At the end of the week, I traveled from the West Coast to Florida to the Pro Training Center at IMG Academy in Bradenton to get a closer look at three players ranked in my top 15 whom scouts are much more divided on -- UCLA's Jrue Holiday, Louisville's Earl Clark and Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair.
Those three are currently ranked eighth, 11th and 12th in my Top 100. But the truth is, they all could end up going significantly higher or lower than the late lottery as teams try to get a better feel for them. Although each player is totally different from the others, all three are a bit of an enigma.
Holiday has as much upside as the elite players in the draft. He was ranked as the sixth-best prospect in our preseason Top 100. Clark has the size, skills and athleticism to be a dominant player in the league. Blair was the country's top tough guy and one of the best offensive rebounders ever in college.
However, each player also possesses question marks that have scouts scratching their heads. Holiday struggled to produce in Ben Howland's system at UCLA. Clark looked like a superstar in some games and a D-League prospect in others at Louisville. Blair struggled with his weight and conditioning and is undersized to play the 4 in the NBA.
After spending the day with them, watching two on-the-court workouts, seeing them in the weight room and sitting down with each player to discuss the draft, here's my take on all three:
Jrue Holiday, PG, Fr., UCLA (ranked No. 8 on our Big Board)
Holiday joined UCLA with a terrific high school reputation. He wasn't the flashiest or most dominant player, but he was widely regarded as the most complete player in the incoming freshman Class of 2008. His ability to score, pass and defend, coupled with a terrific basketball IQ, had many NBA scouts pegging him as a lottery pick in 2009.
Holiday was expected to inherit the starting point guard position once Darren Collison declared for the 2008 NBA draft. But when Collison decided to return for his senior year, Holiday's freshman run started to derail. Howland moved Holiday to the 2 and asked him to play off the ball on offense, something Holiday had never done. Although at times, Holiday looked the part of a lottery pick, as the season went on it became harder and harder to see. He lacked confidence on the offensive end and in some games hardly showed anything.
Holiday's frustration extended beyond playing out of position. Howland's half-court, grind-it-out approach on offense also was a thorn in Holiday's side. By the end of a disappointing season, a flustered Holiday surprised a lot of NBA people by declaring for the draft.
He has spent the past month traveling back and forth between Florida and L.A. trying to juggle prepping for the draft with school at UCLA. Holiday maintains that he is still trying to figure out whether he'll stay in the draft or return to school, but the word is he's strongly leaning toward the NBA.
After spending the day watching him work out, it's not hard to see why. In a workout setting, Holiday looks much more like the player NBA scouts fell in love with when he was in high school.
The first thing you notice about Holiday is his size. He was measured at 6-foot-4 in shoes and 205 pounds. That's terrific for a point guard. He also has a nice frame and should get stronger as his body matures. Still just 18 years old, he's the youngest player in my top 20.
One of the early problems in scouting Holiday during the season was the unfair comparison to Russell Westbrook, another UCLA guard who went from being an unknown to the No. 4 pick in the 2008 draft. Westbrook was a freakish athlete with great speed and explosive leaping ability. When Holiday didn't show that uber-athleticism at UCLA, everyone was disappointed.
The truth is that Holiday isn't an elite athlete in the ways that Westbrook is. He's not as explosive a leaper, nor is he lightning-fast streaking down the court. But he is a very good athlete. He's quick with the ball, knows how to use his big body to hurt smaller defenders and showed good leaping ability in the gym.
Holiday struggled as a shooter at UCLA, but watching him in the gym this past week, I don't have any real concerns there. He has great form on his jump shot and was hitting virtually every midrange jump shot and college 3-pointer he took. Holiday is still finding his range from the NBA 3-point line. He can make the shot but is much more inconsistent stepping out the extra few feet. But the truth is, almost all prospects have the same issue when transitioning from college to the pros.
Holiday also showed off his terrific defensive abilities. He's strong, long, quick and active. He has the potential to be a lockdown defender at either backcourt position in the pros. Given the rise of elite, virtually unstoppable guards in the league, that alone could get him drafted high.
Holiday's biggest challenge will be his confidence. In a workout setting, where he's getting a lot of positive reinforcement and is allowed to be himself, he's really thriving again and looks like a lottery pick all the way.
But there's no guarantee that the team that picks him will have a head coach who will allow him to play to his strengths. Holiday wilted a bit under a difficult coach in college. Will he be able to handle similar adversity in the NBA?
Given his background, intelligence and work ethic, my guess is that most NBA teams will be willing to take the risk. In a draft without many players with big upside, Holiday has the chance to be a special player someday. I think he'll fall somewhere in the 8-14 range on draft night. The Knicks, Raptors, Bucks, Pacers and Suns are all possibilities for him. However, some interest exists even higher than that range because Oklahoma City, Minnesota and Golden State all need point guards and have interest in Holiday. Remember that last year, most teams had Westbrook ranked in a similar spot, and he ended up going No. 4 in the draft. That's not out of the question for Holiday.
Earl Clark, F, Jr., Louisville (ranked No. 11 in our Top 100)
Clark is also an enigma, but in a different way. He has all the physical tools to be a superstar. He's long, very athletic and skilled. He can shoot, rebound, block shots, handle the ball, pass and run the floor. When he puts all of that together, he can look like a potential superstar.
