For many teams that haven’t made big moves in free agency or were already preparing for a down year next season, the much-ballyhooed potential 2014 class of NBA free agents is something to look forward to.
For instance, although the Lakers didn’t keep Dwight Howard, the organization has a full year to get ready for the likes of superstars LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony or young players such as Washington point guard John Wall and Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins to hit the open market. Unless, of course, James and Anthony don’t opt out of the final year of their current contracts and the Wizards and Kings sign Wall and Cousins to long-term extensions this fall.
While the Lakers have a rich tradition of importing established stars, several other organizations are looking toward next summer as a chance to improve the draft, as 2014 could feature a banner crop of prospects, like incoming freshmen Andrew Wiggins of Kansas, Chicago native Jabari Parker of Duke and others, who were recently covered in this space.
There’s still almost an entire year before full evaluations of the youngsters can be formulated, but the talent is so overwhelming that it’s already being billed as one of the top classes since 2003, when Anthony, James, and Heat teammates and fellow potential free agents Chris Bosh and Chicago native Dwyane Wade entered the league.
[MORE: Bulls free agency update]
Aside from the five college newcomers getting the most attention -- Wiggins, Parker, incoming Arizona freshman Aaron Gordon and the Kentucky duo of Julius Randle and Andrew Harrison -- there are also some very highly-regarded NCAA holdovers, including Oklahoma State sophomore Marcus Smart and a handful of international prospects viewed as having big-time potential.
There are other college players who presently intrigue NBA personnel people -- athletic Kentucky center Willie Cauley-Stein, Ohio State wing scorer LaQuinton Ross, versatile Michigan State shooting guard Gary Harris, diminutive but explosive Arizona State point guard Jahii Carson and Duke transfer Rodney Hood, a swingman with point-forward skills, among others -- but here’s an early look at the players who could comprise the 2014 NBA Draft lottery:
Dante Exum, 6-foot-5, Australia: The son of a former University of North Carolina player, Exum is expected to graduate this winter and is still undecided about whether he’ll attend college in the United States or simply enter the 2014 draft. The 17-year-old pure scorer who can play on or off the ball, Exum is currently getting rave reviews for his performance in the FIBA Under-19 Tournament, building off the buzz he created in the spring Nike Hoop Summit all-star game, where his World team defeated its American counterparts.
Aaron Gordon, 6-foot-8 freshman, Arizona: An explosive athlete with a high motor, Gordon is frequently compared to Clippers power forward Blake Griffin. However, while he isn’t as strong as the NBA All-Star, Gordon might possess better perimeter skills and more versatility.
Montrezl Harrell, 6-foot-8 sophomore, Louisville: Harrell was a reserve for the national champions and while he was still a work in progress as a freshman, his powerful physique and athleticism earned him a lot of attention. A physical inside player and adept rebounder, he should play a much bigger role for the Cardinals as a sophomore.
Andrew Harrison, 6-foot-5 point guard, Kentucky: His twin brother, shooting guard Aaron Harrison, will join him with the Wildcats, but Andrew stands out due to his size for his position. Equipped with excellent playmaking skills, a strong frame and scoring ability, Harrison fits the prototype of big NBA point guards.
Mario Hezonja, 6-foot-6, Croatia: An athletic wing with shooting range, Hezonja is a bit of a mystery man, but international scouts think highly of his potential. Strong, with an offensive mindset and the ability to play both inside and out, there’s always room on the next level for big perimeter scorers.
Mitch McGary, 6-foot-9 sophomore, Michigan: Heading into his final year of the prep level, McGary was a highly-touted recruit, saw his stock fall and struggled to gain consistent minutes as a freshman before breaking out toward the end of Michigan’s run to the national-title game. Extremely physical with good athleticism and a non-stop motor, McGary willingness to bang and oft-overlooked ball skills would have made him a first-round prospect this season and with another year of seasoning, he’ll be expected to be even better.
Jabari Parker, 6-foot-8 freshman, Duke: A product of Bulls superstar Derrick Rose’s alma mater, Parker had an unprecedented high-school career, but has been criticized for not being an elite-level athlete. Maybe the son of former pro Sonny Parker won’t win any NBA dunk contests, but he’ll certainly be able to put the ball in the basket with his combination of deep shooting range, post-up skills, ability to create off the dribble and high basketball I.Q., as well as his winning pedigree.
Adreian Payne, 6-foot-9 senior, Michigan State: The lone senior on this list, Payne has always had tantalizing athleticism, but finally started to put together a complete game last season. With his long wingspan, improved post moves, rebounding ability on both ends and a burgeoning face-up game -- not to mention the hard-nosed mentality demanded by Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo -- Payne’s potential is turning into production.
Julius Randle, 6-foot-9 freshman, Kentucky: An athletic power forward who has garnered Chris Webber comparisons, Randle has a nice inside-outside game. Expected by many observers to be Kentucky’s top player as a freshman, on a loaded squad, his statistics might not end up reflecting his level of talent, but his skills are enough that he should have his share of big moments next season.
Glenn Robinson III, 6-foot-6 sophomore, Michigan: Son of the former No. 1 overall pick known as “Big Dog,” Robinson is making a name for himself with a completely different game. While he had a more stable debut campaign than his teammate McGary, Robinson also endured bouts of inconsistency, but with his athleticism, shooting stroke and strong frame, with more assertiveness, he should be capable of taking on a bigger role.
Dario Saric, 6-foot-10, Croatia: A forward with a perimeter game, Saric was initially supposed to be in this year’s draft, but pulled out late, despite the fact that he was considered a lottery pick. Another year of development should help him add strength and polish, and even in an improved class of prospects, he’s still one of the better talents.
Marcus Smart, 6-foot-4 sophomore, Oklahoma State: Smart also nearly entered and although he was considered a top-five prospect, he made the commendable decision to return to school to both get better and accomplish more from a team perspective. A big, strong and athletic point guard, Smart is a natural leader who can mix it up inside with bigger players, distribute the ball at a high level and defend multiple positions, though his outside jumper still needs some work.
Andrew Wiggins, 6-foot-7 freshman, Kansas: Last on this list is the player considered the consensus top prospect, due to his combination of freak athleticism and all-around game. The son of former NBA player Mitchell Wiggins and a Canadian female track star, Wiggins is regarded by many observers as the most highly-anticipated wing player since James and while he doesn’t possess the same frame or playmaking ability, if he can hone his jumper and learn to be more assertive at all times, he has similar sky-high potential.