With the NBA draft a day away, the Chronicle's V.111 Sports Editor Ryan Hoerger, and writers Sameer Pandhare and Brian Pollack discuss Duke's quartet of draft entrants.
Jahlil Okafor's dominance at the college level was on full display from the moment he hit the court last season. But many analysts have pegged former Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns as the best prospect in the draft and the likely No. 1 pick. Do you believe Okafor is the best player in the 2015 NBA draft?
Ryan Hoerger: I think Okafor is currently the most polished player in this draft class. He was the most dominant player in college basketball last season—anyone who tried to defend him with single-coverage got burned, repeatedly. The post moves are there, the back-to-the-basket feel is there, the ability to pass out of double-teams is there. But being the best player entering the draft doesn't guarantee a No. 1 selection. Teams seem to think Towns—and potentially others like Ohio State guard D'Angelo Russell—could have a higher ceiling and could warrant a look in that top spot as well. Okafor is tremendously talented, but that doesn't mean there aren't question marks—namely defense and free-throw shooting—as there are with all draft picks.
Brian Pollack: It’s pretty clear that Okafor is the best college player in the draft, but I’m not sure that title will translate so easily to the next level. He came to Durham last season with NBA-ready offensive skills, much like fellow Chicago native Jabari Parker did a year earlier. Okafor showed he could control a game down low in a way that no other player in this draft class can, but he often looked slow and flat-footed on the defensive end while displaying little shot-blocking ability for a near-7-footer. As the NBA continues to evolve into a perimeter game with more athletic big men who can stretch the floor and hit the outside shot, Okafor is a rare breed as a traditional back-to-the basket center. 20 years ago, there would be no question whether or not he’d pick the first pick—but that’s just not the case anymore.
Sameer Pandhare: Despite his tremendous footwork and vision out of the post, Okafor may simply be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The former Blue Devil happens to have two critical weaknesses—defense and free-throw shooting—that have caused him to fall behind Towns, especially considering the small-ball revolution in today's game. Although some scouts have raised concerns about the center's conditioning and attitude—which may or may not be valid—the bigger concern to me is whether it is actually possible for Okafor to improve on his major weaknesses. Poor free-throw shooters in college normally don't make tremendous leaps in the NBA and Okafor is far from the intimidating defensive presence he needs to be in the paint at the next level. Don't get me wrong, Okafor can certainly be a star on the next level. It just may take some more time than we originally imagined
After showcasing his versatility and athleticism during Duke's run to the Final Four, many believed Justise Winslow would be a top-tier prospect in this year's draft. Considering that most mock drafts have the forward being picked around sixth or seventh, is Winslow being underrated?
RH: I don't think being considered a consensus top-10 pick should ever make someone "underrated." And plus, we have no idea what the draftboards look like for the teams who actually hold those picks. Winslow's athleticism and explosiveness merit conversation among some of those top-five teams, especially given his six-game stretch in the NCAA tournament. He's got the strength and size that teams should covet and he can play multiple positions—if I'm in an NBA front office, I want him, especially if he's able to become a more consistent perimeter shooter.
BP: Winslow is a tough guy to place. He’s arguably the most physically impressive player in the draft with a strong 6-foot-6 frame and flashy acceleration, but his game lagged far behind the raw ability for a good portion of the season. Some teams may point to Winslow’s nagging shoulder and rib injuries as the reasons for his inconsistency, but others could focus on his streaky shooting and shaky shot selection. Nevertheless, the talent is clearly there, and it was on full display during the final third of the season as Winslow led the Blue Devils to the national title. Assuming Towns, Okafor and Russell are the first three picks, I think it will be hard for a team like the Knicks at No. 4 to pass up a guy with obvious superstar potential like Winslow.
SP: In my eyes, Winslow has just as high of a ceiling as the trio atop the draft boards and comes with less risk. Even in the worst case scenario, I can't see the forward being anything less than an Andre Iguodala-type of player—who uses his size and athleticism to become an above average defender and also knock down perimeter jumpers when open. Winslow's grit and passion when he takes the court were unparalleled on the college level and should translate well going forward. Winslow could be the steal of the draft if he drops past the first four teams.
