Last year’s NBA Draft proved to be historic for the Big Ten. The conference hadn’t seen that many players selected in the first round since 1990. For review, the ’90 Draft incldued: 5th pick – Kendall Gill (Illinois), 9th – Willie Burton (Minnesota), 10th – Rumeal Robinson (Michigan), 13th – Loy Vaught (Michigan), 16th – Terry Mills (Michigan). That comes to a cumulative draft average between the 10th and 11th pick among those five selections. That’s insane.
The 2014 Big Ten class was the second-best Big Ten first round showing. [Playe: Nik Stauskas] (8th), Noah Vonleh (9th), Adreian Payne (15th), Gary Harris (19th) and Mitch McGary (21st) average out to a composite 14.4 selection, which still places their five player cumulative draft stock just outside the draft lottery. Don’t forget, that group doesn’t include Glenn Robinson III (drafted 40th), who at different points last year was the best player in the conference.
Now the page turns to the 2014-2015 season. I’m extremely privileged that I get to cover what I consider to be the best conference in college basketball. It would be difficult to argue that point last year considering the draft results. Some other conferences may have a legitimate beef this year.
Still, there’s plenty of NBA talent to evaluate across the conference, and it’s going to be one hell of a journey until we crown a Big Ten player of the year. Why? A few reasons:
Two of the players who are highlighted below tied for the most games played in the entire NCAA last season (38 games). Both are potential first rounders and both play for Wisconsin.
Adding two teams like Maryland and Rutgers into the conference gives us many more bodies to digest, analyze, and project their pro prospects. Maryland is a decorated program with plenty of success and has proven it’s above average at developing NBA players. I’ll be flipping on some Terps games early in the year (looking at you, Dez Wells).
Players always know where their draft stock stands at a given moment. When I was breaking down the potential list of NBA players in the Big Ten, the largest grouping by far are those players that project from pick #45 to pick #60. Will some in this group re-prioritize and put their own points per game and stats ahead of wins and losses? Does someone try to take the Aaron Craft route into the NBA by exhibiting exemplary leadership skills (it’s sitting on a silver platter for you, Nnanna Egwu)?
After reviewing film on each player, I’ve parsed out three levels where each potential NBA player currently sits. Of course, things can and will change as the season progresses.
*Note: The following seem to guys fall more naturally into the 2016 NBA Draft and beyond. Those include Troy Williams (Indiana), Zak Irvin (Michigan), Terran Petteway (Nebraska), and Jake Layman (Maryland).
The Elmer’s Glue Team: Lottery Sniffers
Caris LeVert, G, Michigan
LaVert is a physically talented player who is two inches shorter than Sam Dekker, but his skill set is completely different. LeVert’s biggest advantage at the next level is being tall for playing the 2 and not suffering from any lack of speed or quickness from his size.
Last year, LeVert was ranked 9th in 3-point field goals, 9th in steals, and 7th in minutes played per game. Remember, he was able to have that much success playing second, third, fourth, and (sometimes) fifth fiddle behind Trey Burke, Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, and Mitch McGary.
For how well LeVert shoots it from the outside, where he was a shade under 41% for the year, he’s really crafty within 10 feet. His decision-making skills are already above average, and he’ll have more chances to have the ball in his hands during crunch time.
Development on the defensive end will be crucial for LeVert. He’s got such long arms that his wingspan alone will allow him to be an adequate NBA defender. Still, fundamentally, he has to focus on weak side defensive positioning and on-ball defense.
BOTTOM LINE: Last year, LeVert averaged 34.0 minutes per game, 10.0 field goal attempts, and 12.9 points per game. Look for those numbers this year to increase with greater responsibility. With Michigan losing so much leadership and talent to the NBA Draft, LeVert is going to have every chance to play himself into the Lottery.
Sam Dekker, F, Wisconsin
At the beginning of last year, it was plausible to think Dekker could enter the 2014 NBA Draft. After deciding to come back to school, Dekker enters this year as the Big Ten player who both performs and projects as one of if not the best player in the conference.
