Friday, June 5, 2009

Griz Draft Board: Three Weeks Out

Posted By on Fri, Jun 5, 2009 at 12:20 AM

We're three weeks from draft day and no one — including, one suspects, the team's own braintrust — knows exactly which direction the Grizzlies will take with the #2 overall pick. Which is probably as it should be right now. On the day after the lottery, I laid out the four potential paths the team could take with the pick — trading up for Blake Griffin, draft (and keeping) Ricky Rubio, drafting (and keeping) someone else, or trading down or out (presumably with the rights to Rubio). And at the moment, all those paths still seem to be on the table.

Don't expect those options to begin narrowing until the final days before the draft — remember, last year the O.J. Mayo trade didn't really materialize until draft day itself.

As of right now, it seems clear that the team will make an attempt to get up to #1, but pulling off a deal with the Clippers seems like a longshot. I think trading down (or even out) is a likely scenario, but specific deals don't seem to have emerged yet. (Sacramento is an obvious trade partner, but don't be surprised to see Amare Stoudemire rumors in connection with the Grizzlies to re-emerge if it looks like the Suns are going to put the star forward back on the market.)

So, for now, let's assume the team will be drafting and keeping a player at #2 (or at least moving down only a few spots). Who are the most likely picks? Here's my current educated guess at the Grizzlies' likely draft board, based on conversations with team insiders, outside media reports, draft combine results, and my own sense of the players:

64c7/1244177728-ricky.jpg1. Ricky Rubio: The consensus #2 prospect following the lottery, there's been a lot of posturing, conjecture, and reportage regarding Rubio's status relative to the Grizzlies, so let's set the scene.

At the beginning of the week, ESPN.com's Chad Ford wrote this:

They've made a trip to Spain to woo Ricky Rubio and his family, but I still believe that, short of a trade, drafting Thabeet is the most likely outcome. Even if the front office decides that Rubio is the guy, they have to persuade him to pay a huge buyout to come to Memphis.

From what I can gather, that's not going to happen. The best option for the Grizzlies is to find a team hot for Rubio and get a couple of great assets for the pick. The problem with that plan is that teams don't seem willing to give up the farm for Rubio. Lots of teams like him, but not enough to make a blockbuster deal.

CNN-SI's Ian Thomsen puts a more positive spin on the Grizzlies situation:

Memphis is operating from a position of strength. Even if it turns out that Ricky Rubio would rather stay in Europe next season than play for Memphis, the Grizzlies are going to have plenty of options. They already have a young point guard in Mike Conley Jr. (the No. 4 pick in 2007), who shares the ball-handling with O.J. Mayo (No. 3 last year). There should be a lot of demand for the pick, and maybe the Grizzlies can unload Marko Jaric's contract while filling their need for size. Wouldn't Rubio look good in a 76ers uniform? They could package 6-10 rookie Marreese Speights to Memphis for the rights to Rubio, whose uptempo style would fit nicely while freeing them from having to re-sign 33-year-old Andre Miller.

Most recently, this tidbit popped up on a blog post from the Sacramento Bee:

One of the more interesting tidbits of information coming out of the pre-draft workouts the last two days in Oakland is word that the agent for Spanish point guard Ricky Rubio is suddenly amenable to participating in interviews and individuals workouts with a select number of teams - the Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder and Kings. Sources told me that, at this point, Rubio's agent, Dan Fegan, is limiting the visits to the teams with draft picks 2-4.

Let's unpack all these issues a little bit.

Would Rubio Come to Memphis?: First, the Grizzlies do not have a workout scheduled with Rubio (and may not be too concerned about scheduling one after traveling to Spain to meet with him) but there does seem to be a bit of a thawing in the posturing from Rubio's camp about his draft preferences. Given the buyout he has to contend with, Rubio doesn't want to drop out of the top few picks, something that is starting to look possible given the potential difficulties he brings, the rising status of guards such as Jonny Flynn, Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday, and Tyreke Evans, and whispers from league sources that Rubio may not be as clear-cut a #2 prospect as first thought.

