With nine wins on the season, the Toronto Raptors have the fifth-worst record in the league.
At one point, it looked like this was about as low as the team could drop, but last night's loss to the even more pitiful Charlotte Bobcats, as well as recent wins by clubs like Washington, New Orleans and Detroit means that suddenly, it's not out of the question that Toronto tumbles all the way to the bottom of the NBA basement.
Which from an "expectations" perspective, especially given the team's improved D and hopeful start to the 2011-12 campaign, is a big disappointment.
But from a draft perspective...
Yes, the NBA draft is actually only 131 days away, and March Madness is only about a month from kicking-off.
Considering Toronto's record, and need for blue-chip talent, we thought we'd get a jump on the scouting process for this year's draft with a regular weekly look at some of the NCAA Saturday games and players that Raptors' fans may want to take in. Each week, we'll highlight a few matches, and our fearless Canball and college analyst, Ray Bala, and I, will give our takes on why these matches are key for Dino-lovers.
Let's get at it.
12:00 PM - Marquette vs. Connecticut
Umm, there are a plethora of players you can transplant into the Raptors' lineup and yield a significant change to the record. For Marquette, you need to watch Darius Johnson-Odom and Jae Crowder. Crowder is a bigger, athletic three playing the four in college. The truth is that he can play down low but is more comfortable on the wing where he has three range and can fill the lanes on the break. Did I mention that he also defends and rebounds too in the Jason Maxiell mold, only better? Johnson-Odom is another do-it-all type guard. He can be the play maker but I'm not sure he's primary ball handler material at the NBA level yet. He does have a scorer's mentality but it's hard to say if it's because he does or because he is needed to have one for the Golden Eagles. Regardless, he can make big shots and isn't afraid of contact in the lane either making him a guy to watch for. I would think that both these seniors would drop into the second round and maybe even a free agent invite summer league. Side Note: point guards Junior Cadougan and Vander Blue could be worth keeping tabs on. Cadougan, a Toronto native, is a pure point guard and Blue is more a two guard trying to be a point. Blue has the better potential to make the jump though.
As for UConn, it pretty much begins and ends with potential All America, and likely lottery pick, Jeremy Lamb. He's an elite wing player at the college level and it will only be a matter of time when he 1) leaves for the League (maybe after this season) and 2) when he becomes a solid starter at that level. He can play either the two or three and is athletic enough to make up for his short comings defending bigger or small players. He can also create for himself with is a bonus, along with possessing an ability to make the trey and make his free throws (though his 3PT percentage could be a lot better). The other big time prospect to watch on this Huskies team is Andre Drummond. If you can't teach size than Drummond is draftable just for his 6'10, 270 lbs frame alone. He's raw as hell on the offense end (I think) but he's a good defender and could be an elite rebounder and shot blocker at the next level if given time to mature. I'd definitely put him ahead of UConn alum Emeka Okafor and at worst he becomes the Raps much needed active BIG body (sorry Amir but you're never going to be Drummond big) to get boards, block shots and defend the Dwight Howards of the world. Side Note: Two other guys to watch out for are guards Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright. Napier is more the true point guard and as underclassmen will likely stay but peg them for later on. FYI, I'm not a believer in Alex Oriakhi. I didn't believe that Okafor would be the next Duncan like everyone else did and I put Oriakhi in the same category: suspect UConn bigs. See Armstrong, Hilton and Thabeet, Hasheem.
4:00 PM - Ole Miss vs. Kentucky
And Coach Cal does it again. After losing an entire crew of blue chip talent ala John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and co, Calipari reloaded last year with another bumper crop, headlined by forward/center, Anthony Davis. Davis is one of the most ridiculous shot-blockers the NCAA has ever seen thanks to a freakish 7-4 wingspan, and great instincts around the ball. He's rail-thin right now, but he compensates by consistently out-hustling opponents, something that has NBA scouts drooling. Thanks to a sudden growth-spurt that saw him go from being a 6-3 guard to his current 6-10 self, he's also got a very nice shooting touch offensively, retaining many of the "softer" skills normally associated with shorter players. The Raptors front-court is pretty cramped as is, but if the Raps landed the top overall pick, it would be pretty hard to pass on someone of his potential. And the same goes for HQ favourite Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Kentucky small forward has drawn comparisons to Gerald Wallace but I see a more offensively skilled player here, and a beautiful fit at the 3 for Toronto in the future. He simply competes on every possession, and is a terrific rebounder for his position.
