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10 potential breakthrough players

Christian Watford may not be the best pro prospect on Indiana, but he may surprise some scouts. Brace Hemmelgarn/US Presswire

College basketball is bad for your NBA draft stock. That is what some will tell you. One narrative, which you hear constantly from fans, agents, players and Twitter, is that going back to school is, for lack of a better word, dumb. Look at Jared Sullinger. "Sully" was by some accounts a top-10 pick last year. He returned to school and hurt his back, and some of his limitations in size and style of play had him "plummet" to the Celtics at No. 21.

What about Terrence Jones? Some thought he could go in the lottery last year, but instead he went No. 18 to the Rockets this year. Harrison Barnes? He "fell" to No. 7 from the likely top-five pick he would have been last year. Even Andre Drummond, who played just one season at Connecticut, must have heard whispers that had he simply gone to prep school and made himself draft eligible, he would have gone No. 2 overall.

The fact is, however, that this argument is complete and utter nonsense.

Lost in this obtuse view is that college basketball actually helped far more players in the 2012 draft class than it hurt. Where would Meyers Leonard have gone last year? What about Thomas Robinson? Dion Waiters? Royce White? Fab Melo as a first-round pick -- had you uttered those words around Syracuse, N.Y., this time last year, they would have put a straitjacket on you. In fact, if you look at the first round, I would argue that more than half the players selected greatly improved their stock in college basketball this past season.

Here is a look at 10 players who, with continued work and greater opportunity, could emerge on 2013 NBA draft boards by next June -- but only after first posting breakthrough campaigns in college basketball in 2012-13.

Michael Carter-Williams, Syracuse Orange

Last year, I was on a plane with a very good former player who is now an NBA scout. He was headed to see Syracuse play UConn, and we discussed whom he did and did not like. Unprompted, he said, "Look, I really like [Dion] Waiters. I like the way he competes, makes shots, and I think at worst he is a sixth man who can play the point or the 2. But I love Carter-Williams. He is a better shooter, ball-screen player, and he will be a lottery pick in a year or two, as he sometimes plays too cool, sometimes loses his confidence with so few minutes."

Carter-Williams is leading a new but equally loaded Syracuse team, and whether he ever plays a game in the ACC or not, the 6-foot-2 scoring point guard showed flashes of something special when he received enough minutes this past season. Add in the fact that redshirted sharpshooter Trevor Cooney will help with spreading the floor for the Orange, and Carter-Williams has a chance, with improvement, to be special.

Le'Bryan Nash, Oklahoma State Cowboys

Nash came in with a ton of hype. The highest-rated player in the state of Texas went to Oklahoma State, telling everyone that he was a one-and-done player. The problem was Nash had no position. He eventually found a home as a face-up 4, but his jumper and decision-making on the perimeter were suspect, his post moves were nonexistent, and his demeanor varied based on his play.

Late in the season, he showed flashes of an improved jumper and attitude, which has been bolstered by the arrival of the newest star Cowpokes recruit, Marcus Smart, who is already pushing Nash to compete more in every workout. Nash must continue to be engaged on every play, become a more efficient shooter and declare some sort of position. If he can do those things, with the help of a talented teammate and the motivation that comes from not living up to his personal goals last season, he should be back on draft boards.

Alex Len, Maryland Terrapins

Len was the first much-hyped recruit of the Mark Turgeon era after some well-regarded games in international competition. After wading through a tough season filled with a suspension from the NCAA, some questionable shot selection from his teammates and the adjustment to the physicality of the American game, Len was slow to come around. With highly rated center prospect Shaquille Cleare inside this season, Len will be able to play the face-up 4 more freely on the perimeter, the way he was able to light up teams playing for Ukraine.

Nate Wolters, South Dakota State Jackrabbits

The Jackrabbits went into Washington last season and stunned the Huskies, as Wolters, the Summit League player of the year, dropped 34 points, seven assists and five rebounds while not turning the ball over once. Wolters is not as good a perimeter shooter as he needs to be, and although he's 6-foot-4, he needs to work on his body. He is a talented, sleek, ball-screen point guard with the vast array of skills needed to finish over big men in the pros.

Phil Pressey, Missouri Tigers

"Flip" spent the first season trying to play in Mike Anderson's offense, in which occasionally he would take an ill-timed shot, and there was very little ball-screen action to take advantage of his playmaking ability in the half court. This past season, he fit perfectly into the four-guard look Missouri used to win the Big 12 tourney, but Pressey facilitated more than he took over. After all, Marcus Denmon is a bona fide late-game killer, and Kim English always had a mismatch at the 4, so Pressey was more passive at times than he should have been. Although he struggled on occasion to finish at the rim against length, Pressey was mostly awesome in Big 12 play, with the exception of four or five games.

Tony Snell, New Mexico Lobos

While UNLV has rightfully taken the college basketball world by storm with last season's success and big recruiting pickups, New Mexico quietly has a stable of elite talent that, in some positions, rivals that of San Diego State and UNLV. Snell is one of those guys. He is a 6-7 guard/small forward with length, athleticism and skill, but he lacks huge numbers to quantify his talent.

In my opinion, the loss of Drew Gordon to graduation should help with Snell's numbers, as he now must be more assertive on offense. But he is the opposite of many young prospects, as scouts like Snell the more they see him.

Christian Watford, Indiana Hoosiers

If the 2013 draft were today, Cody Zeller might go No. 1 overall. But the more scouts flock to Bloomington to measure Zeller's talents, the more they will like what they see out of Watford. Watford can really score, and while he is not skilled enough to play the 3 in the pros, he can be a stretch 4 similar to Ryan Anderson at the next level. Keep in mind Anderson was a better rebounder and scorer in college, but Watford is not a bad rebounder by any means. Don't be surprised if he improves upon his averages of 12.6 points and 5.8 rebounds per game this season.

Kyle Wiltjer, Kentucky Wildcats

Wiltjer looked lost for a portion of last season, as he tried to fit in with the talented young Cats. His body is still in transformation from boy to man, but his size and skills have improved. Wiltjer's sophomore season should bring him confidence and early-season opportunity, as outside of NC State transfer Ryan Harrow, nobody on Kentucky's roster has big-time experience. Wiltjer was recruited as a four-year college player out west before he bolted for the Bluegrass, but he might speed up that process with an improved inside-outside game in 2012-13.

Joshua Smith, UCLA Bruins

Scouts are going to come to see Shabazz Muhammad. It remains to be seen what Muhammad will be at the NBA level, but at the college level, he will be a force. Smith has always been a load; in fact, his weight is killing his pro potential and the potential of his team in Westwood.

I am betting that the offseason practices and motivation of bringing the Bruins back, along with the arrival of the fabulous incoming recruiting class, gets the massive Smith in shape. He has soft hands and a solid touch, and although he needs to establish more than just a turnaround as a post move, his feet are agile enough to add more moves.

Jordan Henriquez, Kansas State Wildcats

JO, as he is known, is a rim protector deluxe. Henriquez has tremendous timing and hands to block shots on or off the ball, and he keeps his blocks in bounds. Additionally, Henriquez has a decent face-up jumper and can finish off penetration. With the need for NBA teams to protect the rim with long, athletic and rangy big men, Henriquez, if used right, can be that guy.