Top NBA Draft Prospects in the Pac-10 (Part One: #1-5)

Top NBA Draft Prospects in the Pac-10 (Part One: #1-5)
Sep 12, 2009, 02:33 pm
Next up in our overview of the top NBA draft prospects in college basketball is the Pac-10, which appears to be in serious rebuilding mode. UCLA's Malcom Lee takes the top spot, followed by Oregon's Michael Dunigan, Washington State's Klay Thompson, Cal's Patrick Christopher and Washington's Quincy Pondexter.

As a reminder, incoming freshmen have been excluded from this series.

-Top NBA Draft Prospects in the Big Ten, Part One (#1-5),Part Two (#6-10), Part Three (#11-15)

-Top NBA Draft Prospects in the Big 12, Part One (#1-5),Part Two (#6-10), Part Three (#11-15)

#1 Malcolm Lee, 6-4, Sophomore, PG/SG, UCLA

Jonathan Givony

Coming off a fairly non-descript freshman season in which he averaged just 3 points in under 11 minutes per game, most people would probably not expect to find Malcolm Lee’s name at the top of this Pac-10 prospect list. Part of that has to do with how overall depleted the conference appears to be at the moment in terms of returning talent, while plenty more has to do with the glimpses of potential that Lee flashed this summer as a counselor at the Adidas nations camp in Dallas.

Lee played a miniscule role for UCLA last season, only using four possessions per game on average. The overwhelming majority of his offense came off the ball, mostly in the form of spot-up jumpers, transition plays, offensive rebounds and cuts to the basket. This year, with the starting backcourt of Darren Collison and Jrue Holiday off to the NBA, Lee will surely be forced to shoulder a considerably larger amount of responsibility in Ben Howland’s stringent offense. How much he’s up to that task will likely play a big part in the amount of success that UCLA will have in what appears to be a transition season.

Offensively, Lee is at his best in an up-tempo setting, where his terrific athleticism really allows him to shine. He’s often the first one down the court, looking like an absolute jet with or without the ball, and regularly getting to the basket where he can make some very acrobatic plays. He’s an extremely fluid, explosive player, able to change directions on the fly and looking extremely quick and shifty in everything he does. Guards who can pick apart a defense on their own with a blazing first step are all the rage in today’s NBA, and Lee shows the potential to develop into that and much more down the road.

In the half-court, Lee is mostly a mixed bag at this point. While very much capable of blowing by his defender, he struggles to finish around the rim in traffic, as his body is extremely underdeveloped, and his improvable ball-handling skills mean that he’s often out of control by the time he gets to the rim. His jump-shot still needs a considerable amount of work, as it often looks flat, complete with an inconsistent release point, sometimes with his elbow flailing out badly. Lee shows the ability to make shots both spotting up and off the dribble, so there is definitely hope that he can sort out this part of his game if he continues to put the work in on his own.

Somewhat stuck between positions at the moment, Lee is at his best with the ball in his hands, but clearly is not a point guard at this juncture, even if his size might lead him in that direction down the road. His decision making skills are still on the raw side, being fairly turnover prone and relying excessively on his pure athleticism, which has not yet caught up with his feel for the game. This is not really a shock considering how old Lee is, but it’s something he must work on as he gains more experience and continues to learn the game, as he’s far more attractive a prospect if deemed to project as a combo guard rather than as an undersized shooting guard.

Defensively, Lee is an absolute menace, already being a shut-down stopper type, but showing even more potential as he continues to grow into his frame. He possesses superb lateral quickness, being capable of getting right in his matchup’s face and sticking with him for long stretches, while showing great intensity in the process. He gets in the passing lanes on a regular basis, and will even come up with an occasional blocked shot. Lee’s willingness to defend, coupled with the frenetic energy he brings to the floor will surely endear him to NBA decision makers, as he’s capable of guarding multiple positions already and still has room to improve down the road.

It will be interesting to see what kind of year Lee is capable of having, as he doesn’t appear to be the greatest fit for Ben Howland’s system, but will still need to be at his best if his team has any chance of sticking around the top-25 polls this season. While it may be a bit premature to be lavishing so much praise on a player who did so little as a freshman, Lee has the physical tools and natural talent to make a huge leap this year.

#2 Michael Dunigan, 6-10, Freshman, Center, Oregon

Jonathan Givony

A rare back to the basket oriented big men, Michael Dunigan had an up and down freshman season that regardless put him firmly on the radar screens of NBA talent evaluators due to the obvious pro potential he clearly possesses.

