The 2014 NBA draft class was heralded in with trumpets. With some of the prospects earmarked for undoubted hoops superstardom since middle school and a veritable army of highlight reel “mixtapes” landing on every video site imaginable, the upcoming draftees were so good that pundits couldn’t help but talk about them during last year’s draft, juxtaposing the lack of talent in 2013 with the embarrassment of riches coming up next year. The noise was so loud and so vibrant that it created a public enemy scenario: Many decided that they couldn’t believe the hype, and the backlash began. All this cacophony, and the NCAA men’s basketball season had yet to see a single game.
The tank — as throwing games in order to receive a high lottery pick is often referred to — was in full effect. Every loss in the NBA has brought about a new interest in the college game, and sports coverage mainstays like ESPN have begun to offer a Mock Draft Lottery Machine for fans of likely high-drafting teams like the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics.
As the NBA season begins to enter the doldrums of February, March, and April (also known as “when do the playoffs start again?”), we’ll take a look at the top 10 prospects in the NBA draft and compare them to how they were expected to perform at the start of the season. None of these names should be surprising at this point, but some of the analysis might.
First up is Gary Harris, the sophomore shooting guard from Michigan State. Standing 6-foot-4, the 2013 Big Ten freshman player of the year has struggled with injuries during his collegiate career but has shown to be a reliable volume scorer while healthy. In other words, he’s still exactly who he was supposed to be at the beginning of the season.
Unfortunately, you could also say the same for Oklahoma State’s 6-foot-4 sophomore, Marcus Smart. A talented point guard, Smart’s decision to stay at Oklahoma instead of declaring for the NBA “cost himself a ton of money,” according to an unnamed NBA general manager. But Smart, whose competitive drive has been noticed in the media and around the league, could very well muscle himself back into the top-five conversation.
One of those top five players is Australian Dante Exum, who officially declared for the draft on January 28. Exum, a 6-foot, 6-inch-tall ball handling guard with a 6-foot, 9-inch wingspan, officially forewent playing a season of NCAA basketball when he signed with Landmark Sports Agency, becoming ineligible for college hoops. The hype behind Exum rests largely on his great performances in the 2013 Nike Hoops Summit and the FIBA U-19 Championship, but the average fan has little else to examine when it comes to his game. Exum remains one of the larger wildcards in the top 10 of the draft.
Before the season, Duke’s Jabari Parker was considered either either the 1A or 1B pick in the draft, depending on how you felt about the other small forward pegged for greatness (more on him in a minute). Christened the best high school basketball player since LeBron James by Sports Illustrated all the way back in 2012, Parker remains the best scorer in the 2014 draft class, being mentioned in the same rarified air as elite bucket-makers Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant. However, his defense has come under fire, and questions have cropped up about how effective he will be as a two-way player in the NBA.
If you’re looking for questions, though, no one has provided more than Kansas Jayhawk Andrew Wiggins. Aka Maple Jordan. Aka the surefire No. 1 pick before the season started. While Wiggins has had some decidedly dominant games, he seems prone to disappearing, and everyone who’s watching — paid to opine or otherwise — seems prone to notice. While there’s still no real way he falls out of the top three, his default top status seems far more precarious than before.
Marcus Smart wasn’t the only surprising stay-home of the 2013 draft. Croatia’s Dario Saric, a 6-foot-10 small forward who was projected to go in the lottery, decided to opt out and stay another year in the Adriatic League (as well as competing in the Eurocup). By all accounts, this was a solid move, as his numbers are up overall and he’s still in consideration to go in the top 10. Footage is scarce, and the 19-year-old will have some hurdles ahead as he adjusts from FIBA (the International Basketball Federation) rules to the NBA, but a nearly 7-foot wingspan will always have a place in the league.
Kentucky’s Julius Randle stormed out of the gates at the Nike Hoops Summit last year and, giving honesty to that oft-used but rarely sincere description, looked like a man among boys. Randle was big, Randle was strong, and Randle was cleaning up on the glass and holding court in the low post. Standing 6-foot-9 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan and playing for infamous one-and-done advocate John Calipari, there was a brief period where Randle could’ve reasonably gone No. 1 overall. Now, questions about his defense and lack of rim protection are keeping him just outside the top three.
Some of that has got to be Kansas center Joel Embiid’s fault. Famously touted by his coach as the next Hakeem before the season started, Embiid was expected to be a two- or three-year project, a development piece getting some burn next to Maple Jordan’s one year in college. So far, he has taken men’s college basketball by storm and sits nicely as a possible No. 1 draft pick. With footwork unseen in a big man since, yes, The Dream, and great defensive acumen — not to mention his jersey-ready triple vowel last name — Embiid stands out, literally and figuratively, as one of the most intriguing draftees.
But lest the praise lauded on Embiid and Randle make you think there’s only a pair of intriguing bigs in the 2014 draft, Indiana’s Noah Vonleh and Arizona’s Aaron Gordon, standing at 6-foot-10 and 6-foot-8, respectively, round out most top 10 lists at this point in the season. Gordon is a known quantity, a power forward from the Bay Area who has gained comparisons to Shawn Marion for his defense and his effort, while Vonleh has leapt up draft boards recently with his rebounding prowess and his absolute allergy towards being boxed out. After Randle and Embiid, these two are poised to be the first bigs off the board.