David Aldridge's 2018 Big Board: Bigs

NBA.com Global on May 15, 2018 03:13 PM
David Aldridge's 2018 Big Board: Bigs
Duke forward Marvin Bagley III reacts at the end of overtime of an NCAA college basketball game against Texas in the Phil Knight Invitational tournament in Portland, Ore., Friday, Nov. 24, 2017. Duke won 85-78. (AP Photo/Craig Mitchelldyer)

By David Aldridge, TNT Analyst

If you don’t have a young, promising big man on your roster, you better have one after this year’s NBA Draft.

Today’s NBA is surely smaller, and more guard-dominant, than it was even 10 years ago. But every spring, as we get to the deepest parts of the postseason, the need to have a versatile, two-way big man becomes acutely aware to anyone paying attention. Bigs still matter. They may not be asked to post up the way Shaquille O'Neal or Hakeem Olajuwon did, but they still have a vital, new role.

There’s no way the Houston Rockets would have finished with the best record in the NBA this season, and be the formidable challenger to the Warriors that they are, without Clint Capela’s shot blocking and offensive opportunism. There’s no way the Golden State Warriors would have made three straight Finals without their own hybrid big, Draymond Green. There’s no way the Cleveland Cavaliers win Game 7 against those same Warriors in the 2016 Finals without Kevin Love getting on the glass and defending in space without help down the stretch.

And, this year, there’s a whole mess of bigs that are going to go early in the first round.

There hasn’t been this kind of quality and quantity of good bigs available in some time. In 2017, only four of the top 15 picks in the Draft were big men. This year, that number may well double. They won’t all pan out, but enough should to help just about every team that’s still without that quick, shot-blocking, rim-running four/five get in the modern game. Next year’s Draft isn’t nearly as full of good bigs. The time to go big or go home is now.

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A note on the rankings:

This is not a predictor of when these players will be taken. These rankings, based on discussions with dozens of NBA and college coaches, and NBA college scouts and team executives, address the question of how ready players are to play the position which they are assigned: In other words, if there was a game tonight, who would play better at that position tonight, not in three years.

We include underclassmen that are expected to declare for the Draft, or are at least thinking strongly about it. No one who hasn't thought about declaring is going to be swayed by seeing his name on a Draft board. So we include everyone. Players have until April 22 to enter the Draft.

Players are listed at the position at which NBA people believe they'll play as pros.

Players who declare for the Draft have until June 11 -- 10 days before the June 21 Draft -- to pull out, as long as they don’t sign with an agent. This rule was instituted last year to give players more time to make a more informed decision about their potential Draft status after talking with and working out for NBA teams at the Combine in Chicago, which will run May 16-20.

Again: This is not a mock Draft. No one has any idea what will happen between now and June 21; we don't know if there will be a major injury that will impact what a team wants or needs. What follows is a rough consensus of what NBA personnel people, GMs and coaches, and college coaches that I trust -- and that, obviously, can't be quoted by name -- believe is the pro potential for this year's crop of college and international players.

“In The Mix” will refer to players who have a good chance to be drafted, probably in the second round.

"Some Scouts Like" will refer to players whose intentions are not yet known for certain, but who are viewed as potentially draftable if they do. Emphasis on "potentially."

If a player is not invited to the Combine, his height and weight will be his listed one from his school and/or his pro team if he's an international prospect.

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David Aldridge's Big Board 2018: Bigs

