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Kanter could go No. 1

5/16/2011

CHICAGO -- After spending time in Los Angeles, Tampa and Las Vegas, it's time to move to Chicago to the ATTACK Athletics gym where Tim Grover and Mike Procopio are prepping players for the 2011 NBA draft.

Grover is a legend in the field. He was hired by Michael Jordan in the late '80s when Jordan, who was taking a beating driving into the lane, wanted to get bigger, stronger and faster. He's trained Hall of Famers like Jordan, Scottie Pippen and Hakeem Olajuwon and currently trains Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade and a host of other NBA players. Procopio used to work for the Celtics and has the rep as one of the best big men coaches in the business.

I was in his gym on Thursday and Friday and got to look at a few of the more interesting players in the draft. Here's a look at who I saw:

Who is Enes Kanter?

That's the question that NBA GMs are asking right now. Here's what we know: Kanter is a talented Turkish big man who made the Turkish professional team Fenerbahce Ulker at the age of 16. He played limited minutes there, but did get into four Euroleague games -- the top league in Europe.

After the season, Kanter moved onto the radar of NBA scouts playing for Turkey at the 2009 FIBA Under-18 Championships. He averaged 18.6 points and 16.4 rebounds in the tournament, led Turkey to a bronze medal and walked away with MVP honors.

After Kanter won the MVP for Turkey, his team offered him a five-year, multimillion euro contract. Kanter, however, dreamed of playing in the NCAA and NBA and left Turkey that summer. The move was not popular in Turkey, nor was it popular in the U.S. Turkish newspapers criticized the move and U.S. schools didn't want anything to do with him. He initially enrolled at Findlay Prep in Nevada, but left the school after other teams in the league protested. He eventually landed at Stoneridge Prep in Simi Valley, Calif., and in November of 2009 he committed to play at Washington. In early 2010, however, Kanter re-opened the recruiting process and eventually signed with Kentucky.

In April, Kanter went from an intriguing prospect to a potential lottery pick with his dominant performance at the Nike Hoop Summit.

Kanter, then just 17, shook off a poor week of practices (he later revealed he had a sore back that kept him from jumping and almost prevented him from playing) to dominate in the game. Kanter had 34 points (a Hoop Summit record), 13 boards and did it all in 22 minutes. He did a lot of his damage against McDonald's MVP Jared Sullinger.

I wrote back then that "Kanter was a beast in the paint, muscling his way in for position and regularly clawing his way through a pair of Team USA's high-profile bigs for a whopping eight offensive boards. ... Not only was he a bear around the basket, but he also showed off his ability to put the ball on the floor and hit the outside J. On Saturday night, Kanter looked like a future lottery pick."

However, it would be the last competitive game Kanter would play. He was ruled permanently ineligible to play in the NCAA because of benefits he received while playing for Fenerbahce as a 16-year-old.

While awaiting his appeal, Kanter practiced with the Kentucky team, but after Kentucky's appeal was turned down Kanter was no longer allowed to even practice with the team. He was left working out in a gym, one-on-one with a Kentucky assistant coach.

For the past few weeks, Kanter has taken his game to Chicago to prep for the 2011 NBA draft. Would a team really take him in the top five based on a great 2009 European Championship run, a year of high school games and an historic night at the Nike Hoop Summit even though he hasn't played a competitive game in more than a year?

I've been pretty confident he's going to be a top-five pick all year. I still am.

While legitimate questions remain about the loss of two critical years of game development, Kanter possesses virtually all of the qualities NBA teams are looking for in bigs, especially for a kid who is one of the youngest players in this year's draft.

He's big (he measured a shade below 6-foot-11 in shoes with a 7-1 wingspan at the Hoop Summit), has an NBA body and uses his strength around the basket. He has a relentless motor on the boards and has excellent footwork for an 18-year-old big man. He's also gotten in terrific shape in Chicago and appears much more explosive than we thought last year. At the Hoop Summit, Kanter was nursing a back injury and could barely get off the floor. In workouts here at ATTACK, Kanter showed he had no problem playing over the rim. While he's no Blake Griffin, he's not a stiff, either.

Kanter also showed the ability to step out and hit everything from 18-foot jumpers to NBA 3s. While I don't think his primary role will be to stretch the defense in the NBA, he has the ability.

He's also a very articulate, passionate kid off the court. When he came to America in the fall of 2009, he didn't speak a word of English. Two years later, he was able to conduct an interview in perfect English. His father, a respected doctor and professor in Turkey, stressed education and Kanter seems to have listened.

"He always said school first, basketball second," Kanter said. "I'm glad he did. I learned this year that there was more to life than just basketball. I love learning. But basketball is still my first love."

While I initially believed that Kanter's year off would hurt his draft stock, I'm no longer concerned after talking with a number of NBA execs. Virtually every team I spoke with has him as a top-five prospect on their board. A few told me they believe that had he played at Kentucky this year, he may have been the favorite to go No. 1 overall.

He still might have a chance to go No. 1 overall if the Washington Wizards get the No. 1 pick. While we currently have them taking Derrick Williams No. 1 in our Mock Draft Lottery, a well-placed source said Kanter would be in the conversation. The Detroit Pistons and the Golden State Warriors also have needs that could place Kanter in the mix. But after Kyrie Irving and Williams are off the table, I'm not sure there's a player with more upside in this draft.

