Tuesday 12 November was a spectacularly long day of college basketball, with games running for 24 hours across the nation. Unless you had a particular rooting interest, the chances are the only games you really paid attention to were at the United Center in Chicago where Kentucky faced off with Michigan State before Duke and Kansas went head to head.
Many commentators noted before the games that if the Final Four ends up with the same teams, we will all be very lucky. I wouldn’t go that far – we’ve seen both the highs and the lows of Kentucky’s rolling freshman strategy in the last two years: National Champions to unranked by the end of the following season.
Tom Izzo’s Michigan State are a very well run basketball team, but one that has failed to produce NBA talent on a consistent basis. Draymond Green is the only recent product to emerge on the professional scene (others include Shannon Brown, Zach Randolph and Jason Richardson). They began their match-up with John Calipari’s top-ranked Kentucky side heavily favoured by some commentators – and, if you interpret his statements in a certain way, Coach Cal himself, who complained at his team having to face highly ranked opponents so early in the season:
The issue becomes playing teams (like Michigan State) this early is not fair for my team…It may be fair for everybody else. But it’s no fair for my team. It’s just not traditional in the sense everybody stays four years…So it’s not fair when we walk in and everybody else is more experienced.
Well John…how to solve that problem? Maybe sign a player or two who might stick around for a second season?
Anyway, Kentucky equipped themselves fairly well and, after falling behind early fought back behind the play of Julius Randle, the leader of their highly touted freshman class. Randle had 27 points and 13 rebounds and, frankly, looked NBA ready already. He’s a solid lefty who bears more than a passing resemblance (game-wise) to Zach Randolph. Randle may be a bit more athletic, of course! Sharp-shooting James Young also impressed for Kentucky, but the Spartans were paced by guard Keith Appling’s 22 points (highly rated Gary Harris had 20 and Adreian Payne 15) and ultimately held on for a 78-74 win.
Randle was one of three college superstars on show in Chicago last night. The other two matched up in the night’s second game. Andrew Wiggins for Kansas has already been crowned the number 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft and Jabari Parker for Duke is widely tipped as the number 2 pick, even at this early stage of the season. The two were very good: Wiggins had 22 points and 8 rebounds in 25 minutes of foul-tainted action. Perry Ellis had 24 and 9 for Kansas who saw off Duke 94-83, but who perhaps had the most impressive performance of any player, never mind freshman, from Jabari Parker. Parker’s 27 and 9 was somewhat tainted by his late foul-out (on a Wiggins and-1 dunk) but he looked every part the professional. He is strong, fast, able to shoot, able to post and really looks a four or five-tool (to borrow a baseball expression) player.
Reflecting on the games in the context of the 2014 NBA draft, I have to say that while the current idea is that the teams are “riggin’ for Wiggins”, I wouldn’t be so hasty.
Wiggins looks like he is still about 2 years away from being physically ready to play in the NBA. Now, he might have the Kevin Durant body-type that adjusts to the NBA against expectations, but he probably needs to bulk up a bit. Undoubtedly he would benefit from two or three years in college to work on his body to get it ready for the 82 game seasons of the NBA (let’s not pretend that whatever team gets him is definitely going to be playing any more than 82 games). He does, however, have the talent to play in the NBA as it stands.
Parker and Randle, on the other hand, are NBA ready now. They could go into just about any NBA team in the league and help it. They have the combinations of size and skill to allow them to succeed immediately. Scouts have commented that Wiggins has the highest “ceiling” of the three, but there is always risk inherent in drafting based on “upside” – you have to give the player in question the tools and the assistance to help them realise their potential. If Wiggins ends up at, say Charlotte, is that going to be the situation that allows him to develop into the once-in-a-lifetime type of talent that we are all being told that he is?
If I were an NBA GM, I would not be averse to picking any of the three players if my team won the number 1 overall pick. If my team needed a 4, I would happily pick Randle. Likewise, if I needed a 3, or a stretch 4, Parker would be my guy. If I needed a 2/3 man, then Wiggins makes sense.
College basketball season is not very long, so let’s enjoy watching these three guys develop while we have the chance. It promises to be one of the best college seasons in a long time.