Things are really heating up as the NCAA heads towards March Madness, which is suddenly less than a month away! Bracket busters took place last week and some teams that looked to be tourney locks (ahem Tennessee and Georgetown) now are squarely on the bubble and perhaps feeling like that bubble is about to burst.
In addition, this year has proven to not only be a great showcase for individual talent (although a far cry from last year’s heralded freshman group) but there is a genuine parity amongst the nation’s top squads.
-Duke gets humbled by Clemson and then bounces back with a gritty win over Wake Forest last night.
-North Carolina looks to be returning to consensus favourite and then somehow loses to a Maryland team that Duke destroyed by almost 50 earlier this season.
-Illinois upsets Ohio State, UCLA starts to stumble, St. Mary's rolls along without Mills, and Notre Dame is hanging on in the Big East for dear life.
All in all just another week in college basketball.
However the one thing that hasn’t changed much this year has been the prominence of a few names on the tip of most draft enthusiasts’ tongues.
This week we take a look at four from the NCAA, and one from overseas, all of whom could go in the top 5 of this year’s draft if they declare.
1) Blake Griffin – Center/Power Forward, Oklahoma.
There’s no question this year who the top pick in the draft will be. Forget upside, need, etc, etc, the lottery winner is going to choose Griffin. There isn’t a player in college who can dominate the way he can at both ends of the court, and for a big man, he’s got impressive athleticism which gives him an advantage over nearly anyone he faces.
Will he become a star in the pro? That’s tough to say as he doesn’t have the all-around skill-set of a Michael Beasley, or the sheer physical presence of lesser-heralded prospects like Thabeet or Blair. The comparisons to Carlos Boozer seem pretty accurate to me although he’s much more athletic than Booze was at Duke and a better shot blocker, although less of a "back-to-the-basket" force. Griffin projects well however it may simply depend on what system he’s drafted into. On a team like Oklahoma City he’s be a perfect fit, whereas I’m not quite sure what a team like the Clippers or Kings would do with him.
As for the Raptors? Well he doesn’t make much sense in terms of positions, however if somehow Toronto managed to win the lottery he’d be an upgrade over Kris Humphries off the bench times 10, and would represent a nice trading chip.
I’m anxious to see how he fares in the tournament against some of the bigger boys in college ball (how crazy would a Pitt-Ok match-up be??) but tonight will be a good test against Kansas.
That’s assuming he plays of course. In a close loss to Texas Saturday night, Griffin suffered a mild concussion and is currently a question mark for tonight’s game.
2) Jordan Hill – Power Forward/Center, Arizona.
From power we move to finesse up front and turn to Arizona’s Jordan Hill.
Hill started to come on strong last year for Zona and looked to be a top 10 option in this year’s draft. His play lately however has pushed him well into the top 5 range and with the exception of an extremely close loss last night to rival Arizona State, Hill’s Wildcats had been tearing up the Pac-10 winning seven of their last eight.
At first glance when you see Hill you think Mikki Moore. Hairstyles aside, both have that wiry strength and are impressive rebounders despite lacking much bulk and being under seven feet. However that’s where the comparisons stop as Hill’s low-post game is infinitely more refined than that of Moore. In fact, there are a lot more similarities to Chris Bosh’s game than that of Moore’s considering Hill has a nice jump-shot, good range, and the raw athleticism to beat his man to the rim off one-on-one moves. He’s a decent ball-handler, but as was the case last night against Arizona State, he struggles in traffic and with double-teams at times – something that will undoubtedly improve with experience.
For the Raptors Hill is much like Griffin in that he doesn’t necessarily fit a need, and probably makes less sense due to his similarities to Bosh. However again, on talent alone Toronto could do much worse but my feeling is that he’ll be in another NBA uniform when training camp starts next season.
3) Ricky Rubio – Point Guard, Spain.
After returning from injury Rubio has played himself back into the spotlight overseas. Everyone saw his performance during the Olympics and NBA vets like Kobe Bryant gushed about his NBA potential. He’s been compared to everyone from Chris Paul to Pistol Pete and with his great court vision and uncanny passing ability, he’s bound to make the team happy that selects him.
The question though is if that will even occur this year.
It’s been reported that Rubio has a large buy-out which may inhibit some teams from taking a chance on him high in the draft if he declares. This is even more true with the league’s current economic situation.
If he falls because of this, it would be silly for a team like Toronto to pass on him even though point guard is one of the spots that seems to be in best shape all things considered. He’d be an upgrade over Roko and in the future, an upgrade probably over Calderon and at worst like Griffin, would give Toronto a very nice trade chip.
4) James Harden – Shooting Guard, Arizona State.
A few weeks ago I finally understood what all the hype was about regarding Harden. It’s tough to see many Pac-10 games but having seen him in action the last three weeks, Harden has leapt into our top 5 draft options for the Dinos.
If you watch him, he’s not going to wow you with incredible athleticism, or blow you away with long-range shooting, but much like Brandon Roy a few seasons ago, he’s just a complete player already at this stage. Last night his Sun Devils were up big on rival Arizona thanks to some impressive shooting from team-mates, but Nic Wise and Kyle Fogg caught fire for Zona turning the game’s final minutes into a dog fight.
That’s when Harden shines.
If he’s not taking over the game from a scoring standpoint, he’s opening up shots for team-mates, getting to the rim, grabbing huge rebounds in traffic and generally doing everything he can to help his team get the W. Last night his penetration opened things up for his teammate Rihards Kuksiks to drill the game-winning 3’s and on the night Harden finished with 18 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists a steal and a block.
For a Toronto team looking for a sure-fire thing to take-over the 2 spot for Anthony Parker, Harden would be dynamite. He’s not as big as AP but he’s a tenacious defender and much better at creating off the dribble. He may not have the upside or athleticism of prospects such as Aminu or Clark, but for the Toronto Raptors, I’d be thrilled if Harden somehow fell into Bryan Colangelo’s lap.
5) Jrue Holiday – Shooting Guard/Point Guard, UCLA.
I’m honestly not sure what to make of Jrue at this point.
First off, he’s the least certain of all of these players to throw his name in the draft after just a so-so season so far for the Bruins. Well, so-so probably isn’t the best way to describe someone who’s putting up similar numbers to Russell Westbrook, who ended up being a high lottery pick.
However every time I watch Jrue tha Damaja, he just doesn’t jump out at me. Granted, I’ve only seen him play about four times this year but Westbrook always jumped out on sheer athleticism and defense, something that Holiday hasn’t shown yet.
While he was expected to go near the top of this draft was the league’s most heralded freshman, it now seems he may head back to school for another year of seasoning and many mock drafts sites have taken his name off their board.
He’s got a great feel for the game, can score and create off the dribble, but right now I think another year under Ben Howland would do him a world of good.