Freshmen have been excluded from these previews, as we'd like to wait and see what they have to offer on the NCAA circuit before we come to any long-term conclusions.
First we start with the Big Ten, where the incredibly athletic Rodney Williams intrigues with his upside. Indiana sophomore Maurice Creek, Michigan State seniors Kalin Lucas and Durrell Summers and Purdue's JaJuan Johnson round out the top five.
#1 Rodney Williams, 6-7, Sophomore, Small Forward, Minnesota
11.9 minutes, 4.3 points, 1.6 rebounds, .4 steals, .7 blocks, 54% FG, 54.5% FT, 29% 3P
Many would scoff at deeming a player who averaged 4.3 points in 11.9 minutes per game the #1 returning prospect in the Big Ten conference. Indeed, Rodney Williams didn't produce like a top NBA prospect in the limited minutes he saw on the floor for Tubby Smith last season. Once you consider how downright freakishly athletic Williams is, though, combined with his prototypical size and intriguing perimeter shooting ability, you begin to understand why his upside is deemed be so high.
Standing a legit 6-7, Williams has terrific size for a wing. His long arms and excellent frame further complete the profile, giving him an outstanding base to build off when you take his unbelievable athleticism into consideration. Williams runs the floor like a deer and is a highlight reel waiting to happen in the open court. He elevates around the basket in a way that only most NBA slam dunk contest participants can, making your jaw drop at times at the explosiveness he shows getting off the ground.
Offensively, Williams is very much a work in progress at this point, as most of his production comes either off shooting 3-pointers, finishing in transition or off cuts to the basket, with very little coming in between. He gets great elevation on his jumper, showing surprisingly smooth mechanics, a good follow through, and a reasonably soft touch.
He doesn't always shoot the ball at the apex of his jump-shot, though, which leads to some very inconsistent results. Williams elevates so high off the ground that it's tough for him at times to get the timing down perfectly of when exactly to release the ball, making it difficult for him to shoot ball the same way every time. He's still working on the consistency of his jump-shot (and his 54.5% free throw shooting), and it might take a couple of years even for it to fully steady out, but there is plenty of room for optimism here.
Operating in Tubby Smith's extremely methodical half-court motion offense, Williams is a fairly limited player. His ball-handling skills are still very raw, as he needs to improve his ability to change directions with the ball, and is only capable of playing at one speed at the moment. He can beat his man off the dribble with his terrific first step and get to rim in a straight line, but struggles to create shots for himself otherwise in more advanced situations.
Similarly, he needs to improve his ability to finish through contact, as he has problems taking hits around the basket. Learning how to contort his body and draw fouls more effectively will be very important for him moving forward, as he still lacks significant polish with these little nuances of the game that most scorers possess. His decision making isn't always where it needs to be on top of that, and you'd like to see him do a better job of using his size to post up, particularly once he puts some meat on his frame. He lacks a degree of strength and toughness that may or may not be solved with added time and experience, something we'll have to continue to keep track of.
Williams is nonetheless a terror in transition, often being the first one streaking the floor on the break and being capable of taking off from incredible distances away from the rim and still finish effectively. His sheer athleticism puts him in position to make plenty of plays around the basket, which earns him lots of garbage points in the form of offensive rebounds and such, as he's capable of getting to places on the court that others simply can't. His teammates know how to take advantage of this quite well, and you regularly see them just throwing the ball in the general vicinity of the rim when he's on the court, letting him elevate over the top of the defense to flush it down emphatically. His ridiculous 2-point percentages at 68% clearly back that up.
While his offensive game will probably take some time to develop, defensively is where Williams could really make a name for himself if he applies himself. He has all the tools needed to be one of the best defenders in college basketball with his terrific size, length and athleticism, and you already saw flashes of that last year with the way he smothered opponents on the perimeter in small doses. He has the lateral quickness to stay in front of almost any type of player and the length to contest everything, making him a very versatile, dynamic threat to have out on the floor. That already manifested itself last year in the form of 2.3 blocks per-40 minutes and 1.5 steals, to go along with 5.4 rebounds.
With that said, Williams' intensity level wasn't always where it needed to be for a guy that was fighting for every second of playing time he was given. He looked lost and somewhat lackadaisical at timessomething that's not all that rare in players making the transition from high school to collegeand seems to lack something in the ways of fundamentals and awareness on this end of the floor. It's pretty clear that like with Williams' entire all-around game, he doesn't know how to fully use his amazing tools just yet.
