With the NBA Trade Deadline now behind us and college postseason play only a couple of weeks away, the end of February is when preparation for the 2014 NBA draft begins to be something more than just hype. Most NBA teams have a sense of what their needs will be in the off-season and most college players have performed at least a 30-game audition for pro scouts.
Despite the recent injury-induced slump in victories, nothing has dramatically changed regarding the Hawks' slot in the draft. Looking at picking between 16-19 for most of the season, the Hawks would select 15th if the season ended today. There is room for discussion over the value of being a 7/8 seed in the playoffs versus selecting 10th or possibly higher in the draft, but the resiliency of this Hawks team is likely to keep them within the bounds of the playoffs. Until something significant changes, the draft prospect discussion will continue to revolve around the expectation of the Hawks selecting between 15-19 in July.
Based on the current roster, the greatest need for the Hawks is to upgrade the defensive talent along the perimeter. With Demarre Carroll as the only plus perimeter defender, the Hawks will be looking to improve via free agency, the draft, or both. Despite this need, the Hawks have enough flexibility to choose the best player available rather than reach for a perimeter player out of need. Fans should temper hopes of instant gratification from the draft as the Hawks could very easily choose to stash another international player overseas.
The draft board below takes into account the Hawks needs and expected fit blended with my own personal evaluation of available prospects. Players are broken down into categories based on their current skill and potential. This board is biased toward an effort to acquire a potential star over simply adding an NBA-ready role player. The depth of the 2014 NBA Draft complements well the Spurs/Hawks draft model of choosing younger projects in the first round (Dennis Schroeder, Lucas Nogueira) and seasoned college veterans in the second round (Mike Scott, Mike Muscala). There will be several second round players who play more minutes in the NBA next year than some of the younger, high-upside first rounders. With that in mind, here is the debut of the Peachtree Hoops Draft Board:
(*-denotes players highly unlikely to be available to Hawks)
1. *Joel Embiid, C (7'0, 240), FR, Kansas
2. *Jabari Parker, SF/PF (6'8, 248), FR, Duke
3. *Andrew Wiggins, SF (6'8, 197), FR, Kansas
4. *Dante Exum, PG/SG (6'6, 188), 19, Australia
The potential star few are talking about, K.J. McDaniels is the best player in the ACC and may possess the best mix of developed skill and talent in college basketball. Before this season, he played like a great athlete who happened to play basketball. A fast-rising late first rounder by most scouts, McDaniels is the best chance for a potential star to fall to the Hawks and perfectly fits into the greatest long-term position of need.
6. *Noah Vonleh, PF/C (6'10, 242), FR, Indiana
7. *Julius Randle, PF (6'9, 248), FR, Kentucky
8. Tyler Ennis, PG (6'2, 180), FR, Syracuse
One of my favorite players since early in the season, Tyler Ennis is no longer quietly sneaking up boards. Ennis is the best pure point guard in the draft. He is clutch and handles the ball as well as any freshman point guard I can remember. Tyler reminds me of a young Mike Bibby. With three point guards under Hawks' control he is unlikely to end up in Atlanta.
9. *Marcus Smart, PG/SG (6'4, 200), SO, Oklahoma State
10. *Aaron Gordon, SF/PF (6'9, 212), FR, Arizona
11. Zach LaVine, PG/SG (6'5, 180), FR, UCLA
A frustrating player to evaluate, LaVine shows flashes of remarkable skill and unlimited ability in an ideal NBA body. Zach has stretches where he shows off a smooth jumper with perfect verticality, brilliant court vision mixed with even-handed ball skills, and a first step and drive comparable to former Bruin Russell Westbrook. Then he can go a whole game...or even a full week...where he just disappears. Lavine can be found anywhere from 7th to 40th on draft boards and could even wait until 2015 to enter the draft. If available when the Hawks pick, it would be difficult to pass up the opportunity to develop such a capable combo guard.
12. Elfrid Payton, PG (6'3, 190), JR, Louisiana-Lafayette
Despite being in his third year of college basketball, Payton just turned 20 last week. He is an incredible athlete who would seem the most likely player in the draft to uphold the draft success legacy of small-school point guards Nate Wolters, Damian Lillard, Norris Cole, and Stephen Curry. Payton is a long athlete with the ability to be a better defender than all of his first-round predecessors, but limited so far by a high turnover rate and poor free throw shooting. Payton is a classic boom-or-bust prospect unlikely to be selected by Atlanta, yet capable of punishing the Hawks for years to come.
Prior to the emergence of K.J. McDaniels in recent months, Young was my favorite prospect. Hyped as a shooter, Young has impressed with an ability to contribute on the floor when his shot is not falling. Young is an underrated defender, rebounder, and playmaker. He has a smooth stroke, but his shot has not yet consistently transitioned to the college game. A shooting streak in March could shoot him into elite status, but poor free throw shooting creates a lot of doubt about whether or not that will happen sooner...or later. Young is a good shooter, but to reach his potential his shot must become a lethal weapon. The rest of his game is better than advertised.
