- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
Welcome to our new NBA draft blog, in which Fran Fraschilla and I will keep you updated on everything draft related, all year long. From features on the top prospects to scouting reports on anyone with a shot of having his name called in June to the freshest info you can find from our cadre of scouts, GMs and other league sources, we've got you covered. First up? With the college season tipping off, we examine the newest faces ... who might not be on campus for long.
The most coveted asset in any NBA draft? Scouts and GMs say it's experience/NBA readiness. Of course, they rarely act that way. The last time a college senior was selected among the first five picks was in 2006, when Duke's Shelden Williams went No. 5 to the Atlanta Hawks.
The truth is that youth and upside are the most titillating qualities in the draft war room. And because of that fact, no single group of collegians has dominated the draft more than freshmen since the NBA prohibited players from entering the league straight out of high school, beginning in 2006.
This past draft was an anomaly, with just two freshmen -- Tyreke Evans and DeMar DeRozan -- ending up as lottery picks, but in 2010, the freshmen are expected to be back and once again have a major impact at the top of the draft. For 2010, I'm projecting between four and seven current freshmen as lottery picks, along with several other freshmen as potential first-round picks.
Here's a sneak peek at seven freshmen who could crack the lottery in June.
1. John Wall, PG, Kentucky
Wall isn't super-athletic -- he's extraterrestrially athletic. He's been compared to Derrick Rose, and truthfully, he's even more explosive. While Wall doesn't have Rose's steadiness on or off the court, when you turn him loose, he's virtually impossible to guard. Wall has the inside track on the No. 1 pick right now. Point guards with his physical abilities come along only two or three times a decade.
Scouts will be scrutinizing Wall this season, and here's what they'll be looking for:
First, they'll want to watch him run an offense. Wall is fantastic creating for himself, but whether he'll be a great creator for others is still a question mark. The Kentucky Wildcats are brimming with talent, and scouts will expect him to average six or more assists a game.
Second, they'll examine his jump shot. Like Rose, he's shaky. He's been working on it all summer, and if he can hit the open jumper, how do you stop him?
Finally, they'll want to see Wall use some of that infectious energy on the defensive end. He has the capability to be a terrific defender, but he never showed much inclination in high school to become one.
2. Derrick Favors, F/C, Georgia Tech
Favors also has the talent to go first overall. In fact, if he has a breakout season, it won't take long for him to leap past Wall and everyone else in college basketball on our Big Board.
Favors is a long, athletic big man who gets compared to everyone from Amare Stoudemire to Dwight Howard. While Favors doesn't yet have the physique of either player, he's getting stronger, and he has the size, length and agility to dominate the paint for years to come. His physical skills alone put him in the top five, but he's more refined than you think. He has a jumper out to 18 feet, and is a terrific rebounder and shot-blocker.
Scouts want to see Favors' handle this season. Can he create offense for himself, or will he be reliant on Iman Shumpert and others for his baskets? They'll also be watching his passing ability and how he handles the relentless double-teams he'll face this season.
3. John Henson, F, North Carolina
From a pure talent perspective, Henson might be the best prospect in his class. He has an amazing 7-foot-4 wingspan and has the skills to play multiple positions. He is an elite shot-blocker, runs the floor and can hit jumpers from just about everywhere.
Henson's challenge this season is a formidable one. He is very, very thin for his size and can get manhandled in the paint. Of course, scouts said similar things about Kevin Garnett, and he turned out OK.
Henson's other struggle will be a position change. With sophomore (and top-five prospect) Ed Davis and senior Deon Thompson manning the front line, Henson will play the 3 this season. Given his lack of strength, that might be a blessing in disguise. With Davis and Thompson as the alpha dogs at UNC this season, it will be interesting to watch that dynamic. If Henson decides to defer to the veterans, he probably will be deferring to the 2011 draft as well.
We have Henson ranked No. 9 on our Big Board due to concerns about his strength, but if he shows he has the perimeter chops to play the 3 in the NBA, he could compete with Wall and Favors for the No. 1 pick in the draft.
4. DeMarcus Cousins, F/C, Kentucky
Like Wall, Favors and Henson, Cousins has elite NBA abilities. In fact, of that group, no one has quite the complete package of skills Cousins offers. He's the biggest player of the bunch and probably the most skilled offensively. Cousins can score from anywhere on the floor. He can post up, shoot the 3 or play the midrange game. He also possesses a terrific handle for a big man. When Cousins is focused and in shape, there's little he can't do. But therein lies the problem.
Cousins has a rep for being a difficult player to motivate. He struggles to play with consistent enthusiasm, and it can be frustrating to watch a player of his talent coast.
The good news for Cousins is that his coach, John Calipari, won't stand for his jogging up and down the floor. And with Patrick Patterson and Daniel Orton both on the front line, Calipari holds another ace up his sleeve: legitimate competition for a starting spot. Cousins always has been the most talented guy in the gym. Now, given the roster at Kentucky, he's actually going to have to earn playing time.
