#1 Blake Griffin, 6-10, Sophomore, Power Forward, Oklahoma
The fact of the matter is that Griffin is back, though, and college basketball is definitely better because of that decision. With his return come a great deal of expectations, and we heard all summer about the rigid training regimen Griffin is putting himself through to prepare for whats ahead of him. Being cited for public urination this past week was likely not a part of those plans.
The upside of returning to school? Besides gaining experience, improving his overall skill-level and entering the NBA far more ready to contribute from day one-- Griffin has as good a chance as anyone right now to be considered for the #1 overall pick in the 2009 draft. His combination of strength, size, fluidity and skills put him in a class of his own in the NCAA, and he still has a great deal of room left to improve, which makes him all the more an impressive prospect.
Scouts will be keeping tabs on how much his overall skill-level improves from his freshman to sophomore campaign, particularly his ability to face the basket and do the things that modern-day NBA power forwards are expected to do, especially in regards to his mid-range jumper. Improving his free throw shooting (just 59% as a freshman) wouldnt hurt either. Defensively, Griffin doesnt make anywhere near enough use of his excellent physical tools, as he doesnt always appear to be as intense on this end as he is offensively. These are all things that could use work.
Most importantly for Griffin will be to win and take his team as far as possible in the NCAA tournament. The Big 12 is wide open this year, and Oklahoma should be right in the mix at the top of the table. The Sooners will need Griffin to shoulder quite a heavy load, but he should be ready for that burden.
#2Damion James, 67, SF/PF, Junior, Texas
James contributed in many ways to the Longhorns as a sophomore, notably from behind the three-point arc, where he made significant strides, going from shooting 9% as a freshman to 41% as a sophomore, albeit on just 92 attempts. James has a high release and consistent form, but he doesnt have the quickest release and his effectiveness falls off significantly on the move. It will be important for James to maintain his strong shooting efficiency from behind the arc to prove last season wasnt just a fluke.
While James improved from three last season, he unfortunately did not improve from the free-throw line, where he shot a paltry 57%. This, along with his inability to create consistently in one-on-one situations, contributed heavily to his well below-average 52% TS%, which ranks him fourth from last for all players currently projected in our 2009 mock. James struggles in isolations stem from his underdeveloped ball-handling skills. He can occasionally create a jumper off one dribble going either direction, but struggles attacking the basket, not having a dribble very low to the ground and struggling to change direction. The ball also slows him down significantly.
While James isnt great creating with the ball in his hands, he does a great job creating opportunities without it, reading the lanes, making excellent cuts, catching and adjusting at the rim, and getting out in transition by utilizing his excellent motor, as hes always hustling on either side of the floor. This shows up most on the boards, where despite being a 67 combo-forward, he ranked 9th in our entire database in rebounds per pace adjusted 40 minutes (at 13.3 per game), while ranking 5th in defensive rebounds by the same metric.
On the defensive end, James has a ton of potential, but is still very rough around the edges, despite making notable strides. He has great physical tools with his length, strength, and great athleticism, all things he makes great use in transition, breaking up plays from the weakside, and by rushing out to contest perimeter shots. He isnt as effective in man defense, though, as hes inconsistent with his fundamentals on the perimeter and doesnt have the best reaction time, often biting for pump fakes and jab steps or just getting frozen on crossovers or other moves. Laterally, his quickness is good, though, as hes capable of sticking with point guards at times on drives to the basket. A versatile player, James is also serviceable defending the post, playing bigger than his size by blanketing his man, playing smart positional defense, and really working his butt off.
Coming back as a junior, scouts will be looking for James to continue to shoot well from three, and see some of that success translate to the line. Improving his ball-handling and continuing to make strides as a perimeter defender are also major priorities. If he can do these things, he projects very nicely as a role-playing small forward in the NBA, and could be a first round pick as early as this year.
