Our march through the prime pool of potential draftees for the Portland Trail Blazers nears its end today with a look at three bigs projected to go in the first round. But first, here's the list of players we've covered so far:
Tyler Zeller is a 7'0", 247 lb Senior center from North Carolina. He's one of the most reliable bigs in the draft. His size is legit. His North Carolina pedigree legitimizes his numbers as well. He's a scorer, averaging 16 per game last season. He does his best work inside but he also has a little bit of a face-up shot. He's comfortable putting the ball in the hole. Some 7-footers seem to unfold like mechanized automatons when getting off their shot. "Here comes the shoulder, now the elbow's moving, now the forearm, now the wrist...barf up the shot!" It's like a really bad pop-and-lock routine with a bricked shot at the end. Not Zeller. He's fluid with the ball in scoring position, his motion and release seamless. He draws fouls, padding his scoring average from the line. He's a good rebounder. He's also good as a defender, particularly helping off-ball. He can cover ground in a straight line quickly, allowing him to move over and double or shut off drivers. That vertical speed also lets him get up and down the court early in transition...another source of scoring.
Vertical speed shouldn't be confused with lateral quickness, though. Zeller doesn't have much of that, nor raw athleticism. He plays below the rim in all but the most obvious transition situations, a serious no-no for an NBA 7-footer. He also lacks strength and toughness. He's going to get pushed around at the next level. He's not a shot blocker, though his ability to defend hedges against the need for it. He's not going to intimidate anybody out of the lane, however.
Zeller is likely to be a serviceable center, but he's one of those guys you hope will do well instead of expecting him to dominate or change the game. He may have potential ahead of him, but it's going to be limited by his lack of athleticism. He's going to be one of those solid 7-footers that buys you a few minutes here, some nice defensive possessions there, who gives you an unexpected boost now and again. The questions for the Blazers: how much do they need that type of guy and what are they willing to spend on him? No matter how much they need a center they're not in the position to fill corners in their lineup. They need talent, game-changers. Zeller doesn't fit that description. He's a nice player, not a great one. It's hard to see them expending a lottery pick on him. If they go after him it'd be by purchasing or trading for a lower pick. But even then they might be better served going after a guy with more upside.
If the Blazers are looking for more mobility in a 7-footer, they'd consider 7'1", 250 lb Illinois Sophomore Meyers Leonard. This guy has all of the side-to-side quickness that Zeller lacks. He's going to be a great pick-and-roll defender, able to show and recover with ease. He's also a rebounder but being quick off his feet he adds shot-blocking to his repertoire. He's solid on offense when he's around the rim. He's good in transition, particularly defending. An easy-to-grasp description for Blazers fans: he's the anti Hasheem Thabeet. Thabeet has size but no ability to use it. Everything on Leonard works crisply.
For all that, Leonard has several faults. His quickness is accompanied by a lack of strength. He gets pushed around. Opposing NBA centers are going to turn him into a wet hankie as he gets acclimated to the league. He performs well in his comfort zone on offense but his moves are rudimentary. His footwork, form...everything needs work. He's not consistent. His attitude and maturity are under question. It's easy to imagine him getting bullied and just collapsing into himself.
Despite that, Leonard has the kind of potential that would make the Blazers look twice. He's more of a risk than Zeller but the reward is higher as well. It's hard to pass on 7-foot and quick. You figure with a little time in the weight room and a season or two to get used to the physical and mental demands of the league, this guy could be a legit starter. On the other hand, his attitude could undercut that development. The Blazers could roll the dice on him at #11 or try to wiggle into something lower to scoop him up. If they're looking for a center project but aren't willing to bid high on the ultimate gamble that is Andre Drummond, Leonard could be the next best thing.
Unlike Zeller and Leonard, 6'9", 268 lb Ohio State Sophomore Jared Sullinger doesn't have true center height. The weight is there and a versatile, smart game makes up for a few inches, but he's no 7-footer. This guy can score from the post or facing up, potentially out to the three-point arc. (He hit 40% of his college threes last year.) His release is nice. He knows how to get open. He sees the floor well and he's smart. He can rebound. By all accounts he's driven and of high character. Drafting him will be like getting a veteran player in a 20-year-old body.
That body is an issue, however. The biggest red flag is the potential for back issues, for which he's already been tabbed as a risk by NBA doctors. Although bulky, he's neither tall nor quick nor any kind of raw athlete. He's going to be slow down the floor and across it as well. You watch Myers Leonard hedge and recover while defending a screen and go, "OOOOH!" You watch Sullinger try it and go, "ohhh". He has trouble getting out there, let alone getting back to his man. If he's getting burned by college players, he's going to get torched in the pros. There's also some question whether he'll be able to get any shot but a face-up-jumper over tall, agile NBA defenders. You can have all the Basketball IQ you want. If you can't outmaneuver an opponent, you're going to look dumb. The choice with Sullinger appears to be playing him at center where he's going to give up inches and get his shot stymied or playing him at power forward where the new breed will just dance around him. Neither one looks like a great option.
For the Blazers drafting Sullinger would be the equivalent of getting a Kurt Thomas or Juwan Howard on the team, not so much in style of play but that guy who's going to go out there, help out, not make mistakes, and hit the shots he's given. Is that enough, though? Along with the brains and drive you also inherit the veteran lack of mobility, body problems, injury worries. Those shouldn't be in the equation for a 20-year-old rookie. That make make Sullinger a non-starter for a team already gun shy about getting full utility out of their picks.
Would any of these big guys appeal to you? If so, which and why? Where would you like to see them taken? Weigh in below.