As some of the better draft-eligible players are deciding whether to enter the draft, more than just the lottery teams are watching and waiting anxiously for them to make a final decision. NBA teams have to draft somebody when their picks come up, of course, so as the draft pool shrinks when top players don't enter lower-ranked players move up the draft boards.
That is why we can't ever suggest that a certain player is not worthy of a No. 20 pick, for example, because that pick can provide varied degrees of talent from year to year. In 2004, the 20th pick was Jameer Nelson, and Tony Allen was 25th in a very deep and talented draft (only four of the top-20 picks didn't stick). In other years, such as 2006, a smaller pool of talent at the top allowed players such as Cedric Simmons, Patrick O'Bryant and seven other top-20 picks to hear their names called on draft night but never amount to much in the NBA.
So this year, first-round-bubble guys, according to pure lists of who the best draft-eligible players are, stand to move up a great deal, thanks to those top players not entering the draft. That helps their draft status, but does it mean they'll end up being long-tenured NBA players? Let's look at two cases -- one freshman and one junior -- and analyze what they have to do to reach and stay in the NBA.
Let's start with a disclaimer: Harris has left open the possibility of returning to school, and this evaluation is only based on the premise that he stays in the draft.
From a scouting perspective, I like everything I see in Harris, from his strong play in November to his explosive start in Tennessee's last game of the season. He throws the ball in around the rim, similar to Ed Davis from last year's draft pool. If we subtract his 3-point attempts, he made 49.6 percent of his shots, pretty strong for a freshman who is still developing. With another year of college, I'd guess that number will grow to 55 percent or higher. And he isn't just getting shots after sealing someone at the rim; he's attacking off the dribble, cutting through the lane and driving the baseline -- all harder shots to get and finish.
Bigger guys who can score are always needed in the NBA, and Harris has a knack for scoring. But he has to get past two significant hurdles to get drafted at a good spot then find a place in the league.
The first is the toughest one. He has to find a position then flourish in it. The league is a graveyard for "tweeners" at the 3 or 4 spot, which are guys who aren't big enough to play a lot of power forward or skilled/quick enough on either end at the small forward position. In most cases, and I include Harris in this, I think the players are better served playing the 4. Harris can play with his back to the basket or as a face-up player and could be very good as a pick-and-pop guy because he can do more than pop. His feel for driving and finding angles to the rim is excellent, but he'll have to rebound better, which is the second big obstacle he must overcome, than he showed this year.
Most players rebound in the pros the same way they did in college, and that is why Harris is not projected as a higher draft pick. Beginning with a Feb. 8 game against Kentucky, in which he only pulled down two total rebounds in 31 minutes (a game during which Kentucky missed 27 shots and grabbed 13 offensive boards), Harris had more than eight rebounds just once in the remaining 10 games of the season. As he goes through the workout process, he'll want to show off a nice outside game and his array of scoring moves, but if he can prove he can rebound with men (during workouts and his rookie season) he will ultimately assure himself a long playing career.
This has become almost an annual event at this time of year -- deciding whether a talented player from UCLA who does not own eye-popping stats will be better in the NBA than he was in college. That is because of the way UCLA plays. Kevin Love, Darren Collison, Russell Westbrook and Jrue Holiday have been better than anticipated. Can Lee follow in their footsteps as a guy who is going to be a better player in the pros?
This much is certain, Lee is better at getting into the lane off the dribble than any of the three guards on the above list were coming out of college. He attacks with the quickness and craft of a little guy, probably because that's what he was until a late growth spurt sent him to the 6-foot-5 height he is now. The question of position is already answered, in that he may be able to guard 2s, but he's been a point all his life. Why change now?
Speaking of guarding, this is where we have to begin when evaluating Lee. He's not just long and athletic; he has a natural disposition to defend. He is probably as good a wing defender as there is in this draft and has the potential to be special at the next level if (and it's a big "if") he maintains that desire. Forgetting about that side of the ball so he can instead focus his energies on his dribble attack game would be a big mistake, both in draft workouts and as an NBA player.
Teams know of that dribble-drive game, and unfortunately they know of his shooting troubles as well. He was never a good shooter while in college, pretty typical for a young guy who's so adept at driving (think Tyreke Evans, John Wall and Derrick Rose coming out of school). But he also wasn't a big-time scorer in college or capable of leading his team far into the NCAA tournament like those guys. So, proving he can project as a good shooter, which can happen by making progress through workouts, is Step 1 for Lee. Lee, as a 40-plus percent 3-point shooter, was a likely lottery pick. That didn't happen, but if he can approach that range in the next few years, he'll come close to reaching the huge potential he's had since arriving at UCLA.