On the eve of Thursday evening's NBA draft, there's as much mystery about how the top of the draft will shake out as there has been any year in recent memory. Below are my answers to some of the biggest remaining questions entering this year's draft, all of which are sure to be correct ... uh ... unless they aren't.
1. Everyone complains every year that the draft pool is weak. Is it really true this year?
For once, the annual refrain appears to have some truth to it – especially at the top of the draft. There's no surefire 10-year all-star among the potential top picks, all of whom have holes in their games.
Nerlens Noel has the potential to be an elite defensive big man, but he doesn't have the the offensive repertoire to be a traditional No. 1 overall pick. Alex Len boasts a wealth of offensive talent, but he was seldom dominant at Maryland. Trey Burke lacks elite athleticism for a point guard his size, Ben McLemore's killer instinct late in games and ability to create off the dribble are question marks and Anthony Bennett sometimes didn't seem to have the desire to match his talent, especially on defense.
The one thing this draft doesn't lack, however, is point guard or big man depth. Teams seeking a capable point guard or a serviceable backup big man can find one deep into the second round, perhaps even as an undrafted free agent in the case of Saint Mary's star Matthew Dellavedova or BYU standout Brandon Davies.
2. So who should go No. 1 overall then?
If reports are true that Cleveland has narrowed its options to Noel or Len, then Noel would be my pick. Yes, he's coming off a torn ACL in his left knee. Yes, his offensive game lacks any semblance of polish. Yes, he needs to add strength to avoid being pushed off the block in the NBA. But Noel was an outstanding post defender and extraordinarily prolific shot-blocker in his two-thirds of a season at Kentucky, skills that are likely to translate at the NBA level. Even if he never gives Cleveland the 15-plus points per game you'd expect from the No. 1 overall pick, he'll still be a defensive asset to a team grooming young scorers at other positions.
Len would be a much bigger gamble than Noel since Cleveland would be gambling on his upside. The Maryland center showed soft hands and deft footwork in spurts this season, especially during dominant performances against Kentucky in the season opener and against Duke's Mason Plumlee during ACC play. He also was inconsistent defensively and tended to disappear for stretches of games, as evidenced by his pedestrian 11.9 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. Some of that was probably because Maryland's poor point guard play handcuffed him a bit. But some of it is also a sign that he's still in the early stages of developing as a prospect.
3. Will Shabazz Muhammad turn out to be a bust or undervalued?
No prospect has been debated more than Muhammad, who was touted as a potential No. 1 overall pick when he arrived at UCLA last fall but now has some analysts suggesting he should fall out of the lottery -- or even all the way out of the first round. I certainly don't see 30 better prospects than Muhammad, but at the same time there's definitely enough bust potential with him to make a general manager with a pick in the latter half of the lottery second-guess himself.
Muhammad averaged 18 points per game at UCLA by overpowering players around the rim, demonstrating good body control in transition and shooting better than expected from the perimeter. He probably can be an effective scorer as a pro too, but the concern is he isn't ultra-athletic by NBA standards, he doesn't have much of a right hand off the dribble and he probably isn't going to be able to overpower NBA small forwards the way he did in high school or college.
If Muhammad takes a step backward as a scorer in the pros, there isn't much else he does at an NBA level. He is neither an effective defender or defensive rebounder at this stage of his career. Plus he somehow only produced 27 assists all season at UCLA, evidence both that Ben Howland tried to put him in position to score and that he has a bit of a selfish streak to his game.
4. Who will turn out as the better shooting guard, Ben McLemore or Victor Oladipo?
This one depends on McLemore's ability to tap into his superior upside. McLemore has the raw talent, size and shooting stroke to be a high-impact wing in the NBA, but his career arc will probably depend on his ability to develop the mindset needed to fully utilize those gifts.
In his lone season of eligibility at Kansas, McLemore often struggled to put his stamp on games, particularly when away from Allen Fieldhouse. There were games in which he disappeared for long stretches, especially in the Big 12 tournament and first weekend of the NCAA tournament when he somehow took a total of only 26 shots in four games. Some of that is probably a result of being a freshman on a senior-heavy team, but it's certainly an area of concern about McLemore along with his reportedly sluggish workouts.
Oladipo is more of a finished product than McLemore. He'll work hard defensively, he is a high-character player and he excels in transition. One question about Oladipo is whether he can sustain the jump in 3-point shooting percentage he had from 20.8 percent as a sophomore to 44.1 percent as a junior. The other is whether he has the upside to be worthy of a top five pick even in this risk-heavy lottery.
5. Who are three second-round sleepers who can make an impact in the NBA?
• Ricardo Ledo, Providence — Had Ledo been eligible to play in his lone collegiate season, the highly touted 6-foot-6 wing had lottery potential. He's a risky pick because of questions about his off-the-court maturity, but he's also a good gamble for a team with an early second-round pick.
• Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State — Questions about Thomas' athleticism and all-around game have hindered his stock, but the one thing the Ohio State forward can definitely do is score in a variety of ways. He used an efficient mid-range game to average 19.8 points per game in the nation's toughest conference last season. That's good enough to be a high-value pick for a team seeking a scorer off the bench in the second round.
• Erick Green, Virginia Tech — On a young, shorthanded Virginia Tech team that lacked any other notable scoring options, Green still led the nation in scoring and did so in a fairly efficient manner. He's more of a combo guard than a true point guard, but he has decent size at 6-foot-4, good range as a shooter and a knack for pulling up off the dribble, which should bode well for his ability to thrive in a pick-and-roll system in the NBA.
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