With regular season play winding down and with Tournament season right around the corner, it’s time to start looking at the best NBA prospects playing at the college level right now. After a strong 2009 crop, the 2010 Draft was rather weak and hasn’t produced more than a handful of difference makers this season. Sadly, things don’t look to be much better for the 2011 NBA Draft. In fact, one NBA scout told ESPN’s Ryen Russillo that this was the worst draft class in the past 25 years. You can tell that some NBA teams have already come to this realization as the Nets and the Clippers both traded top-10 picks at the deadline.
Other than the lack of depth in this class, which is the biggest issue as teams outside of the top 10 aren’t likely to get anybody that will produce an average PER as a rookie, there is also a lack of a slam dunk first round pick to make things look better than they are. John Wall’s star power coming out of Kentucky made the 2010 Draft’s public perception go up simply because he was the number one overall pick and he was pretty darn good. This year, there is no John Wall or Blake Griffin that is a lock to go first overall, making the lottery a bit more interesting because anybody considered to be a lottery talent could go first overall as there is little separation between the best players in the country.
All that being said, here are the top seven prospects in the 2011 class that are currently playing college basketball (I’ll have to spend more time watching film on the European players in order to get a feel for them).
Perry Jones – 6’11″, 235 pounds, Baylor Bears – Small Forward
Jones is my favorite player in the class for a number of reasons. I got a chance to see him play some AAU ball after his senior year in Las Vegas and he was an absolute monster. He displayed incredible athleticism, court vision and a rim protector. At Baylor, he’s been subjected to playing more at the four and five, which is normally where’d you see a six-foot-11 kid playing in college, but in the NBA he will definitely be a small forward. We’ve seen someone with that height succeed before with Kevin Durant but Jones will enter into the league as a much better ball handler with Durant, placing him more in the LeBron mold as a point forward.
His shooting stroke is questionable at this point though he hasn’t had the freedom to try his luck from deep as a power forward/center at Baylor. He’s made just one of his eight three point attempts and he’s shooting just 32% on jumpshots this season. The flip side is that Jones, who was an initiator in high school, has gone into the post this season and has faired pretty well. He’s changed his game this season and added a dimension to his game that can only serve him well in the pro’s and the best part is that Jones has made the transition without putting up a fit.
Jones will be able to get back to his natural wing position in the pro’s, which means he can attack the basket off the dribble, find open shooters and finish at the basket all while possessing the ability to post-up as well. If he’s able to get his jumpshot down, then he’ll be a pretty complete forward. Defensively, Jones has done a pretty good job on big men in college and in high school he was a premier shotblocker because of his athleticism. While being his complete opposite on offense, Jones is very similar to Durant on the defensive end – he’ll need some work just like Durant did but he’s long, lanky and athletic and will be able to make a difference while guarding opposing team’s small and power forwards.
The catch with Jones is that he’ll likely take a couple of years to develop but with his size and skills he could truly be a unique talent once he’s done maturing physically. As someone that will be attending Baylor next fall, I’d love to see Jones stay, but another season playing out of position (even though he’d be getting more minutes) may not be the best move for Jones. If he entered the NBA draft this year, he’d get a chance to play small forward off the bench and if he were drafted by a team like the Cleveland Cavaliers, he’d even have a chance to start at some point in the year.
Terrence Jones – 6’9″, 230 pounds, Kentucky Wildcats – Small Forward
Jones is an all-around player that I would compare to another Terrence that recently came out of college – Terrence Williams of Louisville. Jones is a long small forward that can handle the ball, drive and rebound. He’s not as good of a passer as Williams and his shooting stroke is not as good as Williams’ was as a senior but Jones can certainly score, rebound and defend.
The freshman is currently averaging 17.6 points and 9.1 rebounds for the Wildcats while shooting a respectable 46% from the field. Jones will have to work on getting a three-point stroke down, he’s shooting the deep ball at just 30%, in order to become a complete offensive threat and his free throw shooting is below average (67%). Right now he’s a slasher that can penetrate into the lane and crash the offensive glass for easy putbacks. Defensively, he’s a bit better than Williams thanks to his longer frame and he’s done an excellent job defending three’s and four’s in college.
