1. Enes Kanter 6-11 261 PF/C Kentucky Fr.
It is not an every day occurrence that an elite club in Europe offers a 16-year old a multi-million dollar contract over five years, but that is what Fenerbahçe Ulker offered Enes Kanter. As unique as the offer was, the ultimate surprise is that Kanter turned it down to play prep school ball and now NCAA to prepare for an NBA career. If he can gain eligibility, the American audience will fall in love with him as the executives at Fenerbahçe Ulker did. Old school basketball enthusiasts will love the way he goes after rebounds with two hands, has the understanding to keep the ball high, and has a great fundamental shooting form for a big man reminiscent of Tim Duncan. As is the case with many international big men, Kanter grew up as a wing. Now, Kentucky gets a 6’10” big man who can also put the ball on the floor, pass it, and has range out to the arc. As great a prospect he is, he also comes with a bag of concerns. First, he has not officially been cleared by the NCAA. They will continue to look into whether he received benefits while with Fenerbahçe Ulker, and predicting how long the process is strung out or whether there is a suspension is dangerous. A prolonged investigation or punishment could limit the time he has to showcase his abilities. Second, Kanter has a history of knee problems. While such problems have not prevented him from dominating the Nike Hoops Summit to the tune of 34 points (record high) and 13 rebounds, NBA pre-Draft physicals have dropped the stocks of more than a few prospects. Third, the question still exists whether he is a center or not. The identity crisis of labeling a position is usually only problematic when the player is not that good – or certainly not as good as Kanter. What position is LeBron James, Pau Gasol, Tim Duncan, or Allen Iverson? It is like how a good forward without a position is called a “hybrid” and a bad one is a “tweener.” For Kanter, he does not view himself as being a “center” nor does John Calipari. At 6’10” in shoes, he does not fit the prototypical mold at that position, particularly when one considers that he is an underwhelming athlete. Regardless, a big man talent with such a wide array of skills and great understanding of the game is valuable even if one does not know what position to call what it is he is playing.
2. Lucas Nogueira 7-0 210 C Estudiantes (Brazil) 1992
Nogueira’s name emerged in a big way following the FIBA Americas Championship for the under 18 division where he blocked better than 5 shots per game and had a 22 point, 14 rebound performance against the United States. He followed that showing up with another strong tournament in the Nike Global Challenge facing many of the best high school seniors-to-be from the US. At this point, his record against juniors is beyond reproach, but the concerns for Nogueira surround his very thin frame, and whether he will be able to replicate his success from the junior level against grown men. While the measureable height and wingspan of Nogueira will translate, the comfort level of opposition to facing a 7-footer will change dramatically as will their physical strengths and abilities. Asefa Estudiantes of Madrid has him under contract, but it would be surprising if he is not loaned out to a club in a lower division. With a contract buyout estimated to be slightly above $1.5 million, it only makes sense for him to enter the 2011 Draft and come over if his starting salary is well in excess the $1 million he would have to shoulder. With the possibility of a lockout still looming, Nogueira and his agents may be able to boost his draft stock by selling teams on the fact that he can stay in Spain for another season to avoid lost development time in the event of a work stoppage. Given the raw state of his skills and thinness of his body, it might be his best hope of going high in the draft.
3. Fab Melo 7-0 250 C Syracuse Fr.
Some players just look the part, and Fab Melo has the size, strength, monster wingspan, and athleticism that no other prospect for 2011 possesses. That along with Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim claiming he could be a strong contender for national rookie of the year makes Melo a name worth remembering. While his skill set is still raw, his physical stature should make him an immediate presence in the middle of the zone and on the glass. A point of hesitancy with Boeheim’s praise of Melo is that in the one-and-done era (since 2005), the Big East has had only a single “one-and-done” prospect, Donte Greene, get taken in the first round of the draft. More than any other league in the country, the Big East has been unkind to freshmen. The league has unparalleled depth of teams, grueling travel demands, and a physical nature of league play which has often been a hostile wakeup for freshmen from the prep ranks. It is not to say that Melo will not be in contention for national freshman of the year, but he would be the first player from the conference to win that award since that other Melo.
4. Jonas Valanciunas 7-0 220 C Lietuvos Rytas (Lithuania) 1992
Jonas Valanciunas spent his summer polishing his draft resume. Following a winter campaign where he emerged as best player in the prestigious International Junior Tournament, he was named MVP of FIBA Americas Championship for the under 18 division averaging 19 points, 13 rebounds, and 2.7 blocks per game. At the junior level, he has played stronger than he appears, thoug his lack of physical strength will be more greatly challenged as he progresses through the senior ranks of Europe. Lietuvos Rytas extended his contract following the IJT after finding out clubs as prestigious as Regal FC Barcelona were interested in signing him. Even after the extension, Valanciunas garnered interest from Olympiacos. Joan Montes, coach of Barça, recently was effusive in his praise of Valanciunas comparing him to Anderson Varejao, though on a more advanced learning curve at the same age. Certainly the knack for finding the open spot and the ball are comparable as is the enthusiasm for the game. While Jonas has been with Lietuvos Rytas for a while, he spent much of last winter on loan to Perlas Vilnius. This season will be his first full run with the big club where he will likely be the team’s starting center. He should get experience against some of the best clubs in Europe as Lietuvos Rytas has drawn Fenerbahce Ulker, Regal FC Barcelona, Cholet Basket, Cibona Zagreb, and Montepaschi Siena in the opening round of the Euroleague. His performance on that stage as well as his ability to translate his junior level excellence to bigger, stronger, and more skilled opposition will go a long way in determining whether he enters the 2011 Draft or not.
