As you see in the chart, the number of NCAA seniors selected in the draft has varied greatly over the last 10 years. Peaking at 19 in the first round in 1997, and bottoming out at just 4 in 2001 and 2004 (both considered landmark drafts for high school players), they seem to be back on an upward rise due to league trends sparked by the collective bargaining agreement.
With the structure of the CBA and the implications of the luxury tax, teams realize that having 2-3 players on cheap rookie contracts is the only way to maintain a reasonable budget when most teams have the same number of players with max or near max contracts. When talking about teams that consider themselves legit championship contenders, its better to draft a player who will average 8-10 points per game in each season of his rookie contract (two years with options for a third and fourth) and play a contributing role, rather than take a gamble on a player who will rot on the bench for his first 2-3 years, only to begin showing the type of sparks that will force them to overpay him after his contract year.
Teams like the Dallas Mavericks, with Josh Howard and Devin Harris, and the Phoenix Suns, with Leandro Barbosa and Boris Diaw, proved to be the prototype last year for how to build a deep and talented roster that is made for a deep run in the playoffs. Young, upstart teams like the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz look to be following in that mould this season.
This year, DraftExpress currently has 8 seniors projected amongst the final 11 picks of the first round and, due to an unusually weak crop of International players, 19 NCAA seniors are currently projected as 2nd round picks. If that did happen, it would equal the 2004 draft for most 2nd round pick seniors. When all is said and done though, we expect the final number to be considerably lower, as there will likely be more underclassmen entering the draft (sometimes foolishly) than we currently have projected. Some of those underclassmen will slip into the lottery or first round, some will fall to the 2nd, and some will go undrafted entirely.
While this might look like a good draft for playoff teams looking to add some solid, cheap depth to their bench, those who need the immediate help the most--the non-playoff/lottery teams--will likely have to look elsewhere than this crop of seniors. If this draft shakes out the way we currently have it projectedand its obviously too early to say with any degree of certaintythen this will be the first time ever that not even one NCAA senior was drafted in the lottery. That wouldnt exactly be earth-shattering news, considering that out of the last 6 drafts, there were three separate occasions when only one senior was drafted in the lottery. When you take into consideration the fact that 4 of our current top 5 projected picks would have been in the draft last year had it not been for the age limit, then this begins to make even more sense.
Looking at our current NCAA Seniors rankings, we find a few prospects at the top that appear to be solidifying themselves as first round picks, followed by a whole bunch of uncertainty after that. Aaron Gray (our #1 ranked NCAA senior) is having a solid, but unspectacular season, and will likely need to make a deep run in the NCAA tournament to have a legit chance at cracking the lottery. Morris Almond (#2) is doing just about everything you can expect him to do at 28 points per game on terrific shooting numbers, but there are question marks about his athleticism, the competition level he faces, and how much of an advantage hell have at the next level once his tremendous strength isnt as much of a factor. Al Thornton (#3) and Alando Tucker (#5) are terrific athletes and conference player of the year candidates who need to show a real NBA position to convince scouts. Acie Law (#4) and Mustafa Shakur (#7) both look improved over last year, but it will be their performance leading their team through March that will ultimately judge how high they are picked. The same can be said for Nick Fazekas (#6) for the most part.
After that, things start getting pretty fuzzy. You can find some size mixed in with a reasonable skill-level in Kyle Visser (#8), Ivan Radenovic (#9) and Jermareo Davidson (#10), or, if scoring is your thing, Bobby Brown (#11) or the top scorer in the country, Trey Johnson (#12), could interest you. This is right around where the good folks at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament (all-seniors draft-camp held from April 4th-7th) will start making some very hard sells. Some early prospects to look for who could excel in that setting include Herbert Hill (#15), J.R. Reynolds (#18), Mario Boggan (#19), Gary Neal (#28) and Aaron Brooks (#24).
What might be alarming about this class is that, besides Shakur and Jared Jordan (#35), there is no other player amongst the 75 we have ranked that can be considered a pure point guard.
Something that this class doesnt lack, though, is outside shooting. We already talked about Morris Almond and Bobby Brown, who are shooting 43% and 46% respectively from behind the arc. Besides them, though, look out for Demetris Nichols (#13), Jarrius Jackson (#27), Brandon Heath (#29), Mike Jones (#30), Russell Carter (#36), Dan Nwaelele (#40) and Torrell Martin (#50)all guys who can heat up quickly and for the most part already possess NBA range.
Those are our preliminary NCAA senior rankings for now. Love em or hate 'em, let us know what you think. If there is anything we are certain of, its that they are bound to change dramatically over these next two crucial months, and then even more during workouts and the pre-draft camps.