He returns to Madison as the conference leader in usage percentage and ranks in the top ten of every relevant statistical category you can imagine. I’ve always thought his athleticism has been undervalued, and that’s particularly because of the offensive system that he’s confined to. Can you imagine what he’d be doing at North Carolina?
To me, his outside game must improve for him to solidify his spot in the lottery. In the 2012 campaign, Dekker went 50-128 from deep. In 2013? Just 42-129, or 32.6%.
At 6’9” and 230 pounds, Dekker projects as a prototypical three in the NBA. There has been some talk about him potentially playing the 4 or stretch 4 at the next level. I think that’s a valid consideration with how good Dekker is in transition and at pulling up. I just don’t know if his body is both big enough and able to withstand the pounding of playing post defense against bigger 4’s in the NBA.
BOTTOM LINE: Despite that, his size, athleticism, decision making and overall skill set gives him a chance and gives him as much hope as any Big Ten player to get picked in the Lottery.
The Where’s Waldo Team: “I know, but where?”
Frank Kaminsky C, Wisconsin
Yes, that big white basketball player that burst onto the national scene last year deserves to be referenced only by his nickname for the entire year. Big Daddy Fupps, or BDF, is going to stick. I’m not sure if his basketball play or his twitter bio excites me more:
"It was all a dream. Wisconsin Basketball #44. Future producer of Techno Music. #MOB. Co-Founder of the #DirtyDub. This is my Swamp."
The Big Ten Network should just have BDF wear a GoPro camera and chronicle his day. They can air it the 16 other hours of the day when they don’t have any original programming. If BTN won’t do that, follow BDF’s life on Twitter @FSKPart3.
Now, to basketball.
BDF’s most unique skill is his overall shooting ability. He was 1st in the conference in field goal percentage at a whopping 52.8%. He’s top seven in the conference for both 2-pointers attempted and 3-pointers attempted. Again, that’s really damn impressive because of BDF’s implementation in Bo Ryan’s offensive system. He isn’t running 12 pick-and-pops per game. He’s getting these shots within the flow of the offense and converting at a fantastic rate.
His biggest asset is his mobility for his size. Not only can he draw the opponent’s center or rim protector away from the basket, but last year he developed a pump fake, improved handles, and got to the basket to convert. BDF had an absurd 62.2% conversion rate at the rim.
BOTTOM LINE: History tells us two things. First, NBA executives like players who have experienced great success in the tournament, especially during March Madness. If a player can get to the Final Four and be a large reason why your team is there, the player’s draft stock can skyrocket (see Thomas, Tyrus). This year, it’s very possible that the Badgers are at Lucas Oil Stadium for their second straight Final Four. A big reason for being there will be BDF. Second, seven-footers with this much potential skill in the pick-and-pop game, plus the scarcity of legitimate centers in today’s game, means BDF, despite lacking ideal speed and athleticism, stands a real shot to crack the first round.
Branden Dawson, F, Michigan State
Dawson is back at Michigan State and will take on a bigger role after the NBA departures of Gary Harris and Adreian Payne. Last year, Dawson was 5th in the conference in total rebounds and 1st in “Stand Up From Your Couch” Dunks. Tom Izzo has always been a believer in Dawson’s ability, but consistency has been his kryptonite. Hopefully Dawson’s more integrated role in the offense and reliance as the team’s proven leader along with Denzel Valentine will help Dawson assert himself.
Dawson must improve two areas of his game to assure NBA executives are convinced his ability will translate at the next level. First, he’s got to become a better shooter. Although his shooting percentages look very good at 61.3% from last year, Synergy Sports information shows that most of his points came around the rim. Dawson shoots less than 30% on jump shots. Doing dirty work in the paint is lauded in Big Ten play, but it doesn’t translate very well, especially when Dawson is only 6’6”. He’s too small to play the 4, yet not a good enough shooter to play the 3. That tweener aspect of his game will cause some pause for teams on Draft night.
Second, Dawson must develop better ball handling skills. Against Navy in Michigan State’s first game of the season, he was fine when facing up to the basket and gets his first step towards the basket, but if he has to get going right or left, he continues to struggle with his dribbling, especially with his weak hand.