Rank | Name | School/Team | Class/Age | HT | WT > Projected

1. Deandre Ayton | Arizona | Freshman | 7-1 | 250 | High Lottery

2. Marvin Bagley III | Duke | Freshman | 6-11 | 234 | High Lottery

3. Jaren Jackson, Jr. | Michigan State | Freshman | 6-11 | 242 | High/Mid-Lottery

4. Mo Bamba | Texas | Freshman | 6-11 | 225 | Mid-Lottery

5. Wendell Carter, Jr. | Duke | Freshman | 6-10 | 259 | Mid-Lottery

6. Robert Williams | Texas A&M | Sophomore | 6-10 | 241 | Mid-first Round

7. Jontay Porter | Missouri | Freshman | 6-11 | 240 | Late first round

8. Bruno Fernando | Maryland | Freshman | 6-10 | 245 | Late first round

9. Brandon McCoy | UNLV | Freshman | 7-0 | 250 | Late first round

10. Omari Spellman | Villanova | Freshman | 6-9 | 245 | Late first round/Early second round

11. Mitchell Robinson | N/A | 20 | 7-1 | 225 | Late first round/Early second round

12. Chimezie Metu | USC | Junior | 6-11 | 225 | Second round

13. Austin Wiley | Auburn | Sophomore | 6-11 | 260 | Second round

14. Mo Wagner | Michigan | Junior | 6-11 | 245 | Second round

15. Ray Spaulding | Louisville | Junior | 6-11 | 215 | Second round

IN THE MIX: Thomas Welsh, 7-0, 255, UCLA; Yante Maten, 6-8, 243, Georgia; Billy Preston (20), 6-10, 231, BC Igokea; Udoka Azubuike (SO), 7-0, 280, Kansas; Marques Bolden (SO), 6-11, 246, Duke; Jo Lual-Acuil, Jr., 7-0, 225, Baylor; Alize Johnson, 6-9, 212, Missouri State; Angel Delgado, 6-10, 245, Seton Hall

SOME SCOUTS LIKE: Sagaba Konate (SO), 6-8, 260, West Virginia; Omer Yurtseven (SO), 7-0, 245, N.C. State; Jalen McDaniels (SO), 6-10, 195, San Diego State; P.J. Washington (FR), 6-7, 236, Kentucky; Kelan Martin (JR), 6-7, 220, Butler

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Ayton likely to deliver on promising skills

Hype is just that, hype. It’s up to you to decide if you take it seriously. But when the hype is near universal about a guy, you better pay attention. Someone is always wrong every year about somebody in the Draft. Everyone is rarely wrong.

And everyone is raving about Deandre Ayton, the Arizona freshman, who is the choice of many as the top overall pick in next month’s Draft.

The 19-year-old was a first team all-Pac 12 selection as well as an all-Defensive team choice in the conference. Per basketball-reference.com, Ayton was second in the nation in PER at 130.3 last season, and third nationally in Offensive Win Shares (5.5). He finished third in the country in total defensive rebounds (287), sixth in the country in rebounds per game (11.6) and tied for 13th in offensive boards (118).

He was a devastating offensive talent all season for the Wildcats, averaging a double-double and shooting 61 percent from the floor. But Arizona’s season was overshadowed by the ongoing FBI investigation into potential corruption in college basketball.

A now former Arizona assistant coach was fired after being indicted on bribery and other charges in September. Ayton and his family were implicated after ESPN reported last February that Arizona coach Sean Miller was heard on a FBI wiretap discussing a potential $100,000 payment to Ayton to assure his commitment to the Wildcats. Both Miller and Ayton have vehemently denied the allegation.

The allegation, though, have not impacted what NBA types think of the 7-foot-1 big man.

“There was a lot of fog around that program for months, and he was able to produce at a very high rate, especially offensively and rebounding,” a Pacific Division executive said of Ayton.

Indeed, the day his family issued its statement denying it received any money, Ayton made 11 of 15 shots en route to a 28-point, 18-rebound game against Oregon.

“That first game out he came out on a mission -- (bleep) you NCAA, (bleep) you ESPN, and everybody,” an admiring Atlantic Division exec said. “That’s the guy I want on my team.”

Ayton doesn’t have polished offensive moves yet, but he’s so big and strong and agile that he may not have to for a good long while. He should be productive right away.

“He can roll to the basket, finish above the rim,” another Pacific exec said. “I think he does a pretty good job rebounding. He can play pick-and-pop. Whether he rolls or not, he’s a weapon. Really strong, good base, body control. I don’t see a lot of weaknesses offensively. I think he can do everything. He’s pretty complete offensively.”

And pro guys think he can improve on his 34 percent shooting behind the arc at Arizona.

“I don’t think he’ll have any problem eventually going out, just like (Joel) Embiid can for the Sixers can from time to time, I think he’ll be able to go out and shoot an NBA three,” the first Pacific exec said. “I don’t want him to fall in love with it like Embiid has, but you watch him in the warmups, he’s got the fine muscle touch to do it.”

The questions about Ayton -- and there are some -- come in two areas: at the defensive end and with his occasional inconsistency of effort. For all his athletic gifts, some scouts believe he doesn’t display the same fluidity on defense that he shows with the ball in his hands.

