Yes, it's extremely early in the college basketball season, but that doesn't mean general managers, scouts and personnel staffers aren't already paying very close attention to prospects for next June's 2013 NBA Draft. Compared to the current rookie crop, the class of players isn't considered as deep, but there are a handful of players expected to make an immediate impact upon arrival to the pros, as well as several others regarded as solid long-term role players.
It's important to note that within the present NBA landscape, the strength of the league moving forward, positionally, is at point guard and power forward. The death of dominant true centers in the league has been well-documented, but outside of future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade, the only shooting guard close to an elite level is Houston's James Harden -- and that perception only came about, in many circles, after he was traded to the Rockets and subsequently, put up superstar-type numbers -- and at small forward, while LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony rank amongst the game's best, after those names, the likes of Bulls All-Star Luol Deng, aging Boston star Paul Pierce and Memphis' Rudy Gay are viewed as good but not great players.
Still, as always, teams will often look to draft the best available talents on the board and as mentioned, even though it's very early, front offices across the league, while monitoring their team's performances, are keeping an eye on how so-called top college players are faring, as well as trying to unearth sleepers, such as Rookie of the Year frontrunner Damian Lillard of Portland, who attended mid-major Weber State. Combined with early-season returns and the opinions of various NBA personnel people, CSNChicago.com has formulated an incomplete list of 30 of the top 2013 NBA Draft prospects, along with brief breakdowns of each player's skill set.
For fans of local college hoops, there are three prospects with Illinois ties who are borderline draft prospects: Illinois senior guard Brandon Paul, a Warren High School graduate and prolific scorer, who is thriving with the ball in his hands more under new head coach John Groce; Illinois State's Jackie Carmichael, a rugged and athletic senior power forward who could lead the Redbirds to the NCAA Tournament; and Tennessee State senior forward Robert Covington, a smooth Proviso West graduate with both athleticism and three-point range, coming off a season in which he led his team to an upset of mid-major darling Murray State. However, that trio has a lot to prove before swaying the minds of NBA decision-makers, so for the time being, here's a first round's worth of players who are more sure bets to hear their names called by David Stern next June:
Isaiah Austin, 7-foot-1 freshman, Baylor: Austin must add some bulk to his spindly frame to effectively bang with the big bodies on the next level, but his length, agility, shot-blocking ability, perimeter skills and uncanny three-point touch are worth taking a gamble on early in the draft.
Anthony Bennett, 6-foot-7 freshman, UNLV: Bennett is somewhat undersized to play power forward in the NBA, but with his chiseled physique, a versatile offensive repertoire that includes a feathery outside touch, explosive athleticism and a willingness to mix it up inside, the native of Canada is regarded as a one-and-done prospect and if he can avoid nagging injuries, a lottery pick.
Lorenzo Brown, 6-foot-4 junior, North Carolina State: Brown has all the tools -- length, good court vision, size, athleticism -- to be a high-level NBA playmaker, but must improve his decision-making, outside jumper and learn how to be assertive and control the game in order to truly convince the people that matter that he's capable of running the show in the pros.
Trey Burke, 6-foot-2 sophomore, Michigan: Burke was a pleasant surprise as a freshman, to the point that he seriously considered declaring for the draft, but now that he's back on campus, he has the task of living up to his billing as arguably the nation's top floor general, a goal that he may be able to accomplish with his lottery-worthy blend of quickness, poise, playmaking ability, ability to create and outside shooting.
Deonte Burton, 6-foot-1 junior, Nevada: Burton, an explosive, under-the-radar scoring point guard, possesses NBA-level speed, athleticism and powerful finishing ability, and if he can continue putting up big scoring numbers, display the competence to effectively run the show and improve his perimeter jumper, he'll quietly raise his draft stock.
Isaiah Canaan, 6-foot-1 senior, Murray State: Canaan was the showcase player for the nation's top small-school program a year ago, impressing observers with his long-distance range, pick-and-roll acumen, pro-ready physique and top-tier toughness, but he must continue to prove he can function as a traditional point guard.
