Height, as the saying goes, is the one thing you can't teach. All things being equal, a taller player can shoot over a shorter defender, go up higher for a rebound, see the floor easier and defend more positions. Of course, when it comes to evaluating basketball players, all things usually aren't equal.
Trey Burke, Michigan's star point guard, is only 6'0" and 190 pounds. His lack of size is a red flag when it comes to evaluating his NBA potential, but there are a number of 6'0" and under guards who have carved out long pro careers. As a rule, they tend to be complete players: there is less room for error the shorter you are, as any holes in your game can be easily exploited by the bigger and longer players at the next level. Burke, still only a sophomore and the best player on the No. 2 team in the country, has every tool necessary to become the next undersized guard to excel in the NBA.
Asides from height, Burke has everything you would want in a prospect. He has long arms, quick feet and excellent end-to-end speed. He's one of the fastest players in the country and it's nearly impossible to stay in front of him in transition. At the same time, his 6'5'' wingspan allows him to play bigger than his size on both ends of the floor.
To be an NBA starter, a player his size has to be able to run a team, and Burke is one of the best floor generals in the country. He is an excellent ball-handler that gets very low to the ground as he dribbles, which allows him to explode past bigger players and split double teams on the pick-and-roll. He plays with his head up and has become a much better distributor as a sophomore, averaging 7.1 assists against only two turnovers a game.
He has a high basketball IQ, knowing how to balance looking for his own shot and running the offense. There's no better example of that than Michigan's 79-72 victory over North Carolina State in November. Burke didn't score in the first half, getting everyone in the flow of the game before taking over the in the second. He finished with 18 points on 5-9 shooting and 11 assists with zero turnovers, all while going up against the 6'5'' 185 lb. Lorenzo Brown, one of the longest and most athletic defenders in the country.
A player Burke's size has to score quickly from a variety of spots on the floor, as open looks at the basket are at a premium. His most impressive offensive number isn't his 17.4 points a game; it's his 52 percent field goal percentage. He's not an elite long-range shooter, but he's more than capable of scoring when given space to shoot. he's a career 35 percent three-point shooter on almost five attempts a game.
Put it all together and you have one of the best players in the country. Burke is averaging 17.4 points, 7.1 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals on 52/36/74 shooting, which equates to an eye-popping 30.1 PER. For some perspective, Chris Paul averaged 15 points, 6.6 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 2.4 steals on 45/47/84 shooting in his second season at Wake Forest.
That doesn't necessarily mean Burke is destined for NBA stardom. He still has a long way to go to be the basketball-playing robot Paul has become: Paul almost never misses open jumpers or makes mistakes on the court and is one of the most respected leaders and fiercest competitors in the league. Does Burke have the work ethic to live in the gym when he's making millions of dollars? To dedicate himself to the weight room so he can withstand the rigors of an NBA paint?
He is also in a nearly ideal situation. Not only is it easy to rack up assists playing with two NBA-caliber wings in Tim Hardaway Jr. and Glenn Robinson III, but their presence means that opposing teams can't stick their best 6'5"+ wing defenders on Burke. There's also no guarantee that he keeps up his statistics in Big Ten play, where teams are more familiar with his game and can more effectively game plan against him.
However, so far in his college career, he's done everything you would expect a great player to do. At 12-0, Michigan is a legitimate contender for a national title and Burke is playing like a first-team All-American. There's no way for us to know whether he will eventually become a great NBA player, but the fact that we can even ask that question about a 6'0" 190 lb. sophomore says an awful lot.
(See write up)
Best case: Chris Paul
Worst case: Ray Felton
Tim Hardaway Jr.:
** Yes, that Tim Hardaway.
Shot-creation: An athletic 6'6" 205 junior, Hardaway Jr. has benefited greatly from returning to school. He has the ball-handling skill and explosiveness to drive to the rim and the body control to stop on a dime and hit pull-up jumpers. A big concern in his first two seasons was his ability to finish, but he's become a much more efficient player as a junior (15.8 points a game on 47 percent shooting, 4.1 free throw attempts).
Outside shot: His shooting percentage was the biggest hole in his game as a sophomore, but he's dramatically improved it this season. Part of that improvement has come from his shot selection, as he doesn't taken as many difficult shots as he did in years past. He only shot 28 percent from beyond the arc last season, so it's something to watch closely as the season progresses (Shooting 47/35/75, 5.0 3-pointers a game).
Defense: Hardaway has the ideal size/speed ratio to defend NBA shooting guards and could conceivably defend all three perimeter positions, depending on the match-ups, as he gets older. But with only a 6'7" wingspan, he'll never be an elite wing defender at the next level (0.8 steals and 0.5 blocks in 32 minutes).
Rebounding: Maybe the most impressive part of his game. He has made a concerted effort to attack the glass this season, something an undersized Michigan team desperately needs. He almost never gets offensive rebounds, which you would expect from a shooting guard who primarily plays on the perimeter, but he's got a defensive rebounding percentage (17.2) many big men would envy (Averaging 5.3 rebounds a game).
Passing: He's not a bad passer by any stretch, but he's a score-first slasher at heart. Unlike his famous father, Hardaway's assist-to-turnover ratio is barely above one. He can run the point on the break and drive-and-kick to the open player, but he's more of a secondary option than a guy who creates easy shots for his teammates (Averaging 2.8 assists on 2.3 turnovers).
Best case: Courtney Lee
Worst case: Dahntay Jones
Down the road prospects:
Glenn Robinson III: The NBA bloodlines are strong at Michigan; the son of the "Big Dog" has the chance to be a special player in his own right. Robinson III is a smooth and athletic 6'6" 210 lb. wing who plays with the savvy of an upperclassman, although he does benefit from defenses concentrating on Burke and Hardaway. With both likely headed for the NBA after this season, it will be interesting to watch what Robinson can do as the Wolverines best player in 2013. However, if Michigan makes a deep run in the Tournament, he would almost certainly be a first-round pick if he declared (Averaging 11 points, six rebounds and one assist on 55/38/72 shooting).
Mitch McGary: A highly-touted 6'10" 250 lb. freshman big man who doesn't have a huge role in the Michigan offense, but that is something you expect to change as he gets older. He's not a great athlete, but he plays very hard and has no problem throwing his body around. The big red flag is his age: he's older than guys like Tobias Harris and Jeremy Lamb. Where he is at this time next year will say a lot about his NBA potential (Averaging six points and six rebounds on 63/0/57 shooting).
Nik Stauskas: Dan Dakich has been calling him the best freshman in the country, which isn't true, but Stauskas does have decent handles and athleticism for a pure shooter. At 6'6" 190, he does a great job playing off the ball and spotting up off penetration. Before he even thinks about the next level, he'll need to put some meat on his bones to survive on the defensive end (Averaging 13 points, three rebounds and one assist on 51/50/88 shooting).
Jon Horford: Al's younger brother has a live body at 6'10" 250, but he isn't particularly skilled and hasn't been able to stay on the floor in his time in Ann Arbor. He's a redshirt sophomore who missed all of last season with a foot injury and is currently sitting out with a knee injury. There's still a lot of time for him to grow as a player, but for now, he's simply a question mark (Averaging two points and two rebounds on 47/0/50 shooting).