#1: Tywon Lawson, 6-0, Sophomore, Point Guard, North Carolina
Physically, Lawson is undersized, even for the point guard position. Standing somewhere around 511, he is sometimes limited in his offensive abilities because of taller defenders. Lawson makes up for his lack of size, though, by being arguably the fastest player in the country. Few if any defenders can consistently stay in front of Lawson when he builds up a head of steam coming down the floor.
As would be expected of a player as fast as Lawson, the majority of his offensive game is built around the transition game and getting to the basket. A one-man fast break, Lawson is fantastic at leaking out from the pack as well as taking long rebounds himself the length of the court. Even when he isnt scoring, Lawson puts constant pressure on defenses simply because he forces them to sprint back down court every time he touches the basketball. He has the ability to pass the ball accurately while at full speed, often threading the needle spectacularly in the process. Where he needs to improve is his decision making skills. Lawson often tries to do too much on his own, taking on two or three defenders at once on his way to the basket, and still lacking that middle gear that all great point guards in time develop. While he certainly has the ability to finish in traffic, he does need to do a better job at recognizing when he should pull up on the break and set up the offense.
In a half court offense, Lawsons game doesnt change very much, still being most effective when driving to the basket. With his ability to beat defenders off the dribble, Lawson is constantly setting up teammates with scoring opportunities, as shown by his 5.6 assists in 26 minutes per game last season. He has the entire arsenal of passes in his repertoire, but is clearly at his best when slaloming between defenders and finding the open man with a pretty bounce pass. Despite the breakneck speed he plays at, he doesnt turn the ball over as much as you might thinkracking up 2.57 assists for every 1 turnover he throws.
The reason for that has plenty to do with his ball-handling skills. He does a stellar job at changing speeds, and has a fantastic hesitation move that he uses often to get to the basket. Lawsons size does come back to hurt him when he is unable to get by defenders, often forcing him to fade away or attempt out of control, acrobatic shots. Despite being one of the best players in the country at getting into the lane, Lawson doesnt do a great job drawing fouls, averaging less than three free throw attempts per game last year.
It would be beneficial for both Lawson and North Carolina if the sophomore improved his perimeter shooting this season. While by no means a poor outside shooter (35.6% from beyond the arc last year), Lawson didnt shoot very much from the perimeter, particularly off the dribble. He has an ugly flat-footed jumper that needs time and space to remain effective, and there are concerns about how this part of his game will translate to the next level. He will likely need to revamp his shooting mechanics down the road to avoid defenders backing off and daring him to shoot from behind the arc.
Defensively, Lawson does a solid job but isnt exactly a lock down defender. Taller guards can shoot over him, but his biggest problem comes when opposing teams run his man off screens. This was particularly evident in North Carolinas match up with Michigan State during last years NCAA Tournament. The Spartans ran Drew Neitzel off screens for the entirety of the game, often leaving Lawson in the dust.
With several key players not returning for the Tar Heels this year, Lawson will be asked to be an even bigger contributor offensively this year, a task he is more than capable of handling. With his speed and athleticism, if can improve his decision making and finishing ability, we could be talking about Lawson as an All-American at the end of the season.
#2: Tyler Hansbrough, 6-9, PF/C, Junior, North Carolina
Hansbroughs at his best when hes operating with his back to the basket in the painted area, possessing a full repertoire of moves, excellent footwork, and good decision-making skills. He often is able to overpower the opposition at this level, but he can get things done by using finesse as well, as his mini jump hook is his most effective move. He also takes contact very well with his strong frame, getting him to the free-throw line very often. Hansbroughs main concern in regards to his post play is how his game will translate to the NBA, where his defender will be longer and more athletic than him pretty much all the time.
To prepare for the issue posed above, Hansbrough improved his mid-range jumper last season, as he looks more comfortable from the 10-15 foot range, hitting the shot more consistently and adjusting his shooting motion slightly, giving it more of a natural, upward release. He could still continue to add some range to his shot, as his effectiveness dwindles as he goes deeper than 15 feet out, and thats something he should focus on doing this season. Hansbrough doesnt have much of a face-up game to complement his jump shot, not possessing the greatest athleticism, but he can take advantage of defenders when they bite for a fake, putting the ball on the ground for one or two dribbles.
Hansbrough also really excels on the boards, where his relentless motor and strength allow him to outmuscle the opposition. Hes always in the mix trying to get his hands on loose balls, and he establishes good position down low to do so, being fundamentally sound and consistent boxing out.
On the defensive end, Hansbrough is a solid post defender, possessing good fundamentals and lower body strength to maintain good position his man, but he can be susceptible to longer, more athletic opponent shooting over his head, as he is lacking in vertical lift. Hansbrough often will outsmart his man in the post, though, using footwork to force him into a traveling violation or drawing an offensive foul. On the perimeter, Hansbrough made very nice strides last season improving on his fundamentals, specifically by keeping his center of gravity low to the ground, and really putting in the effort stepping out on his man on the perimeter. His lateral quickness isnt the greatest, but he has good instincts to compensate, and he really puts in the effort, making this part of his game respectable.
Hansbrough will likely be a top-20 pick or better if he finally decides to come out after this year, and there doesnt seem to be much more he could add to his game at the college level by staying another yearbesides more experience and wins. He is a multi-skilled player with great intangibles, though his physical limitations may seriously diminish his effectiveness in the NBA, something well only know for sure when he decides to make the leap.
