The 2014 NBA Draft is probably the most anticipated draft since 2007. The expectations are high, and I have tried to soberly cover the most important aspects of it over the last year.
My own opinion of this draft class is slightly different than many scouts and draft experts. I think it’s a very deep draft, but I’m not convinced that there are multiple future superstars in this class. If I had to make a guess, I would say this draft class will be more similar to the deep draft class of 1999, as opposed to the superstar-laden class of 2003.
Joel Embiid's recent injury, unfortunately, helped confirm this feeling for me. Embiid was the one guy this year that seemed almost guaranteed to be a truly dominant NBA player if he could remain healthy. But the serious injury concerns surrounding Embiid knocked him off his mantle, and lumped him together with a handful of other very promising, but not incredible, top prospects.
With Embiid’s injury concerns, there’s no longer a large gap in quality between the five best prospects at the top of this draft. You could make a sound argument for any one of them being selected first. You could also make an argument for why each one of them could turn out to be a bust.
Here’s my list of the 20 best prospects in this draft, and where I would select them, with the caveat that I don’t have any information about their medical histories or personal dispositions. So much good stuff has already been written about these players by many different people, but I have added in a few words about each prospect to point out what may not been previously stressed enough:
1. It’s exceedingly difficult to know where to rank Joel Embiid without an informed medical opinion, which I don’t have. I still rank him first, although I’m reticent to do so, because a healthy Embiid is easily the best prospect in the draft, and the equal of Anthony Davis in terms of long-term potential.
It was surprising that more people did not realize how special Embiid was during the NCAA season. He clearly has the chance to be one of the best players in the game, and an all-time great. Embiid’s skill level can best be compared to Hakeem Olajuwon and David Robinson. No current true center in the NBA has his level of talent, and no player in this draft comes close to him in terms of upside.
But Embiid’s injury concerns are far too scary to dismiss. A broken bone in his back and foot within a few months of each other are terribly ominous signs. I don’t fear the worst, but I fear something that could be close to it. This might not be a Greg Oden scenario, but any situation at all comparable to that is mortifying to think about.
Still, Embiid is so good that even if I felt I was only going to get 5 years out of him at nearly full strength I would probably take him first. Several other prospects in this draft are exciting, but none seem to have the superstar potential that Embiid possesses.
We have to remember that Bill Walton was an MVP and led Portland to a championship before injuries decimated his prime. Likewise, centers such as Yao Ming and Zydrunas Ilgauskas had fantastic careers in spite of similar medical issues. If we expect Embiid to make substantial contributions before injuries derail his career, he unquestionably should be taken first. There’s not a Kevin Durant option in this draft, like there was in 2007 alongside Oden. If Embiid’s career is relatively short, but dominant, he’s a worthy #1 selection.
But, right now, only qualified medical specialists can appropriately speculate on Embiid’s long-term health. His murky medical situation makes this draft seem strangely incomplete, because we don’t know what doctors think about his expected injury risk over the next five to ten years. Hopefully the medical prognosis is at least somewhat positive and optimistic, but if it isn’t, then Embiid is too risky to be selected with one of the first few picks.
2. Jabari Parker is probably the safest option in the draft. He’s the prospect most likely to be an excellent pro for the next 15 years. His NBA future, in contrast to Embiid’s, seems reassuring to project.
In the first month of Parker’s freshman season, he looked to be the best player in college basketball. That’s a hell of a thing for an 18 year old to pull off. He proceeded to cool off a bit, but the fact that there were sustained stretches where Parker looked like Durant 2.0, in terms of freshman dominance, is an auspicious sign.
At 6’8” and 250 pounds, Parker’s athleticism is underrated for a player his size. He’s a big kid, and his exceptional feel for the game allows him to utilize his body offensively in ways that most forwards could never dream of doing. For a young player, his offensive game is staggeringly mature, and his scoring ability is at an elite level.
Parker’s defense isn’t good, but his skill level in that area isn’t as bad as advertised. He seems to have the drive and discipline to develop into a fine defensive player. If we want to be critical of Parker’s game, it’s just as easy to be discouraged by his poor passing numbers. He only had one game in 2014 where he recorded more than one assist, despite being the focal point of the Duke offense.