Michael Carter-Williams, 6-foot-5 sophomore, Syracuse: Carter-Williams saw virtually no action his freshman year behind senior Scoop Jardine and current Cleveland Cavalier Dion Waiters, but the slender lead guard has size, length, athleticism, court vision and smooth scoring ability that translates well to the professional level.
Willie Cauley-Stein, 7-foot freshman, Kentucky: Cauley-Stein, a football wide receiver in high school, is less heralded than fellow Wildcats freshman big man Nerlens Noel, but although he's the sixth man for his team, his length, defensive presence, ability to run the floor and long-term potential could be considered a worthwhile project.
Allen Crabbe, 6-foot-6 junior, California: Crabbe, one of the nation's best pure shooters, has become a more well-rounded scorer as he's improved his ballhandling skills, and combined with good size for his position, a solid frame and decent athleticism, his skill set could fill a need for an NBA franchise.
Jamaal Franklin, 6-foot-5 junior, San Diego State: Franklin is a high-energy, extremely athletic wing who plays bigger than his size and with improved outside shooting and a more polished perimeter game, his ability in transition and finishing at the rim projects favorably, poising him to follow in the footsteps of former teammate Kawhi Leonard of San Antonio.
Rudy Gobert, 7-foot-1, France: Gobert possesses a reported 7-foot-9 wingspan, agility for his size and predictably, outstanding shot-blocking prowess, and while he needs to add strength and offensive polish, he's still considered to be a guaranteed lock to be selected in the lottery.
Archie Goodwin, 6-foot-5 freshman, Kentucky: Goodwin may see teammates Alex Poythress and Nerlens Noel drafted higher than him, but he's likely Kentucky's most talented offensive player, a scorer with excellent athleticism and the ability to get to the rim, though his defense, outside shooting and decision-making could use honing.
Tim Hardaway Jr., 6-foot-5 junior, Michigan: Hardaway, the son of the former NBA All-Star and Chicago native of the same name, is a versatile scorer with breakdown ability off the dribble, good athleticism and deep range on his jumper, which is being scrutinized for greater consistency, viewed as the missing piece to the puzzle.
Alex Len, 7-foot-1 sophomore, Maryland: Len, who hails from the Ukraine, showed flashes of his potential as a freshman, but with a year to adapt to the American game, the lanky big man's combination of a deft shooting touch, a mid-range jumper, developing post-up game, defensive presence, willingness to bang on the interior, solid hands and footwork, the ability to run the floor in transition and high activity level have become even more intriguing to NBA personnel people.
Calvin Leslie, 6-foot-8 junior, North Carolina State: Leslie, previously known by his initials, C.J., has always been an elite-level athlete with tremendous upside, but now that he's bought into playing with a high motor on a regular basis, has embraced impacting the game as a versatile defender and occasionally dominant rebounder, to go along with burgeoning perimeter skills, he now appears to be a player who could truly benefit a team in the near future.
James Michael McAdoo, 6-foot-8 sophomore, North Carolina: McAdoo came off the bench as a freshman, stuck behind the likes of current NBA rookies Harrison Barnes, John Henson and Tyler Zeller, but while he still was projected to be a lottery pick based on a limited sample size, the Tarheels' rebuilding roster affords him the opportunity to show off his polished inside-outside game, diverse scoring repertoire and rebounding ability.
C.J. McCollum, 6-foot-2 senior, Lehigh: McCollum made a name for himself in his 15th-seeded team's historic NCAA Tournament of upset of Duke last spring and while it was no fluke, he's now under more scrutiny to display his ability to be a floor general, in addition to his innate scoring talents, which feature long-distance shooting, underrated athleticism, pick-and-roll prowess and creative finishing techniques.
Doug McDermott, 6-foot-8 junior, Creighton: McDermott, whose father is his head coach, has been an elite player on the mid-major level upon arrival in college, and now faces the challenge of proving whether his blend of rugged inside play and a deadly outside game will translate to the game's highest level, despite underwhelming athletic ability.
Ben McLemore, 6-foot-5 freshman, Kansas: McLemore sat out his freshman season, but is already considered the Jayhawks' most talented player and as he continues to adjust to playing in actual games after a year of only practicing, his high-level athleticism, smooth offensive game, shooting range and all-around skills should allow him to make his mark in college, as well as set the stage for NBA success.
Tony Mitchell, 6-foot-8 sophomore, North Texas: Mitchell is one of the college game's most explosive athletes, combining a powerful frame with outstanding bounce, but he also possesses an intimidating defensive presence, has a nice touch on the interior, runs the floor hard in transition and is developing both his face-up and back-to-the-basket games.
Mike Moser, 6-foot-8 senior, UNLV: Moser is a top-tier college rebounder playing in a smaller conference, following the recent traditions of NBA standouts Kenneth Faried and Paul Millsap as players pro scouts thought would project well from an energy, if not statistical standpoint, but he also brings more to the table as a perimeter player with excellent athleticism, slashing ability and capable outside shooting.
Shabazz Muhammad, 6-foot-6 freshman, UCLA: Muhammad, arguably the nation's top prospect as a senior in high school, had to sit out the first few games of UCLA's season as an NCAA investigation concluded, but any damage to his stock can be allayed by his performance, which is expected to yield big scoring numbers as a physical and athletic slasher, terror in transition, excellent wing rebounder and high-energy player.
Nerlens Noel, 6-foot-10 freshman, Kentucky: Noel is the other top incoming freshman in the country and although he is often compared to 2012 No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis, their chief similarity comes as a defensive force, the skill observers believe that he'll be able to immediately carry over to the NBA, though his offensive game and slender frame are still works in progress.
Mason Plumlee, 6-foot-11 senior, Duke: Plumlee, perhaps the best senior prospect in the college ranks, is finally starting to reach his vast potential by asserting himself as a scoring threat with the ability to score in the low post, whether via a post-up move or an authoritative finish above the rim, using his size and length to affect the game as a dominant rebounder or defensive presence, and showing off his versatility as a ballhandler and defender in pick-and-roll scenarios, traits that project well to the next level.
Otto Porter, 6-foot-8 sophomore, Georgetown: Porter quietly had one of the nation's best freshman seasons, but has taken his all-around game, which features versatile defense, interior toughness, excellent athleticism, slashing ability, a solid mid-range game and good ball skills, to the next level by thriving as a primary scorer, attributes that bode well for pro wing player.
Alex Poythress, 6-foot-8 freshman, Kentucky: Poythress currently makes more of an impact as a rugged interior player than the future swingman he aspires to be, but either way, his powerful and explosive athleticism, pro-ready body, quickness as a face-up player off the dribble, shooting touch, defensive potential and willingness to mix it up for rebounds are enough to make him one of the most-coveted draft prospects around.
Adonis Thomas, 6-foot-7 sophomore, Memphis: Thomas, whose first name matches his physique, is viewed as stuck between forward positions, but with his improved outside shooting and ball skills, to go along with versatile defensive ability, high-level athleticism and an inside-outside game, ensures he remains intriguing to professional talent evaluators.
DeShaun Thomas, 6-foot-7 junior, Ohio State: Thomas, this one a southpaw, is one of the nation's most gifted scorers and as the Buckeyes' new top option in the wake of current Celtics rookie Jared Sullinger's defection to the NBA, continues to become a more complete player by blending his inside-outside game, which includes long-distance shooting, a solid mid-range jumper, post-up ability and a face-up game, with rugged rebounding, more effort on defense and the willingness to set up his teammates.
Jeff Withey, 7-foot-1 senior, Kansas: Withey is arguably the most accomplished shot-blocker in the nation and while he continues to be a defensive presence, he's now less of a one-dimensional player as his offensive skills, which feature developing back-to-the-basket moves and a decent touch inside, make steady improvement and he also makes a consistent impact as an increasingly dominant rebounder to make up for the loss of Kings rookie Thomas Robinson, as well as an above-the-rim player who runs the floor in transition.
Cody Zeller, 6-foot-11 sophomore, Indiana: Zeller, regarded as the consensus top prospect in college basketball, if not a dominant, franchise-changing talent, is at minimum, a highly-productive long-term starter, whose remarkable mobility for his size, fundamentally-sound game, underrated toughness and willingness to play a physical brand of basketball on the interior, polished interior game, ability to knock down jumpers and put the ball on the floor, solid defensive acumen and high basketball I.Q. project to NBA stardom.