The 2014 NBA draft class has been hyped for so long that a backlash has already begun. After watching these guys for three months, though, I'm more than happy to begin the backlash to the backlash. Assuming everyone we expect to declare does so, this draft really is that good. I'm thinking there could be eight to 10 All-Star caliber players at least.
This is indeed the most exciting group of rookies to come into the NBA since 2008, if not 2003. My initial Top 15 list will look a little different than some of the others out there because I'm looking for different things. I'm not worried about their reputations or their statistics.
More on the 2014 Draft
More on the 2014 Draft
What I'm trying to do is find long, athletic players with the skill sets to play multiple positions. In other words, the model the Oklahoma City Thunder have used to draft rings around the rest of the NBA. Don't let people tell you this stuff is complicated. It really isn't.
There are a couple of underclassmen in reserve roles who might have made this list, like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Dakari Johnson and Jerami Grant, but I want to see them a little more before I'm comfortable projecting their games to the next level.
1. Joel Embiid
At any level of basketball, there are not many 7-footers who are good on offense and there are not many 7-footers who are good on defense. Joel Embiid is 7'0 and 250 pounds and he has the potential to be an exceptional player on both sides of the ball. He is a 19-year-old from Cameroon who first started playing basketball three years ago, and he would be a top-10 center in the NBA right now. To paraphrase Dos Equis, I don't tank often, but when I do, I tank for guys like Joel Embiid.
2. Jabari Parker
It took about 10 minutes in the game between Duke and Kansas for it to be obvious who the better player was between Jabari and Andrew Wiggins. Jabari is a special talent, an athletic 6'8, 240-pound forward who can handle and shoot like a guard. You could put him on a lot of NBA teams tomorrow and he would be their best scorer and their primary option on offense. There is a lot of Carmelo Anthony in his game, which means people are worried about his defense and passing.
3. Dante Exum
If Exum was a rapper, we would be saying he killed the mixtape circuit last summer. A previously unknown 18-year-old from Australia, he looked like the best player on the floor at the Hoop Summit and the U19 World Championships. He was supposed to go to college, but that isn't happening now. The only question is which major label he signs with. He's an athletic 6'6, 190-pound combo guard with the ability to shoot, score, pass, rebound and defend.
4. Aaron Gordon
Gordon may not be a primary option, but he's probably my favorite player in this year's class. If this was a ranking of guys who played the game "the way it was meant to be played," he would be No. 1. Gordon is a do-it-all 6'9, 215-pound combo forward who can take over the game on either end of the floor. He's an elite athlete who doubles as the ultimate glue guy. It's a real advantage for Arizona and one of the main reasons the Wildcats are the No. 1 team in the country.
5. Andrew Wiggins
This is not a knock on Wiggins, who is a fantastic prospect in his own right. It's more a reflection of how good I think the four guys ahead of him are.
You can see where the hype came from with Wiggins. At 6'8 and 200 pounds with a 7'0 wingspan, he is a phenomenal athlete who covers ground very quickly. In an up-tempo AAU game played in semi-transition, I'm sure he looked like the best player in the world. However, when the game is in the half-court, you can see he still needs work as a shooter, passer and ball-handler.
6. Julius Randle
More on Julius Randle
More on Julius Randle
Randle is a physical specimen and an accomplished mean-mugger who puts up tremendous stats on a nightly basis. Unfortunately, his short arms will make it hard for him to be a good defensive player in the NBA. I see his NBA career going a lot like David Lee and Zach Randolph, with a lot of empty stats on bad teams until he's teamed up with a center like Andrew Bogut or Marc Gasol. It's not so bad, really. Randle should stack over $100 million either way.
7. Noah Vonleh
I'm beginning to think that Vonleh's underwhelming teammates are obscuring just how good he is. There's a ton of talent at Indiana, but aside from Vonleh and Yogi Ferrell, it is still a year away. When teams play the Hoosiers, their main goal is not to let Vonleh beat them. Most of their guards can't shoot 3s, so it's easy to get the ball out of his hands. He's an athletic 6'10, 240-pounder with a 7'4 wingspan, a post game and an outside shot. Guys with his skill set don't bust.
8. Willie Cauley-Stein
Cauley-Stein is 7'0 and 245 pounds, and he played WR in high school. Try to imagine some of the ungainly Goliaths in the NBA running post patterns across the middle of the field and you will appreciate just how much athletic talent Cauley-Stein has. He's a bigger version of Nerlens Noel, a dominant defensive player who can finish on the pick-and-roll and get out in transition.
