June 26, 2013
By Jeffrey Paadre (@Paaj13)
While this season's power forward class is underwhelming in terms of first round talent, the crop of centers in this year's class is the best it's been in years. It seems like this year, there's a much larger abundance of skilled legitimate centers. As many as 11 centers may be selected in the first round of this year's draft. Although only 2, or maybe 3, centers have a legitimate shot at being selected in the Top 10, playoff-caliber teams should be very happy in terms of the instant impact, rotation-quality big men they'll be able to select.
As mentioned before, it's a two horse race to be the first center selected. Alex Len of Maryland and Nerlens Noel of Kentucky look like not only the top two center prospects, but the two most likely options for the Number 1 Overall Pick, provided the Cavaliers keep the pick. Noel likely won't fall past the Magic with the #2 pick. Len is likely to draw interest from the Bobcats (#4 pick) and the Pelicans (#6) and isn't expected to drop past the #6 pick.
Alex Len is a 7'1" center from the University of Maryland who has risen into consideration for the Number 1 overall pick as worries about Noel have accumulated. Len has great physical talent; he's athletic and mobile for his size, which is always attractive to teams. He added weight and strength between his freshman and sophomore years as a Terrapin. Len looks like he'll make his primary impact in a high pick and roll setting because he's capable of hitting midrange jumpers or flashing hard to the rim after the screen. He's made strides in scoring off of the blocks as well although he needs to develop a more reliable left hand. If defenses play him to his right, he tends to struggle. Len's lateral quickness and length make him very valuable on defense as he's a very good rim protector. He has a lot of potential to develop given his coordination and huge frame. His offensive game is a little unpolished though. He needs to show more consistent strength and toughness in order to become a better on ball defender in the post. He also needs to develop a nastier side and play with more intensity. He's a great highlight film player in the sense that he can do a little bit of everything, making him appealing, but he needs to produce more consistently. He can disappear on offense for stretches at a time and needs to command the ball a bit harder. Lastly, he has an ankle issue right now but it's unclear if that will have any long term ramifications.
Nerlens Noel spent most of the college season atop NBA Draft big boards, even after his ACL tear. Noel's calling card is that he's a tremendous defender. He averaged an unheard of 4.4 blocks and 2.1 steals per game before his season-ending knee injury. Noel's quickness, especially laterally, makes him a very good team defender; he can rotate over and help his guards if they're beaten off the dribble. He has great defensive instincts as well; unlike most shot blockers, he has elite timing and he's not as susceptible to getting caught on crafty pump fakes. He is an explosive leaper; he can play above the rim quite easily and a lot of his involvement in scoring opportunities came through lobs and alley oops. He can certainly mesh well with a transition oriented team who will let him exploit his speed advantages. On the downside, he's quite raw offensively. He isn't much of a threat to score anywhere except off putbacks and in transition. He needs to add bulk as well. His frame is very thin for his size and NBA-caliber big men should be able to bully him on the blocks. Lastly, his torn ACL is certainly cause for concern as well as he's unlikely to return to action until around New Years at the earliest.
After Len and Noel, Cody Zeller of Indiana may be the next center selected. Zeller's draft stock slid a lot over the course of the NCAA Tournament as he found himself struggling with taller, stronger, more athletic players. His stock rebounded though with a great NBA Combine, where he tested very well in the athletic drills. He's offensively very versatile: capable of scoring in the face up game or on the blocks. It seemed like at Indiana, he was forced into playing exclusively with his back to the basket, which isn't a huge strength of his. His big drawback is his thin frame. Because he's thinner, he has a tougher time defending and rebounding against other players at his position. His perimeter defense is also worrisome especially in a league that likes to use the pick and roll to exploit mismatches. Zeller makes a lot of sense for the 76ers picking at 11, the Thunder at 12 and the Jazz at 14.
Pittsburgh's Steven Adams is one of the biggest boom or bust project centers in the draft. Adams appeals to teams as a player who brings a rare amount of athleticism and lateral quickness to a 7 foot frame. Adams is mobile and explosive. He can get above the rim relatively easy and can run quickly in transition to get easy buckets in the pain. He's a very good offensive rebounder as well as he can spring up quickly to grab a board. He has tremendous defensive potential with his shot blocking instincts as well as his ability to hedge extremely well on pick and rolls to slow down the ball handler. He is a project though and his offensive game needs work. He hurries in the post, never really adjusting to what the defense gives him and despite shooting well in workouts, his lack of a midrange game is concerning. He has trouble off the ball at times and despite being a good help defender, can lose his man off the ball from time to time. He has huge upside and someone will be interested in trying to teach the game's nuances to him. There's a good chance he goes to the Blazers picking 10th, the 76ers picking 11th, or the Thunder picking 12th.
One of the most improved players in the country this season was Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk. Olynyk is a mobile, coordinated 7 footer who has some perimeter skills. He has very good shooting touch and was a decent three point threat in the college game. He can handle the ball at the top of the key and can get to the rim with basic quick, straight ahead dribbling moves to beat bigger defenders. In the post, he can be effective with moves predicated on quickness rather than power and he's got good enough touch to score. He is a finesse center though so the physicality of the NBA game is a bit of a concern for him heading into the draft. Scouts are wondering if he can rebound and defend against much stronger players. Olynyk isn't a very explosive athlete; he's certainly not a rim protector by any stretch of the imagination. He also doesn't have great lateral quickness to hedge on pick and rolls. He's a safe, higher floor, lower ceiling finesse player who should interest the Jazz at 14, the Bucks at 15, or the Hawks at 17 and 18.
