In some draft classes, there is a clear cut top overall pick.
Nobody was going to leapfrog LeBron James in the 2003 NBA draft or climb ahead of Blake Griffin in the 2009 NBA draft.
Even as recently as last year’s draft, Anthony Davis locked up the No. 1 pick fairly early in the pre-draft process because of his impressive skill set and tremendous potential.
However, not every draft features an obvious top overall pick. This year’s class has a lot of talented players, but there isn’t one player who clearly has separated himself from the pack. That’s why on the first day of the 2013 NBA Draft Combine in Chicago there were four different players who talked about the possibility of being the first player off of the board.
The NBA Draft Lottery on May 21 should make things a little bit clearer since we’ll have an idea of what the top team needs, but at this point the first pick remains wide open, and there’s a player at nearly every position making their pitch for why they should be the No. 1 pick June 27.
Here are the four players who discussed the possibility of going first overall at the combine. (Anthony Bennett, a power forward out of UNLV, likely would’ve been on this list as well, but he wasn’t able to travel to Chicago since he’s recovering from rotator cuff surgery on his left shoulder).
Nerlens Noel, center
There were high expectations for Noel entering his freshman season at Kentucky. Not only was he the top prospect in the nation, he was following in the footsteps of Anthony Davis, and the Wildcats were trying to defend their national title. Rather than folding under the immense pressure, Noel played well and averaged 10.5 points on 59-percent shooting from the field along with 9.5 rebounds and 4.4 blocks.
On February 21, Noel tore his anterior cruciate ligament, which really is the only reason why he hasn’t locked up the top overall pick. If he were healthy, there wouldn’t be much of a debate. However, even though the torn ACL has introduced some doubt, Noel doesn’t believe his injury will keep him from being the first player selected.
“I feel I should be the top pick because I’m a great teammate. I really care about where I’m going to play, and I’m going to give all my heart and 100-percent effort to get my team back to the promised land, which is where we all want to be,” Noel said. “I’m just going to contribute my best and give all my effort.”
Many executives believe that Noel has the most potential of any player in the draft because he just turned 19 years old, and he has a lot of the things that you can’t teach – size, athleticism, length and instincts – that could allow him to be great. He also has made it clear throughout this process that he’s a gym rat and that he can’t wait to finish his rehab and get back on the floor. He doesn’t just want to be good; he wants to be one of the league’s elite players. It’s clear that his best basketball remains ahead of him, and he believes his injury won’t limit him from realizing his full potential.
“I’m 100-percent confident that I can not only get back to (where) I was at but get stronger and come back better,” Noel said.
At this point, Noel seems like the favorite to go first, but a lot can change between now and draft night.
Ben McLemore, shooting guard
This season, McLemore emerged as one of the best players in the nation, averaging 15.9 points on 49.5 percent from the field as well as 5.2 rebounds, two assists and one steal per game. The 20-year-old is the best shooting guard in the draft class, and if the team that wins the lottery needs a two-guard and already has a long-term answer at center, he may come off of the board before Nerlens Noel. He’s excited to be in the mix for the top pick and is looking forward for the chance to prove himself to teams.
“I think it’s great,” McLemore said about being discussed as a potential No. 1 overall pick. “I’ve worked so hard to get to this point, and now that it’s here, I just have to keep working. It’s just a blessing, the opportunity to be here at the combine and know that I’m going to be able to take care of my family.”
If McLemore goes first overall, he would be the first shooting guard selected with the top pick since David Thompson in the 1975 NBA draft. This is a fact that McLemore is aware of, and he’s hoping to end the drought for two-guards this year.
“I actually looked that up, did some research and saw that,” McLemore said with a laugh. “I realized that I can make history.”
There are plenty of NBA decision-makers who rave about McLemore so even if he doesn’t go first overall, it appears he’ll come off of the board very quickly on draft night.
Trey Burke, point guard
As a freshman, Burke was one of the best point guards in the country. As a sophomore, he undisputedly took over the top spot, and although there are questions about how he will translate to the NBA because of his lack of size and athleticism, Burke isn’t ready to concede that anyone should be drafted over him.
“Absolutely, I definitely believe so,” Burke said when asked if he should be the top pick in this year’s draft. “I believe in my work ethic, my desire to win, and I feel like I definitely could be up in that talk. Whoever ends up drafting me is going to get a guy who is going to work hard.”
Burke also said that it really depends on which team wins the lottery. If it’s a team whose biggest need is point guard, he believes he may be able to leapfrog some of the higher rated prospects.
The 20-year-old averaged 18.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 6.7 assists this season while leading Michigan to the national championship game. Throughout the season he showed a knack for making big plays in crucial moments, something that holds a lot of weight in the eyes of NBA talent evaluators.
Shabazz Muhammad, small forward
At this time last year, Muhammad was at the top of virtually every mock draft, but there were serious concerns that he would have some issues in UCLA’s system. Former UCLA head coach Ben Howland’s system was disciplined and half-court based, which was a complete contrast to the up-tempo, free-flowing style of play that Muhammad was accustomed to.
While Muhammad still put up a very respectable 17.9 points and 5.2 rebounds a game, he fell out of the No. 1 pick discussion because he did not live up to the high expectations that were set for him.
Recognizing that, Muhammad opted to be a full participant in the combine – a rarity for someone projected to go as high as he is. Muhammad believes he still should be thought of in the same light that he was a year ago and hopes his performance in Chicago gets him back in the mix.
“I think so,” Muhammad said when asked whether he still should be looked at as a potential No. 1 pick. “I’m a hard worker. I’m not going to choose to sit out. I’m trying to compete against these guys. I want to go out and show my talent, show how hard I worked to these scouts.”
Kennedy and Koutroupis write for HoopsWorld, a USA TODAY Sports Media Group property. © USA TODAY. All rights reserved.