Seven weeks ago I was sitting in my typing chair (which also serves as my movie watching chair and on Saturday evenings, my NBA Central chair for RotoWire) and pondered this year’s haul of freshmen. Would they really rival the LeBrons, Jordans, and Bill Russells of the world? I had my doubts. Now that I’ve seen each of the top prospects play a few times, my doubts are becoming deeper and my interest in hype is decreasing. I remember watching Harrison Barnes three years ago and wondering what I was missing. This year’s crop has had their moments, but if NBA teams are expecting a transformational player via tanking, then they may be sorry. For once, it appears that I am going to agree with Jim Boeheim. These players may improve during the season (Anthony Davis certainly did two years ago), and they each have plenty of coveted upside, but let’s take a look at the top four players from what I’ve seen.
I don’t know why, but I really don’t want Jeff Goodman to be right about Uncle Wiggly. Goodman has been bashing the consensus number one pick since this summer and, to me, it seemed just mean spirited and self-aggrandizing. However, he might be right. Wiggins had a really nice performance in the second half of Kansas’s win over Duke in the Champions Classic. He finished with 22 points in that game and topped 20 twice more (both in losses in early December). I watched him very closely yesterday against Georgetown and came away unimpressed. He is clearly athletic and has a nice 3-point stroke. However, he did not even attempt to take any Hoya defenders off the dribble. Maybe that is not part of the Kansas offense, but it seems like a supposed superstar like Wiggins would be able to drive to the basket. He should be a solid defender, but Goodman was right not to join the hype parade that seemed to indicate that Wiggins would instantly make any NBA team a contender.
Of the top freshmen, Randle had the most impressive debut. In his first six games, he averaged 19.8 points and 13.7 rebounds. In the Champions Classic, Randle nearly led the Wildcats to a second half comeback after the team looked confused that an opponent would even deign to try against them. In the last six games, Randle’s production has fallen off to 16.5 points and 7.0 rebounds. He played his worst game of the season while I watched against North Carolina. Like Wiggins, Randle is clearly very talented physically and he has a bit more of a mean streak to him. However, like the rest of the Wildcats, Randle seems allergic to passing and his 73.2% from the line leaves something to be desired. To me, he projects to a very nice power forward in the NBA (maybe a David West type), but maybe not the second coming of Karl Malone.
Of the three freshmen showcased at the Champions Classic (and since), Parker has the biggest wow factor. He can score in a variety of ways and it is impressive to see a 6-8, 235 lb man handle the ball so well. While his assist numbers are similar to Randle, Parker seems like a more natural playmaker. He has provided at least 15 points in every game and been held under 21 points just twice. The knock on Parker is that he doesn’t play much defense, but it might be a situation in which one player can only do so much. In the early going, the Chicago native seems like the best player to me. He still is nowhere near a player like LeBron, Durant or even Derrick Rose, but if he was selected by the right team (such as Utah), he could be the type of player to lead a quick turn around.
I’ll add a sophomore into the mix since he is near the top of most draft boards. Like the other three players, Smart looks like he will be able to physically handle the NBA. There aren’t many point guards who are 6-4 and 220 lbs. His shooting has improved markedly from his freshman season and he uses his physicality and instincts to generate a lot of steals (2.8 per game). I worry a little bit about his decision making. In his best game, the blowout win over Memphis, rather than taking the focus of the Tiger defense and setting up his teammates, Smart kept shooting. Granted, he made a number of tough shots, but he could have made things easier for himself by being a team player. He has not topped five assists and is making just 69.4 percent of his free throws. While I don’t believe that NBA teams need point guards, I am concerned that Smart might fall into a combo guard area (maybe like Rodney Stuckey).
All four of these players could be very good in the NBA, but the relentless cycle of hype is tiresome and not particularly helpful. I understand that hype leads to clicks and page views, but it also can be regarded as a type of advertisement with empty promises and eventual disappointment. While it would be more sensible to take things as they come and see what develops, that does not seem to be ongoing trend. Happily, the NBA teams that were expected to tank, Phoenix and Philadelphia (to some extent) are playing decently. My guess is that NBA teams do not regard tanking as a viable strategy, even if their fans do. Thank goodness franchises aren’t run by fans.