NBA free agency begins at midnight Eastern time Monday and while headlines will focus largely on the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, as well as the pursuit of other impact players, such as Josh Smith, Andre Iguodala and even what the future holds for injured center Andrew Bynum (it’s assumed that All-Star point guard Chris Paul will return to the Clippers now that Doc Rivers is in Los Angeles and that the Pacers will do everything within their power to keep power forward David West in Indiana), as well as lower-profile names, it won’t be surprising to see several teams, even those with cap space, not be overly concerned about bringing in high-salaried veterans.
That’s because of what 2014 has in store, and not just a potential free-agent class that could include the likes of Carmelo Anthony and the Heat trio of LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh (if they opt out of the final year of their respective contracts), as well as aging stars like Kobe Bryant and Dirk Nowitzki, among many others in what’s being billed as the best free-agent crop since the banner offseason of 2010.
While potentially acquiring the aforementioned superstars is a tantalizing thought, the 2014 NBA Draft is expected to be a special one, headlined by Kansas incoming freshman Andrew Wiggins, who won’t be the first Canadian player drafted No. 1 overall, thanks to Cleveland drafting UNLV forward Anthony Bennett, a fellow Ontario product of an American prep school.
Thursday’s draft was panned as weak by many observers, but it simply wasn’t top-heavy and actually had plenty of solid potential rotation players, though not any prospects considered to be overwhelming talents.
That won’t be the case next year and it was reflected by teams’ eagerness to get 2014 first-round pick, as evidenced by new Philadelphia 76ers general manager Sam Hinkie trading top player Jrue Holiday, a young All-Star point guard, to New Orleans for Nerlens Noel (the consensus favorite to be the top pick, the Kentucky center, who is coming off an ACL injury, slid to sixth Thursday) and a top-five protected pick the following June.
The Sixers, who now almost definitively won’t re-sign free-agent center Andrew Bynum, figure to be one of the worst teams in the league next season, pending what they do in free agency, and should garner a high draft pick, as well as potentially another lottery choice, depending on the improvement the Pelicans, led by Holiday and 2012 top pick Anthony Davis, a Chicago native.
It’s just an example of how optimistic teams are about the upcoming crop, but also partially dictated by the league’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, which makes rookie-scale contracts increasingly valuable and could also shape free agency moving forward, as teams poised to be in the lottery or performing below expectations next season could opt to trade known commodities for a shot at one of the several top prospects in 2014.
But not only is that a reflection of the current landscape, it’s an indication of how impressive NBA scouts and team executives have found the potential draft class to be.
Wiggins, viewed as the early favorite to be the top pick, is a freak athlete and while the rest of his game isn’t on level of a James, his explosiveness getting to the rim, transition exploits, defensive upside and ever-improving skill level, as a 6-foot-8 wing, has personnel people on the next level salivating.
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Incoming Duke freshman Jabari Parker, a product of Derrick Rose’s alma mater, Simeon Career Academy on the South Side, isn’t far behind. Perhaps a hair taller than Wiggins, Parker is a very good athlete, if not at an elite level, but makes up for it with his extremely-skilled offensive game, outstanding basketball I.Q., winning pedigree and excellent scoring instincts, which make more Anthony to Wiggins’ James.
Those two aren’t the only prizes, as versatile and extremely explosive Arizona forward Aaron Gordon is on the short list of top prospects, while included in another monster recruiting class for Kentucky are a pair of players who are also in the mix.
John Calipari’s team has enormous expectations after a down year, but regardless of whether the Wildcats win the title, the professional stock of two freshmen from Texas, power forward Julius Randle and point guard Andrew Harrison, are unlikely to be affected much. Randle is an athletic southpaw in possession of some perimeter skills, while Harrison, whose twin brother Aaron, a shooting guard, will play alongside him in the backcourt, is a big scoring point guard with a complete game.
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Another floor general with size hailing from Texas, Oklahoma State point guard Marcus Smart, was projected to be a top-five pick this year before deciding to return to college. He’ll have increased competition, but should still have his name announced early by Adam Silver in his first draft as NBA commissioner.
There are certainly other players—newcomers to college, holdovers, international prospects like Dario Saric (the Croatian forward, slated to be a lottery pick this year, pulled out of the draft at the last minute) and an assortment of prospects not currently on the radar—who will ascend to the top of NBA draft boards and the aforementioned names will have to perform up to par in order to maintain their lofty statuses, but their collective promise already has teams maneuvering to be in position to add them to their rosters, even a year in advance.