The 2011 NBA Draft isn’t considered to be stacked with talent, but there is plenty of intrigue. The Cavaliers have two of the top four selections as the universe tries to help them fix their karma. The Utah Jazz add two top-12 selections to a borderline playoff team. Meanwhile, the New Jersey Nets prepare for their move to Brooklyn armed with little more than pick number 27. Even part-owner Jay-Z’s legendary swagger won’t carry weight around Bed-Stuy with the current talent level.
The draft is always packed with wild cards, but here’s Athlon’s prediction of how the deals will go down.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers—SF/PF Derrick Williams, Arizona
The consensus No. 1 is Duke’s Kyrie Irving, but after Dan Gilbert’s oft-ridiculed Comic Sans rant and the miserable season that followed, can the Cavs afford to draft pure unproven upside? They need reliable production and the ability to stay healthy. Williams showed both in his two seasons at Arizona. He won’t be a serious defensive force early on, but he’s got the face-up game to pull power forwards away from the basket and the wide body to bully small forwards when he posts up. Cleveland fans would love to have another strong scoring threat to get behind, and Williams might be just the guy.
2. Minnesota Timberwolves—PG Kyrie Irving, Duke
David Kahn seems bent on drafting 100 point guards before he gets fired, and he may be close to halfway there already. Even with Ricky Rubio joining up next season, there are great concerns about the fact that he wasn’t a terribly productive player in Spain, so why not hedge the bet a little? Irving skipped workouts at the combine, but did get measurements taken, including coming in around 10 percent body fat. This suggests a player who either couldn’t work out because he isn’t totally recovered from the injury or simply feels he has nothing left to prove after his dominant 11-game run at Duke. None of this, however, will scare away David Kahn, who never met a point guard he wouldn’t draft.
3. Utah Jazz—PG Brandon Knight, Kentucky
Speculation about the Jazz going big here and waiting to snag Jimmer Fredette at No. 12 may be just that. It’s not like the Jazz need Jimmer to sell tickets, as they’re the only game in town and the fan base is dedicated as long as the team is competitive. GM Kevin O’Connor is said to have been a big Knight fan all season, and it’s hard to bet against the latest product from the John Calipari Guard Factory. This probably means Devin Harris will end up continuing his nomadic ways, unless Ty Corbin is interested in seeing what Harris can do off the ball. Knight needs improvement as a distributor and ballhandler, but at age 19, there’s time for him to learn.
4. Cleveland Cavaliers—PG Kemba Walker, Connecticut
As mentioned before, the Cavs need to put some exciting talent on the floor, and there are few players in this draft more exciting than Kemba. Much is made about his lack of height, but he stood a legit 6-1 in pre-draft measurements. Players like Raymond Felton, Chris Paul, and Allen Iverson are comparable in height, while Walker actually stands taller than players like Aaron Brooks, Jameer Nelson, and Ty Lawson. So, it wouldn’t be unprecedented to see Kemba succeed as a pro point guard. He’ll need work in a structured NBA offense after playing in lots of isolations at UConn, and there will also be times where he’ll go off the reservation and try to strap the team to his back. Some of those times, however, could be successful, and that hope is what the Cavs will try to sell if they draft Kemba.
5. Toronto Raptors—SF/PF Jan Vesely, Partizan Belgrade (Czech Republic)
Vesely will probably spend most of his time facing the basket since, despite his 6-11 frame, he’s not a tremendous post-up player. His shooting range will make him a matchup problem, since he’ll be able to shoot over small forwards and outrun power forwards on pick-and-rolls. He’s also a willing and capable defender, which is something Toronto could certainly use. The Raptors could also use a serious center like Enes Kanter or Jonas Valanciunas, but does Bryan Colangelo have time to draft one or the other and then wait out their lengthy development time (or the money to pay an enormous buyout to Valanciunas’s club team)? Vesely may be in a better position to help immediately.
6. Washington Wizards—SF Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State
The Wizards have a very interesting decision here between Leonard and Turkish center/Kentucky spectator Enes Kanter. Leonard’s offseason workouts have been geared toward making him a more explosive wing player, and the Wizards could certainly use a capable replacement for Rashard Lewis. Rumors had the team shopping center JaVale McGee, and if a deal of that nature came about, it would certainly indicate that Kanter is their boy. However, the Wizards have tried to shoot down those rumors, and they may be sticking with the duo of McGee and Andray Blatche inside.
7. Sacramento Kings—PG Jimmer Fredette, BYU
The Kings’ highest need is at small forward, where they’d love to add Vesely or Leonard. But, both of them are gone here, so the spotlight turns to finding a point guard to officially send Tyreke Evans to the two. If Kemba or Knight were here, they’d be holding up the purple-and-black jersey, but they’re gone, too. So, Kings fans get to learn how to Jimmer. The Maloof brothers are said to love him, his name appeal from this past season will help put people back in Arco Arena, and his anywhere-in-the-zip-code shooting stroke will help draw defenders out of the lane, helping Evans drive and DeMarcus Cousins operate down low.
