The NBA season was officially declared over in San Antonio as the Spurs’ harmonious offense and team play proved to be too much for LeBron James and the Miami Heat to bear, giving Gregg Popovich and Tim Duncan their fifth NBA Championship. As Pat Riley gathers his next master plan to try to bring the title back to South Beach and other teams are already preparing their own to-do lists in the offseason, many fans and teams are bracing for this year’s NBA Draft. One of the first articles that I wrote on this site was my preview of last year’s draft, which has proven to be quite mediocre and only whetted our appetite more for the following, much more plentiful draft that was to come.
One of the main reasons for the prolonged excitement about the 2014 edition of the NBA Draft is because it is projected to be the most talented draft class in several years. It seems that each team situated in the lottery is more likely than ever to get a really good or All-Star caliber player this year. It might be a little too much praise to compare this draft to the 2003 class that introduced us to LeBron, Dwyane Wade, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, and David West along with many others, but this is likely the best draft class since the 2011 lockout. The league has continued to evolve since the lockout with a newly installed commissioner, an all-time high in scoring average, a slew of up-and-coming talents like Kawhi Leonard and Paul George taking charge, and a meshing of different coaching styles unlike any we have ever seen in professional basketball.
But the more things change in the NBA, the more they stay the same, and just like in last year’s not-so-robust draft, the #1 overall pick was won by the Cleveland Cavaliers. Dan Gilbert’s son looked like a fool after claiming that the Cavs would not be back in the lottery the following season after winning the 2013 overall pick, but there was more than one reason why. Picking Anthony Bennett #1 may, in fact, turn out to be a bust while head coach Mike Brown did not click with his players and All-Star Kyrie Irving dealt with various injuries. Now, we have a new general manager in David Griffin to go with a newly hired head coach in Euroleague whiz David Blatt. No one knows yet what the Cavs plan to do with the number one pick, keeping the decision as closely guarded of a secret as last year when Bennett was shockingly selected. But boy, do the Cavs have some options.
There are plenty of great draft classes that are filled with great talents but lack in a consensus at the top. In the case of the 2014 class, that is not the case as it became apparent pretty quickly who were the trinity of NBA prospect elite in this year’s draft: Joel Embiid, Andrew Wiggins, and Jabari Parker. Ever since the Cavs won the pick, the speculation has been flat out smoking as to which one-and-doner between the three would be wearing a Cavaliers cap and shaking hands with Adam Silver. Reports from sources were leaning towards Wiggins’ Kansas teammate Embiid getting the favor at the top spot with stellar workouts and incredible potential as a center. Then came the turning of the screw, as Embiid sadly broke his foot in a workout late last week.
Now a loaded NBA Draft has become even more fascinating as we try to anticipate what the secretive Cavs are going to do at #1 and then see how badly Embiid slides down the draft board, if he does at all. But beyond those two story lines, there are still so many things to look forward to as we look at the next crop of talent to enter the NBA. Adam Silver, get ready for the boo birds in New York City, because it’s prediction time.
#1- Cleveland Cavaliers- Andrew Wiggins, SG/SF Kansas
The shock and dismay that came with Cleveland winning the top pick once again amongst most fans was expressed for several reasons, one of which was the assumption that the team did not deserve it over others. While the Milwaukee Bucks had the worst record in the league and the Philadelphia 76ers pulled off an obvious tank job late in the season, the Cavs were supposed to be a playoff-caliber team going into the 2013-14 season. Obviously, that didn’t work out, as they went 33-49 and the writing was written in blood on the wall when GM Chris Grant got the axe. Mike Brown was gone soon after, and now comes the third #1 pick in four years for a franchise that still has yet to recover from losing LeBron to the Miami Heat in the summer of 2010.
The Cavs got it right with Irving in 2011 while Bennett still has a ways to go, so now the pressure is definitely on David Griffin to get this one right and to win right away with David Blatt as the new head coach. Embiid was looking like a solid choice before he broke his foot on top of the back problems that kept him out of the NCAA Tournament. Now, Cleveland moves on to the next best thing, and that is going to be Embiid’s fellow Jayhawk last season in Andrew Wiggins. A freshman out of Canada, Wiggins is an amalgam of potential awesomeness: A 6’8″ small forward with guard skills and defensive prowess. I have compared him in the past to LeBron James and Kevin Durant due to the fact that he a multi-talented small forward, but a more apt comparison would be with Tracy McGrady had he played a year in college before going pro.
