Top NBA Draft Prospects in the Big Ten, Part Two (#2-5)

Top NBA Draft Prospects in the Big Ten, Part Two (#2-5)
Sep 08, 2012, 01:57 pm
To get a jump on the rapidly approaching NCAA season, we're once again breaking down the top individual NBA prospects in college basketball, going conference by conference, starting with the Big Ten. We continue with prospects ranked 2-5, including Trey Burke, DeShaun Thomas, Aaron Craft and Branden Dawson.

Incoming freshmen have been excluded from these previews, as we'd like to wait and see what they have to offer on the NCAA level before we come to any long-term conclusions.

-Top NBA Draft Prospects in the Big Ten, Part One (#1) - Cody Zeller Video Scouting Report

#2 Trey Burke, 6-0, Sophomore, Point Guard, Michigan

Jonathan Givony

Ranked as a borderline top-100 high school prospect by recruiting services just a year ago, few could have projected Trey Burke developing into one of the best freshmen point guards in college basketball, splitting Big Ten freshman of the year awards with Indiana's Cody Zeller, and being named to the All-Big Ten Second Team.

After a disappointing first round NCAA tournament exit at the hands of the Ohio Bobcats, Burke was already out the door last spring according to all accounts. He reportedly made up his mind to leave Michigan for the uncertainty of the 2012 NBA draft, where he was considered a possible first rounder in a shallow class for point guards.

Burke ended up changing his mind a few days later after heavy pressure from his parents, coaches and Michigan fans, and now returns as one of the faces of college basketball and the leader of a team ranked in the top-10 of most preseason rankings.

Measured at 6-0 in shoes at the Lebron James Academy this summer, Burke has average size for a NBA point guard. His 6-5 wingspan will help him a lot in overcoming that, though, as will his excellent athletic ability and aggressive mentality.

As the primary ball-handler of the slowest tempo team in the Big Ten conference, with no real post presence and very few creators besides him, Burke is by nature a very ball-dominant point guard. A huge amount of his offensive possessions (nearly half) come in pick and roll situations, where he is pretty effective.

Extremely fast in the open floor, Burke is an excellent ball-handler, capable of playing at different speeds and showing a terrific burst blowing by opponents en-route to the rim. He does a good job of keeping his dribble alive and weaving his way around traffic, which allows him to draw the defense and find open shooters spotting up on the wing or cutters diving to the basket.

While much more of a scorer than a pure playmaker at this stage, Burke is capable of creating for others as well, doing a good job reading the floor and anticipating teammates getting open. He makes smart passes ahead in transition, and is very effective in particular on the drive and dish.

Burke's best weapon offensively revolves around his jump-shot, as he has very good shooting mechanics, and is equally effective spotting up with his feet set as he is pulling up off the dribble. He in fact took almost twice as many jumpers off the dribble last season as he did with his feet set, but made both at nearly the same rate (38-39%).

The thing that hurts Burkes' offensive efficiency the most is his propensity for losing patience and falling in love with the pull-up 3-point jumper, something he does on a couple of occasions per game, sometimes before any of his teammates get a chance to touch the ball. Nearly half of his field goal attempts come from beyond the arc, and he makes 35% of them. Pull-up jumpers from 3-point range aren't a particularly high percentage shot for anyone, but he takes plenty of them every game, sometimes by necessity. Now that he will have more help around him this season (Michigan's incoming recruiting class is very strong), it will be interesting to see how well Burke can utilize the new different options he has at his disposal, and whether he can improve his fairly paltry 0.73 Pure Point Rating.

The place Burke's size seems to affect him the most is as a finisher around the basket, where he makes just 50% of his attempts, and gets to the free throw line 4.4 times per-40 minutes, both average rates. While a pretty solid leaper for his size, Burke tends to struggles finishing in traffic against better competition. This could be an even more pronounced issue in the NBA, where everyone is taller, stronger, longer and more athletic, especially the big men. Getting stronger could help here, as could developing a better in-between game inside the lane to finish over the top of taller defenders.