Standing 6-10, with a massive frame, long arms, and decent athleticism, Dunigan passes the look test on first glance and then some. He’s a somewhat plodding, below the rim big man who is relatively mobile for his frame, but isn’t going to blow anyone away with his highlight reel tape.

A threat to establish deep post position at any time thanks to his terrific strength, Dunigan has extremely soft hands which allow him to catch virtually anything thrown his way. The overwhelming majority of his offense comes in this fashion, as he doesn’t possess a plethora of moves he can go to if he needs to create his own offense. Dunigan regardless gets to the free throw line at an excellent rate, although he only converts on 58% of his attempts once there. He seems to have nice touch around the rim (especially on his turnaround jumper and jump-hook), to complement his quick feet, so it may only be a matter of time until he improves substantially in these areas.

The rest of Dunigan’s offense needs plenty of work. Right now he’s a fairly poor passer, looking somewhat single-minded once he catches the ball and decides to go to work. He doesn’t run the floor all that well, often appearing to be the last one up the court, jogging at a leisurely pace. He also shows very little resembling a face-up game, looking fairly awkward when attempting to shoot jumpers outside of 8 feet (which is reflected in his poor free throw percentages) and also not possessing any real ball-handling skills either. At 6-10, NBA teams would probably like to see Dunigan be able to spend at least a little time at the power forward position, but right now his skill-set is much closer to that of a traditional center.

Defensively, Dunigan doesn’t do much to change that perception either. He looks fairly heavy trying to step out and move his feet on the perimeter, where his poor fundamentals really get exposed. He tends to over-commit and bite on pump-fakes fairly regularly, often leaving his teammates high and dry in the process. Dunigan is an extremely foul-prone player, which is one of the main reasons he played just a hair under 20 minutes per game on average last season. In the post, things aren’t a whole lot better, as he regularly gives up deep position and then gets burned by average college big men. He does have some tools on this end, though, showing the hands and timing to make some nice plays from time to time, especially in the form of an occasional block or steal, but his lack of experience really shows.

As a rebounder, Dunigan can’t be described as anything more than average at best, at least as far as production is concerned. The lethargic impression you get at times while watching him play seems to show up the most vividly in this area, as he just doesn’t crash the glass as well as a player with his size, bulk and length should at the college level, especially on the defensive end.

Despite the seemingly harsh criticism, Dunigan actually may have a very bright future ahead of him. The tools he brings to the table are undeniable, and many of the issues he faces are very much correctable, especially in terms of fundamentals, technique and effort. It will be interesting to see how Dunigan builds off the solid freshman campaign he put together, as that will teach us quite a bit more about his long-term NBA potential.

#3 Klay Thompson, 6-6, Sophomore, SG/SF, Washington State

Scott Nadler

The son of former NBA number one draft pick Mychal Thompson, Klay Thompson is quietly writing his own history after a stellar 2008/09 freshman campaign. The slender 6-6 wing established himself as one of the top 3 point shooters in the Pac-10 last season, earning him All-Freshman team honors. After a solid summer as a key contributor on the USA U-19 Gold Medal winning team in New Zealand, expectations are high for Thompson to lead the young Cougars back to the NCAA tournament.

Thompson was able to make a name for himself on the offensive end despite playing for one of the slowest paced teams in the country under former coach Tony Bennett, who has since moved on to UVA. With the more offensive minded Ken Bone coming to WSU, more scoring opportunities is sure to come for Thompson. In stark contrast to Bennett’s style, Bone’s Portland State Vikings averaged 73.4 PPG on 67.4 possessions last season, as opposed to Bennett’s team’s 59.2 PPG on 59.6 possessions.

With the added possessions this season, Thompson will have more chances to show off his effortless shooting stroke and deep range. Nearly half of his shots last year came from behind the arc (5 attempts per game) and he capitalized on those attempts 41.2% of the time. His offensive game mainly consists of spot up jumpers and coming off screens (28%) – utilizing his quick release and great ability to move without the ball to get good looks. His high basketball IQ is easy to see when watching how he uses screens, as he almost always makes the correct read.

