With two first round draft picks in the absolutely stacked 2014 NBA Draft, Boston Celtics fans should be excited to watch NCAA basketball this season. There are a number of talented players projected to be in the draft, so I have been publishing a monthly college basketball guide for fans of the Celtics.
I highlighted ten players to track throughout the season in November, and last month I outlined some of the premiere games to watch. This month, I'm giving an overview of 15 players that could be available at certain points throughout the draft.
If the NBA season ended today, January 4th, the Celtics would enter the draft lottery with the ninth worst record in the league, and since they also own Atlanta's pick, they would secure the 20th pick in the first round.
Interestingly, the Celtics are just as much in the hunt for the playoffs as they are for a top three pick in the draft. They're a half game back from the eighth seed, but they're only 2.5 games up on the Orlando Magic, who have the second worst record in the NBA.
The Top of the Class
It's hard to know just how talented the Celtics will be once Rajon Rondo returns to the court, because they could get drastically better, or still be bad enough to get a top pick. In any case, it's still worth watching these elite prospects in the event that Boston does land one of these selections. In my opinion, these four college athletes are the cream of the crop:
Jabari Parker | F | Duke
Age: 18 | HT: 6'8" | WT: 240 lbs
Freshman | Projection: Top 3
In 2013, Jabari Parker exceeded my expectations and answered some of my concerns about his athleticism. Averaging 21.4 points per game on 52.8 percent shooting, Parker has been a model of efficiency, playing at a high level against teams with NBA caliber players. I don't like comparisons, but I can't help but look at Parker as a hybrid of Carmelo Anthony and Paul Pierce. He has amazing footwork and the ability to adjust mid-air like Pierce, and the versatility to play inside and out like Anthony. Unfortunately, Duke has quite an easy schedule in January, so the 18-year-old Parker will not be truly tested until February.
Andrew Wiggins | SF | Kansas
Age: 18 | HT: 6'8" | WT: 200 lbs
Freshman | Projection: Top 3
NBA fans of teams expected to have top picks might not be going coo-coo for Andrew Wiggins like they were before the season, but the 18-year-old from Canada is still having a productive freshman year with Kansas. Even though he has yet to truly take over a game, Wiggins has showcased his superb athleticism and silky-smooth jumper. His long arms also mean he has the potential to someday be a lockdown defender. But what Wiggins needs is an assassin mentality like a Kobe Bryant or Kevin Durant, which is something he lacks right now. Will he ever develop one? Who knows, but he needs to, since it will free him to completely take advantage of his athletic gifts.
Joel Embiid | C | Kansas
Age: 19 | HT: 7'0" | WT: 240 lbs
Freshman | Projection: Top 5
Before the season I wrote that Joel Embiid was the most underdeveloped prospect expected to go in the top ten, and while that is still true, he is now progressing at an exponential rate. Despite only playing organized basketball since 2011, Embiid has shown offensive talent beyond his years, with an advanced repertoire of moves, including a nifty face-up jumper, and an astounding "Dream Shake." However, Embiid must improve on the defensive end, since he lacks the fundamentals that make him so great on offense.
Julius Randle | PF | Kentucky
Age: 18 | HT: 6'9" | WT: 245 lbs
Freshman | Projection: Top 5
I'll admit that Julius Randle hasn't completely met my expectations this year despite playing unbelievably so far. Yes, Randle has been a beast offensively, with a 63.5 true shooting percentage; but I expected him to showcase an outside jumper, which he appeared to feature in high school. Randle hasn't hit many perimeter shots, which concerns me since he is already limited by the lack of a right hand when finishing near the rim. But, of course, no player is perfect, and he has still been a machine on the boards, averaging 10.6 per game. And, despite having a hefty body, he also has the ability to rebound a ball and then motor up the floor to finish in transition.
Realistic Mid-to-Late Lottery Picks
If the Celtics don't turn into a sinking ship the rest of the season, it's fair to assume that we'll see them land somewhere between the number five and 12 pick in the draft, which would still be great for the future since there will be plenty of talented players available. Here are six to keep an eye on:
Marcus Smart | G | Oklahoma St.
Age: 19 | HT: 6'4" | WT: 200 lbs
Sophomore | Projection: Top 7
It says a lot about the strength of the draft when a player like Marcus Smart could slip out of the top five, but it may happen. The sophomore guard was wise to stay in college for his second season, because he has taken his game to another level offensively. Smart can now nail jumpers from the perimeter, and has cut down on his turnovers. Not to mention that Smart is one of the more talented defenders in the NCAA. At this rate, Smart projects to play both the one and two-guard positions in the NBA, meaning he could fit with the Celtics whether or not they move on from Rondo -- which I don't think they will do.
Aaron Gordon | PF | Arizona
Age: 18 | HT: 6'9" | WT: 225 lbs
Freshman | Projection: Top 10
It's still too early to truly project what type of player the lanky freshman big man will become. We know that Aaron Gordon is one of the most athletic bigs in college, and that will translate to the NBA, but what types of skills does he have? He's hitting his jumper and has had some sensational blocks, but he still screams "project" to me, especially if he decides to declare for the draft in 2014. At 14-0, Arizona is the top-ranked team in the country, so we'll get to see Gordon play some games on national television this month.
