Let's be honest: We aren't the real NBA draft experts. Scouts and analysts at big draft sites like DraftExpress and ESPN digest the games we can't see and compile excellent analysis for us to consume so that we can pass ourselves off as experts when draft time rolls around. The stability at the top of the 2014 NBA Draft class has just made it easier for us to fake our way through this process. We know just enough to be dangerous.
Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Dante Exum, Julius Randle and Marcus Smart have held strong as the top six prospects in the draft, and you've undoubtedly formed firm opinions on each individual. If you want to inflate or impede someone's draft stock, you have the information to do it—but only because the experts and statistically inclined draftniks have told you where to look.
The journey of each premium prospect is instructive. Andrew Wiggins and Julius Randle earned high marks from scouts in high school, and despite underwhelming production at the collegiate level they've both survived the season as top-five prospects. Dante Exum dazzled scouts at the Nike Hoop Summit and in international competition, and even without recent high-level play he's kept himself in the conversation at the top of the draft. Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid started the season ranked sixth and seventh on theDraftExpress Top-100 list, but strong play moved them both up the draft board over the course of the year.
In a way, we fixate on these guys because we're told to fixate on these guys. I think it's why someone like Marcus Smart can rate out extremely well in statistical models (No. 1 in Pelton's WARP) and even generate broad agreement among scout and stat inputs, but there would still be a Twitter riot if the Bucks selected him No. 2 overall. We've been told he's in the top-10 club by the sites we frequent, but we've also been told he's not in that club. Our concept of good value of a pick is at least in part based on what DraftExpress and ESPN tell us is good value.
For several years, I've made it a point to abandon all pretense and just track how the experts change their opinions on players over the course of a season. I color code prospect names and chart the evolution of draft big boards. It's an easy way to visualize the stock of important players and find hidden gems. Last year, it helped me point out the meteoric rise of Giannis Antetokounmpo prior to draft day.
This year, Kyle Anderson, Clint Capela, Jusuf Nurkic and K.J. McDaniels come to mind as notable hot prospects. Meanwhile, James Young and Aaron Gordon have both dropped over the course of the season. I've recorded 19 different version of the DX board this year, and I've now condensed the content into eight versions (similar in time frame to the ESPN rankings I will release in a later piece) that track changes from October to June. Before I discuss risers and fallers, here's a look at the evolution of the DX big board.
If you're looking for the next Giannis Antetokoumpo-style international surprise player, Clint Capela is definitely your guy. The gangly French big man weighs a mere 222 pounds, but as Dean Demakis notes, Capela's length and quickness compares favorably to Chris Bosh, Tyson Chandler and Kevin Garnett. The young man didn't crack the top-50 on the DX board back in October, but if you keep an eye on the light blue name in the chart above you can see him rocket up the big board into the top 20. Moreover, his strong play in the French Pro A League and a brief EuroCup stint was enough to catapult him to the apex of Kevin Pelton's international WARP projections and the No. 2 spot overall for WARP in this class (behind Marcus Smart). In other words, Capela still might not be high enough in the DX rankings.
A poor showing at the Nike Hoop Summit and up-and-down effort has led DX to question his feel for the game and his intangibles. He's not very good away from the rim, but DX points out in their situational stats post that Capela scored on 73.8% of his cuts and 65.5% of his put-back opportunities. With the lanky enigma projected to go No. 20 overall in the latest DX mock, I think Dean Demakis put it well regarding Capela in his post about the value of international prospects:
Overall, scouting narratives strike me as less discouraging than his positives are encouraging. If there is one position where skill and intelligence flaws can be overcome to produce at an elite level, it's center. Nobody ever accused Dwight Howard of having good basketball IQ or feel for the game, but he was the 2nd most valuable player in the league when he had Stan Van Gundy coaching him. Everybody questioned Andre Drummond's passion and basketball IQ and he slid too far and instantly smashed expectations as a rookie. I have no idea how DeAndre Jordan slid to the 2nd round with his physical tools, but he didn't even have good stats in college and he's become a useful NBA player anyway. Even Javale McGee convinced Masai Ujiri to gamble on him at 4/44, and he is responsible for some of the most inexplicably dumb plays in NBA history. Athletic bigs are capable of such a significant defensive impact that they have quite a bit of margin for error in their skill and basketball IQ in order to still be productive.
Capela is definitely someone to have on your radar as a sleeper and/or a late riser—just so you know.
Some other notable risers include UCLA teammates Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams. You should already know why these guys are on the rise. They've both overcome scouting stigmas (neither player started the year in the top 50) by posting consistently great numbers in a competitive environment. Now they each rank in the top 25, and statistical models love these guys as potential draft day steals. Jordan Adams kept grinding away with his well-rounded game, while Anderson soaked up a lot of offensive responsibility and more than doubled his three-point accuracy in the process. Here's a little nugget on Anderson from the situational statistics post at DX that I think bodes well for him at the next level:
Anderson can get his shot off as noted thanks to his tremendous size and high release point, which is very important considering how long it takes him to get the ball out of his hands. He was very effective in catch and shoot situations this season (21/41, 51%), as he's no longer a guy you can leave wide open, but again the small sample size leaves a lot to be desired.
