The good news for NBA teams: The 2014 draft is full of can't-miss prospects. The bad news: Many—like Indiana's Noah Vonleh—only spent a year in college, making those picks big bets on small sample sizes
A PERIODIC LOOK AT SOME OF THE MOST INTRIGUING RISING STARS
GOOGLE NOAH VONLEH, and a fascinating nugget pops up: In the early 20th century Vonleh's grandfather was the Paramount Chief of the Doe clan in Liberia. It's the kind of backstory any reporter would explore, a fixture in articles about Vonleh as well as on his Wikipedia page. It is also news to Vonleh. "I don't know anything about it," he says. "I see it written all the time, but I don't think it's true."
Noah's father, Samuel, says that the Vonlehs are the descendants of Doe clan royalty—but it's Noah's great-grandfather Blasue Vonleh who held the title, not his grandfather. "I'm not surprised Noah didn't know," laughs Samuel. "I only know the little my father told me." Blasue made his fortune selling gunpowder during a conflict in Liberia. A natural leader, he was chief of the Doe clan for 42 years. He collected taxes, adjudicated disputes and tried to ensure that his clan's 24,000 members in central Liberia received proper medical care. "His job was to look out for the people," says Noah's grandfather Samuel Glee Vonleh. "He took pride in it. It was a great honor."
Mystery solved. A more topical question is whether Noah, the Indiana forward widely expected to be drafted in the top 10 next week, has the talent to develop into an elite NBA player. At 6'10", 247 pounds, Vonleh has a 7'4" wingspan and tree-trunk legs. At last month's combine his hands measured the longest (9¾") and widest (11¾") of any player's. "If you go back and look at [old] YouTube clips, he's already gotten a lot stronger," says Celtics director of player personnel Austin Ainge. "He has a big frame, big legs, shoulders. There are a lot of physical tools."
But one season at Indiana without a tournament run doesn't give scouts a lot to work with. And the 18-year-old Vonleh isn't alone: Of the top 10 projected picks in next week's draft (chart, 44), there are six one-and-done college players and one international import with no U.S. experience. In the NBA's postlockout landscape, where the CBA makes it easier for teams to control the players they draft for several years, successfully forecasting the future of a baby-faced teenager is crucial. "Put it this way," says a GM from a lottery team. "If I f--- up this pick, I wouldn't expect to have this job much longer."
FOR EVERY NBA team the process of scouting future prospects begins in Chicago, where the top high school players in the country gather each April for the McDonald's All-American game. The game itself is useless; it's little more than glorified pickup ball. The practices, however, offer real insight. "Anytime you can watch good players in a serious environment, it's a great opportunity," says R.C. Buford, the Spurs' GM. "Often those practices are more competitive than the games." These sessions help teams set scouting schedules for the following year.
During the college season teams focus on the basics: athleticism, rebounding, shooting range, post skills. In less polished players, scouts also look for steady development. Take Oklahoma City's Steven Adams. In his lone season at Pitt, Adams put up pedestrian numbers (7.2 points, 6.3 rebounds) while playing in a system that didn't feature him offensively. Yet scouts saw a player who grew more comfortable on the floor as the season progressed. When Adams came in for an individual workout, Thunder executives were impressed with his ability to process information—such as team sets and out-of-bounds plays—and execute them flawlessly. The team drafted Adams 12th last June; he averaged 18.4 minutes per game in this year's playoffs.
Those workouts often have the most value. "Anyone who says workouts don't mean a lot," says former Suns and Raptors executive Bryan Colangelo, "isn't being truthful." He should know. In 2002 the Suns brought in Amar'e Stoudemire for two days of workouts. Stoudemire, a 19-year-old high school phenom, was matched up with Lee Benson, a 28-year-old junior college prospect. Stoudemire, Colangelo says, "just manhandled him." When the workout was over, Colangelo's father, Suns owner Jerry Colangelo, called him over. "He pointed to Amar'e and said, 'This is our guy,'" says Bryan.
Buford has a similar story. In 2001 the Spurs' front office was intrigued by 19-year-old Tony Parker. A few weeks before the draft the team brought Parker to San Antonio for a workout. Parker, tired and jet-lagged after a 15-hour flight, was awful, getting schooled by Lance Blanks, a former NBA guard who worked for the team as a scout. "Tony thought he was going to come in, shoot a couple of jump shots, have a cup of coffee with [Spurs coach and president Gregg Popovich] and make a day of it," says Buford. "And Lance was trying to prove that he should have been playing for the Bad Boys Pistons. He kicked Tony's a--." Undaunted, Buford brought Parker back for a second workout three days before the draft. This time Parker dominated. San Antonio drafted him at No. 28. "Pop walked out of that second workout saying that Tony would start for us 10 games into the season," says Buford. "It only took five."
College coaches are a resource—to a point. "It depends on the relationship you have with the coach," says Colangelo. "If you have a good relationship, they can be valuable. If you don't, you have to be careful." A GM's rule of thumb: In-season a coach is likely to be more vocal about weaknesses in an effort to negatively affect a player's draft stock and increase the chances of his returning to school. Once he declares, says former Lakers GM Jerry West, "you're never going to hear a coach say anything derogatory about a kid."