Despite being named the Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four and handling all the pressures of being a point guard at the college level, Tyus Jones has not been garnering attention as a possible lottery pick. Why do you believe this is the case?
RH: Jones is one of those guys who seems to have doubters every time he makes the next leap in his career. But after learning to share the backcourt seamlessly with Quinn Cook at Duke, he shut down the skeptics pretty fast. At just taller than 6-feet without shoes as measured at the NBA draft combine, size doesn't work in Jones' favor—Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay each stand about three inches taller. But although he might be lacking in size, there's no denying Jones' track record of savvy decision-making and clutch shot-making. Why is he currently pegged at 18th to the Rockets by DraftExpress? Jones can come in and be a good player in the NBA, but I don't think teams are sold on him being a franchise-transformer, which tends to be what a lot of the teams in the lottery are looking for. Regardless of where he ends up, being a first-round pick isn't exactly something to sneeze at.
BP: I think teams are worried the NBA game will be too fast and too big for Tyus, who, as Ryan pointed out, will never be the most physically imposing guy on the court. Jones is deceptively quick with the ball in his hands, but doesn’t often show it on the defensive end and rarely makes the highlight-reel plays freak athletes like Winslow can. Much like Okafor has diminishing value as a classic center, Jones as a vintage pass-first point guard is at a disadvantage in a league where the top ball-handlers can erupt for 30 points on any given night. Jones’ best qualities are an uncanny killer instinct and a great feel for the game. Both of these are very difficult to quantify, and teams generally want to have something more concrete to go on when looking at potential lottery picks.
SP: Jones seems to be a victim of the over-emphasis many teams place on pre-draft workouts and physicals. As we saw with Zach Lavine in 2014 and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope in 2013, lottery teams sometimes tend to reach for guards who have proven less, but could possibly have high-ceilings. The Apple Valley, Minn., native doesn't have the flashy athleticism that gets you on ESPN. But, he certainly has such a strong feel for the game and basketball IQ beyond his years and there isn't much more Mike Krzyzewski or Blue Devil fans could've asked from Jones last season. I agree with Ryan that Jones won't be a franchise-transformer, but he could definitely be a big pickup for teams in the mid-teens.
Although he was the senior leader for the Blue Devils a year ago, Quinn Cook is in danger of going undrafted. Will Cook be able to find a home at the next level and produce as a role player?
RH: In the past few weeks, Cook has been working out for seemingly half the league. You have to think he's made some good impressions with at least one of those teams. Whether that turns itself into a draft pick Thursday night, I'm not sure. But I expect Cook to land an invite to summer ball somewhere, and he'll have every opportunity to crack a roster when training camp rolls around in the fall. He had a career year as a senior and buckled down on the defensive end, but even more impressive might have been his maturation as a leader. That bodes well for his stock moving forward.
BP: The biggest positive Cook has going for him may not be his pre-draft workouts or his improved play senior year, but instead a strong advocate in Coach K. Amidst all the ups-and-downs surrounding Duke last year, Krzyzewski routinely praised Cook—the team’s lone senior—and his ability to grow as an individual to guide the squad through choppy waters. When teams are looking for a role player after the high-profile names are off the board, that glowing recommendation—along with Cook’s pesky defense and sharp 3-point shooting—is going to hold a lot of weight in many front offices.
SP: Cook had a tremendous senior season and was a big reason why the Blue Devils hoisted their fifth championship. With that being said, NBA teams have opted more and more for draft-and-stash international prospects or raw athletes in the second rounds of recent drafts. As Andre Dawkins and Seth Curry have found out, solidifying a spot on an NBA roster can be quite a challenge and could even take multiple years. I think Cook lands a spot on a team for Summer League action before bouncing back and forth between the D-League and NBA as an undrafted free agent.
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