Anderson actually took twice as many shots off the dribble this season (84) as he did with his feet set, and was nearly just as effective (48%). His release is very deliberate here as well, but the extra fade he adds to it allows him to create the separation he needs to get his shot off.
One other player to mention in this space is Clemson swingman K.J. McDaniels. He's an exceptional athlete with two-way potential on the perimeter, and if you don't like the idea of taking a risk on Andrew Wiggins' upside, K.J. is the type of mid-level prospect who could fit in the meaty part of Wiggins' projected developmental curve. McDaniels is older than Wiggins, but without much of an outside shot he scored more efficiently than Wiggins (1.000 ppp vs. 0.974 ppp) thanks to some excellent transition and half court finishing numbers. I'll let the DX situational stats for small forwards tell the story:
McDaniels ranks as the top transition scorer in this group, scoring 1.49 points per fast break possession. He also ranks as the 3rd best finisher in the half court, scoring 1.36 points per possessions round the rim. McDaniels ranks as a below average perimeter scorer, putting up .83 points per-shot, but if he can develop his shooting efficiency enough to complement his athleticism, he could provide value as a roleplayer at the next level.
Again, McDaniels is another player who earned his way into the DX top 25, coming from a sub-50 ranking prior to January. His consistent production at Clemson helped him climb the board and convince the scouts, and at the very least he should become an interesting low-water mark point of comparison for Wiggins at the next level.
It's a bit of a cheat to focus in on Kentucky freshman James Young here—he was ranked No. 46 by DX in October—but his journey since December is what lands him here. After leading the NCAA runner-up Wildcats in shots and posting reasonable efficiency (53.6% TS, 34.9% 3PT) despite the early struggles of the Harrison twins, Young put his name on the map. He vaulted from No. 46 to No. 16 by December. His stock hasn't exactly been stable since then, as he slipped briefly to No. 27 in April, jumped back the fringe of the lottery and then dropped again from No. 15 to No. 24 in June. It's been a wild ride.
So ... what's the deal? He measured well at the Draft Combine ("[a]t 6'7 with a 6'11 wingspan, Young has prototypical size for a NBA wing, with a 215-pound frame that should continue to improve over time"), but concerns about shot selection, finishing skills and ball handling deficiencies may be why he's slipping. Reading through the excellent DraftExpress content, I'm catching a Nick Young vibe:
As much as Young's ability to get shots off over the defense made him a dangerous scoring threat, it also limited his efficiency. Making 34.9% of his shots from beyond the arc on the year, the lefty struggled from the perimeter for long stretches, due in large part to the number of contested jump shots he attempted. Almost three-quarters of Young's 199 catch and shoot jump shots this season were defended. Connecting on 45% of his open attempts but just 32% when guarded, Young is an efficient threat given time and space that would certainly benefit from playing in an up tempo offense around established, unselfish scorers who can create that space for him early in his NBA career.
Seldom called upon to create one-on-one or on the pick and roll last season, Young is not very dynamic off the bounce, as his ball-handling and ability to drive right remain a work in progress. He's an opportunistic finisher in transition and can make some tough pull-up jump shots, but he doesn't always see the open man on his drives and struggled to convert inside the arc efficiently, settling for difficult floaters and forcing contested, high-degree of difficulty shots in close. As a consequence, Young ranks 65th of the 74 NCAA prospects in our Top-100 in two-point percentage.
The other notable faller on the DX list is Aaron Gordon. He came into the season with a top-five billing and athleticism for days, but if you track his name on the chart I provided above you can see the steady decline of his stock from No. 4 to No. 9 (the largest fall of any top prospect). This is a hard drop to peg. Gordon has the raw physical tools you want for a lockdown defender and complementary scorer, but there are questions about his offensive skill level. Here's what DX offered in the situational stats analysis, which may be the underlying reason for discounting his upside relative to the other top guys:
Gordon was able to get over 30% of his offense off of a combination of cuts and put-backs, both high percentage shots, and with his athleticism and nose for the ball, two things he should be able to continue to do, even if he'll be at a size disadvantage at the next level while his body physically matures. Projecting his ability to create his own shot isn't quite as simple, as even at the collegiate level he rarely created in isolation situations (1.2 possessions per game), on the pick and roll (0.6 possessions per game), or post-ups (1.1 possessions per game). Then there's also the questions about his jump shot, as his 29.3% shooting on jumpers throughout the season and dreadful 42.2% from the line leave plenty to be desired.
Past Big Boards
If we admit that the experts shape our perception of good value heading into the draft, it's probably worth checking out a chart with the final rankings at DraftExpress and ESPN for 2012 and 2013. For DX, Andre Drummond at No. 2 in 2012 and Giannis Antetokounmpo at No. 9 in 2013 both look like excellent calls. On the flip side, Thomas Robinson stings a bit, and there's still a decent amount riding on Alex Len for 2013. Thinking back to 2012, it's easy to see why Cleveland's decision to draft Dion Waiters No. 4 overall caused such a stir. The same concept applies with Nerlens Noel "slipping" and Anthony Bennett going No. 1. It's up to you to decide if the experts set the market well enough to do this whole dance again in 2014.
Let us know what you see in these charts by posting some comments below.