By Scott Fragale
When evaluating the 2007-08 NBA rookie class, the conversation begins and ends with Greg Oden and Kevin Durant.
You can scour through mock drafts for days and not find any expert opinions listing anybody but the highly toughted duo as the two best players entering the league.
Whether it’s a dominating center who can change an opponent’s offensive philosophy with an intimidating third-row rejection or an electric scoring machine with the wingspan of a terradactyl your team covets, Oden and Durant have got you covered.
While names such as Kwame Brown, Stromile Swift, Michael Olowokandi and Shawn Bradley entered the league with “can’t miss” labels as well, few are questioning if this duo will succeed in the NBA, but rather how long it will take before they do.
“Oden will enter the league as one of the top-three centers and a dominant shotblocker,” Tuff Stuff basketball pricing analyst Steve Bloedow said. “His offensive skills are underrated and improving so he’s got tremendous upside.”
And while Oden might be the dominate post player that comes along once a decade, Durant might actually be the more NBA-ready of the two.
“Incredible wingspan with amazing agility, quickness and leaping ability and has a scorer’s mentality to boot,” Upper Deck associate basketball product manager Bill Beaman said. “Legit NBA three-point range with regularity and runs the court with the speed of a guard. His ability to pull up off the dribble is sick for a 6-10 player. Great natural instincts, solid footwork and jaw-dropping lateral quickness. Athletically, Durant is a rare commodity that has very few peers and has the potential to become one of the most exciting players to enter the league in a long time.”
Compared to Tim Duncan by some because of his soft hands, impressive skill set and quiet demeanor, Oden’s offensive potential remains an unproven commodity because of the talent level he was surrounded by in Columbus.
With Oden and Durant the clear-cut heads of the class, the question as to who else will emerge from the pack remains anybody’s guess.
One player who is continually mentioned in “can’t miss prospect” discussions is Oden’s ultra-quick Ohio State teammate, Mike Conley Jr.
The 6-1, left-handed point guard demonstrated all the necessary skills during his brief career with the Buckeyes to succeed at the next level, with only his 3-point efficiency and lack of experience being questioned.
“Even as a freshman he was the most poised guy on the court most the time,” Bloedow said. “He’s a natural leader and will be a star with his intelligence, quickness, athleticism and the ability to finish with both hands.
Conley Jr. averaged 11.3 ppg and shot 51 percent from the field and posted a three-to-one turnover to assist ratio in addition to being one the best on-ball defenders in the nation.
“Conley has consistantly stepped up his game when the situation has demanded it, most notably during the 2007 NCAA Tournament,” Topps basketball brand manager Don Wang said.
Another player that will undoubtedly be on the wishlist of many G.M.s and collectors is Florida standout, Al Horford.
The 6-9, athletic 245-pounder posted a 13.2 ppg average on a loaded Gators squad, while averaging nearly 10 rebounds per contest. Many believe Horford is the most NBA ready of the entire class and if he can develop a mid-range jump shot to go with his low-post repetoire, he should transition to the next level with relative ease.
“Horford is a physical specimen with NBA-ready body and strength,” Beaman said. “He’s a tenacious defensive player with great solid shot-blocking skills. He has long arms and broad shoulders to crowd the inside while also providing a nice touch. He’ll be one of the true warriors in the paint. Strong work ethic and he leads by example, could be a possible team captain down the road.”
While NBA scouts and collectors alike were well aware of Horford’s Florida teammate Corey Brewer before his impressive NCAA Tournament run, his stock has been soaring ever since.
The 6-8 small forward who left the Gators after his junior year averaged 13.2 points and nearly five rebounds per game and was a major part of Florida’s back-to-back championships.
Brewer’s defensive prowess coupled with a great understanding of the game should make him an easy choice for NBA teams in need of a No. 3.
“Brewer is a tremendous lockdown defender with the ability to change the tide of the game with quickness and defensive ability,” Beaman said.
Although opinions vary considerably from one person to the next, another player expected to make a splash in the NBA and the hobby is China’s Yi Jianlian.
At 7-0, 230 pounds, Yi is being described by some scouts as a combination of Pau Gasol and Toni Kukoc. Yi has demonstrated outstanding ball handling skills for a big man, is a great free throw shooter and is probably best suited for an open-court style team who likes to push the tempo.
Because of his skinny frame and the fact that he has yet to be measured against NBA-level talent, many questions remain unaswered about Ji including what position he’ll end up playing.
“Yi possesses impressive speed and agility for a player of his 7-foot stature,” Wang said. “His all-around court awareness, combined with his accurate shot and long wingspan, should make him a factor on both ends of the court. After years of playing at the highest levels in China, Jianlian should make an immediate impact in the NBA.”
Depending on who you speak with, Kansas’ Julian Wright will either light the NBA on fire or disappear into the land of obscurity.
The 6-8, 225-pound swingman who left the Jayhawks after his sophomore season, is a tenacious defender with great passing abilities but his propensity to disappear at times in games has some questioning how much of an impact he’ll have at the next level. Others believe that if Wright can improve his perimeter game and develope his upper-body strength, he could be starter at the No. 3 spot for many years to come.
“He might be great and might be a bust. He’s a guy that can do a lot of everything and is very athletic, but has an ugly shot and sometimes disappears,” Bloedow said.
Although some experts see Marvin Williams all over again when looking at former North Carolina freshman Brandon Wright, others believe he’s more in the mold of Toronto superstar Chris Bosh. Whatever theory you adhere to, few if any, will question the tremendous athlectic ability and potential of the 6-10 forward.
“Tremendous wingspan allows Wright to block and rebound unlike many before him,” Beaman said. “He’s an excellent defender with great lateral quickness. Great shooting touch around the basket and advanced speed and footwork. He has the ability to recognize double teams which is highlighted his ability to look up court and start the fast break. A serious threat to score on quick lob passes.”
While most of the aformentioned players were long gone by the middle of round 1, there are several players that are bound for greatness despite being overlooked early on. Names such as Jordan Farmar (No. 26 overall), Craig Smith (No. 36), Paul Millsap (No. 47) and Daniel Gibson (No. 42) were all impact players on their respective squads last season so here’s a few names from this year’s draft class that could be considered “sleepers” but are not to be overlooked: Acie Law, Jeff Green, Nick Young, Gabe Pruitt, Thaddeous Young, Curtis Sumpter, Glen Davis and Jared Dudley.
Forecasting who will emerge as the players to chase is much like making an extended weather forecast, you get some right, and others, well, not so much. But with expert guide to the incoming rookies we provided, you’ll at least have a good starting point. u
Scott Fragale is the associate editor and web editor of Tuff Stuff magazine and TuffStuff.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.