Ranking the players in next week's NBA draft (Thursday, 5 p.m. MDT, ESPN) is risky business. There aren't a lot of stars but there is depth. The player you'll get at No. 10 might be no safer a bet than one chosen No. 22.
It says something that Kyrie Irving, who played about a dozen games at Duke, and Enes Kanter, who never gained eligibility in a year at Kentucky, are now considered among the safer picks in this draft. More than ever, you're making guesses on potential, rather than assessing a body of work.
It's reasonable to assume that Irving, Kanter, Arizona forward Derrick Williams and Kentucky guard Brandon Knight will be among the first names called. You can round up the players likely to go 10th through 30th, but it's hard to differentiate them in any precise way.
If this draft has a positional strength, it's power forward, although many of those power forwards are undersized (a classic example: volume rebounder Kenneth Faried of Morehead State). Some players who starred in college — Connecticut's Kemba Walker and BYU's Jimmer Fredette — aren't sure things in the pros because of height issues. And two players who led Duke to the national championship two years ago — Kyle Singler and Nolan Smith — figure to wait until late in the first round or beyond to hear their names called.
The Charlotte Bobcats will pick ninth, 19th and 39th overall. It's quite possible the ninth and 19th picks won't be all that different in ability. As one scout described, if the Bobcats like a player, but aren't sure he's worth the ninth pick, they won't know with any confidence whether that player will still be there at No. 19. This draft is that much of a blur.
With that as background, Observer NBA writer Rick Bonnell ranks the top 40 draft prospects on page 8C.
1. Kyrie Irving, Duke point guard: Irving might not have the star power of top picks of recent vintage, but he's the safest bet at what's become the NBA's most important position. His explosive first step is key in a league where hand-checking the ballhandler is banned.
2. Derrick Williams, Arizona forward: He has a Michael Beasley-like scoring game where he's solid both in post-ups and away from the rim. He clearly has a big ego, and has said he expects to be a small forward (as opposed to a power forward) at the NBA level.
3. Enes Kanter, Turkish center: Centers are always valuable and Kanter is one of the few safe bets at that position in this draft. He's highly skilled both in the post and on the wing. He missed all last season, while attempting to gain eligibility at Kentucky.
4. Brandon Knight, Kentucky point guard: He doesn't have Kyrie Irving's first step or Kemba Walker's ability to create his own shot, but Knight is a big and smart point guard with a reliable jump shot. His shot is solid enough that he might play some off the ball.
5. Jan Vesely, Czech forward: He's an oversized small forward; think Utah's Andrei Kirilenko or how Boston's Kevin Garnett played before his body filled out. At 6-11 he has the height advantage in almost any matchup, but he's quick enough, with perimeter skills, to play small forward.
6. Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State small forward: There's a little bit of Gerald Wallace in this guy, in that he's an explosive athlete, a strong defender and plays bigger than his 6-7 height (a 7-3 wingspan). He also has huge hands to control the basketball.
7. Jonas Valanciunas, Lithuanian center: He's a huge guy who might not be done growing, so he'll likely end up over 7-foot. Has plenty of post moves and range out to 12 feet. Drafting this guy assumes patience, because he needs time to build up strength.
8. Kemba Walker, Connecticut point guard: He's a smallish (6-1) guard with a knack for creating his own shot off screens. Walker says he's more of a distributor than last season suggested, that scoring 20-plus each game came in reaction to the Huskies' needs.
9. Chris Singleton, Florida State small forward: Singleton's defensive abilities really caught Bobcats coach Pa ul Silas' eye, and he's not alone. Coaching up his offense will be a bit more challenging.
10. Tristan Thompson, Texas power forward: He played a single college season, and he's pretty much a raw athlete right now, but scouts think he has big potential. He's not quite 6-9, but has a 7-1 wingspan.
11. Alec Burks, Colorado guard: More a scorer than a pure shooter, Burks has good size (6-6) and a creative approach to mid-range basketball (lots of comparisons to former NBA player Larry Hughes). He's slim and doesn't show much passion for playing defense.
12. Marcus Morris, Kansas forward: The more offensively-skilled of the Morris twins, Marcus might play both small and power forward. He's physically tough and competitive, but he's not a great athlete as far as what it takes to guard along the NBA perimeter.
13. Jimmer Fredette, BYU guard: A great shooter, both in terms of range and the ability to use screens, Fredette will spread NBA defenses. The question is who can he guard; he certainly doesn't look quick enough to stay in front of starting point guards.
14. Klay Thompson, Washington State shooting guard: He has a classic 2-guard skill set — range and touch on his jump shot, good size (6-7 ¼) and some ability to dribble and pass. He had a marijuana arrest over the winter that raised questions.
15. Davis Bertans, Latvian shooting guard: You haven't heard much about him because he has contract issues, but he might be the best shooter in this draft. If you have the patience to wait, he'll be a late-first round steal for a contender.
16. Bismack Biyombo, Congo power forward/center: For now at least, you'd be drafting a specialist — a gifted shotblocker with little to offer offensively. But check out YouTube of the Hoop Summit game in Portland, Ore., to see how spectacular a shotblocker he is.
