Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker must be sick of each other.
Andrew Wiggins is 19 years and four months old. Jabari Parker is 19 years and three months old. Both are listed at 6-foot-8. Both are small forwards capable of playing bigger from time to time. Both wore the Number 22 for their high school teams. Both just completed their freshman year at college and declared for the 2014 NBA Draft.
Since they were 15 or 16 years old, Wiggins and Parker have been constantly compared, contrasted, analyzed, and criticized against each other. They have been two of the top ranked high school players of their time and two of the most exciting college prospects. From high school onwards, basketball scouts and futurists have had their eyes on the day that Toronto-born Andrew Wiggins and Chicago-born Jabari Parker face off against each other. Not just on the court – which they did memorably in college on November 12th, 2013 when Parker’s Duke lost to Wiggins’ Kansas – but also for the day when the rank between either of them would finally be decided by an NBA team. One of them has to go first, and the other second.
And on Thursday evening – June 26th, 2014 – that day might finally be here.
But it almost didn’t happen this way. While either Parker or Wiggins seemed to be the likely number one prospect for most of the draft watchers earlier, a certain Joel Embiid crashed their party. The 7-foot Cameroonian Center, a Kansas teammate of Wiggins, had become a favourite to go number one after a memorable freshman season and successful NBA workouts. That is until a foot injury changed everything last week. It was announced that Embiid would need surgery on his right foot and miss six to eight months of action. All of a sudden, alarm bells began to ring, evoking past big men whose careers have been cut short or flopped due to injury issues. And Embiid’s stock fell.
And once again, it cleared the room for the age-old rivalry to rekindle. Parker or Wiggins? Wiggins or Parker? One has to go first and the other second. The Cleveland Cavaliers – after winning the lottery for the third time in four years – have the luxury of deciding which way the draft goes. The Milwaukee Bucks will probably pick up the remaining young star. And while we will finally have a clear ‘winner’ in the lifelong Parker-Wiggins race, this might just be the first lap. The two young players play the same position and will join the NBA on the same day, and fans will be hoping that the competition of greatness between these two will last throughout their careers.
The 2014 Draft might not live up to the hype that it once had, but it still has potential of being one of the deeper drafts in recent memory, and fully erase the memory of last year’s stink-fest. Despite his injury, Embiid is still an intriguing prospect, and could provide a high-risk/high-reward situation for a team that dares. Another risk/reward pick will be Australian mystery man Dante Exum, a 6-foot-6 point guard who has shown incredible quality, but hasn’t had the same top level experience as some of the other prospects. The likes of Noah Vonleh, Marcus Smart, Julius Randle, Doug McDermott, Nik Stauskas, Aaron Gordon, and Gary Harris are all set to be tantalizing prospects. Any of the top seven picks, at least, should be able to become solid contributors to their teams right away – or in a few more months in Embiid’s case.
As usual, this is an exciting time for NBA fans ready to welcome a truckload of new talent into the league. And to continue my annual tradition a few days before Draft Day, here is my official mock draft of the 2014 lottery picks, barring any trades that take place between now and then:
1. Cleveland Cavaliers: Jabari Parker
Despite all the lottery luck, the Cavaliers haven’t been able to truly propel themselves out of the dumps and, in the post-LeBron era, still haven’t made the playoffs in the East. This year, expect them to forego any risks (such as Anthony Bennett, last year’s top pick) and go for the most sure-fire choice. That choice is Jabari Parker. Parker is the most sought NBA-ready player this year and will become a force from Day One. The Cavaliers – who will probably lose Luol Deng at small forward – can have a nice core with him, Kyrie Irving, Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson, Anderson Varejao, and of course, Bennett as well, for the future.
2. Milwaukee Bucks: Andrew Wiggins
The Bucks will have to ‘settle’ for Wiggins, and, in the long run, some believe that this could be the winning move. Wiggins may not be as polished as Parker is today, but he is projected to have more raw talent and a higher ceiling. His arrival in Milwaukee may not save the team straight away, but he’ll be a nice piece to build around in a squad that already has the ‘Greek Freak’ Giannis Antetokounmpo and hope that their young big men Larry Sanders, John Henson, and Khris Middleton can turn a corner.