#3James Anderson, 6-6, Sophomore, SG/SF, Oklahoma State
With a new coach in place in Travis Ford, and a full season underneath his belt, Anderson seems to have the raw talent and physical attributes to develop into a very solid option for Oklahoma State in his sophomore season. Hes got good size for the wing, an excellent frame, a nice wingspan, and terrific athleticism to complete a pretty intriguing initial picture. Anderson got most of his points as a freshman playing off the ball, running the floor in transition and crashing the offensive glass, but he can also really shoot the ball, knocking down 38% of his 5.4 attempts per game from beyond the arc.
In fact, over 50% of Andersons field goal attempts came from beyond the arc, which helps begin to explain one of his biggest weaknesses at the momenthis poor ball-handling skills. Anderson drives almost exclusively left when he puts the ball on the floor, and doesnt seem to have the advanced dribbling skills needed to change directions or pull-up off the dribble if the defense rotates over to stop him. He often looks out of control by the time he gets to the rim (although hes often athletic enough to get away with it) and is not really capable of creating his own shot on the fly from the perimeter the way most NBA wing players are expected to.
Anderson looks to have some significant offensive talent looking purely at his instincts and feel for putting the ball in the net, but he has a great deal of room to improve on his overall polish, not to mention his passing and rebounding ability. Considering how young he is, that doesnt come as a huge shock.
Defensively, Anderson didnt seem to be playing like a freshman in the later games of the season we watched of his. After starting off the season looking inconsistent in his effort and not always all that aware of whats going on around him, he seemed to improve later in the Big 12 slate. He seemed to show more of a commitment on this end of the floor, getting low into a fundamental stance, while being aided greatly by his excellent physical tools. His frame could still use some work as we saw at times by the way he got caught trying to fight through screens, which seemed to put his entre teams defense at a disadvantage. Hes not immune to suffering momentary lapses of judgment on this end of the floor, so well have to see what kind of progress he continues to make here.
In short, there is a lot to work with, and a lot for Anderson to work on, so how quickly he makes it to the NBA will probably largely depend on how productive he becomes both individually and collectively with his teammates at Oklahoma State.
#4 Cole Aldrich, 6-11, Sophomore, Center, Kansas
Physically, there is a lot to like about Aldrich. At 611 and 250 pounds he has a sturdy enough frame to handle the rigors of playing in the paint, and his size is ideal for a modern day NBA center. To add intrigue to the picture, he also owns an excellent wingspan. He certainly needs to get stronger if he wants to be a player who primarily plays with his back to the basket, but he should be able to handle about as much weight as he needs to as his body naturally fills out in time. He shows pretty good agility for a player of his size as well, running the floor well and being capable of getting to where he needs to on the floor. Aldrich doesnt show incredible leaping ability, which could hinder him against more athletic big men, but he is a pretty solid athlete considering his size.
At this point, Aldrich primarily gets his touches within eight feet of the basket. He does an excellent job of getting position on defenders with his body, but lacks the footwork and polish at this point to capitalize on many of his post touches. He can finish around the rim if given space to operate, but tends to struggle trying to create anything advanced for himself. Aldrich primarily goes to one of two moves: a baby hook shot or a turn-around jumper. Both of these look promising thanks to his soft touch, but he has a tendency to rush these moves. Often he will turn and shoot before he is square to the hoop, hindering his shooting percentage (which was still a respectable 51.8%).
Aldrich hasnt yet developed any sort of power move to the basket. While his finesse game is solid, he runs into problems against bigger post players who force him to fade away on his jump shot. Becoming stronger and more aggressive going to the rim would make Aldrich immensely more valuable on the offensive end of the floor, and just getting more repetitions would probably help him avoid take some of the bad shots he tends to settle for at times. Right now, he relies too heavily on his physical tools to get the job done against smaller players. In the NBA, that obviously wont fly.
The rest of Aldrichs game is underdeveloped and based more on hustle than actual ability. He gets a lot of easy buckets thanks to teammates driving and drawing additional defenders away from the hoop. The offensive glass is also a big source of points for Aldrich, and he seems to give tremendous effort on both ends of the floor on the boards, aided obviously by his excellent size and length. Often times during his freshman campaign it was common place to see Aldrich coming away with several rebounds on one series in addition to a put back, thanks to his hustle.