Nitpicking aside, Parker seems likely to be a stellar pro, and an offensive dynamo. The biggest fear I have is that his physical superiority will not be an overwhelmingly positive factor for him in the NBA. But that seems doubtful. Parker is a safe pick, and has the most star potential in this draft besides Embiid.
3. Marcus Smart challenges Parker for being the safest pick in the draft. Smart is 225 pounds with a 6’9” wingspan, and there are not many point guards in the NBA who can match him physically. Smart is a thick, strong guard who likes to defend and score by using his strength and size. That’s a hell of a skill to have when you’re that big, and it translates perfectly to the next level.
Defensively, Smart terrorized teams with his aggressive play at Oklahoma State. His rebounding and steal numbers are exceptional for a point guard. Offensively, his forceful aggression sometimes seemed reckless and unsettling for a floor general – but frankly, his bulldozer mentality worked well most of the time.
The main concern with Smart is whether he’s a point guard. I think he is. I also think he’ll grow into the position the way Chauncey Billups did, and gradually become a more refined offensive decision maker. But Smart should be a defensive monster right out of the gate, and be able to defend both guard positions effectively. While his game might appear aesthetically rough, Smart is likely to be an All-Star some day for that very reason.
4. Andrew Wiggins doesn’t look like the superstar he was purported to be, coming out of high school. That’s not a bad thing, just reality. Wiggins’ freshman year at Kansas was decent, but rarely spectacular. He put up solid numbers and had some big games, but there were few glimpses of sustained dominance like we saw with Embiid and Parker.
But Wiggins’ athleticism is legit. This is a superior athlete, even in an NBA setting. The question going forward is how well Wiggins will be able to use his exceptional physical abilities against pro players. He projects to be an excellent on-ball defender, and his explosiveness should allow him to score at a respectable rate. But will he ever be a consistently dominant force offensively? His freshman year showed no signs of that, even with all the athletic skills.
I think Wiggins will have a good career, but he’ll probably be a player more in the mold of Michael Finley than Tracy McGrady. The scary thing is that if his offensive game fails to develop much, which is possible, then Wiggins might not be all that impactful. With the first or second pick in the draft, that’s a substantial risk to be taking.
5. Dante Exum is mainly considered a top-tier prospect because he played very well against the best players in his age group last summer. That’s not a bad thing, but also not an ideal way to gauge a prospect that could be picked in the top three.
The general consensus that Exum is an elite prospect comes from those limited minutes against adequate competition, and the hope that he could be a huge 6’5” point guard in the NBA. So it’s difficult for me to rank Exum higher than here. The less I know, the more worried I become.
If Exum’s quickness, scoring touch and sense of the floor have been overstated because of the predominately weak competition he usually played against, we might be looking at a player who’s not as good as we expect.
But Exum’s positives are truly encouraging – he seems to have natural scoring ability, and his size is exceptional. I certainly can’t blame a team for selecting him early, especially if they have done their homework, but the unknown quality surrounding Exum is unnerving. Nonetheless, I like his chances of becoming a very good pro guard, and maybe a star.
6. Kyle Anderson is an exciting and unique prospect because of his passing ability. The “slow” pace of his game is much more of a plus than a minus – offensively he just breaks down his defender with his size and court vision and, defensively, his large frame allows him to cover the floor more nimbly than he’s credited for.
Anderson’s numbers are borderline outrageous for a 6’8” player – 15 points, 9 rebounds and 6.5 assists per game this year at UCLA. Players this big rarely can pass the ball like Anderson has proven he can. If a team can’t utilize his special skills in the NBA, it’s probably more of coaching issue than anything else. Anderson should have a long, solid career.
7. Like Anderson, his teammate at UCLA, Jordan Adams put up very impressive statistics in college. Considered non-athletic, he averaged 23 points, 7 rebounds, 3.5 steals and 3 assists per 40 minutes this season. Those numbers are simply superior to most shooting guards who are usually considered top prospects, and imply Adams' athleticism is better than advertised.
He might not end up being an amazing pro, but that is what the numbers indicate Adams should be. I trust the numbers enough to think at the very least he should be significantly productive at the next level.