14. Gary Harris, SG (6'5, 210), SO, Michigan State
Is he Joe Dumars the player or Joe Dumars the General Manager? If it is the first, then Harris will continue to grow as a playmaker, improve a capable perimeter shot, and translate lock-down defender skills to the next level. He has shown the capacity take an opposing player out of the game with his on-ball defense. Along with James Young, Harris would be a great need pick for Atlanta who also fits the "best player available" label. Unfortunately, many scouts have him as a top-10 selection which makes him unlikely to be available when the Hawks are on the clock.
15. Clint Capela, PF/C (6'10, 211), 20, Switzerland [PTH Draft Profile]
Capela is the most linked player to the Hawks on most credible Mock Draft boards. An outstanding athlete, Capela has moved up board as much as anyone in the last six months.
16. Jusuf Nurkic, C (6'11, 280), 19, Bosnia
Another international prospect who has been rising up draft boards since the fall, Nurkic has been favorably compared to Nikola Pekovic. He has put up similar numbers to Pekovic in the same European league only at a much younger age. He seems a little short-legged and less athletic than some scouts observe, but it is difficult to argue with his productivity and dramatic improvement in a short time. Still at the project stage, Nurkic looks like a future pro and the Hawks could choose to stash him for a year or two before bringing him over. I remain a bigger fan of Capela as an overall prospect, but Nurkic is the better center prospect should the Hawks make a decision based on need.
I love Grant, but he will likely need to show more growth in his shooting before the draft to be on the Hawks' radar. He shows the potential to develop into a capable shooter and the ability of the Hawks' staff to develop players could make for a great fit for both Grant and fans in the Highlight Factory.
18. Kyle Anderson, SF/PF (6'8, 233), SO, UCLA [PTH Draft Profile]
The freshman disappointment may end up as Pac-12 Player of the Year as a sophomore. He looks like a perfect fit in the Atlanta system on the offensive end, but can he defend well enough at the next level? The last potential star on my board, Anderson does everything as well or better than international prospect Dario Saric who is a top-10 pick on many boards.
There are moments I have loved his game dating back to his freshman season at Mississippi State. The left-handed forward with great handles has the size to slide to the 4 in small lineups. He is a great shooter with good court vision whose game reminds me of Hedo Turkoglu in his prime. Unfortunately, I am not sure how well his first step will translate at the next level. He only projects as an average defender at his more natural small forward position. While he has not shown great skill as a rebounder to this point, he does appear capable. Among prospects who could be selected in the lottery, Hood is probably more able to make an immediate impact from an NBA bench than most first-round prospects.
The likely Naismith Award winner, McDermott can shoot. Even while being covered by the best player on opposing teams, he still finds his way to 25 points every night. Coming into the season, he projected to have a secondary skill of being a great rebounder. Unfortunately while his shooting and scoring have held up against an upgraded schedule, his rebounding numbers have faltered during his senior season. McDermott remains a great prospect likely to be a fringe starter or key role player for years to come, but it is difficult to project him to be much more due to defensive limitations at his natural position. The Hawks seem to like players from Creighton who can shoot, so it would not be a great surprise to see him taken by Atlanta despite his below average athleticism.
21. Dario Saric, SF/PF (6'10, 223), 20, Croatia
Commonly referred to as a "point 4," Saric was linked to the Hawks last season prior to removing himself from draft eligibility. Considered the best international prospect last season, only Exum is ranked ahead of him in 2014 according to most evaluations. Saric is a gifted playmaker with uncommon size for being an elite passer. Rumors persists that he is not enamored by his current draft status, so he could wait an additional season before declaring for the draft. He is undoubtedly a gifted basketball player, but plenty of questions remain as to whether or not his skills translate well to the NBA game. Additionally, the Hawks are already gifted with flexible players at the power forward position making it difficult to see what Saric would be able to add.
22. Adreian Payne, PF (6'9, 215), SR, Michigan State
A rare college senior with both size and athletic ability, Payne has displayed expanded range with his jumper this season. A product of Izzo's defensive prowess, Payne could capably defend 3 positions at the NBA level. If Adreian can translate his perimeter jumper to the next level, he would appear to be a great rotation player if not a fringe starter. Depending on what the Hawks do in free agency, Payne could be drafted as a player with the skill set to fill-in for Mike Scott if he departs this summer or replace Paul Millsap if he leaves the following summer.
The next six weeks will be the most volatile time period for college prospects. Postseason play will solidify or boost some players' stock while others will be exposed. Potential players to keep an eye on in the month ahead include: Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein [PTH Draft Profile], Louisville power forward Montrezl Harrell, North Carolina State forward T.J. Warren, Michigan shooting guard Nik Stauskas, Wisconsin forward Sam Dekker, and Kansas guard Wayne Selden. With the depth present in this draft there are many other prospects that could find themselves rising up the board or being second-rounders ready to make an immediate impact in the NBA.