Jones will likely play a similar role in the NBA as he does in college. He’s going to be a small forward that fights hard on the glass, gets in to the lane and defends. Think of him as a bit more polished Al-Farouq Aminu.
Photo Credit: Icon SMI
Derrick Williams – 6’8″, 241 pounds, Arizona Wildcats – Forward
Williams is going to be a very valuable asset to whatever team drafts him because of his extreme versatility. While Perry and Terrence Jones are in the point forward role, which is one made for versatile players, Williams takes it a step further. He has played both small and power forward at Arizona and he’s been effective at both positions. He’s done his work on the block to score and he’s shot a potentially record setting 63% from three-point range. Offensively, he can spread the floor – he’s hit 23 of his 57 jumpshots this season, which works out to the best percentage in the nation this season – and he can do work in the post. In that regard, he reminds you of Rasheed Wallace, albiet five inches shorter.
Defensively, Williams has also impressed, especially as a post defender. He’ll definitely need to add a bit of size to defend the likes of NBA power forwards on the block but in college he’s done an excellent job of establishing position on his man and has used his nimble feet and active hands to wreak havoc. Williams is a smart defender, and it’s those kinds of players that tend to make the transition from college to the pro’s a bit more smoothly. Instead of being a dominant shot blocker that relies on his athleticism on a thief at point guard that abuses lesser guards, Williams has grasped the nuances of the game and his defensive technique is solid for a sophomore in college.
Williams will need to become a better passer out of the post if he ends up playing the undersized power forward role in the NBA permanently and his mid-range game is not at the same level as his three-point shooting. Other than that, Williams looks like a very solid NBA prospect that can contribute at either forward position and could wind up being a much better version of Jeff Green – undersized power forward that spends some time at the three and hits open three’s.
Harrison Barnes – 6’8″, 215 pounds, North Carolina Tar Heels – Small Forward
Over the summer when Barnes was playing with the USA Junior National Select Team his poise late in games and vast array of ways to score had many people calling him the next Kobe Bryant. Those that bought into the hype have to be hiding their heads at this point as Barnes has been one of the biggest disappointments in college basketball this season. Big time recruit heading into the North Carolina, that normally sounds like a narrative for success, but instead Barnes has averaged just 14 points and six rebounds a game this year while shooting only 40% from the field and 32% from three.
Barnes’ play of late has been encouraging but overall it looks as if Barnes, who seemed to be the consensus #1 pick before the season began, would benefit from staying an extra year at UNC. Barnes has been merely average in every facet of the game offensively and he’s only made 59 of his 125 jumpshots this season (32%). Perhaps a strong tournament run for the Tar Heels and Barnes will help lift his stock but in the long run I’m not sure if that’s the best move for Barnes, who definitely needs to work on his game before he’s ready to make the jump to the pro’s.
Based on what I saw out of him before he got to UNC, he certainly has potential, but I think he needs another year to work out the kinds in college. If he decides to make the jump this summer, he’ll likely follow the same career path that Paul George has this year – spending the majority of the year on the bench before an opportunity arises.
Jared Sullinger – 6’9″, 280 pounds, Ohio State Buckeyes – Power Forward
Sullinger presents a contrast to the rest of the group, which so far has been athletic forwards. Sullinger plays a grounded game, using his big and wide body to score on the block with ease against smaller and overmatched college opponents. He may not be as flashy as any of the other players I’ve mentioned but when was the last time you saw someone with a legit set of post moves in college that you could dump the ball down to and get a score more than 50% of the time? Sullinger’s combination of strength and skills makes him an all-around beast on the block that will be able to work in the post once he gets to the pro’s. His footwork is top notch for a freshman in college and he’s ambidextrous at the basket once he makes his move.