Thompson has the potential to be more than just a shooter, but must expand his game in order for his natural scoring instincts to come through. He averaged 17.0 points per 40 pace adjusted with 80% of his production coming from the jump shot variety. He shoots 90% from the foul line but on less than one attempt per contest –a result of his slight build and below-average athleticism, which also contributes to his poor ability to finish around the basket. Assuming he can develop more of an attacking mindset, it’s not out of the question to see Thompson become close to a 20 point a game scorer sometime in the near future. Thompson will also benefit himself by improving his ability to drive both ways, resorting to his left hand 78% of the time a season ago.

In addition, he must develop his ball-handling skills overall. He dribbles very close to his feet, which suggests a lack of confidence to extend the ball out in order to beat his defender. He displays below-average quickness, but because of his adept shooting, he should be able to get past his man. Presently he’s allowing the ball to slow him down by taking more dribbles than necessary to get to the rim.

His assist to turnover ratio is .89, which is average and could be improved. He did bring the ball up the court occasionally, playing under control and making the right plays most of the time, showing his excellent feel for the game. With that said, Thompson does have a tendency to get a little careless on occasion by jumping to make a pass or driving into traffic unnecessarily, but nothing you wouldn’t expect from a freshman.

On the defensive end, Thompson’s efforts were inconsistent this past season. He plays in spurts, looking active and playing disciplined on one possession and then going for steals and jumping on ball fakes on the next possession. The majority of the time, he plays standing straight up as opposed to staying low and alert. As a result, he’s often late on rotations or close outs. To go along with that, as good as he is at using screens on the offensive end, he struggles fighting through them on the defensive side of the ball. Savvy offensive players exploited his lack of positioning and ran him off screens on a nightly basis. His shot contests were also rather weak, failing to use his highest reach to distract defenders from time to time.

The Cougars go into this season with only one senior and all freshmen and sophomores, which will allow Thompson to show his skills as a leader and become the face of Washington State. With added strength, an aggressive state of mind, and learning how to adapt to a more potent offense, it’s not unlikely for Klay to mold himself into an all Pac-10 performer this year. Not possessing the world’s greatest upside, he’ll have to polish up his all-around game before he can start seriously thinking about the NBA.

#4 Patrick Christopher, 6-5, Senior, Shooting Guard, California

Matthew Williams

For the second straight season Patrick Christopher makes an appearance on these rankings, entering his senior season after a junior campaign that didn’t offer much in the way of individual improvements, but proved to be a highly successful one in terms of team success. Christopher entered the season poised to build on a very solid sophomore campaign that saw Cal miss the NCAA tournament, but put him firmly on the radar of NBA decision-makers. With Ryan Anderson and DeVon Hardin out of the picture, one would have expected Christopher’s natural scoring ability to be the focal point of California’s offense, for better or worse. Ultimately, the players around Christopher picked up the slack, and while his numbers mildly stagnated, Cal returned to the NCAA tournament, which should say quite a bit.

While Christopher deserves credit for the role he played in Cal’s tournament run, which ended in the first round in a loss to 10th seeded Maryland, Christopher didn’t show a great deal of change in his game. An unconscious scorer who is prone to make and take some tough shots on a regular basis, Christopher appears to be a known commodity at this point. Not gifted with any truly outstanding physical tools for an NBA shooting guard, Christopher’s scoring instincts manifest themselves consistently on the NCAA level.

Heavily reliant on his jump shot for his production, Christopher improved his scoring rate per-40 marginally last season, though his shooting percentages dipped slightly. Always fairly erratic with his shot selection, Christopher attempts and makes some very tough attempts from the field. With nearly a third of his total shot attempts coming from three-point range, his tendencies as a scorer lead to some questionable decisions. In 2009, Christopher was a bit more aggressive, and less consistent, off the dribble than he was as a sophomore, but compensated with improved consistency in catch and shoot situations. Many of those catch and shoot chances opportunities came on plays where Christopher was running off screens to get open, a promising addition to his game looking to the next level.

Christopher’s jump shot can be both a curse and a blessing, but his inside play will be the more serious limiting factor for him on the next level. Though Christopher is capable of finishing around the rim due to his solid length and leaping ability, his 2.8 free-throw attempts per-contest leave a bit to be desired, and his ball-handling and explosiveness on the whole render him below average in isolation situations. This is one area Christopher could stand to improve, as added physical strength and the ability to get to the line more often would help him immensely.

Much of what we said about Christopher’s defense in our last report remains true, and will be a point of emphasis for him moving forward as well. He has his moments, appearing focused and staying with his man pretty consistently in one-on-one situations, but not always playing with the sense of urgency or displaying the fundamentals that scouts would like to see from him off the ball. With average length and lateral quickness, Christopher needs to put in the effort to overshadow has lack of fundamentals and physical tools and improve his perimeter defense this season.

