Buddy Hield, Kris Dunn, Denzel Valentine, and the 2016 NBA Draft

Posted: 02/14/2016 by levcohen in Basketball, NCAA

Like it or not, the top half of any given NBA draft is going to have a lot of freshmen, many of whom did not prove that much at the college level. Of the top 15 picks in last year’s draft, nine were freshmen. Another three were international players who, for all intents and purposes, are freshmen too. That leaves Willie Cauley-Stein, Frank Kaminsky, and Cameron Payne as the only three players who were not freshmen or international and were drafted in the top-15. And guess what? The unproven college freshmen who went ahead of NCAA tournament studs like Kaminsky and Jerian Grant have generally outperformed their elders. Myles Turner, drafted 11th, was inconsistent at Texas for a very disappointing Longhorns team, but the Pacers saw his talent. The result so far? Averages of 10 points and five rebounds per game in just 20.3 minutes per contest. And he’s 19. The guy’s going to be really good. Trey Lyles, the oft-forgotten starter of that great Kentucky team, played out of position in college and didn’t always look good as a result. People laughed when the Jazz took him, but Lyles already has 29 starts under his belt and seems like a starter in the future. Devin Booker, another member of that Kentucky team, was picked 13th. He’s exploded onto the scene since Suns’ guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight got injured. He was 18 when the season started, but that hasn’t stopped him from averaging 17 points per game since the new year began (he also finished third in the three point contest). Anyway, you get the idea. Everyone’s obsessed with freshmen in the draft, for good reason. They’re generally the most talented players, since upperclassmen would have declared for the draft as freshmen were they good enough.

With all that being said, it’s no surprise that there are only four non-freshmen or international players in the top 15 of DraftExpress’s 2016 Big Board. Instead of tooting the horns of the freshmen in the 2016 class, though, I’m going to instead do a 180 and say that this year, the upperclassmen might really be worth taking.

I can tell just by looking at the NCAA rankings (AP top 25) and the 2015 recruiting rankings that this is a bad year for freshmen. Kentucky, the #1 recruiting class in the nation (again) is ranked 22nd. Duke, #2, is shockingly unranked. Arizona was third in the recruiting rankings and is 17th in the AP rankings. LSU finished fourth in recruiting and is unranked. Texas A&M was fifth and, after four straight losses, seems likely to fall out of the rankings. Of the top 14 recruiting teams in the nation, nine are unranked. Even the ones that are doing well, namely Kansas and Louisville, are doing so in spite of their freshmen rather than because of them. The Cardinals are led by two senior guards and then a couple of sophomores, while the Jayhawks will claim a top five ranking next week despite playing their two five-star recruits just 9.7 and 8.5 minutes per game. Meanwhile, most of the teams ranked at the top of the country, from Villanova to Maryland to Oklahoma to Iowa to Xavier (and on and on and on) are powered by upperclassmen. Last year, when Kentucky and Duke dominated the country thanks to their freshmen studs (and when Wisconsin’s experience was the outlier), seems like a long time ago.

It’s the lack of freshmen talent this year that’s part of the reason why I think Kris Dunn (junior), Buddy Hield (senior), and Denzel Valentine (senior), the three oldest players in the top 35 of Draft Express’s big board (all of them are around 22 years old) should get consideration near the top of the draft this year. Of course, Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram are exempted from this conversation. They are stud freshmen who are having terrific seasons, and they will in all likelihood be the first two names off the board. But even if you assume that Dragan Bender, a Croatian who has been compared (unfairly) to Kristaps Porzingis, goes #3, there’s still a lot of room left near the top of the draft for the other three.