“He’s not as … I don’t want to use the word mobile, but he moves stiff at times, especially at blocking shots and blocking weak side shots,” a Southwest Division executive said. “He moves his feet well, but it’s still stiff. It’s not instinctive. I want him to dominate. With that body and that athleticism, I want him to rip rebounds. I put it more on the amount of time he’s been playing … it’s a matter of him keeping playing.”

Some of that may improve as Ayton gets with strength and conditioning staffs at the next level, and gains greater flexibility. The rest is up to Ayton to fix.

“I see a very disinterested defender a lot,” the first Pacific exec said. “That’s more concerning. You can work on the body. You can work on his flexibility to get him to where he can move and cover ground and stay in pick and rolls. Where I’m a little bit more concerned is the fact that he doesn’t seem to want to be willing to become a dominant defender … he’s mostly predicated on the offensive end of the floor. I understand it. But he’s going to have to really want to become a dominant defender at the other end of the floor. That’s a big question mark … his rim protection is not very good. He doesn’t have a natural instinct to want to protect the rim.”

Some of Ayton’s defenders, though, point out he was playing out of position for long stretches during the season, at power forward, when Arizona played Ayton together with center Dusan Ristic.

“He’s better (defensively) than people give him credit for,” the second Pacific exec said. ‘He does a good job switching on the pick and roll and guarding players with quickness. Maybe that will help him at the next level, the fact that he had to guard fours. He has quick feet. Plays with an edge to him. Sometimes he can let his emotions get the best of him, but he’s 19. You’d rather have a kid with a lot of emotions than (one who does) not have any.”

Bagley III looks like ready-made NBA player

Duke’s Marvin Bagley III is a sure top-four pick after a year where the freshman won ACC Player of the Year honors, finished fifth nationally in offensive rebounds (132) and ninth in rebounds per game (11.1), with a PER of 30.6 that was seventh-best in the country.

He was rock-solid consistent for the Blue Devils, with 22 double-doubles, and just one game all season when he didn’t score in double figures. That came early in 2017-18, against Michigan State, when he only played 10 minutes before getting scratched in the eye and not returning.

Bagley is an outstanding ballhandler for a man his size. Even though he’s almost all left hand, and rarely posts up, he has all the makings of a small-ball center or a power forward who can make defenses sweat -- all while rebounding at a prodigious rate.

“I think he’s going to be a phenomenal NBA player,” a Western Conference college scout said. “He’s different than Ayton in that everything he does is fluidity. He’s light on his feet. Bagley is extremely connected when he moves. He’s mostly arms and legs right now because he doesn’t have much strength in his lower body. Great length. His ability to impact on an NBA court eventually, I think he’ll be able to stretch the floor and make the NBA three very well.”

Scouts marvel at his second and third jump, which may have roots in his, well, roots -- Bagley’s grandfather is Joe Caldwell, the former ABA and NBA All-Star. They love his touch around the basket and his ability to score on the move with his left. If he gets a more consistent jump shot, the left hand will become that much more effective.

He has been expected to be able to make the jump since he starred in high school in Phoenix.

“I saw him last summer in the Drew League: he was holding his own against pros,” an Atlantic Division executive said. “This was before he got to Duke. Bagley’s going to fit this modern basketball. He can run, he can play without it, he can guard positional space.”

Bagley shot 39.7 percent on 3-pointers and 61.4 percent overall, which point to effectiveness at the next level.

“The shot is coming,” one veteran scout said. “He has a foundation of a jumper where in two years you can see him making a pick-and-roll shot. I think he’s safe b/c his motor runs as a small ball five. And he likes to play. He likes being in the gym.”

But, like Ayton, Bagley will have to improve significantly at the defensive end -- “he’s going to get tested,” a Southeast Division executive said.

“The defensive concerns about Bagley, I think, are real,” another Western Conference executive said. “… The defensive side, he just never has played defense very hard.”

Defense makes Jackson Jr. stand out

Defense is not a problem for Michigan State freshman Jaren Jackson, Jr. In fact, the 6-foot-11 Jackson is thought of just as highly -- higher, by a few scouts -- as Ayton and Bagley because he’s so superior on defense while boasting an emerging offensive game that gives him great two-way potential.

Jackson, Jr., played alongside several bigs for coach Tom Izzo this season, but nonetheless stood out defensively. He was fifth in the country in blocked shots (106), seventh in blocks per game (3.03) and finished 14th in Defensive Rating (86.4). His defensive chops make sense if you know his pedigree. In a sign of how utterly old I am, I may or may not have covered his father, Jaren, Sr., when he played for John Thompson at Georgetown. (It’s hard to remember so far back.) Jaren, Sr., played 11 seasons in the NBA and won a title with the San Antonio Spurs in 1999.