It will be very interesting to see what kind of progress Williams has made over the course of the summer, as the 19-year old clearly had plenty to work on. It was disappointing to see how little playing time he was able to garner down the stretch for Minnesota last season, and we'll have to see how much faith Tubby Smith has in him this upcoming year. Despite the fact that Williams is probably not in an optimal situation at the moment, there's little doubt that an athlete of his caliber is capable of helping a team out at the college basketball level. We'll just have to see to what degree in his sophomore season.
#2 Maurice Creek, 6-5, Sophomore, Shooting Guard, Indiana
16.4 points, 3.8 rebounds, 1.8 assists, `1.5 turnovers, 1.4 steals, 53% FG, 45% 3FG, 76% FT
Indiana shooting guard Maurice Creek was emerging as one of the best freshmen in the country when he fractured his kneecap in late December and ended his season after just 12 games. Creek had already built quite the resume, however, including a 31-point outing against Kentucky and strong showings against Maryland and Mississippi. Now, as Indiana prepares for its third rebuilding season, Creek must quickly regain his old form and produce for the Hoosiers.
At 6'5 with a lanky and wiry frame, Creek does not readily pass the eye test for an NBA shooting guard, looking like he needs to continue to get stronger to handle more physical defenders. Until his frame fills out, he will remain just an above-average athlete as well, as he does not boast particularly impressive quickness or explosiveness. Despite his limitations, however, he is an incredibly smart basketball player and almost always plays both within his abilities and around his limitations.
Creek's physical profile raises quite a few questions about how he will fare on the offensive end nightly in the Big 10, not to mention the NBA. On tape, however, Creek adapted quickly to the competition, scoring 25.5 points per 40 minutes pace adjusted while shooting 60.9% from inside of the arc and 44.8% from outside. At this stage, he is an outstanding catch-and-shoot player, almost always squaring his body to the basket while boasting an incredibly quick release on his jump shot. His shooting motion is a bit unorthodox, but his percentages speak for themselves and in just 12 games, Creek established himself as one of the most efficient shooters in our entire database.
Though the sample size was small, Creek showed some solid progress scoring off of the dribble, as well. Though his first step is not particularly impressive, and his ball-handling skills are still improvable, he plays angles better than many his age and, at times, he did a good job of getting to the line by drawing contact in the lane. Next season, he must continue to utilize his basketball IQ to find opportunities at the rim or at the foul line. Similarly, he shows potential scoring from mid-range, where, despite his lack of countermoves, he can utilize his excellent scoring instincts to create space for himself and his teammates.
It is also worth mentioning that Creek is a solid passer and, at times, is the lead ball handler on the offensive end, further examples of his versatility and how much potential he has at the collegiate level. While his lack of ideal athleticism may limit him to a degree in the NBA, Creek should only get better at Indiana, where he can continue to build on his skill-set and find ways to involve his teammates on both ends of the floor.
On defense, Creek showed promise by playing very intelligently, including running over screens, moving his feet instead of his hands, and talking to his teammates. Unfortunately, against more athletic competition such as Kentucky, he noticeably struggled due to his average lateral quickness and lack of strength. This season, he must work on maintaining his fundamentals against better athletes, in addition to maintaining the intensity and effort that scouts have respected since he was in high school.
Creek is still a ways away from reaching his full athletic potential at this point, but he is already one of the Big Ten conference's top scorers. He is also one of the conference's most intelligent and skilled players. Assuming that he is as far along in the rehabilitation process as reports indicate, Creek should be able to pick up where he left off last season and continue to develop on both ends of the floor. While he played just 12 games last season, Creek is clearly a top prospect in the Big 10 conference, and with early-season trials against Kentucky, New Mexico, Boston College, and Northern Iowa, he should have no trouble proving himself to scouts even before the rigorous Big 10 conference schedule commences.
#3 Kalin Lucas, 6-1, Senior, Point Guard, Michigan State
14.8 points, 1.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists, 2.4 turnovers, 1.2 steals, 45% FG, 77% FT, 35% 3P
After a solid regular season in 2009-2010, Michigan State's Kalin Lucas had his postseason end prematurely when he suffered a torn left achilles tendon in the Spartans' opening round game of the NCAA tournament. Not only did the injury cost him the opportunity to be on the floor with his teammates as they made their run to the Final Four, but it was also a blow to any thoughts he may have had about declaring for the 2010 NBA Draft, which was perceived by many to be very thin at point guard.
