The Next Class

by: Michael Shields

2014’s NBA draft class has the potential to be one of the most prolific of all time. We take an in depth look at the future of the league…

Although the NBA season has only just begun, it is not too early to start fawning over this year’s draft class. And the reason for this is simple – it’s flat out incredible. We haven’t seen a yield of talent like this since Lebron, Melo, Bosh and Wade entered the league in 03’. It’s a draft class stacked with players who are assuredly going to make an immediate impact in the league. Although Coach K cannot even “fathom” that teams would tank their season1 for a shot at the kids atop this draft class, it’s happening. And you can begin to understand why when you lay eyes on this crop of athletes that compose this electrifying band of athletes.

It took only a single premier double-header on ESPN, one that essentially kicked-off the college basketball season (2013 Champions Classic), to realize that the hype over this draft class is warranted. Four completely loaded squads converged upon the United Center in Chicago on Tuesday the 12th for an exhibition of talent that amounts to the future of the NBA. Scouts filled the arena to the brim to watch #1 ranked Kentucky send their heralded class of freshman up against the far more experienced and 2nd ranked Michigan State Spartans. This game was followed by another marquee matchup, as the 4th ranked Duke Blue Devils faced off against the Kansas Jayhawks. The importance of these two games went far beyond the elite rankings of the participating squads. No, the nation tuned in en masse to see a heralded troop of prospects battle it out. They eagerly huddled up to their television sets for an opportunity to witness in action the man-beast that is Kentucky’s Julius Randle, the precocious Jabari Parker of Duke, and the freakishly athletic Andrew Wiggins of Kansas. The top 3 ranked players in college basketball, all Freshman who are expected to play one season in college and then take their talents to the NBA, a true sight to behold2, all together on one court for one night only, and they all delivered the goods. What an astonishing display of talent and athleticism. All three of these kids are for real.

But, this draft class is far deeper than the mighty trilogy of Randle, Parker and Wiggins. An array of talent that defies logic and proves all theories of evolution is what we have here, an incredible conglomeration of diverse talents poised to take the NBA by storm. To prove this point, and to examine what makes this class so special, let’s run through a sampling of what 2014 has to offer. It’s mind-blowing…..

The Cream of the Crop

Jabari Parker, Duke 6’8”

We begin with Jabari3, as I am simply blown away by this young man. It is becoming quite clear that he is the most polished basketball player of the bunch, and thus the most ready to make an impact on the next level. He has one of the highest basketball IQs in college basketball and is easily one of the most complete offensive basketball prospects we’ve seen in some time. Jabari, the product of Simeon Career Academy in Chicago (Derrick Rose’s alma mater), has now scored 20 points or more in his first four college games4 and has shown the sort of court savvy and natural ability that has NBA scouts drooling at the mere mention of his name. There is no question whatsoever that he will be lighting up the scoring column in the NBA.

Julius Randle, Kentucky 6’9”

Julius Randle is a beast. In his first collegiate contest, Randle scored 23 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in just 26 minutes against UNC Asheville. And in the aforementioned Champions Classic versus Michigan State he was shaking off triple teams under the basket as if they weren’t even there, amounting 27 points and 13 rebounds. Julius is a lock for a double-double each and every time he takes the floor, and do not be surprised if his draft stock rises higher than that of Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins. He’s physical, he has soft hands, and he loves contact. He has a little Chris Webber in him, a touch of Zach Randolph, and even (wait for it……), a smidgen of Lebron James!

Andrew Wiggins, Kansas 6’8”

Andrew Wiggins came into his inaugural season at Kansas as clearly the most hyped prospect in the class. Although it is easy to see why, he appears at this stage in his development as the most unrefined of the bunch. The raw talent is there, and immense, and there is no doubt he is going to be a stud. But his handle is a bit shaky and it is clear he is still finding his groove. Although he is not as polished a player as Duke’s Jabari Parker in the half court, Wiggins still racked up 22 points and eight boards against the Blue Devils displaying his awesome athleticism at every turn. This week against Iona he underwhelmed with 13 points on 4 of 8 shooting, but do not dare get used to that. He will find his footing, and when he does the sky’s the limit.

The Best of the Rest

Dante Exum, Australia 6’6”

What do we really know about Dante Exum5, the 6’ 6” Australian capable of playing point or shooting guard? Well, we know he plowed through Nike Hoops Summit, Adidas Nations, and FIBA Under-19 Championships (Averaging 18.2 points during the tourney) impressing anyone lucky enough to catch a glimpse of his multifaceted abilities. There are rumblings among league General Managers that when all the dust settles, and we look back at this draft class, that maybe Dante was the one who should have been picked first. He has been described as a “generational talent,” and I for one cannot wait to see this kid in action.

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State  6’4”

With a historically weak draft class in 2013 I was stunned that Marcus didn’t come out early. Floored even, as he was projected as a top 5 pick if he declared. He was ready and his bank account would look a whole lot different now. But, by remaining at Oklahoma State to hone his talents, he now has a chance to smooth the wrinkles in his game, namely his outside shot. This week against #11 Memphis he proved why I believe he is the front-runner for the Naismith Award this year6, scoring 39 points while dazzling on the defensive end of the floor. He’s ready, willing, and most definitely able!