17. Marshon Brooks, Providence shooting guard: He has good size at 6-5 and a stop-and-start dribble game that works to create separation from defenders. He's been working to extend his shooting range beyond the NBA 3-point line.
18. Markieff Morris, Kansas forward: Slightly bigger and heavier than twin brother Marcus, Markieff is more of a traditional power forward. He isn't quite as skilled offensively, but he'll have the toughness and intensity to make an NBA rotation.
19. Donatas Motiejunas, Lithuanian power forward: He is classic of the European coaching style, where big men are expected to learn the same skills as guards. That means he has real shooting range, and also understands how to play with his back to the basket.
20. Nikola Vucevic, Southern California forward: A big-time rebounder (a Pac-10 best 10.3 boards per game last season), Vucevic is also a solid shooter (50.9 percent from the field over a three-year college career).
21. Tobias Harris, Tennessee swing forward: A versatile frontcourt player; the only knock against Harris was that he seemed to be cruising. That changed this spring, when he went on a strict diet, trimming his body fat from 13 percent to 8 percent.
22. Jordan Hamilton, Texas swingman: There is some Stephen Jackson in this guy, in the sense that he's stronger than the quick guys and quicker than the strong guys. At 6-8 1/2, he's a tough cover. He had a reputation at Texas as being a little selfish.
23. Kenneth Faried, Morehead State power forward: You can't fake it as a rebounder, so Faried already has quite a resume, having collected the most rebounds in college basketball (1,673) in nearly 40 years. But at 6-7, he's undersized for his position.
24. Shelvin Mack, Butler guard: He'll be a scoring point guard if he succeeds at the NBA level. He has a gift for creating shots off the dribble. As with Jason Terry and Ben Gordon, the NBA seems more open-minded to guys with point-guard size and a scorer's mentality.
25. Tyler Honeycutt, UCLA swingman: Ideally, he'd be a multi-purpose defender who would score in transition a lot. One issue is his lack of heft at 186 pounds. The guy needs more bulk to hold up physically.
26. Justin Harper, Richmond forward: If you're looking for a guy with power forward size who can stretch the floor with shooting range, this could be your guy. He shot 45 percent from the college 3-point line last season, making him a tough cover.
27. Trey Thompkins, Georgia power forward: He provides shotblocking (50 rejections last season) and true power forward size at 6-10. He needs to get in better condition after registering 15.5 percent body fat in May.
28. Chandler Parsons, Florida forward: A versatile forward who averaged nearly eight rebounds and shot 37 percent from 3-point range last season. Good size (6-10) in a draft where many of the forwards are too small for their positions.
29. Kyle Singler, Duke combo forward: He has to show that senior-season shooting slump wasn't indicative of the future, because his best selling point is the ability to stretch defenses as a spot-up shooter.
30. Darius Morris, Michigan point guard: He has excellent size (6-5) for a point. NBA teams love that because it offers the potential to play a smaller shooting guard without bargaining away the ability to match up defensively.
31. Nolan Smith, Duke guard: He doesn't have a natural position at the NBA level, but he's a competitor who's played at the highest levels. Was surprisingly effective last summer, scrimmaging against top pros playing for Team USA.
32. Andrew Goudelock, College of Charleston point guard: He rivals Jimmer Fredette as the top long-range shooter in this draft. Also, he has the sort of husky build you don't always get in point guards. But this step up in level of competition will be challenging.
33. Reggie Jackson, Boston College guard: Scouts are naturally intrigued by a 6-3 guard with a 7-foot wingspan and abundant athleticism. The question for Jackson is refining his skills. He needs a better jump shot and more awareness of teammates off the dribble.
34. Charles Jenkins, Hofstra guard: Has good length (6-7 1/2 wingspan) and great shooting ability (51 percent from the field). Could be a nice surprise in the second round.
35. JaJuan Johnson, Purdue forward: Another four-year college player, Johnson probably needs to play the power forward position, and that will require him, long-term, to get a lot stronger and bulkier.
36. Norris Cole, Cleveland State point guard: In these days, when the no-hand check rule is so strictly enforced, point guards with Cole's lateral quickness, both on offense and defense, become more valuable. He's strong in the pick-and-roll.
37. Jeremy Tyler, U.S. big man in Japan: Barred from entering the NBA straight out of high school, Tyler played overseas last season. He's very long (7-4 wingspan). There have been some issues involving maturity, jumping straight into pro basketball.
38. Malcolm Lee, UCLA guard: A slasher with 6-5 height, Lee has the size and quick first step to get a shot at the NBA. The question is what position he'd play. He's not quite strong enough to defend top shooting guards, and he's not a natural playmaker.
39. Jordan Williams, Maryland power forward: A big, strong and sometimes lumbering power forward. His departure from Maryland seemed abrupt and some scouts think he would have benefitted from another college season.
40. Cory Joseph, Texas point guard: Has good size for the point at 6-3 and shot 41 percent from outside the college 3-point line in his only season at Texas. Maybe the Bobcats end up with two Longhorn point guards ...