Saturday, December 29, 2007

Finding Some (Eventual) Favorite Players

As we inch ever closer to turning the calendars to the year 2008, that means just one thing: it is time to start paying attention to college hoops. After all, January just means we're six months away from the '08 NBA Draft. So I decided to take advantage of a big day of college hoops to find a few favorite players. It always makes the NCAA Tournament more fun and is helpful on an NBA blog to start keeping tabs on the stars of tomorrow. Bear in mind that I am thinking purely about the future of each player at the next level when watching and making my evaluations. I was bummed that Arizona's Jerryd Bayless missed the Memphis game with a knee injury, but I still got to see several guys that really stood out. I didn't get to see many of the big name players like O.J. Mayo, Darrell Arthur (or anyone else from Kansas), DJ Augustine, the Louisville big guys, or Eric Gordon, but nobody needs me to point those guys out anyway. So consider the following list more of a mix of sleepers, unknowns, and rising prospects. Here are 10 guys that caught my eye today:

Blake Griffin, Oklahoma. I was very excited to get my first look at a pair of freshman that seems to love - Austin Daye of Gonzaga and Griffin. I was far more impressed with the latter of the two. Daye showed nice range on his jump shot and seems like a pretty smart player, but he's way too thin and passive (he couldn't even get into the post against a small Tennessee team) to be an NBA player anytime soon. Griffin, on the other hand, showed real ability coupled with incredible tenacity. At the 12 minute mark of the Sooners' matchup with West Virginia, Griffin was leaving the game because he'd just finished doing his best contortionist impression going for a rebound. It was a play that landed him a permanent spot on the all "Heart and Hustle" squad and gave him his 13th rebound at that stage in the contest. A few minutes later he dove for a loose ball, dribbled the ball while he got up, then made an incredible floating finger roll on the baseline. Sick! Griffin plays like an undersized power forward just trying to earn a spot on the roster, but he's got legit 6'9"-6'10" size, a really good wingspan, advanced ball-handling skills, and enough explosiveness to play above the rim when necessary. He strikes me as a rich man's Paul Millsap, which is high praise indeed. I'd take him in the top five of this summer's draft, no question.

(By the way, Oklahoma has a guy named Longar Longar that is extremely fun to watch and not just because he has the same first and last name. He tries to dunk everything in sight and is fond of blocking shots into the 15th row. I never thought I'd say this, but this Sooners team is shaping up to me one of my personal favorites for 2007-08. What a difference a coaching change can make.)

Raymar Morgan, Michigan State. Morgan seems destined to be one of those guys that gets overlooked coming out of school and turns out to be a "huge surprise" as a second round pick. He had 24 today for the Spartans but he's really impressed me with his versatility. Morgan is extremely athletic and can finish around the rim, but is also very bright and able to make plays for others. And that doesn't even account for his fantastic work on the defensive end. Nobody talks about him in terms of his NBA future, but I think he'll be a starter for a playoff team sometime down the road. (To be honest, he remind me of Travis Outlaw of the Blazers - scroll down for previous posts and you will see why this is a very high compliment.)

(By the way, the Michigan State backcourt of Kalin Lucas and Travis Walton combined for 20 assists and zero turnovers, which is downright insane. Pencil Michigan State in as one of my early season favorites for the Final Four, along with Tennessee, Texas A&M, and North Carolina.)

Chase Budinger, Arizona. Jerryd Bayless was the real star for Arizona tonight, because in his absence, they really struggled to get decent point guard play. And Jordan Hill is another Wildcat that I think can contribute at the next level, but I really liked what I saw out of Budinger. Everyone knows about this guy and his defense remains an issue, but he has become a deadly shooter in addition to his ballyhooed athleticism and innate ability to move without the ball. He's also a lot better at seeing the floor than I realized. He availed himself very well in a very difficult environment tonight - playing virtually by himself on the road against Memphis. He never lost his cool, never forced the issue, and managed to keep Arizona in the game despite the absence of Bayless.

Robert Dozier, Memphis. Nobody ever talks about Dozier when it comes to the Tigers, but every Memphis game I watch, he winds up being the key guy. All the hype is about Derrick Rose (I've seen him four times and have yet to be blown away), Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Joey Dorsey, but Dozier seems like only one who consistently performs in his role. He's got great length and hops, blocks shots, can score in the post, and even hit threes. He reminds me a lot of Hakim Warrick and I think he's really being overlooked in all the talk about his teammates.

Michael Beasley and Bill Walker, Kansas State. Everyone knows about Michael Beasley, who is looking like the frontrunner for both the #1 pick in the '08 Draft and also the Player of the Year award in college hoops this season. But I feel like Walker is a guy getting lose in the shuffle a little bit. He spent his freshman year coming back from a knee injury and the first part of this year learning to play with Beasley as the #2 guy on a team. And while his jumper leaves something to be desired, I'm actually pretty impressed by the guy. He's got good size and is very physical for a perimeter player. Plus, he looks like he's getting his hops back. Because we've known about him forever and he carries a bit of baggage, I see him dropping in the draft (whenever he ultimately comes out) and being a steal for somebody.

Tyler Smith, Tennessee. The Vols are looking very much like a Final Four team with their quickness, depth, and relentless pressure. BJ Prince (cousin of Tayshaun and former Pepperdine star Tommie - go Waves!) is very smooth and Chris Lofton is the most recognizable Tennessee player, but I like Tyler Smith the most at the next level. He needs to add range on his jumper, but he reminds me a lot of Julian Wright in regard to his feel for the game, quick hands, and athleticism. Best case scenario - he's Josh Smith in three years. Worst case scenario - you have a guy that hustles like crazy, plays unselfish basketball, and has a great feel for the game, but just can't make a shot to save his life (in other words, a slightly better version of Ruben Patterson).

K.C. Rivers, Clemson. Nobody talks about this guy at all, but he strikes me as a legit NBA prospect. He scores in very efficient fashion and does a little bit of everything else along the way. He shoots over 40% from behind the arc and is a tremendous rebounder for a swingman. I think he's flying under the radar and will be heard from before its all said and done.

Joe Alexander, West Virginia. I tuned in to the OU-WVU game to watch Griffin, but Alexander showed something as well. He's got a very nice jump shot that he can hit off the catch or off the driblle, works off of screens nicely, and really surprised me with his ability to get into the lane and create shots for himself and others. He also showed some serious stones, hitting a turnaround jumper off of a post-up with 39 seconds left to tie the game. Honestly, I'd never even heard of him until I saw this game, but I came away convinced that he's the most underrated player in the country. (Admittedly, this is based on the fact that I'd never heard of him, which could be more my fault than anything, but whatever.)

DeAndre Jordan, Texas A&M. I've been hearing great things about Jordan, who has vaulted into the top five of most mock drafts, and I finally got a chance to see him play a little bit today. I don't know that he can be a contributer in his first year as a pro, but with the emergence of Andrew Bynum, you'd be crazy not to take a shot at a big, fast, talented 7-footer. Jordan reminds me a lot of Bynum in the way he can run the floor, but I don't know that his hands are as soft or his feet as quick. He disappeared for stretches today and seems to take plays off (unfortunately, this is also a trait he shares with Bynum). The good news is that he jumps more like Dwight Howard (he had one ridiculous alley-oop), so he might actually have more potential on the defensive end. We shall see.

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