We are at a crucial junction in the basketball calendar. The NBA All-Star weekend has come and gone, and was filled with high's and low's for Blazer fans. The NBA trade deadline passed yesterday, in which Portland made the best B+ trade in the history of the NBA. Simultaneously, the conference play is close to wrapping up in college basketball, meaning conference tournaments and March Madness are right around the corner. This means several things for NBA fans:
- Fans all across the league are watching the standings, wondering where their teams are going to end up in the final standings. This is important because for some teams it means the difference between the playoffs or the lottery, or the difference between Andre Drummond (the 9th pick in last year's draft) and Meyers Leonard (the 12th pick in last year's draft).
- Scouting and ranking of NBA prospects has begun in ernest. Teams have been scouting players all year, but now fans are looking at prospects figuring out which prospects their favorite team might draft, and debating the merits of, say, Marcus Smart vs. Michael Carter-Williams vs. Trey Burke.
- Fans are now officially allowed to have the "tanking" debate (though please none on this post, I won't be discussing that). Last year it was a little more clear-cut: sacrifice a few games now and increase your shot at Anthony Davis. However, in a draft where the top pick likely be determined on need rather than ability, it get's a little harder to justify from a fan perspective for those teams who will be in contention for the top three picks.
Last year I did a series of "draft primer" posts, and this year I plan on doing the same. Having learned from my experiences last year, my format will be slightly different this time around. Most the changes will be in format and the type of posts, but hopefully they will effective changes in getting Blazers Edge ready for the draft in June.
For my first installment, though, I will be doing a "watch list". The premise of this list is simple: seeing as it is almost conference tournament and March Madness time most of those games (as well as the major prospects) will be playing on national TV. It is an opportunity for NBA fans who don't watch the college game to familiarize themselves with some of the best college players and pro prospects.
This post is obviously predicated on the Blazers keeping their first-round pick this year. If it falls in the top 12 not only will the Blazers get to keep it, but they will have the opportunity to select a pretty good player. The players I'm including on this list fit at least one of three criteria: 1) Likely to be selected in the lottery. Obviously not all of these players will be available when the Blazers pick, but these are players they could reasonably be expected to take a look at. 2) Is able to step in and contribute from day one. Not all lottery picks are created equal. There are two types of lottery picks: players that can step in and contribute to a team immediately (i.e. Damian Lillard) and players that are drafted as "projects" - someone who has potential to be a very good player but will need a few years of development (i.e. Meyers Leonard). Because of the Blazers' accelerated growth plan this year, the players on this list are mostly going to fall into the former category. 3) Fills a position of need. "Well wait a minute, Kyle," you might say. "The Blazers have unquestionably the worst bench in the history of modern sports, isn't every position a position of need?" That's a very good question, anonymous BlazersEdge reader. And yes, while the Blazers need help everywhere, I would argue they need more help at, say, center and on the wing than at PG or PF. So while the list is non-discriminatory, it is heavier on centers and wing players than power forwards.
Just a note. I won't be talking about the player's skills per se, but rather how each player's skill set would work in the context of the Blazers' roster. Also, positions given are what I see each player playing in the pros. So without further ado, here are 14 players to watch in the coming weeks (sorted alphabetically by position):
Trey Burke, PG, Michigan: He's the best player on a Final Four contender. He's an NBA PG due to his size, and would be Lillard's primary backup. Unless Lillard significantly improves his defense this offseason it would be almost impossible to play them together from a defensive standpoint.
Michael Carter-Williams, G, Syracuse: Carter-Williams is the biggest and longest guard on this list. He would give the Blazers a third guard off the bench and someone who could effectively guard the other team's best guard. He is more of a play maker than a true PG, but he is more than capable of spelling Lillard and taking over ball-handling duties in his absence.
CJ McCollum, G, Lehigh: In a recurring theme, McCollum is a combo guard who would provide instant offense off the bench. He's a bit of a tweener though, so again, drafting him would mean Lillard has to take some pretty big strides on defense to play them together.
Ben McLemore, SG, Kansas: McLemore is the one guard who would have a serious chance to step in as a starter next to Lillard from day one, moving Matthews to the bench. He has the size (6'5"), the elite athleticism and all the tools. Unfortunately for the Blazers he's most likely going to be the number one overall pick.
Victor Oladipo, SG, Indiana: Oladipo is a slightly smaller Wes Matthews with tons more athleticism. His ceiling is about three notches above Matthews' due to his gobs of athletic potential. He's not a point guard though, so the Blazers would still need a backup to Lillard (possibly Maynor). Though he could be devastating alongside Lillard.
Marcus Smart, PG, OKST: Smart is far and away the best PG prospect in this class. He's still working on his ball handling, but most of the time he is a very good ball handler and shows flashes of being elite. He can play both the one and two in the NBA thanks to his athleticism, size and defending, but he is a true PG.
Anthony Bennett, PF, UNLV: The problem with Bennet is he would be stuck behind LaMarcus Aldridge in the big-man rotation. He's too small to play center (sound like another Blazer right now?), but his elite athletic ability and inside-outside game that suggests he could play some SF as well in "big" lineups.
Shabazz Muhammed, G/F, UCLA: In spite of his NBA-ready body and elite athleticism, it's unclear what position Muhammed will play in the NBA. He's not a good enough shooter right now to be a SG, and would ideally be 2" taller to be a SF. However, he can defend multiple positions and would provide a huge boost behind Matthews and Batum on the wing.
Mason Plumlee, F/C, Duke: The biggest issue for Plumlee fitting on the Blazers is that he isn't a true 7-footer. Even though he's a very polished player he would be undersized at center, and his defense isn't up to the level of a starting center yet. He would be a nice third big off the bench though, someone that provides size and a well-rounded skill set.
Otto Porter, F, Georgetown: Porter might be the best fit for the Blazers in the draft (if you only look at needs and not a "best player available" mentality). He's basically a Batum-lite: he can guard three positions, and as he matures and adds strength will be able to play the two, three and four on offense as well. He would give the Blazers great depth on the wing.
Willie Cauley-Stein, C, Kentucky: Cauley-Stein is the one player on this list who could be labeled a "project" and would probably not be a rotation player right away. He's a legit 7-footer of the kind Aldridge wants to play next to. But he won't be that rim-protecting, dominant player for a few years. So if the Blazers are willing to wait for that to happen then great. But the Blazers already have a project center on the roster so the draft pick would be better spent on other needs.
Alex Len, C, Maryland: Len is the truest of true centers. He is 7'1", can block shots, rebound, score inside and out, and is a solid passer from the low and high posts. Ultimately his drawbacks are that he's 19 and he needs to add strength - something that will happen as he gets older. So while I think he could be a big part of the rotation next year, it would take a couple years for him to reach his full potential.
Cody Zeller, F/C, Indiana: The Big Handsome is another maddening tweener. He has a lot of skills, but virtually all of his skills are about B+/A- skills other than when he gets out in transition. He is an elite transition player, but his problems come in the half court. It's unclear what position he'll guard in the NBA, and while he has skills down low he can get out-muscled by big, athletic, physical players.
Honorable Mention, Nerlens Noel, C, Kentucky: The reason Noel isn't included on this list is because you won't be seeing him play for a while. His ACL tear ended his season, but he's still a likely top-5 pick. The Blazers are most likely going to pick in the 10-12 range, and the only reason Noel would fall that far (at least from a basketball standpoint) is if there were complications during his recovery. So it would be nice if he did because of the success rate for ACL recoveries nowadays, but it's unlikely Noel will be a Blazer come June.