The conventional wisdom has been that this is a weak NBA draft, and I do not necessarily disagree with that line of thinking. This draft does not have the sex appeal or star power at the top as 2003 (LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, Kirk Hinrich) or 2005 (Deron Williams, Chris Paul), but there are some very good players available and some really good value throughout this draft.
You just have to be able to find it and believe in it. And in some cases, you have to be able to wait.
I have been pretty consistent in saying throughout the years that I have a great deal of respect for the job that NBA general managers and their scouting teams have to do every year in evaluating talent and making decisions. The draft is essentially intelligence gathering and projecting out the development of talent. There is not a front-office executive alive who has been right every time or who has it all figured out. Talent evaluation and decision-making is tough stuff and requires a lot of hard work and difficult decisions. And every front-office executive and scout is defined by his or her mistakes. It is an inexact science in which every decision is dissected after the fact with the benefit of hindsight.
At the top of the 2009 NBA draft, there is no question that Oklahoma's Blake Griffin is the biggest prize. Griffin is an athletic marvel who is explosive, has great feet and hands and will continue to improve. Although there is no argument about Griffin this year, would he have been the top pick last season or in seasons past? Would you take Griffin over Derrick Rose? Would you take him over Williams or Paul? The answer is no. But this year, he is the clear No. 1 pick.
After Griffin, most of the players in the next grouping can go either way. They can be very good or they can be disappointing given their draft position. In some ways, you might rather have a later pick than having a pick at No. 2 through No. 7. In those slots, you may have to overpay, and you may have to wait quite a while before you realize the potential you are buying.
Here are my thoughts on some of the more intriguing prospects in the 2009 NBA draft:
Hasheem Thabeet, UConn: I rank Thabeet as the second-best prospect in this draft. I see him as a shot-blocker and rebounder who can be a rim and lane protector and can block and change shots without fouling. Thabeet is still young in the game, and he is still improving. But whatever he may be able to bring offensively will be a bonus. This spring, Thabeet has been doing Navy SEAL workouts and has increased his strength. I think he will improve, but I doubt he ever will be a polished offensive threat. As long as he can finish plays and gets stronger in his lower base, he is worth the No. 2 selection. Plus, he has the deepest voice of a shot-blocker since Dikembe Mutombo. And he is a Scrabble champion.
James Harden, Arizona State: The best things about Harden are that he knows how to play, is physical and seeks out contact. The lefty is compared favorably to Brandon Roy because of this, but that is a bit of an overstatement in my judgment. I rank Harden the No. 4 prospect in this draft. He will be a very good NBA player.
Tyreke Evans, Memphis: I have ranked Evans as the No. 3 prospect in this draft, largely because of his ability to get into the lane. In today's NBA game, the defense cannot lay a hand on a driver, and that will allow Evans to get into the paint and make plays. He is not a shooter, but he is a creator and an open-court guard. He can play point and has outstanding potential. Although not a shooter, he will be able to refine his stroke to be more consistent.
Ricky Rubio, Spain: Rubio is a magician with the ball, but he is slight of build and is not a shooter. He is mature beyond his years and is rattled by nothing that will be thrown at him in the NBA. The only thing that tempers my enthusiasm about Rubio is that he is not a great athlete and not a good defender. But I was not a true believer in Toronto's Andrea Bargnani before his arrival in the NBA, and he has been very good. Rubio will be good, too. The only question is, how good? I would take Evans before Rubio. Plus, if we have to go back to Pete Maravich to find a comparable player, shouldn't we be a bit cautious?