, averages 12.4 points, 7.8 rebs, 2.0 assists and almost one block per game, and only his poor marksmanship particularly from the stripes, where he has an atrocious .429 clip, is keeping NBA teams from being totally sold on him.
While there are other youngsters who could make a name for themselves in the ongoing NCAA Tournament and thus improve their chances of being drafted early, it would take some doing for them to dislodge the aforementioned players along with Australian prodigy Dante Exum, a member of the FIBA Under-19 All-Tournament Team while playing for Australia, which placed fourth behind the US, Serbia and Lithuania. These players, after all, have made this year’s class, if they do come out early, one of the most heralded in history. If things don’t miscarry, some are even saying that they could rival the great draft classes of 1984, 1996 and 2003. No kidding.
Draft order. If the draft were held today, hereunder is the drafting order in the first round for all NBA teams, including those who have given away their first-round picks this year.
1. Milwaukee, 2. Philadelphia, 3. Orlando, 4. Utah, 5. LA Lakers, 6. Boston, 7. Sacramento, 8. Detroit, 9. Cleveland, 10. Philadelphia (from New Orleans in trade involving Jrue Holiday and the rights to Nerlens Noel), 11. Denver (from New York in Carmelo Anthony trade), 12. Orlando (from Denver in four-team trade with Denver, LA Lakers and New York involving Dwight Howard and other players), 13. Minnesota, 14. Phoenix; 15. Atlanta, 16. Chicago (from Charlotte in Tyrus Thomas trade), 17. Phoenix (from Washington in Marcin Gortat-Emeka Okafor trade), 18. Boston (from Brooklyn through Atlanta in trades involving Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Joe Johnson), 19. Chicago, 20. Toronto, 21. Oklahoma City (from Houston through LA Lakers and Dallas in trades involving James Harden, Kevin Martin, Jordan Hill, Derek Fisher and Lamar Odom), 22. Memphis, 23. Utah (from Golden State in three-team trade involving Randy Foye, Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins), 24. Charlotte (from Portland in Gerald Wallace trade), 25. Houston, 26. LA Clippers, 27. Miami, 28. Oklahoma City, 29. Phoenix (from Indiana in Luis Scola-Gerald Green trade), 30. San Antonio.
Phoenix has three first-round picks, the most among the 30 teams, while Philadelphia has two, both of them in the top 10 at this point, Orlando also two with both in the lottery or top 14, and Utah, Boston, Chicago and Oklahoma City also two each. Eight teams – New York, Brooklyn, New Orleans, Washington, Dallas, Portland, Indiana and Golden State – have no first-round picks due to earlier trades.
SHORTSHOTS: College underclassmen and international players who don’t turn 22 this year have until April 27 to declare themselves eligible for the NBA draft, which will be held in New York on June 26. That, however, isn’t feasible under the current NCAA deadline, which mandates underclassmen to withdraw from the draft not later than April 16 if they want to retain their college eligibility. Before the 2011 season, the NCAA followed the NBA’s guidelines that gave underclassmen until mid-June to decide. The NBA is retaining its June 16 withdrawal date, but for any college players who want to keep their eligibility, April 16 is the new date… Duke, North Carolina and Kansas all failed to make the Sweet 16 this year, the first time since 1979 that at least one of these highly-touted programs hasn’t made the second week of the NCAA Tournament. This will also be the first time since 1996 that either Duke or North Carolina won’t be in the Sweet 16, only the second time this has happened in the 64-team era that began in 1985. – Rappler.com
Bert A. Ramirez has been a freelance sportswriter/columnist since the '80s, writing mostly about the NBA and once serving as consultant and editor for Tower Sports Magazine, the longest-running locally published NBA magazine, from 1999 to 2008. He has also written columns and articles for such publications as Malaya, Sports Digest, Winners Sports Weekly, Pro Guide, Sports Weekly, Sports Flash, Sports World, Basketball Weekly and the FIBA's International Basketball, and currently writes a fortnightly column for QC Life and a weekly blog for BostonSports Desk. A former corporate manager, Bert has breathed, drunk and slept sports most of his life.