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Chad Ford: Lessons learned in Vegas, Pt. I

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Posted May 20, 2010 - 01:37 PM

They say that what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas, but I'm about to spill a few draft secrets from Sin City.

I spent the past two days with trainer Joe Abunassar, of Impact Basketball in Vegas, looking at a number of first-round prospects. Abunassar has a great track record with clients like Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Danny Granger, Rudy Gay and many others. This year he has a whopping 20-plus prospects in his gym preparing for the draft.

Here are the first five things I learned, with five more coming your way Friday:

1. Avery Bradley's preseason hype wasn't misguided.

Freshmen John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors may be all the rage at the top of the draft, but in April of 2009, ESPNU ranked Texas combo guard Avery Bradley as the top prospect from the high school class of 2009. Bradley didn't dominate in college the way Wall or Cousins did, though. He started the season coming off the bench and didn't really get it going until midseason. After that, his play was up-and-down. He'd score 29 points one night and get just 3 points the next.

But a few things became clear over the course of the season. First, Bradley was, hands down, the best perimeter defender in college basketball. His physical, up-in-your-grill approach frustrated virtually everyone he matched up with.

Second, Bradley has the type of elite quickness and explosiveness that has come to define a new breed of top NBA guards, like Rajon Rondo and Russell Westbrook.

What Bradley lacked was a concrete position, a definitive role on his team and a sense of confidence.

NBA teams have been all over the place on his evaluations. A few have looked at him as a late lottery pick. Others have him as a bubble first-rounder. I've sort of split the difference all year on the Big Board and have had him consistently in the late teens to early 20s on our Top 100.

After spending two days watching him both in drills and in 3-on-3 play, I think it's time to move Bradley up into the late lottery.

I'm still not sure if he's a pure point guard, and that's a serious drawback. But everything else looks pretty good. He's super-quick and can change speeds on a dime. He showed an excellent jumper, with NBA 3-point range. He displayed the ability to score from just about everywhere on the floor. And when he got into it with the likes of Sherron Collins and Armon Johnson, his stifling defense gave them lots of problems.

Bradley measured 6-foot-1½ in socks and 6-3 in shoes, but has an impressive 6-7 wingspan, ran a blazing 3.03 seconds in a three-quarter-court sprint and showed off an impressive 37.5-inch vertical jump. Those numbers are quite similar to his two closest comps, Westbrook and San Antonio's George Hill. And like Westbrook and Hill, no one is exactly sure what position Bradley plays. He sees the floor fine, but he rarely makes a showstopping pass.

I spoke with Bradley after the workouts about his up-and-down season at Texas. He said he felt he was on par with the more heralded freshmen like Wall and Cousins. What he lacked was a coach who turned the keys over to him. Texas had seniors like Damion James and Dexter Pittman and he tried to fit in and defer to them -- a role he said Rick Barnes asked him to play.

I think he'll be in serious consideration for a few lottery teams, like the Indiana Pacers, Memphis Grizzlies and Toronto Raptors (who sent a scout to the workout), that could use help at the point.

2. Lance Stephenson is out to transform his rep.

Speaking of recent high school phenoms, Cincinnati freshman Lance Stephenson was also in the house. Stephenson was ranked in the top 10 by many scouting services coming out of high school (No. 12 by ESPNU), but a bad reputation scared away a lot of colleges and has marred the opinion of many who've watched him play.

What I saw on Tuesday and Wednesday may cause some to reconsider. Abunassar has been working on Stephenson's conditioning. He is down to 227 with 9.4 percent body fat. He looks as cut and as lean as I've ever seen him. The better conditioning has clearly helped his game. He's lighter on his feet, more explosive and able to keep his intensity up for longer periods of time.

The guy can flat-out score. He's got a nice midrange jumper, can pound it down low and is always hunting for his shot. He wasn't overly selfish (despite the rep), but when a scoring opportunity came, he took it.

I pushed him a little bit after the workout on his bad rep. He was up-front with me that he may have let things get to his head in college. But the last season has been a humbling one for him. He has realized that hype alone won't get him into the league, and he has buckled down to work on his game.

While I don't think Stephenson is a lottery pick, there aren't 30 more talented players in the draft. I'm not sure how he'll handle all the distractions that the NBA brings, but his game is well-suited to the league.

In 3-on-3 games on Wednesday, he challenged Oklahoma State's James Anderson for the most points scored in the morning. He got his points in a variety of ways. He was unconscious from midrange, took the ball to the basket and even posted up a little. While there is clearly more room for maturity on and off the court, he's a talent who could get minutes immediately in the NBA.

