The 2015 NBA Draft is still over a month away, but the combine just finished up in Chicago, so the prospect chatter is starting to heat up. Only four teams are still playing actual games, which means for most NBA clubs, the draft is the only immediate business left on the agenda.
The NBA combine lags behind its NFL counterpart in many respects; most noticeable is the lack of star power at the event. Each year seemingly fewer and fewer top prospects participate in the drills (never mind the 5-on-5 game, which has become almost exclusively a second-round prospect affair), and some don't even bother to show up for the measurements and athletic testing.
That does not exactly present much of a problem for the Dallas Mavericks, of course, who pick 21st and will not be selecting from the blue-chip pile. Their draft slotting puts them in the range of prospects who are bubble guys, either at the back end of the lottery or at the end of the first round altogether. Still, some interesting names have started to emerge as candidates for Dallas, and as reports start to come in about who Dallas is working out and interviewing, we get a better picture of the Mavericks' draft wants/needs.
R.J Hunter, junior guard, Georgia State
Hunter declared for the draft after three stellar seasons at Sun Belt power Georgia State. Baylor fans might remember him from this shot, but he has been on the NBA prospect radar for some time now. The son of a coach (who literally fell out of his chair celebrating that shot against Baylor), Hunter is a cerebral player who has a silky smooth offensive game, and though he had a down-year shooting the three-ball (just 30 percent), he is widely considered one of the best shooters in this draft. Generally, free throw shooting has been a better predictor of future NBA skill, and Hunter has been in the high-80's throughout his college career. He has a quick, slightly low-release that -- combined with his wiry frame -- reminds me a little of another small school wing in Kevin Martin, especially when you watch the degree of difficulty on some of his makes.
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Hunter was much more than a shooter for the Bulldogs, though, developing into an excellent playmaker at both ends this past season. J.P. Tokoto is the only draft-eligible shooting guard to post a better assist-to-turnover ratio last season. Hunter also led all draft prospects in steals, and is one of only two players who averaged at least two steals and a block (the other will appear later in this article).
At the combine, R.J. measured excellently for his position at 6'6 in shoes, with a 6'10.5 wingspan. With those dimensions and that shooting/passing skillset, Hunter has been compared to Klay Thompson, which is obviously lofty praise. Expecting Hunter to develop into the kind of shooter Thompson is seems unrealistic, but to get a lite version of the All-Star guard at No. 21 would be a coup.
The questions surrounding Hunter focus mainly on the defensive end. His gaudy stats are probably a bit misleading, given the level of competition he played against, facing shorter, slower players on a nightly basis. Hunter will also have to put on some weight at the next level (though this is a common statement for draft prospects), as his lack of bulk will make finishing at the basket a problem against NBA caliber bigs.
Dallas has apparently talked to Hunter, as this curious tidbit emerged recently: in the interview process, Dallas asked Hunter to guess how many basketballs would fit in the room. To his credit, Hunter took time and actually gave a proper guess. It will be interesting to see if Dallas thinks enough of Hunter to take him, should he fall to them. Currently, mock drafts have Hunter somewhere in the 14-20 pick range, but a few slot him closer to the end of the round.
Robert Upshaw, sophomore center, Washington
Say hello to the biggest guy in the draft. Robert Upshaw measured at 7'1 in shoes with a 7'5.5 wingspan and a 9'5 standing reach that rates as one of the tallest in recorded combine history. He has an NBA ready body as well, weighing in at nearly 260 pounds that he carries extremely well.
In a league that always values rim protectors, no prospect in this draft compares to Upshaw. He averaged nearly seven and a half blocks per 40 minutes, an astounding number for a major conference player. To put that in perspective, shotblocking savant Anthony Davis recorded less than six per 40 minutes at Kentucky.
As one might expect given his size and athleticism, Upshaw finishes and rebounds well. Only Jahlil Okafor converted field goals better and Upshaw's rebound rate eclipses all draft prospects save UC Santa Barbara's prolific rebounder Alan Williams.
Now the rub. Upshaw played just 19 games this past season at Washington before being dismissed from the team due to disciplinary reasons. It was not the first program to show him the door, either, as he left Fresno State under similar circumstances two years ago. The exact reasons for his dismissal remain a bit of a mystery and Upshaw mostly dodged questions about what happened during the combine process. During this interview, Upshaw did mention that he had learned some lessons about drug and alchohol abuse and admitted that he made mistakes.
Warts or not, the fact of the matter is a team will take a chance on Upshaw. There are only so many human beings his size who can move the way he does. A team who has a support system in place to help players with maturity issues could absolutely feel that Upshaw is worth the risk, which in the 20's (where he's projected to be taken) are fairly minimal.
Tyus Jones, freshman guard, Duke
(Photo credit: Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports)
Jones has been a popular pick to Dallas in mock drafts so far, for good reasons. Jones just completed a fantastic freshman season at Duke that saw him cut down the nets in Indianapolis. While Jahlil Okafor received the lion's share of the acclaim, it was Jones who at times was the leader for the Blue Devils, and as a prospect his combination of shooting and passing are attractive for a point guard.
Players like Jones almost always excel in the interview process, where intangibles come to the forefront. Jones is the type of player coaches tend to fall in love with, and no one will doubt Jones' feel for the game or his readiness for the big stage. Jones will also do well in most analytic formats -- he's an efficient, low-mistake player who shows up in a variety of ways on stat sheets.
