Before Kyrie Irving hurt his big toe (or as Duke fans call it, "Butler's Revenge"), he was the undisputed top dog on what could have been a legendary team. That was no small feat — his competition included Kyle Singler, a first-team preseason All-American, and Nolan Smith, who went on to finish third in the Player of the Year race. But for those eight games, Irving was the best player on the court.
That didn't change when he returned for the NCAA tournament. His 28 points against Arizona in the Sweet 16 showed all interested parties the injury would not linger and that his draft stock should remain hyperbolically high. No matter that his late recovery disrupted the Blue Devils, and Coach K may have made a critical miscalculation in putting him on the floor; while Smith played the most baffled game of his distinguished career in an embarrassing loss, Kyrie secured his future.
The telltale signs of a franchise point guard are all present in Kyrie. He's got the quickness, the vision, the wiry strength, and the intelligence to thrive immediately in the NBA. He can even shoot: he finished 46 percent from 3 and 90 percent from the foul line at Duke.
That said, we cannot quite figure out exactly why, in a draft that also features the guy who demolished Duke in the NCAA tournament, Kyrie is slotted as the consensus no. 1 pick. Point guards run deep in the NBA and although Kyrie put up some remarkable offensive performances over his 11 games in college, he never looked like an evolutionary talent. Last year, the Wizards picked an evolutionary talent with the first pick and watched him go through the growing pains expected out of a 19-year-old charged with running an NBA team.
Can anyone say with a clear conscience that Kyrie Irving ever looked 70 percent as good as John Wall?
CEILING: Super Mike Conley
FLOOR: Devin Harris
MOST TELLING STAT: 11 games played at Duke
Williams hasn't been shy about letting folks know that he's the best player in this draft, and recent reports show that the Cavs might think so, too. The 6-foot-9 Williams is explosive, a finisher and has range that extends beyond the three-point line. When he and Kyrie Irving shared the court in the Sweet Sixteen, Williams scored 32 points and looked like the best player on the floor. Overall, his 19.5 points per game came by way of excellent efficiency numbers (.65 eFG), but there are still those that think the jump in his 3-point shooting (57 percent last season compared to 25 percent as a freshman) might be an aberration. Optimists, including Williams, contend that he figures to prove a mismatch for both small forwards (size) and power forwards (quickness and range) at the next level. The main concern is that Williams is a bit undersized to play power forward, which many see as his natural position.
CEILING: The Great Promise of Rodney Rogers
FLOOR: Marvin Williams
MOST TELLING STAT: 57 percent from 3 last season
Brandon Knight is the latest prospect to emerge from John Calipari's Finishing School for Point Guards. Like fraternity bros Tyreke Evans, Derrick Rose, and John Wall, he ditched his studies after freshman year to test his gifts in the NBA. Unlike them, however, Knight is not capable of launching himself through the rim, or uprooting the basket and stanchion. That's not to say he isn't a capable athlete (he is), but rather that his wiry frame and game rely on guile. One of Knight's go-to moves is a quick pull-up jumper taken just inside the arc early in the shot clock (a.k.a. The Russell Westbrook a.k.a. The Scott Brooks Funeral Home a.k.a. Bumpy Knuckles). Knight also projects out as a strong defender (he's got great length at 6-foot-3). He struggled with turnovers at UK, and if there's a knock on his game, it's that he doesn't quite look like a "pure point guard."
Then again, neither did Evans, Rose, or Wall.
CEILING: Chauncey Billups
FLOOR: Jordan Farmar
MOST TELLING STAT: stands 6-3, weighs 177 lbs
Can Kemba redeem the reputation of the New York point guard? From Erick Barkley to God Shammgod to Omar Cook to Sebastian Telfair, it's been ages since a floor general from the self-styled Mecca of hoops has parlayed slick handles and a boatload of hype into a meaningful NBA career. It's easy to look at Walker's crossover-and-stepback-filled highlight reel and worry that a similar fate awaits him, but there are also reasons to believe Walker's NBA prospects are brighter than his NYC brethren. For starters, Walker has a jumper. He shot 43 percent from the field last season, which doesn't seem too impressive until you consider that Barkley, Shammgod and Cook all shot below 40 percent in their college careers. Walker's true shooting percentage was right at the NBA average of 54, which seems respectable given how much UConn relied on him to create and make difficult shots. He'll have better teammates in the NBA, and assuming he's willing to pass to them, he could become a more efficient scorer. With his quickness, ball-handling and ability to score in different ways, Walker looks like he could be a tough cover in pick-and-roll situations. Then again, he's roughly the same height and likely to be drafted in the same range as D.J. Augustin and Johnny Flynn. But even if Walker's NBA career sputters, his name will ring out in the five boroughs.