• If Kanter is the best big man in the draft, Florida State's Chris Singleton is widely regarded as the draft's best perimeter defender. Singleton has a terrific combination of size, length, athleticism and toughness. He can guard three positions on the floor and was a dominant defender in the ACC this year.

The question for Singleton has always been: Can he score enough to make him a lottery pick? Singleton averaged just 13 ppg as a junior and shot just 43 percent from the field. Florida State's inept, grind-it-out offense can be blamed for some of his woes. The past two summers Singleton looked much better at the summer camps than he did for the Seminoles. But some of it is on Singleton. While he's improved in virtually every aspect of his game offensively, he still needs to be more consistent.

Singleton looked good at ATTACK. Defensively, he was pretty dominant in the 3-on-3 action I saw. His lateral movement and explosiveness really make him a nightmare defensively.

He was shooting the ball well and showed NBA range on his jumper. This year he dramatically improved his 3-point shooting numbers from 30 percent to 37 percent, but still can be maddeningly inconsistent. While he shot it very well in workouts here, consistency continues to be an issue.

"I think, down the road, he has a chance to be a player that shoots in the 38 to 40 percent range from 3," Procopio said. "But it may take a year or two for him to get there. But he has all the tools, he's very coachable and he's a very hard worker."

A number of NBA teams believe he could be a bigger version of Ron Artest at the next level. A few others made comparisons to the Hawks' Josh Smith. However, Singleton doesn't have any of the attitude issues that those players have.

I expect him to keep marching up the boards during draft workouts. We currently have him at No. 13 on our Big Board and I could ultimately see him going somewhere in the mid-to-late lottery.

• Every year I stumble across a player who causes me to radically re-evaluate where I have him ranked. This year that player is Providence guard Marshon Brooks.

Within minutes of walking into the gym, it was clear that Brooks was playing at a completely different level than I'm used to seeing from college prospects. As I moved over to Grover, I began to grill him.

"Who does he remind you of?" Grover said with a grin. I was afraid to answer. Grover smiled and said, "There's a little bit of Kobe in him, isn't there?" He had read my mind.

When you consider that Grover trains Kobe, that's high, high praise.

Brooks was dominant this year in the Big East. He averaged 24.6 ppg while shooting an impressive 48 percent from the field. He had one of the best player efficiency ratings in the draft. He dropped 52 points on Notre Dame, 43 points on Georgetown and 33 points on Alabama. Every time he did it with scary efficiency. In the 52-point outburst against Notre Dame he was 20-for-28 from the field. He also proved to be a terrific rebounder, recording seven double-doubles this season.

Factor in that Brooks has solid size for his position (6-5), an amazing wingspan (7-2) and above-average athletic ability, and you wonder why Brooks hasn't been in the lottery conversation all year.

In February I spoke to a number of NBA GMs about him. While most acknowledged his talent, they had him as a first-round bubble guy at best. A few thought he'd go undrafted. Scouts said Brooks' numbers were inflated. They said his team was bad and he was a volume shooter despite his high shooting percentage and efficiency rating. A few called him selfish. Others questioned his attitude.

I don't see it. Not only was he dominant in the Big East this year, he was also great in workouts. He was able to get to the rack against everyone, including Singleton (which is a feat in and of itself). Grover has been working on tweaking his shot mechanics and he's shooting the ball much better. But it's Brooks' ability to put the ball on the floor and get buckets that's notable -- even a little Kobe-esque. His lateral quickness, step-backs and aggressiveness were as impressive as anything I've seen this year.

Off the court, Brooks came off as very focused and intense. He's very serious and confident in a way that could be read as cocky. But he has the respect of everyone in the gym and Grover said he's a very hard worker.

There are red flags. He's already 22 years old. He didn't really blossom until this year. His team won just four Big East games this year. But in a draft that's devoid of quality 2-guards, I think Brooks would more than hold his own in any workout with Alec Burks and Klay Thompson. We moved him up more than 30 spots on our Big Board to No. 22. With great workouts? I don't think lottery is out of the question. The kid can play.

• Purdue's JaJuan Johnson has been a bit of an enigma for me the past two years. He's always been long and is very athletic. He's got the size and leaping ability of an NBA player, but lacked the strength to play in the post at the next level. He's coming off a great senior season and over the past two years he developed a very solid perimeter game and even started shooting 3s this year.

That may ultimately be a critical transition for him. While Johnson continues to add muscle, he's a bit slight for the 4 position. However, as he continued to show in Chicago this week, he gets great elevation on his jump shot and was showing the ability to get his shot off against anyone. He could be a Hakim Warrick type player at the next level.

• I also got a long look at Michigan State's Durrell Summers and Illinois' Jereme Richmond there. Summers showed off his explosive athletic ability and shot the ball well in workouts. Richmond is also a terrific athlete, but as you saw this year at Illinois, he's still refining his offensive skills. He's been working with Grover on his jumper and creating off the dribble. Both guys are NBA athletes, but they'll have to prove they can score at the next level.