The Atlanta Hawks have been labeled as a team that has a bias toward international players, but is it true? The draft history of the current front office suggests that Atlanta is thorough in examining foreign prospects, yet remains more dependent upon college experience than any team in the NBA. Atlanta has had great developmental success with college upperclassmen and there is no reason to believe that the Hawks will deviate from relying on such players in the future.
The Hawks current roster boasts 40 years of college experience--more than any other NBA roster. The dependability of seniors was acknowledged in the most recent prospect review of 2015 college seniors, yet productive college juniors highlight the Atlanta roster. Paul Millsap and Al Horford left college as juniors who used their years in college to improve their draft status and arrive at the NBA level ready to help immediately. In the one-and-done era of basketball, college experience still matters. The discipline, team work, and defensive intensity that prospects gain in college is most often superior to anything they have known before.
The 2015 junior class contains several players who returned for their junior seasons to improve their draft stock. All of them have different reasons for remaining in college as juniors whether it be the limitations of getting discovered at a small school, slow adaptation to the college game, or showing the discipline to delay entering the draft before being ready to make an impact. Here are the juniors to watch in the 2014-15 college season:
Caris LeVert, SG, Michigan (6'5, 170)
An afterthought recruit at Michigan who barely played as a freshman, LeVert was the biggest surprise in the Big Ten last season as a sophomore. Believed to be a role player at the beginning of the season, Caris outplayed the much more hyped Glenn Robinson III by showing few weaknesses and doing many things well. LaVert is a good perimeter shooter with a good handle. He is not an explosive athlete, but has a gift for understanding space and has enough athleticism to affect the game on both ends of the floor. He makes good decisions with the basketball and has an ability to make big plays at crucial time. He averaged 13 points, 4 rebounds, and 3 assists on the season, but put up better numbers in his biggest games. LeVert did not dazzle in Michigan's run to the Elite 8, but he spent a lot of time playing out of a position for stretches due to a lack of depth in the Michigan post. LeVert may be the best fit in Atlanta of any player currently in the draft. He needs to add some weight and continue to improve his lateral movement, but he is a talented player who has shown a commitment to making year-to-year improvements. LeVert will be given every opportunity to display his skill this season as he steps out of the shadows of Nik Stauskas and Glenn Robinson. If LeVert thrives in taking the lead, he could be a lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. LeVert may be the best fit for the Hawks' system among projected first-round picks and a player who could find a role on a good team as a rookie.
Alex Poythress, SF/PF, Kentucky (6'8, 239)
An elite high school prospect expected to be a one-and-done star at Kentucky, Poythress has underwhelmed through much of his college career. Alex struggled to get on the court at times as a sophomore and somehow regressed from a disappointing freshman season. Statistically there is little to celebrate as he averaged less than 6 points and 5 rebounds while his outside shot fell apart. However, as Kentucky flipped the switch in the NCAA Tournament, Poythress became the team's best defender and grabbed multiple clutch rebounds while attacking the rim. As Kentucky played in the Bahamas this summer, Alex looked much like the explosive prospect seen prior to his arrival in Lexington arriving in 2012. Poythress remains a wild card of a prospect currently targeted as going early in the second round. If the flashes from March Madness and the Bahamas turn out to be the consistent projection of the light turning on, Poythress could parlay his junior season into being SEC Player of the Year and a top-10 pick. It would be easy to pass judgment on Alex just being another athlete without basketball skill, but this time last year I thought the same of K.J. McDaniels. Before this college season is over, Poythress could reclaim the promise that he showed when leaving high school.
R.J. Hunter, SG, Georgia State (6'5, 180)
Atlanta may be the only city where Hunter is not mostly unknown and underrated. A coach's son who plays for his father Ron at Georgia State, Hunter is a classic shooting guard who is effective at making almost every shot valued in basketball. Like many junior prospects, his draft status has been lowered by a lack of elite athleticism but he is remarkably skilled. A late first-round pick according to most evaluations, R.J. could most improve his status by creating more shots for his teammates and affecting games more consistently on the defensive end. Hunter scored a very efficient 18 points per game as a sophomore, but plenty of questions remain about how his game will hold up against more athletic players. In his match-ups against K.J. McDaniels and Elfrid Payton last season, he was a little overwhelmed by their athleticism. The Georgia State schedule may not allow him to show he has made progress in this regard. Hopefully, the Panthers will be able to make a run into the NCAA Tournament and allow R.J. an opportunity to show that he has the athleticism to succeed at the next level. If not, he could find himself waiting to hear his name in the second round.
Sam Dekker, SF, Wisconsin (6'7, 200)
Dekker was one of my least favorite prospects in 2013-14. Viewed as a borderline lottery pick at the start of the season, Dekker spent most of the season unable to handle taking on a larger role for the Badgers. His shooting numbers regressed during his sophomore campaign and he showed little improvement in his overall game. Dekker is a good athlete who moves well in space on both ends of the floor. Unfortunately, he too easily disappears in big moments and has not been able to dependably knock down open looks. He has a range of skills that may come together in a more complete way if he can improve his shot while getting stronger. Sam has had an excellent summer according to reports, but he has a lot to prove before I am ready to buy into him as an NBA player. His potential to have an impact as a two-way player has kept him hovering around the lottery conversation, but I remain skeptical of such a grade. Until Dekker emerges from the shadows in big moments or more consistently knocks down shots, he will remain a skilled prospect without a clear role to play in the NBA. If his summer play translates to the college season, Dekker could live up to the two-way wing promise he showed in his freshman season.