Wiggins was not always the most impressive player even on his team thanks to the development of Embiid along with some other prevalent issues. He tends to roam a lot on the court and aimlessly make no impact on the game and his jump shot needs work. But once the Cavs have to make the choice, the potential based on athleticism alone is just too good to pass up on Wiggins at #1. It is becoming a small forward’s league where the two best players are James and Durant while the Finals MVP is Kawhi Leonard, and Wiggins is the next step in that direction. At the very worst, Wiggins could be a Tony Allen is becomes a lock down defender. At his best, he could be a better, more athletic version of Paul George, which is a tremendous compliment. Oh, and then there was this. I say Cleveland takes Wiggins, who immediately becomes the starting small forward for Cleveland and a future All-Star alongside Irving.
#2- Milwaukee Bucks- Jabari Parker, SF Duke
I thought right after the lottery that the team in the most precarious position was Milwaukee at #2. The reason I thought that at the time was when you have draft where you have three top flight candidates, there is more potential to mess it up at the second spot historically than either at the first or third spot (Just ask the Charlotte fans who missed out on Anthony Davis then took Michael Kidd-Gilchrist instead of Bradley Beal in 2012). Nothing is for sure for the Bucks except the fact that they sucked, losing 67 games and having extremely low attendance. The two bright spots on the team are their new ownership that bought the team for $550 million this year and the slew of forwards on the team from John Henson to Ersan Ilyasova to Giannis Antetokounmpo.
You would think based on the lack of good guards that the Bucks would go with a guard at this spot, but thanks to the injury to Embiid, the consensus has become a lot easier for Milwaukee to make their pick after Cleveland is done. If Wiggins goes first, then the next best prospect on the board is Jabari Parker. He might be another forward for Milwaukee, but he is a good one, almost a bigger version of Grant Hill. From the moment he put on a Duke jersey, Parker was an offensive beast who could score inside and out. He might be a little heavy in terms of weight, but he frequently bullied other forwards on the block for scores. He is a very nice ball handler and has incredible smoothness to his game. He can get 20 points and 8 rebounds you would barely even know if it weren’t for his sneaky power when he finishes.
His most glaring weakness is defense, but that is okay for a Bucks team with a slew of defensively minded forwards like Henson and Larry Sanders. Milwaukee needs a scorer and a face for the franchise, and Parker could do both of those things if he continues to work hard. By the way, his work ethic might be the best in the whole draft, so as ready as Parker already is, he is only going to get better. A great comparison would be to Carmelo, and I can easily see why. I doubt he will get to that level, but he will be good in a hurry.
#3- Philadelphia 76ers- Noah Vonleh, PF Indiana
And here is where the big shoe drops. Philadelphia wound up licking their wounds a bit after winding up with the third pick behind Cleveland and Milwaukee after selling Philly fans on the hope that the 2014 draft would be a shining light for the team. Now, with Embiid’s injury dropping his stock one week before the draft, Wiggins and Parker are likely to be off the board once the Sixers make their pick. Outside of point guard, where the team just got a surprisingly good season out of Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams, the Sixers need everything. Word has been out for a while that the Sixers desperately want Wiggins, but would have to trade up to #1 or #2 to get him. The Sixer certainly have the assets with Thaddeus Young, all of their second round picks and another lottery pick later in the draft.
But if the two best small forwards in the draft are gone by this time, the Sixers might make the case to go big and have every single option in front of them. Embiid will be available now, but he will be out most of the season due to foot surgery. Philly already fostered one center on the mend from injury in the lottery last year in Nerlens Noel, so the likelihood of them doing it again is low. Sam Hinkie is not delusional, but the perception of immediate value in this draft has to be weighing on him. The next big after Embiid to take is Noah Vonleh, and I think that is where Hinkie is going to go. Vonleh is a power forward who played one year at Indiana and went under the radar because the Hoosiers missed the NCAA Tournament.
Vonleh was the team’s bright spot, an explosive athlete with huge hands, a long wingspan, and an incredible knack for outside shooting, which sets him apart from most of the other big men out there. (Seriously, when you search “Noah Vonleh” on Google, the next word that pops up is “hands”) Embiid is an efficient scorer, too, but Vonleh has deeper range and is is very humble. You don’t need to worry about Vonleh getting thrown out of practice anytime soon. He has a game that fits the NBA more than it did in college where power forwards and centers play in their standard positions. Imagine Draymond Green without all the physical limitations. Vonleh has many talents at 6’9″ and that is exactly what the Sixers were aiming to get in this draft: Talent that can help out right away.
#4- Orlando Magic- Dante Exum, PG/SG Australia
Just as the Sixers and Bucks had miserable seasons, the Orlando Magic had their second year post-Dwight Howard with only 23 wins. For John Hennigan’s team, though, the future is looking a little brighter than before thanks to the splendid rookie outing from guard Victor Oladipo and the development of big man Nikola Vucevic. After that, all bets are off when it comes to moves for the Magic, including veteran guard Aron Afflalo, who had a career year. Jameer Nelson is another veteran on the team, but his contract expires next year and he will probably be gone after that. A perfect replacement at point guard for the smaller Nelson would be Exum, a 6’6″ Australian whose dad played at North Carolina with Michael Jordan and James Worthy.
