As we count down the final hours until the 2014 NBA draft, the doubt that existed about last year’s draft class – arguably one of the worst in league history – simply doesn’t exist this time around. What I can promise you about this year’s crop of prospects is that it will bring the excitement back to the NBA draft. As almost anyone who follows basketball will know, this class is loaded with young talent and star power. We’ve seen how high Zach LaVine can jump after many questioned his decision to leave school early, and will likely see 18 year-old phenoms Aaron Gordon and Dante Exum get drafted as top-10 picks.
We just witnessed the San Antonio Spurs dethrone the Miami Heat and bring the Larry O’Brien trophy back to Texas. Before that series, who would have ever thought they could stop LeBron James, the best player on the planet, from completing a historic three-peat? And who would have thought that on a team with future Hall-of-Famers Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan that Kawhi Leonard would be crowned Finals MVP?
Projected to be a lottery pick, Leonard fell to 15th in the 2011 draft and was selected for the Spurs by the Indiana Pacers, who received George Hill in return for Leonard’s draft rights. The Spurs found Leonard to be a perfect fit for their culture – a quiet player who goes about his business and works hard on both ends of the floor. That being said, I’ve broken down two players who could follow a similar path to Leonard’s, tweener forwards that lottery teams will likely pass on but will go onto bright, bright NBA futures.
TJ Warren, North Carolina State
Warren has all the tools in his game that remind of Leonard’s. He decided to leave school after his sophomore season just as Leonard did, and is listed as a 6-8 small forward/power forward. After averaging 24 points per game last season, he obviously has a bit more offense in his game than Leonard did coming out, but he surely won’t maintain that scoring prowess at the next level. Many parts of his game are similar to what Leonard’s are now, as he’s a capable shooter from both inside and outside. Warren has good scoring instincts and anticipation on defense, and is a capable rebounder on both sides of the floor.
There are two notable things that Warren could improve on: his perimeter defense and decision making. He isn’t a very good on-ball defender and forces bad shots from time to time. But certain aspects of his scouting report are eerily similar to Leonard’s, leading me to believe he’ll be a draft-day steal.
Jerami Grant, Syracuse
ESPN’s David Thorpe was actually the first (Insider only) to compare Grant to Kawhi Leonard, and rightfully so. Grant is following in Leonard’s footsteps, too, as he chose to leave school after his sophomore campaign. Grant certainly has the physical tools to be a NBA player, with great size and length. At Syracuse, he had the ability to play inside and bang with power forwards around the rim. He isn’t afraid to attack and finds ways to score despite lacking a reliable outside shot.
But what makes Grant a unique prospect and similar to Leonard is high high motor, ability to play both ends of the floor, and relentless commitment to winning. As Thorpe points out, teams need to learn that the league is sometimes more about a player’s development than immediate impact. Despite being limited offensively, Grant’s game is all about hustle and helping his team. And considering those attributes and his rare athleticism, NBA teams may want to consider selecting Grant earlier in the first round than projected.
(Videos via DraftExpress)
Could Warren or Grant be the next Kawhi Leonard?
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