BOTTOM LINE: Dawson’s physicality and athleticism still solidifies his spot in next year’s Draft. Where in the draft he’s selected is anyone’s guess. I would project him in the middle of the 2nd round right now, with the ability to move up a couple notches based on how his basic fundamentals progress throughout the year.
AJ Hammons C, Purdue
As the conference’s leading shot blocker and the player with the seventh best block percentage in the nation last year, Hammons is your clubhouse leader for “Jay Bilas Using Generic Words To Describe Future Ability” on Draft night:
“He’s got lots of upside!”
“His physical tools are unmatched.”
“His potential is through the roof!”
“He’s got a great wingspan for a big man.”
Hammons is another legit seven-footer, albeit one that is not as skilled a shooter nor as mobile as BDF. His 265-pound frame will allow him to take a beating inside both offensively and defensively at the next level. Shot blocking is Hammons’ forte because his length can make up for other shortcomings. Watching film of his defensive play, there are plenty of times when he gets beat by a step or a step-and-a-half by a smaller guard. However, his footwork is good enough to take one step between the ball and the basket, use his length to compensate for getting beat, and get a clean block.
He’s an above average offensive rebounder and gets off the floor pretty quickly. I’d like to see him develop a more all-around post game because he gets predictable in certain situations based on the block he’s operating at.
BOTTOM LINE: While his strength is his shot blocking, his overall defensive game needs improvement. I’m not sure whether it’s a lack of desire or a lack of basic defensive instincts, but he has to become better at rotations and with his pick-and-roll defense. All that said, he’s too big a body and too good metrically for many teams to pass him up in the Draft.
Shannon Scott, G, Ohio State
Scott’s ticket to the NBA is quite simple: one NBA team is going to need an elite perimeter defender who can create turnovers and play top notch on-ball defense. All I can speak to is the Big Ten Conference, and he is easily the best perimeter defender in the conference after his teammate, Aaron Craft, departed for professional basketball.
Do you remember the coin molding machines at Disney World or some other amusement park? You put in two quarters and a penny. The penny drops to the middle of the machine where it’s flattened out and imprinted with some insignia. I have used to have a Toy Story one.
Anyway, Shannon Scott is the perfect mold of a perimeter defender. He’s got a strong upper body and has exceptional footwork. He’s so athletic that it’s hard to put a screen on him, and he has tremendous closing speed on outside shooters. Scott finished 7th in the nation in steal percentage last year. He also led the conference in defensive rating and historically has the 4th highest rating in Big Ten history.
BOTTOM LINE: Offensively, Scott is somewhat of a one-trick pony. He takes care of the basketball and distributes very well, finishing 9th in the conference last year with 119 assists. He’s not going to shoot the ball much, and that’s ok since none of his shooting percentages really blow you away (43.2% from the field, 30.2% from deep, 68.3% from the free throw line). There’s no doubt in my mind he has the physical ability and defensive acumen to be a second quarter stalwart in the NBA.
Dez Wells, F, Maryland
I’ll be honest – I haven’t seen Dez Wells play that much. From the YouTube clips I flipped through, there are a couple things I really like. First, his official highlight reel online lists him as a “guard/forward.” I love that, and his 6’4”, 221-pound frame suggests he could potentially play the 3. However, I project him most as a really solid 2 guard. He didn’t shoot it particularly well from deep, but he only shot 1.8 three-point attempts per game. That shows Wells won’t be lighting it up from an even deeper three-point line in the NBA.
Wells finds a way to use his frame to get as close to the hoop as possible. Whether it’s a straight dribble drive or a few dribbles with his back towards the basket, he does his best to work his way into the paint. There is an old-school feel to his game because of how comfortable Wells operates in the mid-range. His step-back in that area looks above average, and I think that area will serve him well transitioning to Big Ten play.
Athletically, there are flashes of brilliance. From a big-time dunk to rejecting a layup at the rim, Wells gets up exceptionally well for a man with his frame and that much weight.
