By this time last year, Anthony Davis was already separating himself from the the pack. A long-limbed, 6'11 defensive wonder, he was the MVP of one of the most dominant college teams in recent memory. Kentucky went 38-2 and was never seriously challenged in the NCAA Tournament; the Wildcats wound up with six players being selected in the 2012 NBA Draft, including Davis at No. 1 overall.
No player has seized control of the narrative in a similar way this season. As a result, there's been a predictable chorus of complaints about how weak the draft pool is. It's like clockwork: NBA front office types will moan about any draft that doesn't have a Tim Duncan or a LeBron James in it. Yet, unless a draft immediately precedes a lockout, it will always have plenty of talent available.
This might not be as strong a draft as 2003 or 2008, but from what I've seen so far, 2013 doesn't appear all that different from 2012, 2010 or 2009. There are a couple of guys with All-NBA upside, plenty of lottery talent available and a number of solid prospects who should be available in the later stages of the first round.
The draft is weak? Alec Baldwin said it best: "The leads are weak!? The f***** leads are weak? You're weak! We're adding a little something to this month's sales contest ..."
Here's a very, very early Top 15 of the best NBA prospects in college basketball. This is by no means a complete list: I haven't watched enough film on any of this year's international prospects to say much about them. There are also several underclassmen who might otherwise be on this list but aren't because they're either too raw to help an NBA team in the near future (Willie Cauley-Stein of Kentucky) or their role on their college team isn't big enough to completely showcase their game (Przemek Karnowski of Gonzaga).
1. Isaiah Austin, Baylor freshman
This year's answer to Andre Drummond. If you're going full YOLO, Austin is the guy. It's a gamble, but how many teams are going to regret not gambling on Drummond? Austin isn't close to a finished product, but he has every tool you could possibly want. He is an athletic 7'1, 220-pound guy with a 7'3 wingspan who can hit three-pointers off a pick-and-pop, shot-fake and dribble into a pull-up jumper and take the ball all the way to the rim. He's got NBA bloodlines -- his uncle was Ike Austin, a 9-year center -- and if he can add weight to his frame, his ceiling is some type of outlandish hybrid of Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis. If you were an organization confident in your ability to develop players, why wouldn't you select him?
2. Ben McLemore, Kansas freshman
No one has risen faster up the draft boards than McLemore, who sat out all of last season due to academic issues. He clearly used that time well: guys with his type of nuclear athleticism are rarely this polished. He's 6'5, 200 pounds with a 40-inch vertical and a beautiful three-point shot ... basically J.R. Smith without the baggage. Even though he's the only freshman in a starting lineup with four seniors, McLemore has already established himself as Kansas' best player. The only question about his game is whether he can be a high-level playmaker, as it's not something he's asked to do on a fairly loaded team.
3. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State freshman
There aren't many athletic guys Smart's size (6'4, 220) who can legitimately run the point. Most combo guards are like Ben Gordon: the body of a point guard and the game of a two-guard. Smart has the game of a point guard and the body of a two guard. That makes a huge difference. He's been thrown to the wolves as the leader of an extremely young Oklahoma State team, and more often than not, he's prospered. The assist-to-turnover ratio and the shooting percentages aren't ideal, but they feel more like the mistakes of inexperience than any lacking of talent. Smart is going to be one of the guys scouts will be watching very carefully over the next two months.
4. Anthony Bennett, UNLV freshman
Michael Beasley and Derrick Williams are the most recent examples of dominant collegiate combo forwards who have been unable to translate their success to the NBA. While they're not all that similar as players, they have the same underlying problem: the body of a small forward and the game of a power forward. The hope with Bennett, a 6'7, 240-pound hybrid forward with a 7'1 wingspan, is that he has the game of a three and the body of a four. He could be a high-level tight end or defensive end in the NFL and he has a surprising amount of skill and finesse in his game. Bennett's ideal role is as a small-ball power forward in a four-out system, something all the cool kids in the NBA are doing these days. The talent is there for a Carmelo-like run in the Tournament.
5. Alex Len, Maryland sophomore
He may not have Nerlens Noel's athleticism or Cody Zeller's skill, but Len has the potential to be the best two-way center of the bunch. He's now 7'1, 255 pounds after adding 30 pounds over the summer. More importantly, he's carrying that weight well: the added size doesn't appear to have affected his athleticism much. Len has good touch and footwork in the low post, and as he becomes more comfortable throwing his weight around, he'll be very difficult to stop at any level. Right now, he's a little under-utilized on a young Maryland team with very inconsistent shooting and half-court execution. Like most young centers, Len is more of a developmental pick and anyone who selects him will need to remember that he's still only 19 years old. He could become the first high-level NBA player from the Ukraine, which is not a country you should insult on the New York subway.
6. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky freshman
At 6'10 and 230 pounds with a 7'4 wingspan, Noel is a freak athlete with a good feel for the game. The problem is his game is based on being the biggest and quickest guy on the court, which won't happen all that much in the NBA. At only 230 pounds, will he be strong enough to survive playing as a center? He's built like Anthony Davis, with thin shoulders and a narrow frame. The difference is Davis plays a lot of power forward for New Orleans and Noel doesn't have the touch or the skill to operate that far from the basket. He's an excellent passer, rebounder and defender in space, but he's undersized for his position at the next level and he'll need to become far more polished offensively to make up for it. The lack of size is why he has less raw upside than Kentucky's other freshman center, the 7', 245-pound Willie Cauley-Stein.