“He’s a terrific talent,” a Central Division executive said of Jackson, Jr. “He’s got a lot of things that fit the modern NBA game -- length and agility and skill and motor. He’s one of those kids that’s going to continue to grow. Terrific upside … great timing and good defensive instincts all around.

“Offensively his shot is funny, but it goes in,” another scout said. “It wouldn’t surprise me if in year one Bagley is the best of them, but in year four, Jaren may be the second best one. He didn’t probably get showcased the way he deserved, because he played with two other bigs. If you’re a pretty good big, like (Duke’s) Wendell Carter, you usually don’t play with another big.”

If you’re patient, scouts say, you could wind up with a gem in the 18-year-old.

“I could see people wanting to take Jackson if you wanted to wait a year or two to see if you were right,” a Southwest Division exec said. “If he’ll work at it I don’t think he’ll be bad at (postups). His best moves are going to the left. He made some spectacular moves in college. But he was trending up, up, up, and then in the tournament he went down. It could be Izzo wanted to go with experience.”

Spindly Bamba has Gobert-like skills

Texas freshman Mo Bamba has a similar arc to Jackson’s -- defense will be his calling card at the beginning … and it’s a very compelling card.

Of all the bigs, Bamba’s potential puts most scouts in mind Capela or Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert. Both are devastating defenders and have become offensive contributors with their ability to screen, create open shots for teammates and score off lobs and rim runs.

Bamba was second in the country in blocked shots per game last season (3.7) and fourth in total blocks (111), making the all-Big 12 Defensive Team. He was 12th nationally in Defensive Rating (89.6) and 12th in rebounds per game (10.5). Texas utilized him in different ways and he was solid at all of them.

“He’s a human umbrella,” an admiring Atlantic Division exec says. “You put him in and shooting percentages go down across the board. Everything goes down -- points in the paint, threes, catch-and-shoots, off the dribble.”

He blocked four or more shots 20 times in 30 games for the Longhorns, who got bounced in the first round of the NCAA Tournament by Nevada, in a game Bomba fouled out of after posting 13 points and 14 boards in 31 minutes.

“If you could wait on him, he could be like a Rudy Gobert,” one scout said. “When (Gobert) came out he was gangly. Now, you look at his base, great legs to him. Bamba, a lot is going to depend on where he goes. If he can go somewhere where they can wait on him, it could be a lot better for him.”

Of course, that isn’t likely in the Lottery, which is where Bomba is sure to go. If he has to score right away in the pros, his team may be disappointed. Though he can make the shot, he only shot 28 percent on 3-pointers. His energy waxed and waned during the season, as it often does for freshmen who don’t know how hard you must play every night.

“I saw him against Kansas and he was really good,” a Southeast Division evaluator said. “Then you watch him play against TCU, and I get he’s young. But still, the effort, the energy level. There was times he was running on the floor and I was like ‘he’s still out there?’ For a kid that big to be out on the floor and he’s not out there you’re like, damn. But, he’s got great timing, can face up and shoot it.

“Good lateral foot speed. This was his freshman year and a lot of times they didn’t throw him the ball, and a lot of times he didn’t demand. I did see him some times bark at his teammates, ‘stop shooting the ball all the time’ or ‘throw the ball inside.’ I did see his body language show ‘get the ball inside.’ So there was a pulse there.”

Listed at 225 pounds, Bomba must get stronger to play more physically and hold his own in the NBA. Bomba has a thin waist and lower body. He will have to make the weight room his friend for the foreseeable future.

“You want more,” a Western Conference GM said. “He’ll get you 15 and 9 and you think he could have gotten 25 and 15. Is he playing hard all the time? For him, it’s all risk/reward.

“He has to be a good kid or a hard worker or he’s not going to make it … his measurements are the exact same as Gobert’s, and Gobert’s body when he was in France was awful. And look what he’s done. His body’s matured and now he’s a very tough defender and he protects the rim. This kid, you have to hope the same thing happens. Height and length, exact same. Gobert’s shoulders were bigger. Nice touch, not a bad touch at all. People just push him off the block right now. Intriguing, but a risk/reward guy.”

