The Atlanta Hawks enter the 2014-15 season as likely postseason participants and unlikely to have a spot in the lottery. However, with the ability to swap picks with the New Jersey Nets in the upcoming draft, Atlanta could get into the lottery without their season falling apart. The aging Nets roster could quite literally fall apart and leave the Hawks with some interesting choices at draft time. While those odds are long, they are not unreasonable.
The 2015 NBA freshman draft class is below average by recent standards--especially compared to last season's highly touted group. However, the incoming class should still make up over half of the lottery picks. Whereas last year's class had a deep group of players deep with athleticism and skill, the elite prospect from the 2015 class lack one or the other. More detailed reviews will be forthcoming as these young prospects begin their college seasons, but today we conclude our college basketball prospect previews with an introduction of ten freshmen to watch this college season:
Jahlil Okafor, C, Duke (6'11, 272)
Okafor is the only freshman that fits "can't miss" status from a physical and skill standpoint. He has an "old school" approach in the offensive post along with an ability to make plays from 12-15 feet from the basket. His 7'5" wingspan and full frame give him a more than ideal body to be a dominant NBA center. His greatest weakness is on the defensive end where he lacks some athleticism and needs to expand his mental toughness. Both are sufficient for this point of his career. Okafor is the best traditional center prospect since Greg Oden and the most highly skilled center prospect in the one-and-done era.
Karl Towns, PF/C, Kentucky (7'0, 250)
Towns could challenge Okafor to be the #1 pick if he shows a stronger commitment to becoming a dominant post player. This may be difficult as he seeks playing time on a loaded Kentucky roster, but Towns is a giant human being who shows more and more athleticism in every stage of development. He too often floats out to the perimeter and does not show much toughness in his on-ball defense. Generally, he plays like a small forward in a big body. His gifts to do so could make him a rare player if his perimeter gifts are developed in a secondary role. To reach his potential, Karl has to embrace what is required of his primary role to bring toughness to the interior. As gifted as Towns is as a prospect, he exemplifies this class as a player who could become a bust due to questions about what position he will play at the next level.
Myles Turner, C, Texas (6'11, 242)
Turner, like Okafor, is a traditional center who enjoys playing in the post. His strengths are mostly on the defensive end where he is a strong on-ball defender, shot blocker, and rebounder. Turner understands positioning and uses his 7'4" wingspan effectively. He fall short of Towns and Okafor both in athleticism and offensive skill. He mostly tries to bully other players in the offensive post and needs to develop more skill down low. Many scouts had him ranked with Okafor as recently as a year ago, yet he has fallen out of the lottery on many boards. I understand the questions about his lack of athleticism, but Turner plays hard and smart enough to have a long and productive NBA career as the anchor of a team's defense who could develop into a dependable post scorer.
Kelly Oubre, SF, Kansas (6'7, 204)
Oubre is the fastest rising prospect in this class whose star may now have risen a little too high. He may have the best combination of overall ability and skill in the class which could be solidified by a standout freshman year. Oubre's game lacks polish on the offensive end and a lack of commitment on the defensive end, but he has natural instincts and physical ability that cannot be taught. Oubre has the potential to be an elite scorer in the NBA, yet could be failed in doing so due to lapses in playmaking and poor defensive fundamentals. It will be interesting to see how his game grows under Bill Self this season. His offensive gifts may lead to some comparisons with Andrew Wiggins due to Kelly being more willing to take over games. Unfortunately, Oubre's overall skills still lag behind his physical ability. Worst case scenario: he represents an NBA team in the slam dunk contest while sitting the bench.
Cliff Alexander, PF/C, Kansas (6'9, 254)
Alexander is a difficult player to evaluate due to being advance physically over his competition, yet undersized for an NBA center. He relishes playing in the post and brings a physical brand of basketball on both ends of the floor. He lacks skill and his game raises questions on how his game will translate as he plays against athletes with similar size and demeanor. However, he enters Kansas with a similar profile as Thomas Robinson had upon leaving the Jayhawks. Cliff will need to develop more assets away from the basket to draw comparison more similar to an David West than Robinson. Alexander will find a role on an NBA team some day, but their is a broad range as to what that role becomes.
Justise Winslow, SF, Duke (6'7, 229)
Winslow is a selfless and tireless player who continues to grow. He is mature mentally and physically, yet hampered by a broken shooting stroke. Winslow is a good perimeter defender who makes the right pass and rebounds his position well on both ends of the floor. He will be a great complement to Okafor for the Blue Devils, although the team will need to find outside scoring elsewhere. He is cut in the Paul George/Kawhi Leonard mold of athletes who takes their physical gifts seriously and compete to develop their shortcomings.
Stanley Johnson, SF, Arizona (6'8, 243)
Johnson has a similar profile to Winslow. He is an elite athlete who is already committed to translating his 6'11 wingspan into becoming an elite defensive player. No one would label him as a shooter, but his mechanics are not a liability. Unlike Winslow, he shoots the ball beyond his limitations and makes poor decisions with the basketball. His suspect ball-handling skills can improve, but he needs to grow in his ability to stay connected in games when he does not have the basketball in his hands. Paired with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson on the wing with Arizona, the two lottery prospects will be a nightmare defensively for opponents.
Tyus Jones, PG, Duke (6'1, 191)
Jones has the potential to have a similar impact on this college season as Syracuse's Tyler Ennis did last season. Tyus is an ideal point guard with no noticeable limitations when the ball is in his hand. He makes good decisions and should be a leader for the Blue Devils immediately. He has a much better first step and perimeter shot than Ennis, but lacks the resilience Ennis showed on the defensive end. He projects to struggle to find NBA players that he can adequately defend. This flaw and an abundance of point guard talent in the NBA may cause him to slide as the draft nears. However, an NBA team in need of a leader at the position may find Jones able to provide an immediate impact.
Theo Pinson, SF, North Carolina (6'6, 188)
Pinson has a mature approach to the game, but is held back by a thin frame and poor fundamentals. He may best be developed as a premier 6th or 7th man who can do a little bit of everything. His shot and defense are inconsistent, yet he has potential in both areas. If he shows that his frame can hold up to the rigors of the NBA, Pinson has an "it" factor and presence to his game that could put him into the lottery. However, if overwhelmed or relegated to limited playing time for the Tar Heels, Pinson could quickly fall off the prospect radar. I think he is a sleeper who could have a surprise impact in Chapel Hill this season and NBA teams will be eager to develop him in a role that fits their system.
Trey Lyles, PF, Kentucky (6'11, 235)
The good news: Trey Lyles is the fifth best post prospect in this freshman class. The bad news: Lyles is the fifth, sixth, or even seventh best NBA prospect on his own team. The Wildcats have an unprecedented roster of bigs that will make it difficult for Lyles to get on the court, but Trey knows exactly who he is and should complement all the other Wildcat bigs well. He does everything well at the power forward position and is an elite passer from all spots on the floor. He is an average defender, but has improved his conditioning to get better. He will never be a defensive anchor, but should be able to defend his position. If he is not afforded an opportunity to showcase his abilities this season due to Kentucky's depth, Lyles could be an elite prospect in 2016 should he play well in limited playing time.