As a senior who has spent two years firmly on the draft radar, Christopher seems like a known commodity at this point. Able to put points on the board with his outside shooting, but lacking in other areas, Christopher could benefit greatly from a productive season, but may have reached his ceiling at some point. Not a lock to be drafted at this point, Christopher seems like an ideal candidate for the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament. Whether Christopher can improve his ball-handling or defense will be key to where his draft stock stands as his season progresses.

#5 Quincy Pondexter, 6-7, Senior, Small Forward/Power Forward, Washington

Kyle Nelson

Quincy Pondexter was one of the top recruits in the country when he chose to attend the University of Washington in 2006. Unfortunately, he is very much the same player right now, still more of an athlete than a basketball player. In three years at Washington, Pondexter has failed to make the transition to the perimeter that many foresaw. This is not necessarily a bad thing, however, as Pondexter has emerged as one of the scrappiest players in the nation, a versatile and relentless combo-forward with the athleticism and motor that is bound to interest NBA teams. This season, he must continue to show improvement in his overall feel for the game and his offensive skill set if he’s to prove that he’s worthy of being drafted.

Athletically, there are few players in the NCAA who are more gifted than Quincy Pondexter. Standing 6’7 with a good frame and a 7’0 wingspan, he is undersized for a power forward, but has great size for the wing. He is an elite athlete, possessing excellent quickness and leaping ability, which he utilizes at every opportunity.

On the offensive end of the floor, Pondexter is still incredibly raw, though he has shown flashes of expanding his offensive repertoire. For one, his shooting form has improved. He has a very high release point and boasts a quicker and smoother shooting motion than in years past, even if his motion is still too deliberate. While he is not yet consistent or comfortable shooting from long range, he showed flashes of developing into a solid set shooter on the perimeter. If Pondexter wants to be considered an NBA player, he absolutely must improve his shooting and show scouts that he can consistently hit a spot-up jumper. Even more intriguing than his improved spot-up shooting ability, however, were the times that he pulled up off of the dribble from mid-range, revealing a high arcing jump shot that, more often than not, found the bottom of the net.

What is holding Pondexter back offensively, at this stage, is a combination of ball handling and basketball IQ. He is still almost exclusively a straight-line dribbler without a left hand, which limits his effectiveness and creativity on the perimeter. Improving his handle would help him as a slasher, allowing him to better utilize his athleticism to get to the basket. Similarly, as he spends much of his time on the court in the post, improved ball handling ability would make him more dangerous as a mismatch threat facing the basket at the collegiate level. His devastating quickness, combined with his strength, developing footwork, and improving touch around the basket, have allowed Pondexter to reinvent himself as a true combo forward in the vein of current Milwaukee Buck, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute.

Comparing Pondexter to Mbah a Moute invites another criticism. While Pondexter has certainly improved on the offensive end and superficially resembles the former UCLA star, his basketball IQ is still lacking. In order to make the transition from the collegiate post to a professional multipurpose role, he must show better awareness and the decision-making ability while on the floor. Four years later, Pondexter is still not much of a passer and still looks confused when he touches the ball outside of 15 feet. If he wants to prove to scouts that he can play in the NBA, he must first show that he has better court savvy and can thrive in a well-defined, but limited role.

Pondexter has the potential to be a lock-down defender, as he possesses very good lateral quickness that allows him to stay with faster guards on the perimeter in addition to guarding post players. His wingspan and strength help him to overcome his lack of size, though at the next level, he will not be able to guard big men as effectively. Pondexter is a very active defender, as well, moving constantly and always staying in the mix on the defensive boards, even while playing next to Jon Brockman last season. He must improve his awareness, however, if he wants to play at the next level. As mentioned earlier, his basketball IQ is just average and he must work harder to stay in position and not miss rotations as both a post defender and a perimeter defender.

Pondexter’s final season in Washington will be pivotal in determining whether or not the NBA is in his future. He must prove to scouts that he has improved his shooting range and can consistently knock down shots with his feet set. Similarly, he should also work on his ball handling ability and try to expand his offensive arsenal. On a team full of undersized guards, he will likely not see much time on the perimeter, but he has every opportunity to emerge as a dominant and versatile face-up four man in the Washington system. If he can flourish in his role and can show improvements on both sides of the ball, then there will surely be teams thinking about him on draft night.

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