Once Cauley-Stein comes off the board, the center position gets pretty thin. There aren't many guys like him.
9. Isaiah Austin
A funny thing happened on the way to Embiid's coronation on Monday. He played Baylor and saw a 7-footer who was just as long as he was, just as athletic as he was and just as skilled as he was. Austin blocked Embiid's shot and then hit a three-pointer in his eye. He's a 7'1, 225-pound forward who can alter shots, put the ball on the floor and score out to 25 feet. If you want to know why his stats aren't great, ask fans of other Big 12 teams about Scott Drew's coaching ability.
10. Marcus Smart
Smart has been nitpicked to death, but he's still an excellent prospect who could be the best guard on an elite NBA team one day. He's a 6'4, 220-pound combo guard who can impact the game as a scorer, passer, defender and rebounder. He's not a great shooter, but Michael Carter-Williams is showing that big guards can overcome that knock and be excellent NBA players. While Smart has work to do to refine his game, there is still a lot to like about him.
11. Zach LaVine
This may be too low for LaVine. After I watched him score 15 points in eight minutes against Arizona State, I don't know what to believe anymore. That was one of those sequences where LaVine let everyone on the floor know he was a bad MFer. He would be putting up better stats if he weren't playing behind another NBA prospect with more experience in Jordan Adams. LaVine looks like he could roll out of bed and do windmill dunks in his slippers. From an entertainment perspective, he is the one to watch.
12. Jordan Clarkson
A 6'5, 190 combo guard who transferred from Tulsa, Clarkson has seamlessly filled Phil Pressey's shoes at Missouri and made the Tigers a darkhorse contender for the SEC championship. Kentucky rolls into Columbia in a few weeks and I get the feeling that Clarkson, Earnest Ross and Jabari Brown are going to beat the tar out of the Harrison twins and James Young. Those are some big, experienced and athletic guards who won't have time for freshman shenanigans.
13. T.J. Warren
T.J. Warren steps on the floor to do two things: Chew bubblegum and get buckets. And he runs out of bubblegum pretty quickly. Warren is a 6'8, 215-pound combo forward who can crash the offensive boards like a power forward, run off screens like a shooting guard and use the Tony Parker floater. He is the only threat on NC State and he still averages 22 points on 50 percent shooting. He's too busy getting buckets to worry about much else, including playing defense.
More on Adreian Payne
More on Adreian Payne
14. Adreian Payne
Payne doesn't have the star power of some of the younger players in this class, but he's a senior who's gotten better every year and can play in the rotation of an NBA playoff team next season. He is a 6'10, 240-pound big man who can play above the rim, stretch the floor and bang on the glass. Payne improves the team speed and floor spacing of any lineup he joins. I could see him having a career path similar to a Taj Gibson or an Amir Johnson.
15. Kyle Anderson
I'll round out the list with one of the more fascinating characters from this class. Anderson, a sophomore at UCLA, has a bizarre mix of pluses and minuses. He's a 6'9, 235 point guard who can play a number of positions on the offensive side of the ball, but he was given the "Slow Mo" nickname for a reason and he isn't a great shooter either. Anderson's basketball IQ is too high for him not to figure it out. He's Boris Diaw before the fourth and fifth trips to the buffet line.
Sleeper: Dorian Finney-Smith
For whatever reason, a stacked Florida team coming off three consecutive Elite Eights and ranked No. 6 in the country hasn't been getting a lot of publicity this season. Nevertheless, Billy Donovan may have assembled his most talented team since the Joakim Noah-Al Horford days. Maybe its most intriguing prospect is Finney-Smith, a 6'8, 215-pound small forward who transferred from Virginia Tech. He's an elite athlete who defends both wing positions, shoots 36 percent from three and grabs 7.5 bounds a game.
Two more sleepers: Jabari Bird (California) and Khem Birch (UNLV)
Overrated: Doug McDermott
I love watching him play and his statistics are super-cool, but let's be serious for a second. Just to pick some names out of a hat, here are the starting 3s and 4s in the Atlantic Division: Jeff Green, Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony, Evan Turner, DeMar DeRozan, Jared Sullinger, Kevin Garnett, Andrea Bargnani, Thaddeus Young and Amir Johnson. Draw me a picture where Dougie Fresh defends any of those guys for any amount of time. He's a skilled player who can get buckets and stretch the floor on a second unit, but he isn't an NBA starter.
Two more overrated: Rodney Hood (Duke) and Montrezl Harrell (Louisville)