Ranking The Tourney’s Top Forwards
People say the NCAA Tournament is all about guard play. Well, there are a lot of slashers, bangers and shooters who would care to disagree because there is so much depth at both forward spots it is hard to separate them. When talking about NBA tendencies at either forward spots, it comes down to several factors. It starts with strength and length. In order to be able to step in and handle the grind of an NBA season a player needs to be strong enough, and in order to score and defend, a prospect separates themselves from others with release points on jump shots and overall wingspan. A player who is 6’7 and strong but can’t shoot is difficult to project in the same way a 6’10 player who is 200 lbs is. The power forward position is the deepest position in this upcoming draft in terms of NBA-ready contributors and teams will get great value later in the first round. Here are forward prospects to keep an eye on.
Harrison Barnes (North Carolina) – 6’8, 210lbs
Barnes struggled throughout the course of the season blending in with the rest of his teammates. It was a point guard change that really helped him get comfortable in half court sets and the rest was history as the Heels surged to the top of the ACC. Think a right-handed, younger Calbert Cheaney, who was a three-time All-American and National Player of the Year at Indiana. Both were smooth, talented, polished, and incredibly efficient at the college level (the Cheaney comparison is not a projection of his NBA career.)
Terence Jones (Kentucky) – 6’8, 200lbs
What Jones lacks in strength he makes up for in length and athleticism. He has all the tools as well as great craftiness going left. A Big East coach once said he’d never lose a game if he started 5 lefties. One of a few players in the tournament with rebounding/end-to-end finishing ability, including a polished the pull up jump shot off the dribble, Jones can also beat you in the post with shifty and elusive fakes. A truly gifted scorer.
Kawhi Leonard (San Diego State) – 6’7, 225lbs
Shot selection and shooting ability are two big question marks with Leonard, but his motor is unmatched. He just wants it more than anyone else, particularly on the glass. It is hard to quantify that at the next level, but if relentless were a metric Leonard would score extremely high.
Chris Singleton (Florida State) – 6’9, 225lbs
What you have to love most about Singleton is his strength, but in watching him in the ACC over the past three years his willingness to improve his weaknesses also stands out. Regarded as a pure athlete coming out of high school, he has improved his shooting ability every year. This year he averaged almost 40% from three-point range, moving him away from that "tweener" forward tag to a more valued "combo" forward.
Kris Joseph (Syracuse) – 6’7, 210lbs
Before his injury mid-season the Orange were undefeated at the time. Joseph brings stability, leadership and most of all big shots to a team as dangerous as any in the tournament. Joseph may be the most NBA-ready of the small forwards in this class, much like another ‘Cuse grad was last year – Wes Johnson, now with the Minnesota Timberwolves. They are different players, but both ready to step in and contribute if given the right situation.
Honorable mention: Jordan Hamilton (Texas) Khris Middleton (Texas A&M); Jeffery Taylor (Vanderbilt); Kyle Singler (Duke); Justin Holiday (Washington); Gilbert Brown (Pitt); Tyler Honeycutt (UCLA)
Jared Sullinger (Ohio State) – 6’8, 250lbs
Sullinger’s mid-range jump shot is what separates him from recent impact freshman bigs. He’s not a tremendous athlete, but he relies on angles and his body for positioning and always wins the matchup. That’s key since most power forwards try to rely on athleticism in the NBA only to find everyone is a great athlete. It is true that if he were 6’10 he’s the no-brainer #1 overall pick, but with his post defense and 15-foot shooting range, he is an impact player at the next level immediately.
JaJuan Johnson (Purdue) – 6’10, 215lbs
People wonder about his frame and his strength, but it’s hard to argue with Johnson’s resume in a grind-it-out conference like the Big Ten. Big East aside, the Big Ten was the most grueling conference this year. He’s a rim protector first – see 17 rebounds and seven blocks a few weeks ago against Michigan State – who can finish around the hoop as well as anyone in the nation. He’s improved every aspect of his game including his free throw percentage, making him that much more efficient around the basket. Range is an issue, but not even close to a deal breaker for this All-American.
Derrick Williams (Arizona ) – 6’8, 240lbs
Williams is perhaps the most polarizing prospect at any position. Covering Mike D’Antoni’s system with the New York Knicks for three years now it’s easy to see Williams being a great "stretch four," or a player who can guard fours and make three-pointers. He has range, but often doesn’t shoot enough because he can take it to the rim with power and speed. He can also get you second opportunities and makes strong baskets inside. As his career progresses, Williams should learn to lean on his gifted shooting touch and could be a highly-efficient NBA player for years to come.
Kenneth Faried (Morehead State) – 6’8, 215lbs
Faried is a fantastic effort and energy player. Put this into perspective at the next level: he is the same height as Lebron James, and is giving up 35 pounds. He’ll need to put weight on his frame if he’s going to play that style in the NBA night in and night out, but if he brings the intensity and energy, he’s a player every NBA team would want. Scouts want to see him get Morehead State out of the first round by dominating the game.
Justin Harper (Richmond) – 6’10, 225lbs
From a skill-set perspective the first thing that comes to mind when watching Harper is Channing Frye in terms of frame and shooting touch. Harper plays with a little more edge than Frye, and any team looking for size and range should look hard at the Spiders’ senior leader. Six double-digit rebounding games all season is a little alarming for a guy 6’10, but his size and range can really stretch NBA defenses. He’s had 15 games where he’s made 3 three-pointers or more.
Honorable Mention: Marcus Morris (Kansas); Thomas Robinson (Kansas); Mason Plumlee (Duke); Trey Thompkins (Georgia); Tobias Harris (Tennessee); Jon Henson (UNC); Patric Young (Florida); Kevin Jones (West Virginia) and Tristan Thompson (Texas).
Make sure to check back tomorrow morning for Tommy Dee’s rankings of the top point guards and shooting guards in the tournament featuring Duke’s Kyrie Irving and UConn’s Kemba Walker! Click here to view his rankings of the tournament’s top centers. You can find our complete coverage of the 2011 tournament at our March Madness headquarters. Coverage is brought to you by the United States Marines.