Top NBA Draft Prospects in the SEC (Part Two: #6-#10)

Top NBA Draft Prospects in the SEC (Part Two: #6-#10)
Oct 05, 2007, 01:41 pm
#6: Tyler Smith, 6-7, Sophomore, Small Forward, Tennesee

Jonathan Givony

A sophomore in his rookie season in the SEC, Tyler Smith took a pretty interesting route to eventually land at Tennessee. He initially committed to the Vols back in 2005 when Buzz Peterson was head coach, but began to waver on his decision once Peterson was fired and replaced by Wisconsin-Milwaukee coach Bruce Pearl. Tennessee took a hard stance and decided not to let Smith out of his letter of intent, which forced him to spend a year in prep school at Hargrave Military Academy before eventually signing on to play at Iowa. Smith did not qualify academically regardless before attending prep school, making the LOI a moot point, but there certainly seemed to be some bad blood between the two parties according to the initial reports.

Tennessee ended up investigating evidence of improper benefits provided to Smith’s family (in the form of game tickets and rent money) during his initial recruitment by a Tennessee booster (under Peterson’s regime), but those allegations were never proven to be true. Smith went onto have a phenomenal freshman season at Iowa—averaging 15 points, 5 rebounds and 3 assists per game, but his coach Steve Alford left the school this summer to take the job opening at New Mexico. In the meantime, the health of Smith’s father, Billy Smith, deteriorated due to lung cancer, and Tyler decided to transfer back to Tennessee in order to be closer to him. Unfortunately, his father ended up passing away a few weeks ago, but not before the NCAA granted his son a hardship exemption to play for the Vols this season without sitting out a year.

With a heavy heart, Smith now walks into what appears to be a fantastic situation—a starting role in an up-tempo system that suits his strengths perfectly, playing for a program that should be considered a strong candidate to make the Final Four this year. If scouts didn’t pay attention to him last season playing for a team that finished just 17-14, they are sure to take notice this year. While he doesn’t quite fit the mold of your prototypical NBA small forward prospect, he definitely has quite a few things going for him.

A bouncy 6-7, Smith has a good frame to compliment his very nice athletic ability. He’s quick off his feet with a good first step, but is able to power his way around the court at the college level due to his excellent strength. Despite seeing large minutes at the power forward position last year, Smith prefers to play primarily facing the basket, where he can use his athleticism to put the ball on the floor mostly using his left hand. He’s very aggressive looking to create his own shot, overly so at times, and clearly has a scorer’s mentality in the way he approaches the game. He has good body control and shows sparks of a promising mid-range game—either spotting up or pulling up off the dribble—being able to create separation sharply from his defender and showing excellent scoring instincts throwing the ball in the hoop from difficult situations. Smith can do some work in the post as well—even though he probably doesn’t take advantage enough of his abilities here—showing some decent footwork, a nice turn-around jumper, and the ability to just power the ball into the hoop using his superior physical attributes and aggressive mentality. He’s a scorer in the mold of Carmelo Anthony, but obviously nowhere near as talented.

From what we can tell, Smith’s biggest weakness as far as being a high-level NBA prospect is concerned revolves around his perimeter shooting ability. He has inconsistent shooting mechanics, releasing the ball from a different vantage point on every shot attempt, and poor footwork as well. This didn’t stop him from attempting over two 3-pointers per game last year, though, of which he converted only 25%.

Another part of his game that he must work on is his right hand. According to Synergy Sports Technology’s quantified stats, Smith goes left on his half-court drives 70.53% of the time, something that is clearly also noticeable on tape. When he does go right—defenses did catch on to this and dared him to do so—he becomes a lot more turnover prone, as the ball slows him down and he looks out of control. To reach his full potential as a shot-creator, he must become a more versatile ball-handler.