CEILING: The New Raymond Felton
FLOOR: Jonny Flynn
MOST TELLING STAT: 39.5-inch vertical
On draft day, Tristan Thompson will almost certainly become the highest-drafted Canadian player in NBA history (Steve Nash went 15th to the Suns in 1996). When he does, you'll notice the round O's and pinched I's, the mannered Canadian accent.
Thompson busts his ass in the post and on the boards. On the block, he is a dervish of knees and elbows, employing clean footwork and a feathery, ambidextrous jump hook. With his tremendous second leap, he led the Big 12 last year with nearly four offensive rebounds per game — the one stat that reliably translates to NBA production.
Despite these skills, it's not clear exactly what he'll be at the next level. At 6-foot-8, he's not quite tall enough to play exclusively in the post, and although he showed flashes of a jump shot last year, he needs to develop a face-up game to keep defenders honest. Otherwise, he risks being swallowed up by bigger, stronger guys in the post.
CEILING: Beast-mode Craig Smith
FLOOR: Amir Johnson
MOST TELLING STAT: 48 percent on free throws
Jimmer Fredette is this year's installment of the incredibly productive college player whose "athleticism" threatens his NBA future. He can flat out score, and while "unlimited range" is an overused term, it fits here. As a shoot-first guard, there's a question of whether Jimmer is a talented enough distributor to step in as a point guard, but that's a minor red flag compared to the worries about his defense. Fredette displayed the unfortunate combination of apathy and inability as a defender in college, and the knock is that his lack of quickness (to guard point guards) and size (to guard twos) will make him a liability on the hustle end of the floor. A bright spot for Fredette is the success that Stephen Curry has had over his first two seasons in Golden State. Curry was also seen as a scorer and below-average defender who might be ill-suited as a point guard at the NBA level.
CEILING: Steph Curry
FLOOR: Miles Simon
MOST TELLING STAT: 7.6 free throws per game last season
The greatest college basketball practice player since Julius Peppers, Kanter stands a solid 6-11, 260 with a polished post-up game, great hands and 18- to 20-foot range. Although the two are listed at approximately the same size, he looks like a more chiseled version of fellow Turk, Mehmet Okur. Nobody has really seen Kanter play against elite competition, (the video of him playing against Jonas Valancuinas at the U-18 Euro Championship has taken on Zapruder dimensions for draftheads trying to figure out these dudes) but what little we've seen shows a polished, big player who sometimes struggled to dunk over 6-6 teenagers. His success most likely hinges on his motor — if he can bust his ass on the offensive boards and play adequate defense, his already advanced offensive game should turn him into a productive, if not spectacular pro.
CEILING: Al Jefferson, but slower
FLOOR: Ervin Johnson
MOST TELLING STAT: 0 games played in the 2010-11 NCAA season
It's damn near impossible to tell the Morris twins apart — one of them apparently has thicker sideburns, or something — but that won't be a problem after draft day. They'll still have identical tattoos (identical tattoos!), but Marcus and Markieff will, in all likelihood, wear different jerseys, and play against each other, for the first time in their lives. When they've played together, Markieff, though seven minutes older and an inch taller than Marcus, has always played second fiddle to Marcus. There aren't "Markieff Morris" videos on YouTube, just "Morris brothers," or "Marcus," and sure enough, Marcus has the more aesthetically pleasing game. The difficult separation, though, could allow Markieff to make a name for himself. Though his brother is slated to be a higher draft pick, Markieff might be better suited to make an immediate impact. He fits in nicely as a stretch four that has the ability to step out and shoot from 3, and has the size and toughness to make his presence felt in the paint. Their games, frankly, mark the biggest difference between them, and Markieff's will let him stand out (for once) as a big body in the NBA.
CEILING: The most comparably skilled twins to ever play in the league.
FLOOR: Arnold/Danny DeVito
MOST TELLING STAT: Twins!
Vesely is a gangly dunker who, due to the law of racial categorizations, has been compared to a host of other gangly white dudes, most notably Andrei Kirilenko and the erstwhile Nikoloz Tskitishvili. (In the great hall of sports clichés, has any basketball player been more "erstwhile" than Tskita? In baseball, the race will always be between Brien Taylor and Todd Van Poppel.) After watching hours of tape, we've determined that Vesely's game is actually a lot closer to Anthony Randolph's. He throws down one-handed hammer dunks, his NBA 2k12 Defensive Awareness rating should be in single digits, but when he calms down enough to figure out the ball is somewhere within the range of his 7-4 wingspan, he throws that shit into the stands. Or he fouls somebody. Passionately. Like Randolph, Vesely's outside shooting is a study in misplaced confidence. Last year, in limited minutes in the Euroleague, he shot 46 percent from beyond the arc and 46 percent from the free throw line.
That first number should only inspire confidence in Vesely — at no other point professionally has he come close to that mark.