Joel Embiid, Kansas 7’0”

Joel Embiid is a bit of a project. But one to clearly watch out for. He has only been playing hoops for 5 years. Before that his game of choice was soccer, which means that this towering athletic future-star is limber, moving about the court with the ease of a much smaller man. Joel is endowed with a 7’5” wingspan, and he displayed the other evening against Iona that Wiggins isn’t the only Kansas Freshman to keep an eye on, scoring 16 points and grabbed 13 rebounds.

Aaron Gordon, Arizona 6’9”

Much like Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon is a double-double machine. But what makes him so special is the ferocity in which he attacks the rim (Think Blake Griffin!). Gordon is the type of player who by games end has filled up almost every statistical category7 while never appearing to break a sweat. He is averaging 14 points and 9 rebounds, but his value lies far beyond those fair to middling numbers.

Glenn Robinson III, Michigan 6’6”

When given the opportunity I cannot say enough about how extraordinary Glenn ‘Big Dog’ Robinson was in college at Purdue. He was one of the most exceptional talents I had seen up to that point, and clearly deserved to be the number 1 pick in the 1994 NBA draft8. Glen’s son, Glenn Robinson III, is now the one garnering all the attention and although he is no Big Dog – he certainly has bite. With the exit of Trey Burke and young Hardaway it is Glenn Robinson’s chance to prove he is a top 10 pick. He is averaging 13 points and nearly 8 boards through 3 games, numbers which will inflate as he gets used to being Michigan’s preeminent option.

James Young, Kentucky 6’6”

This young man can stroke! Being a sucker for a silky smooth jump shot, I can’t help liking what I am seeing in James Young’s first few games at Kentucky. In last week’s matchup with Michigan State he kept Kentucky in the game during the first half, catching fire from deep, showing off his range with three first-half (lefty!) three-pointers. And this past Tuesday, James dropped five 3-pointers and a career-high 26 points as the Wildcats overwhelmed the University of Texas Arlington 105-76 at Rupp Arena. A great shooter is always a valuable asset, and James is just that – great.

Montrezl Harrell, 6’8” Louisville

I love everything about this kid, even the name – Montrezl, and it is undeniable that he is a freak athlete that will be the centerpiece of a good Louisville team this year. In Louisville’s last game against Hartford, Montrezl led the 3rd ranked Cardinals with 20 points and 9 rebounds. He absolutely dominated the rim, shooting 9 of 12 from the field with six herculean dunks, one off the school record.

The Wild Cards

What is amazing is that after taking a look at 10 of the best basketball players NCAA Division I Basketball has to offer, we have yet to even discuss a few players who have been impressive for years on the collegiate level, and are still doing it. Guys like Gary Harris (Michigan State)9, Shabazz Napier (Uconn), CJ Fair (Syracuse), Adrien Payne (Michigan State), Doug McDermott (Creighton), Sam Dekker (Wisconsin), James Michael McAdoo (UNC), Jahii Carson (Arizona State), and Dwight Powell (Stanford). Veterans, who have exhibited NBA-readiness, yet have stayed to work on their game, and to presumably get an education of course. Also, we have yet to mention intriguing prospects such as Jerami Grant (Syracuse), Chris Walker (Florida)10, or Mario Hezonja (Croatia). Guys we are not sure exactly what to make of but we know there is something there, a flower yet to fully bloom. The class is loaded. To the brim and beyond, a cup overflowing with talent and promising a bright future for the National Basketball Association, and all who ‘Love it Live’.

Hindsight will always inevitably be the true judge of a draft class, but it is hard to imagine, at this juncture, that this years class will not be mentioned with the great draft classes of all time (1984, 1985, 1996, 2003). Although there’s only one No. 1 overall pick, there might be multiple teams that end up with No. 1 overall value. The NBA may be rife with a myriad of teams who are wisely throwing their season away for the betterment of the future, but fear not – this future they await looks to be sound. And while teams jockey for a chance to draft their next franchise player, we can pass the time by enjoying what is lining up to be one of the most intriguing, talent-laden college basketball seasons of all time.

  1. “As an American, I wouldn’t like to think that an American team would want to lose or create situations where you would want to lose.” []
  2. These games also feature several other freshman stars who could be amongst this seasons top 10 picks, including Duke’s Rodney Hood, and Kentucky’s James Young and Andrew Harrison. []
  3. Jabari Parker is the son of former NBA player Sonny Parker. []
  4. First freshman to do so since Michael Beasley and Eric Gordon in ‘07-’08. []
  5. The son of former NBA and NBL player Cecil Exum. []
  6. The Naismith College Player of the Year is an annual basketball award given by the Atlanta Tipoff Club to the top men’s and women’s collegiate basketball players. It is named in honor of the inventor of basketball (in 1891), Dr. James Naismith. []
  7. For example, against San Diego State on the road, Gordon had 16 points, 8 rebounds, 2 blocks, 2 assists, and 3 steals. []
  8. In retrospect, maybe Jason Kidd or Juwan Howard was the better pick, but tough to say. []
  9. Admittedly, I should be spending more time on Gary Harris, as he is the best player on one of the best teams in the country, and a fundamentally sound basketball player. In fact, it wouldn’t be a stretch to call him the best 2 guard in the country right now. []
  10. Ineligible this season, and many believe he may just jump straight to the league next year. []
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