We don't have enough space to get into KY's other blue-chippers like Doron Lamb, Terence Jones and Marquis Teague, but let's highlight someone from Ole Miss for a minute. One of my favourite players in college is 6-9 forward Terrance Henry. Cut from the same cloth as Paul George, this extremely long athlete has modest averages of 12 points and 5 rebounds per game, but can be a match-up nightmare thanks to his quick first-step and ability to take defenders inside and out. He doesn't have George's athleticism or upside, but I wouldn't be surprised to see him be a nice sleeper of a second-round pick, and someone guys like MKG will have their hands full with today.
6:00 PM - Saint Mary's vs. Murray State
Here we have two great college guards in Murray State's Isaiah Canaan and Saint Mary's Matthew Dellavedova. These two guys have very similar games and I think that they could both add a missing component to the Raptors if added.
Canaan is a smallish guard but is likely a two playing the one right now. The big draw to him now is that he's a dynamic play maker. He can score in bunches, he's a disruptive defensive player and he shots at a Nash like clip (.476 FG, .473 3PT FG and .836 FT) while scoring 19 a game. He'd be a more capable scorer than Bayless but may play a similar game of 60% me shoot and 40% you shoot. Regardless, he's likely not holding any delusions that he's an NBA shooting guard now and will need to make a transition at some point. But hey, if Eric Bledsoe can play into a multi-year contract then so can Canaan.
As for Dellavedova, he's like the 2012 Jimmer. His guys can flat out SHOOT and it doesn't have to be close or even with space. His ppg isn't exactly eye popping but believe me - this Aussie can shot the rock. I've seen enough of him in the last three seasons to know a few things: 1) he got ice in his veins and isn't afraid to take a shot when his team needs it; 2) he's got range; 3) he's smart enough to know his limits and play within them; and 4) he's a smart enough player that he knows where and when to make his moves and make the right play for the time. I can't see him being a full time PG in the NBA with all the uber quick Kemba Walker types but I know he can fill a need and the Raps can use him. I'd equate him to young Calderon - he can shoot, distribute, make the right play and is young and limber enough to play smart, position defense on guys who should be blowing by him. I'd gladly trade Jose for the Jose 2.5 model right now wouldn't you?
7:00 PM - Georgetown vs. Providence
Now I'm a Georgetown fan, from the days of a tat-less Iverson and short shorts wearing Mourning and Mutombo frontcourt, and I'm happy that there are three players to check out from the Hoyas. When you watch this game, pay special attention to Henry Sims and Hollis Thompson. Sims is a rugged big and with a pair of soft hands and really committed himself to being better than he was his previous three seasons at GU. He can score in the paint and from the mid range and has the body to defend in the middle. Think of him as a more athletic Roy Hibbert with a penchant for dunking, or the anit-Hibbert if you will. Did I mention that he leads the team in assists with 3.5 and blocks with 1.5 right now? Thompson is an uber athletic wing that has been lost in the Big East perimeter shuffle this season and would be a great addition to the Raps lineup also. Although a junior, you could expect that he may come out if he feels/hears he's a first rounder. If he is, they I would think that he could fall into the early second round since this Draft will be deep. He's rangy, athletic, can slash and can also shoot the three (good for 2 a game this season at .475 a clip). Another player for the Hoyas to keep an eye on is senior guard Jason Clark. He's not exactly a point guard, something the Raps need, but he's more of a tweener type but he's solid as either a PG or an SG and is a good defender. Side Note: Keep an eye on Providence's Vincent Council - a legit point guard who'll likely stay until his senior year.
9:00 PM - Ohio State vs Michigan
Another game featuring numerous NBA prospects we'll focus on a few biggies today. Jerryd Sullinger obviously tops the field and is likely yet another top 5 pick for the Buckeyes. He may not have the upside of the Davises and Drummonds, but to me he's one of the surest options in this draft. He's likely a double-double machine at the next level using his excellent footwork, wide frame and soft hands to cause damage down low. Sure, the Raps have lots of options at the 4 right now, but they lack a true scoring threat in there, and Sullinger would have an immediate impact in this regard.
From the Michigan side of things, take a good look at point guard Trey Burke. Burke is a diminutive point guard in stature but a beast on the court. 14 points and 5 assists per game under-rates his contributions to the Wolverines and his play tonight will be huge in staying with the sixth-ranked Buckeyes. He's probably not a starter at the next level, but there's no question in my mind that he could be one of the league's best back-up options down the road, thanks to his pass-first mentality, poise, and physical traits.