Come Thursday evening, most NBA teams get an opportunity to be winners and at least pretend they've added an important piece to their developing roster puzzle. The NBA draft gives teams a chance to find greatness in the late picks (Tony Parker, the 28th pick in 2001) and a chance to not screw up a tough decision (Dwight Howard, 1st pick in 2004 over Emeka Okafor).
Make no mistake about it, there are some undervalued studs and overvalued duds floating around the draft boards on the Internet. Here are the players I'm expecting some discussions about in five years, for better or for worse.
Players Who Will Be Better Than Expected
C, North Carolina
Likely Draft Position: 11-15
Why He’ll Be Better: For starters, his floor (downside) is way higher than those of other big men like Drummond, Leonard, Sullinger, Henson, TJones, PJones, Moultrie, Melo – basically everyone not named Anthony Davis or Thomas Robinson. He’s a very good rebounder with the size, strength, and motor to keep it up in the NBA, and he’s a determined and hard-working offensive player who takes good shots he can make (over the past two seasons, Zeller has averaged 16.0 ppg on 10.4 shots/gm, teammate Harrison Barnes averaged 16.4 ppg on 13.6 shots/gm). Zeller is also the smartest defensive big man in the draft; his rotations and awareness of what’s developing on the weak side allow him to move into optimal positions that force opposing cutters and drivers to take jumpers instead of lay-ups and to make extra passes they don’t want to attempt in a crowded, closed-off lane. The result is a positive effect on his team’s defense that goes way beyond his 1.5 blocks/gm indicate.
Likely Draft Position: 35-45
Why He’ll Be Better: The least heralded Big East Player of the Year ever (already forgot he won that, didn’t you?), Crowder is poised to become the hyper-energized, hyper-intelligent love child of Kenneth Faried and Kawhi Leonard. Both were phenomenally efficient and effective rookies this past year after getting drafted way lower than their eventual value, and Crowder is next. He’s an extremely disruptive and versatile defender who’s drawn comparisons to Ron Artest and Shane Battier, plus he knows his role and how to minimize his limitations as well as anyone in this draft. He’s very smart on the offensive end of the floor, spotting up well, posting up well, passing well, moving without the ball well, etc. and he’s a fighter for rebounds. As long as your team isn’t expecting a ball-dominant #1 scorer with him, every club can benefit by finding a roster spot for Crowder.
PG, North Carolina
Likely Draft Position: 11-17
Why He’ll Be Better: There are very few PG’s in the NBA who are true game managers, players smart and crafty enough to orchestrate things in a way that maximizes their clubs' abilities and recognize/create mismatches that emphasize this (think Jason Kidd, not Derrick Rose). Marshall is one of these rare players. Despite not being a great athlete and an afterthought as a scorer, he took over a struggling UNC team mid-season as a true freshman in 2010-11 and their only losses the rest of the way were to Duke and Kentucky. Marshall picked up his scoring in a subtle and timely manner as a sophomore (became their end-of-game clutch scorer the last few weeks of the season), but more importantly he ran the Tarheels’ offense beautifully, posting a ridiculous 9.8-to-2.8 assist-to-turnover ratio. They were playing like a Final Four squad before he got hurt early in the tournament, and the rest of his high-profile teammates couldn’t get buckets over the final five minutes of a season-ending loss to Kansas. It took Marshall’s genius to keep them all in order, and some NBA team will be very happy to pick up that type of PG outside of the top-5 of the draft.
Players Who Will Be Worse Than Expected
Likely Draft Position: 2-8
Why He’ll Be Worse: College big men who are pitifully weak in the basketball skills department almost never work out in the NBA. Another group that never makes a positive impact at the next level is unmotivated, unfocussed players who weren’t productive in college, especially if they were a 30-minutes-per-game starter on a squad that far underperformed expectations. Drummond is the convergence of all these terrible signs and should be avoided at all costs, unless the Washington Generals are in need of a center.
PG, Weber State
Likely Draft Position: 5-10
Why He’ll Be Worse: I understand that small-school players with big scoring numbers are hard to evaluate, but there are plenty of indications that Lillard will not be the next Stephen Curry. 1) His team never made it into the tournament because they couldn’t get past Montana, Northern Colorado, and Portland State. 2) He usually had horrendous shooting and passing numbers against the big-name schools he faced (2-for-17 vs ASU, 4-for-17 vs Cal, 2-for-13 vs UNLV, etc., none of whom are heavyweights). 3) He never lead his team to a win over a major-conference school. 4) In the two games he did score well against half-decent big-name teams, he had terrible passing numbers and Weber State was blown out. You can research it all you want, but there has never been a productive pro from a small-conference school who improved his NBA team and hit a majority of those points I listed, let alone all of them. If Lillard couldn’t get his team to dominate the Big Sky Conference and occasionally do damage against a big boy, how is he going to lead a lottery team into the playoffs?
Likely Draft Position: 8-12
Why He’ll Be Worse: Rivers has the aggression and scoring skills to make you think he could be a good pro, but there are too many red flags with the coach’s son. He’s a terrible decision maker who can single-handedly sink a team’s offense due to his questionable-at-best shot selection and horrendous passing chops highlighted by regularly taking on double-teams instead of hitting wide-open teammates. Rivers’ defense is sloppy and unfocused, and his prima dona attitude is atrocious for team chemistry and success (see also: massive upset loss in the tournament to Lehigh in which Rivers chucked up tons of crap and finished with 1 assist, all with a disgusted look on his face like he was trying to figure out why his teammates weren't bailing him out).