Two things that make up for his shortcomings are his passing and defense, both of which are above average. Smith seems like a great fit for Bruce Pearl’s offense and the mismatches it creates because of how quickly he reacts to things on the court—the 3.6 assists per game he averaged last year weren’t a fluke. He puts a pretty solid effort in on the end of the floor too, being aided by his strength, length and lateral quickness. This leaves a lot of room for optimism regarding him making the full transition to the wing eventually. We would like to see him become a better rebounder, though, picking up just 4.9 per game last year playing heavy minutes at the 4-spot.

All in all, Smith has his work cut out for him if he’s to develop into a legit NBA small forward prospect over the next year or two. As a 21-year old sophomore, scouts will be eager to see improvement from him in his perimeter shooting and off-hand especially, showing that he still has upside, but he’ll be in a great situation to showcase himself.

#7: Alonzo Gee, 6-6, Junior, Small Forward, Alabama

Rodger Bohn

Known primarily just as an athlete coming out of high school, Gee has consistently improved his perimeter skills throughout his two year stay in college. His freakish strength and athleticism are now coming around, molding him into a productive player rather than just another athletic marvel.

Given our intro, it’s obviously clear that athleticism is Gee's major selling point. While only 6-6, he has exhibited the ability to soar over some of the biggest players in the SEC. It is not an uncommon occurrence to see him snatch a rebound amongst the trees, come down with the ball, and then jump straight back up from a static position to finish with a powerful dunk. This routine display of such an explosive vertical leap is very uncommon from a perimeter oriented draft prospect actually owning skills to back up his athleticism.

Leaping ability aside, Gee’s athleticism and strength translates into a number of other areas as well. He uses his explosive first step to make up for his relatively marginal ball handling ability, making him a little less predictable on the offensive end. Once at the rim, the chiseled 220 pound frame he owns comes into play, allowing him to absorb contact and finish at the cup against bigger, heavier players. Gee is great at moving off the ball making cuts to the basket, setting up overplaying defenders well and then explosively bursting backdoor, often finishing with a powerful slam.

Over his sophomore campaign, he proved to be a consistent shooter mechanically from beyond the three point arc, both off of the dribble and from a standstill. The results were not consistent however, with Gee looking like a lights out shooter at times and then like someone who was uncomfortable playing that far away from the basket in others. Attacking the rim, though, there are few players in the SEC who compare to Gee. His lightning first step combined with his great strength and body control make him pretty tough to stop when going to the basket in a straight line. Putting points on the board is not a problem for the swingman, given his ability to soar over the large majority of opposing wings.

Although Gee has shown flashes of potential as a scorer from beyond the arc and at the rim, he struggles mightily from midrange, having really no resemblance of a pull-up jumper. Also, while his ball handling skills are rapidly improving, they could still use a bit of refinement. Gee’s dribble can be a little high at times, and overall he is still considered a pretty average ball handler for a wing player.

While Gee is a downright freak athletically, unfortunately that is not enough to get him by as a defender. He often struggles getting through screens, especially off of the ball. The effort exerted on the defensive end is nowhere near that of his offensive end, as he lacks the intensity and desire that fuel his game. Throughout the games we observed, Gee was a bit slow closing out on defenders under control, leaving him at an immediate disadvantage. It appears that with his immense physical gifts, he should have the potential to eventually become a solid defender, but will need instruction in terms of proper defensive fundamentals first before that happens.

Given the promise that Gee showed last season, it could very well be possible that he opts to test the waters this June if he is able to continue to build upon the flashes of brilliance he showed last season. The graduation of Jermareo Davidson and unfortunate injury to Ronald Steele will leave a far bigger role for Gee within the Crimson Tide offense. Also, playing with a legitimate low post presence in Richard Hendrix will provide more one on one opportunities on the wing for him. Anyway that you look at it, Gee enters the season as one of the top wing players the conference has to offer, and one who will have the chance to dramatically increase upon the 12 points per game he averaged as a sophomore.

#8: Mike Mercer, 6-4, Guard, Junior, Georgia

Mike Schmidt

A talented combo guard from Georgia, Mike Mercer has all the physical tools needed to become an excellent NBA player. After showing good progress last season, his sophomore campaign was brought to a halt when he tore his ACL late in the SEC season. This season will be a question mark for Mercer, who must add polish on-court while proving he still possesses his pre-injury athleticism.

