In the midst of the front office and ownership turmoil of the Atlanta Hawks, it has been difficult to assess how Atlanta will move forward with regard to draft prospects--not that it is an easy task in the first place. With Head Coach Mike Budenholzer leading basketball operations and sharing a similar basketball acumen as Danny Ferry, there may be little change in the organization with regard to philosophy on personnel. Atlanta has been extremely dependent upon college seniors in recent drafts and that appears likely to continue going forward.
The Hawks targeted seniors in the draft over the last 3 years and in those seniors found its greatest success with experienced college graduates other teams ignored. College graduates Mike Scott and Mike Muscala are already successful second-round selections and the 2014-15 season will give fans an opportunity to assess if Michigan State's Adreian Payne can bring an instant injection of toughness and range to the Atlanta bench. While more than half of the NBA has fewer college seniors than can be counted on one hand, Atlanta has seven players with four years of college experience (Scott, Muscala, Payne, Kent Bazemore, DeMarre Carroll, Shelvin Mack, Kyle Korver) and holds the rights to 2015 second-round senior selection Lamar Patterson. While Atlanta is viewed as a destination for international players, no team in the NBA relies more on the American college experience than the Atlanta Hawks.
Since Tim Duncan and Keith Van Horn were taken with the first 2 picks of the 1997 draft, Kenyon Martin is the only college senior to be chosen in the first three picks of the NBA Draft (2000). This trend will likely continue in the 2015 NBA Draft. The 2015 senior class could join the 2010 class in being shut out of the lottery altogether (the first senior selected in 2000 was Damion James at pick #24). While the 2015 senior class lacks top-end talent and quality depth, there are seniors worth watching in the upcoming college season. With Atlanta's strong history with seniors, it would be of little surprise to see one of them bound for Atlanta next summer.
Without further delay, here are the top six seniors to watch in the 2014-15 season:
Delon Wright, PG, Utah (6'5, 179)
Wright was not only an unknown commodity coming out of high school, but was barely known entering his junior season with the Utes. After spending time in prep school and junior college, Delon averaged a staggering 37 minutes per game and quickly became the steadying hand for the Utes. Delon is a long defender who uses his length well and does not overly rely on his athleticism. This trait will be valuable on the next level where he will mostly match up with more athletic players. He is an elite and nearly flawless player on the fast break who converts a staggering 80% of his shots in transition--a stat that led the NCAA and probably all transition statistics on this planet or elsewhere. With a 2 to 1 assists to turnover ration and producing more steals (2.4) than fouls (1.9), Wright displayed unusual maturity on both ends of the floor for a player in his first college season. He knocks down his free throws regularly (79%), finishes well from inside the arc (63%), and is an outstanding rebounder for a point guard (6.4 per game). The questions about his game centers around a very poor three-point shot (23%) and whether he has the agility to be as efficient at the next level. Delon is a liability on the offensive end when the game slows down and he will have to grow in that regard in his senior year to improve his draft status. The easiest way to do that would be to show more proficiency from long range. If he makes progress, he could be selected in the middle of the first round. I anticipate that he will be a late first-round selection and make an outstanding backup point guard for a contending team. The best and soonest chance to see him this season will be when Utah travels to Kansas on December 13.
Jerian Grant, SG, Notre Dame (6'5, 195)
Before dealing with an academic suspension in his junior season, Jerian Grant appeared on his way to being a borderline first-round selection in a loaded draft. If he shows any improvement over his hot start to the 2013-14 season, Grant has the potential to be a mid-first round pick. Grant averaged more than 3 assists for each turnover last season while raising his shooting split to 52/41/87. Those numbers are ideal for an NBA point guard. Jerian lacks some of the athleticism of his father Harvey and brother Jerami, but he may still have a high amount of upside given his improvement over his two-and-a-half seasons at Notre Dame. He has exceptional hands that are quick enough to take away possessions from opponents, yet soft enough to show touch around the rim and knock down free throws (a devastating skill with him attempting over 6 free throw attempts last season). Grant is adept at caring for the basketball and may be able to run the point on a limited basis. The challenge for evaluating Grant comes with how to assess the immaturity of his academic suspension and the limited window of efficient play. Is he a better player or did he just get older? Grant has a lot to gain--or lose--in this season. He could play himself into the first round or to the fringe of the draft. The best game to watch him play prior to the ACC schedule will be against Michigan State on December 3.
