As the NBA continues to evolve toward “small ball,” never before have so many top draft candidates been so tall.
The most 7-footers selected in the first round of an NBA Draft was seven in 2001. Come Thursday night, as many as nine players officially listed as 7-footers (wearing shoes) are projected to be chosen in the opening round.
This comes at a time when the center position is gradually becoming a part-time option.
The Miami Heat has been to three straight NBA Finals and won back-to-back championships while its center rarely enters the paint and 6-foot-8, 260-pound LeBron James essentially plays all five positions.
The OKC Thunder is widely viewed as the team most likely to unseat the Heat, despite having a starting center who averaged 4.2 points last season.
So where will all these 7-footers land? Do they measure up as quality players, or are they simply tall?
ESPN college basketball analyst Fran Fraschilla said plenty of work remains before these “footers” are ready to contribute as NBA players. There is good and bad scattered throughout the group.
“You’re dealing with a bunch of prospects right now. You really are,” said Fraschilla, who focuses on foreign players for the network’s NBA Draft coverage. “Everybody has certain strengths and a number of major holes.”
Rather than simply evaluating each player’s skill set, intangibles could play more of a role in this year’s class.
“Quite frankly, a lot of it comes down to what’s inside a guy’s heart and how willing he is to put the time in to get better,” Fraschilla said. None of the 7-footers was a statistical juggernaut last season.
Three scored in the single-digits and not one averaged double-digits in rebounds. (Duke’s Mason Plumlee needed one more rebound to average 10.0, but finished at 9.97.)
Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel and Maryland’s Alex Len are widely viewed as the top candidates. “Len has the best combination of skill level/athleticism of all those guys, but it’s a crap shoot with all of them really,” Fraschilla said.
Indiana’s Cody Zeller and Plumlee have two-dimensional capabilities.
Offensive concerns linger for Pittsburgh’s Steven Adams, France’s Rudy Gobert and Brazil’s Lucas Nogueria.
Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk excels offensively and Kansas’ Jeff Withey is superb defensively, but each must improve at the other end of the court.
Two other players — Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng and Bucknell’s Mike Muscala — are 6-foot-11 and also highly regarded.
Fraschilla said Dieng is somewhat difficult to place.
“He’s not as big as those guys,” Fraschilla said of the 23-year-old from Senegal, who won the NCAA title this season. “Physically, he’s not going to guard Marc Gasol or Dwight Howard. He’s not that kind of player. He’s more like (OKC power forward) Serge Ibaka. He’s the same age as Serge, but he’s not nearly as developed as Serge right now.”
The Thunder owns the No. 12, No. 29 and No. 32 selections and reportedly has been “proactive” in trying to obtain the No. 1 overall pick from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
ESPN.com’s Chad Ford said OKC probably would have to offer Ibaka to get the No. 1 pick from Cleveland.
“There is nobody (in this draft) I would trade Serge for,” Fraschilla said. “People get spoiled at how good he got so quickly. He might not have a whole lot more upside, but you know he’s going to be a solid player for 8-9 more years. I wouldn’t take a chance on the unknown.”
There were 35 players listed as 7-footers in the NBA last season, with Thunder reserve center Hasheem Thabeet leading the pack at 7-foot-3. How many “footers” will be added next season remains to be seen.
“Teams desperately need big bodies to get through an 82-game season, and they’ve got a lot to choose from,” Fraschilla said. “It’s going to depend on who works the hardest and who wants to get better, just like anything else.”