An example: In 2011 the Nets were evaluating Louisville senior Terrence Williams. Cardinals coach Rick Pitino gave the 6'6" shooting guard a glowing recommendation that influenced the decision to select Williams 11th. He battled maturity issues and was traded in his second season. "These coaches want to sit in a recruit's living room and say, Look where this kid got drafted, I can get you taken that high too," says a GM.
As the draft approaches, Vonleh is checking all the right boxes. He has been impressive in workouts with Sacramento (drafting No. 8), Boston (6) and Orlando (4). Teams love his lower-body strength and see his high defensive rebounding rate (27.3%) as a strong indicator that he will rebound well at the next level. His low-post game is still raw, but his three-point shooting in college (48.5%) and fundamentally sound form have executives enthralled with the possibility of Vonleh as an inside-out threat. "It's going to take him two years to get comfortable," says an Eastern Conference GM. "But with the tools he has, he has a chance to be special. Indeed, while projecting youth will always be an inexact science, Vonleh is making more and more decision makers believe he is a safe pick.
In the NBA's postlockout landscape forecasting the future of a baby-faced teenager like Vonleh is crucial.
Of the top 10 projected picks in the NBA draft, there are six one-and-done college players and one international import with no U.S. experience.
MOCK DRAFT 2014
Packed with domestic and international talent, the most intriguing question seems to be, How many All-Stars will emerge from this first round?
[The following text appears within a chart. Please see hardcopy or PDF for actual chart.]
The 7-footer is a fearsome rebounder and shot blocker who will reinforce Cleveland's porous D.
The smooth two-way Canadian swingman might have the highest ceiling in the draft.
A silky 6'8" scorer, he instantly lifts the NBA's least efficient offense.
PG, OKLAHOMA ST.
The physical 6'4" 220-pounder can defend but needs to work on his shot.
Rebuilding Utah adds another talented piece in the smooth, 6'6" combo guard with an explosive first step.
Though he's just 18, the 6'9" Gordon's defense and rebounding remind some scouts of Shawn Marion's.
[Los Angeles Lakers]
Size (6'10", 240 pounds), huge hands and a soft touch (48.5% from three) make him a top 10 pick.
He's a prolific scorer with a diverse repertoire of power moves, but his D is a big concern.
Charlotte needs shooting, and McBuckets' is as good as this draft gets.
The 6'6" marksman will work well alongside Michael Carter-Williams.
SG, MICH. ST.
He's small to play the two (6'4"), but he's tough and defensive-minded. If he rediscovers his shooting stroke, he'll be a steal.
A deadeye who can score from anywhere, he has to improve his ballhandling to be effective off the dribble.
PF, MICH. ST.
The 6'10" senior is NBA-ready, which helps since he may replace Kevin Love.
The Adriatic League finals MVP is a 6'10" point forward who thrives in the open floor.
He's raw but has the size (6'11", 280 pounds) and soft hands that call to mind Nikola Pekovic.
The 6'5" ex--Tar Heel put up big numbers (21.8 ppg) for the Texas Legends.
He didn't overwhelm from three (34.9%), but scouts think he'll develop into a deep threat.
He says he's a point guard, but he has the size (6'5") and hops (46" vertical) to play the two.
A crafty shot blocker, the 6'6" McDaniels will fit into Chicago's D-first culture.
With Kyle Lowry a free agent, Toronto gets a 6'2" Canadian who can run a team and deliver in the pick-and-roll.
[Oklahoma City Thunder]
A slashing scorer and a lockdown defender, the lanky, 6'3" Payton could be the next impact guard from a mid-major.
SF, N.C. STATE
The 6'8" Warren (24.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg) has an effective, if old-school, game.
The 6'8" son of ex--NBA forward Harvey is unpolished, but he's just 20 and has all the tools.
Defensive-minded coach Steve Clifford gets a 6'9" leaper who can protect the rim.
SF, WICHITA ST.
While the Rockets will shop this pick, Early would fit with their up-tempo style.
With Mario Chalmers a free agent, Miami saves a little money by adding the polished NCAA champ to the mix.
A savvy playmaker, the 6'9" Anderson can succeed in the right system—such as the Suns' run-and-gun.
[Los Angeles Clippers]
Injuries hurt his stock, but he's a high-energy big man √† la Tyler Hansbrough.
[Oklahoma City Thunder]
OKC badly needs a scorer who can post up and come off screens.
[San Antonio Spurs]
C, CAPE VERDE
The 7'3", 265-pound Tavares is another intriguing foreign prospect for a team with an aging front line.
Photograph by DAVE WEAVER/AP
STRONG AND STEADY Scouts like Vonleh's physical abilities as well as his rapid improvement on the court.
JESSE D. GARRABRANT/NBAE/GETTY IMAGES
DEEP POOL An exceptional lineup of potential lottery picks includes (from left) Marcus Smart, Tyler Ennis, Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, Vonleh, Doug McDermott and Aaron Gordon.