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Posted by Kevin Arnovitz
I can't remember an April when the upcoming draft pool was less distinguishable than the Class of 2009. This much I know: Blake Griffin is a beast and Ricky Rubio is the Catalan Pete Maravich, though he may not even declare for the draft. After that, I've fallen in and out of love this winter with everyone from Greg Monroe and Stephen Curry to Earl Clark and Jordan Hill. Each prospect -- even the ones projected as Top 5 picks -- offers as many red flags as refined skills. Worst of all, we have only 120 minutes of basketball and a handful of players left to make sense of it all.
To help me sort it out, I emailed the oracle, Jonathan Givony of Draft Express. I asked Givony to share with TrueHoop the five guys he'll be watching most closely in Detroit. Here is Givony's comprehensive guide to the weekend:
Hasheem Thabeet, 7-3, Junior, Center, UConn
Thabeet is the top NBA draft prospect at the Final Four, and will be very heavily scrutinized due to his somewhat underwhelming NCAA tournament showing thus far (Chattanooga aside). When you're 7-3, have an NBA body, a freakish wingspan and run the floor like a deer, people tend to expect a lot out of you, as Thabeet seems to be slowly figuring out. Defensively, Thabeet will be asked to protect the rim and make his presence felt on the glass, as he usually does. Offensively, it would be nice to see him try and ask for the ball once in a while, as he's been extremely bashful in many of UConn's key games this season, seemingly afraid of exposing his poor hands and lack of balance. Thabeet has been projected by many NBA executives we've spoken with as a likely top-5 pick and potentially the second player off the board after Blake Griffin, so a strong showing is definitely in order.
Kemba Walker, 6-1, Freshman, Point Guard, UConn
If you're looking for an immediate NBA guard prospect to watch in the Michigan State-UConn game, by all means focus on sharp-shooting A.J. Price. But if it's the best all-around talent you're after, then freshman Kemba Walker is clearly your man. It's been too long since the 'next great point guard' has come out of New York. One who brings not only the moxie, ball-handling skills and clutch play that 'the City's' guards are known for, but also is actually the kind of player and person that teammates would like to play with. Walker is the best of both worlds in that regard, and is coming off an incredibly strong showing in the Elite Eight, carving up Missouri to the tune of 23 points and 5 assists. On paper, he's probably "too small” and "too streaky” a shooter to pass the initial eye test, but once he's done padding his resume and legacy at UConn, he's not going to have nearly as many doubters.
Ty Lawson, 6-0, Junior, Point Guard, North Carolina
If we had to choose the MVP of the NCAA Tournament thus far, it would clearly be Ty Lawson. Last June, after being projected as a late-first round pick, Lawson decided to return for his junior season. Now he's getting close to solidifying himself as a lottery pick, something this upcoming weekend can surely help with. Lawson has been playing on a bad toe, but he's been responsible for a number of incredible halves in this tournament to help sway the tide for the Heels, including 21 points in the second half against LSU, 17 points in the first half against Gonzaga. Now it's time for Lawson to go up against a physical, pesky and extremely aggressive Villanova backcourt that has been outstanding over the past two weeks, and prove his mettle as the best point guard in college basketball. Is he up to the task?
Kalin Lucas, 6-0, Sophomore, Point Guard, Michigan State
While there is no question that Michigan State's place in the Final Four was secured through a total team effort, the one individual that can be singled out as being a catalyst would have to be their star point guard Kalin Lucas. He was incredibly clutch in the Sweet 16 against Kansas, and has been a very steady distributor and prolific shot-creator all season for Tom Izzo. Still very much flying underneath the radar on the national level, and subsequently as a NBA draft prospect, despite being named Big Ten player of the year, Lucas is likely a year away from blowing up as a junior and truly becoming a household name. If he can have a big showing against UConn, that recognition might come a bit early, although there will always be question marks about his lack of size.
Jay Wright, 47 years old, Head Coach, Villanova
On a team full of marginal pros, the one name from Villanova that NBA fans should be aware of is actually that of their head coach, Jay Wright. Watch the difference in his offense this weekend-chock full of NBA friendly isolation plays, heavily focused on outstanding spacing-compared with that of Michigan State, UConn or North Carolina, and notice the difference. His team doesn't shoot particularly well, and they aren't very big, long or athletic. They lack a true point guard, a real center, any kind of depth at all in the frontcourt, and may not have even a single future NBA player on their roster.
So what are they even doing on this stage?
The answer to that is their head coach: Jay Wright. When NBA GMs go to scout the Final Four this weekend, they'll obviously be taking notes on their star players, Dante Cunningham and Scottie Reynolds. But they should also be keeping tabs on the man running the show from Villanova's bench.
Wright looks like the most likely head coach in the NCAA right now to be able to successfully make the transition to coaching in the NBA. Even though his team runs a traditional 4-out 1-in motion offense, he gives his players an unbelievable amount of freedom to go out and make plays on their own if they feel like they have an advantage. Even if they aren't the most talented group of players, Wright has made them into an extremely disciplined, unselfish bunch who are about as well-prepared a team as you'll find.
Everyone who has been around Wright mentions his charisma and ability to build and maintain relationships as the key to his success. Even if he obviously looks the part, he's much more than just a smooth talker. He knows how to manage his players and get the absolute most out of them, often by making quick changes on the fly, and is not a control freak, an ego-maniac or a disciplinarian, like many other failed college-to-pro experiments. When he asks his team to go out and spit blood in order to get him stops on the defensive end-a huge key to their success-- they do it, because they have a tremendous amount of respect for him. Would NBA players respect his authority in a similar way? There's only one way to figure that out.