Last season, Lucas continued to build upon what we already saw from him as an NBA point guard prospect. He functioned as his team's primary ball-handler initiating their half-court offense, while also spending time off the ball running off screens and freeing himself for open jump shots. His biggest strength though, is probably his understanding of how to run a team and manage the game from the point guard position. He generally makes good decisions with the ball in his hands, limits his turnovers, and does a nice job balancing getting his teammates involved and picking his spots to assert himself and look for his own offense.
As a creator off the dribble, Lucas may be somewhat limited at the NBA level due to his lack of elite explosiveness. While he does have a good top speed with the ball in his hands, he doesn't possess a lightning-quick first step. He does however display a sense of craftiness and an understanding of how to use change of pace dribbles. He's also comfortable as the ball-handler in pick-and roll situations, often making the correct reads, whether it's a drive to the basket, a jumpshot for himself, or a pass to a teammate. When attacking the basket, Lucas does a good job of initiating contact and drawing fouls, but his lack of size and elevation often prevents him from finishing at the rim.
Shooting is another strong point of Lucas's compared with other point guard prospects. According to Synergy Sports Technology, he shot a solid 42.3% on jump shots in the 2009-2010 season, with almost no difference between his off the catch and off the dribble percentages. One area for him to work on here will be improving his range, so that he can make a smooth transition to the NBA 3 point line.
While Lucas isn't an elite athlete, he does seem have the lateral speed and quickness necessary to defend NBA point guards. His lack of size and length is his biggest issue on this end, though, which could give him trouble challenging shots and defending some of the more physically imposing point guards on penetration. He'll need to continue to play with high energy and utilize his smarts and toughness to help compensate for that.
Lucas is guy who most scouts have probably already built an impression on one way or another after playing at a high major program for three seasons. While his upside may not be tremendous, he's been one of the best point guards in the college game for the past two seasons, and he possesses the all-around skill set and intangibles to potentially be a contributor as an excellent backup point guard or fringe starter in the NBA. The most important thing for him to show this season to make that happen, will be that his achilles injury is not a major concern.
#4 Durrell Summers, 6'4, Senior, Shooting Guard, Michigan State
11.3 Points, 4.7 Rebounds, 0.8 Assists, 1.8 Turnovers, 45.5% FG, 35.8% 3FG, 79.5%
2010 proved to be a rollercoaster ride for the Michgan State Spartans. Losing Kalin Lucas early in the NCAA Tournament, Tom Izzo's squad fell just one shot short of a return trip to the National Championship Game. Much of the team's tournament success can be attributed to the inspired play of Durrell Summers. After being benched earlier in the season for a lack of defensive intensity, the Detroit native was all business after a series of meetings with Tom Izzo and his teammates and was quick to announce his intention to return to MSU. Heading into his senior season, Summers has some work to do to solidify his draft stock, but if his play in the tournament is any indication, he may have finally turned the corner in his development.
The name of the game for Summers remains his consistency. Whether it was his intensity on the defensive end, his jump shot, or his shot selection, the talented senior still struggled mightily at times last season. His reliance on his perimeter game for a player with his athleticism, lack of midrange shooting, and suspect ball handling ability remain concerns, but for the second straight year, Summers used the NCAA Tournament to remind scouts why he has been billed as a potential first round pick at various points in his career. Taking Tom Izzo's advice to heart, Summers looked like a different player in March. While his weaknesses were still apparent, his effort level defensively sparked his offense and allowed him to use his athleticism in transition and get into a rhythm early each game.
With Chris Allen headed to Iowa State, Raymar Morgan moving on to Israel, and Kalin Lucas returning to school, Summers has the opportunity rebuild his resume with more possessions next a high-quality point guard. Last season, he failed to use his momentum from the previous NCAA Tournament run to improve his draft stock despite seeing more opportunities working off screens in Michigan State's offense and being a bit more productive inside the arc. Summers' play next season could be the limiting factor on Michigan State's success, especially if he can't stay out of Coach Izzo's doghouse.
As it stands, Summers will rank as one of the better shooting guards in the senior class. From an NBA perspective, his ability to fit into an offense as an off-screen threat and spot up shooter give him value in addition to his merits athletically. If he can be more aggressive as a slasher, make the easy pass instead of taking a tough shot, and consistently use his excellent defensive tools, he could make a strong case for himself heading into the 2011 draft. The talent is there, as we've seen time and time again, but this is Summers' last chance to prove that he can impact a game every time he steps on the floor.