Physically, Mercer resembles Dwayne Wade at times, showing the same ability to hang in the air and get past defenders at will. He stands a legit 6-4, giving him the size to effectively play either guard spot for the Bulldogs. The junior has a strong frame that will easily allow him to play comfortably at 210 pounds without effecting his leaping ability or agility inside.

Mercer plays both on and off the ball for Georgia, and progressed nicely with his ability to play the point last season. On the drive, he has an excellent feel for where the open man is and usually delivers the ball cleanly. In addition, Mercer looked somewhat competent running a half court offense during stretches, even if he has plenty of room for improvement still here.

Despite his progress, a few big factors remain in the way of Mercer’s transition from project to player. In the half court, he tends to play too much one on one isolation basketball rather than picking the right spots to score in the offensive flow. People have questioned his ability to make decisions since high school, though there has been some progress here. On his drives to the basket, Mercer fails to convert on many finishes inside. This can mostly be attributed to the instinct to shy away from contact rather than going up strong and forcing the defense to foul. Last season, he only drew 2.5 free throw attempts per game, an incredibly low number for someone with Mercer’s natural physical gifts.

Perimeter shooting has proven to be another major problem for Mercer. His release point lacks consistency, though his mechanics looked slightly improved from his freshman season. Mercer’s 25% three point percentage reflects his poor shot selection on the perimeter, as well as his lack of range.

Defensively, Mercer has the tools to lockdown opposing point guards in the NBA, and his length allows him to disrupt the passing lanes. His man to man defense remains slightly above average for now, but he has the size, strength and quickness to hang with anyone.

This will be a very telling year for Mike Mercer. All reports coming from Georgia indicate that the junior guard will be at 100% going into the season, but the injury may or may not have a lingering effect on his athleticism. If he bounces back athletically and shows improved maturity and outside shooting, the potential is there for Mercer to become a high draft pick. This will probably be the most important season for him so far, and NBA scouts will be watching very closely.

#9: Michael Washington, 6’10, Sophomore, Power Forward, Arkansas

Joseph Treutlein

A very raw player who didn’t see steady playing time until the last 10 games of the season, Michael Washington brings a very intriguing skill-set to the table for a player of his size. Washington also has great mobility and good overall athleticism, making the 21-year-old sophomore (he spent five years in high school) a very interesting prospect.

Most of what Washington contributes comes on the offensive end, where he doesn’t play like your typical power forward. He starts with the ball from behind the three-point line on many occasions, where he can spot up and smoothly knock down a jumper or put the ball on the floor with his right hand to drive to the basket. He doesn’t have the most advanced ball-handling skills, but is above average for a player his size, and with very long strides and a good first step, is able to get to the basket easily on many of his attempts. He finishes with good touch at the rim, but doesn’t really show much ability in changing directions getting there. Washington does a good job of utilizing fakes on the perimeter to get his defender off-balance, leading to many of his drive attempts.

If the defender doesn’t play up on him, Washington has no problem putting the ball up from behind the three-point arc, having good confidence with his shot, even though his results are pretty inconsistent. When open, Washington has good form and an effortless shooting motion, though his form and accuracy suffer when he tries to pull up off the dribble while being defended, sometimes forcing the issue in that manner. Washington doesn’t do much damage from the mid-range yet, though he should definitely work on his high post game, as his skill-set is perfectly suited for playing there.

Washington’s post game is very underdeveloped, not showing a large array of moves, though he’s tried drop-steps and hook shots to little avail at times during the season. His footwork could use some work, and he could definitely add some lower and upper body strength to help him fight for position and to help him finish stronger when going straight up against defenders. Washington does fight for position down low when he doesn’t have the ball, though, and generally does a good job finding open space near the rim, getting open for easy lay-ups on dump-offs. He doesn’t finish very strong when contested, and seems to lack the vertical explosiveness to try and go over defenders for a strong jam.