The area where Burke might be scrutinized the most heavily this upcoming season by NBA talent evaluators is on the defensive end. Already projected to give up a couple of inches in most NBA matchups, Burke isn't the toughest or most attentive defender you'll find, not doing a great job keeping his man in front of him, and sometimes looking like he's only going half-speed on this end of the floor. While he has the length and quickness to be relatively effective here, and will show that in small doses from time to time when really called upon, he doesn't really put as much pride into his work on this end of the court as he does offensively.

Still very young, and shouldering an inordinately large share of responsibility as his team's primary ball-handler, facilitator and scorer, Burke looked pretty wore down by the end of last season. He has plenty of time to improve defensively, something that NBA teams would likely want to see considering the concerns that already exist due to his below average size.

There aren't a huge number of 6-0 point guards in the NBA right now, but the ones that are are similar to Burke-- extremely fast, excellent ball-handlers, and prolific scorers who can shoot with range, play the pick and roll and show great poise, confidence and toughness. There will surely be adjustments that he'll need to make to playing in the NBA, particularly if asked to start off in a backup role, but Burke looks to have the talent to do so.

Coming off an unexpectedly strong freshman campaign, NBA teams will be watching closely all season to see how Burke follows up as a sophomore and whether he's able to take his game, and his team, to the next level.

#3 DeShaun Thomas, 6'8, Junior, PF/SF, Ohio State

Matt Williams

After a breakout sophomore season at Ohio State, Deshaun Thomas opted against entering his name in the 2012 NBA Draft. Heading back to Columbus along with fellow rising juniors, and returning starters Aaron Craft and Lenzelle Smith Jr., the name of the game for Thomas this season is opportunity. With Jared Sullinger and William Buford moving on to the pro level, the Buckeyes will rely heavily on Thomas's prolific scoring ability to propel them to another deep tournament run, giving him ample opportunity to build his resume and answer some questions about his game in advance of the 2013 NBA draft.

If there is one thing the 6'7 combo forward appears eager to do, it is take on a bigger role offensively. As aggressive a scorer as you'll find at the NCAA level, Thomas is a threat to take and make shots from anywhere on the floor thanks to his outstanding touch and tremendous offensive instincts. Ranking 6th in the Big Ten in points per-40, field goal attempts, and True Shooting Percentage last year, the All-Big Team 2nd Team Selection matched his scoring aggressiveness with tremendous efficiency.

Thomas's efficiency as a sophomore was rooted in his improved perimeter shooting and continued success finding ways to score closer to the rim. Constantly hunting open space on the floor, the sophomore improved his jump shooting conversion accuracy from 28% as a freshman to 38% last year ┬ľa significant rise considering nearly half his shots were jumpers according to Synergy Sports Technology.

As well as Thomas shot the ball as sophomore by doing a better job squaring his body to the rim and shooting in rhythm, he still tended to fall in love with his jump shot too quickly and force the issue from the outside. His touch makes him a tremendous midrange-to-short range shooter, even off of a jab or when off balance, but he has room to improve his 35% shooting from 3-point range.

As aggressive as the Indiana native was from the perimeter, he was just as active cutting to the basket and crashing the offensive glass. Shooting an outstanding 64% at the rim last season in Ohio State's disciplined offense, Thomas found ways to make his presence felt around the rim despite his lack of great explosiveness.

Thomas's role last season was characterized by the polarizing presence of Jared Sullinger. Playing off Sullinger on the block, Thomas was not frequently relied upon to create his own shot one-on-one from the perimeter or the post, even though he's consistently shown promise as a back-to-the-basket threat. With Sullinger out of the picture, Thomas's versatility will be an asset to Head Coach Thad Matta as he will look to make the most of Thomas's skills. The onus will be on Thomas to take advantage of those opportunities and respond to the pressures associated with being a first option, as he'll see his usage expand against defenses who are keying in on him every time he steps on the floor.