Carter a hidden gem in big-man class

Wendell Carter, the second half of Duke’s 1-2 big man punch, has a lot of fans among NBA scouts, who think someone picking at or near the midway point of the Lottery may well get a gem. Bagley may have gotten more headlines, but Carter is viewed highly as well. The second team all-ACC selection was 18th in the country in PER (28.2) and tied for 20th nationally in offensive rebounds (109).

Carter’s parents may have disagreed about whether he should return to Duke for his sophomore season, but NBA types aren’t.

Carter drew comparisons by more than one scout to Al Horford, a similar do-it-all big who didn’t get the ink of Joakim Noah or some of the other star players at Florida. But Horford was the key to the Gators’ back-to-back championship teams in 2006 and ‘07.

Carter has huge hands that allow him to catch and score in the paint, while also having the physicality to finish through contact.

“I think people are missing the boat on Wendell Carter,” one talent evaluator said. “He’s not a flashy player. He’s not saying look at what I can do. He’s got the ability to score … but he’s got that nastiness. He’s a man. He can go up and get rebound.

“He took a back seat to Bagley and he did so, it seemed, pretty seamlessly. I was watching Horford (now the Celtics’ anchor) in the Sixers’ series, and to me, (Carter’s) a taller version of Al Horford. Those kinds of guys are really valuable. I just think he’s a really undervalued player and because of his quiet nature and non-self promoting personality, I think he gets overlooked.”

Carter showed viability defensively, though he’ll have to show he can play man to man in the pros.

“He protected them in that zone,” another executive said. “He was the anchor in the back. He cleaned up a lot of the problems they had and made them look good. His shot doesn’t look bad. He looks like Al Horford to me. Now, he has to work to be Al Horford.”

Can Williams tap into immense potential?

Texas A&M sophomore Robert Williams opted into the Draft for a second straight season, but this time, he’s staying in, and with good reason. The 6-foot-10 big was an SEC all-Defensive Team selection, finishing in the top 20 nationally both in Defensive Rating (90.2, 16th in the country) and total blocks (78, tied for 18th in the country). The questions around Williams involve consistency of effort.

“You want to shake him because there’s an NBA body there all the way,” a Western Conference executive said. “He’s an ungodly athlete.”

There were nights when Williams was dominant -- 21 points and 15 rebounds against LSU, 20 and 14 at Arkansas, 13 and 14 in the first round of the NCAA Tournament against Providence. And Williams helped lead the Aggies to the Sweet 16 before a blowout loss to eventual national finalist Michigan. But there were a lot of nights where Williams made little impact.

“I watched him in practice,” one Southeast Division executive said, “and if I didn’t know who I was coming to see, I would have left there not knowing who Robert Williams was … I don’t know what the neck-up problem is, but the neck-down part, he’s got.

“How much does he love the game? Is he a guy that, he’s going to play when he wants to play? That’s the tricky part with the kid. (A&M Coach) Billy Kennedy benched him part of the year. I don’t know if he was trying to get the kid to play hard.”

At this stage, Williams is primarily a rim runner and finisher offensively -- he has no perimeter game, making just 2 of 30 3-pointers in two seasons at A&M. But he’s got so much potential athletically, Williams is a first-round lock.

“When he was at his best he was a rim runner and finisher, stick backs, and shot blocker,” the Southeast exec said. “He’s got really long arms and that elite level athleticism … when he decides to play, he’s got good energy and the kid’s productive. But that’s the thing: what was holding him back from doing that all year?”

Porter an intriguing talent

Missouri freshman Jontay Porter is the youngest player in the Draft. He’s still six months shy of his 19th birthday, and is more than a year younger than his heralded brother (Michael Porter, Jr., who is expected to be a Lottery pick).

Jontay Porter won’t go in the Lottery, but he’s solidly on many team’s Draft boards in the first round. He should have been a freshman this coming season, but he re-classified into the 2018 class at Missouri after playing with Michael for former NBA star Brandon Roy at Nathan Hale High in Washington state.

The Porter brothers then followed their father, Michael, Sr., who accepted a job as an assistant coach at Missouri. Jontay moved up to play with Michael, Jr., and for Michael, Sr. While Michael, Jr.’s season was all but scotched after back surgery, Jontay played 33 games for the Tigers, averaging 9.9 points and 6.8 rebounds per game.

Jontay is not as mobile or athletic as Michael, Jr., but he shot 36.4 percent on 3-pointers. He also showed an ability to score out of pick-and-pop sets and of the bounce, and thus intrigues as a potential NBA stretch four.

