Should Sixers play Nerlens Noel this season?
Kansas center Joel Embiid is averaging 10.9 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game as a freshman. (USA Today Images)
A look at some potential lottery picks for the 2014 NBA draft:
Joel Embiid, freshman center, Kansas
A few weeks back I relayed a conversation I had with a source who has connections with several NBA front offices and coaches. Back in October, before the season started, this person told me that Andrew Wiggins wasn’t the best prospect on his own team. At the time, I filed it away but reserved to pass judgment on the statement’s validity since I wanted to see if another Kansas player was better than the vaunted Wiggins.
In watching nearly all of Kansas' games so far, there is no question, as there wasn’t a few weeks ago when I first brought up this player, that the best player on the Jayhawks' team is Joel Embiid. He does things on the court that not only make his team better but also show how much he’s improved in a short time on the court.
Embiid's been playing organized basketball for only a handful of years, and as a freshman this is his first year (and will probably be his only) at a high level of competition. Kansas plays a tough schedule, and the Big 12 is no joke. In his last seven games, Embiid is averaging 13.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 3.0 blocks in 24 minutes per game. He’s also shooting a whopping 72 percent during that span, mostly because he gets put-backs and dunks, but also because he doesn’t take bad shots.
Against then-No. 8 Iowa State, Embiid did the majority of his damage in the paint. He was an efficient 7 for 8 from the field for 16 points. He added nine rebounds and tied a season-high with five blocks.
But the stat line alone doesn’t convey Embiid's dominance. He’s learning on the go and is improving his shooting game. As a 7-footer, he is most impressive around the rim, but he isn’t limited to just that spot for offense -- 10-, 12- and 15-footers are all becoming part of his offensive game. As for a lot of big men, it’s all about the eye test, and this is a test Embiid passes with flying colors.
I know that some will ask, "Why would the Sixers want another big man?" But I remember the twin towers of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, and that worked out pretty well. I think Embiid would be great paired with Nerlens Noel. But as it is right now, Embiid’s draft stock is on the rise, and he could go No. 1 overall, rather than Nos. 3-5.
Noah Vonleh, freshman forward, Indiana
Honestly, I didn’t think that I would write anything on a prospect for this year’s draft who's currently at Indiana -- IU lost two of its most talented players to the pros last year. But after watching the Hoosiers' games against Illinois, Penn State and most recently the upset over No. 3 Wisconsin, I think a note on Noah is in order.
I called one of my former colleagues who covers Indiana (and Louisville), and told him to tell me who he thought the 6-foot-10 Vonleh could be in college. The response: Jamal Mashburn.
Of course, as a UK grad, that piqued my interest. Mashburn was a combo guard with a pretty good shooting stroke. Vonleh is still a bit raw, but you can see some of that same athleticism in him. He’s longer than Mashburn, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, but this kid is just starting out. He can add bulk to get up to 250 pounds and become a real matchup problem in the NBA.
Like Mashburn, Vonleh's got a pretty good handle and has a shooter’s touch. Vonleh will need to work on his shot, but again, this guy is a freshman and is still growing into his body and his game. The thing I saw from him, especially in the Hoosiers' upset of Wisconsin, is that he seems to be just as comfortable playing face-up to the basket as he is with his back to it. In today’s NBA, that is a necessary skill, as true big men are becoming dinosaurs, and these combo/hybrid post players are what you now see on the pro court.
Vonleh is a guy I think would go around Nos. 10-13. That could go up to as high as No. 5 by the end of the season since the Big 10 is a tough conference, and he will be tested night in and night out.
Gary Harris, sophomore shooting guard, Michigan State
Gary Harris may have thought about going to the pros after last year, but nagging shoulder and back injuries hampered him, though he likely would have still been a first-rounder.
Last year’s Big Ten Freshman of the Year returned for his sophomore season to try to help the Spartans contend for a title. Harris is one of the best shooting guards in the country. He’s projected anywhere from Nos. 3-10, probably depending on the team and its need.
If the Sixers part ways with Evan Turner, Harris could be the answer. His shooting numbers are pretty good, despite being down from last year. What that shows me is that he’s trying to do more for his team. He’s averaging nearly 18 points a game on 40 percent shooting. Harris is a good ball-handler, and for a shooting guard, I think he sees the court very well. He knows his spots, can make the move to get open and will take the correct shot and the big shot.
Harris’ best game so far came against Indiana. He had 26 points and made five three-pointers, shooting 44 percent, and 50 percent from beyond the arc in that game.
He's showed the spark that made him the top shooting guard prospect coming out of high school two years ago. I think he still needs to develop more consistency in his long-range game, but I like that he has the awareness of a point guard and the touch of a shooting guard.
Versatility serves guards well in the NBA. Harris also displays an explosive first step, which helps him create his own shot. And that right there is a very helpful skill in and of itself. Harris could be a viable option for the Sixers, perhaps even with their possible second first-round pick via the Pelicans.