NBA Sunday: Who Are This Draft’s Sleepers?
Checking Out This Draft’s Potential Sleeper Picks
Because of March Madness, there are a number of players every year that we come into the draft already knowing everything about. The army of NBA prospects pouring forth from Kentucky and North Carolina, for example, are no mystery to even casual pro hoops fans. Same goes for Jared Sullinger and Thomas Robinson, and probably the kids from Baylor (Quincy Miller and Perry Jones), UConn (Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb), and Syracuse (Dion Waiters and Fab Melo). We’ve watched these guys play on national television several times, so we know what they’re all about.
Outside of these power schools from these power conferences, however, are a number of young men with plenty of NBA talent but not a lot of publicity. Plenty of big-name talent has come from lesser known and less successful schools in the past, and this year will be no different. Here’s a look at some of the more talented kids you may have never heard of:
Damian Lillard, PG, Weber State – His name might not be as recognizable as Kentucky’s Marquis Teague or UNC’s Kendall Marshall, but Damian Lillard will be the first point guard selected on June 28th. That’s because he’s got exactly the same kind of game that has made players like Russell Westbrook and Derrick Rose so successful. He’s not quite as big as those guys at 6’2”, but he is extremely athletic, shoots the ball very well, and loves to attack the basket. Lillard is one of the better scorers in this draft, and adding that to the fact that there is a serious dearth of point guards in this class means Lillard is practically guaranteed to be a top-10 pick. He could go as high to Portland at #6, but it’s hard to see him slipping past New Orleans at #10. Toronto is reportedly considering a point guard at #8, as well.
Arnett Moultrie, PF, Mississippi State – Every time I do a mock draft, I find myself thinking what an ideal fit Moultrie would be with the Boston Celtics, but I’ve been told by a couple of different really smart people that it’s doubtful he falls all the way to #21. While Mississippi State did see the Top 25 at times earlier in the NCAA season, they also weren’t exactly a Cinderella team in the tournament, so Moultrie has gone largely unnoticed by fans in what proved to be a very good season for the UTEP transfer. He didn’t play at all last season because of the move, but at his new school he’s been a force. At 6’11” he’s got some of the best size in the draft, and he’s also incredibly athletic and effective in a number of different offensive situations. He’s also one of the best free-throw shooters in the draft, an oddity considering how big he is, and he’s both an excellent offensive rebounder and a terrific alley-ooper. I’ve been told his floor is #19 to the Orlando Magic, who could certainly use some depth at the 4/5 spots moving forward.
Moe Harkless, SF, St. John’s – While some of last year’s college freshmen will contribute to their new teams immediately, Harkless is probably considered more of a long-term project. He’s got a terrific NBA frame and loads of talent, but he’s still a very raw prospect and has some work to do on his shot and in the weight room before he’s really be an everyday NBA player. Despite all that, this kid has proven he’s got a knack for scoring the ball, and teams at the end of the lottery through the end of the teens will be very interested in snatching this kid up and prepping him for the bigs. Philadelphia, for example, is one such interested party at #15, though he is by no means a lock to end up there.
Andrew Nicholson, PF, St. Bonaventure – Nicholson is the kind of player teams trade up for, and with several teams picking in the 20s reportedly very interested in the young man, that’s a real possibility. What has teams looking to steal this kid away, though? Put as simply as possible, he’s got one of the most impressive arrays of post moves of any player in the draft. He’s also developed a respectable offensive game away from the block, which has many scouts drooling over Nicholson’s potential. He carried a lot of the load for St. Bonaventure last season, and there are several NBA teams hoping he can be equally productive when asked to work those talents into a more well-balanced offense.
Royce White, PF, Iowa State – While most of us know Royce White at this point as “The Guy Who’s Scared to Fly,” it should be noted that had things gone differently he might have been a Kentucky Wildcat. That was almost the school to which he transferred after early problems at Minnesota, but anxiety and a certain string of events ended him up at Iowa State, where he still managed to show NBA scouts how good he is. For starters, White is huge. He’s 6’8” and 260 pounds of pure muscle, but he also moves well and is extremely versatile offensively. Despite the fact that this is a young man who has issues flying, he’s still projected as a late first-rounder. That should give you a sense of how good he is.
