My second favorite national holiday, the NBA Draft, is finally upon us. The draft begins at 6 p.m. Thursday night, and it sure feels like the Grizzlies are going to be dealing. Rumors so far are varied, from the dramatic (Zach Randolph to Minnesota for Al Jefferson) to the mundane (the team's latest pick, #28, for cash). And I think that the odds of the team selecting and keeping players with all three of its current picks — at #12, #25, and #28 — are slim.
The biggest rumor, Randolph-for-Jefferson, has been reported as "dead for now" due to Minnesota wanting for draft-related compensation. But I wouldn't be surprised if that scenario popped back up. Minnesota seems to be aggressively shopping Jefferson, a player Grizzlies GM has a history with and a fondness for. Jefferson is a very similar player to Randolph in size, skill, and production, but is several years younger, under contract (at a large but reasonable salary) for longer, and comes without Randolph's off-court concerns. A trade built around those two players probably wouldn't be popular initially among Grizzlies fans, but I think it would be a smart move.
If the Grizzlies don't use one or both of their late-first-round picks to move up or as secondary assets in a more significant deal, then I think the odds of selling one of those picks is strong. There are reports that the Grizzlies are demanding a second-rounder along with the requisite $3 million cash to part with a late-first-rounder. There are players I like late (that list comes later in this post) who could be on the board in the early second round. If the team were to pocket $3 million to move down and still snag one of those players, then I probably wouldn't complain.
The team appears open enough to dealing that you should expect more scenarios to emerge during the day leading up to the draft. Keep an eye on Golden State. They're said to be willing to part with anyone other than Stephen Curry. In the past, the Grizzlies have had some interest in both Monta Ellis and Anthony Randolph. I wouldn't be surprised to see one of both of those names pop up.
As far as players in the draft go, I'll confess I'm struggling more this year than ever before not only to get a feel for how the team views draft prospects, but even to figure out how I feel about them.
Evaluate draft prospects is a matter of weighing risk against reward. So, to work through the thought process a little in this final pre-draft ranking, I'm going to start with two separate lists, ranking what I now think are the nine potential #12 picks in each area. I'll elaborate in the following overall rankings.
Risk (From "safest" to "riskiest" picks)
1. Xavier Henry
2. Cole Aldrich
3. Luke Babbitt
4. Patrick Patterson
5. Damion James
6. Gordon Hayward
7. Paul George
8. Avery Bradley
9. Eric Bledsoe
Reward (From most to least star potential)
1. Paul George
2. Avery Bradley
3. Eric Bledsoe
4. Xavier Henry
5. Gordon Hayward
6. Luke Babbitt
7. Patrick Patterson
8. Cole Aldrich
9. Damion James
1. Xavier Henry: I'm surprised to find myself putting Henry here after being a little disappointed in what I saw at his workout, but I think he's probably the best combination of certainty and upside in this group. Despite being the youngest player in the mix, I still feel like Henry is the safest bet because he has an NBA body, is reportedly a smart player and solid citizen, and has one high-level skill to build his game on: He can shoot. I doubt Henry has the raw athleticism, ball skills, or toughness to be a star, but at 19 he does have more time than anyone else in this group to figure out how to maximize the abilities he does have. Even if his most reasonable projection is as a role-player shooting specialist in the mold of a Martell Webster, that's not a terrible thing at #12. The upside is that he's able to mold himself into a jumper-oriented 20-point scorer in the mold of a Michael Redd or Kevin Martin. Likelihood of selection: If he's there at 12, I think he's a strong contender.
2. Paul George: His mundane production and poor team showing against middling competition are major red flags, and this lack of a track record makes him one of the biggest risks in this group. But George's matrix of size, skill, and athleticism is the raw material of NBA stardom. I think his best position is ultimately at the two, where he's got the ability to shoot with range, finish on the break, and also create off the dribble. The defensive potential is greater than Henry and Babbitt at least. I'd rather take a chance on someone I know has the ability to be a high-level pro than settle for the alleged safety of someone I suspect doesn't. Likelihood of selection: Definitely a contender at #12.
3. Luke Babbitt: I think Babbitt is going to be a quality long-range shooter at 6'9", which is enough to carve an NBA career. But I see enough athleticism and ball-handling ability to believe he'll be more than just a pure shooting specialist. I don't see him being more than a quality role player, but I think he's a good bet to be a very effective secondary player if used the right way. His ability to play as a stretch four would add a missing and much-needed dimension to the Grizzlies. Likelihood of selection: Chad Ford has had him in connection with the Grizzlies from the beginning, and Ford isn't just making that up, but I haven't detected as much enthusiasm. I think he's a longshot at #12 but if the team ended up at #16 and he were still around, he might be a more likely.
4. Avery Bradley: The highest ranked guy on the list that I haven't seen in person. I've been high on him for entirely theoretical reasons: He was a consensus Top Five player in his high-school class who is said to have elite athleticism. That's a pedigree that usually pans out. Add to that two other factors: Everyone, even his doubters, agrees he's a lockdown defender, giving him one elite skill to rely on. And there's now a good recent track record for athletic smallish guards without refined point skills — Russell Westbrook, Rajon Rondo, Lou Williams, George Hill, Monta Ellis. And yet, without fail, when I talk to people who have seem a lot of him, they always launch into the things he can't do: Play the point, hit free throws, fill up a stat sheet, etc. And without having a chance to see him up close, it's hard not to be persuaded (worn down, really) by all the dismissals. I still think he's high-upside based on that pedigree, but I now consider him much riskier than I once did. Likelihood of selection: Low. Doubts about his ability and willingness to play the point seem to make him a longshot for the Grizzlies.
