Star quality lacking in June draft
There is no John Wall or Derrick Rose-like favorite heading into this year's draft
Kyrie Irving, Jonas Valunciunas, Jared Sullinger, Perry Jones hold most appeal
Other topics: Jim O'Brien, Larry Bird on Rajon Rondo, most expensive players
There are seasons when it pays to be bad. The Wizards were rewarded last year with John Wall, as were the Clippers two years ago with Blake Griffin and the Bulls in 2008 with Derrick Rose. The last four drafts have produced at least one elite prospect, but that trend appears to be braking to a full stop now.
"This is not a year to have the No. 1 pick in the draft," a team president said.
Added a team executive with a successful track record in the draft: "I can't tell you who the top-five picks are. I don't see how anyone in this group can be distinguished right now."
North Carolina's Harrison Barnes was viewed as a potential No. 1 pick before the college season, but the 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 13.1 points and shooting 40.4 percent as a freshman.
"I still like Harrison Barnes, he'll be fine," another team executive said. "He was a can't-miss, jab-step, get-to-the-rim guy -- but now he's strictly a jump-shooter, and we're all trying to figure out why. It's crazy."
Another potential No. 1 pick from the ACC is Duke freshman point guard Kyrie Irving, even though he played only eight games before suffering a toe injury that may cost him the remaining season.
"Maybe it helps him not to be seen," an executive said. "He'll be a very good point guard, like a shorter Deron Williams. He'll get to the rim and set people up."
Said a longtime scout: "He's still going to go in the top three of the draft. He's not the electric athlete that a John Wall or a Derrick Rose is, and I don't want to compare him to Chris Paul, because Irving is similar in size but he's not as thick. This kid is very cerebral, he keeps the ball on a string and he's a better shooter today than Chris Paul was coming out."
Notice that no one is saying anything exceptional about the 6-2 Irving. If a team picks him No. 1, aren't the fans going to expect the next coming of Wall or Rose?
"He doesn't have the overdrive athleticism you associate with the No. 1 pick," said yet another team executive. "You're not going to be blown away by his size or his speed. He'll be a solid player at a position that is hard to fill."
What happens -- or doesn't happen -- over the remaining two months of the NCAA season and tournament will carry less importance than the NBA workouts that take place in the weeks leading up to the June 23 draft. Because the top of this draft is so young and indistinguishable, the crucial investigations will be performed by teams as they challenge and test and compare players in private workouts. Not until May and June will the order of this draft begin to take shape.
"The postseason process when you're kicking their tires in a private workout -- the importance of that time is going to be heightened this year," a scout said. "Just because a guy makes a couple of shots on CBS some Thursday afternoon in March, I'm not going to go by that. I'm more likely to go by what I see in the workouts."
A group of candidates with the potential to be top-four picks in the draft include (in no particular order) Irving, Jonas Valanciunas, Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones.
One executive believes the 18-year-old Valanciunas, a 6-11, 240-pound center with the Lithuanian club Lietuvos Rytas, will emerge as the top pick.
"He's the best thing I've seen out of that country since [Zydrunas] Ilgauskas," the executive said. "He has a very good basketball IQ, he's tough, he can score, and over the last two years he has made the kind of jump you're looking for. He can shoot, but he can also be a traditional back-to-the-basket center, the way you like centers to be. He's different from [the Raptors' Andrea] Bargnani in that he's a legitimate post player.''
Sullinger is a 6-9, 280-pound power forward with Ohio State.
"He's an undersized power forward who is built like Danny Fortson -- long arms, big hands, looks overweight with a huge butt, but he's really skilled," an executive said. "He doesn't have great lift and may lead the league in having his shot blocked, but he's resilient. He's a better shooter and better passer than Glen Davis was at LSU."
Jones is a 6-10, 220-pound freshman at Baylor. One executive criticized his energy level, but another raved about his talent.
"He's a Kevin Garnett type with a body that's really long and athletic," he said. "He doesn't have the spirit that Garnett had -- he's not going to kick your butt every possession and get every rebound. This guy is more finesse-oriented, and he has a long way to go to learn the game. But in terms of sheer talent, he's breathtaking. Maybe he does become Garnett or [Tracy] McGrady, because he's that gifted, and you know how we draft for potential."
I've yet to hear a scout decry this as a bad draft. For teams picking outside the top four or five, there will be opportunities to steal a player who can contribute to the rotation or may even bloom to become, in hindsight, the best talent in the draft. There aren't necessarily any great players, but there are a lot of good prospects.
"That's why I could see one of those NFL-formula trades, where a team trades Nos. 3 and 31 for Nos. 17, 21 and 29," a team executive said. "This could be the year to trade back like that."
In the meantime, teams will look forward to the postseason workouts, when they can take a closer look at intriguing prospects like 6-8 sophomore power forward Derrick Williams of Arizona; or 6-10, 262-pound 18-year-old center Enes Kanter, who has been ruled ineligible at Kentucky; or European big men Donatas Motiejunas (a 7-foot, 215-pound Lithuanian with Benetton Treviso) and Jan Vesely (a 6-11, 240-pound Slovakian with Partizan Belgrade).
"If you're picking outside the elite bubble, it's a decent draft," an executive said. "You can get a good player between Nos. 8 and 15."