He moves well off the ball, often screening for teammates away from the paint, and will on rare occasion step out for a mid range jumper. While he shows decent touch, his shooting mechanics are not very attractive. When he is forced to catch and shoot he short arms the ball; but when he has time to set up, his shot becomes long and over exaggerated. He moves well up and down the floor in transition, but has yet to show us any real ability to put the ball on the floor in any scenario.
Defensively, there is a lot to like about Aldrich. He shows a great knack for timing when contesting shots; he averaged nearly a block per game despite getting just eight minutes of playing time. Aldrich knows how to body up against opponents to keep them from easily getting to the rim, but could still stand to get stronger in his upper body to be even more effective. Above all, Aldrich is a solid defender who knows how to make the most of his abilities. He hedges adequately on screens and is a solid help defender. Foul trouble may be an issue for him due to his average lateral quickness and occasional over-exuberance, but in time he should be able to work out the kinks and become very adequate on this end of the floor.
Its a pretty safe bet to say that the NBA will be in the cards for Aldrich eventually, the only question is how soon that will come. He a big, long and relatively athletic big man who can rebound the ball effectively and be a presence inside as a shot-blocker. While not the smartest player in the world at this point, Aldrich should be able to get the playing time he needs now to learn how to do more than just overpower opponents with his physical tools.
#5 Craig Brackins, 610, Power Forward, Sophomore, Iowa State
Standing 610 and weighing 230 pounds, Craig has an ideal body for a power forward prospect. Although not incredibly strong at the moment, he has a frame that has the potential to add plenty of weight over the next few years. Running the floor is not an issue for Brackins and he has showed a much improved motor during his first season in college then he did at the high school ranks. He is a good leaper who can play above the rim, although it is not so evident with his tendency to fall in love with the jumpshot.
Brackins offensive skill set is definitely the selling point of what he offers as a prospect. He is a very skilled big man capable of playing both inside and out. Although only a sophomore, he has already displayed a solid understanding of how to play the pick and roll game and has established himself as a deadly pick and pop threat out to the three point line (as seen by his 33 point performance against Baylor that included 8 three pointers). Brackins is also capable of putting the ball on the floor a couple of times and taking slower big men off of the dribble when given the opportunity from the perimeter.
In the low post, the California native has proven to be comfortable going towards either shoulder and finishing with ease. He lacks a vast array of power moves, usually opting to go for a number of turnaround jumpers and jump hooks with either hand, and often lacking the strength and toughness to finish through contact, which leads him to take low-percentage shots. Brackins doesnt do an outstanding job of finding the open man when double teamed, and often settles for jumpers far more than one would like to see out of a player his size. He shot a paltry 43% from the field and 28% from beyond the arc. Regardless, it is the offensive package that Brackins offers that makes him one of the more intriguing long-term prospects the Big 12 has to offer.
Defensively, there is a great deal of room for improvement for Brackins that will need to be made before he can legitimately consider himself an NBA prospect. He is a poor rebounder (pulling down a very pedestrian 7.3 rebounds per 40 minutes), struggles defending the pick and roll, and often generally looks disinterested on this end of the floor. Guarding power forwards who face the basket is a major area of emphasis for Brackins, who was often faced with isolation situations last season due to his below average foot speed. As far as shot blocking is concerned, one would hope that a player with his size, length, and athleticism would be able to average more than one block per game. On the bright side, Brackins has shown promise as a positional defender in the low post at times, holding his ground against more traditional back to the basket players.
The graduation of seniors Rahshon Clark and Jiri Hubalek, along with the transfer of Wesley Johnson, will make Brackins the focal point of the Cyclone offense. Given his ability to score in a number of ways and his teams lack of scoring punch, the potential is definitely there for Craig to put up monster numbers in the Big 12 this season. How he responds to the added responsibility of being the Cyclones go to guy will ultimately deem how quickly Brackins will be able to begin entertaining the possibility of jumping to the NBA, as well as the amount of strength he managed to add to his lanky frame over the offseason. Turning 21 years old before the 08-09 season kicks off, he is at least a year older than most players in his class.