Montrezl Harrell, PF, Louisville (6'8, 230)
Another prospect that was overrated in 2013-14, Harrell made a good decision to return for his junior season. Harrell had a pedestrian regular season as a freshman, but exploded in the postseason as Louisville won the national title in 2012. He averaged 14 points and 8 rebounds last year, but his game did not show a lot of development. Harrell is a liability on offense when away from the block and is terrible from the free throw line (46%). He is a good defender, but is not consistently dynamic enough on that end to justify his offensive limitations. Harrell must show an ability to make plays with the ball when away from the basket in order to be able to contribute in the NBA. Currently, Montrezl does not show the combination of awareness and effort on defense to become the type of defender who can make up for his offensive deficiencies. Harrell's body type and resume are enough to earn him a first-round selection, but he must show development of real basketball skill and consistent effort to convert an NBA body into being an NBA player.
Shawn Long, PF/C, Louisiana-Lafayette (6'10, 256)
Long will be one of the most interesting prospects to follow in 2013-14, but a lack of competition may prevent fans from seeing much of him. Long is one of the most efficient and productive players in college basketball. He is a stretch big with a willingness to get physical with the opposition. While playing against second-tier college competition, Long averaged nearly 18 points and more than 10 rebounds per game while shooting 41% from the three-point line. His 2.7 blocks per game reveal a player who either has unique gifts or plays against vastly inferior opponents--or likely some combination of the two. Long is a solidly built athlete who is appropriately energetic. Shawn can play center as a pro, but his skills may be more ideally suited to play power forward. He is a capable shooter with the capacity to stretch the floor against larger players and overwhelm smaller players in the post. Long needs to progress as a decision maker as revealed in his committing more that 2 turnovers per game. Unfortunately, teams may not fully know his ability to make good decisions until he is in the NBA. At worst, Long should be a solid role player for an NBA team and could develop into a unique NBA star if he is properly developed in the right situation.
Marcus Paige, PG, North Carolina (6'2, 156)
Paige had a really strong sophomore season and improved as the season went along. He has similar gifts to Jeff Teague. Marcus has a great first step which becomes devastating when mixed with an effective perimeter shot. He has excellent hands on the defensive end, but is hurt by his lack of size. This result in depending too heavily on his hands rather than giving consistent effort with his feet. He is effective at making shots and at distributing the basketball, but struggles to do both at the same time during stretches of games. He could most improve as a player by showing an ability to create for himself while also creating for others. With a limited number of point guards available in 2015, Paige could be taken higher than in some seasons despite his lack of size. If he shows development as a pure point guard, Paige will solidify his position as a top-40 draft selection. Sharing some traits of Kemba Walker and Shabazz Napier, Paige could parlay a deep NCAA Tournament run into being a first round pick.
Brice Johnson, PF, (6'9, 185), North Carolina
Brice remains a raw player whose limitations go beyond his thin frame. Johnson is a terrible shooter who is a bit of a scavenger on the offensive end. He has elite athleticism that could allow him to explode in his junior season. Johnson is able to impact the game defensively, but much of that is due to a reliance on his athletic ability. He showed progress as an on-ball defender during his sophomore season, but he needs to become much more of a stopper to solidify himself as a legitimate prospect. Brice is an unselfish player on the offensive end, but his passing and ball-handling skills remain...well...offensive. Johnson showed improvement last season and he could make significant progress this season as he used more often in the Tar Heel game plan. If he becomes a defensive stopper and can improve his free-throw shooting and ball skills, he could be a late first-round selection.
Willie Cauley-Stein, C, Kentucky (7'0, 244)
I crushed Cauley-Stein in last year's prospect review as he inspired my use of the word Olowo Candy. Cauley-Stein crushed my review by putting together the best stretch of offensive production of his career over the next several weeks. Willie was highly overrated as a lottery prospect for much of last season, but he is certainly an elite prospect as a defensive center. Cauley-Stein has phenomenal feet for his size and defends well both on the perimeter and in the post. Unfortunately, he is a terrible shooter with virtually no offensive skill away from the basket beyond effectively setting screens. He has shown progress in scoring and finding open shooters when posted on the block. A bit of an old-school center, Cauley-Stein may be both the best defensive center in the draft while also the third best center prospect on the Kentucky roster. His development over last season move him beyond the Olowo Candy label, but he remains a borderline lottery pick as a future part-time NBA starter who is unlikely to develop the skills necessary to be used late in games. Juniors ready to replace Cauley-Stein as Olowo Candy of the year include: Kaleb Tarczewski, C, Arizona (7'0, 243); Cameron Ridley, C, Texas (6'10, 262); and A.J. Hammons, C, Purdue (7'0, 278).
Other juniors to keep an eye on:
Fred VanVleet (PG - Wichita State), Perry Ellis (SF - Kansas), Michael Frazier (SG - Florida), Yogi Ferrell (PG - Indiana), Surprising JUCO transfer to be named later.