Branden Dawson, SF, Michigan State (6'6, 206)
Dawson came out of high school as a player expected to be a Spartan for less than 4 years. He showed much of that promise in scoring 16.3 points per game as a freshman, yet was an inefficient scorer whose defense (or lack of) drew the ire of Tom Izzo. His all-around game has grown since his freshman year but he has been hampered by injuries including his junior season prematurely being ended by a broken hand. Dawson has a 6'11 wingspan that allows him to be very effective in the post when he chooses to be aggressive. He is a good passer as an undersized power forward, but there are questions as to how his passing and ballhandling will translate to the NBA wing. Dawson is a poor free throw shooter who showed some improvement last season (54% to 66%), but must continue to make progress to project to small forward in the NBA. If Dawson commits himself to being aggressive near the basket and continues to improve his defensive intensity, he could restore the perception of being the top-20 touted prospect he flashed in his freshman season. Playing against a typically loaded pre-conference schedule for Michigan State, Dawson's talent could be on display November 30 versus Kansas in the Orlando Classic Championship and more certainly on December 3 at Notre Dame. Dawson has a great chance to be selected late in the first round of the 2015 draft. As the most talented senior in college basketball, he could play himself into lottery consideration if he can build off where his junior season was peaking prior to injury.
Alan Williams, PF, University of California-Santa Barbara (6'8, 264)
The least known great player in college basketball, Alan Williams is a thick big who has primarily played center in college versus inferior--and smaller--opponents in the Big West Conference. Williams could be viewed as a center at the next level due to a 7'1.5" wingspan, but is more likely a better fit at power forward. His lack of athleticism is troubling with particular concern over his failure to play vertically on the defensive end, but his efficiency and production demands a deeper look. Only 6 players since 2009 have posted an efficiency rate over 34 since 2009 (Williams has a 35.6 last season) and the other 6 players are in the NBA (Kelly Olynyk, Mike Muscala, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Demarcus Cousins, and Kenneth Faried.) There are legitimate fears over him being foul prone against better talent. Williams is a poor passer, but he has a sophisticated game in the offensive post that could be further crafted with improved conditioning. The UCSB star will have a chance to show his development at Kansas on November 14 and in the Great Alaskan Shootout on Nov. 26-29. If he does not look overwhelmed in those contests, he could have a senior season like Faried that vaults him up draft boards despite his small-school pedigree. Without a good showing against NBA-level athletes, Alan could drop to hoping for an invite to Summer League as an undrafted free agent.
Frank Kaminsky, C, Wisconsin (7'0, 234)
I was ready to help unload the kool-aid kegs off the Frank Kaminsky bandwagon prior to his disappearing act in the NCAA Final Four (8 points, 5 rebounds), but he remains a solid prospect. A likely early second-round choice in 2014, Kaminsky came back for another season and is the highest rated senior on most scouting boards. Posting a 53/38/78 shooting slash in his junior year, Kaminsky projects as a "stretch 5" without being a liability on defense. Much like Mitch McGary at Michigan, Kaminsky's prospect resume is built mostly on one strong run through March Madness. He is a good passer and decent shot blocker who blistered Arizona with 28 points and 11 rebounds to carry Wisconsin into the Final Four. Lost in the glow of an incredible performance was that it was only the second double-double of his career. Kaminsky will have to show more consistent toughness to hold his current stock of being a mid-to-late first round selection in a draft relatively strong at the center position. He will have plenty of opportunities to do so beginning with the best preseason college tournament: the "Battle 4 Atlantis" in the Bahamas (November 27-30). Kaminsky and the Badgers could meet any combination of Florida, North Carolina or Duke during the tournament. His performance will be an early indicator on Kaminsky building off carrying Wisconsin to the Final Four.
LeBryan Nash, SF, Oklahoma State (6'7, 220)
An elite prospect prior to his enrollment at Oklahoma State, LeBryan Nash's college career is difficult to assess. He is a talented basketball players whose athleticism and skills do not matchup to a particular NBA position. Nash has been most productive at the college level when playing as an undersized power forward or even at center. He rebounds and defends well on the wings, yet offers very little offensively in a half-court setting. While he is willing to be a good team player by playing against larger bigs, he is less efficient when placed in that role. Nash virtually eliminated a three-point shot from his game last season after two years of building a foundation of bricks in Stillwater. He has improved his ability to handle the basketball, but still must continue that growth to play on the wing in the NBA. His shooting has gone from 39% to 52% in his three college seasons and he has grown as a shot blocker as well. A solid shooter at the free throw line last season (74%), Nash shows some ability to have a softer touch while still bringing toughness to the floor. Like teammate Markel Brown in 2013-14, LeBryan will enter the season as a second-round project with some upside potential. He plays against Memphis on December 13 and versus Maryland and fellow senior prospect Dez Wells on December 21.
Certainly other seniors may have surprising campaigns this season and emerge as draft prospects, but these six are the ones to keep the closest eye on. While there are a lot of great basketball players taking the court for their senior year of college basketball, many of them do not have the athleticism to translate their games to the next level. Each of these seniors have enough skill or athleticism to get a shot at becoming professional players. Their senior seasons will determine how difficult their chances will be at making it at the next level.