WESTBURY, N.Y. -- Michigan's Trey Burke was the consensus national player of the year in college basketball and is widely (though not universally) regarded by scouts as the best point guard prospect in the 2013 NBA draft.
On Friday, I took the train up to Westbury to get a closer look at his two main competitors for the title of best point guard in the draft: Syracuse's Michael Carter-Williams and Lehigh's C.J. McCollum. I also observed Bucknell big man Mike Muscala.
All three are working out in Westbury with trainer Jay Hernandez in preparation for team workouts in June.
Some NBA teams rank Carter-Williams or McCollum as the No. 1 point guard in the class. Muscala is on the first-round bubble. Here's a look at what I saw on Friday.
For much of November, December and January, Carter-Williams was the No. 1-ranked point guard on our Big Board. After a quiet freshman season at Syracuse, he stormed onto the scene as a sophomore, surprising many with his elite court vision and point guard skills for a player his size.
Carter-Williams wowed early in the season with a sixth sense for seeing plays develop on both ends of the court. By early January he was averaging 10 assists and nearly three steals per game as Syracuse got off to a 14-1 start.
Once he was mired in Big East play, however, his assist totals started to fall, his turnovers rose and his shooting percentage plummeted. After securing assist totals of 10 or more in nine of his first 15 games, he had 10-plus assists only twice after Jan. 2 -- and both games were against the weakest competition in the Big East.
By mid-March, some scouts began to suggest that Carter-Williams had damaged his draft stock to the point that he had to return to school. However, a solid performance in the NCAA tournament, capped by a 24-point outing against Indiana (before a miserable 2-point elimination game against Michigan) raised the question -- is Carter-Williams still the best NBA point guard prospect?
For those who argue yes, they start with his physical profile. At 6-foot-6, Carter-Williams is the tallest point guard in the draft and would be one of the tallest in the NBA. While most big point guards are really 2-guards masquerading as point guards (we're looking at you, Tyreke Evans), Carter-Williams is a true point who sees the floor and gets others involved. In addition to his size, Carter-Williams is a very good athlete with an impressive 41-inch vertical jump and good scores in both the sprint and lane agility drills. He's also a nightmare on the defensive end, using his length and quickness to average 2.8 steals per game.
Those who complain about Carter-Williams primarily pick apart his jump shot. Carter-Williams shot just 38 percent from the field and 29 percent from the 3-point line. Thirty-nine percent of Carter-Williams shots were 2-point jumpers and he shot a miserable 29 percent from the field -- the same percentage he shot on 3-pointers. If he can't fix the jumper, could a team really take him in the top 10?
The good news from the workout is that Carter-Williams' shot looks far from broken. He's been tweaking the mechanics here and there, but for the most part, there doesn't seem to be anything fundamentally wrong with his form. He just needs to become more consistent in his release point. In the workout I saw (full disclosure, he was one-on-none in a gym with Hernandez feeding him the ball), he shot about 55 percent from NBA 3-point range, 65 percent from the college 3, and 80 percent from around 15 feet. While elite shooters will do much better than this in an empty gym, those are good numbers.
If his shot isn't broken, he is an intriguing prospect. His quickness, tight handle and length allow him to get by virtually all defenders. His ballhandling drills were fantastic for a player his size. Ditto on the drills where he was driving to the basket. That size and athletic ability allow him to explode around the rim.
Carter-Williams was terrific when he got to the rim at Syracuse. Last season, 31 percent of his shots were at the rim and he connected on 62 percent of them. The ability to get by your man and to the rim is a critical skill in the NBA, and after watching Carter-Williams do it all season against some of the best college defenders in the country, scouts are pretty confident he can do it at the next level.
Carter-Williams is the best passing guard in the draft, and he has elite size and excellent athleticism. He has a strong basketball background (both his mother and stepfather are high school basketball coaches). If scouts believe that his shot will get better, you have to put him in the equation with Burke for the top PG position on the board. He's less polished and has more questions, but the physical profile gives him a big advantage at the next level. If Carter-Williams can shoot the ball as he did at the workout I saw, I could see a team like the Magic or Pelicans grabbing him -- even ahead of Burke.
While Carter-Williams may have the best floor vision of any guard in the draft, McCollum could be the best scoring guard. McCollum averaged 19.1 PPG as a freshman, 21.8 PPG as a sophomore, 21.9 PPG as a junior and was averaging 23.9 PPG as a senior before breaking his foot in late January.
McCollum made a name for himself as a junior by ranking third in the country in PER and by torching Duke in the 2012 NCAA tournament (30 points, six rebounds and six assists).
McCollum is equally comfortable shooting the midrange jump shot and getting to the basket. Thirty-two percent of his shots were at the rim this year and he shot 54 percent. Another 34 percent of his shots were 2-point jumpers and he shot 49 percent. The other 34 percent were 3-pointers, and he shot a sizzling 52 percent from beyond the arc.
In the workout I saw, McCollum showed that he won't have any issues with the deeper NBA 3-point line. He shot roughly 70 percent from the NBA 3 in drills I saw. He has an effortless stroke. While his 3-point percentages were often inconsistent during his career, it likely has more to do with the quality of shots he got at Lehigh than his stroke.
McCollum is also an excellent rebounder for a guard, picks up steals, and is a willing passer. While he isn't the same sort of athlete that Carter-Williams is, he measured a good 38.5 max vertical jump and was a little above average on the speed drills.
However, his foot might still be holding him back a little bit. While it's now 100 percent healthy and he's free to do full workouts, he's been cleared for only a few weeks and is still getting back into elite shape. While the foot looked great (he was cutting well and exploding off the floor for 360-degree dunks), I expect both his quickness and his explosion to improve over the next few months.
The biggest question teams are asking is whether McCollum is a point guard. He wasn't asked to play the position at Lehigh and never averaged more than 3.5 assists in a season. Of course, people asked the same question of Damian Lillard. Lillard never averaged more than four assists during his career at Weber State but averaged 6.5 assists his rookie year with Portland.
That will be tough to show in a workout setting. So teams are trying other methods. McCollum told me that one team he interviewed with at the draft combine pulled out a deck of cards and asked him to select five cards. After he selected them, the team rep gave him 10 seconds to look at and memorize the cards – number, color and suite. Forty minutes later, when the interview was over, they asked him to recite all the cards. McCollum told me he remembered all of them. The team responded, "Maybe you are smart enough to play point guard in the NBA."
If he can convince teams that he's a real point guard or that his ability to score transcends position, I see him going somewhere between No. 5 and 10 in this year's draft.
The big surprise of the workout was Muscala. While McCollum and Carter-Williams are both projected as top-10 picks, Muscala is on the first-round bubble.
His workout on Friday was extraordinary. It's no exaggeration to say that he missed two shots the entire workout. His skill set both around the basket (with an impressive jump hook) and facing the basket (especially from midrange out to the college 3-point line) was terrific. He has perfect form on his jump shot and a nice touch.
He showed the same shooting ability at the NBA draft combine last week, when he led all players with a 76 percent shooting percentage. Clearly he and Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk are the most skilled big men in the draft and their college PERs back it up. Olynyk was ranked first and Muscala second in the nation in PER.
What concerns teams -- a little -- is Muscala's lack of strength in the post. He has a thin frame, isn't an elite athlete and isn't particularly long. However, he's so skilled, both around the basket and on the perimeter, that teams may try to make him a face-the-basket 4 at the next level.
I expect him to go somewhere between 15 and 35 on draft night. That's a pretty wide range, but it seems that teams are just now warming up to him. If he shoots it like that in workouts, he's going to rocket up draft boards.