The biggest question-mark for Thomas heading into this season is whether he will come into his own on the defensive end. Lacking great size for the power forward position and the lateral quickness to deny dribble penetration against quicker wings on the perimeter, Thomas doesn't have great physical tools and was often maligned for the intensity he showed on that end of the floor. He'll need to bring more energy to the defensive end to have any chance of alleviating concerns about his ability to defend either forward spot at the next level.

There's no questioning DeShaun Thomas's talent on the offensive end. Cut from the same mold as Al Harrington, his ability to put the ball in the basket as a face-up power forward is something teams clearly value in today's NBA, even if he's prone to trying to shoot his way out of slumps for better or worse. His lack of size and explosiveness raises some concerns about how his offensive arsenal will translate, and offer few answers to persistent questions about his defensive ability. Regardless, Thomas seems poised to rank among the best scorers in high-major hoops this season and will have ample opportunity to show improvement on both ends of the floor. Having already received some praise for showing up to the adidas Nations event in great shape, the early returns have been positive.

#4 Aaron Craft, 6'2, Point Guard, Junior, Ohio State

Kyle Nelson

After a promising freshman campaign, Aaron Craft had a very strong sophomore season, leading the Ohio State Buckeyes to a 31-8 record and Thad Matta's second Final Four. Without All-Conference talents Jared Sullinger and William Buford on campus, however, Craft will have to embrace a larger role on the offensive end, while continuing to be the Buckeye's premier defensive stopper and distributor.

Though he is just an average athlete in terms of quickness in the open floor and explosiveness around the basket, Craft's lateral quickness is tremendous, and he still has a built frame with strength and toughness to spare. Beyond a simple physical or athletic profile, however, Craft is incredibly active, agile, and aggressive, which allows him to stay in front of his man, draw charges, and disrupt perimeter scorers better than perhaps any player in college basketball.

As was the case the last time we wrote about him, Craft's defense remains both his most effective skill and what sets him apart as a NBA prospect at this stage. Simply put, he is a lockdown man-to-man defender, who stays involved even after he has been beaten and is a terror for opposing ball-handlers to deal with on the perimeter. Though he will need to adapt his style somewhat to the bigger, stronger and more talented guards he'll find in the NBA, he projects favorably as a defender at the next level, despite possessing a seemingly average physical profile at the collegiate level.

Despite being an elite defender, Craft has a long way to go on the other end of the floor. One of the least productive scoring point guard prospects in our database last season, Craft improved his offensive output marginally as a sophomore in a slightly expanded role on offense, and should have ample opportunities to take a much bigger jump as a junior, which teams will likely want to see him do.

In particular, one area in which he looked more aggressive is off of the dribble, operating far better out of the pick-and-roll, finding open lanes, and attacking the basket. His lack of an elite first step and average leaping ability limit him as a slasher, as he gets his shot blocked quite often, and doesn't get to the free throw line very often, but his strength and bullish demeanor allowed him to carve out space and find room to score around the basket. Additionally, he showed increased comfort pulling up off of the dribble and knocking down shots from mid-range, impressive considering his overall increased shooting efficiency and impressive 55.4% 2FG.

To Craft's credit, he is an efficient scorer, shooting 50% from the field last year, which separates him from almost all of his counterparts in the sub-11 point per-40 range, most of whom can only dream of scoring as efficiently as him.

He regressed as a long-range shooter, however, making just 35.9% of his 2.0 attempts per 40 minutes pace adjusted. His mechanics were inconsistent as a sophomore, and he struggled with a hitched and oftentimes slow release. Additionally, he looked far more comfortable with his feet set and with space to shoot, than off of the dribble or with a hand in his face. Working on maintaining fluidity in his form on contested jumpers and off of the dribble should be a priority looking forward, especially given the fact that he may be relied upon more in this capacity as a junior.

Though not as flashy as some of the NCAA's elite point guard prospects, Craft is a steady distributor, with solid court vision and an impressive 2.15 assist to turnover ratio. He is not a prototypical drive-and-dish or pick-and-roll oriented point guard, but he nevertheless dictates the tempo of Ohio State's offense well while showing the ability to find his teammates in half court and up-tempo situations alike. Moving forward, scouts will be watching to see if he is capable of developing a more aggressive and distinctive identity as a playmaker with what should be a greatly expanded role in the offense.

