Armchair Point Guard: Reviewing the First 10 Picks of The 2014 NBA Draft
by Chad Jewett
The 2014 NBA Draft boils down to an odd mix of confidence and enigma. Everyone knows there are sure things amongst Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart, Dante Exum, etc.. Just don’t let anyone tell you they know for sure who the sure things are. We all find ourselves generally convinced that Parker will be very good-to-great from Day One; we all also seem to find ourselves pivoting between bad echoes of Greg Oden and nostalgia for Hakeem every time we read a new pre-broken-foot scouting report on Joel Embiid.
A lot of times, the quality of a potential player is entirely conditional. Mitch McGary would be a great pick for someone, I’m just not sure that someone is an Oklahoma City Thunder in need of agile scoring first, second, and third and probably all set on tall so-so athletes. On the other hand, the Miami Heat knew they needed a dynamic, winning lead guard, so they did what they had to do to get Shabazz Napier, a brilliant, experienced point guard that LeBron James has expressed admiration for a number of times. With the subjective, case-specific nature of the NBA Draft in mind – especially this NBA draft, which has been likened to 2003 (the genesis of every good free agent rumored to be a future Miami Heat starter) – we offer our thoughts on the lottery picks of this year’s 2014 NBA Draft.
1.) Andrew Wiggins – Cleveland Cavaliers
There’s a specific kind of American myth that roots profit in risk. In actuality, success often comes to those who can cannily mix safe bets and a knack for seizing opportunities. Without giving too much credit to an organization that is seemingly perpetually in the lottery (i.e., always loses) and has managed to snatch defeat from the jaws of draft victory on several occasion (not counting Anthony Bennett, who still might be good someday, that still leaves, for example, Luke Jackson ahead of Al Jefferson and Jameer Nelson), the Cavs made the right call in picking Andrew Wiggins, an already very good small forward with tons of potential that literally everyone likes. Wiggins is more honed on defense than he is on offense (a jumpshot is still forming), but considering the defensive holes left open by Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters, there’s a lot to be said for a young, giftedly athletic wing that can make up for miscues everywhere but the low post. If he never quite gets his shot, he’s still a flexible starter a few offensive gears short of Scottie Pippen/Kawhi Leonard/Paul George. If he does develop a more rounded offensive arsenal, then Cleveland look like geniuses, and appear more attractive to LeBron next year. Had last year’s number one pick worked out better, Cleveland could afford to gamble on Joel Embiid’s recovery (what ultimately might end up being the “should have” scenario) or Jabari Parker’s not-so-secret aversion to being drafted by the Cav’s. As it is, the gifted one-year Jayhawk is probably the right call.
2.) Jabari Parker – Milwaukee Bucks
A consensus pick for Most Ready To Succeed Right Now, Duke’s Jabari Parker was a natural fit for the Bucks, both as the kind of galvanizing offensive talent that can cheer up a long-suffering fan base, and as a native of nearby Chicago. When a player wants to play for your struggling, small-market team, and they have the chance to be the next Tracy McGrady, you choose that player. While there has been plenty of criticism of Parker’s shaky defense, it bears noting that it’s a lot easier to teach defense than a jump shot (search Dion Waiters or Michael Kidd Gilchrist), and Milwaukee has a rising talent in third-year forward John Henson to patch the holes until the rookie gets a hang of both halves of the game. But with a franchise seemingly always about to be overnighted to Seattle, what the Bucks need is an electric, charming young star more whose skills translate more cinematically than a defensive pugilist. That’s what they’ve got in Jabari, a kid who, once again, wants to be there. The pick makes perfect sense.
3.) Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
Sam Hinkie apparently has nothing but time. More than any other team in the league, the Sixers have gone all-in on the idea of an analytics-based top-to-bottom rebuild. 2014 marks the second year in a row that the team has spent a lottery pick on a player that will not see the court anytime soon. Last year it was Kentucky power forward Nerlens Noel, who was already recuperating from a torn ACL when Philly traded for him on draft night. This year the convalescing player in question is Joel Embiid, a Kansas freshman power forward who garnered Serge Ibaka/Hakeem Olajuwon comparisons for his lithe, almost instinctual post play. The Cameroon native, who began playing in high school (!) is worth the risk in general, but especially worth it to a GM like Hinkie who is largely regarded as a clever, cerebral team-builder, and who will still get respect for the experiment if Embiid doesn’t fully heal (versus the Cav’s office, who would get an internet’s worth of eye-rolls). If Embiid can come all the way back from his broken foot and continue to develop, he’ll be the player future generations will wonder at not being picked first. For an organization like the 76ers, who always have that kind of long-view in mind, it’s a smart pick.
