"In this draft." If you're a casual basketball fan wondering why you were assaulted with that phrase for the past week, it's because it's the best, most polite shorthand for what most hoops fans had come to admit: The 2013 NBA draft was bunk.
In this draft, it was OK to reach for ceiling; in this draft, finding a rotation player was a win. The 2013 draft may not end up being as bad as everyone thought -- we still have years before we find out -- but for better or worse, it did bring a host of players from unlikely paths into the brightest wafts of spotlight. One-time defensive specialist Victor Oladipo. Long-injured Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum. Kiwi Steven Adams. Once-unknown Missouri product Otto Porter. That Greek kid who dominated the 40-and-up league. Georgia Bulldog Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. A year ago, to rattle off the draft slots of these players (among others) would have required a keen sense of humor. A year later, here we are.
The 2014 draft may not be quite so open to interpretation. Already, consensus has hardened around Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, Duke's Jabari Parker, Kentucky's Julius Randle and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart being selected in the first four overall picks, in whatever order. (To say nothing of Aaron Gordon, Andrew Harrison, James Young, Glenn Robinson III, Mitch McGary and so on.) There is so much good young talent flooding into the college game next season, and it's not like NBA scouts haven't already been briefed; the chance that some formerly unheralded star suddenly breaks through seems slim.
But that doesn't mean there won't be at least a few surprises. Aren't there always? In that spirit, here's a guess at a handful of under-the-radar players who could pull an Oladipo, or something approximating it, next June.
A.J. Hammons, center, Purdue
Purdue's 16-18 campaign in 2013 was a bit of a disaster all the way through, but there were a couple of bright spots. For one thing, the Boilermakers finished 64th in Ken Pomeroy's adjusted efficiency rankings, and there's a decent case to be made that they were better than their final record. (Not that much better. But better.) For another: 7-foot center A.J. Hammons.
On paper, Hammons' freshman year was ... solid. He finished with 10.6 points and 6.0 rebounds per game, which looks good at a glance, but even better when you consider Hammons played just 57.4 percent of his team's available minutes thanks to rotations, foul trouble and the conditioning issues that are bound to afflict massive 7-footers still growing their way out of their teenage baby fat. With Hammons, what lies underneath is almost frightening -- a legitimate, mobile 7-footer with soft hands and skill around the rim, big enough to match up with the biggest bodies in the NBA. The past two years, Indiana's Cody Zeller was held up as the return of the true center in college basketball, but even Zeller -- against whom Hammons scored 30 points on 10-of-14 shooting in late January (in a 37-point loss, somehow) -- is billed as a "stretch 4" in the NBA. Hammons is the real deal, and after a year of conditioning drills and skill development, there's a chance he morphs into a dominant force in the Big Ten this season.
Even if he doesn't, size-obsessed NBA scouts eventually will come calling. But if Hammons pushes his development curve, he could wind up in the lottery much sooner than expected.
Spencer Dinwiddie, guard, Colorado
Dinwiddie was the Buffaloes' best all-around offensive player in 2012-13, when he shot 47.7 percent from 2, 33.8 percent from 3 and posted a 20.2 percent assist rate, the highest on his team. He finished with 15.3 points, 3.2 rebounds, 3.0 assists and 1.3 steals per game. That kind of statistical production is nice and all, but it doesn't really capture the biggest thing Dinwiddie has going for him: size. He's 6-foot-5 and lanky. Were he a small forward or even a 2-guard, as he looked for large stretches of his freshman year, that size might still be a liability. But as a point guard who can score efficiently and distribute -- and who ran pick-and-roll on 30.4 percent of his possessions last season and produced a creditable 1.033 points as the pick-and-roll ball handler, according to Synergy -- Dinwiddie's size should raise a few eyebrows between now and next year.
Markel Brown, guard, Oklahoma State
Will a rising Smart lift all Cowboys? Isn't that how that saying goes? The effect the aforementioned rising sophomore point guard had on Oklahoma State last year was almost immeasurable (though the Cowboys' leap from 107th to 11th in adjusted defensive efficiency is a pretty good place to start). But occasionally lost in all the deserved love for Smart was just how good Brown was last season. Not only did Brown's offensive rating (109.7) drastically spike up from his first two seasons (90.2 and 96.1), but his defense, athleticism and perimeter shooting were all vastly improved. It may take a legendary year to push a mostly unknown four-year senior into lottery territory in the 2014 draft, but if Oklahoma State puts together a Big 12 title contender that plays deep into March, scouts will be forced to look beyond Smart in Stillwater.
Alex Poythress, forward, Kentucky
At this point, it's hard for any Kentucky Wildcat to claim "under-the-radar" status. It's hard to be under the radar when even the possibility of a player transferring is announced in the manner of an Apple keynote address. But at this point, Poythress is being treated as such an afterthought to Kentucky's title hopes this season and was so thoroughly exposed in his brutal freshman campaign that it's almost hard not think he's not at least a little bit off the map as it pertains to his NBA draft future.
But Poythress' issues last season were never about his talent. Even with all the agony, Poythress finished the season shooting 60.7 percent from 2 and 42.4 percent from 3 (which he attempted just 33 times, but still). He also rebounded well on both ends of the floor.
No, the biggest issues were mental. Despite the constant pleading (and then some) from John Calipari, Poythress checked out of entire games, unwilling to be aggressive, happy to be a bystander. He also turned the ball over way too much for a guy with a 61.1 percent effective field goal percentage. If he cuts down on the turnovers and becomes a more engaged, lively guy on the court, not only does he have a big role for Kentucky, he'll remind NBA folks why he was such a big deal in the first place.
Augustine Rubit, forward, South Alabama
Now here's "off the radar:" When you run a YouTube search for "Augustine Rubit," a paltry number of results shows up. All of them were posted by USAJaguarSports, the official account of South Alabama athletics. There are few fan-made clips, and nothing like the deluge you'd see if you searched for even a midlevel college player, let alone the Wiggins and Parkers of the world. Such are the perils of playing great basketball in the Sun Belt: It requires a concerted effort to get the word out.
But the word deserves to be heard: Rubit has been dominant in three seasons at USA, culminating in an excellent junior season in which he averaged 19.4 points and 10.5 rebounds per game, with an offensive rating of 113.1 on 29.1 percent usage. No player returning to college hoops, save Doug McDermott, was more efficient with as many of his team's possessions. Per Pomeroy, Rubit rebounded 14.7 percent of his team's available misses, made 48.6 of his 2s and 79.5 percent from the line, posted a block rate of 3.6 percent and drew 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes. In layman's terms, he beasted.
Perhaps the biggest thing holding Rubit back isn't exposure -- it's competition. NBA scouts might rightly be dubious of a player who posts such outsized numbers against lowly competition, particularly when that player is a true 6-foot-7 forward who is yet to sink a single 3 in his collegiate career. Rubit still has some proving to do. But NBA scouts might be just as wary of missing on yet another quality mid-major star, one whose career production has been as quietly excellent as any of his non-McDermott contemporaries in the same span.