On Wednesday and Thursday I was in Santa Monica for workouts with some of the best bigs in the draft -- Indiana's Cody Zeller, Gonzaga's Kelly Olynyk, Louisville's Gorgui Dieng and Kansas' Jeff Withey.
Here's a look at what I saw.
Cody Zeller, Indiana Hoosiers
Zeller began the season in the mix for the No. 1 pick in the draft. After an incredibly efficient freshman season, teams had high expectations for him as a sophomore. Zeller actually improved in points per game (from 15.6 to 16.5) and rebounds per game (6.6 to 8.1) and he was eighth in the NCAA in PER, but his improvements weren't big enough for scouts who began to pick apart his game.
As skilled as Zeller was in the post and as fast as he was in the open court, he struggled with long, physical bigs on the front line. He got his shot blocked way too much for a future NBA center and teams began to worry that his terrific college game wouldn't translate at the next level.
After a crushing final game versus Syracuse (Zeller had 10 points on 3-for-11 shooting), his stock slid out of the top 10 and scouts began to openly pine for him to go back to school and develop a face-the-basket game.
Zeller, however, decided to enter the draft and he has spent the past month in Santa Monica doing what scouts have asked -- he's honing his jump shot and ballhandling skills to make the leap from center to forward.
Zeller, for his part, claims that he has always had these skills. As a high school player, he regularly played on the perimeter and took 3s. He said he made three 3-pointers during one game his senior season. However, at Indiana, head coach Tom Crean wanted Zeller in the post and that's where he stayed. As a freshman he took just 27 percent of his shots outside the basket area. As a sophomore he upped it slightly to 34 percent.
What makes him think he can do it differently now?
Zeller told us at the NBA draft combine we'd be surprised by his shooting and he backed up that claim Thursday. I tracked his NBA 3-point shots and he shot 72 percent for the workout. That's terrific, especially for a 7-footer. His midrange jumper was even better. Zeller showed the ability to shoot off the bounce and with his feet set. He was especially effective in the corners, where he shot 80 percent from the field for the day.
Combine that small sample with other known qualities of Zeller -- he's the fastest big man in the draft (both laterally and in sprints), has the highest standing vertical (35.5 inches) of any player 6-foot-9 or taller in our database, great hands and a high basketball IQ -- and the question is: Did Zeller go from being overrated to underrated?
Some scouts think so. Several scouts compare him to a young Chris Bosh. A few others to LaMarcus Aldridge. They are both interesting comparisons -- rail-thin college centers who made the transition to power forward in the pros.
Zeller actually has some advantages on Bosh and Aldridge. He's taller than both. His standing and max verticals (35.5 and 37.5 inches) are both considerably higher (Bosh 30 and 33 -- Aldridge 26.5 and 34). He was much faster in his lane agility (10.82 seconds) and sprint testing (3.15 seconds) at the combine (Bosh 11.8 and 3.3 seconds -- Aldridge 12.02 and 3.43 seconds). In short, he's taller and a quicker, a more explosive athlete than either player.
Where Bosh and Aldridge beat Zeller is on wingspan (Bosh 7-foot-3.5, Aldridge 7-4.75, Zeller 6-10.75) and standing reach (Bosh 9-1, Aldridge 9-2, Zeller 8-10). But those numbers aren't nearly as important if Zeller is playing the 4. He is big enough for that position.
As far as style of play goes, both Bosh and Aldridge were allowed to play on the perimeter more in college. In fact, Bosh took 47 3-pointers during his one season at Georgia Tech.
But all three players are fluid athletes who are more comfortable on the perimeter. We didn't see that much from Zeller in college, but from what I saw at the workout, it was more than just a gimmick. He looked truly comfortable on the perimeter -- more so than he ever looked in the post in college. And he certainly has the foot speed to guard quick 4s.
If Bosh and Aldridge are legit comparisons, we have Zeller too low on our Big Board. Where he goes in the mock is another matter. He'd be a good fit in Charlotte, but sources say the Bobcats aren't one of the teams that high on him. The Kings are another possibility. But his real sweet spot looks like the Sixers at 11, the Thunder at 12 and the Mavs at 13. All three teams are great fits. I'm not sure he should last that long, but in a draft with so much parity, I expect teams to be drafting primarily for need.
Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga Bulldogs
Olynyk is in the same boat as Zeller and had one of the more interesting workouts I saw. While Dieng and Withey were on one side of the court working with big men Brian Scalabrine and Will Perdue, Olynyk was working out with a group of guards including Marquette's Vander Blue.
That's telling. Much like Zeller, Olynyk is being marketed to teams not as a center (the position he played at Gonzaga) but as a 3 or a 4. He certainly has the offensive skill set for it. Olynyk excels at putting the ball on the floor and shooting the basketball. He did not look out of place among the guards who were there and actually shot it better than Blue. On Wednesday he showed off terrific range on his jumper, nailing NBA 3-pointer after NBA 3-pointer.
If Olynyk can shoot like that in workouts, he might convince a lot of GMs to take him as a stretch 4. Whether he can convince anyone to take him as a 3 is another question entirely.
While very few people have questions about what he can do offensively, it's his defense that will ultimately determine where he goes. He seems to lack the lateral foot speed to guard perimeter players, but has neither the length, strength nor explosive leaping ability to guard in the paint. If he did, we'd be talking about him as a potential top-five pick in the draft. As it stands, it looks as if his range is between 10 and 20.
Gorgui Dieng, Louisville Cardinals
Dieng was participating in his first workout in over month. He injured his ankle in Santa Monica playing one-on-one in late April and was actually in a walking boot at the NBA draft combine a couple of weeks ago.
It was good seeing him out running and cutting. He was anxious to get as much work in as possible. He seems like a willing worker who is just a sponge. Despite the fact that he's already 23 years old, in basketball years Dieng is really 18 or 19. He has played basketball just five years and is still learning the game.
With that said. Dieng looked impressive on a number of drills and is probably one of the more NBA-ready big men in the draft. He still needs more consistent shot mechanics, but his footwork looked good and he actually thrived (surprisingly) in a drill that mimicked Dirk Nowitzki's deadly one-legged fadeaway.
The best thing going for Dieng is his 7-foot-3.5 inch wingspan and a 9-3.5 standing reach (good for second in the draft). He can block shots, is an excellent passer out of the high post and a willing worker. His stock has slipped a bit the past month, but he's still considered a mid-first-round pick.
Jeff Withey, Kansas Jayhawks
Withey isn't really going to stand out in a workout setting. While he's greatly improved as an offensive player, his real value to NBA teams is on the defensive end. He was, for the second season in a row, one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball, and the team that takes him will be drafting him for that reason.
With no shot-blocking drills to witness, I saw Withey get in a long post session with Perdue and Scalabrine. He has come a long way and is making even more strides here. He's got a solid touch on the basketball and moves well. He plays a little stiff and they are working on trying to improve his stance.
Withey is a hard worker and has a great attitude, but he's one guy who doesn't really need great workouts. He just needs to keep doing what he did in college.