- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
The ACC has historically produced some of the top prospects in the NBA draft. Last season the ACC produced three lottery prospects -- Derrick Favors, Al-Farouq Aminu and Ed Davis -- but just one more first-rounder, Greivis Vasquez.
This season the ACC should be back to producing more elite NBA prospects, thanks in large part to stacked Duke and North Carolina teams.
I spoke with a number of NBA scouts to get a take on five players they'll be scouting closely in the ACC this season. Here's the breakdown:
1. Harrison Barnes, G/F, Fr., North Carolina
ESPN.com NBA draft ranking: 1
Barnes is the consensus No. 1 freshman and No. 1 player in the country by NBA scouts and GMs.
Why? Barnes is one of the most complete wing players you'll come across at just 18 years old. He's got great size and athleticism for his position, has an extraordinary IQ, has the ability to score from anywhere on the floor and he's a winner. The only knock on Barnes is that, at times, he doesn't display the killer instinct of a Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant.
While he's not necessarily a runaway favorite the way John Wall was last year, he's got the inside track at being the No. 1 pick as long as he can get big minutes from Roy Williams. It's been several years since I've compared a player to Kobe Bryant. Barnes is as close as you're going to get.
2. Kyrie Irving, PG, Fr., Duke
ESPN.com NBA draft ranking: 4
Irving currently ranks as our No. 1 point guard prospect in the country. He's stepping into a terrific situation in Durham -- playing for the defending champs with most of their veteran players returning for another season.
Irving should fit right in. He's a heady point guard who's fundamentally sound. He's a vocal floor leader who uses a quick first step to penetrate. He also has a solid jump shot that can stretch defenses. While he doesn't have the elite speed of a player like Wall or Rajon Rondo, he's a more sophisticated scorer than those two were at this point.
While Irving's ceiling may be limited by his size, lack of extreme athleticism and a loaded backcourt at Duke that also sports returning starter Nolan Smith and transfer guard Seth Curry, he still appears to be a lock as a top-10 pick.
3. John Henson, F, So., North Carolina
ESPN.com NBA draft ranking: 10
Henson looked like a fish out of water his freshman season at North Carolina. Asked to play a sixth-man role at the small forward position for the first time in his career, Henson often looked a little lost on both ends of the floor.
Once Ed Davis went out for the season with an injury, Henson moved back to the power forward position and started to show the promise that led some scouts to say he was a potential top-three pick.
Henson lacks strength and a discernable offensive repertoire, but he's a long, athletic bundle of energy who plays hard on both ends of the floor -- think Anthony Randolph without some of the attitude. He competes for every loose ball and virtually every game you see him do something extraordinary.
The question is, can he put it all together as a sophomore? If he does, he could follow teammate Harrison Barnes as the second player off the draft board.
4. Mason Plumlee, F/C, So., Duke
ESPN.com NBA draft ranking: 12
A preseason injury got Plumlee off to a slow start last year, but by the end of the season there was little doubt that he would be one of the top NBA prospects in 2011.
Plumlee combines great size with elite athleticism and a terrific motor. He's an explosive leaper, who can play way above the rim, and uses energy to impact the game on both ends of the floor. He played a smaller supporting role last year for Duke, but after a summer of working out (including a stint in Chicago with trainer Tim Grover) NBA scouts are anxiously awaiting to see how he's improved.
Given his size and athletic abilities, if he gets big minutes at Duke this year, he's got a shot to move way up in the rankings. We have him at No. 12 at the moment, but big men that produce typically go higher.
5. C.J. Leslie, F, Fr., North Carolina State
ESPN.com NBA draft ranking: 13
Leslie is another athletic freak whose physical abilities immediately translate at the NBA level. Leslie runs the floor like a guard, can jump out of the gym and can defend multiple positions on the floor.
Unfortunately, like most super athletes, Leslie lacks any refinement in his game at the moment. He doesn't have a defined position, lacks reliable post moves and is an inconsistent perimeter player.
Leslie is one of those players who could, with a breakout year, be a top-three pick based on potential. He could also struggle and slip entirely out of the first round. It's really anyone's guess at this point. We've split the difference and have him in the late lottery, but we should know pretty soon which direction he's going to lean this season.