Source: USA TODAY
The 2014 NBA draft is the most anticipated since at least 2008, loaded with elite prospects and strong from top to bottom. The competition for top spots is rarely as tough as it will be this season, so the college basketball regular season has drawn more interest than normal from NBA executives and fans alike.
Here are five players with a lot to prove this week:
Oklahoma State sophomore Marcus Smart
Schedule: Saturday vs. Colorado, in Las Vegas, 11:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2
Statistics: 18.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.8 assists and 3.0 steals a game and 46.3% from the field.
It’s easy to be tough on Smart, who came back for a second season with the Cowboys despite widely being viewed as no worse than the No. 2 pick in last year’s draft. He may not land so high in this year’s deeper pool, but he definitely is a better, smarter player. Still, recent weeks have seen his numbers tail a bit, and he struggled in a Dec. 1 loss to now-No. 14 Memphis, which is No. 7 Oklahoma State’s only blemish. Smart will face one of the most underrated guards in the country in this MGM Grand Showcase game in No. 24 Colorado’s Spencer Dinwiddie, who is bigger than Smart but similar in his versatility. The combo guard matchup is the best head-to-head battle of Saturday and could end up being a proving ground for Dinwiddie or a chance to answer all those questions about improvement for Smart.
Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins
Schedule: Saturday vs. Georgetown, noon ET, ESPN.
Statistics: 15.9 points and 5.9 rebounds a game and 48.1% from the field.
Everyone knows Wiggins will go high in the June draft. But his erratic play, combined with the poise and aggressiveness shown by Duke’s Jabari Parker, has many questioning his spot atop draft boards. Even teammate Joel Embiid has gained some ground on Wiggins. Wiggins, a 6-8 swingman, isn’t built to dominate games with his scoring, but Georgetown does not have many good options for defending him. He’ll be the most athletic player on the court for the biggest noon game of the day, and asserting himself against 6-3 D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera and 6-5 Jabril Trawick would be a good way to remind everyone of his massive upside.
Michigan State senior Adreian Payne
Schedule: Saturday at Texas, 4 p.m. ET, CBS.
Statistics: 16.6 points and 7.9 rebounds a game, 50.4% from the field and 46.7% on three-pointers.
The knock on Payne for four years has been his toughness. He is a very skilled 6-10 power forward with great range on his jump shot, but he struggles with players who want to bang in the post. Still, Payne’s emergence as a senior comes in part because he’s willing to do more. This somehow-unranked Texas team has no shortage of bangers, starting with 6-9, 285-pound center Cameron Ridley. There is no doubt Payne is faster and more athletic than Ridley, but if he can handle him inside, scouts will have to reconsider him as a possible lottery pick. Texas will be hungry for a win against No. 5 Michigan State, and Payne has the opportunity to put them down anyway.
Xavier sophomore Semaj Christon
Schedule: Saturday at Alabama, 7 p.m. ET.
Statistics: 15.5 points and 3.8 assists a game and 45.5% from the field.
An athletic, 6-3 point guard, Christon didn’t draw much attention on the college basketball landscape last season but made a big splash on NBA draft boards. He entered the season as a projected lottery pick, but he has not improved as much as he was expected to in his sophomore campaign. Alabama has a flawed roster that has fallen to 5-5 after several tough losses, but senior point guard Trevor Releford is one of the nation’s best and will be as big a challenge as Christon faces all season.
Notre Dame senior Jerian Grant
Schedule: Saturday vs. No. 2 Ohio State, in New York, 7:30 p.m. ET, ESPN2.
Statistics: 19.1 points, 6.4 assists and 2.1 steals a game, 50.8% from the field and 40.4% on three-pointers.
Grant has the NBA bloodlines from his father, 11-year veteran Harvey Grant, and is emerging in his senior season. He has cut his turnovers nearly in half while improving his field goal and three-point shooting percentages dramatically. The efficiency has opened the doors for the 6-5 star, who can play both guard positions. His big draw will be as a point guard, though, and there are few tougher matchups in the country there than Ohio State’s Aaron Craft. The Buckeyes senior has the pesky quickness Grant will have to deal with at the NBA level. Though Notre Dame isn’t expected to win, Grant can prove a lot.