For the first time since I’ve been watching sports, the two professional leagues I care about the most are both on the verge of work stoppages. The NFL draft was not as exciting as usual, as it was tainted with a cloud of impending doom cast by dry lockout court proceedings and uncertainty. Now, even though NBA playoff ratings are through the roof, it feels like that sex you have right before your spouse goes on a long business trip…you’re getting the most for your money. But we all know, or at least assume, that the NBA season will be shortened to some degree next year, and combined with a shortened, or even canceled NFL season, our lives are going to suck.
You know who else knows this? The legions of blue chip college ballers who opted out of declaring for this draft. Names like Jared Sullinger, Terrence Jones, Perry Jones and Harrison Barnes will not be among the 2011-12 NBA rookie class. While many will most likely take less money and jeopardize their draft stock in order to be a part of a more competitive draft class, they’ll also be the inaugural members of a rookie class defined by a new CBA…at least they’ll likely be the first rookie class to play a full season under it. That doesn’t mean that this draft is devoid of talent, but the general consensus is that it is historically weak; it was already weak before the defectors defected, and now its top-end talent is shallow as well. But there are some sneaky freshmen, some mid-major gems and international guys who can all take advantage and carve out a niche, and nice paycheck for themselves. But due to the uncertainty, there might be a lot of trade movement too, as teams prepare to load up for an era where the salary cap is harder, and several of the free agency exceptions we’ve come to expect possibly disappear entirely.
1. CLE (via LAC)-Kyrie Irving, PG Duke
Irving is the best player in this class, and would’ve received top-3 consideration in just about any regular year. He’s got Chris Paul-like handles and vision, and unlimited range on his jumper. Obviously a very serious injury derailed his freshman season at Duke, but the Cavs won’t care. This is a league predicated on solid point guard play; as NFL teams rely on quarterbacks, NBA teams rely on point guards. In an ironic twist, Cleveland landed this pick thanks to their willingness to take on Baron Davis’s atrocious contract (the Clippers, assuming they’d be picking 8th or 9th, tossed the Cavs the pick along with Davis in exchange for Mo Williams). Even more ironic, Williams’s contract has one more year than Davis’s, and Davis is twice as good a player when healthy. Irving will learn behind Davis for a year, or perhaps start in place of him right away as the Cavs try to work out a trade or buyout for the oft-injured former All-Star. In any event, Irving will be on the fast-track to NBA stardom on a Cleveland team that suddenly has a lot of potential to be great within the next few seasons. Imagine had the Clippers kept this pick…Kyrie Irving tossing ‘oops to Blake Griffin, Eric Gordon and DeAndre Jordan…Clippers fans just threw up in their mouths a little.
2. MIN-Derrick Williams, SF/PF Arizona
Here’s where we’ll most likely start hearing trade chatter. Williams is very good, and like Irving, would be a high lottery pick in almost any draft class, but he sort of duplicates what Michael Beasley does. The T-Wolves consider Ricky Rubio a better PG prospect than Irving, so they would’ve probably traded out of #1 anyway. In fact for a team that’s so perennially bad, they have no pressing needs. They could use a veteran wing (perhaps another “star” to entice Rubio to sign, and Kevin Love to extend), and may dangle this pick for the services of someone like Rudy Gay or Danny Granger, but if they keep it Michael Beasley and/or Anthony Randolph may be on the move. One thing’s for certain: Williams is much better than anyone else in this class except for Irving, and the Wolves would be stupid to pass on him, or at least try to get equal value for him in a trade.
3. UTAH (via NJ)-Brandon Knight, PG/SG Kentucky
The more I read, the more I hear the Jazz are enamored with Knight. Enes Kanter is the smarter pick, as he’s probably a mid-to-late lottery level talent in a regular draft, but this isn’t a regular draft. If the Jazz want Knight they’ll have to reach for him, as he definitely won’t be around when they pick again at #12. Either way, Knight doesn’t necessarily solve their problems. They need better wing play, and at best Knight’s size limitations will make him only a rotational contributor at SG on the next level. His real value will come if he learns the PG position, because he’s stronger, smarter and harder working than everyone in this class. If he can improve his vision and shot selection, he could be a real gem as a scoring point in the Devin Harris, Tyreke Evans or Monta Ellis vein. The Jazz already have Harris, of course, but Knight could eventually replace him for much cheaper.