5. Gordon Hayward: All I've seen from him was in the tournament, where I was impressed with his athleticism but disappointed that it didn't result in more production. His Chicago measurements — shorter than I expected and with a comparatively small wingspan — are a concern unless you're convinced he can be a two-guard. I also wonder about that 29% three-point percentage last year for a mid-major guy who's supposed to be a big-time shooter. Barring the counter-evidence a close-up look may have provided, I'm skeptical. Likelihood of selection: The Griz don't seem to think he'll be there at #12, but I'm not convinced of that. If he "drops" I think he'll get strong consideration.
6. Patrick Patterson: Patterson is most maddening to me. The constant refrain is that "at least we know he'll be good." People act like there's a certainty that Patterson will be a solid NBA contributor. The high-profile success of a few recent second-rounder undersized power forwards (Carl Landry, Paul Millsap, Dajuan Blair) has made it fashionable to claim that these types of players are underrated in the draft process, but, actually, players who fit Patterson's profile — the college veteran, undersized power forward — don't have a great track record. There have been 18 power forwards 6'9" and under and with two or more years college experience taken in the first round in the past 10 years. Of this group, exactly two — Kenyon Martin and David West — have developed into quality NBA starters. Nobody talks all the other one-time "safe," "proven" players like Patterson who didn't amount to much. Patterson is strong and a good mid-range shooter, so I won't be surprised if he becomes the David West-style exception, but the odds are against it. If he were more beastly on the boards, I would feel better about him. But Patterson is more of a perimeter-scoring forward than a physical force. He's more muscular, and slightly longer, but as solid as Patterson's workout for the Grizzlies was, it was less impressive than Darrell Arthur's two years ago. Likelihood of selection: Middling. I think he's in the mix, but I suspect Henry and George are higher.
7. Eric Bledsoe: The NBA is becoming more geared around quick, explosive guards, and point guard is currently the team's shakiest position. Add in Bledsoe's alleged bulldog mentality and he would seem to make a lot of sense. But he didn't man the point at Kentucky and had more turnovers than assists. Bledsoe sounds good in theory, but seems as likely to be another Marcus Banks as to be someone who can push Conley. Haven't seen him up close, but I'm very skeptical. Likelihood of selection: Despite early rumors of him with the Grizzlies, he doesn't seem particularly likely at 12. Later in the draft if he were on the board for the Grizzlies, I think he'd get a strong look.
8. Cole Aldrich: Aldrich didn’t work out for the Grizzlies, but I've seen him a bunch in television over his three years at Kansas and am pretty comfortable with the idea that he'll be a productive rotation big in the NBA — either a second-tier starting center or a good third PF/C in the mold of a Jeff Foster or a Chris Anderson. I'd have him higher, actually, except he doesn't fit the team's current roster at all. He'd be good value at #12, but barring some kind of trade that would create a spot for him, I don't see it. Likelihood of selection: Low.
9. Damion James: He profiles as a solid contributor but there's just not enough there for me to endorse picking him over any of these other players. He's rugged and willing, but I don't think he's quick or athletic enough to be a special defender. He's got some range, but doesn’t look like a knockdown shooter. Probably a little undersized for even a stretch four and isn't going to do anything off the dribble. I know he's a hard-nosed guy, but there's just not enough skill here. Likelihood of selection: I think the Grizzlies like him more than I do, but not enough to pick him at #12. Could be in play for a later pick, either at #25 if he slides or #16 if the team eventually picks that up.
Five Guys I Like Late:
Whether the Grizzlies end up exercising one or both of their late-first-round picks or even moving down into the early second round, here are five players in those range I think are worth a look:
1. Lance Stephenson: I know he had a bad, disinterested one year of pretending to be a college student. And I know there are questions about his personality and ability to play within a team context. But I have no doubt whatsoever that he's an NBA talent. He can get to the rim, absorb contact, and finish. He wasn't a good shooter in college, but shot pretty well in his workout and displayed decent form. I think that can come. I know the comparison is worrying for unintended reasons, but I think there's some Bonzi Wells in him as a slashing, power guard. He's probably got more potential than most of the guys in the #12 group.
2. Greivis Vasquez: Slow college veteran is not usually my kind of prospect, but I was sold on Vasquez at his workout, where his court vision, craftiness, and hoops IQ really stood out. Back-up in the form of his very high score on John Hollinger's player rater eases some doubts. I think he can improve as a shooter and is a good fit on this roster.
3. Devin Ebanks: Looks like Trevor Ariza and plays a little like him too, though he's not quite as electric an athlete. Ebanks is raw, but has clear NBA-level talent. Should be able to defend multiple positions and thrive in transition.
4. Quincy Pondexter: The rap on Pondexter is that he's a poor shooter, but his mid-range shooting at his workout was terrific and he seemed solid in all other facets. Not a great fit on this roster, but that late you're just looking for guys who can play in the league, and I think he can.
5. Craig Brackens: A little too finesse for a guy without great ball skills, but he's 6'10" with NBA three-point range and was a little more explosive than I expected. There's a role for him in the league, and potentially with the Grizzlies.