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Malcolm Lee leads Pac-10 pack

10/29/2010

The Pac-10 suffered a major down year last season -- both on the court and on draft day.

Just one Pac-10 player, Washington's Quincy Pondexter, made the first-round cut and he did it barely, going No. 26.

This year things don't look much more encouraging for the conference. While usual draft staples like UCLA should be better, we don't have any Pac-10 players projected in the Top 25 and just two in the Top 30.

I spoke with a number of NBA scouts to get a take on five players they'll be scouting closely in the Pac-10 this season. Here's the breakdown:

1. Malcolm Lee, PG, Jr., UCLA

ESPN.com NBA Draft Ranking: 27

Lee is coming off a disappointing season in which he and his team failed to live up to expectations. But scouts are more bullish that Lee could be ready for a breakout season in 2010-11.

For one thing, Lee should have considerably more help this time around. Additionally, scouts were impressed with his strong play at the adidas Nations camp this summer.

Lee has the size, athleticism and speed of a lottery pick. He also can be a terrific defender when he wants to be. What Lee has to show this season is that he can lead a team as a point guard and do a better job shooting the basketball. If he does that, he could go in the lottery. A moderate improvement should put him in the first round somewhere. If he fails to live up to expectations, he could slide out of the first.

2. Tyler Honeycutt, F, So., UCLA

ESPN.com NBA Draft Ranking: 30

Honeycutt battled injuries as a freshman, but toward the end of the season he started showing the promise that scouts were hoping to see. Honeycutt may not be the greatest athlete in the world, but his high basketball IQ and skill level, combined with his ability to score from just about anywhere in the half-court set, makes him a coveted prospect.

A number of NBA teams think that he's ready for a breakout season. "You see guys in the league like Shane Battier and Jared Dudley and you know there's a place for him," one scout said. "I actually think he's a better athlete than either of those guys. If he can show some improvement in his ballhandling ability this year, he's a first-round lock."

3. Derrick Williams, F, So., Arizona

ESPN.com NBA Draft Ranking: 31

Williams may not of been one of the most hyped recruits in the country, but he was the best freshman in the Pac-10 last season, averaging 15.7 points per game and 7.1 rebounds per game. Williams doesn't have any one attribute that stands out. He's just solid across the board.

He has a high basketball IQ, can play both inside and outside and brings some intangibles to the court. If he were a better athlete and a few inches taller, he'd be a likely lottery pick. As it stands right now, he's sitting on the first-round bubble.

4. Josh Smith, C, Fr., UCLA

ESPN.com NBA Draft Ranking: 37

The biggest news out of Westwood is the transformation of freshman big man Josh Smith. He had been one of the most intriguing high school prospects in the country, but he was always 30 to 40 pounds overweight.

Head coach Ben Howland pushed Smith to get in great shape this fall and the word out of UCLA is that Smith has dropped 40 pounds. If he can keep the weight off, Smith could be a big-time sleeper. He's big, strong and likes to play in the paint. With the extra stamina and explosiveness he'll get from the lost weight, he should be the best big man in the Pac-10 and one of the few true centers in the draft.

The meteoric rise of Kentucky freshman Daniel Orton last season proved that it doesn't take much for big men to crack the first round. If Smith gets playing time and shows promise, he could be an intriguing first-round sleeper.

5. Klay Thompson, SG, Jr., Washington State

ESPN.com NBA Draft Ranking: 45

It's tough to get a great read on Thompson. He got off to a red-hot start last season before going ice cold in February. When his shot is falling, he's one of the best scorers in the country. He has deep range on his jumper and shows the ability to shoot the ball even with a hand in his face.

The struggles come for Thompson when he's forced to put the basketball on the floor and create for himself. Once teams took away the jumper, he became turnover-prone and struggled to finish at the basket. His defensive intensity also was a serious question mark.

Scouts aren't sure which Thompson will show up this season. If he can improve his shot selection and show some versatility in his offensive arsenal, he's a potential first-round pick. If he begins the season the way he ended it last season, he could be in trouble.