Washington’s rebounding is sub-par for a player his size, as this aspect of his game suffers from a lack of fundamentals and strength. He does occasionally do a good job slithering around opposing players with his slight frame, though, getting to the boards in that manner. Defensively, Washington’s effort level looked good late in the season, as he stuck with his man off the ball and paid attention to the whole court well, but he’s lacking in fundamentals with perimeter defense, not lowering his center of gravity and not putting in much lateral effort staying in front of his man with the ball. In the post, Washington’s fundamentals look a bit better, but he gets pushed around extremely easily due to lack of strength.

Washington seemed to make some very nice strides late in the season, but he’ll need to keep his effort level up and work on the fundamentals of his game to take the next few steps as a player. Right now he’s still mostly a project (he only averaged 3.5 points and 1.6 rebounds in 8.5 minutes per game last year), with some intriguing characteristics, but plenty more work left to be done on his all-around polish. His future clearly seems to be at power forward, so moving some of his game to the high and low post while adding strength and working on defensive fundamentals should be among his main priorities. Washington definitely needs to spend a few more seasons at the NCAA level improving his game and playing less like a shooting guard, but there are some lingering concerns going back to his prep days, where there was talk of some excess baggage.

#10: Steven Hill , 7-0, Senior, Center, Arkansas

Joey Whelan

So much of the NBA draft is about selecting players based on potential, which is why Steven Hill is likely to get some looks from scouts. The senior’s three seasons at Arkansas have not been what one would call impressive, at least in the offensive sense. Last season Hill averaged 6.2 points and 4.4 rebounds in 23.5 minutes of action. This is not the kind of production you want to see from a legit 7-footer at the college level, but Hill has shown that he is a work in progress, and that he could be primed for a breakout season this year.

Size is not an issue for Hill, whose body is certainly big enough for life in the post at the next level. He does need to add some bulk to his frame though to withstand the pounding he will take. At 250 pounds, Hill is very lanky, and though he has shown to be a strong player inside, he will get pushed around too easily in the NBA.

Hill shot better than 64% from the field last season, but that was mainly due to the fact that he only attempted four shots per game, and the majority of his points came off of dunks and put backs. His post game is very underdeveloped, but one can see that he is starting to develop. Hill’s go to move is a strong dribble to the middle and then drop stepping back to the baseline side and going up with a left-handed (he is a lefty) baby hook. While he is very good at getting position on the block and holding it, Hill gets into trouble because he often shoots before he is square to the basket, and due to his lack of a right hand. When that left-handed shot is taken away from him, he often turns the ball over or is forced into an awkward shot.

Despite his shortcomings in the post, Hill moves exceptionally well for a big guy without the basketball. He has good open floor speed and is a great trailer on the break, often flying down the paint for a thunderous dunk. In the half court set, Hill is surprisingly good at slipping behind the defense; he picked up a high number of alley-oops last season thanks to his innate ability to find open spaces around the basket. He certainly isn’t a threat to spread the defense though. Hill’s game is inside the paint; he hasn’t shown that he can step outside and shoot or really put the ball on the floor much.

Where Hill has excelled is defense. His length and anticipation make him a great shot blocker, having averaged nearly three a game in each of his last two seasons. He does a fairly good job at staying on his feet, and holds his position well. He struggles a little against smaller, quicker post players who can beat him off the dribble or with a spin move. Where Hill has to improve is his rebounding. He has never averaged better than 4.4 rebounds per game, which is unacceptable for a player his size. Improving his leaping ability would certainly help, as would again, adding some weight to his frame.

There is still a tremendous amount of work to be done before Hill can be called a legitimate pro prospect. He does have the type of physical attributes that can’t be taught, though, and that will put him in the mix for Portsmouth, the NBA pre-draft camp, private workouts and more because of how rare his combination of size and athleticism is. Defensively Hill is already on his way, if he can put together a strong showing on the offensive side of the floor this season, he could start to hear his name cropping up as a second round pick.

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