Dunn was the most highly regarded from an NBA standpoint heading into the season, as he was consistently placed in the top 10 of mock drafts. The redshirt junior is a 6’4″ point guard who very much knows how to play his position. He averages 17.1/5.9/6.6 with three steals per game and plays good defense thanks largely to his 6’9″ wingspan. He could have been a mid first rounder had he entered the draft last season, but he (probably smartly) decided to return to Providence to up his draft stock. Dunn’s a great college player and a possible top five pick, but it’s hard to tell how much of his move up the draft boards comes because he’s played better this year and how much has to do with the fact that this year’s draft is weak. He and Ben Bentil seem likely to lead a team that is otherwise very shallow to a mid single-digit seed in the tournament, but Dunn’s numbers are no better than they were last year. Also worrisome is the fact that, while he’s a solid college three point shooter, I don’t think Dunn will be a good long range shooter in the NBA. His 67% free throw percentage hints that he will be closer to Rajon Rondo than Damian Lillard. But, like Rondo, he’s a tremendous distributor, ranking second in the NCAA with a 44.2% assist rate. He’s also taller and, crucially, longer than Rondo, which should help him both offensively and defensively. The Rondo comparison has been made, but given the difference in height it’s probably not the best one. There’s no doubt in my mind that Dunn’s a future starter in the NBA and a guy who will be able to rack up huge assist numbers at the next level. The problem is that, in today’s NBA, the point guard position is extremely deep and talented, so I’m not sure it would be smart to spend a top five pick on a point guard who likely won’t shoot better than 30% from three at the next level.

As a freshman, Buddy Hield averaged 7.8 points per game and shot 23.8% from three point range. Three years later, he’s a totally different player. The best player in college basketball, he’s averaging 25.6/5.5/2.3 and is shooting 51/50/90. He’s been a very clutch player for Oklahoma this year, making big shot after big shot, and he seems likely to lead the Sooners to a deep tournament run. It’s pretty clear that Hield is going to be a good scorer in the NBA. His range is deep enough to make him a shoo-in for at least decent numbers from three, and he’s a very good finisher. Unfortunately, Hield probably won’t be a great all-around player at the next level. He turns the ball over a lot and is fairly short (6’4″) for a shooting guard, which will make defending a struggle. There’s a reason he was pegged to go in the second round before the start of the season. But again, the guy has made huge improvements this year, and he can really score. NBA teams will always need instant offense, and there will be a role for Buddy Hield in the NBA for a long time. He reminds me a bit of C.J. McCollum, a similarly-sized combo guard who averaged 23.9/5/2.9 while shooting 52% from three in his senior year of college. The difference is that McCollum went to Liberty, just a small step down from Oklahoma. The fact that C.J. is averaging nearly 21 points per game for the Blazers this year is very promising for Hield. It’s also hard for me to imagine a guy scoring so effectively in a really tough conference and then being an NBA bust. Buddy’s floor is high, but his ceiling (25 ppg?) is pretty high too, which means he should probably be at least a top 10 pick.

Remember the last great under-appreciated Michigan State senior? That was Draymond Green, who was drafted in the second round a few years ago by the Warriors and is now one of the best players in basketball. Now, Valentine’s a totally different player than Green, but there are some similarities in other aspects. Valentine, like Draymond, is clearly a great leader. He’s also been pretty much ignored NBA-wise until recently, when he’s entered the mid-teens of rankings. I don’t understand why he isn’t more highly regarded. He’s averaging 19/8/7 and shows up in every big game. He’s a 6’6″ guard (probably a shooting guard in the NBA) with a 6’10” wingspan. He’s a great ball-handler and an innovative finisher. But guess what? He’s not very athletic. Nevermind my earlier question about why he isn’t more highly regarded. Seriously, though, a lack of athleticism is a legitimate gripe, because it will likely keep Valentine from being a very good defender or from being an elite finisher. But at some point you have to look past the lack of athleticism and take the great numbers and leadership into account. Valentine’s a playmaker, and he’ll be a playmaker at the next level. He won’t be a great defender, but his offense and his feel for the game is already at a level that most prospects can only dream of reaching.

There’s no doubt that Dunn, Hield, and Valentine will have an impact come March. With the exception of Simmons, they’re the three best players in college basketball. But they can also be a whole lot more than that. If I were a team drafting in the 5-10 range, I would look very hard at these three before selecting a guy like Jaylen Brown or Henry Ellenson, players who have potential but are nowhere near the same level as the three upperclassmen at this point. I’m usually the person arguing to take the potential and the youth, but this year is different both because there’s a lack of top-level freshmen talent and because Hield, Valentine, and Dunn have all given us a lot to think about with their great play this winter. Would I take any of the three at #4? At this point, yes, although I wouldn’t rule out falling in love with Brown, Ellenson, sophomore Jakob Poeltl, or another skilled teenager. But come the back of the top 10, I’d be thrilled to get any of the three.
My top 10 at this point:
Simmons
Ingram
Bender
Dunn
Hield
Valentine
Brown
Jamal Murray
Diamond Stone
Poeltl

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