The NBA draft is all about projections and potential. A generation ago, most NBA executives’ strategy was to compare prospects based on their collegiate careers. Then the Fab Five arrived at Michigan, and suddenly the process was flipped upside down. Underclassmen were scrutinized, analyzed and scouted thoroughly by NBA clubs who wanted to get the next big-time prospect.
While prospects with high upside are intriguing, they come with more risk than upperclassmen. The lottery is annually dominated by underclassmen, primarily freshmen.
Before eligibility changes were in effect, there was a famous debate about whether Emeka Okafor or Dwight Howard should be the top pick. Supporters from both sides argued for their respective beliefs, but ultimately the Orlando Magic opted for promising prep star Howard over accomplished collegian Okafor. Time vindicated the Magic as Howard became an All-NBA center and bona fide superstar.
For franchises in rebuilding mode, it is its not about finding a player who can be a contributing starter for a few seasons. It is about finding the next Howard, LeBron James, or even Kyrie Irving. It has become so important for franchises to be able to sell hope to their fan base with a young superstar.
While the NBA season is not even halfway complete, a handful of teams and their fans have come to the realization that the playoffs are out of the question. Positioning for the lottery becomes the new cheer for these downtrodden fans.
As with most drafts, it s all about projections and upside. Here are some of the top freshmen in college basketball and their NBA draft stock.
Shabazz Muhammad, SG, UCLA
Muhammad entered his freshman season as strong contender for the top overall pick and for the most part has been solid. In his most recent game against Utah, Muhammad struggled, going 3-12 and scoring just 6 points. However, he had scored over 20 points in five of his previous six games. Even more impressive to NBA scouts has been Muhammad’s efficiency from the arc, which is at nearly 44 percent on the season.
Several scouts all spoke glowingly of Muhammad’s game and feel he can make a quick transition to the NBA with his body. Muhammad has the size to play either shooting guard or small forward, and that kind of versatility can only help Muhammad’s stock, which has held steady to this point.
Make no mistake: Muhammad still has work to do to ensure he is the top pick in the draft.
Nerlens Noel, C, Kentucky
Noel is no Anthony Davis, and the pressure of following in Davis’ huge footsteps may ultimately affect his stock. But to this point, Noel has been steady. Averaging nearly a double-double, Noel’s greatest impact can be felt on the defensive end, where he is averaging 3.5 blocks and 2.6 steals per game.
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On the offensive end, nearly every NBA team I spoke with felt Noel was raw and needed significant work to polish up his game but had no reservation about his potential. Noel should make an instant impact on defense and on the backboards.
In a year where the draft lacks a clear choice at the top, Noel – with his length, athleticism and defensive skills – is a strong choice to be the top pick. But he has a lot of competition at his position as there could be as many as three other centers in the mix for the top spot.
Ben McLemore, SG, Kansas
No player in the country has been playing as well as McLemore of late. The redshirt freshman has seen his stock soar with an unbelievable 33-point performance against Iowa State in which McLemore went 6-of-6 from distance.
This season McLemore has shown the ability to create for himself and teammates, slash and finish or shoot. A balanced offensive scoring threat with good length from a major program will always have teams intrigued, and there may not be a hotter name right now in NBA circles than McLemore’s.
McLemore is a lock for the top five and perhaps higher. A definite contender for the top pick in the draft.