8. Detroit Pistons—C Enes Kanter, Kentucky
The best player on the Detroit roster appears to be last year’s top pick, Greg Monroe, who played well in the post as a rookie. The Pistons would love to get another low-post option, and they still have Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas, and dark-horse defensive stopper Bismack Biyombo still on this board. Kanter offers the best inside scoring ability of the three. Defensively, and on the boards, his effort appears to range from indifferent to uninterested. One year getting hammered in practice by veteran bruiser Ben Wallace should either increase that effort greatly or pound him into Jell-O.
9. Charlotte Bobcats—SF Marcus Morris, Kansas
Morris won’t exactly make up for the departed Gerald Wallace, but he could step into the starting lineup on day one. He’s got a good enough shot to keep defenders from sagging onto Stephen Jackson. He may not turn into a dominant All-Star caliber player, but at this point, Michael Jordan and new general manager Rich Cho are just looking for players less likely to bust. Jordan’s surely tired by now of hearing about Kwame Brown and Adam Morrison.
10. Milwaukee Bucks—C Jonas Valanciunas, Lietuvos Rytas (Lithuania)
The Bucks don’t consider themselves a lottery team, as an ungodly convergence of injuries ravaged their roster last season. Part of the carnage was the loss of center Andrew Bogut for 17 games. If Valanciunas slides this far, he creates a very interesting dynamic. He’s not a pressing need for the Bucks, and they may not need to extend themselves to bring him in, given the large buyout it would take to spring him from his club team. They could be in a position to let him stay in Europe one more year while they see if Bogut can make it through a full season.
11. Golden State Warriors—SG Klay Thompson, Washington State
The Warriors are rumored to be shopping Monta Ellis, indicating that it may be time to simply hand the keys to Stephen Curry and let him run the team. Even if Ellis is still on the team, Thompson will provide a spot-up shooting threat and kick-out option for whichever starting guard is slashing to the basket. At 6-7, he can also spell Dorell Wright at small forward. Biyombo’s often linked to the Warriors here, but it seems awfully soon to be giving up on Ekpe Udoh. Besides, the two would be fairly redundant together.
12. Utah Jazz—SF Chris Singleton, Florida State
Singleton’s a weak ballhandler, but that’s probably not what the Jazz would draft him for. With his defensive skills in the fold, the team can bid happy trails to longtime fixture Andrei Kirilenko. The biggest question Singleton needs to answer is how effective he’ll be coming back from a broken foot.
13. Phoenix Suns—PF Tristan Thompson, Texas The Suns are trying to put more focus on the defensive end of the floor, rather than trying to outscore the opponent. Thompson appears to be NBA-ready on defense, but his raw offensive game and iffy rebounding ability could paint him as a situational stopper. Working with Steve Nash will give him many chances to show his ability to score on quick cuts to the basket.
14. Houston Rockets—C Bismack Biyombo, Baloncesto Fuenlabrada (Spain)
Ancient Brad Miller and undersized Chuck Hayes are the Rockets’ options at center, depending on whether or not Yao Ming’s career comes back from the dead. While Biyombo’s offensive game is rawer than chicken that’s still breathing, he’s considered a defensive warrior.
15. Indiana Pacers—SG Marshon Brooks, Providence
The main need for the Pacers is a shooting guard who can create some offense on his own, and both Brooks and Colorado’s Alec Burks qualify. Both can do a great job getting to the basket, and both operated extensively in isolation in college. Brooks gets the edge here because his jump shot is a bit more reliable than Burks’.
16. Philadelphia 76ers—PF Markieff Morris, Kansas
The Sixers could trade out of here and into a higher pick if they want to move Andre Iguodala, but who takes over at SG then? Evan Turner? Not a great call just yet. If Philly stays here, a capable PF to learn under and eventually replace Elton Brand seems like a good call. Morris is rugged inside, NBA-built, and high-energy. If he were just three inches taller, he’d probably be gone in the top seven or so.
17. New York Knicks—SG Alec Burks, Colorado
Burks likes to explode to the basket, which is the kind of game that screams New York playground. He’s already had workouts this offseason with fellow ex-Buffalo, and current Knick, Chauncey Billups. The Knicks could even work with Burks on point-guard skills in case the new CBA rules short circuit the planned 2012 swoop for Chris Paul. They really need him to work on his shot so he can benefit from all the doubles on Anthony and Stoudemire.
18. Washington Wizards—SG/SF Jordan Hamilton, Texas
The Wizards can certainly use a shooter at shooting guard. Jordan Crawford can do a lot of things, but he’s yet to prove he can rain from long range. Hamilton’s a bomber who can certainly benefit from John Wall kickouts. He’s just as certainly not one who likes to get to the basket and take pounding himself, so he’ll need Wall there to create for him.