“I really like him,” a Northwest Division executive said. “He can shoot it, pass it, big body, good hands … (he will be) great value wherever he gets picked.”

Jontay Porter will have to improve his conditioning to best handle the up-and-down pace of the NBA.

“I think they’re doing the kid an injustice by comparing him to his brother,” an Atlantic Division executive said of Jontay. “They’re completely different players … Jontay can’t just jump over guys. But I think he has a little bit more basketball feel than Michael. And he’s playing against men. It’ll be interesting to see where someone slates him. People aren’t going against these non-defensive bigs, but he’s so young. He’s definitely in the direction of a skilled big, but it’s a question of how skilled he’s going to be.”

Jontay Porter wasn’t overmatched in his class, and while he didn’t dominate playing against older players in college, that year difference is huge -- someone who just turned 18 playing against 19- and 20-year olds.

“He’s kind of a polarizing player,” a Central Division executive said. “He’s not a fast, athletic-highlight type of player, but he’s got a great feel for the game. Shooting and passing are advanced for his age. Does he love to play? To be determined. I think he does a lot of things offensively that translate. His athletic tools are never going to be high level. But his smarts and ability to shoot and pass are impressive.”

One wonders how Jontay Porter will do when he’s no longer playing next to his more heralded older brother. That can go either way sometimes -- separation being known to create both anxiety and opportunity.

“Like the Morris twins,” the Central exec said. “People thought they couldn’t survive without each other, but they’ve had some pretty good individual success. A kid like Jontay maybe gets out of (Michael’s) shadow and really blossoms.”

Fernando may need more seasoning

Maryland’s Bruno Fernando declared after one season in College Park, during which he put up good but not great numbers (10.3 points, 6.5 boards) for a good-but-not-great Terrapins squad that didn’t make the NCAA Tournament or NIT. But the Angolan-born Fernando does have a chance to make guaranteed first-round money as a potential stretch four in the Serge Ibaka mold.

“His stroke is so nice,” a Southeast Division executive said. “Today, you’ve got to be able to shoot with range just for somebody to honor you. You can’t play like Jonas Valanciunas and be respected. They marginalize the big guys. If you’re not Embiid, which is a once-in-a-lifetime player, you may struggle.

“(Fernando) can shoot it. He’s athletic. Somebody might be telling him he has a promise (in the first round). The big indicator with big guys is he’s already a pretty good free throw shooter, at 74 percent, and that’s only going to get better.”

Fernando struggled to produce against the Big 10’s most dominant bigs.

“He did fine against Wisconsin,” an Atlantic Division executive said. “When he had to play against (Michigan State’s Jaren) Jackson, he was literally deer in the headlights. You could see the difference. He couldn’t get his shot off against that kind of length. Everything was under the basket. He tried. What he is right in doing was he was trying to dunk everything. He was playing with force.“

Defensively, scouts say Fernando is decent, not great. And the speed of the game is a problem for him now. More than one scout said it wouldn’t be the worst decision if Fernando opted to return to Maryland for his sophomore season because of the relative paucity of bigs in next year’s Draft compared with this year’s.

“If he goes out next year and beats up on some college kids he could really play himself way up,” the Atlantic executive said.

And some notes on the others …

UNLV center Brandon McCoy won the Mountain West’s Freshman of the Year award, averaging a double-double (16.9 points, 10.3 rebounds, the latter 14th in the country) for the Rebels. He’ll have to show that he’s more than one-dimensional to have much of a chance to stick with the team that takes him.

“Brandon can score,” one scout said. ‘He’s not going to protect the basket. He’s not going to rim run. But he’ll trail the play and you can throw it back to him and he’ll get to his shot. I saw him play against Ayton (in December). They grew up together in San Diego and played against each other as kids.

“Everyone was excited to see them in college. Ayton was a monster. I remember walking out of there going ‘this is the number one pick.’ But with five minutes left, UNLV is giving them a run for their money, and you look up and Brandon had something 29 points and 13 rebounds (ed: it was 33 points and 10 rebounds).”

But, again, how he handles the other side of the floor raises concerns.

“One of the worst defensive players I’ve ever witnessed,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “He has no interest in defending. He’s pretty good around the basket offensively. But every team just tried to space the floor (against UNLV) and when he had to go out and defend, they just attacked him. It was sad.”