Where Jones may have run into a bit of trouble is in the athletic testing phase of the combine. No one expected eye-popping speed or explosive times, but some of the results are worse than feared. In the lane agility drill, he timed at 11.89, one of the worst numbers recorded this year and even below some big men, like Syracuse's 6'10, 243 pound Rakeem Christmas (11.57).
There will be those who scoff at this part of the draft process (the underwear Olympics, as the NFL version is referred to), and perhaps rightfully so. Jones has plenty of fans among college basketball watchers. Subjectively, I worry about smallish point guards who lack bankable athletic traits. There have been more than a few excellent college players with that profile who have been taken high and struggled somewhat at the next level; Trey Burke and D.J. Augustin immediately come to mind, as well as the Mavericks' own draft pick Shane Larkin. However, there are exceptions to just about every rule. Jones would not be my first hope of draft pick for Dallas, but there are qualities he possesses that I'm sure the organization values highly.
Delon Wright, senior guard, Utah
Wright is the rare senior in the draft, and unlike most seniors, it is conceivable that he retains some upside -- though opinions differ greatly on that subject.
Wright concluded a superb college career at Utah with a second team All-America selection and a visit to the Sweet Sixteen, which is pretty good for a junior college transfer. Delon is the brother of NBA forward Dorell Wright and is *the* stat-stuffer in this draft: 15 points, five assist, five rebounds, two steals and a block were his season averages.
Measuring at 6'5.5 in shoes, Wright has outstanding size for a point guard, which allows him two distinct advantages: 1) he is an impact defender who swallows his man whole, 2) he can see over opposing defenses at the other end. Wright has a good feel for the game, and hustles on every play. He moves his feet well on defense, and that will likely be his best trait at the next level. His playmaking ability is starter-quality, though he lacks a go-to offensive move. He improved greatly as a shooter with Utah, making nearly 36 percent of his threes and 83 percent of his free throws, but he will likely not be a major threat from outside. He converted a strong 54 percent of his two point attempts, though a lot of these baskets came through craftiness and guile rather than elite athleticism.
Unfortunately for Wright, he -- like Jones above -- did not excel in the athletic testing at the combine, posting solid but unspectacular numbers across the board. For a player without a great jumper, this undoubtedly hurts his draft stock. In college, he relied a lot on stop-start moves and floaters around the rim, which may not translate too well in the NBA. It is possible that his scoring limitations will make him a career backup.
But I must admit, I like Wright. For one, you can't teach size and Wright knows how to use his height to his advantage, something that can translate to the NBA. Plus, in this golden age of point guards, defending that position becomes extremely valuable.
Also, from watching him, I believe he is the type of guy who performs better on the floor than in drills. He moves his feet very well and was rarely beaten off the dribble. He also displays excellent anticipation in the passing lane, and made a ton of plays in the backcourt off ball-pressure. On offense, his size diminishes the need slightly for explosion and speed, as he uses his length to get to where he needs to on the court. His understanding of the game gives me hope that he can adapt to NBA defenses and develop the necessarily moves to keep his man honest, such as a Shaun Livingston-esque post game.
Wright may not be the sexiest guy, but of all the names mentioned he seems the likeliest to be there when Dallas comes on the clock. It may not be a popular opinion, but I would draft him before Tyus Jones. My affinity for tall point guards (and skepticism of small ones) may be getting the best of me, but that's my stance. Players that can improve year to year outplay their draft pedigree, so keep Wright in mind as a late first round steal.
Cameron Payne, junior guard, Murray State
With the success of Isiah Canaan, Murray State became much more visible on the national stage, and Payne -- Canaan's successor at point guard -- reaped the rewards. It seems assured at this point that he will be taken higher in the draft than Canaan was, and as June 25 approaches, it is possible that Payne will see a meteoric rise up draft boards, much the same way Elfrid Payton did last year.
When looking at Payne through the lens of the combine, you see a player who doesn't necessarily stand out in any one area, but also has few obvious weaknesses. Perhaps his best quality cosmetically is his length: despite standing just 6'1.5, he possesses long arms and big hands, trademarks of many NBA stars.
Payne may not blow you away with his shooting or athleticism, but he is more than adequate in both respects. More than anything, Payne is simply a player. His ability to balance scoring with passing fits right in line with the trends of today's NBA game, and it's not too difficult to imagine him being another high-volume, ball-dominant point guard. When Payne gets hot he can score in a variety of ways, and he is especially good in the pick and roll, a staple of the modern NBA offense.
Defensively, Payne's length helps him rack up steals, but it is worth noting that Murray State was a disaster at stopping the other team from scoring. Perhaps the offensive workload Payne took on made him become too much of a spectator at times on D, and it will be up to his next coach to coax better effort out of him. The tools seem to be there for him to at least hold his own.
Right now, projecting Payne's draft placement is difficult. He has been mocked anywhere from the low teens to the mid 20's. His thin frame and lack of competition in college will be the things detractors point to. However, there seems to be too much going for him to realistically envision him falling to no. 21. If that does happen, he is probably the player I'd be most excited about seeing in a Dallas jersey, along with R.J. Hunter.
So, there you have it. Three point guards, a wing and a big. It's a good start, and in the coming weeks, as the draft landscape shifts and more information comes to light about who the Dallas Mavericks are talking to, we'll go much more in depth about the names you should know.