That's what makes Clark a bit dangerous to watch in a workout setting like this. It doesn't take long for your jaw to hit the floor. There really isn't anything on the court that Clark can't do well. He has guardlike abilities in the frame of a 6-10 player.
In a series of drills given to Clark, he did everything well.
Ballhandling? Check. Just about as good as you'll see in a player his size.
Athletic post moves? Check. He's quick, can turn on a dime and finishes way above the rim.
Midrange game? Check. He can shoot off the dribble and has a nice, soft touch on his shot.
Three-point range? It's coming. He's not a lights-out shooter from deep distance, but his form is pretty good, and the ball goes in. I don't think Clark will make his living shooting 3-pointers in the league, but if he really concentrates on that aspect of his game, who knows?
The question about Clark always has been about heart. Does he want to do what it takes to be a great NBA player? And can he maintain that effort throughout an 82-game season?
Here's one anecdote from his workout that suggests he might be able to pass the test. After a workout, Clark sought out an NBA executive who was watching the workout with me that day. Clark introduced himself, then asked the executive, "What did you think of my workout?"
The executive gave the standard "you looked good" answer. Then Clark asked his follow-up.
"No, what I want to know is, what do I need to work on? How do I improve? I'm just trying to get better."
The executive said he couldn't remember, in all his years of scouting, a prospect coming up and asking that question.
Clark may be one of the most difficult players to rate in the draft. Given the dearth of big men in this draft and his skills (I think he can play both the 3 and the 4 in the pros), only Blake Griffin has more upside as a 4. But there is also a risk. His upside may be Lamar Odom, but his downside could be a guy like Tim Thomas. His heart and effort ultimately will determine how great he can be.
If he goes No. 5 or 6 in the draft, I would understand. If he slips later in the lottery, I could see that, too.
DeJuan Blair, PF, So., Pittsburgh (ranked No. 12 in our Top 100)
Blair doesn't have the same production issues that Holiday or Clark have faced. He's coming off a terrific season in which he proved to be one of the most dominant big men in the college game.
Blair's ferocity on the boards and in the paint has a huge appeal in the league. Finding big men who want to play like big men is a tough find, especially in this draft.
The problem for Blair is in the definition of "big man." Blair is too big in one sense and not big enough in another. He struggled with his weight through his first two seasons and has cracked 300 pounds. On top of that, no one in the league expects Blair to measure much taller than 6-6, maybe 6-7 in shoes. That's undersized for a power forward by almost any standard.
Last week, when I listed the prospects I'd see on my pre-draft workout tour, I got a number of calls from NBA executives with the same request: "Let us know how Blair looks." NBA GMs want to love this guy. They need players like him. But they're scared off by the physical limitations he has.
I'm happy to report that the news is good. Blair looks closer to 6-6 than 6-8, but he has a huge 7-foot, 2-inch wingspan that makes up for his lack of height.
As far as his weight goes, Blair looks considerably better than he looked at Pittsburgh. He has lost about 15 pounds during the first two weeks of training. His physique is much more chiseled. And most importantly, his athleticism has improved greatly because he has lost that weight and improved his conditioning.
Where that should help Blair the most is on the defensive end of the floor. A lot of teams are concerned that Blair won't have the foot speed to defend the pick-and-roll in the league. What I saw at his workout suggests he does.
Blair looked much quicker and more explosive than he looked at Pittsburgh. His quickness and leaping ability were impressive for someone his size. He went as hard as anyone in the gym that day and didn't slow down toward the end.
Perhaps most telling was a drill in which Blair and others had to throw the ball hard off the backboard, leap up to catch it, come back down and then leap again for a dunk. Blair repeatedly exploded up and finished strong above the rim. A few times, it seemed as though Blair would pull it down.
On the skills portion, Blair is a work in progress. He still doesn't have much of a face-the-basket game. His shot mechanics are inconsistent, so it's unlikely that he'll be a good pick-and-pop guy early in his career. His ballhandling also could use much work. But then again, NBA teams aren't drafting him to shoot 3s and handle the ball.
In a draft with just one dominant, physical big guy -- Blake Griffin -- Blair may move up to fill that gap. Last year, a number of NBA guys had Kevin Love ranked as a mid-first-round pick because of his perceived lack of size and athleticism. He wowed in workouts, then delivered as a rookie in Minnesota. That could help Blair's case, as could the NBA success of players such as Paul Millsap and Carl Landry.
Several teams in the lottery have shown much interest. Toronto is desperate for a beast to match with Chris Bosh or Andrea Bargnani. The Bucks are in desperate need of a physical low-post presence to pair alongside Andrew Bogut. (Plus, Blair really seems like a Scott Skiles type of player.) The Nets are looking for the same thing to put next to Brook Lopez. The Pacers didn't have any real paint presence last season.
And, believe it or not, Suns GM Steve Kerr has been taking a close look at Blair, according to sources. The Suns don't at first blush appear to be a fit, but because Kerr trying to give them a more defensive identity, Blair could be exactly what they need to pair alongside Amare Stoudemire in their frontcourt.
If all five of those teams pass, I doubt the Bulls would at No. 16. Adding his toughness to a front line of Tyrus Thomas and Joakim Noah could pay big dividends for the Bulls down the road.
Coming next: Our draft lottery preview and first full mock draft of the year
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.