Exum really came to the forefront after playing in the 2013 Nike Hoops Summit and wowing scouts at the FIBA Under-19 games last summer. He attended the much-heralded Australian Institute of Sport, the same place where fellow Aussie greats Patty Mills and Andrew Bogut came from. If you think Patty Mills is impressive, I think Exum is much better than him if he hits his maximum potential. I imagine him as a not as advanced version of Derek Rose with the taller frame and incredible agility to go with the mindset of a point guard and the versatility of a shooting guard. I think a back court with Exum and Oladipo could be lethal in the future and I can easily see the two giving teams nightmares by switching the 1 and 2 positions and being able to run different sets with the same players. Exum’s star has risen so steadily, however, that there is a chance that he gets picked by the Sixers, whose head coach Brett Brown had previously coached him on the Australian national team at age 15.
#5- Utah Jazz- Joel Embiid, C Kansas
Despite the many attributes that Embiid provides as the only truly good center in this draft, I had my doubts about him even before his unfortunate foot injury sidelined him last week. I feel like the boosted profile for Embiid as a center with health issues was already a case of putting the cart before the horse by draft gurus who simply covet size over all other things when it comes to the top pick. I would not compare it to Greg Oden going first over Kevin Durant or Sam Bowie going second over Michael Jordan, but it is never good when a player who has only been playing organized ball for a few years suddenly suffers two major injuries before getting to the NBA.
Getting past the injuries is now impossible, but if you look at just the numbers and talent, he truly is a can’t-miss at center. A 7-footer originally from Cameroon, Embiid has drawn comparisons to the great Hakeem Olajuwon because of his big shoulders, 7’5″ reach, and scoring creativity in the post. He is also a defensive force at times, as his game against Oklahoma State at Kansas was an opus on how great Embiid could be. Despite the injuries, I simply don’t see Embiid falling out of the top five even if he is not among the top three chosen, and that is where the Utah Jazz sit. The Jazz started out horribly before Trey Burke’s delayed rookie season gave the team something to root for in an otherwise forgettable season. They do have Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter, but neither is a go-to guy, especially Kanter. Embiid has time to come along slowly in Utah as the team tries to find its footing under new head coach Quinn Snyder. I wouldn’t call this a steal, but to Jazz fans, it sure would feel like one.
#6- Boston Celtics- Julius Randle, PF Kentucky
The last time the Boston Celtics were in the lottery, it was in 2007 when they had tanked the season to try to get Greg Oden or Kevin Durant. They wound up with the fifth pick, which they eventually traded to the Sonics for Ray Allen. One trade for Kevin Garnett later, and the Celtics were back on top. But those days are long gone after a year under former Butler head coach Brad Stevens that went not as horribly as some anticipated, but a losing season nonetheless. Rajon Rondo is reportedly on the trade market, so a point guard getting taken here is still possible, hence all the talk for Marcus Smart.
If Embiid falls to the 6th spot, Danny Ainge will likely take him to play alongside Kelly Olynyk as a front court for the future. If Embiid is already gone once we get out of the top five, there are still a lot of options out there for Boston, and I expect them to go big. Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon are the next best power forwards out there, but I see Randle getting the nod. As a freshman at Kentucky, Randle immediately impressed with his double-double numbers and being the leading scorer on a very young Wildcats team that got all the way to the national title game against UConn. I love Randle myself; if I were a G.M. looking for the most ready player, I’d take Randle above any other player. He is going to be a 15-10 player most of his career and reminds me a lot of Zach Randolph: A left-handed shooter with nifty footwork and a strong core. Issues about a foot injury in high school have resurfaced, but I can see Randle delivering the goods almost immediately in the NBA due to his ability to bang inside and snag rebounds.
#7- Los Angeles Lakers- Marcus Smart, PG Oklahoma State
It became clear after the combine that the top point guard for nearly every team was Dante Exum and that the runner-up on every depth chart was Marcus Smart out of Oklahoma State. Some would label this as a downgrade for Smart, who was seen by many as a top three or top five pick in the 2013 draft had he declared. He played a second season at Oklahoma State and got off to a scorching start after a stupefying performance at home against Memphis. However, injuries and departures led to Smart taking on more responsibilities for the Cowboys and it became too much for him to handle as a sophomore. His disgraceful pushing of a Texas Tech fan late in the season got him suspended along with kicking chairs on the bench, leading many to think that Smart had lost his way.