4. CLE-Enes Kanter, PF/C International
The Cavs can score big here if Utah passes on Kanter. The former Kentucky recruit has drawn comparisons to Al Horford and Kevin Love. Many scouts think he’d be atop this class, even ahead of Irving and Williams, if he didn’t have chronic knee problems. He’s hands-down the best true big man in this draft, and should be a natural fit next to an athlete like J.J. Hickson in Cleveland. Cavs fans should be ecstatic if Kanter falls to them at #4.
5. TOR-Kemba Walker, PG Connecticut
Toronto was perhaps the most screwed team in this lottery drawing, as two teams with better records (LAC and NJ) jumped them into the top 4. Anyone already drafted would’ve been preferable to the table scraps the Raptors will have to pick from at #5. That said, Kemba Walker is a baller. He possesses NBA scoring ability, leadership qualities and obviously experience winning at college basketball’s highest level. The Raptors were crossing their fingers for Irving, but Walker, although not similar at all (he’s more of an undersized 2 who settles for playing the 1 because he’s his team’s best ball handler) can still man the point at the next level. I envision Walker as a clone of fellow UCONN alum, Ben Gordon, but with more handles. That won’t be enough to change the Raptors’ fortunes entirely, but it’ll be a nice start.
6. WAS-Jan Vesely, SF/PF International
I love Vesely’s game, and in this weak draft he could’ve been picked as high as #3 or #4. He’s weirdly athletic and energetic for a Euro-he reminds me of some strange combination of Blake Griffin, Anderson Varejao and Mike Dunleavy Jr. (in his Duke days). He’s obviously not as big as Varejao, as athletic as Griffin, and can’t shoot like Dunleavy, but he shares some traits and will be a great addition running breaks with John Wall. I’m not entirely sure he’s really ready to play NBA defense, and his offense is still very raw, but the word is the Wizards have coveted him for a while, and I can see why.
7. SAC-Alec Burks, SG Colorado
The Kings are in a tricky situation here, and could try to swap the pick for a veteran wing, or move up to try to land Kemba Walker or Brandon Knight. But Burks, if he can bulk up a bit, could fill a need and start right away. Ideally Sacramento would probably like to pair Tyreke Evans with a pure point guard, but there are very few in this draft, and Darius Morris would be a reach here. They could still try to trade down, but if they keep the pick, Burks has the most potential and fills the most immediate need.
8. DET-Darrius Morris, PG Michigan
With Rodney Stuckey a free agent and Greg Monroe and Jonas Jerebko likely the future at the 4 and 5, the Pistons take a reach on Morris, who played college ball in Michigan and may be a fan favorite. Morris isn’t a game changer at this stage in his career, but he’s everything Stuckey isn’t, proving to be an oustanding creator his sophomore year for the Wolverines.
9. CHA-Jonas Valanciunas, PF/C International
I don’t know much about Valanciunas except that he’s big, raw, and exceptionally athletic for a Euro big. He’s reported to have nice hands and feet, underrated traits for big men that you can’t teach. I doubt he’s ready to play right away, but Charlotte might be in the beginning of a 2-3 year rebuilding plan, and stashing a young developmental guy like Valanciunas overseas might be a good idea.
10. MIL-Klay Thompson, SG Washington State
The Bucks are still looking for a future Michael Redd replacement, and Thompson fits the bill. He’s smooth, sneakily athletic, and is a great shooter. With all of Andrew Bogut’s injuries Milwaukee may opt for more frontcourt depth, but if they don’t, Thompson is a good fit.
