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Who'll go first in NBA Draft? Good luck with that

by | College Basketball Insider
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Nerlens Noel isn't a scorer yet while Alex Len has improved his stock in the past month. (US Presswire)  
Nerlens Noel isn't a scorer yet while Alex Len has improved his stock in the past month. (US Presswire)  
Most of them can't even recall a year like this, where there is no clear-cut No. 1 draft pick and the overall crop of players is vastly underwhelming. Maybe back in 2006 when import Andrea Bargnani was selected first overall and Tyrus Thomas and Shelden Williams were both somehow taken in the top five. The NBA general managers who dealt away their first-round picks for June 27th's NBA Draft rejoice, while the ones who could end up picking at the top of the lottery are already frustrated and left scratching their heads in disbelief.

"I'd trade the pick for sure," one NBA GM said. "No one wants to pick first this year -- and no one can live up to the No. 1 billing."

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"It's the worst it's ever been," said another.

"I'm glad we won't be picking at the top," added one director of player personnel.

That's because there's no one who stands out. The consensus candidates for the top spot entering the season were Indiana's Cody Zeller, Kentucky's Nerlens Noel and UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad -- a sophomore and a pair of freshmen.

CBSSports.com polled 35 NBA types, guys who have been out running from tourney to tourney over the first month of the season, on who they would select if picking first. Here's the tally:

Cody Zeller (Indiana): 31 percent
Nerlens Noel (Kentucky): 23 percent
Alex Len (Maryland): 11 percent
Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA): 11 percent
Alex Poythress (Kentucky): 9 percent
Rudy Gobert (France): 6 percent
Tony Mitchell (North Texas): 3 percent
Archie Goodwin (Kentucky): 3 percent
Anthony Bennett (UNLV) - 3 percent

College Basketball is mediocre again this season, but there's one key difference from a year ago: There's no franchise-changer in this year's crop as was the case last season with Kentucky's long and talented freshman big man Anthony Davis. There was intrigue heading into the NBA Draft Lottery because everyone realized that Davis had a chance to be special.

"No one excites me this year," one NBA guy said.

Zeller is a nice player, with more upside than his brother, Tyler, who wound up being picked 17th overall last season. But the youngest Zeller (Luke went undrafted out of Notre Dame) is, in all likelihood, a good piece at the next level. He's long, skilled and runs the court exceptionally well, but he certainly hasn't blown away anyone thus far this season. The Indiana faithful will defend their star player by saying Zeller doesn't need to dominate, with the abundance of talent on the Hoosiers roster, but the bottom line is that he's hardly a defensive presence -- and having short arms hurts him in the eyes of many NBA folks as it did with his brother.

"He'll never be a great NBA player," one NBA scouting director said.

Then there's Noel, UK's latest big man. He's not Davis by any means because, well, he can't really score yet. Currently, he's a one-way player who can gets his points via dunks and through his athleticism, but he doesn't have a legitimate go-to move. I love his shot-blocking ability and NBA guys do as well, but his lithe frame could have difficulty withstanding the rigors of the men and an 82-game season in the NBA. And no one's quite sure whether he's 6-foot-9 or 6-foot-11 because of his flattop.

Muhammad is a big, strong, competitive 6-foot-6 wing who missed the first few games at UCLA because of an NCAA investigation. He puts up numbers and is averaging 16 points and 5.6 rebounds, but he's a mediocre perimeter shooter and not an exceptional athlete. Wings who can't shoot the you-know-what out of the ball or ones that don't possess phenomenal athleticism aren't often taken in the lottery, never mind first overall.

No one has improved his stock more in the past month than Maryland's 7-footer Alex Len. A year ago, he missed the first part of the season because of an NCAA suspension. The Ukraine native was a non-factor for the most part last season, but he added weight in the offseason and has gone from a mid- to late-lottery pick to someone that's in the equation to become the first one to shake David Stern's hand in June.

Len isn't the only import who could figure into the mix, though. It's difficult to decipher whether this foreign crop features high-end talent, or whether the Americans are so lackluster that a guy like 7-foot Frenchman Rudy Gobert could wind up going ahead of all these other players. Gobert is long, agile and athletic -- and has the good, old "high upside," a term that NBA folks love to toss around.

While Zeller remains the slight favorite, no one is ready to anoint him as The Guy just yet. In fact, many of the NBA executives said they wouldn't be surprised at all if someone comes out of nowhere. The last time that truly happened was back in 2005 when Andrew Bogut improved his stock from a mid first-rounder to No. 1 overall and the Utah big man was ultimately chosen over point guards Chris Paul and Deron Williams.

But it's difficult to predict who that could be this time around. One high-ranking official went with a different UK freshman, forward Alex Poythress, if he had the top overall pick today. Others put freshman Anthony Bennett (UNLV), Archie Goodwin (Kentucky), Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State), Tony Mitchell (North Texas) and Gobert in the equation as potential No. 1 overall picks.

Most shook their head when asked to come up with the first guy off the board if they were picking today.

"There are too many to consider," one general manager said. "I've never seen it like this before."

Another veteran exec said: "This is the hardest time I've ever had this time of year getting excited about what's in the draft."

He's got plenty of company.

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