7. Cody Zeller, Indiana sophomore
The interesting part about Zeller's monstrous efficiency statistics (59 percent from the floor) is that he creates a lot of his own offense. The youngest of three basketball-playing brothers, Zeller has surprising athleticism and a great feel for the game at 6'11, 240 pounds. He's a natural scorer whose offensive gifts are somewhat hidden by his unselfishness as well as the amount of talent around him at Indiana. Zeller won't be a great rim protector, but as long as he's paired with someone like Derrick Favors upfront and allowed to take the easier defensive assignment, he could be part of an elite defense.
8. Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse sophomore
Carter-Williams doesn't have a jump shot, which is a significant problem, but he's such a dynamic PG I think he'll be able to figure it out. He's got next-level passing ability and his combination of size (6'6, 185 pounds), quickness and ball-handling ability makes him almost impossible to defend. He impacts the game as a passer, rebounder and defensive player while struggling as a scorer and a shooter; it's the same combination of strengths and weaknesses that make Rajon Rondo so compelling. He also got caught trying to steal a bathrobe earlier this year, which will never not be funny. Only steal basketballs please.
9. Trey Burke, Michigan sophomore
I'm going to go out on a limb with this one. Burke is only 6' and 185 pounds, but there are excellent NBA PGs that size and I don't see any reason why he can't be one of them. With Mason Plumlee's candidacy (and Duke's team) reeling from losing Ryan Kelly and with Craig McDermott playing so far off the national radar at Creighton, I think Burke will end up winning the Wooden Award. There aren't many weaknesses in his game: he is an excellent passer with blinding speed who can score efficiently from any spot on the floor.
10. Tony Mitchell, North Texas sophomore
I can see why people would be skeptical of the best player on a Sun Belt team with an 8-14 record. However, Mitchell is the still the same player who exploded onto the scene at the U-19 World Championships in Lithuania two summers ago and nearly lead the Mean Green to an NCAA Tournament berth as a freshman. Unfortunately, the program has imploded around him in the wake of Johnny Jones' departure to LSU. The 6'8, 235-pound Mitchell has an eye-popping combination of skill and athleticism: he averages 2.9 blocks a game and 34 percent shooting from beyond the arc for his career. If grades hadn't prevented him from enrolling at Missouri, he might have been a top-five pick.
11. Otto Porter, Georgetown sophomore
A multi-faceted 6'8, 205-pound small forward with an intriguing background, Porter plays the game like a 10-year veteran. He'll need to put on weight, but he's such a versatile player that it's hard to imagine him not contributing to any team that drafts him. Porter is a stat-stuffer who can get you points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks from multiple positions. He has the ideal game for a complementary player and he'll be a coaches' favorite wherever he lands.
12. Victor Oladipo, Indiana junior
Oladipo is the poster child for the benefits of staying in school. At 6'5 and 215 pounds, he always had jaw-dropping athleticism -- this is a guy who does chin-ups at the rim like it's nothing -- but he's added a tremendous amount of polish to his game in the last two years. You rarely see a guy with elite athletic ability play with max effort while simultaneously staying under control. He's a heat-seeking missile whose constantly flying around the court, impacting the game in a myriad of ways. Oladipo is a defensive specialist whose turned himself into a valuable two-way player, particularly as a jump-shooter. If he can maintain his absurd efficiency numbers, he'll be an above-average NBA shooting guard.
13. Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA freshman
Shabazz got a pretty bum rap from the NCAA, but I have some concerns that don't involve how stylish his backpack is. At 6'6 and 225 pounds, he's not a great athlete and he'll never give you much defensively. The problem is, on the offensive end, he spends a lot of time bullying smaller guards near the basket and almost every NBA team will have bigger and more athletic wings to match up with him. So while he is a gifted scorer, I'm not sure how efficient he'll be at the next level. Big-time perimeter players without great athleticism (James Harden, Paul Pierce) are generally great distributors; Shabazz averages twice as many turnovers as assists. There's a place for one-dimensional 6'6 scorers in the NBA, but it's not the top five.
14. Alex Poythress, Kentucky freshman
Poythress is probably the Kentucky player hurt most by the team's lack of a PG. He has an interesting skillset: he's an excellent athlete at 6'7 and 240 pounds and he's got an nice-looking jumper: 47 percent from beyond the arc (on limited attempts), 71 percent from the free throw line. He would look a lot better if he had someone who could get easy looks for him. There's no use crying over spilled milk though; Ryan Harrow and Archie Goodwin are who they are. Poythress will need to do one of two things over the next two months: either start creating his own shot or start playing with a lot more energy defensively and on the glass. He is a guy who can go a lot of different ways; he reminds me of Marvin Williams
15. Mason Plumlee, Duke senior
Plumlee has turned himself into a Wooden Award candidate, but that's what he should be doing as a 22-year-old senior. He was in the same recruiting class as Derrick Favors and DeMarcus Cousins and they're practically seasoned NBA vets at this point. At 6'11 and 235 pounds, he's athletic enough to be in a dunk contest, but his narrow frame probably can't support much more weight. That's going to make it hard for him to establish post position on the next level. The good news is the league is moving more towards a speed and perimeter-oriented game and away from wrestling on the block. His value offensively will depend almost entirely on his PG, but a center with a low ceiling and a high floor is never a bad bet in the draft.