11. GSW-Kahwi Leonard, SF San Diego State
Golden State is one of those lottery teams that, like Minnesota, doesn’t have a ton of needs but just never seems to get over the hump with the pieces they have in place. A piece they don’t have however is a utility-knife-like, energetic wing player like Leonard, who’s drawn comparisons to Gerald Wallace (who the Warriors were reportedly interested in at the trade deadline). Leonard isn’t quite as strong and athletic as Wallace, but he’s just as tenacious and strokes it better from long range. He should fit in well as a rotational player for the run and gun Warriors.
12. UTAH-Marcus Morris, SF/PF Kansas
Having already drafted Knight in this scenario, the Jazz would probably prefer a pure wing like Burks or Thompson. With both off the board, they get a steal in Morris, who is a fringe top-10 talent in any draft, and could be able to make the transition to SF right away. The more gifted of the Morris twins, Marcus can shoot, has good size for a wing, and will be a matchup problem for smaller threes. He’ll round out a young Utah frontcour nicely.
13. PHO-Bismack Biyombo, PF/C International
Biyombo is this year’s big enigma. His athleticism and freakish wingspan have led to rumors that some teams may take him inside the top 5. More troubling rumors are that he could be as much as 8 years older than he claims. Either way, the Suns need help on defense and rebounding, and Biyombo would be a nice fit alongside breakout center Marcin Gortat.
14. HOU-Tristan Thompson, PF Texas
Thompson represents another steal, and the always-savvy Rockets will take advantage. He has an Ed Davis-like ability to use his length and athleticism to make up for his lack of ideal bulk. With Chuck Hayes and Yao Ming perhaps both departing and Jordan Hill underwhelming, the Rockets will have a need at the center position. Thompson can’t play there but Luis Scola could switch to five when Thompson is ready to man the starting PF spot.
15. IND-Markieff Morris, PF/C Kansas
This Morris will be an ideal fit in Indy, though it will be hard to pass on guys with more potential like Donatas Motiejunas. If it were up to many Pacers fans the team would opt for Kenneth Faried here to address the rebounding issues Indiana was exposed for in the playoffs. But Morris is an oustanding per-minute rebounder and has more prototypical size for a 4. He’ll be able to step in to the Pacers front court rotation right away, and while he’ll never be a star, he could provide immediate value off the bench, and could push starting center Roy Hibbert to work even harder.
16. PHI-Kenneth Faried, PF Morehead State
The Sixers need more beef down low, and while Faried is undersized at 6’7″, he’s the NCAA’s all-time leading rebounder and his athleticism, explosiveness and wingspan allow him to play much bigger. Philly has plenty of wings, combo guards and scorers, now they just need someone to do the dirty work.
17. NYK-Donatas Motiejunas, SF/PF International
Only Biyombo possesses a higher ceiling than Motiejunas, who looks like he could be the next Dirk Nowitzki. His length, fluid release and confidence with the ball in his hands has had scouts drooling for years. This year he’ll take advantage of a weak class and get picked probably before this. If he’s still available at 17, expect Mike D’Antoni to jump all over him. He’s not without risks, as he’s very skinny and relatively unproven, and it would be a somewhat ill-advised move for the Knicks to draft him, since they need cheap vets who can contribute right away. But he’s very Danillo Galinari-like and would fit D’Antoni’s philosophy perfectly.
18. WAS (via ATL)-Jimmer Fredette, PG/SG Brigham Young
Nick Young is a restricted free agent this year and John Wall does not have a viable backup. Enter Fredette, who can light it up from long-range and provide valuable minutes at point guard if necessary. It’s hard to see him slipping this far, but if he does, Washington could bite.
19. Charlotte (via NOR)-Josh Selby, PG/SG Kansas
The Bobcats go upside-upside with their two picks. Selby is a massive reach here considering how much he struggled during his lone season at Kansas. But he could be a Monta Ellis-like combo scorer who was born to play NBA basketball. Charlotte is forward-thinking with their youth movement, starting with this year’s draft.
20. MIN (via MEM)-Nikola Mirotic, SF/PF International
In an effort to draw Rubio closer to signing, the T-Wolves could go with Mirotic, a Spanish League star from Rubio’s rival Real Madrid. Mirotic, like Rubio, won’t be able to play right away due to contract issues, and the negative PR Minnesota has experienced because of Rubio may sway them toward a domestic player. But he’s not a bad value at #20, especially if drafting him helps bring over Rubio.