3. Philadelphia 76ers: Joel Embiid
Philadelphia conducted a fire-sale last season, sending Jrue Holiday to the Pelicans for a pick that became Nerlens Noel, Evan Turner to the Pacers, and Spencer Hawes to the Cavaliers. Noel didn’t play all last season while Michael Carter-Williams blossomed in the lack of other options to become Rookie of the Year. I predict that 76ers will continue to be patient, and take a shot at another injured big man in Embiid. A returning Noel and Carter-Williams will steer the ship until Embiid recovers, and once he gets back, they can decide on how to play their two big men together, or trade one for another piece. 76ers also have the 10th pick this year which they could use to pick an option that’s healthy to play from the first day.
4. Orlando Magic: Dante Exum
Wave goodbye to out-of-contract Jameer Nelson and trade Aaron Afflalo (to whom the Bulls are showing interest). This would make room in Orlando for an exciting young backcourt of Exum and last year’s rookie Victor Oladipo. The two players should make for a good pairing, even though the Magic aren’t going to see a dramatic turnaround anytime soon.
5. Utah Jazz: Aaron Gordon
The freshman out of Arizona is a tweener forward and has been described as a poor man’s Blake Griffin for his style of play. I think he’ll be a good fit for Utah, and bring them an immediate go-to guy as one of the best athletes in this year’s draft.
6. Boston Celtics: Noah Vonleh
A talented big man who could become an important piece on the defensive end, Vonleh is a smart young player, a good shooter for his size, and could truly be a welcome addition to the rebuilding Celtics.
7. Los Angeles Lakers: Julius Randle
There was a time when Kentucky’s Randle was being mentioned among Parker and Wiggins as a top three prospect. His stock may have fallen since, as some of his shortcomings have been exposed, but Randle is still a talented, strong player who will fill in the spot in the post if the Lakers don’t bring back Pau Gasol. He plays bigger than his size, and could be a steal at number seven for Los Angeles.
8. Sacramento Kings: Marcus Smart
The Kings have scorers in DeMarcus Cousins and Rudy Gay, but have a problem in getting the ball to those scorers, since their point guard – Isaiah Thomas – is a 20 point per game scorer himself. I believe Smart can become the backcourt captain that this young team needs and Thomas – who is a restricted free agent – may be allowed to test other options.
9. Charlotte Hornets: Gary Harris
Harris doesn’t necessarily have the stats to make his resume look impressive, but the shooting guard from Michigan State has been lauded for his high-IQ, maturity, and will to win, all attributes loved by Hornets’ owner Michael Jordan. Plus, he has a nice outside shot, too, and will complement Kemba Walker well in the backcourt.
10. Philadelphia 76ers: Elfrid Payton
The choice at this point will have to be made between two point guards: La Lafayette’s Payton and Michigan’s Nik Stauskas. I believe that Payton has done enough in recent workouts to raise his draft stock, and the hardworking junior will become an alternative to Carter-Williams for the 76ers.
11. Denver Nuggets: Doug McDermott
Anyone interested in consensus college national player of the year? McDermott isn’t expected to have the high ceiling like some of the other prospects in this year’s draft class, but he is NBA ready and should be able to contribute to the Nuggets straight away. The combo forward should fit in well in the team of versatile, high-scoring players.
12. Orlando Magic: Dario Saric
Saric is an exciting young talent out of Croatia, who already has a lot of big game experience. But by recently signing a deal to play in Turkey, Saric’s chances to play in the NBA have been postponed by at least two more years, and his draft status will fall, too. The Magic can pick him up at 12 and may look to trade him for a player ready to contribute right away. There are enough good teams in the league that will be happy to wait a couple of years for Saric to mature.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves: Nik Stauskas
The Timberwolves will be happy if Stauskas is still available at this point. The Michigan point guard is a solid ball handler and could prove to be a handy backup for Ricky Rubio.
14. Phoenix Suns: Zach LaVine
LaVine’s best strength is his athleticism, and although he is still a work in progress, the freshman from UCLA could potentially develop to play combo guard or small forward in the NBA and provide the Suns with a project beyond Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe, and Gerald Green.