There's no questioning Lorenzo Brown or CJ Leslie's talent. After they lead NC State to the Sweet 16 last season, their decision to return to Raleigh was the biggest reason why the Wolfpack were picked to win the ACC for the first time in a generation. However, neither has taken his game to the next level as a junior, raising serious questions about their ability to transition to the NBA.
At 6'5 185, Brown would one of the biggest and most athletic PG's in the pros, much less in college. He was an undersized shooting guard playing next to Kentucky PG Ryan Harrow as a freshman, before becoming the rare 2 guard to successfully move down the position spectrum and turn himself into a legitimate 1. That makes a huge difference on both ends of the floor: instead of looking up to 6'6+ wings, he towers over 6'1+ guards.
At 6'9 200 with a 7'3 wingspan, Leslie is the prototype combo forward and an absolute mismatch nightmare at the college level. Even though he lacks ideal bulk, his length and quickness lets him defend bigger power forwards, who have no ability to handle his face-up game on the other end of the floor. He's an absolute nightmare in the open court, as he can push the ball himself or run the wings and finish way above the rim.
However, neither Leslie nor Brown is a great jump-shooter, meaning they need the ball in their hands to be successful. Brown doesn't have a bad jumper, but his outside shot is serviceable at best: he's a career 32% shooter from beyond the arc who attempts only 1.9 three's a game. Leslie, whose shooting a career-high 64% from the free-throw line this season, is in a similar boat. While it's not a glaring weakness in his game, if he's playing off the ball, opposing defenses will crowd the paint and turn him into a mid-range jump-shooter.
But on the next level, time with the ball in your hands is a privilege, not a right, even for the most talented rookies. Here lies the problem: if Leslie and Brown can't dominate as collegiate juniors against inferior competition, how will they ever do it in the NBA? And because their games aren't suited to being complementary players, they'll be relegated to bench roles at the next level if they can't.
To be fair, while NC State has slipped from their pre-season ranking in the Top 10, they haven't played all that poorly this season. They have a 13-2 record, with both losses coming against elite competition away from home: a neutral court loss to Oklahoma State in Puerto Rico and a loss to Michigan, one of the most talented teams in the country, in Ann Arbor.
Both Brown and Leslie have also sacrificed touches on a very balanced Wolfpack team. Richard Howell, one of the team's two seniors, has emerged as a borderline NBA prospect while NC State's highly touted freshman class, including McDonald's All-Americans Ty Warren and Rodney Purvis, need the ball in their hands too. No one on NC State takes more than 10 shots a game and all five of their top scorers average between 11 and 16 points.
Yet, despite all their talent, they're still maddeningly inconsistent. The Wolfpack have a disturbing tendency to play down to their level of competition. They have the 223rd rated defense in the country, which is inexcusable for a team with at least four future pros. When they play at full speed, their length and activity can make it very difficult on opposing teams, which only makes their often lax defense more glaring.
That, in turn, raises the most troubling question of all for NBA teams: if you aren't going to go all out in college, with millions of dollars in draft position on the line, how are you going to respond to a contract that guarantees seven figures? It's the same reason why a poor showing at the draft combine troubles NFL teams: it's not so much the results as the process. Since maximizing your combine performance affects your draft stock, what does it say about guys who choose not to?
The good news for Brown and Leslie is that they still have time. While both are currently projected as late first-round picks, a strong showing in conference play and the Tournament could send them shooting up mock drafts. They'll have multiple shots against Duke and North Carolina on national TV, a golden chance to make a statement. How much money did Austin Rivers make with his step-back 3 over Tyler Zeller last season?
The Blue Devils, the No. 1 team in the country, don't have a guard who can stay with Brown or a forward capable of handling Leslie 1-on-1. NC State hosts them Saturday on ESPN; there will be some point in that game when the Wolfpack need their two best players to take over and carry them to one of the biggest victories in school history. How many chances in life do you get to make a few million dollars in one afternoon?
CJ Leslie (see write-up)
Best case: Thaddeus Young
Worst case: Al Farouq-Aminu
Lorenzo Brown (see write-up)
Best case: Ramon Sessions
Worst case: Darius Morris
Shot-creation: Howell is a burly 6'8 260 big man whose learned how to use his quickness and position his body to score over bigger defenders in the paint, despite not being a tremendous athlete. But while he's turned himself into an effective scorer at the college level, he'll never be asked to create his own shot at the next level. (Averaging 13 points on 64% shooting, 5.0 free throws a game)
Outside shot: Howell is more effective the closer he is to the rim, but he'll need to become a deadly mid-range jump shooter to survive in the NBA. He's a hard worker who is relatively skilled and isn't a bad free throw shooter, so it should be possible. He may bounce around the NBDL until he can prove that drag opposing big men out of the paint. (Shooting 65/0/61, 0 threes a game)
Defense: He's in the best shape of his career as a senior, which has helped him with his lateral quickness, but he's still a classic "4.5" in the NBA -- too short to be a true center and too slow to be a true power forward. As a result, his only role on an NBA team would be as a reserve big man, someone whose lack of an ideal position can be hidden against second units. (0.9 steals, 0.9 blocks)
Rebounding: This is where Howell could make a living in the NBA. While the power forward position has become more perimeter-oriented and skill-intensive in the last generation, there are a lot of wide-bodied undersized 4's who have carved out NBA careers as rebounding specialists. Rebounding is also one of the skills that most easily translates from college to the NBA. Howell has an excellent offensive rebounding percentage (15.3), which speaks to his tenacity and work ethic on the glass. (9.9 rebounds a game)
Passing: You don't see many college centers with more assists than turnovers in a season. Howell is a surprisingly adept passer whose developed a good high/low chemistry with C.J. Leslie. He won't create shots for others at the next level, but he's comfortable with the ball in his hands and can make the correct pass within the flow of an offense. (1.7 assists on 1.5 assists a game)
Best case: Craig Smith
Worst case: Europe
Ty Warren: A highly-touted 6'8 235 freshman forward who gets most of his points within the flow of the offense. Warren doesn't need to dominate the ball or have many plays run from him; he's just a natural scorer who knows how to play off the ball. Like many combo forwards, he'll need to figure out his defensive position and become a more consistent jump-shooter, but there's a place in the NBA for a player with his combination of size and skill. (13 points, 3 rebounds on 68/53/49 shooting)
Rodney Purvis: He doesn't have ideal size for a shooting guard at 6'3 195, but Purvis has the athleticism and skill to be a combo guard at the next level. As a freshman, he's a complementary player on both sides of the ball, but his efficiency in a reserve role, as well as his recruiting pedigree, suggests he could be a star for NC State once the team's upperclassmen leave for the NBA. (10 points, 3 rebounds and 2 assists on 45/42/53 shooting)