Hey, the draft is only…let’s see…well it’s a long way away. But we’ve got a lot of players to get through, so let’s keep it rolling, shall we?
It’s very interesting to me that despite how much fanfare the Big East received this season, Kemba Walker is the only player from a Big East school in ESPN’s NBA Draft guru Chad Ford’s top 30. Couple that with their dismal showing in the tournament–besides UConn going the distance, of course–and, hmm, could it be that the whole country overrated the 16-team league? Impossible, right?
First installment of the Big East in Pro or No coming at you in 5…4…3…2…
Kemba Walker, Connecticut, Jr. – PG/SG
Overview: What Kemba Walker did this year was really nothing short of astounding. For those who don’t realize, Walker was a fairly highly recruited player but was not considered someone who stopped the presses when he signed with UConn. His first two years as a Husky were solid, but not great. To give you a frame of reference, it is debatable whether or not Kemba would have even been drafted had he come out after his sophomore season. Even coming into this year, despite being one of the better upperclassmen to remain in school, no one really mentioned Walker as a player to watch or UConn as a contender. Then the Maui Invitational happened and people began to take a little bit of notice, and so on and so forth. Fast forward to the whole country watching Kemba hoisting the Naismith Trophy after almost single-handedly leading his team to 11 straight wins, a Big East title, and a National Championship. Walker proved that he was much more than a scoring point guard, but rather a dynamic playmaker and maybe one of the most underrated leaders we have seen in college hoops in some time.
Best Case: People still are not totally sure what to make of Kemba as a pro prospect. He will surely be drafted in the lottery at this point, but since he had to do so much on his own at UConn it’s a bit difficult to tell how he projects as a pro. A lot depends on his opportunity. I think Walker proved this year that he has true leadership ability on and off the court. I was impressed watching his mentoring of young Jeremy Lamb, who benefited more than anyone from playing next to Walker. I think the best case scenario for him will be to become a Deron Williams-type of point guard. He doesn’t have Williams’ size but he sees the floor the same way and has similar playmaking ability. I think Walker’s passing ability has yet to be recognized because of how limited his teammates were on that end of the floor at UConn. Like Deron Williams, I see him as a guy who can run an offense and distribute the ball, but also make plays for himself when his team needs a bucket. He needs to get a little more consistent from long-range, but he has time to do so.
Worst Case: Kemba’s worst case will be if I am wrong about his passing and leadership ability. After watching him this year, that seems unlikely, but you never know how a guy is going to change his mindset when he gets into the NBA. My worst case for him would be a Stephon Marbury-type player. No one ever questioned Marbury’s talent, but he refused to ever change his game to fit his team. Marbury, like Walker, was not big enough to play the 2-spot in the NBA and yet was too stubborn to play the point. He also was never one to commit on the defensive end. Stephon certainly made a lot of money throughout his career, so in that respect maybe this wouldn’t be the absolute worst case for Walker, but legacy-wise it might be. I think Walker has demonstrated his basketball maturity to the point where I would be shocked if his career went in this direction, but sometimes the inability for a player to adapt his game to his surroundings isn’t easy to predict.
Two more Pro-or-Nos after the jump: a Mountaineer and a Hoya…
Kevin Jones, West Virginia, Jr. – PF
Overview: It’s funny. If you asked who would make the biggest splash in the Big East coming into this season, I think Kevin Jones would have been a pretty common answer. Jones was a key player on WVU’s Final Four squad last season, and with guys like Devin Ebanks and Da’Sean Butler heading to the next level, Jones was in prime position to make a name for himself this season. Unfortunately, despite being given the keys to the car, Jones didn’t seem to really know how to handle being in the driver’s seat. As a junior this past season, his numbers were almost identical to his sophomore campaign (13.1 PPG, 7.5 RPG). I expect to see him back in a Mountaineer uniform next season.
Best Case: This is the beauty of college basketball. Jones has all the physical tools to be a solid contributor in the league, but he just couldn’t really put it all together this season. Guess what? He’s got another year to hone his game and basically audition for NBA scouts. At 6′ 8″ 260 pounds, he definitely has an NBA body. He’s still a bit limited offensively, but he can hit a spot-up jumper (and presumably he will continue to improve in this category) and finish around the rim. However, he falls short is creating his own shot. Jones reminds me a little bit of a bulkier Tayshaun Prince, and following in Prince’s footsteps would certainly be a “best case” scenario for him. Like Prince, Jones can get after it on defense and is a very good athlete, and his offensive game will come along–he just isn’t really suited to be his team’s number one option. That’s OK, as long as he goes to a team that understands his game and doesn’t ask him to do too much on that end of the floor. I’m not sure Jones will ever have the basketball IQ that Tayshaun has, but modeling his game after Prince would pay dividends.
Worst Case: I hate to make the WVU connection here, but a worst-case scenario for Jones would be following in the footsteps of former Mountaineer Joe Alexander, who at one point was a lottery pick but now finds himself in the dreaded D-League. Like Alexander, Jones has a big, athletic frame; but, also like Alexander, it’s hard to pinpoint one thing that Jones does better than most. That seems to be what has killed Alexander’s
brief career in the league, so far–he does everything pretty well, but nothing great. In the NBA, you need a skill that people can point to and say “we need him on our team because he does X better than anyone that we have.” If he commits himself to it, I think Jones could be an elite rebounder, but he has to pull down more than seven boards per game in college for me, and more importantly for scouts, to believe.
Austin Freeman, Georgetown, Sr. – SG
Overview: Let me say that I really feel for Austin Freeman. Most would say that the Preseason Big East Player of the Year failed to live up to lofty expectations, and I guess you could say that’s true. But Freeman actually had the best statistical year of his career in 2010-2011 and was the only player who played at an even close to a consistent level this past season. When Chris Wright went down, Freeman became pretty much the only option for the Hoyas on offense and when all five guys are keying on you on defense, especially in the Big East, it’s tough to look good. At one point this season, it looked like Freeman might be able to sneak his way into the first round. Now, I’m not sure what his chances are to get drafted at all.
Best Case: Freeman is listed at 6’3″ 235 pounds, although he certainly looked like he was in the best shape he’s ever been in throughout his senior season. Still, he’s not quick enough to play the point and he may not be big enough, realistically, to guard NBA two-guards. What he does have going for him is his strength, shooting ability, and excellent basketball IQ. While it is a real possibility that Freeman does not get drafted at this point, that doesn’t mean that he won’t be given a shot in the league. I see a lot of parallels with Freeman and Jared Dudley. Dudley didn’t wow anyone with his athleticism or natural talent, either, but he found a place in this league because of his intelligence, his ability to consistently knock down open threes, and his solid position defense. Freeman could follow in those footsteps. The other thing that you hear about Dudley is that he has a tireless work ethic. I guess time will tell if Freeman shares that with him.
Worst Case: For every feel-good Jared Dudley and Wesley Matthews story in the league, there are hundreds more that didn’t make it for one reason or another. The worst case for Austin will be not getting a real shot. Sure, he’ll play on a summer league team and everything, I just hope that whoever gives him a chance really gives him a chance. Sometimes it’s hard to pick up on the nuances of someone’s game if you only have a small window to watch them play. Traits like basketball IQ and unselfishness are vital for a successful NBA player, but are not always on a scout’s checklist when evaluating someone. If given the opportunity, Freeman can succeed. The worry is not getting the opportunity. Freeman certainly isn’t alone in that category.