8. Elfrid Payton has been rising up draft boards because of reportedly excellent workouts, but based on numbers alone he deserves to be selected in the top ten. Like Smart, Payton is an aggressive point guard who scores, rebounds and defends well.
Payton played at Louisiana-Lafayette, so questions about the competition he faced are valid, but advanced metrics peg him as one of the better point guard prospects of the last few years. The numbers could be wrong, but like in Adams’ case, they’re probably not completely wrong. Payton’s shooting stroke is dubious, but there’s enough promise in his game to overlook the flaws and select him early in the first round.
9. Relatively unproven, Clint Capela is an intriguing European prospect. At 6’10”, with freakish jumping ability and a huge wingspan, there are moments where Capela could be mistaken for a Swiss version of young Amare Stoudemire. That such a resemblance is there makes Capela deserving of being selected in the lottery.
Visceral explosiveness is one of the more intriguing skills a big man can have, and Capela has it. His numbers are solid and what you would expect – he scores well close to the basket, rebounds strongly, and blocks shots. Capela is raw, and maybe not ready for the NBA. But his upside is tremendously high, and that can’t be dismissed.
10. For such a young player, Aaron Gordon is an incredibly impressive defender. He led the NCAA in defensive win shares this year. However, I’m worried that his offense might never come close to his defense in the NBA, when he faces other elite athletes night after night.
Gordon is bigger, but he reminds me of how Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was considered as a prospect. Kidd-Gilchrist is clearly an excellent NBA defender, but there’s a good chance he will never develop into much more than that. Gordon has a higher upside than Kidd-Gilchrist – he’s both a great leaper and passer for his size – but his lack of offensive touch and shooting ability makes me doubtful he will become a star. Nonetheless, he seems likely to be a solid player in the league.
11. A renowned prospect in the Adriatic League the past few seasons, Dario Saric has already proven that he’s a hell of a player at high levels of European basketball, an impressive feat for a 20 year old. Unfortunately, he’ll be staying across the pond for at least another two years, which has to be considered a legitimate drawback for whatever team drafts him.
A 6’9” forward with excellent court awareness and ball-handling skills, Saric has the intelligence and physical skills necessary to affect all facets of the game. He possesses the flexibility for his position, an attribute you ideally want a forward to have. Saric can score, rebound, pass and defend, all at an above average level. The main concern is whether his European success will translate into NBA success, but with his all-encompassing game, there seems a strong chance it will. Despite not coming to the NBA for a few years, Saric deserves to be selected early.
12. Standing 6’11”, 280 pounds, Josuf Nurkic is one of the toughest prospects to gauge in this draft. The reason for that is in Europe, and specifically the Adriatic League, there simply are not many big men with the vertical explosiveness to effectively defend a player of Nurkic’s size. In the NBA, that will be a different story.
Nurkic’s thrives in playing a horizontal game, not a vertical one, and in Europe it has served him well. For a 19 year old he has a terrific offensive arsenal, and a real feel for how to score. His PER against decent competition is exceptional.
But Nurkic is not a leaper, and his girth might prove to be much less of a tool when he goes against the best athletes in the world. I fear we might be looking at a player more like Bryant “Big Country” Reeves than Nikola Peković. That is a risk worth taking in the lottery, however, because if Nurkic can figure out how to use his body against NBA big men, he could be a fantastic center.
13. After being dismissed from UNC, P.J. Hairston lit up the D-League this year, averaging 22 points a game over 26 contests. I consider this an accomplishment with merit, because the D-League has more athletic, mature defenders than the NCAA.
Hairston’s draft journey to this point has been unusual, and I don’t pretend to know the gritty details (frankly, I doubt most NBA teams even know them.) Regardless, Hairston is a 6’5”, 230 pound shooting guard – his physical package and scoring skills alone warrant him being selected in the lottery, no matter what path he took to get here.
14. Noah Vonleh is another young freshman with impressive size. He rebounds very well, and has shown a touch from the perimeter. But there is something awkward about his game, and that seems unlikely to go away. When compared to Capela’s fluidity, Vonleh often seems stuck in quicksand, and he turns the ball over too much.