Despite maintaining a relatively low profile thus far in his college career, Craft will have every opportunity to raise his stock in scouts' eyes with a breakout junior season. If he continues to improve his offensive game and develops further as a point guard, he already has the IQ, basketball and otherwise, defensive ability, and demeanor to succeed in a rotation at the next level in the mold of defensive stoppers such as Derek Fisher and Eric Snow.

#5 Branden Dawson, 6-6, Sophomore, Small Forward, Michigan State

Jonathan Givony

In the midst of a solid freshman campaign, Branden Dawson suffered a torn ACL in his left knee on March 4th, ending what was otherwise a very promising season that put him firmly on the radar of NBA teams.

Dawson's recovery has reportedly gone extremely well, and he recently tweeted that he's "100% and good to go for the season."

The former McDonald's All-American played 21 minutes per game last year as part of Michigan State's rotation, mostly at the small forward position. With seniors Draymond Green, Brandon Wood and Austin Thornton graduating, Dawson's minutes and role will likely increase in his sophomore year.

Dawson's biggest appeal at the moment revolves around his terrific physical attributes. He has solid size for the wing at 6-6, a 6-9 wingspan, a chiseled frame, and tremendous athletic ability, which he's more than happy putting to full use on any given possession. Dawson is an extremely fluid and explosive forward, quick off his feet, with a very good second bounce, as evidenced by his excellent offensive rebounding and shot-blocking numbers.

Dawson wasn't a prolific scorer last season, but he was extremely efficient, making an excellent 59% of his 2-point attempts. Rarely asked to do much shot-creation in Michigan State's offense last season, Dawson played almost exclusively off the ball. He gets most of his possessions off cuts, crashing the offensive glass, and running the floor in transition, where he is simply a tremendous finisher thanks to his athletic gifts and aggressive mentality. It will be interesting to see what type of role he assumes now that the focal point of Michigan State's offense, Draymond Green, is off to the NBA.

With his strong frame and quick first step, Dawson is capable of putting the ball on the floor a bit in a straight line, especially driving left, but he's not what you would describe as a great ball-handler at this stage. He has a tough time changing speeds or directions with the ball after his initial drive is cut off, which makes it difficult for him to create his own shot in pick and roll or isolation situations like most NBA wing players are expected to. He does, however, show nice potential as a post-up threat, which will serve him well both next season and down the road.

Dawson's biggest Achilles heel by far is his perimeter shot, as he didn't make a single 3-pointer last season, and hit just 59% of his free throws. This is a major concern when projecting to the NBA, as there is virtually no such thing as a small forward that is not even remotely a threat to make a long-range jump-shot in today's NBA. To his credit, his shooting mechanics, while fairly deliberate, aren't terrible, and he did make a handful of mid-range jumpers as the year moved on, so there is certainly hope he can still develop this part of his game considering he's only 19 years old.

Dawson was supposed to have this entire summer to dedicate to skill-development, but instead he was forced to focus on rehabbing his knee. That might have set back his development somewhat--something we'll learn a lot more about once the season starts.

Dawson's most consistent skill is the toughness and energy he brings on every possession. He's a tremendous offensive rebounder (#1 amongst all NCAA small forwards in fact)), and also ranked as the best shot-blocking small forward amongst freshmen. He was already one of the best wing defenders in the Big Ten last year, despite only being a freshman.

Dawson has ideal physical attributes for the defensive end, with his excellent size, length, frame and athleticism. He has the lateral quickness to stay in front of guards, and the strength to contain forwards, making him an extremely versatile asset guarding the pick and roll in particular. He puts a great effort in and has excellent instincts as a shot-blocker and ball-thief, which, all things considered, will likely make him an appealing prospect for NBA teams even regardless of how his offense comes along.

Where and when Dawson might get drafted will largely depend on the development of his ball-handling skills, perimeter shooting ability, and all-around scoring ability, which we'll have to continue to track over the next year or two at Michigan State.

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