James Young | G/F | Kentucky
Age: 18 | HT: 6'6" | WT: 215 lbs
Freshman | Projection: Top 12
Young has seen his stock rise so far this season; much like it did last year when he was heavily recruited by college teams. The 18-year-old freshman is a versatile, high-flying wing that can score in a myriad of ways, especially when slashing to the basket. He's only shooting 38.5 percent this season, but that's what makes his potential so exciting. Even though he's not quite hitting open jumpers like he can, he's still making a big impact on every game for Kentucky with athletic plays on the defensive end of the floor.
Gary Harris | SG | Michigan St.
Age: 19 | HT: 6'4" | WT: 210 lbs
Sophomore | Projection: Top 12
Even though it's unlikely the Celtics lose Avery Bradley to another team in restricted free agency, Gary Harris could be an adequate replacement. Harris is a tenacious defender that also hustles hard, and he always turns his defense into offense, which creates easy transition baskets for his teammates. Harris isn't the type of player that will take over a game offensively, but he'll be one of the safest picks in the draft.
Noah Vonleh | PF | Indiana
Age: 18 | HT: 6'10" | WT: 240 lbs
Freshman | Projection: Lottery
Noah Vonleh would be best served to stay another year or two in college, because he will likely ride the bench for a few years if he decides to declare for the 2014 draft. Vonleh, a native of Haverhill, Massachusetts, is raw and needs to develop his body and offensive skillset. Right now, Vonleh's greatest attribute is his rebounding, where he has displayed awareness, running to spots before the ball gets there. Indiana will have a tough schedule in January, with two games against Michigan State, so be sure to watch Noah Vonleh.
Zach LaVine | G | UCLA
Age: 18 | HT: 6'5" | WT: 180 lbs
Freshman | Projection: Lottery
Everything I said about Aaron Gordon applies to Zach LaVine, who is arguably the most athletic overall player in college. LaVine is only averaging 12.2 points per game, but in his limited minutes, he has proven to have a sensational three-point shot despite a funky release. He drives hard to the rim and finishes extremely well, and for this reason, he has drawn comparisons to the former Bruin guard, Russell Westbrook. But does LaVine really have the same amount of skill as Westbrook did in college? I'm not convinced, especially since LaVine's production has slid as of late. We will learn more this month, since UCLA has three games against Top 25 teams.
How about that Atlanta/Brooklyn pick?
Boston will also receive a first round pick from either Atlanta or Brooklyn, depending on which team has the better record. If the draft were tonight, Boston would own Atlanta's pick, which would be number 20. Since so much can change between now and the draft, it's nearly impossible to project which players will be available at this selection, but here are five that I'll be watching closely:
Tyler Ennis | PG | Syracuse
Age: 19 | HT: 6'2" | WT: 180
Freshman | Projection: Mid 1st
All you really need to know about Tyler Ennis is that he has 70 assists to only 15 turnovers so far this season. Those are unquestionably remarkable numbers for a freshman point guard, as he has displayed exceptional decision-making ability beyond his years. Ennis hasn't been much of a scorer, but it wouldn't surprise me to see him turn it on as March Madness approaches for the undefeated Syracuse Orange.
Doug McDermott | SF | Creighton
Age: 21 | HT: 6'8" | WT: 225
Senior | Projection: Mid 1st
The senior forward from Creighton is one of my favorite college basketball players to watch because of his absolutely perfect fundamentals. At the least, Doug McDermott will someday be one of the best spot-up three-point shooters in the NBA, but he also has the potential to be more than that. Despite playing below the rim, the 6-foot-8 McDermott has creative moves and a knack for finding the blue sky to score buckets. The only thing truly holding him back is his lack of athleticism. Almost every Creighton game airs nationally on Fox Sports 1, so be sure to tune into a few of their games.
Sam Dekker | SF | Wisconsin
Age: 19 | HT: 6'7" | WT: 200
Sophomore | Projection: Mid 1st
The 6-foot-7 combo forward has been one of the most surprising players in college basketball this season. Sam Dekker was one of the best three-point shooters last year, but he has improved his ability driving to the basket, giving hope to NBA scouts that he will be more than a three-point specialist. Dekker is fairly athletic and can finish strong at the rim. Dekker won't wow you defensively, but his role-player potential makes up for any of his deficiencies.
Willie Cauley-Stein | C | Kentucky
Age: 20 | HT: 7'0" | WT: 244
Sophomore | Projection: Mid to Late 1st
Willie Cauley-Stein is often overlooked when watching Kentucky's talented roster, but he will be one of the few centers selected in the first round this year. The 7-footer is limited offensively, but he does finish extremely well in the restricted area, as he is shooting 63.2 percent this season. Cauley-Stein is a defensive specialist, since he plays hard, blocks shots, and rebounds the ball very well. The sophomore center might be a little bit of a project, but if a team outside of the lottery needs a defensive big man, he could be a quality selection.
Glenn Robinson | SF | Michigan
Age: 19 | HT: 6'6" | WT: 210
Sophomore | Projection: Late 1st
Glenn Robinson III might regret staying for his sophomore year at Michigan because he likely would've been a lottery pick in last year's draft. The 6-foot-6 wing has taken a step back this season with Michigan, since he has not improved on any of his weaknesses. Despite being a standout athletically, Robinson III struggles to score in the half court; he also lacks the fierceness scouts would like to see from him. In any case, the proper coaching could tap into his well of potential, making him a potential steal in the draft.
I hope this guide is helpful and enhances your excitement for the 2013-2014 NCAA basketball season! Be on the look out for the next edition on February 1st.
A College Basketball Guide for Boston Celtics Fans: