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.
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