The University of Kentucky rolled out the red carpet for NBA general managers Saturday in Lexington, as eight of the top 18 players in the DraftExpress Top-100 Prospects Ranking (and 15 likely future NBA players total) faced off at Rupp Arena for the most hyped game of the college basketball season.
No one embraces the NBA in the college ranks more than Kentucky coach John Calipari, and it showed in the way the GMs and assistant GMs were treated. They were given some of the most desirable seats/vantage points in Rupp, on the baseline behind the cheerleaders, as well as a work station with special, individualized credentials with photos, names and team logos.
This game was originally slated to be attended by no less than 30 GMs/assistant GMs, eight director of player personnel/directors of scouting and 10 scouts, according to Kentucky. Because of the end of the NBA lockout, many were forced to change their plans. NBA personnel who were present included: Masai Ujiri (Denver), Chris Grant (Cleveland), David Griffin (Cleveland), Scott Perry (Detroit), Kevin Pritchard (Indiana), Bryan Colangelo (Toronto), Ed Stefanski (Toronto), Kevin O'Connor (Utah), Larry Harris (Golden State), Ryan Carr (Indiana), Kevin Grevey (L.A. Lakers), Adam Simon (Miami), Billy McKinney (Milwaukee), Maury Hanks (New Jersey), John Treloar (Phoenix), George Felton (San Antonio), Milt Newton (Washington) and Dave Pendergraft (Atlanta).
Saturday’s game certainly was deserving of the pageantry — both scouts and die-hard college hoops fans must have left Rupp in a state of euphoria as North Carolina and Kentucky put on a rare display of pace, length and talent.
Here are the game’s key matchups and how they might have translated out on the scouting side.
Point Guard: Marquis Teague (7 points, 4 assists, 1 turnover, 3-11 FG, 30 minutes) vs. Kendall Marshall (8 points, 8 assists, 3 turnovers, 3-6 FG, 35 minutes)
While this certainly wasn’t a vintage performance from Marshall, he showed his phenomenal ability to read the floor, find the open man (particularly passing ahead in transition) and make the correct play consistently — the reasons he’ll play in the NBA for a long time. Kentucky clearly attempted to bait him into scoring (something he’s often reluctant to do) and Marshall responded with a season-high eight points, knocking down multiple 3-pointers for only the third time in his career.
Teague, on the other hand, continues to be the weakest link in Kentucky’s starting lineup, again showing many of same issues he has throughout his career with his wild style of play in the half-court and inability to make open shots. On many of Kentucky’s most important possessions, Calipari elected to have his shooting guard Doron Lamb bring the ball up the floor and/or initiate the offense, which tells you everything you need to know about the lack of confidence he has in his freshman point guard.
Teague was bailed out by the referees in a major way when they elected to ignore a blatant traveling violation as he prematurely began celebrating with a second left on the clock, which could have cost his team the game. He also missed the front end of a crucial one-and-one. As Calipari said he told Teague after the game: “You hug Anthony (Davis) because he saved you.”
Shooting Guard: Doron Lamb (14 points, 2 assists, 4 turnovers, 6-12 FG, 34 minutes) vs. Dexter Strickland (5 points, 5 assists, 2 turnovers, 2-6 FG, 28 minutes)
A battle of forgotten McDonald’s All-Americans, this was an intriguing matchup as both Lamb and Strickland could very well end up being much better NBA players than collegiates.
While Lamb is Kentucky’s clear-cut second option (after Terrence Jones), Strickland ranks dead last (8th) in usage amongst UNC’s rotation players.
Nevertheless, with his outstanding speed, lockdown defensive potential and increasingly improving decision-making, he could very well carve a niche for himself in the NBA as a sparkplug off the bench.
Considering how much UNC’s starting lineup lacks an knockdown shooter to take pressure off their towering front line, don’t be surprised if he eventually shares that role on this team with freshman P.J. Hairston.
As for Lamb, which NBA team couldn’t use a super-efficient, smart, pesky defender who shoots 50 percent from beyond the arc and rarely turns the ball over?
Small Forward: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (17 points, 11 rebounds, 6-10 FG, 5-7 FT, 33 minutes) vs. Harrison Barnes (14 points, 2 rebounds, 5-12 FG, 4-5 3P, 24 minutes)
If any player was able to elevate his NBA draft stock through this one game (an unlikely proposition), it was Kidd-Gilchrist, who needed a big outing after some early offensive struggles. NBA scouts got a great feel for the many ways he can impact a game with his sheer toughness and desire. His tenacity attacking the rim and locking down on the defensive end were huge difference-makers in this game.
