If the NBA draft were the NFL draft, then last June people would have dubbed Washington’s Isaiah Thomas as “Mr. Irrelevant” considering that moniker is bestowed on the last player drafted.
But anyone who has watched the Sacramento Kings this year knows that the dynamic Thomas, the last pick of the second round in the 2011 draft, has been far from irrelevant. In fact, he’s undoubtably had a faster adjustment to the NBA game than the other guard they acquired that night almost 50 slots higher, Jimmer Fredette.
Judging talent is that fine of a line in the NBA, and the number that you are selected puts a young player in the boom or bust category. It’s also about opportunity and fit. Kenneth Faried fits perfectly into Denver’s rotation and has contributed quality minutes, as has another four-year college player, Norris Cole, who fills a need for the Miami Heat. Other players take longer to develop.
With that said, the names of all the early entry prospects recently released, let’s take a look at 5 American players who I think are diamonds in the rough in the 2012 class.
Damian Lillard, 6’2, 190, PG, Weber State
No one’s stock has risen more over the past year than Lillard, whose size and skill make him this draft’s most NBA-ready point guard. It’s hard to truly consider him a gem, but let’s face it, had he played for Kentucky he’d be a top 5 pick and not at the back end of the lottery in most mock efforts. This kid is as complete a point guard prospect in terms of shot and play making as I’ve seen in several drafts. His confidence and control of tempo with the ball make him a standout across the board. The good news for Lillard’s career, albeit not his wallet, is that teams drafting at the top of the draft don’t need point guards. He’d be a great fit for the Blazers at No. 11.
Jonathan Simmons, 6’6, 195, F, Houston
I’m curious to see how Simmons rates at the NBA combine in terms of total athleticism, a category that allowed for Iman Shumpert to volt up draft boards. He’s not the most physical of prospects, but his length and athleticism allowed for some explosive offensive performances that included makes from behind the 3-point arc. He played just one year of college ball and 6’6 athletes are a dime a dozen, but in the right situation Simmons may be able to shine over the summer and stick on an NBA roster. He’s an interesting prospect for me at this point.
Dion Waiters 6’4 215 G Syracuse
While Waiters’ last game for the Orange left plenty wondering if he needed more seasoning, his two weeks of play prior to that left scouts with little doubt of his ability. He’s projected as a mid-first round selection but his size and skill translate immediately for an NBA rotation. I like his ability to step in and catch and shoot, something he did plenty of at Syracuse playing off of their big post players. Like most prospects from the ‘Cuse his defensive principles come into question but his lateral quickness and strength are positives for me defensively. In a guard-heavy league it’s critical for Waiters to find the right situation, and I’m sure a team like Memphis or Indiana hope he falls into the 20s.
J’Covan Brown, 6’1 , 185, PG, Texas
Brown could be this year’s Isaiah Thomas in terms of a smaller guard who can handle the NBA pace if placed in the right situation. He’s an explosive scorer and a difficult player to defend one-on-one with the ball thanks to “plus” quickness. The biggest knock is that he wasn’t the perfect quarterback all the time and his decision making is questionable at times, but he’s got all the tools. The Cavs have Kyrie Irving, but they have extra picks to play with. Brown could be solid depth and good value if they go in other directions earlier in the draft.
Joston Thomas, 6’7, 235, F, Hawaii
Carmelo Anthony is taking a ton of heat for his inability to lead the Knicks to any playoff success (until Sunday) and has been criticized for not making teammates better, but his post skills are a commodity in today’s game. Thomas, a DC product, reminds me of ‘Melo in terms of his ability to bully players close to the basket with an array of post moves and athleticism. Ask Xavier after his 8-for-11, 24-point, 9 rebound effort on Christmas Eve. He’s not a complete offensive player at this point and needs to improve his range, but he has the size and ability to develop for a team in need of a complimentary post presence. If I’m the Hawks or Warriors, I’m taking a long look at Thomas in the 2nd round.