Orlando Johnson, SG, UC Santa Barbara – Mid-major players don’t typically get a whole lot of love in the first round of the draft, but Johnson is generally considered the best shooter of that group of schools, and his polished overall offensive game has put him on the map for a lot of NBA teams picking at the end of the first round and the beginning of the second round. That’s where this senior is expected to end up, and with his ability to score the ball, there’s a chance he could be one of those came-out-of-nowhere kids that occasionally spills forth from that area of the draft.
Evan Fournier, SF, France – It’s widely believed at this point that Fournier will be the only international prospect taken in the first round of this year’s draft, which just goes to show how far we’ve come since the days when overseas players were all the rage. It’s not often you see a 19-year-old handle professional European competition as well as Fournier has, and the amount of growth he showed from 18 to 19 got a lot of scouts curious about how much he’ll continue to develop once he gets to the NBA. He’s got solid NBA size and guard ball-handling skills in a small forward’s body. He can score, and he’s going to get better, which is why he’ll be the only European kid taken in the first round this year.
There are more, of course, most of whom are headed for the second round, and unless you’re an expert or at least a die-hard NCAA fan, there’s no way for you to know the ins and outs of every single player in this draft. The guys listed above, however, all have very good opportunities to be first-rounders, and after reading this you at least know who they are. They might not have gone to schools with massive TV audiences, but they do have massive talent. Pretty soon, they’ll have the opportunity to prove it in the NBA.
Jeff Green The Second-Best Unrestricted Free Agent?
This feels like a distant memory, but it was only about six months ago when Jeff Green found out about a heart condition that would keep him from playing this entire season. It was only about five months ago that he received the surgery that repaired the aneurysm, but now Green’s agent, David Falk, is saying his client is at 100% and ready to enter the offseason as a highly-coveted unrestricted free agent.
“With the possible exception of (Brooklyn point guard) Deron Williams, I think that Jeff will probably be the No. 1 unrestricted free agent on the market,” Falk told SI’s Sam Amick. “It’s not like we have LeBron (James) and (Dwyane) Wade and all these guys floating around.4
“I’d be very surprised if Deron Williams winds up anywhere besides Dallas or New Jersey (Brooklyn). So the next guy in the pecking order is Jeff Green.”
The way things fell apart with the Celtics was truly unfortunate, but if Green truly is healthy Falk is right that he’ll be one of the more highly-coveted players on the market this summer. While players like Eric Gordon, O.J. Mayo, Roy Hibbert, and JaVale McGee are likely to generate more interest than Green, those guys are all restricted. The unrestricted pool is filled with older players. Ray Allen, Kevin Garnett, Jason Kidd, Steve Nash, Tim Duncan, and Gerald Wallace are the other top names on that list. Big names, but not young enough to warrant big interest for a long-term contract.
Back in December, Green had a $9 million qualifying offer from the Celtics, which they understandably withdrew when that heart issue surfaced. Now, Green enters a market in which cap space is as available as it’s been in years and promising young power forwards aren’t exactly spilling forth like water from a faucet.
His suitors should start with Boston, who might be losing Kevin Garnett to retirement and Brandon Bass to free agency. They look like as ideal a suitor as Green could have, and that’s a place he’d love to return to.
“I know that (the Celtics) want Jeff to come back, from (general manager) Danny (Ainge) to the owners to Doc and to his teammates,” Falk said. “He loves Boston. We’re waiting to see what happens with KG, what happens with Ray…There are other teams that could be very, very interesting to him around the league that will also have cap room.”
Those teams could include Brooklyn, Charlotte, and Sacramento—three rebuilding teams that have holes at one or both forward positions next year. The Nets might not bring back Kris Humphries or Gerald Wallace, the Kings need a three and are looking for an athletic four to pair with DeMarcus Cousins, and the Bobcats need help pretty much everywhere. All three organizations have plenty of cap space, as well as the need for Green. They (as well as Boston) are likely to come calling, but so are several other interested teams.
Wherever he ends up, know that he’ll be glad just to be playing basketball again. It hasn’t been an easy six months for this kid, and whatever contract he gets, he’ll deserve, if for no other reason than pain and suffering.
“He had something that he loves almost taken away from him. I truly believe that — more than any pep talk from (his former Georgetown) coach (John) Thompson or from (Celtics coach) Doc Rivers, I think that the experience will give him a much greater sense of urgency on the court. I think he’ll be better than ever, because I think he’ll be much more focused on getting the job done,” Falk said.
Hopefully that’s the case, and hopefully this offseason’s free agency period is kinder to Green than last offseason’s was.