If you’re even a casual basketball fan, you have been hearing the three names at the top of NBA draft boards nonstop:
• Duke’s Jabari Parker, who after his junior year in high school was called “the best high school basketball player since LeBron James” and who projects as the most NBA-ready player in this absurdly talented draft class.
• Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins, who reclassified into last season’s freshman class and immediately jumped Parker as the top college talent and whose freakish athletic ability makes him the most exciting player in the 2014 draft.
• And Kansas’ Joel Embiid, the raw Cameroonian 7-footer whose skills have leapt forward in the three years he’s been playing the sport and who garners comparisons to Hakeem Olajuwon as the player with the highest ceiling in this draft.
In some order — plus the wild card of the talented six-foot-six Australian combo guard Dante Exum, who is this draft’s mystery man and who most experts project will go fourth, maybe higher — it’s a virtual guarantee that the top four picks in next week’s NBA draft will include these four young men.
But to whom should we be tossing our attention after those Big Three (Plus One)?
What follows are five names who may be considered below the radar for the June 26 draft — but who shouldn’t be. These aren’t the picks I think will go five through nine. Instead, it’s guys who are sleepers — players who should be considered great values at their likely draft positions.
And since everyone loves a deep sleeper, I’ll even throw in six more players who I think will be steals in the second round or as undrafted free agents.
1. Aaron Gordon, PF, Arizona. Entering the college basketball season, Gordon was one of the “Fab Freshmen” who was grabbing all the hype, along with Wiggins, Parker and Kentucky’s Julius Randle. So how could he be considered a sleeper? Because in another year, another situation, Gordon could easily be the No. 1 overall pick — yet I haven’t seen any mock drafts having Gordon higher than where I have him, going to the Boston Celtics with the sixth pick. Two things give teams pause with Gordon: One is that his shooting needs some serious improvement; the other is that at six-foot-nine, he’s a little short for someone whose skill set would make him a power forward in the NBA. Here’s the thing about Gordon, though: He is that rare combination of a freakish athlete who is grounded, mature, a hard worker and who focuses on the little parts of the game. In short, Gordon is a coach’s dream, which is why I think having him go to Brad Stevens’ Celtics is a perfect fit. Though his college stats in his one season at Arizona weren’t eye-popping, averaging 12.4 points and 8.0 rebounds, he was the reason Arizona had the nation’s most efficient defense. He was frenetic, guarding the perimeter as well as he guarded the post, crashing the boards and getting steals. He’s the glue guy who could develop into an All-Star. The player he is most often compared to is Blake Griffin. That’s a bit of overhype, considering Gordon’s strength isn’t in the same league as Griffin’s, but one veteran coach who has tracked Gordon’s progress for years told me Gordon is further in his development than Griffin was at the same age.
2. Shabazz Napier, PG, UConn. The kid bookended his college career with national championships, first playing a significant role in Kemba Walker’s “Superman” film as a freshman and then taking the role of “Superman” himself as a senior. So why is it so hard finding a mock draft that has Napier going any higher than the mid-20s? (I’ll point you to one: my own, which has him going 17th to the Celtics.) The reasons Napier is undervalued are as simple as they are shortsighted: He’s barely above 6 feet tall, and he doesn’t wow anyone athletically. But he’s a leader, he’s a winner, he’s as good on the offensive end as the defensive end, he can pass, he can shoot, he can rebound, and — most important for a player his size — he can create space off the dribble. Here’s what one NBA insider who thinks Napier will be a star told me: “His ability to change direction and to step off his guy — in the space he creates, he’s allowing himself some comfort to survey the court. … He has an unbelievable ability to deliver the ball to the right guy at the right time.” If he drops to the Miami Heat at 26, as some mock drafts predict, it’ll be an absolute steal.
Elfrid Payton isn’t well-known yet, but he will be.
3. Elfrid Payton, PG, Louisiana Lafayette. Congratulations to the good folks at USA Basketball for spotting this talent earlier than anyone else. Payton was completely off the radar until he was a surprise selection for the U-19 team that won the FIBA U-19 World Championship in Prague last summer. I watched Payton at that training camp in Colorado Springs, and he absolutely belonged right alongside all the high-major talents like Gordon, Marcus Smart and Jahlil Okafor, the No. 1 recruit in the 2014 class who’ll attend Duke. He’s not a great shooter, but he’s one of the best defenders in the draft, he’s a leader, he’s a true point guard (rare in a draft that’s full of combo guards) and he has good size. One talent evaluator told me he needs to improve in several areas to become an NBA starter: shooting, ballhandling, and most of all strength. But few names have shot up draft boards as quickly as Payton’s has in recent months. Respected draft guru Chad Ford had him as the eighth pick in his most recent mock draft, the highest I’ve seen. Though I think that’s a bit of irrational exuberance, Payton could slip into the lottery. “The point guard position is the hardest position in the league,” one league insider told me. “If you got a guy who can play that spot, you gotta jump on him. It’s so hard to come by.”