5. Mason Plumlee 6-10 240 PF/C Duke So.
The returnee had a negligible impact on last season’s champs. His minutes were sparing, and he gave way to Brian Zoubek, Lance Thomas, and older brother Miles up front. The 2010-11 Duke team should have a new identity with Mason playing a big role. Despite his minimal role as a freshmen, scouts still love his athleticism and ability to face the hoop while having legitimate length to play the center spot on the next level. Before getting into the draft, however, he needs to get on the floor and confirm what it is scouts believe he is capable of doing.
6. Greg Smith 6-10 250 PF/C Fresno St. So.
Last season, Smith did exactly what coaches expect from a freshman big man. He played within his abilities, played big, got on the offensive glass, and finished around the hoop. With Sylvester Seay and Paul George no longer on the roster, it will be an opportunity for Smith to show that he is more than an impressive physical specimen who can handle the garbage. Fresno State’s coach Steve Cleveland believes that it will be Greg Smith who will step up in the absence of Paul George going so far as to say that he can be a 16 and 10 guy every night this coming season, and such a stat line combined with his physical strength and athleticism would turn quite a few heads. Smith has a knack for drawing fouls and getting to the line, but to truly maximize that ability he needs to convert on better than 58.6 percent from the charity stripe. The rebounding numbers may be more important for Fresno State as Seay and George were the top defensive rebounders on the team. For NBA scouts, Smith has to show that his less than impressive rebounding numbers were more a function of the presence of other rebounders than any deficiency on his part.
7. Renardo Sidney 6-10 260 PF/C Mississippi St. So.
The humbling of Renardo Sidney was one of the more interesting aspects of last season. A recruit so toxic that programs ran from him missed the entire season for Mississippi State and still is not eligible for nine games this coming year. The SEC season will afford him the opportunity to rewrite perceptions about him. The talent that made him a top recruit is still there. He is a rare player who is 6’10” 270 lbs, but can to operate on the perimeter like a wing. To really elevate his stock, however, he will need to spend more time than he likes doing on the low block, and show the kind of consistent effort required of draft prospects. Also, while he has lost a lot of weight since last year, his on-floor conditioning is still a concern. A nine game suspension to start the season may end up testing him on that front.
8. Meyers Leonard 7-0 235 C Illinois Fr.
Leonard enters college along with Jereme Richmond and Crandall Head in making up a talented freshmen class for the Illini. Leonard has the skills, athleticism, and understanding of the game to be a game-changing big man in the Big Ten down the line. The problem is that his 7’0” frame makes Mike Tisdale look muscular. In much the same way Mason Plumlee was limited in his minutes as a freshmen behind bigger, more experienced players with Duke this past season, it would not be surprising if Leonard’s minutes are fewer than a player of his high regard typically receives due to the presence of returning big men Mike Tisdale, Mike Davis, Bill Cole, and Tyler Griffey.
9. Keith Benson 6-11 225 C Oakland Sr.
The intriguing Mid-Con big man has been on radars for a number of years now, and has one more go-around to impress NBA scouts. While one can be encouraged by the development of his game over the past three years going from incredibly raw to reasonably skilled, the concerns about his lack of bulk remains. The returning mid-major player of the year has early season non-conference games with Purdue, Michigan State, Wright State, Illinois, and Tennessee. They will loom large for Benson’s stock. If he cannot show himself to have gained core strength as well as play stronger, he might resign himself to being a 2nd round pick that some team sends oversees to gain strength and polish (ala Jarvis Varnado and Robert Dozier).
10. Dejan Musli 7-0 220 C FMP Belgrade (Serbia) 1991
Musli played with Kanter on the World Select Team at the Nike Hoops Summit. While Kanter showed himself to be the cream of the crop, Musli struggled against the U.S. bigs. He regained his impressive form for the most part at the under 20 European Championships this summer, but struggled in his two matchups against the Ukraine and Arizona big man Kyryl Natyazhko. The concerns are there about how successful Musli can be as he finds a greater role on the senior level in Europe. His skills are still very raw, he does not have the physical strength to handle grown men, and he is not all that athletic. While his huge frame demands him getting long looks by both European clubs and NBA scouts, he is by no means guaranteed to replicate his junior level success any time soon. Even if he enters the 2011 Draft, he might not join that team until several years later.
Honorable Mention: Denzel Bowles 6-10 260 PF/C James Madison Sr., Yancy Gates 6-9 274 PF Cincinnati Jr. John Kreft 7-0 250 C Florida St. Jr., Gary McGhee 6-11 238 C Pittsburgh Sr., Robert Sacre 7-0 255 C Gonzaga Jr., Giorgi Shermadini 7-0 210 C Panathinaikos (Georgia) 1989, Joshua Smith 6-9 305 C UCLA Fr., Mike Tisdale 7-2 260 C Illinois Sr., Tony Woods 6-11 260 C Wake Forest Jr., Tyler Zeller 6-11 220 PF/C North Carolina Jr.,