Last week I saw four players most people think will be selected in the 2012 NBA draft. I could not have seen four players with four completely different skill sets. However, Florida's Bradley Beal and Patric Young, as well as Duke's Mason Plumlee and Ohio State's Jared Sullinger all look like NBA prospects with varying levels of preparation. It is early yet, so all players have time to refine their games.
Here's what I saw in a couple of those games:
Mason Plumlee, F, Duke:
Plumlee uses his length to rebound vertically and contests shots on the perimeter. For a big guy, he stays in his on-ball defensive stance well. He also slides his feet well when hedging ball screens from a fundamental perspective, but it's not clear if he's naturally quick. He seems to have no plan in the post and would be better off facing up on post-ups against most of his defenders.
Plumlee does not hold his position in the post on either end. His long arms bail him out on defense in college, but he can't keep giving up ground inside against men. He has good energy on defense (but not great) and is very vocal. His bucket off a running hook showed his comfort in space, but I didn't see any comfort in tight spaces. He looks to avoid contact when he has the ball, consequently driving baseline often, which is not the best way for him to score. He's got some agility but does not combine it with skills good enough to make things happen as a perimeter-based power forward.
Patric Young, C, Florida:
Low-waisted athletes tend to have terrific balance and Young is no different. He's the first guy to dive on a loose ball, but he has fluid hip turns that enable him to maneuver defensively through complex actions with ease. This is a very rare ability in a guy with his build. Think Zaza Pachulia merged with Ben Wallace.
Young plays with poise inside, and patience. He's not Bill Walton or Joakim Noah as a passer, but he's far from a black hole. Florida gets good looks from cutters or shooters once Young gets a touch.
He runs like a smaller man, with short quick strides, which actually helps him on defense. His ability to move in tight spaces on that end is special. In this game, he went head to head with Ohio State's Jared Sullinger (see below). Young certainly will not see a better one-on-one post defender the rest of this year.
Patric boxes out effectively then explodes to the rebound. He plays within himself almost every possession, a perfect role player next to better scorers. Which he needs because his scoring feel is average. His only move is a half-hook that looks decent with either hand. However, he's a surprisingly decent and willing passer. Young attacks the rim usually after the shot is taken on offense. Every team drafting outside the top 10 that needs more help on defense and the boards more than offense will consider taking Young. His toughness and motor are unique for a man his size.
Bradley Beal, SG, Florida: On the Gators' first possession, Beal looked to turn the corner off a dribble drive. I don't see much ability as a slasher, as he's mostly looking to shoot the perimeter jumper off of the pull-up. However, it will be important for his future that he develops a desire to slash. The game does come very easy for him. He's well-schooled and does not hunt for buckets -- they come to him the right way.
He hit the offensive glass and skied for a rebound, which earned him a trip to the charity stripe. These are gems for him, showing he can do more than shoot. He's also showing poise in the paint after the catch, using strength and length to punish smaller guards.
Beal has an excellent handle, even against smaller quicker guards. He's comfortable pushing the ball up with either hand; he eyes up and is ready to make a pass or to see a seam and attack it. He has the tools to be an outstanding defender, and he shows a real liking to that end of the floor. I like his interest in rebounding. Beal shows better aggression defending the ball than he does as a ball handler, though he looked to attack more later in the game.
His body is older than his age; he's mature and strong. He looks like a shorter version of Andre Iguodala -- super-long but muscular. He's also similar to O.J. Mayo, who struggles to score in the NBA when his shot is off because he can't beat most defenders to the rim. Beal's also not yet
patient when using ball screens on occasion, important because he needs those screens. Young players, as long as they are, tend to lack great body control on dribble attacks, and Beal is no different. This should improve over the season, and by the time he's 20 it won't be an issue.
Jared Sullinger, F, Ohio State
This big man has an amazing scoring feel in crowds and he puts in a lot of work on the offensive glass. His improved body can get even
leaner -- something to watch this season. He should be a good perimeter shooter in the NBA, displaying good mechanics and should work much more on that part of his game after leaves college. Right now, he's better off just being a block scorer. He's not locked in much as a defender. He impacts a game far more than his stats show because of all the attention he draws every possession. He'll be far more free to make plays in the NBA -- a more spread-out game with better scoring threats around him.
If he focuses more on defense in the NBA, he's likely a post scorer who will draw double teams some and yet not need much help as a post defender. That rare combination makes him extra special. But watch his defensive effort all season.
David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com's Scouts Inc. and executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees player development for NBA and college players.