Barnes, on the other hand, had a very representative showing of his strengths and weaknesses.
All of his five made field goals came on catch-and-shoot jumpers. He was not able to get to the free throw line. These are distinct patterns we’ve seen in his time at North Carolina thus far, and should draw some pause for those who project him as a sure-fire Top 3 draft pick.
Through eight games this season, Barnes has made just one field goal (a runner against Tennessee State) inside the paint in non-transition, post-up or offensive rebound situations — highlighting his struggles as a shot-creator.
As a catch-and-shoot jump-shooter, Barnes has been terrific, converting 47 percent of his attempts. Unfortunately he’s taken twice as many shots off the dribble than with his feet set, and has converted those at half the efficiency (.65 points per possessions versus 1.36).
It’s early to draw too many conclusions from this limited sample size, and there are plenty of mitigating factors -- North Carolina’s poor spacing stemming from their lack of 3-point shooting in the starting lineup being the main one. But this is definitely something to keep an eye on as the season moves on.
Power Forward: Terrence Jones (14 points, 7 rebounds, 3 blocks, 2 steals, 5-14 FG, 1-5 3P, 35 minutes) vs. John Henson (10 points, 8 rebounds, 3 blocks, 4-11 FG, 33 minutes)
Terrence Jones showed why so many scouts love him. In the first half, he created shots from the perimeter and inside the paint, and finished with phenomenal touch around the basket. He was fairly invisible in the second half, though, primarily settling for 3-pointers. There’s no question that Jones is one of the best scorers in college basketball, but he remains somewhat of an enigma from a NBA standpoint due to his tweener status and inconsistent approach.
John Henson’s game played out somewhat similarly, but considering what we already know about him, his performance is far more notable from a NBA perspective.
One of college basketball’s elite rebounders and shot-blockers, Henson was always considered 15 pounds and a go-to offensive move away from being projected as a Top 5 draft pick. Well, the bulk is starting to come, and his offensive skill-level is improving rapidly, as he displayed in this game with a variety of smooth up-and-under moves, mid-range jumpers and jump-hook shots with both hands around the basket.
While he’s still not always physical enough in the paint (on both ends) to play up to his full potential, Henson is the kind of tantalizing talent a GM can easily fall in love with. If he continues to play with this type of confidence offensively, he very well could be the highest player drafted on this North Carolina team.
Center: Anthony Davis (7 points, 9 rebounds, 2 steals, 2 blocks, 3-6 FG, 34 minutes) vs. Tyler Zeller (14 points, 8 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 turnovers, 4-9 FG, 6-6 FT, 28 minutes)
For those who hadn’t seen Anthony Davis before, this game was a pretty representative sampling of what he brings to the table as a prospect.
On one hand he struggled to keep Tyler Zeller outside of the paint, repeatedly giving up deep post position due to his lack of strength.
His unpolished skill-level offensively was fairly evident as well, even if he looked very aggressive trying to prove otherwise, often to mixed results. The overwhelming majority of Davis’ offense is created by others at this stage, be it running the floor in transition, cutting and finishing around the basket, and crashing the offensive glass — all things he does incredibly well.
On the other hand, Davis showed his upside with a number of huge plays, including the game saving block at the end of regulation. There just aren’t that many players in the world right now who can pull off plays like this, and that’s what makes Davis so special.
Considering how much of a late bloomer he is, and the fact that this was the first time in his life playing in a game of this nature, he’s well ahead of schedule.
The needle didn’t move much in Zeller’s case either, as he confirmed many of the things scouts liked and disliked about him going in. His ability to establish position and score inside the paint is elite at this level, but will he able to be quite as effective against grown men and without the most prolific passing collegiate point guard in the past decade spoon-feeding him? Either way, Zeller’s activity level on both ends of the floor will have to improve, as the question marks about his toughness remain.
Jonathan Givony is the founder of DraftExpress.com, a website providing scouting information and analytics on the top basketball prospects in the world outside of the NBA. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Sports Illustrated, Yahoo! Sports, USA Today and NBA.com. Follow him on Twitter at @DraftExpress.
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