Weekly Countdown: Draft buzz
Oklahoma's Blake Griffin is the consensus No. 1 pick in the draft at this point
Hasheem Thabeet and James Harden are among the other top prospects
The NBA has been hit hard with injuries to big-name players over the last week
5 Top talents for this year's NBA draft
As we approach the final month before March Madness, many NBA teams are still in the early stages of their work. "We haven't begun rating these guys,'' one general manager said. "We're still just watching them play.''
That's why ratings will fluctuate over the coming months, as NBA scouting staffs meet, the results of the lottery spell out the order of the draft, and the top prospects move from one workout to another. All of that said, here are five leading candidates for the top of the draft in June.
5. Georgetown freshman power forward/center Greg Monroe. Feelings for the 6-foot-10 Monroe ran lukewarm, even though he was named on four of the five ballots cast by the GMs and league execs I polled this week. "He's the most talented of the guys who are remaining [after Nos. 1-4] and he's tall,'' one GM explained.
The larger issue is the absence of All-Star potential in this year's pool. "The popular thing is to say that the draft is not good,'' a Western Conference GM said. "Everyone is saying that every year. They were saying it last year and that could turn out to be one of the better drafts in recent history.
"I like the draft.''
Others don't feel the same way.
"I think it's just a bad draft,'' another GM said. "A few will end up being better than you think, and if you get one of those guys it's a good draft for you. But if you're picking between 8 and 14, good luck.''
While my panel of experts had little to say about Monroe, three of them had strong opinions about Arizona junior power forward Jordan Hill.
"If you watched him play two years ago, he's not the same guy,'' a GM said. "He's got a great NBA body and there's no serious deficiencies in his game.''
Said another GM: "I'm a Jordan Hill guy. I think he's going to be good, like Tyrone Hill-good -- a journeyman-plus.''
4. Connecticut junior center Hasheem Thabeet. The 7-3 shot-blocker is viewed as a high-risk choice, with two GMs pointing out that most of the big mistakes in the draft are made on big men. I asked one GM what Thabeet needs to improve.
"Besides his clear ability to clog the lane and block shots and rebound his area -- I don't think he goes out and gets rebounds because he doesn't move well -- he needs to work on everything else," the GM said. "He's got some things he can do, but there are some serious deficiencies that may never get cured.''
Said another GM: "As a freshman he was terrible -- he cost their team wins, and they kept playing him -- and as a sophomore it was the same thing. The old saying is that you can't teach size. Well, you can't teach talent. Guys like Patrick Ewing and [Hakeem] Olajuwon and [Alonzo] Mourning were no-brainers, but after that go back and look at big guys who were picked between 4 and 20 as draft picks and see how they all turned out.''
But another exec believes Thabeet could be excellent.
"There is risk,'' he acknowledged. "But if you look at the percentage of his growth [and improvement as a player] for the length of time he's been playing basketball, it's pretty much off the charts. I've got to know more about the personality of the kid, his background, what kind of people are around him, the motives and the agendas, because I don't have a 100 percent feel on him. But given what I know of him now, it's hard to not have him in the top five. And if the draft was happening tonight, I'm not sure I wouldn't take him No. 2.''
3. Ricky Rubio, 18-year-old point guard of DKV Joventut (Spain). Rubio's stock has supposedly been falling this season, but three panelists still named him as a No. 3 pick. "I know he's having an off year, but I like his ability to handle the ball, which is something not everybody has,'' a GM said. "The technique of his shot has improved, and I think he'll end up as an OK shooter. He can really see the court -- he has a gift for that -- and what surprises people is that he actually tries to play defense, which is going to make a lot of coaches happy.''
Another exec has the opposite opinion: "Rubio couldn't guard you.'' It shows the wide divergence of opinion that exists in the draft, especially at this early stage.
In any case, the 6-3 Rubio may not be available this June.
"He's not going to come out this year,'' said the personnel executive who is skeptical of Rubio's defense. "Too many people tell me he's locked in [with Joventut].''
2. Arizona State sophomore shooting guard James Harden. At last, a player upon whom the experts agree: The 6-5 Harden can become an NBA star.
"He reminds me a little bit of [Paul] Pierce because he's not a great athlete, he's not a high riser, but he's sneaky athletic,'' a GM said. "He's long, he's strong, he's got good size for a wing player, he shoots it. He's got poise, he plays at a good pace. He's got to get better at his ball handling, but I think he's got a chance to be a really good player.''
Said another GM: "He has such a great feel, kind of like Brandon Roy or Chris Mullin. He will be able to play with older players right away. And he has top-drawer character. The only thing I'll say is that he's got a little Rasheed [Wallace] in him, and I'm not talking about the technicals, because he's a mild-mannered guy. But he has that dimension where his teammates love him, and he wants to be one of the guys more than he wants to be Kobe. He's more Robin than Batman, but that can be a good thing too. If you get him together with a stud, that's a perfect combination.''
As always, however, there are questions.
"I wonder why he lets his team get down by double-digit points in multiple games before he wants to play,'' an executive said. "Don't tell me it's coaching, because no coach wants to be down 20 at halftime of a college game. It unnerves me, as gifted as he is, that he allows his team to get into these situations.''
1. Oklahoma sophomore power forward Blake Griffin. The 6-10, 250-pound Griffin is the consensus No. 1 pick and a potential All-Star.
"He's not a polished offensive player, but he's bigger and stronger than everyone he plays against right now,'' a GM said. "And that's another thing in college basketball: It's so small. There are 6-7 centers everywhere and 6-5 power forwards all over the place, and there's just very little size and length. And so that's why some of the big guys aren't quite as good, because they'll have such an adjustment to make in the NBA. But Blake Griffin is strong and quick and athletic, and he plays with intensity. He can't possibly fail.''
While Griffin will surely be a long-term NBA player, others believe he isn't necessarily going to become a star.
"He's an unbelievable athlete, but not an overly skilled player,'' an executive said. "He's a combination of strength and power, but he's not a jump shooter, and he has trouble scoring over people of length and size inside. People are assuming he'll be a great player, but I don't see great players in this draft. I don't see a Derrick Rose.''
Said another GM: "I don't know if he's going to be a star, but I think he's going to be very good. I think he's [Carlos] Boozer Lite.''
(For more on this draft, please read on ...)