4. Doug McDermott, SF, Creighton. How can the fifth-leading scorer in college basketball history be a sleeper in the draft? Easy: Because he played most of his career in the overlooked Missouri Valley Conference. Because his size is a concern to NBA teams. And because people inaccurately put him in two boxes: He’s strictly a three-point shooter (actually, he might be the most versatile scorer in this draft other than Jabari Parker), and he’s an unathletic white kid (actually, scouts were surprised by his athleticism at last month’s NBA Combine). One international talent evaluator who has watched McDermott’s development through the years told me he’s the safest pick in the whole draft. He could be a better version of Kyle Korver, or a Wally Szczerbiak. Said the talent evaluator: “How many people in this draft do something as well as anyone else currently in the NBA? McDermott shoots it as well as anyone else in the league.”
Cleanthony Early left a lasting impression in the NCAA Tournament.
5. Cleanthony Early, SF, Wichita State. I remember the first time I saw Early play basketball in person. It was at the beginning of Missouri Valley conference play a year ago, before Wichita State went on its two magical runs. I’d never heard of the guy. Within a few minutes of watching his effortless yet intense play, I said to myself, “That’s an NBA player.” He simply has that look. He’s smooth, he can jump out of the gym, he can shoot the three, he has a quick release, he can rebound, and he can play defense. The only flaw scouts see in his game is his lateral quickness. Early scored 31 points against Kentucky in the best game of the NCAA tournament, and that game was not an anomaly for the 23-year-old. One ex-NBA scout told me he was as impressed with Early’s performance at the NBA Combine as nearly anyone’s.
One NBA insider told me that because of the depth of this draft, teams are treating this year’s second-rounders as if they have much more value. There is “league-wide optimism there will be some gems from 45-60,” the source said.
Here are my guesses for which players could be the next Ryan Kelly (second-rounder in 2013), or Kyle O’Quinn and Draymond Green (second-rounders in 2012), or Chandler Parsons and Isaiah Thomas (second-rounders in 2011), or Lance Stephenson (second-rounder in 2010).
C.J. Fair, SF/PF, Syracuse. He’s the forgotten man of this draft; a lot of people predict he won’t even get drafted. He was looked at as the alpha dog at Syracuse at the beginning of last season, but that role didn’t fit him. One NBA insider told me this: “Strong athlete, can make the short corner jumper, can finish at and above the rim, can rebound in traffic. Gonna make a roster, could even be a back-end-of-the-rotation guy.”
Jordan Bachynski, C, Arizona State. He’s seven-foot-two and was one of the top shot blockers in college basketball last season. He’s old (24) and needs to add strength, but one college coach at the Combine told me he was as impressed by Bachynski’s performance as any center there. (Joel Embiid did not attend.)
Fuquan Edwin, SF, Seton Hall. Though he regressed statistically his senior year, Edwin is one of the elite defenders in this draft; he averaged nearly three steals per game in his college career. Scouts say his shot, once atrocious-looking, has improved. He’s the reigning Big East Defensive Player of the Year, and five of the past six Big East Defensive Players of the Year were drafted. There’s a place for lockdown defenders in the NBA.
DeAndre Kane, PG, Iowa State. Excelling in Fred Hoiberg’s NBA-style system in his one year at Iowa State ought to help Kane’s standing in the draft. He’s a mature, do-it-all point guard who can be a backup in the NBA tomorrow.
Joe Harris, SG, Virginia. Harris is a remarkable three-point shooter with good size (6-6, 225). His numbers would have been more impressive in a more offense-friendly system than Tony Bennett’s.
Jordan McRae, SG, Tennessee. Here’s what one SEC coach told me about McRae, who he called his conference’s best defender: “If I were an NBA guy, I’d be foaming at the mouth to get a guy like that. He can shoot it from deep. He can run. He’s athletic in transition. He can guard. He’s got long arms. That’s an NBA nightmare.” A Bruce Bowen type?