Continuing the theme of improvement is Mason Plumlee of Duke. While Olynyk was the most improved player this season, Plumlee has made tremendous strides developing as a player in his four years at Duke, improving in many facets of his game. Plumlee has good athleticism for his size at 6'11" and like a lot of players at the position this year, he can really run in transition. He's an explosive leaper who can play above the rim, and as a result, he does a very good job grabbing offensive boards. He fights hard to play defense in the post and does a good job of challenging shots without fouling. Plumlee also is pretty efficient at scoring on the low block. He doesn't have a great arsenal of moves but plays within his limits and will attempt easy shots if the defense gifts them to him. On the other side, he has almost no faceup game. His midrange jumper would need to improve to be more of an offensive threat. He also isn't a great rim protector for his size and is a bit undisciplined in terms of timing his jumps; he's susceptible to offensive players pump faking him. With all this said, he looks like a solid option for the Celtics at 16, the Hawks at 17 or 18, or the Jazz at 21.
Gorgui Dieng had a bit of a coming out party in Louisville's National Championship run. Many Big East fans knew how productive he could be but he performed quite well on the national stage and helped his stock. Dieng is a great defender; he was named the Big East Defensive Player of the Year this past season. He can protect the rim by contesting and blocking shots. His big wingspan also helps him get his hands into passing lanes and snatch up steals. Dieng is mobile and has good lateral quickness to switch or help defend. His offensive game is raw but his midrange jumper has improved significantly in his three years in college. His strength could use more improvement so he can hold his own in the post against NBA centers and power forwards. He also needs to work on his low post offense; he's extremely limited in his ability to score on the blocks. He makes a lot of sense for the Celtics at 16, the Hawks at 17 or 18, the Bulls at 20, and the Nets at 22.
One of the more intriguing center prospects is Frenchman Rudy Gobert. Gobert interests teams for two main reasons: his 7'9" wingspan and his 9'7" standing reach. To put it bluntly, he has some of the longest arms the NBA has ever seen. Scouts see him and wonder if their team's coaches can turn him into an elite rim protector. He has enormous defensive potential for this reason. Like seemingly every other center, he's mobile and can move relatively well in the open court. Gobert has high upside despite lacking explosive athleticism. He's an overwhelmingly large project though. He doesn't have much in the way of offense; he can't really score on the block or hit midrange shots. He also needs to bulk up, specifically his lower body to gain toughness. Many strong players are able to establish ideal post position against Gobert and that helps them score on him even despite his huge wingspan. He's a huge project that may interest the Celtics at 16, the Hawks at 17 or 18, the Nets at 22, or the Pacers at 23.
Another foreign center prospect of interest is Lucas Nogueira of Brazil. He's a quick, tall rim protector with a 7'5" wingspan. He can alter shots as well as swat them away from the hoop. He hits the boards well and pulls down a good about of rebounds. He's very mobile and athletic and because of this, he like a few other centers in this class, has huge upside. He's a limited offensive player at this point; he needs to improve his ability to score both in the post and while facing up. His awareness on defense could use some fine tuning although he's certainly improved on that in just this past year alone. He also needs to bulk up a bit as well in order to play tougher post defense against some of the league's bulkier centers. Nogueira is of particular interest to some teams who may want to take him and stash him overseas for a year. He makes sense for the Nets at 22, the Timberwolves at 26, and the Thunder at 29 if they don't select Adams.
Jeff Withey of Kansas was one of the nation's top defensive players, averaging 3.9 blocks per game this past season. He can block shots without fouling. He has a soft finishing touch around the hoop which helps him score buckets in the post. His most impressive trait helps him rebound very well: he is an extremely quick jumper. With many big men, it's not as much about their maximum vertical leap as it is about how quickly they can spring up to block a shot or grab a rebound. Withey is very good at springing up in the blink of an eye. He will certainly fill a role as a rebounding and defensive role playing big man. On the other hand, he doesn't have much in the way of an offensive game outside of the paint; he's not a very good midrange shooter. His lateral quickness is lacking as well; many teams in the Big 12 would run pick and rolls to get him away from the hoop. Lastly, he needs to add more bulk in order to contain centers in the post at the next level. He's got a low ceiling but should be appealing to the Clippers at 25 and the Spurs at 28.
One last big man who may sneak into the first round is Bucknell's Mike Muscala. Muscala was the Patriot League Player of the Year this season and led the Bison to an NCAA berth where they squared off with Butler. He's very good in the post with quick moves that he can perform with either hand. He has good range on his jumpshot as well so he can help a team from outside the paint. He boxes out well and rebounds extremely well despite his thin frame. He's a good defensive player, well disciplined in the post. He also makes rotations well and is a very good team help defender. His strength is a little worrisome at the moment as he's only 230 pounds and can be pushed around. He may be better as a stretch 4 for this reason. He's not an elite athlete either but he's certainly an adequate athlete and mobile for his size. He may get attention from the Spurs at 28, the Thunder at 29, or the Suns at 30. Otherwise, he'll be a high second round pick who can provide huge value to a team.
There aren't a lot of centers slated for the second round but Colton Iverson of Colorado State may get some interest as a post scorer and rebounder who can take up space and dish out quality fouls. He isn't a great athlete though and he's on the older side which can limit some of his upside.
Overall, this is a really deep year in terms of legitimate first round talent at the center position. This would certainly be the year to be in the market for a young center. Len and Noel are neck and neck to be the first center taken. As the draft progresses, there are a lot of players that make sense in the second half of the first round. These players vary in terms of upside. Adams, Gobert, Nogueira, and Muscala all have bigger upside. Players like Dieng, Zeller, Plumlee, and Withey all offer safer alternatives. How teams decide to draft will certainly all be determined by the team's philosophy and which direction the front office thinks the team should pursue. The center position could account for one third of all of the first round picks this season and therefore it's certainly the strongest position in this year's draft!