#5 JaJuan Johnson, 6'11, PF/C, Senior, Purdue
15.5 points, 7.1 rebounds, 2.1 blocks, 1.8 turnovers, 51% FG, 72% FT
After steadily improving his production in each of the first three seasons of his collegiate career, JaJuan Johnson has put himself firmly on the NBA draft radar as a senior, though many questions about his game still loom. How Johnson improves some of the weaker areas of his game will be critical in determining his draft stock come June, and he will have plenty of eyes on him playing on a talented veteran squad that returns its top three scorers.
From a skill standpoint, Johnson is still mostly the same player he was a year ago, making subtle improvements in a few areas, but not making big leaps in any particular category. He's developed into a very reliable back-to-the-basket player at the college level over his three years, relying heavily on a finesse game highlighted by turnaround jumpers and right-handed hook shots, both of which have extremely high release points and great touch. He finishes both of these moves with high consistency at this level, showing range out to 10 feet even, often putting in high difficulty shots with a hand in his face.
While Johnson is very effective in the post at this level, some concerns arise when projecting to the NBA, and these are all areas he hasn't shown much progress with in his college career. With his lack of bulk, Johnson does not respond well to physicality on the block, and despite being able to shoot over virtually everyone he faces, he tends to struggle whenever someone gets into his body while shooting. Johnson also lacks anything resembling a left hand, and doesn't show the greatest command of counter moves either, often not needing to rely on them given his extremely high release point and ability to hit tough shots fading away from the basket. Projecting to the next level, both of these areas are concerning, and it would be beneficial to his stock if he comes back to school stronger and with more of a mean streak, as he's shy to go up for power moves even when directly under the basket.
From the perimeter, Johnson shows pretty good form and touch on his jump shot, which has range out to just inside the college three-point line, but his efficiency on jumpers isn't great (0.8 points per shot according to Synergy Sports Technology), primarily because he takes so many of his shots from just inside the arc. While Johnson's form boasts a high release, consistent mechanics, and very good balance, he does tend to jump into his shots at times, and also could quicken his release a bit by not bringing the ball down to his waist as often, fixing both of which could lead to more clean looks without a hand in his face.
From a face-up position, Johnson continues to show flashes of taking his man off the dribble, looking surprisingly comfortable with the ball going left and right, but despite his long strides, he doesn't do a great job separating from his man and finishing at the basket on these forays, lacking the power to go through his man. This may be the most intriguing area of Johnson's game in the long term, however, and is something scouts will certainly be paying attention to this season.
With his excellent length and high level of coordination, Johnson shows good ability finishing on cuts, pick-and-rolls, and in transition, all of which would probably be more integral to his game at the next level, given the concerns about how his post game projects to translate. Still, even this area could benefit from more lower and upper body strength, as despite his extremely high levels of coordination and fluidity, Johnson doesn't seem to be at his potential explosively as an athlete.
Defensively, Johnson is an active defender who uses his length well in weakside situations, blocking a good number of shots on rotations in the lane. He tends to stick with his man well off the ball and shows good awareness of what's happening on the floor as well. In the post, he does a good job using his length to contest shots, keeping his hands up most of the time, however he shows major problems getting leverage with his lack of strength and high center of gravity, and he is often easily overpowered and outmaneuvered here, struggling heavily with physical players.
On the perimeter, he doesn't have the greatest lateral quickness due to his high center of gravity, but with his long strides and excellent length, he does a great job staying on his defenders hip on drives while contesting the ball from behind, doing so at a very effective level. His pick-and-roll defense is solid, as he shows good awareness and activity level, but this is one area where he doesn't use his length as effectively as he could, often keeping his arms at his sides when he could be smothering a trap or shutting down passing lanes. With his physical attributes, Johnson has good potential defending the pick-and-roll, and this is something he should be highly focused on improving as a senior, especially given the extreme importance of the pick-and-roll in the NBA.
Perhaps the biggest issue in projecting Johnson to the NBA continues to be his poor rebounding production. Despite playing center on an undersized Purdue squad, Johnson posted an unimpressive 9.1 rebounds per-40 minutes pace adjusted, further highlighting his strength limitations and lack of toughness. Considering the fact that he's not quite skilled enough to be viewed as a real go-to option in the NBA, he must be able to carve out a niche for himself in areas such as this. Right now he ranks amongst the worst rebounding big men in college basketball amid likely draft prospects.
Overall, Johnson has quite a few things he does very well, and he's certainly improved well in his three years in college, however many question marks still remain, and his struggles with physicality on both ends of the floor are major concerns projecting to the next level, as those are issues that can be exploited easily. As of now, Johnson likely projects as a second round pick, but he could certainly move up if he shows improvements in some of his problem areas while continuing to make good use of the things he already does very well.