Last year the Pac-10 was hands down the best basketball conference in the country. Things change awfully fast in college basketball
though, and this year the Pac-10 is among the bottom half of high major conferences because of the 2008 NBA draft. However, despite being raided by the NBA Draft last June the Pac-10 still has a quality group of players that are firmly on the NBA radar. In fact they have two players who could end up hearing their name in the top two. Without further delay, here's a look at the Pac-10's top prospects:
Darren Collison - 6'0 Guard (UCLA)
Last year Darren Collison saw a great junior campaign end in embarrassing fashion as former Memphis point guard Derrick Rose dominated him in the Final Four. Knowing that he still had areas he could improve in Collison opted to come back to UCLA where he would be the sole leader of this team with Kevin Love, Russell Westbrook, and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute gone to the NBA. The Bruins aren't as good as they were last year by a long shot, but Collison has done all he can to keep this team among the Pac-10's best.
Collison has been doing a great job this year of picking his spots offensively, averaging a very efficient 15 points a game on 59% shooting from the field. He's seen his three-point percentage drop, but it's still very respectable at 47%. Collison is defending at a very high level, and has done himself a lot of good in his senior season.
Projection: Late 1st round.
James Harden - 6'4 Shooting Guard (Arizona State)
In a season where a lot of players have failed to live up to expectations James Harden has absolutely blown his out of the water. There's no term that can describe Harden better than star, and Arizona State has been extremely lucky to have him for two seasons because it's been apparent for over a year and a half now that he's ready for the big show.
There's not much Harden isn't capable of on the basketball court, especially offensively. He's left-handed, making him even tougher to match up with, and has range that extends well beyond the NBA three-point line. Right now Oklahoma's Blake Griffin is a near lock for the top overall pick, and Harden should be hearing his name immediately after on draft night.
Projection: Top three.
Taj Gibson - 6'9 Power Forward (USC)
The increase is Taj Gibson's stock this year has been easily predictable. Last year in the Trojan's guard-centric offense Taj was forgotten about all too frequently, but on this younger team he's been focus offensively. Gibson has been a workhorse for the Trojans inside the paint, putting up a career best 15 points, 10 rebounds, and three blocks a game.
Gibson may not have ideal power forward size at 6'9, but he makes up for his size with effort and great intensity on the defensive side of the court. Offensively he's got a very serviceable game that should translate well to the next level. After seeing how quickly his stock can fall in the course of a year Gibson likely leaves while he's on the rise this offseason rather than leaving things up to chance in 2010.
Projection: Early 2nd round.
Jordan Hill - 6'10 Power Forward (Arizona)
There comes a time in every hard working, young, inexperienced big man's life where things just click. The 2008-2009 college basketball season has been that time for Jordan Hill. After two productive years at Arizona there were hopes that Hill would explode into a dominant big man, and he hasn't let anyone down.
Hill has the build and ability of an ideal NBA power forward. He's big, athletic, active, strong, and long as he has been since he arrived on campus. The only different now is that Hill has the experience to utilize his natural abilities and take over on the basketball court. Lots of things haven't come together as planned at Arizona the past few years, but Jordan Hill's development certainly has.
Projection: Top five.
Jeff Pendergraph - 6'9 Power Forward (Arizona State)
With his career as a Sun Devil coming to an end Jeff Pendergraph has continued to be solid and steady. Pendergraph's numbers are not much better than they were last year at 13 points and 7 boards a game, but the overall team success is at an all-time high and Pendergraph is a big reason why.
Pendergraph is really the only low post presence that the Sun Devils have. The rebounding numbers aren't where you would want them to be for an NBA big man, but Arizona State's loyalty to the zone defense has a lot to do with that. Offensively Pendergraph is going to mainly be a garbage point guy at the next level, but he has the talent to be a rotation big man.
Projection: Early 2nd round.
Chase Budinger - 6'7 Small Forward (Arizona)
Now in his third year at Arizona we may have seen Chase Budinger improve all that he's going to at the collegiate level. Coming in as a high profile recruit Chase has spent more time in Tucson than we originally anticipated, maybe partially due to the fact that there's been a coaching carousel going on with the Arizona Wildcats.
At 6'7 Budinger is a top-flight athlete that has a nice offensive arsenal that includes an improved perimeter game and a variety of back to the basket moves. We've learned that he's never going to be a lockdown defender on the perimeter, but Budinger will be a rotation player in the NBA.
Projection: Mid-late 1st round.
DeMar DeRozen - 6'7 Small Forward (USC)
There may have been unfair expectations for DeMar DeRozen after O.J. Mayo came in and made such a big impact immediately last season. Despite being one of the most productive Trojans so far this season he has come up drastically short of where many projected someone with his incredible talent level would at be this deep into the season.
DeRozen has not seen the opportunities offensively that he probably thought he was going to get when he committed to play for USC. However, as one of the premier athletes in the world DeRozen shouldn't let his lack of touches affect other aspects of his game. Although he's capable of much better, DeRozen has only grabbed five rebounds a game and doesn't even average a whole steal or block. DeMar was thought of as a viable one-and-done, but it's become apparent he needs longer.
Jrue Holiday - 6'3 Guard (UCLA)
When you forget about the great freshmen guards that dominated the country last year Jrue Holiday's 10 points, three rebounds, and three assists a game are actually quite impressive. However, with the memories of Eric Gordon, Derrick Rose, and O.J. Mayo fresh in our mind Holiday's production has left a lot to be desired for someone who was such a high-profile recruit.
Holiday doesn't have the free reign that those players did in their first year since he's on the same team as Darren Collison and Josh Shipp, which has a lot to do with why his production isn't higher. Still, Holiday was only supposed to be making a one year stop at UCLA and now he appears destined for at least another year. In his sophomore year he would be the man with Shipp and Collison out, and his stock would likely end back up where it was going into this season.
Projection: Late lottery.