Draft lookahead: Rating the Centers

If the New York Knicks do not draft a center, sign a center or trade for a center, they'll have only one center, Ronny Turiaf, on their roster heading into training camp.

Obviously, that won't fly.

Especially with Amare Stoudemire publicly pushing for another big man to play alongside him so that he will not have to defend the opposing big man on a night-to-night basis.

As noted in this blog and in my chats recently, the Knicks' hopes of signing a decent, young free agent center are slim because they will have no salary cap space to speak of this summer when most free agent centers, from Samuel Dalembert to Ryan Hollins, will be seeking beaucoup bucks and long-term commitments.

So the Knicks are going to be faced with two options: Go for a center in the draft, or look to sign a veteran big man to a one-year contract to preserve their 2012 cap space.

In looking at the draft, the first thing to point out is there are not all that many true centers rated among the top prospects, but there are quite a few power forwards who project as possible centers in the future. And when you are talking about a Knicks team that used Shelden Williams and Jared Jeffries at the center position last season, it is not a reach to include a few 4-5s among the list of prospects we will present today.

But to begin, we first must exclude Turkish prospect Enes Kanter from this list. ESPN colleague Chad Ford projects him going No. 4 to the Cleveland Cavaliers in his Mock Draft 2.0, and there isn't a snowball's chance in hell that he'll drop to the Knicks at No. 17. Furthermore, Kanter is the only player among the first 32 in Ford's Top 100 prospects who carries a 'C' next to his position designation.

Others on this list have similarly slim chances of falling to No. 17, but you really never know (just go back to the Paul Pierce draft in 1998, when Michael Olowokandi went first, Raef LaFrentz went third and Tractor Traylor went sixth, helping to allow for Pierce to drop to the Celtics at No. 10).

So without further ado, here is a look at five center prospects who could be on the board when it is the Knicks' turn to pick on the night of June 23. (Note to the locals who are planning to attend: The draft is at the Prudential Center in Newark, not at Madison Square Garden.)

Jonas Valanciunas, Lietuvas Rytas (Lithuania). The MVP of last summer's under-18 FIBA Europe tournament, the 6-foot-10 forward (he only turned 19 earlier this month) will need to bulk up in order to compete with the big men he'll match up against in the NBA, either at power forward or center. But from a skills standpoint, he has excellent footwork and quickness, has large hands and is a proficient scorer out to 12 feet, and has drawn comparisons to a young Pau Gasol, who we should not forget was a stringbean when he entered the NBA with the Memphis Grizzlies in 2001. Most mock drafts have him going in the top 10, behind Kanter but ahead of ahead of countryman Donetas Montiejunas.

Bismack Biyambo, Fuenlabrada (Spain). Another 19-year-old who figures to grow at least an inch or two (his wingspan is an incredible 7-foot-7), he will be one of the most scrutinized big men at the adidas draft camp in Treviso, Italy, from June 11-13. Though he is especially raw offensively, he has been a rebounding and shot-blocking machine in the Spanish ACB league, the top domestic league in Europe. At the Nike Hoop Summit last month in Portland, Biyambo wowed scouts with a triple-double of 12 points, 11 rebounds an 10 blocks in just 28 minutes. Scouts love his athleticism, his energy, his NBA body and his toughness, and have compared him to the likes of Ben Wallace and his countryman from the Congo, Serge Ibaka.

Nikola Vucevic, Southern Cal. Here we get to the first player who has a more realistic chance of being on the board when it is the Knicks' turn to pick. The 7-foot college junior (a native of Montenegro) averaged 17.1 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks last season in 34 games, has a nice touch around the basket and is more of a traditional European big man prospect in that he is not afraid to shoot from the outside. He has a 7-foot-5 wingspan and a chiseled 265-pound frame (his body fat percentage at the Chicago draft combine was only 6.1 percent), and he was the tallest player at the Chicago combine at which the Knicks had a large contingent, including team president Donnie Walsh and coach Mike D'Antoni, watching and interviewing prospects.

Jordan Williams, Maryland. He is an undersized center, measuring only 6-9 in sneakers at the Chicago draft combine last week, but he is a strong, physical post presence who rebounds well at both ends of the floor (his 11.8 per game were third in the NCAA last season) and has a nice touch around the basket -- attributes that would allow him to be on the floor at the same time as Stoudemire despite being two inches shorter. Scouts told him he needed to work on his conditioning and lose some weight, and there was disappointment in Chicago when he registered 12.1 percent body fat -- the third-highest of any of the 54 prospects in Chicago, behind Jeremy Tyler (13.4 percent) and Trey Thompkins (15.5). That could signal a drop into the second round, were the Knicks will be looking to buy picks.

Lucas Noguiera, Estudiantes (Spain). The Brazilian big man is one of the more intriguing draft prospects to have come onto the radar over the past couple of months, an 18-year-old who stands 6-11 but has a 7 1/2-foot wingspan. His stock was high at the under-18 World Championship last year (27 blocks in five games) then dropped a bit with a so-so showing at the Nike Hoops Summit. He plays in the Spanish third division, is considered extremely raw offensively and needs to bulk up and add some polish to his offensive game. But there is definitely upside, and it does not hurt him that he is being projected by some to be the next Nene (who Knicks fans may remember was drafted by the 'Bockers (seventh overall) in 2002 but was packaged with Marcus Camby and Mark Jackson in Scott Layden's ill-fated draft-night acquisition of Antonio McDyess.