However, because he’s only 18, it’s easy to see Vonleh outgrow some of his awkwardness and become a more refined player, particularly offensively. Like with Gordon, though, I’m skeptical about him being able to evolve to the point where his game becomes complete enough for him to be considered a star forward. There are too many players in the NBA with similar skills for that to likely happen.
15. At 6’9”, 240 pounds, with a 7’4” wingspan, Adreian Payne certainly has the look of an effective NBA big man. The 23 year old stayed four years at Michigan State under Tom Izzo, and in this case, that can be seen as a positive as much as a negative.
Because of his maturity, Payne sometimes seemed a man against boys this season (for instance, he scored 41 points in 24 minutes in Michigan State’s first game of the NCAA tournament.) To what extent his physical dominance will translate to the next level is questionable, but the fact that he developed a perimeter game at his size means that Payne’s upside is probably higher than most people think. I might have him ranked too low.
16. T.J. Warren is one of those fun players who scores profusely in college. When you average 25 points a game in the ACC, as a 6’8” sophomore forward, you deserve draft attention.
The problem for Warren is whether his innate scoring ability will be enough to carry him to serious NBA success. While he has been magnificent at putting the ball in the basket, nothing else about Warren’s game tends to stand out. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but it does make you pause. Warren rebounds, defends and shoots threes at only an adequate level. In college, that was fine. In the NBA, I’m not so sure it will be, but am looking forward to finding how Warren develops as a pro.
17. Considered one of the top prospects in the draft by some people, Julius Randle strikes me as a grinding power forward in the pros. That’s a useful player to have on your team, but not worthy of a top 10 pick, especially if reports of a medical issue in his foot are valid.
Randle’s strongest skill is his tenacity. He’s bullish on the glass, and likewise will force his way to the hoop to score. But he’s not long for a power forward, and players like him - who don’t block many shots or collect many steals in college - usually are not good pros. Randle’s numbers in those two categories is very low, and a legitimate reason for concern.
18. At 7’5”, 360 pounds, Sim Bhullar is literally the huge sleeper in this draft, and his main problem is that he may never be given a real chance to showcase his skills in the NBA.
Players of Bhullar’s size are rare, and they affect the geometry of games in ways that are hard to calculate. Having that much size in the middle of the floor is disruptive in any level of basketball, including the NBA. However, scouts seem to ignore this fact to focus on his negative qualities, so Bhullar might go undrafted.
Averaging 16 points, 12 rebounds, 5 blocks and 2 assists per 40 minutes this season for New Mexico State, Bhullar has an excellent sense of the court for a player his size. He is a sufficiently skilled big man, not an unrefined project. In the NBA, he should still be able to regularly overpower players, and be a consistent force in the middle of the paint, as long as his minutes are kept in check. With his physical makeup, Bhullar does not need to play 25 minutes a night to be a highly useful part of a roster. He could be an ideal bench piece for a team that knows how to take advantage of size and floor spacing.
19. Russ Smith is the opposite of Bhullar – he’s considered a bit too small to be taken seriously as a guard in the NBA. But such thinking strikes me at foolish – at 6’0”, 160 pounds Smith is indeed small, but there are other effective small players in the league.
Players like Earl Boykins, Nate Robinson and Isaiah Thomas have taught us that it’s unwise to undervalue small guards who have elite skills such as Smith. His career at Louisville was illustrious and, as it went on, Smith evolved into being more of a playmaker than just a pure scorer. According to Ken Pomeroy’s ratings, he has been the best college basketball player in the country in each of the last two seasons.
Smith should be able provide instant offense and defense off a NBA team’s bench. My only concern with his size is the possibly heightened injury risk, but that concern is minor. Smith will likely be a second round steal.
20. K.J. McDaniels is another great athlete. He blocked almost 3 shots per game last year for Clemson, despite being only 6’5”, 195 pounds. That’s an impressive feat, and a prime example of a prospect proving his athleticism in a tangible way on the stat sheet.
The hope with McDaniels is that his superior leaping ability and speed will translate into a defensive prowess in the pros, and that his offense can be carried along with it. He’s skinny and perhaps without a defined position, but reportedly has the work effort and motor to make up for those shortcomings. His improvements during his junior season at Clemson helps back up those claims.