Villanova’s Omari Spellman was one of the unsung heroes of the Wildcats’ run to a second national championship in three years. The redshirt freshman shot 43.3 percent on 3-pointers and provided strong post defense. While more well-heralded teammates like Jalen Brunson and Miles Bridges got the lion’s share of attention, Spellman was a rock at key moments for Villanova all season.

In Villanova’s Sweet 16 win over a rugged West Virginia team, Spellman went for 18 points and eight rebounds. In the Final Four win over Kansas, he had 15 points and 13 rebounds. He declared for the Draft after the national championship, but has yet to hire an agent as he decides whether to stay in or go back for his sophomore season.

“He’s done a really unbelievable job on his body,” one Eastern Conference executive said. “I was thinking he’s going to have to really watch his diet and work on his body, and he’s done that. He shot the ball out to the college three, corner three. He can play in and out.

“It’s just defensively, I don’t know where you can hide him. He’s going to have to be a four. Let’s see how his feet improve. But I love the edge he plays with. He plays to win. He’s mean. He’s starting to space it and make shots.”

A lot of teams don’t know what to make of 7-foot-1 center Mitchell Robinson. The 20-year-old will have to answer a lot of questions at the Draft Combine this week, but at least he was invited there -- a sign of the intrigue he nonetheless has created.

Robinson committed to Western Kentucky last year, but left before playing after a brief summer school stint. He came back to the Hilltoppers later last summer, but again pulled out of school before the season began, never playing a game for WKU before announcing he was declaring for the Draft. He’s already changed agents and trainers; he had been working out extensively with former NBA player Morlon Wiley, before changing up.

It continued a pattern; he’d attended multiple high schools before going to Chalmette in Louisiana, where he became a McDonald’s all-American, averaging 25 points and 12 rebounds, and was an invitee to the U.S. Under 19 national team -- though he did not make the final squad.

But despite all that, Robinson is a gifted shot blocker and a very good athlete, who’s raised eyebrows in pre-Draft workouts with teams. The off-court issues make him a borderline first-round pick, though it only takes one team to take a flier on someone with Robinson’s talents.

“He’s a talented kid and hopefully he gets his head on straight and makes us all look bad,” one scout said.

Said another, who whispered the name Amar’e Stoudemire as a potential comparison to Robinson: “He’s clueless, but he’s kind of a natural. He doesn’t understand a lot of terminology, but if you put him out there and say run and jump, he can do some things. And there’s word he’s measuring better than people expected. A team that feels it can surround this guy with the right development process and can take care of the off-court stuff could take him … if a team like San Antonio can put the right process around him … but he’s going to need someone with him all the time.”

USC junior Chimezie Metu was a first team all-Pac 12 and honorable mention all-Pac 12 Defensive Team choice who declared for the Draft after not playing during the Trojans’ NIT run to avoid injury, joining the trend of college football players who’ve opted not to play in their school’s bowl games for the same reason.

Metu can make shots and the defensive piece is there, but the consistency has not been there.

“Very intelligent (but) sometimes his motor wanes,” an Eastern Conference executive said. “He does have some elite athleticism in spots. He’ll make one or two plays a game where you go ‘where did that come from?’ But he’s very inconsistent. He’s not a 50-50 guy. When you think of a blue-collar big, he doesn’t do blue collar stuff. But he can make a shot … was more of a skilled facing-the-basket four before growing.”

Michigan’s Mo Wagner turned heads with his star turn during the NCAA Tournament, driving and hitting 3-pointers as the Wolverines made the national championship game. It completed a year where Wagner was top 20 nationally in Defensive Win Shares (2.2) and made big strides as a leader.

“I love his skill,” a Central Division executive said. “Pick and pop, put it on the deck. Pretty deceptive doing so. You see seven foot, not a great  athlete, and guys run him off of his shot thinking I’m going to neutralize him. But he’s pretty nimble in traffic. He can score with either hand. Not the greatest athlete. But he figures out a way offensively to hurt you.”

The question for Wagner will be whether he can defend and rebound. He’s not a bruiser or rim protector.

“He’s going to have to be an offensive threat,” the Central exec said. “I love the passion. He’s got competitive spirit. He’s not afraid. You need guys who bring a passion. I don’t think he was the leader (at Michigan) but he, maybe, was their emotional leader when things were going well. He has a little volatility as far as his emotions. It’s kind of hard to be the leader when you have that trait. When things are going well he’ll lift the play of everyone around him.”

Longtime NBA reporter, columnist and Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Famer David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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