CEILING: Anthony Randolph
FLOOR: Anthony Randolph
MOST TELLING STAT: Vesely might break the following record: "Most times the word 'fiery' is used to describe a European player.'" He screams, pounds his chest, daps his teammates and mad-dogs the camera. He does the Eddie House Slow-Trot after made 3s. He seems to genuinely care about winning, but his caring is so aimless that his coach will probably have to set him aside and ask him to care a little less. Or, at least, care differently. Actually, let's just go ahead and call him the Czech Anthony Randolph.
The 19-year-old Lithuanian should have been one of the main profiteers of the great evacuation of talent in this draft, but recent reports say that the buyout of his Euroleague contract will delay his NBA arrival by at least a year, spoiling his chances of going in the top five. His first exposure to scouts came as a raw 16-year-old in a few high-profile international tournaments, but he's supposedly made excellent strides in the past two years while also developing something of a rivalry with Enes Kanter. Valanciunas played only 14.9 minutes per game in the Euroleague last season, but his per-40 minute numbers were impressive (20.4 ppg, 14.6 rpg). His length (7-4 wingspan) and ability to protect the rim make him an intriguing option for a team that can afford to wait a season.
CEILING: Tyson Chandler
FLOOR: Hilton Armstrong
MOST TELLING STAT: 14.9 minutes per game in 14 games last season
Bismack Biyombo is a freakishly athletic big, who, if all works out, promises to be an imposing defensive force in the NBA. (In fact, last week he declared he would lead the NBA in both blocked shots and rebounds this coming season.) If there's one thing we don't know about Biyombo, it's how old he is. Yes, there are questions about when Biyombo was really born — one Eastern Conference GM suggested he could be as old as 26 — but conventional wisdom suggests he's between 18 (the age he claims to be) and 20 years old.
Although he is gathering a cult following among hoopheads, it might be two years before we see Biyombo develop into a regular NBA contributor. His workouts have exposed some serious weak spots in his offensive game — while nobody was expecting the second-coming Durant, most scouts were concerned by Biyombo's consistently bad performance in shooting drills. Right now, his offensive game would have to revolve around offensive rebounds and dunks.
On the happy side of things, Biyombo will almost certainly break the record for "most jerseys sold by an NBA rookie who can't get on the floor," previously held by the erstwhile Jeremy Lin.
Please read Davy Rothbart's excellent interview with Biyombo.
CEILING: Mark Eaton
FLOOR: DeSagana Diop
MOST TELLING STAT: Age???
Unlike several international prospects in this year's draft, Motiejunas played starter's minutes for a top-tier European team. Not many 20-year-olds prove to be solid contributors at that level, but Motiejunas shot 53 percent from the field and averaged 12 points per game in the Italian league. Unfortunately, all that exposure hasn't helped Motiejunas's draft stock. Hotter prospects such as Enes Kanter and Bismack Biyombo, who have less game experience, form a blank slate for the far-out fantasies of NBA GMs — a smaller Dwight Howard with Joakim Noah's motor and arms long enough to steer a car from the back seat! Scouts have seen enough of Motiejunas to pinpoint his strengths and weaknesses. He's a versatile scorer who can finish with either hand. He shows nice post footwork, can turn and face the basket, and hits midrange jumpers.
Motiejunas was known as one of the worst rebounding big men in Europe last season. Scouts have also noted a tendency to get pushed off the block and settle for jump shots. But Motiejunas rejects the notion that he's the second coming of Zarko Cabarkapa. To prove it, he points to his chest tattoo of an eagle clutching a flaming basketball. "I really like the attitudes of eagles," Motiejunas told NBA.com. "They never give up. When they grab a fish or something else, they never let it go. It doesn't matter. In a book, they write they find a skeleton of [an] eagle and there is no fish. It means that the fish beat him and killed him, but he didn't let go." Somewhere, DeShawn Stevenson is smiling.
CEILING: Andrea Bargnani
FLOOR: the erstwhile Nikoloz Tskitishvili
MOST TELLING STAT: 4.4 rpg
San Diego State
Kawhi Leonard is one of the most physically gifted players in this year's draft pool. With his height, bulk and leaping ability, Leonard looks like he could become the prototypical NBA small forward. Questions remain about his outside shot — he made just 29 percent of his 3s last season — and whether he can create his own shot. His skills might be better suited to play the power forward position, where he'd be seriously undersized at 6-foot-7. Leonard also played passive at times at San Diego State, sometimes disappearing for long stretches of games. The player from this draft he most resembles is Tristan Thompson, another undersized post player who relies on hustle and strength. Of the two, Leonard is shorter but has a better chance at playing the post. He has a 7-3 wingspan and should be good for at least one YouTube-worthy dunk or block per week. If he develops a jumper and improves his ability to finish at the rim, Leonard could become more than just a defensive role player.