I do think that Rubio's agent, Dan Fegan, would like to steer Rubio to a larger market, where endorsement opportunities would be more likely to finance his buyout, but I would be very surprised to see Rubio "pull a Fran Vasquez" and decide to stay in Spain next season, regardless of who drafts him. My hunch: If he stays in the draft, Rubio will be in the NBA next season. And his buyout will end up being negotiated at a lower number than is currently being reported.

If Rubio Would Come, Do the Grizzlies Want Him?: There are plenty of complications to a potential Rubio-Grizzlies marriage from the Griz perspective too. After three straight 20-something win teams with a young roster, does this franchise have the stomach to draft and develop an 18-year-old point guard? Would a coaching staff that seems happy with its current backcourt and hasn't been scouting ACB or Euroleague action see the upside in the teenager with the shaky jumper and be accepting of the process? Would teammates — excepting Marc Gasol, presumably, though the big guy seems to be a pretty big Mike Conley fan — who are ready to finally win now feel like drafting Rubio is another step backward?

What is Rubio's Trade Value?: Given some of the concerns about Rubio's potential fit, trading him in a significant package would seem to be an worthy option. But there's concern that Ford's assertion about a lack attractive deals might be correct. Rubio is apparently not universally considered the top point guard prospect in a draft heavy with point guards. Even teams that might have Rubio at the top of their wish list might not be willing to part with too much if they can stay put and get a consolation prize like Curry, Holiday, Flynn, or Brandon Jennings. Even Thomsen, who sees the Grizzlies as being in a position of strength, implies a deal of Rubio's rights for #17 (the Sixers' pick) and Marreese Speights. Does that deal excite you, Griz fans?

All of these concerns aside, I still think Rubio is the most likely pick at #2. I don't sense that his — or his agent's — apparent posturing will ward the Grizzlies off. On and off the court, he seems to be the most momentous talent on the board — the player most likely to be a star. And if the team wants to deal, potential trade partners are more likely to move up for Rubio than anyone else.

af43/1244178641-hasheem-thabeet.jpg2. Hasheem Thabeet: Almost immediately after the lottery, Ford reported that the Grizzlies were likely to select Thabeet because owner Michael Heisley was pushing the pick. This suggestion was soon picked up by DraftExpress.com and became conventional wisdom in draft chatter around the country. But I'm pretty much convinced at this point that it isn't true. (And I find it notable that, while keeping Thabeet at #2 in his latest mock draft, Ford did not cite the Heisley angle.)

Based on everything I know, it seems to me that while Heisley is certainly aware of Thabeet and intrigued by his defensive potential — remember, Thabeet almost entered last year's draft and was thus likely involved in team discussions a year ago — he has not in any way settled on the UCONN center as a draft target. If Heisley himself is focused on any draft scenario right now, I suspect it's trying to make a play for the #1 pick and Blake Griffin. For all Heisley's faults, it was he who was really pushing to get as far up as possible last year, which lead to the Mayo deal.

That said, even if Heisley isn't currently pushing Thabeet, that doesn't mean the Grizzlies won't ultimately go that way on draft night. The team does like Thabeet and seems convinced that he'll be an impact shotblocker, defender, and rebounder, all attributes the Grizzlies certainly need. The team also apparently came away impressed with Thabeet after interviewing him at the Chicago pre-draft camp. He's considered to be a high-character guy and concerns about his dedication to the game were apparently satisfied.

Still, there are obvious concerns about taking Thabeet at #2. Can he and Marc Gasol really mesh together on the floor, or will that make the Grizzlies too slow defensively, especially guarding the pick-and-roll and face-up power forwards? If not, is he enough of a long-term upgrade over Gasol to warrant taking #2? And how much will his offensive game still develop given that he's still relatively new to the sport? Personally, I have grave doubts about all three of those questions and thus would not draft him second, but at this point Thabeet seems to be very much an option for the Grizzlies.