4.) Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic
This selection came as a bit of a surprise, if only because Gordon, a 6’10” freshman from Arizona, was projected a few picks back, in Celtcs/Lakers territory. The received wisdom stipulates drafting the best player available, then figuring out the next step, rather than drafting by need, which in this case would have meant the Magic drafting Smart or Dante Exum (and gaining offensive skill to pair with the defensive-minded Victor Oladipoh). But in this case, the Magic are thin in the frontcourt, and low-ish on trade assets, making the slight reach for Gordon more logical than the unproven Exum, for instance. That said, if you were going to pick a big man, Julius Randle might have made the most sense here. A more gifted and developed scorer than Gordon, Randle could have addressed some of the Magic’s offensive lack. That said, Gordon is much more dynamic, who, in theory, could develop the shot that Randle already has, combined with a much higher level of athleticism. Randle seems to make a bit more sense, but not staggeringly so.
5.) Dante Exum, Utah Jazz
6.) Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
I place these two picks together because they make sense for similar reasons, and represent similar exciting possibilities for ultra-electric tandem guard play. Considering the Utah Jazz already have a very promising point guard in Trey Burke (first team NBA All-Rookie, 13 points/6 assists a game) and the Celtics have an arguably top 5 distributor and creator in Rajon Rondo, one could imagine (and in our case, would like to imagine) a scenario where both teams pair their current lead guards with the explosiveness of Exum and Smart. Indeed, some of the most entertaining basketball we’ve seen all year came from the twinned attack of OKC’s Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson or Eric Bledsoe and Goran Dragić, scenarios where either guard could bring the ball up, create, make their own shot, or set up a teammate. In fact, the UConn Huskies won the national championship on exactly this system, with two combo guards (Shabazz Napier and Ryan Boatright) creating total havoc with their wide-ranging 1-2 skills. The Jazz certainly have that possibility in a Burke/Exum combination, especially since Exum has received some Westbrook-lite comps. The Celtics seem to almost constantly be on the cusp of trading Rondo, but I love the idea of a Rondo/Smart duo (the Celtics fan in me has been rooting for this all year and is shocked it actually happened) – two absurdly competitive, creative guards barreling toward the basket. It also creates room to move Avery Bradley back to a sixth-man position, which I think makes the most sense for him. For the Celtics especially, the pick seems to work either way – either you have someone to fill Rondo’s role, or you have a player that can work compellingly alongside him.
7.) Julius Randle, Los Angeles Lakers
Real quick – take a look at the Lakers’ current roster. If any team’s line-up screamed “pick the best player available” it’s Los Angeles. Randle is a fun, skilled big-man – not an overwhelming athlete, but clearly able to score with a variety that will likely continue to grow. But again, the point is that the Lakers had the chance to draft a player once slotted in the top three at number seven. While L.A. could have perhaps rolled the dice on Elfrid Payton, who is getting comparisons to some classically great guards, but is also largely unproven against top-flight competition, to spell the rapidly aging Steve Nash, the Lakers probably needed a more solid pick to start the long rebuilding process, thus choosing Randle.
8.) Nik Stauskas, Sacramento Kings
While it will be fun watching Michigan shotmaker Nik Stauskas playing alongside Isaiah Thomas, this definitely feels like the Kings drafting based on need and less on the best player remaining. Given that Noah Vonleh was frequently quite good playing in an IU system that was far from flattering for the freshman forward, one would think that Vonleh would be the obvious choice. But with DeMarcus Cousins already taking the four spot, Sacramento went with filling a hole in their line-up first. But Stauskus is a shaky defender, and it’s a lot easier to find role-players in free-agency than it is to find high-upside big men like Vonleh.
9.) Noah Vonleh, Charlotte Hornets
On the flipside, I like the fact that Vonleh fell to the Hornets, since I am very, very prepared to root for the purple-and-teal nostalgic favorites this fall (I was even more excited for the beautiful two minutes where a Kemba/Shabazz duo was a thing, but alas). Though he’ll likely be something of a sub for Al Jefferson at least for now, it’s a positive development that the Hornets will be bringing in more offense to a defense-first team. With less injury worries than Embiid or Randle, Vonleh is a solid pick for a team that could use an off-the-bench big man that can score.
10.) Elfrid Payton / Dario Šarić, Philadelphia 76ers
See above. The 76ers are clearly not only in a rebuilding mode, but an especially creative form of team architecture, one willing to take risks and use imagination. For a while, the 76ers had Elfird Payton, a Louisiania-Lafayette point guard whose selection either implied the trading of Michael Carter-Williams, or an interesting rotating 1-2 team. In the end, it meant neither, as Philly traded Payton to the Magic for Croation combo forward Dario Šarić. In theory, the Sixers could use a small forward more than a point guard, and the 2015 second round pick is exactly the type of thing Sam Hinkie clearly values (Philadelphia had about a billion of them on draft night), and Šarić has been touted for his offensive gifts, especially for a big man. But perhaps we’re showing our product-of-the-90s, pro-point-guard bias here, but we’ll take the kid from the small school getting Gary Payton comparisons every time.