19. Charlotte Bobcats—C Nikola Vucevic, USC
Vucevic is probably the only legitimate center coming out of an American college this season. He’s not a great athlete in the post, which will hinder him defensively. His offensive game, however, is the most polished of any big man in the draft. The differences between him and Enes Kanter aren’t as substantial as their draft position would have you believe.
20. Minnesota Timberwolves—PF Donatas Motiejunas, Benetton Treviso (Italy)
Can he play center in the NBA? At only 224 pounds, that’s sort of doubtful. But, if the Wolves can keep the fire lit under him at all times, there’s not a whole lot else that he can’t do. He’s got a perimeter shot which he can create for himself, good athleticism to perform in transition, and a strong handle for his size. He will, however, struggle in defending the low post, so he could be better used as a stretch four to back up Kevin Love.
21. Portland Trail Blazers—PG Reggie Jackson, Boston College
The Blazers could undeniably use a legit center prospect that can make it through a few games here and there without getting hurt. They haven’t had one of those since Kevin Duckworth, it seems. Point guard is a need, as well, with Andre Miller aging and set to become a free agent in one more year. Jackson will need a little time and seasoning, sort of like a Jeff Teague. If the Blazers can drum a pass-first sensibility into him, his athleticism could be a ticket to a long career.
22. Denver Nuggets—PF/SF Tobias Harris, Tennessee
Harris is going to be saddled with the dreaded “tweener” label, lacking the bulk to bang with power forwards and the quickness to guard more athletic small forwards. He’s a good ballhandler and solid low post scorer, but needs to work on a mid-range shot. He’ll also need to add muscle, as the Nuggets may press him into service quickly if they lose Kenyon Martin or Nene to free agency.
23. Houston Rockets—PG Darius Morris, Michigan
In all honesty, Morris is probably the point guard most ready to run an offense right now. Most of the rest seem to be sawed-off shooting guards. Morris is already a good passer and floor leader, and the Rockets may have the option to bring him along slowly if they feel Kyle Lowry and Goran Dragic can hold the position down for another year. Or, Daryl Morey could package both their picks and get into the top 10. One never knows with him.
24. Oklahoma City Thunder—SG/SF Tyler Honeycutt, UCLA
The Thunder don’t have any pressing needs, and this leads a lot of mocks to predict them stashing a European player (Nikola Mirotic is the popular name) overseas for a couple of years. This is highly plausible, but unless Mirotic bulks up substantially, he seems that he would be a redundant player with Kevin Durant. Honeycutt also needs to add bulk, but he’s already a defensive playmaker with an improving shot. Sam Presti may keep an eye down the road and cast Honeycutt as his replacement for the Thabo Sefolosha/Daequan Cook platoon.
25. Boston Celtics—PF Justin Harper, Richmond
The popular pick is Jeremy Tyler, but it’s hard to see the Celtics grabbing a player who needs two to three years of seasoning when their window for a championship is so nearly closed. Harper affords the C’s another jump-shooter to draw eyes away from Ray Allen, and further open up the interior for Kevin Garnett and Glen Davis. When Garnett hangs up the jersey for the last time, Harper will have had time to strengthen his frame and could fit right into the position.
26. Dallas Mavericks—PG/SG Nolan Smith, Duke
One would expect Mark Cuban to move boldly to try for one more championship run before players like Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion age to the point of being liabilities. Smith may not step in and dominate immediately, but as a future replacement for Kidd, he could fit well. A year to learn under the master could result in Smith taking the Dallas point away from the undersized J.J. Barea sooner rather than later. As for the short-term championship run, it’s safe to say Smith has pressure game experience.
27. New Jersey Nets—SF Kyle Singler, Duke
This low in the first round, it’s often best-player-available, but the prospect of going into the 2011-12 season with Travis Outlaw as the starter at the three should fill the Nets’ brass and fans with terror. Singler is a competitor and a winner, two things that should play well in Brooklyn. He’ll have a hard time creating offense for himself, but working with Deron Williams should see him open for a ton of good perimeter looks.
28. Chicago Bulls—PF JaJuan Johnson, Purdue
The Bulls could use another jump-shot threat to open the lane for Derrick Rose’s daring drives. Johnson developed his shooting range out to NCAA three-point land as a senior. While he’s not likely to replace a lunchpail banger like Carlos Boozer, he could manage a lengthy NBA career as the next Channing Frye.
29. San Antonio Spurs—SG Iman Shumpert, Georgia Tech
Shumpert got a lot of justifiable flak for his shot selection in college. A couple of years with Gregg Popovich will make him a more judicious shooter quickly. He’ll also need a lot of work in moving without the ball, but if he learns it well, he could be a very dangerous replacement for Manu Ginobili in a few years.
30. Chicago Bulls—PG/SG Shelvin Mack, Butler
Mack could work behind or alongside Rose, providing some instant offense off the bench. He’s no stranger to clutch situations, the kind in which the Bulls plan to find themselves frequently over the next several years. As a bonus, taking Indiana college products Mack and Johnson could stick the knife even deeper into the division rival Pacers after Bulls fans took over Conseco Fieldhouse in the playoffs.