BOTTOM LINE: He seems to have some issues accelerating while dribbling. It takes him an awfully long time to get to the basket. As previously mentioned, he doesn’t shoot it very well from deep, and that can be concerning for a 2 guard in the NBA. Nonetheless, if he finds a deliberate, system-based offense in the NBA, he will play at the next level.
The Dewey Defeats Truman Team: False Hopes
Aaron White, F, Iowa
With almost an identical frame as Sam Dekker at 6’9” and 229 pounds, White easily projects as a 3 in the NBA. However, he doesn’t shoot the ball well at all from deep, shooting 25.8% on only 31 3-point attempts. He does do a great job using his body to initiate contact and get to the free throw line, as he was 7th in the conference in free throw percentage and 10th in free throw attempts.
Granted, White did have the second-highest field goal percentage in the conference. I’m not taking that away from him, but when you look at the lineup Iowa rolled out last year, White was able to take advantage of some mismatches on the offensive end. He did a great job using his height advantage to gain early post position and go to his bread and butter moves.
BOTTOM LINE: Athletically, White would have major difficulty playing defense against nearly all other small forwards in the NBA. He’s not quick and struggles even more laterally. Even though he had a fantastic efficiency rating last year, I think White’s deficiencies in sheer athleticism will be his biggest downfall come Draft night.
Yogi Ferrell, G, Indiana
Ferrell could’ve been the most important player to any Big Ten team from start to finish during the 2013-14 campaign. Make a play? Yogi. Take the big shot? Yogi. Get a stop? Yogi. It’s hard to imagine how last year would’ve looked in Bloomington if something had happened to him.
A top five conference player in points per game, assists per game, and steals per game last season, Yogi will be asked to replicate that again in 2014-15. He had an impressive 10% increase in his three-point shooting percentage last year, finishing at exactly 40% while averaging 17.3 points per game. Also, his overall field goal percentage moved up just a tick despite taking almost two times as many shots per game.
He’s fantastic at creating with the ball in his hands, whether it’s isolation or receiving off a ball screen. His quickness may be his best attribute aside from his shooting. He’s a veteran at making great decisions because of all the responsibility bestowed on him during his younger years, when he was the facilitator for Victor Oladipo, Noah Vonleh, and Cody Zeller.
BOTTOM LINE: To me, Yogi has to find some middle ground on offense to truly categorize his offensive ability as excellent. He’s very undersized, with short arms and lacks the explosiveness to make up for it. He’s very good on the perimeter when pulling up and hitting jumpers. He’s also very good putting his head down and steamrolling to the hoop. But for him to find a place in the NBA, he’ll have to find a way to shoot over long, athletic frontcourt defenders. A floater or consistent 15-foot pull-up would do wonders for him.
Nnanna Egwu, C, Illinois
With fellow senior Tracy Abrams out for the year with an injury, the leadership role for Illinois rests solely on the shoulders of Nnanna Egwu. The 2012 campaign looked like a promising start to a collegiate career for Egwu. Unfortunately, Egwu he had a slight regression last year offensively, shooting worse from the field.
Two years ago, Egwu’s calling card seemed to be a guy who could work in the post while consistently hitting a 17-foot jumper. This allowed him to bring bigger defenders away from the rim and opening up driving lanes for his teammates. Instead of incorporating new wrinkles in his post game last year, Egwu took his mid-range game even further outside, hoping to develop a pick-and-pop game after setting ball screens. He didn’t have much success, shooting only 27% from deep and only attempting 0.7 three-pointers per game.
For Egwu, most of his basketball success comes from his unmatched work ethic and desire to get better. That shows up in the box score, as he was 1st in the conference in offensive rebounds and 2nd in blocks per game with 2.1 per.
BOTTOM LINE: He runs the floor extremely well for a big man and also has a nice touch on the aforementioned outside jump shot. His post game still needs substantial improvement. I’m not sure you can count on increased production from him this year with the influx of new guards the Illini will trot out. A Big Ten center averaging 5.2 points per game and 4.2 rebounds per game doesn’t have enough production to argue for his place in the NBA.