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McCollum among top sleeper prospects

5/10/2013

You know all about Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore, you've followed Shabazz Muhammad since he was in the ninth grade, and you believe that Trey Burke was the best player in college basketball last season.

Who don't you know? Every year there are a few surprises in the first round, guys who haven't gotten much press but who turn into excellent draft picks.

Last year it was Weber State's Damian Lillard, who went on to become the NBA Rookie of the Year. In 2011, it was Morehead State's Kenneth Faried. In 2010, it was Fresno State's Paul George.

We call them draft sleepers -- talented prospects who haven't gotten the love they probably deserve.

This year, there's an abundance of them. Here are six guys you might not know much about who could end up having better careers than some of the more-hyped prospects in the draft.

C.J. McCollum, G, Lehigh

McCollum might not be a household name, but NBA scouts have been watching him closely ever since his terrific freshman season at Lehigh. As both a junior and a senior he ranked third in the nation in college PER. He had his national coming-out party during the first round of the 2012 NCAA tournament, when he recorded 30 points, 6 rebounds and 6 assists in a first-round upset of Duke.

He was off to a scintillating start as a senior, averaging 23.9 ppg and shooting a ridiculous 52 percent from 3-point range before a foot injury ended his season after just 12 games.

The good news is that McCollum is back. His foot is 100 percent, and he's been cleared for full workouts. The world will get its first look at him again at the NBA draft combine next week in Chicago.

What they should see is a very skilled scorer who can get his shot off from anywhere. There might not be a better scorer in the draft. McCollum is terrific in transition, can break down players off the dribble, shoot off the bounce and has deep 3-point range on his jumper in catch-and-shoot situations.

Despite his scoring acumen, McCollum is a heady player who also sees the floor well, reads defenses and keeps mistakes to a minimum. Although he's not a pure point guard, his slick handle, penetration ability and knack for finding open teammates all suggest he can easily make the transition to the point in the NBA.

Scouts say he's a high-character player who is driven to succeed. In many ways, he resembles Lillard in his work ethic and his fearlessness with the ball in his hands.

Of course, scouts have some issues with McCollum. Although the potential is there for him to make the transition to the point, he wasn't a high-assist player in college. Given his role on the team and his nature, he looked for his shot first. He also isn't a particularly explosive or quick athlete, which could create issues on both ends of the floor at the next level.

Nevertheless, more and more GMs seem to be warming up to McCollum as an elite prospect in the draft. We currently have him going No. 9 to the Timberwolves in our latest mock draft, but he could go as high as No. 4 to the Suns.

Glen Rice Jr., G/F, Rio Grande Vipers

It's hard to call the son of a former NBA All-Star a sleeper, but that's exactly what Rice became after being dismissed from Georgia Tech after his junior season for multiple team rule violations. Rice had the reputation as a troublemaker, an immature, entitled kid who was wasting his basketball talents.

However, Rice decided to play in the D-League this season, and after an inauspicious start, he caught fire in February and went on to average 18 points and eight rebounds a game through the rest of the season. He took his game to another level in the D-League playoffs, averaging 25 PPG and 9.5 RPG to lead the Vipers to the championship.

Rice Jr. has caught the eyes of scouts thanks to elite athletic abilities, a dangerous jump shot and fantastic rebounding ability as a wing. He's also made strides on the defensive end as well, recording above-average steals and blocks numbers. More importantly, he's had an incident-free season, indicating to NBA scouts that perhaps he's finally matured as a person.

How can a player who is dominating the D-League be ranked so low? Scouts are slow to accept that players can change. He wasn't on anyone's radar after his junior season of college, and they've been slow to wake up to his success. He's also been playing out of position as a power forward in the D-League, and there are questions about what position he will play in the NBA.

Nevertheless, the more the process moves forward, the higher Rice climbs. I think it's safe to say he's firmly in the first round right now. However, with great workouts and a great performance at the draft combine, he could end up in the lottery. There's that much potential there.

Isaiah Canaan, PG, Murray State

Fran Fraschilla broke down the case for Canaan on Tuesday, so I won't go into much more detail here, other than to say that Fran gets a major co-sign from me on Canaan. The Murray State star just didn't have a lot of support this season, but many scouts remember what he did to several of the opposing guards at the Nike LeBron James Skills Academy last summer. After he gets into workouts, he could become the next point guard off the board after Trey Burke, McCollum and Michael Carter-Williams hear their names called.

Ricardo Ledo, G, Providence

Ledo was the 21st-ranked high school prospect in the country last season and was widely regarded as the most gifted scoring guard in the class. Poor academics and inconsistent effort were the only things holding him back from being a star. Ledo failed to academically qualify to play at Providence, and has spent the past season practicing with but not playing for the team.

Had Ledo been able to declare for the draft last year, I think he would have been a mid to late first-round pick. Where will he go this year?

His talent, size and scoring ability are still all there. He also has a high basketball IQ and the ability to be a big point guard. His weaknesses are inconsistent effort and some selfishness with the ball. Scouts who have seen him in practices this season still swear he's one of the top talents in this draft and believe he'll blow up in workouts.

We moved Ledo into the first round of our mock draft on Tuesday. If he plays well at the combine and in workouts, he could move another 10 or 15 spots up the board. There are few upside prospects in this draft, and Ledo has just about every scout I've spoken with intrigued.

Jackie Carmichael, PF, Illinois State

Carmichael has had a bit of a cult following all season among NBA scouts. He's not young (23), nor does he have huge upside. However, he's the rare power forward these days who actually plays with power. At 6-foot-9, 240 pounds with a 7-foot wingspan, he has the requisite size and strength to play in the post. And he works his butt off on both ends of the floor. He's physical and finishes above the rim in the paint. He rarely touches the ball outside of 18 feet.

His explosive athletic ability, toughness on the boards, shot-blocking and quickness are all indicative of an NBA backup power forward. He won't ever be a big-time scorer in the league, but could fill a Udonis Haslem-type role at the next level as a tough defender who protects the rim, grabs rebounds and scores on garbage points. He could be a late first-round pick.