30ee/1244178837-php4919e61073eb0.jpg3. James Harden: Considered a top pick most of the season before his disappointing NCAA performance, Harden took a dip but seems to be rebounding on draft boards after his eye-opening results from the Chicago camp. Earlier today, DraftExpress.com moved Harden into the Grizzlies' slot at #2, the first high-profile mock draft I've seen with anyone other than Rubio or Thabeet there.

A lot of the concerns about Harden's athleticism were disputed in Chicago, where he measured 6'5" in shoes with a considerable wingspan and measured well across the board athletically, with both hops and considerable strength. Put that physical resume together with his high-level production as a freshman and sophomore in a very good PAC-10 conference, and Harden is looking like a top prospect again.

I only saw Harden play a couple of times last season and came away concerned about his athleticism, but now I'm wondering if that was an optical illusion of sorts — as a stocky guy with a beard and an idiosyncratic, herky-jerky game, Harden looks something like the old dude on the playground.

Given the potential issues with Rubio and Thabeet, Harden's rising stock, and the fact that two different team insiders have suggested to me that Harden could be another Paul Pierce, I wonder if Draft Express might not be onto something. (And I've heard that the team has scheduled Harden for an individual workout in Memphis the week before the draft.)

What would be odd about a Harden pick is that he would presumably be drafted as a third guard, at least initially, which doesn't seem like a lofty role for a Top Five pick. But, with the team's dearth of backcourt depth and the desire among at least some members of the organization to ease O.J. Mayo into some point guard duties, there would be plenty of minutes available to Harden in a three-guard rotation with Mayo and Mike Conley. And Harden is probably big enough to get a few minutes at the three in small-ball lineups. Ultimately, the Grizzlies could sort out their optimum backcourt while all three players are on rookie contracts the next couple of seasons and then deal accordingly.

3469/1244179116-stephen_curry.jpg4. Stephen Curry: The sharpshooter from Davidson also fared well in Chicago, testing out as bigger and stronger than his scrawny collegiate reputation suggested. Curry's elite shot-making skills and high basketball I.Q. seems to have won him some fans in the Griz organization. Would the team really take him at #2? Probably not, but given the possibility of Curry going #3 to Oklahoma City or other teams trading up, it might be the only way to get him.

The biggest concern with Curry is obvious — while most of what I wrote about James Harden's role with the team could apply to Curry as well, the Grizzlies probably need to add size to the backcourt, not get smaller. Of course, if the team becomes convinced that Curry is going to be a star, that could override all other concerns.

c83c/1244179164-evans_tyreke.jpg5. Tyreke Evans: I haven't heard as much buzz about Evans surrounding the team as I was hearing earlier, but I still think he's very much on the team's radar, though drafting him #2 is unlikely.

Like Harden and Curry, Evans would fit into a three-guard rotation that would sort itself out over time and, like Harden, he's got the size and reach to potentially get some minutes at the three in small lineups.

The good with Evans: He was a Top Five player in his high-school class and a Top Five (and perhaps #1) player in his college freshman class. Players who are elite as they work their way up the ranks tend to stay that way as long as they've got the athleticism to make the pro leap, and Evans does. Evans also seems to just have a knack for making shots when he gets into the paint, which was all the time in college. That kind of innate scoring ability is something we seem to equate with post players like Hakeem Olajuwon or Kevin McHale, but Evans seems to have a little bit of that gift. On the defensive end, Evans' enormous Dwyane Wade-like wingspan suggests he can be an impact defender if he applies himself on that end.

The questions with Evans: His outside shot is shaky. He's not used to playing off the ball, which he'd have to do with the Grizzlies. There are some red flags in his background that would need to be explored.

78e5/1244179206-pacific_life_pac_10_men_basketball_tournament_tcbo82mjs6dl.jpg6. Jordan Hill: Hill's fits the team's biggest need, improved steadily in college, had great production last season, and tested better than I expected in Chicago — he's not undersized for the power forward spot. For all those reasons, he's on the board as a potential trade-down target, but if the team doesn't get Griffin or Thabeet out of the draft, I suspect they'll target one of the higher-upside guards and address their frontcourt needs some other way.

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