21. POR-Keith Benson, C Oakland
The Blazers’ biggest weakness has to be continuity at the center position. If Greg Oden returns, he needs a solid backup to provide 15-20 minutes of quality defense per night, and start when called upon. Unfortunately there aren’t many of those guys available in this draft, so the Blazers take a reach here on Benson. If he can add 15 more pounds and learn to not leave his feet so often for pump fakes, Benson could be a legit NBA backup center.
22. DEN-Tyler Honeycutt, SG/SF UCLA
Of all the prospects so far drafted, I think Honeycutt has one of the best chances to have a long NBA career. He strikes me as a hard working, versatile wing who can do a little bit of everything, and NBA teams value that. He’ll probably never be an offensive star, so don’t expect him to fill the scoring void left by the departure of Carmelo Anthony, but he should contribute his rookie year.
23. HOU (via ORL via PHO)-Marshon Brooks, SG Providence
I wouldn’t take Brooks this high, but then I’m not an NBA GM. Bill Simmons’ buddy Dork Elvis is a GM, and he’s a good one. The Rockets need perimeter scoring and Brooks can provide that in bunches, even if he’s way too skinny for a long NBA career.
24. OKC-Chris Singleton, SF/PF Florida State
Singleton is kind of a poor, injured man’s Kahwi Leonard. But the Thunder are proving every day that they need more hustle/glue guys, and Singleton is just that. He’s a good athlete, solid defender and he exudes effort and determination.
25. BOS-Bebe Noguiera, C International
If Noguiera stays in the field someone will take him in the first round. Why not Boston who could use a post player with his potential? Boston will need to start building for the future and Noguiera, while skinny and unproven could be a starting-caliber center in 2-3 years.
26. DAL-Shelvin Mack, SG Butler
I have to think Mack has received multiple guarantees since he decided to stay in the draft. Either that, or he just knew that no matter what he wouldn’t be a first rounder in next year’s loaded class. The jury’s out on whether or not Mack can play point guard in the NBA, but the Mavericks lived and died by their clutch long-range shooters this season, and two of them (Terry and Stojakovic) are getting old.
27. NJ (via LAL)-Nikola Vucevic, PF/C Southern California
Mikhail Prokhorov shows an Eastern European some love with the selection of USC’s Vucevic here. The nationalized big man has the advantage of having that built-in Euro intrigue combined with having already faced top amateur competition in the states. The Nets could use some post depth, especially with the potential departure of Kris Humphries this summer.
28. CHI (via MIA)-Davis Bertans, SG/SF International
Bertans is an oversized wing with lights-out shooting ability. The Bulls will try to swing for the fences with each of their two late-first round picks, assuming they don’t package both to move into Jimmer Fredette/Klay Thompson range. Bertans may never be a star, but even if he can’t ever crack Chicago’s starting lineup, he’ll provide valuable bench minutes as a wing scorer, which happens to be the Bulls’ biggest need.
29. SAS-JaJuan Johnson, SF/PF Purdue
Some scouts claim Johnson can play 3. Having watched a ton of Purdue games, I don’t buy it. But his outside shot is better than you think. And with Tim Duncan getting older, a young frontcourt rotation of Johnson/DeJuan Blair/Tiago Splitter could be solid for the forseeable future. The Spurs always get a lot of value out of their perennially late picks, and Johnson is a four-year guy with a high motor and winning attitude. He’d be a nice fit.
30. CHI-Nolan Smith, PG/SG Duke
Chicago again tries to hit one out of the park, but instead of going with an unproven player like they did with Bertans, they opt for a great value in Smith. Smith is almost guaranteed to be a valuable NBA player at some point in his career. He’s no star, and will likely struggle providing help filling the Bulls’ need at 2 (as he struggled playing there when Kyrie Irving took over in the NCAA tourney). But he’s a great facilitator, ball handler and leader.