CEILING: Gerald Wallace
FLOOR: Ronaldo Balkman
MOST TELLING STAT: Hand measurements (9.8 inches long, 11.3 inches wide)
Pair Hamilton's excellent shooting stroke with his 6-7 frame and he'll be able to get off any shot he wants on the perimeter in the NBA. There are questions about his inside scoring — he was never a lockdown defender in college, and he needs a lot of work at passing the ball and refining his shot selection.
There have been players with Hamilton's skill sets who have gone on to solid, if not spectacular careers. Paul Pierce could never blow by his defender, but developed enough feints, strength and smarts to build a Hall of Fame career. Morris Peterson never made any All-Star games, but he shot well enough to have a long, productive career. If Hamilton comes into the league understanding his role as a bench scorer, he should pan out pretty nicely.
CEILING: Danny Granger
FLOOR: Pre-Golden State Renaissance Dorell Wright
MOST TELLING STAT: .99 AST/TO ratio
Klay Thompson is something of a positional throwback. In today's NBA of tweeners, stretch fours, and superhero point guards, he's simply a pure two-guard, a deadeye shooter able to score from anywhere on the floor. Thompson prefers to fill it up from deep — and why not? Last year, he torched the Pac-10, leading the league in scoring and 3-pointers made with a jumper that rarely touched the rim. He navigates screens brilliantly, tracing vectors through the paint, and is equally comfortable playing catch-and-shoot or pulling up off the dribble. At 6-6, he has good size for a shooting guard, and is more athletic than his jumper-heavy game would have you believe. He has good genes, too: One of Thompson's brothers played college basketball, the other is a minor leaguer with the White Sox, and father, Mychal, was the no. 1 overall pick in the 1978 NBA draft.
CEILING: Allan Houston
FLOOR: Mo Almond
MOST TELLING STAT: 7.2 3-pointers attempted per game
Marshon Brooks has attributes that NBA teams covet: a 7-1 wingspan, elite quickness and jumping ability, polished ball-handling skills, and the ability to create his own shot and score on difficult pull-up jumpers. All these were on display in his senior season at Providence, where Brooks averaged almost 25 points per game against stingy Big East defenses. As a volume shooter, Brooks compares favorably with Jimmer Fredette and Kemba Walker, high-scoring guards who also carried their college teams' offenses last season. Brooks' 48 percent shooting from the field was better than either Fredette's or Walker's, although Jimmer holds a slight edge over Brooks in advanced stats like true shooting and effective field goal percentage. And while Brooks has garnered the most Kobe Bryant comparisons of any prospect in this draft, they aren't always meant to be flattering. Brooks' game resembles Bryant's in that he takes a boatload of contested pull-up jumpers, and against college defenders he made enough of them to be effective. Few pro scouts believe he'll be able to score that way in the NBA, so the question is can Brooks be remolded into a guard who doesn't need the ball in his hands to score? Can he move without the ball, come off screens and shoot spot-up jumpers? Can he improve his passing and become more of a facilitator? Does he have the mindset to become a lockdown defender on the wing? He has the tools to be all these things. He still has to show it.
CEILING: Jamal Crawford
FLOOR: Dion Glover
MOST TELLING STAT: 24.6 points per game last year at Providence
Chris Singleton is the strongest defender in this year's lottery: 6-9 with the lateral quickness and upper-body strength necessary to frustrate slashing forwards, face-up fours, and bigger guards. His ability to occupy the role of defensive stopper, though, depends on whether he can refine his offensive game to a point where he isn't a complete liability.
At Florida State, Singleton fell into the habit of splitting his offensive game into two equally inefficient parts. He would either lag behind the 3-point line and shoot off-balance 3s, or he would try to bull through his defender and get to the line. Both approaches kind of worked, but not at any level that would translate over into the pros.
CEILING: Good (but not crazy) Ron Artest
FLOOR: Bad (but not crazy) Ron Artest
MOST TELLING STAT: 10 field goal attempts per game
Nikola Vucevic's decision to enter the draft on March 25 was at first met with general indifference. Over the past two months, he has been moving up draft boards — partially because most of the top underclassmen decided to go back to college, but also because Vucevic measured out as the tallest player in this year's pool. As such, Vucevic will probably be drafted to play center. This might be a stretch for Vucevic, who plays a more European game. He has range out to the 3-point line, and can face-up and shoot over smaller defenders. In the post, he's proven himself to be slow-footed and clunky. He lacks the bulk to handle big players on the low block. There are also concerns about his assertiveness on the offensive side, as he has struggled to create his own shot. Being forced to play out of position will likely exacerbate, not alleviate, those problems.
CEILING: Nenad Krstic
FLOOR: Robert Swift
MOST TELLING STAT: 10.3 rebounds per game last season.
— by Jay Caspian Kang, Jonathan Abrams, Rafe Bartholomew, Bill Barnwell and Robert Mays
Additional reporting by Sam Schube and Danny Savitzky