If he does, Cousins can move somewhere into the top five on our Big Board. If he coasts, he's still talented enough to squeak into the lottery.
5. Xavier Henry, G/F, Kansas
The lefty swingman sometimes gets compared to another Kansas great: Paul Pierce. It's not hard to see why. Henry is a smooth wing who can shoot from distance and slash to the basket. He has terrific size and strength for his position, and will punish smaller defenders on the block.
Scouts will be watching closely to see how he fits in with KU's two established leaders, Sherron Collins and Cole Aldrich. They'll also spend time examining his ballhandling and midrange game. Henry is awesome behind the arc and in the immediate basket area, but things get hairy when he puts the ball on the floor and takes it to the hoop. Henry is currently ranked No. 15 on our Big Board, which is closer to his ceiling than his floor this season. But given his physical maturity and the team he's on, I think he can hit his ceiling.
6. Avery Bradley, G, Texas
Bradley has a lot of things going for him. He's a super-quick slasher who knows how to create offense, but his calling card comes on the defensive end. He is a tenacious defender who isn't afraid to get right in your grill.
Bradley's issue is that he's generously listed at 6-foot-3. He doesn't have any real point guard skills. He's a 2-guard trapped in a point guard's body. A long wingspan and exceptional athleticism make up for some of those issues, but he's going to have to prove to scouts that he can play point guard at least some of the time.
7. Jordan Hamilton, G/F, Texas
Bradley's newest teammate might not be quite as skilled, but some scouts believe Hamilton has more NBA upside. The freshman forward has the prototypical size and athleticism for an NBA 3, and like Henry, often gets compared to Pierce.
Hamilton can score from anywhere on the floor. He's a terrific perimeter shooter with legitimate NBA 3-point range. He also can work around the basket, and like Pierce, he knows how to punish defenders on the block. Hamilton isn't an off-the-charts athlete, and his shot selection in high school was pretty questionable, so he has some limitations.
However, I wouldn't be shocked if he ended up leading all college freshmen in scoring average this season. He comes into the college game a year older and more polished than most of the players in the class.
Other Freshmen to Watch: Kenny Boynton Jr., G, Florida; Aaric Murray, C, LaSalle; Renardo Sidney, F/C, Mississippi State; Keith "Tiny" Gallon, F/C, Oklahoma; Michael Snaer, SG, Florida State; Wally Judge, F, Kansas State; Mason Plumlee, F, Duke; Lance Stephenson, G/F, Cincinnati; Daniel Orton, C, Kentucky; Leslie McDonald, SG, North Carolina; Dante Taylor, PF, Pittsburgh; Mouphtaou Yarou, PF, Villanova; Dominic Cheek, G, Villanova; Thomas Robinson, PF, Kansas
On the Radar
• Washington Huskies point guard Abdul Gaddy isn't on our list because he's ineligible for the 2010 draft. Why? The NBA's age limit really has two requirements for college players. The first is that they wait one year after their high school class graduates to declare for the draft. On that count, Gaddy is solid. The other is that they be at least 19 years old in the year they declare for the draft. Gaddy, who doesn't turn 18 until January, misses the deadline by 26 days. Look for Gaddy to be a potential lottery pick in 2011.
• One freshman to keep a close eye on is LaSalle big man Aaric Murray. Murray was ranked just 59th in the ESPNU Top 100 as a high school player, but a number of NBA scouts believe he might be the best true center in his class. He has the size and strength to be a force in the middle but hasn't always given the effort scouts want to see night in and night out. If he can be aggressive, Murray could rocket up our draft board this season.
• The NCAA recently cleared Kentucky's John Wall and Cincinnati's Lance Stephenson to play college ball. However, prep star Renardo Sidney is still waiting for the NCAA to make the call. Sidney originally committed to USC before backing out and signing with Mississippi State this summer. As of Friday, the NCAA was still waiting for Sidney's lawyer to hand over cell phone records and bank statements to help determine whether Sidney received illegal benefits as a high school player.
On the court, a number of scouts believe Sidney could be a high pick if he loses some weight and plays with a stronger motor this season. Like DeMarcus Cousins, he's a big man who can do a little bit of everything, including hit the NBA 3. A big season by Sidney could put him in the lottery. A bad season, followed by a bad decision, and he could land in the D-League.
• When Oklahoma recruit Keith "Tiny" Gallon began his senior year at Oak Hill, he weighed a whopping 359 pounds. He spent the season dropping weight, and by the time he arrived in Norman this fall, he was down to 317. Apparently Gallon must be eating like Subway's Jared in college, because his weight is now a svelte 290 pounds. If he can keep the weight off this season, Gallon has the talent to be a first-round pick. Gallon is another big who defies the typical stereotypes. He can shoot with deep range, has an excellent handle and can bang down low.