3. James Anderson and Manny Harris can really score.

Oklahoma State's James Anderson and Michigan's Manny Harris can clearly put the ball in the bucket, but they do it in different ways.

Anderson isn't the quickest nor the most explosive athlete, but he uses his size, toughness and a knowledge of how to get to the basket and get separation to pour in the points. While he wasn't a showstopper in the drills portion on Tuesday, when they rolled out the ball for 3-on-3 play on Wednesday, he dominated. No one who guarded him could do much to stop him. He even displayed an underrated skill -- his ability to hit the open man when the defense collapses in the lane.

Harris uses quickness and athleticism to get it done. If you combined Anderson's basketball IQ with Harris' physical tools, you'd have the perfect 2-guard.

I think Anderson's range is pretty well set at this point. It probably starts with the Raptors at 13. The Milwaukee Bucks should have major interest at 15 and he most likely won't get past the Chicago Bulls at 17. Harris, however, is tougher to project, but should go somewhere between 25 and 40.

4. Craig Brackins has no regrets.

The most surprising prospect in the gym had to be Iowa State's Craig Brackins.

A few minutes into the warm-ups on Tuesday, Abunassar told me that Brackins had a 40-inch vertical. Having watched him at Iowa State over the past two years, I was really skeptical. Abunassar presented me with the testing results later that day and I tweeted them that night. On Wednesday morning Brackins told me that his phone blew up that night with texts and calls from people at Iowa State. "No one believed that I could jump that high," Brackins said with a smile.

While he's clearly not as bouncy as UConn's Stanley Robinson, Brackins showed again and again on Tuesday and Wednesday that he's a much better athlete than we've given him credit for. He was slamming home alley-oops, attacking the basket with authority and running the floor well.

But those things aren't the major selling points for Brackins. What is more impressive is his ability to stretch the floor with his jump shot and score in the post. Few players have the ability to do both well. In drills, Brackins was on fire. It seemed as though he was hitting every jump shot, including NBA 3-pointers. Inside, he showed excellent footwork and touch around the basket. In the games on Wednesday he repeatedly scored over Robinson in the post.

Brackins was ranked 11th on our Big Board at the start of the season and slowly watched his stock sink all the way into the second round by the end, after he struggled to replicate his numbers from his sophomore year. Many people, including me, questioned his decision to return to school for his junior year. Brackins defended the choice, saying he felt he wasn't ready for the NBA physically and enjoyed college. He says he's gotten stronger and, for the first time, had to overcome adversity when college teams double- and triple-teamed him every night.

"I may not have put up better numbers as a junior," he said. "But I became a better player, physically and mentally. If the NBA scouts liked me as a sophomore, I think they'll see I'm a better player because of last year."

Given his measurements and athletic numbers, most NBA teams will agree, and we could see him move back up the charts to where he started the season. There are few big guys in the draft who can score like he can.

5. Sherron Collins and Armon Johnson could find ways into Round 1.

The draft is weak for point guards, so two prospects -- Nevada's Armon Johnson and Kansas' Sherron Collins -- are doing their best to capitalize on that situation and get into the first round.

Of the two, Johnson has the physical advantage. He measured 6-2 in socks and 6-3½ in shoes, with a very impressive 6-7½ wingspan. He's got thick shoulders, is very fast for his size and can explode at the basket. As far as point guards go, he's a physical specimen.

Johnson is at his best when he's slashing to the basket. His jump shot is inconsistent and he showed mixed results with it in drills and 3-on-3 games. He has a good handle but doesn't necessarily show the elite court vision that other top point guards possess. He reminded me of Ramon Sessions a bit.

Collins is clearly undersized at 5-10½ in socks (though he'd argue he's a 6-footer in shoes). He has a super-thick frame which, at times during his college career, moved from thick to fat. But that's no longer the case. On first glance I thought Collins still needed to lose 15 pounds. Then he took off his shirt and showed off his washboard abs. He's not overweight. He's just built like a brick house.

I've seen Collins more than any player in this draft over the years, so I can't say I noticed anything new about his game. He continues to possess one of the best crossover dribbles in the draft. He's quick and powerful and can get his shot off against just about anyone. He's charismatic on the court and clearly a leader. And he still, even in a workout setting, sometimes tries to do too much. For every two good shots he takes, there's a bad one in there too.

When it got to the 3-on-3 games, no one was more competitive than Collins. He kept pushing and pushing guys and at the end of the morning, his team went an impressive 7-1. He would be a great energy point guard off the bench if he can handle not being the alpha dog on a team. But I'm not sure he knows anything but the alpha dog role.


Edited by LALakersFan4Life, May 20, 2010 - 01:38 PM.

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