Many say that the Big Ten’s brand of basketball isn’t the most conducive to churning out NBA talent. Sure, there have been stars to come out of the midwest conference, but overall that sentiment probably has some merit. This year looks like it might just follow suit. To give you a frame of reference, there is not one Big Ten player in ESPN’s Chad Ford’s top 30. Keep in mind that Jared Sullinger would have been high on that list but is coming back to school. Still, ouch. Well, let’s take a look at what the conference has to offer, anyway.
Jon Leuer, Wisconsin, Sr. – PF
Overview: Leuer finished his career as a prototypical Bo Ryan player. He’s big. He plays hard. He’s skilled. He’s fundamental. Seriously if you’ve watched Wisconsin over the past decade there have probably been no fewer than 50 variations of Jon Leuer to wear the Badger colors. He finished his college hoops career with a strong senior year, averaging a solid 18.3 PPG and 7.2 RPG. Leuer isn’t a guy who will jump out at you on film but he’s a fundamentally-sound basketball player with a great feel for the game.
Best Case: Leuer will be lucky to sneak into the first round, but he is one of those guys that could probably be a productive rotation player almost immediately for a contender. He’s not flashy, but at 6’10″ he offers good NBA length despite not being super athletic. He could be a slightly shorter version of Channing Frye. Like Frye, Leuer is tall but probably not as bulky as NBA scouts would like. He probably has a little bit better of a motor than Frye but neither rebound as well as you would think. Both are skilled players and can stretch a defense with their jump shot. Leuer needs to improve his outside jumper a bit more to be a consistently effective pick-and-pope guy in the league, but the foundation is definitely there.
Worst Case: Even if he’s going to be a pick-and-pop guy in the league, you need your 6’10″ power forward to contribute on the glass and playing defense in the paint. This is the worry with Leuer. Skilled big men are not as few and far between anymore in the NBA. In fact, some would say there are too many 4s and 5s in the league that would rather take jumpers than pound it in the paint, meaning that Leuer won’t stand out as much as he might have ten years ago. If he can’t prove that bang on the glass consistently, he may be looking at a short career. He is a pretty tough player though, and given the right situation, maybe one where there is a strong center in place that can mask some of his shortcomings at the power forward position, then Leuer could be a nice rotation player. If not, say hello to playing in Europe after a couple of years.
JaJuan Johnson, Purdue, Sr. – PF
Overview: JaJuan Johnson is an athletic big who could become a very good shot blocker at the next level. The question will be whether he is strong enough to be able to stay on the court. Johnson is never going to be built like a brick house, but he just needs to get to the point where he is strong enough to hold his ground and give himself enough of a chance to let his length and athleticism do the rest. I’m a bit surprised that he hasn’t gotten a little more love in this draft process. Sure, he’s not a finished product, but there are plenty of tools to work with. Had Robbie Hummel been healthy, Johnson would have had a lot more room to work with in Purdue’s offense and his field goal percentage would have been given a jolt. His 49% shooting from the field illustrates that he still has to work on his game inside.
Best Case: I think Johnson is one of those guys where too many people want to nit pick the things wrong with his game rather than appreciate how much of what he does bring to the table. He has the ability to become at least a better-than-average, if not exceptional, shot blocker at the next level. He can run the floor and finish on the break with excellent leaping ability, and he even has a nice little mid-range jumper. Yes, his low-post game is very much a work-in-progress but his touch on his jumper should mean that if he puts in enough work he’ll be able to score on the block, though that does not always turn out to be the case. If Johnson sneaks into the first round, it will most likely be in the later picks. He could be a great weapon early off the bench for a contender–I know that much. Marcus Camby potential, perhaps?
Worst Case: One worry about Johnson’s game is basketball IQ. We know he can run the floor and finish in transition. Can he operate effectively in an NBA offense? Despite his nice 15-footer, his offensive game still has to be considered fairly raw. As much as he can be an asset because of his physical tools, if he is consistently lost on offense, the wrong NBA coach might just not play him. Think about the Mike D’Antoni-Anthony Randolph situation this year. Randolph has always had coveted measureables–much like Johnson–but D’Antoni buried him on the bench because he didn’t believe he could comprehend what was going on offensively (hey, we all know D’Antoni only cares about one side of the court). Johnson doesn’t quite have the upside that Randolph did coming out of college, mostly because he’s older, but there could be similar issues in his future if he proves the game is too fast for him mentally.
Jared Sullinger, Ohio St., Fr. – PF
Overview: Yes, Sullinger is headed back to school, but that doesn’t mean he won’t be going pro at some point. And, call my cynical, but I can’t imagine that he stays in Buckeye country for more than one more year. Sullinger is one of those guys whose stock probably won’t get
much higher in the draft by coming back–he was likely a top five pick or better if he came out this year–but another year under Thad Motta will certainly make him more NBA-ready once he does get to the league. Not many freshmen average a double-double in their first year of Big Ten play, but at 17.2 PPG and 10.2 RPG, Sullinger did just that. At 6’9″ 280 pounds, the kid is a beast down low, though he certainly could sharpen his post moves for the next level. The next step of his game will be stepping out and hitting that consistent 15-footer.
Best Case: Sullinger’s best case probably falls somewhere in the Zach Randolph realm. How many people would have guessed that Z-Bo would be thrown out for a potential top-five pick’s best case scenario five years ago? Sullinger may not be quite have the motor or edge that Randolph brings, but his low-post skills and strength are very much along the same lines. And, unlike Randolph, Sullinger will come into the league, well, not crazy. It took years for Z-Bo to figure out the mental part of the game and get his temper under control. It will be an easier transition for Sullinger. And, hey, an extra year in college will presumably help that process. Sullinger needs to develop a consistent mid-range jumper and face-up game to get to Randolph’s level, but he is well on his way.
Worst Case: Sullinger can be a star if he brings the right work ethic and mentality, but his game isn’t without flaws. First of all, at 6’9″ he won’t be able to shoot over too many NBA power forwards, though his strength should make up for that. Defensively, he’s not tall enough to guard elite NBA centers, though how many NBA centers can be considered elite right now? I digress. Assuming he’s going to play the four-spot, though, he’s going to need work extra hard in his conditioning. He’s not the most athletic prospect that has ever stepped on the floor, and offensively he definitely plays slightly below the rim. Still, this guy has a ton of potential and is a good bet to be at least a consistent player in this league. Worst case for him? Let’s say DaJuan Blair. Hey, not bad.