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Projecting draft-night steals

5/5/2010

There is no debate, at least not anymore, about what kind of player a team can reasonably hope to draft after the top 14 lottery selections. If it adds anyone who can consistently crack the rotation -- even if just for a few minutes each game -- it's a positive. Make no mistake, plenty of players drafted from Nos. 15 to 60 have become solid players and, in some cases, stars. But those are the fortunate few.

Consider these names: Nick Young, Sean Williams, Marco Belinelli, Javaris Crittenton, Jason Smith, Daequan Cook and Alando Tucker. All were nonlottery first-round picks in 2007, and none has made an impact. Go back further, and you will see that the players who "make it" are far outnumbered by the ones who don't. It's even worse in Round 2, as expected. Going back five years (150 second-round draft picks), only 28 players can be categorized as rotation guys for their team.

So why do teams still spend lots of time and money deciding what they will do with these last 45 or so picks? Because they are hoping to find the next Marcus Thornton, a dynamite scorer, or an energy guy like Jonas Jerebko or a defensive demon like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. All were second-round "steals," meaning they have delivered far more than the typical pick from that spot would.

So who has a chance to be a steal this year, a player who may get picked after, say, No. 20, but will outperform his draft spot?

Dominique Jones, junior, G, South Florida

Right now, Jones appears to be headed to the first-round bubble. No one thinks he'll go in the top 20 (today, anyway -- of course, that can change), and it's a very slippery slope after the top 25 or so picks. At that point, teams stop drafting based on "best available" and start factoring in their roster and their need to stash a pick or two overseas for at least a year. So although Jones could be a top-24 player in this draft, he can't be pegged into any specific range yet.

On the court, however, Jones is easily pegged. He has a chance to produce in a fashion that is most similar to Thornton, even though they have different strengths. Thornton is a volume shooter with range and accuracy, while Jones has a lot to prove on how consistently he can make jumpers, particularly 3-pointers. But if we focus on scoring rather than shooting, we start to see the similarities. Both guys play with a confidence that resembles arrogance, a required trait for combo guards in the NBA. Thornton gets buckets with efficiency because he can make treys, while Jones can get buckets as a driver while gaining in efficiency because he can get to the line. Think Thornton's mindset with a strong mix of Kyle Lowry.

Combo guards, especially ones coming off the bench, must have a cornerback's view of the world -- always looking forward, never letting the past impact the future. They have to keep attacking to be effective, and Jones exemplifies that perfectly. It's very easy to project him in the NBA as a scoring threat for his team's second unit, and he'll be a tough matchup for 1s and 2s thanks to his length and strength and a natural talent at finding creases. Assuming his shot from the perimeter will improve, which is a fair assumption, he could become a very dangerous player.

What makes Thornton a far better player than people projected, beyond his ability to score, is his willingness to fight on defense. Jones has that same talent. It's difficult to overstate the importance of this kind of attitude, and it's going to help Jones immensely as a defensive player, because he's not going to back down from the top 2-guards in the league, even when they are lighting him up. (All young guards get "lit up" by elite scorers.)

Thornton arguably may be more of a "chucker" than Jones, but both guys make excellent basketball plays -- easy passes, extra passes, smart spot-ups, crafty post digs, etc. That means coaches can pair Jones with better players on the floor and not worry that Jones will stunt the offensive flow.

Don't be surprised when Jones is still available on draft night as the first round is ending. But, by the same token, don't be surprised when he earns a high ranking in next year's Rookie Report.

Quincy Pondexter, senior, Sf/SG, Washington

Pondexter is another guy who is all over mock draft boards, but his game is well-suited to make an impact next year in the NBA -- specifically his combination of a midrange game and his length and effort on defense. The midrange jump shot is the worst true-percentage shot in the NBA, but it's one that many teams settle for or are forced to take as a result of good defense. Having a player with the ability to make this shot, especially a young one, is a blessing.

Most NBA coaches really don't care where a player is drafted; they just care about winning. So even a late first-round pick will get his chance to crack a rotation. There are some quality teams drafting late that could use a scorer/shooter like Pondexter off the bench. If he does get drafted late in the first round, I expect him to be one of the surprises of this draft, but I also suspect that he'll be one of the names I hear about most from other players in the pre-draft process. He might not win any athleticism contests, but he's going to be very difficult to guard in two-on-two and three-on-three contests. In the NBA, I think he can present similar problems. Think Rasual Butler (great midrange shooter) with more than a hint of Stephen Jackson (both second-round picks, by the way).

Solomon Alabi, sophomore, C, Florida State

Alabi has the rep of a raw player on offense, yet he's 22 years old and led his team in scoring while also leading all starters in field goal percentage (53.4) and free throw percentage (79.4) this past season. To be sure, he's far from a polished player, but considering his late arrival to the sport, the improvement has been considerable. Scouts always wanted him to be more dominant on the offensive end in college. But the pro game is far better for him, with much more open area in the lane and players who are far more gifted at post feeds.

Will Alabi command double teams? Not initially, and probably never. But he's good enough to score as a fourth or fifth option on a post feed, and he'll be one of the few centers who can play late in games as a defensive presence without sacrificing free throw shooting. For teams in the playoff hunt, that is gold.

Alabi is such a gifted defensive center that he projects as a rotation player immediately (limited minutes early, but steadily increasing), although he still has lots of room to grow and develop. He reminds me in many ways of Serge Ibaka. He's not as athletic as Ibaka but is taller and longer. Both guys are the rare energy guys who also bring a palpable positive spirit to any room they walk into. FSU finished in the top 10 in defensive field goal percentage the past two seasons, including first in the nation this past season, and Alabi anchored that unit. It's hard not to bring your best when playing alongside someone like Ibaka or Alabi.

David Thorpe is an NBA analyst for ESPN.com's Scouts Inc. and the executive director of the Pro Training Center in Clearwater, Fla., where he oversees the player development program for NBA and college player. David has trained Corey Brewer, Omri Casspi, Joakim Noah, Luol Deng, Tyrus Thomas, Yi Jianlian, Courtney Lee, Kyrylo Fesenko, Earl Clark, Jrue Holiday, DeJuan Blair, and others. He currently works with Kevin Martin and Solomon Alabi.