Smart came back and played well, but the team did not go far in the postseason and it was up to him to prove his worth to NBA teams in workouts. So far, he has, impressing the L.A. Lakers so much that many think he is set to get picked here. The Lakers’ last lottery pick was in 2005 when they took Andrew Bynum, so it will be interesting to see if Mitch Kupchak helps out his front court or gets a young point guard to play alongside Kobe Bryant for two more years. Smart is 6’3″ but has insane athleticism and can defend. He reminds me in some ways of Russell Westbrook but without the jump shot. Coaching is huge for Smart as he cut up under Travis Ford but was an incredible leader under the more diplomatic Billy Donovan for the dominant U.S. Under-19 team that won the gold medal. Kendall Marshall has had decent days as a Laker, but Smart is a great long-term solution there.
#8- Sacramento Kings- Aaron Gordon, PF Arizona
The Kings are one year into new ownership to go along with a new G.M. in Pete D’Allesandro and head coach Michael Malone. DeMarcus Cousins is clearly the star player for the Kings, but his bad behavior and immature personality still has yet to subside. A trade for Rudy Gay still has me racking my brain and PG Isaiah Thomas is a free agent. Ben McLemore showed some signs of being a good future player at shooting guard, but the 28-54 Kings had very little chemistry and Malone went off on the team in notable press conferences this past season. Sacramento has quite a few needs, but I think the biggest need is a glue guy who is all about playing for others and trying to make others better. No Rudy Gay’s needed here, at least after next season. There are also tons of rumors that the Kings are trying to shop this pick for a good veteran.
Malone preached togetherness as an assistant with the Warriors under Mark Jackson, and the prospect whose exudes that the most in his style of play is Aaron Gordon. I just mentioned Marcus Smart (who is also a possibility here) winning gold last summer under Billy Donovan, but Gordon was the tournament’s MVP before playing a game at Arizona. Many fans get their glasses fogged up watching Gordon’s various highlight dunks on YouTube from both college and high school (and trust me, he has a few), but Gordon’s best attribute is his selfless character. He is an elite defender, he uses his awkward frame to carve out space inside, and he can slash to the rim with no regard for human life. He is basically Blake Griffin with a defensive mindset, a super athlete who can play the 3 and 4 position. He does have to prove he can make a consistent jump shot, though, but he is still 18 years old!
#9- Charlotte Hornets- Doug McDermott, SF Creighton
Break out that teal, 90’s awesome guy! The Charlotte Bobcats are officially no more and the Hornets are reborn in North Carolina where they always belonged in the first place. The team’s last incarnation as the Bobcats was one of their better ones as Al Jefferson had a career year and Kemba Walker broke out in the playoffs despite the team being swept by the Miami Heat. They actually got this pick from a trade with the Pistons involving Ben Gordon back in 2012. Steve Clifford’s team is actually looking up in some ways, but Michael Jordan and Rick Cho have to keep thinking forward, and it has to start with scoring. Charlotte’s defense was very good this year, but they were one of the worst shooting teams in the league, and it cost them in many games down the stretch. They still have Gary Neal, but Luke Ridnour is a free agent and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist just isn’t a shooter.
The Hornets are new, but they will be improved if they get a small forward who can actually shoot this time, and the best one by a mile in this draft is Doug McDermott. McDermott’s journey to the lottery from Creighton is already pretty legendary, but I do not see the stereotypes of Jimmer Fredette or Joe Alexander (two other really good white shooters) haunting Doug in the NBA. McDermott has decent height at 6’7″ along with incredible footwork that he developed in the post during college, so creating space is not hard for him. I can easily see Kemba dishing back to Doug for open three’s when the double team comes on the penetration. His greatest weakness, however, is his ability to defend at the small forward position, so Clifford, a defensive specialist, needs to coach him up.
#10- Philadelphia 76ers- Gary Harris, SG Michigan State
This is the second lottery pick for the 76ers, who earned this pick from the New Orleans Pelicans when they gave up Jrue Holiday in last year’s draft for Nerlens Noel. The Pelicans’ loss is the Sixers’ gain, and that is why some analysts think that Philly still may take the chance on Joel Embiid with that third overall pick knowing they have this one in their back pocket. At this point, the elite power forwards from college will likely be gone, leaving us with two terrific shooters who can play both ways: Michigan State’s Gary Harris and Kentucky’s James Young.
Although Young is more of a wing while Harris is a true shooting guard, their games are very much alike. Both have great athleticism in the open floor, both are adept at getting steals and run outs, and both can nail three-pointers anywhere on the court. If the Sixers take a big man in the third spot, you need a guard who can stroke it and can complement Michael Carter-Williams. Harris fits that bill to a tee and is probably the second best shooter in the draft after Doug McDermott. He is especially good at the corner 3, the most popular weapon in the NBA right now. The only hang-ups for Harris is that he is 6’4″ and he has already suffered nagging ankle injuries while at Michigan State. He is still a great find, though.