Last fall, NBA executives bemoaned what was expected to be a weak 2013 draft class. This fall? Those same execs are gushing about the next one. An infusion of superior freshman talent and one irresistible Australian import have many believing the Class of ’14 could be the best in years.
“Obviously, there is a long way to go,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “Remember, how many people thought Shabazz Muhammad [the 14th pick in the 2013 draft after one season at UCLA] was the next big thing? But looking at the pure talent in this class, you can say five or six guys will almost certainly be All-Stars and another five or six could easily get there.”
Here is a first look at the top 10 prospects for the 2014 draft.
Heard the phrase “Riggin for Wiggins” yet? You will. Several league executives predict tanking toward the tail end of this season as lottery teams will look to improve their chances of drafting Wiggins. His greatest strength is athleticism — not a surprise has given that his father, Mitchell, played in the NBA and his mother, Marita, was an Olympic sprinter. Wiggins’ vertical reportedly was literally off the charts at the LeBron James Skills Academy last year, and he is just as explosive with the ball. He’s a dynamic scorer, can play multiple positions, and has a surprisingly polished jump shot. More than one general manager used the word “special” when describing him.
Randle is a walking mismatch. He’s quicker than most power forwards and stronger than most small forwards. NBA talent evaluators love his first step and ability to create offense off the dribble. His jump shot is suspect and, like most 18-year-olds, his defense needs work. But Randle’s offensive package will make him an elite scorer in college.
Oklahoma State, Sophomore
Remember Smart? The seemingly surefire top-five pick who elected to return to Oklahoma State for his sophomore season, citing a desire to continue the college experience? There is no reason to think he won’t be an even stronger prospect next June. With a muscular, 6-4 frame, Smart is a physically imposing playmaker loaded with NBA tools, including a strong drive game, comfort in the pick-and-roll, and an ability to make shots coming off screens. In a strong field for point guards, Smart looks to be at the top.
Parker should join the distinguished list of small forwards — including Grant Hill, Luol Deng, and Shane Battier — to come out of Duke. Though not especially athletic, Parker is a dangerous perimeter shooter and a threat to score off the dribble. Scouts love how Parker always seems to be playing under control and rarely seems to get rattled. “He doesn’t make many of those reckless mistakes,” an Eastern Conference executive said. Several team executives said they would like to see him put on more muscle this season.
Australia, 18 years old
A Western Conference executive said Exum could go as high as the top three if he opts for the 2014 draft. “Offensively, he is the whole package,” the executive said. “He has an incredible first step and he plays with no fear.” His size is comparable to that of Sixers rookie and former Syracuse star Michael Carter-Williams, but Exum is considered a more efficient scorer. “If he went to Kansas, we would be talking about Andrew Wiggins and him,” the exec said. Exum, who graduates from high school in October, is reportedly undecided about entering the draft or going to a U.S. college next season.
Harrison — who will be joined in the Kentucky backcourt by his twin brother, Aaron — is a playmaker. He excels at creating offense off the dribble and uses his sturdy frame to draw contact and finish at the rim. Occasionally, some scouts say, Harrison can be too aggressive as a scorer. “He’s so good at drawing defenders, I’d like to see him do more drive-and-kicks,” a Western Conference scout said. But Harrison has all the physical tools to play in the NBA next season. And at Kentucky, he will be distributing the ball to arguably the most talented roster in the country.
Gordon is a ridiculous athlete with a reported 36-inch vertical leap. He runs the floor well, can catch and finish lobs anywhere near the rim and is a solid jump shooter. He is, however, something of a tweener. At 6-8 and a lean 210 pounds, Gordon is a small power forward and lacks the perimeter skills to be a consistent small forward. With a quick first step, Gordon should put up big numbers in college. But he will need to refine his catch-and-shoot skills and low-post game to develop his game for the NBA.
Croatia, 19 years old
Like Smart, Saric looked to be a lottery lock before pulling his name out of the draft. The 6-10 forward, who compares his game to that of Lamar Odom, is a high-level passer and playmaker. An extra year and (presumably) more playing time with Cibona Zagreb will enable Saric to continue to improve his most glaring weakness, the jump shot, and add weight to his slender frame. “I love him,” a Western Conference assistant GM said. “He’s one of the most versatile guys in the draft.”
Wiggins isn’t Kansas’ only NBA-bound freshman. Embiid has good size, he’s a superior rebounder and he showed good catch-and-finish ability in high school. But he is very raw. Embiid was spotted at a camp in Cameroon by Sacramento Kings forward Luc Mbah a Moute, who steered him to the United States. NBA scouts are eager to see how his offensive game develops. “I think we’ll see him become a very good defender this season at Kansas, where they have developed good big men,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “But offensively, he has a long way to go.”
Harrell’s playing time was sporadic last season; his biggest moment was a 20-point, seven-rebound effort against Syracuse in the Big East Tournament final. A physical specimen, Harrell loves to face up and attack, though last season he didn’t showcase much more than a bull rush to the basket. The departure of Gorgui Dieng will create additional opportunities for Harrell, who will need to display more offensively as a perimeter shooter and post player to enhance his NBA value.