With his wide frame and large body, Sullinger reminds me of Glen Davis and DeJuan Blair but with a better offensive game than either of the two when they came out of college. Davis and Blair were mainly garbage players in college that would clean up the mess on the boards and score their points with offensive putbacks. Sullinger does his fair share of work on the boards while also possessing an effective hook shot that he gets off over his left shoulder as well as the bulk to back his man all the way underneath the basket. Davis has recently added a mid-range jumper to his game, which is the next step for Sullinger on the offensive end. He is a pretty good pick and roll player but when it comes to the pick and pop game or just spot-up opportunities, Sullinger has struggled to hit the open 16-footer.
Sullinger’s biggest challenge coming into the pro’s will be defending power forwards around the league. He’s not very athletic and his mobility is limited, which hampers his ability to be a shotblocking threat or go out onto the perimeter to check a guy like LaMarcus Aldridge or Lamar Odom. Sullinger has been an average defender at the college level, which is a bad sign considering the level of competition he is facing. He’s been solid on the post because his size allows him to body up well but against pick and rolls he’s been very bad and when you consider how may pick and rolls are run over the course of an NBA game, there’s obviously a large reason for concern, there.
I like Sullinger and I think he’ll enter the league as someone as valuable as a DeJuan Blair and he could potentially end up being Al Jefferson – a complete post player with some range on his jumpshot – without the injury concerns but with the defensive issues.
Kyrie Irving – 6’2″, 180 pounds, Duke Blue Devils – Point Guard
Irving is the biggest unknown in the class because he got hurt just nine games into his freshman campaign. In those nine games, Irving showed plenty of reasons why he should be considered a top five pick in this draft. He’s an exceptional athlete that dominates games with his ability to penetrate into the lane and score. His ability get by the initial defender is similar to that of John Wall and like Wall, Irving’s quickness is his biggest asset.
A serious injury to the big toe on his right foot has caused him to miss the majority of this season and there’s no way to know if that injury will effect his speed once he returns to the floor. Duke is playing it safe with Irving and aren’t asking him to return too soon to keep his NBA stock in tact. It will be interesting to see if Irving decides to enter into the NBA Draft despite playing just nine collegiate games. He’ll still be a top five pick so long as he shows he’s in the right physical form during pre-draft workouts simply because of the potential he holds.
It’s not as if playing college basketball is all that necessary for players that have already found out how to use their physical tools, so it won’t be surprising if he does decide to leave Duke – remember, he’d likely lose his starting point guard job to Austin Rivers anyways.
Jimmer Fredette – 6’2″, 195 pounds, BYU Cougars – Point Guard
Here’s where things get weird in college basketball and it’s one of the main reasons why I don’t like the sport. Jimmer Fredette is considered by most as the best player in the country and is likely going to win the National Player of the Year Award. But does that really matter? Duke won the National Championship last year but they didn’t have anybody on their roster that will make a big difference in the NBA. Gordon Hayward was the best player for Butler last season and he’s been horrible for the Jazz this year even though they wasted a lottery pick on him. So being best player or being on the best team in the nation in college basketball doesn’t really matter.
Fredette may be scoring 27.3 points per game for BYU but he’s also shooting 19 shots per game and he has the benefit of the shorter three-point line. I’m not saying Fredette isn’t good, I’m just saying that his numbers can be misleading. He can definitely shoot the ball, he can create for others and he can finish some crazy shots at the rim. But he’s also undersized for the two guard position and doesn’t have point guard instincts. He’s a poor defender and there’s little reason to believe his NBA coach is going to let him shoot 25 foot three’s at his leisure when he gets the pro’s.
Fredette will end up being a lottery pick simply because he’s going to average the most points per game in the country while being apart of such a weak draft class. But the case is still out on Fredette and how he’ll fare in the NBA when he’s forced to play within a system instead being allowed to isolate at all times while also having to defend an NBA point or shooting guard, which is something I don’t think he can do.
After learning a bit about the players in this class you may not think that the 2011 NBA Draft will be all that bad but each and every one of these guys has their faults and every one of them except Fredette is an underclassmen that can choose to go back to school, which will be a more attractive option than ever next season with the possibility of a lockout looming over the NBA.