#3: Greivis Vasquez, 6-5, Sophomore, Point Guard/Shooting Guard, Maryland
On the offensive end of the floor, Vasquez has shown flashes that hint at his vast potential. For one, he is a prolific slasher. Though he doesnt have an amazing first step or incredibly explosive leaping ability, he uses his superior size, slithery quickness, and solid body control Vasquez to go through just about anybody to get to the basket. He also uses his size well to back down smaller guards in the post. His rate of completion, however, is a little bit disappointing at 44% from the field, since he gets into the lane just as well as anybody in the NCAA. That being said, his largest offensive inadequacy is his lack of a midrange game. If Vasquez is going to be a future top pick, he must develop the ability to hit the midrange jump-shot. But it is not like he doesnt know how to shoot. Vasquez is in love with the perimeter. On 2.6 attempts per game, he connected on 32% of his three pointers. While he has a very quick release and displays nice elevation, his form definitely needs work, particularly his low release point. With his talent creating space and open shots for himself on the perimeter, he should be shooting much higher percentages.
As a point guard, he leaves a little bit to be desired, though you cant help but admire his natural gifts, toughness, and his level of performance as a freshman in the ACC. He loves to shoot from the perimeter and because he is not exactly a sniper, you sometimes wonder why he doesnt move the ball around more often. The same goes for his constant slashing. He turns the ball over almost three times a game, often because he dribbles himself into triple teams while he is busy thinking of how to generate offense for himself. His handle is solid, but his dribble is a bit high, and when he drives, he is constantly at risk of getting stripped. If Vasquez is going to be an NBA point guard, he is going to have to develop his instincts better. Too often last season, he made pointless turnovers and bad decisions that negatively affected his team.
On the defensive end, he shows similar inconsistencies. Though he is not particularly athletic, he is quick and intelligent enough to stick with his man; lets not forget that he has solid length and size for a college point guard. However, he was also the first guy on the court that required D.J. Strawberry to relieve him of his defensive duties last season. He has the size and potential, but he has to start putting it together better on both ends of the court.
With an off-season of practice under his belt and the experience of FIBA, Vasquez should look much improved this time around. After all, despite all of the criticism, he was a freshman last season playing big minutes on a high profile team. He definitely exceeded expectations and did about as good of a job as you could ask from such a young player. In terms of his draft stock, however, he probably could benefit from extra time to work on his shooting and developing better point guard instincts. That being said, Vasquez will be an NBA player someday, but he has to keep working if wants to be achieve all of his potential and distinguish himself from next years stellar draft class.
#4: Gerald Henderson, 6-5, Sophomore, SG/SF, Duke
At this point, most of Hendersons intrigue stems from his upside, both from the flashes he showed last yearparticularly late in the seasonas well as the physical attributes he possesses, which should allow him to develop into much more over the next few years.
An impressive athlete, blessed with a terrific frame and wingspan, Henderson is a fluid player with a quick first step and notable explosiveness getting off his feet. Hell wow you at times with the glimpses he dropscreating outstanding separation from defenders pulling up off the dribble or coming off a screen, utilizing nifty step-back moves, finishing extremely well at the basket with contact in transition, or dropping in a pretty floater after a nice take into the lane. His shot was very streaky as a freshman, but his smooth mechanics and the high arch he gets on it leaves plenty of room for optimism that it will eventually steady out if he continues to work on it. Its really his mid-range game that shows the most potential, though.
Hendersons physical gifts also made him a very capable defender already as a freshman at the collegiate level. Hes a smart player with very nice lateral quickness and also has good fundamentals to get the job done. The fact that hes both willing and able to step up and stop his man gives him a chance to really develop into something special on this end if he really puts his mind to it.
On the downside, Henderson was disappointing at times with the production he provided this very young Duke teamat times looking lost focus-wise and not nearly as confident in his skills as he was at the high school level. As the year went on, he seemed to come out of his shell more and more, and Duke will need him to step up and take more responsibilities this season, as hes clearly the teams best athlete and probably their best shot-creator.
Skill-wise, Henderson is nowhere near a finished product at this point. His ball-handling skills are just adequate at the moment, particularly his left hand, which is almost non-existent. The ball slows him down considerably when forced to his off-hand, and he looks out of control in the process. It became fairly predictable eventually last season that when dribbling with his left, hes almost always pulling up, and when going right, hes usually taking it all the way to the basket. As noted already, his jump-shot was not consistent last year (32% from behind the arc)an area hell have to work hard on if hes to reach his full potential, both from behind the arc and from the free throw line (63%).
Most college players make their biggest leap in ability between their freshman and sophomore seasons, so these next few months will be very telling in terms of gauging the draft stock of Gerald Henderson.
Brandon Costner, 6-8, Forward, Sophomore, N.C. State
When examining Costner, one can be easily reminded of Ryan Gomes, a crafty combo-forward who plays physical inside, but can step outside and knock down the jumper as well. A good portion of Costners baskets last season came from his consistent shooting stroke, (38% 3P), a very good clip considering he attempted over four 3-pointers per game. The sophomore also possesses very good ball handling skills, particularly with his dominant left hand. When matched against a slower player, he has no problem going to the basket, and uses his bulk to push defenders away and draw fouls in the paint.
Unlike many perimeter oriented big man, Costner has a post game that nicely compliments his play away from the basket. He shows above average quickness with his back to the basket, combined with great footwork that includes a number of spin and hesitation moves to fake out his defender in the low post. A well built frame allows Costner to gain position against taller defenders on both ends of the floor, which aides him in both post scoring and rebounding. When doubled in the low post, the sophomore big shows a very nice feel for the game, and has no problem finding the open shooter on the perimeter.
There are a few key things that scouts will look for in Costners game this season, starting with his right hand. On drives to the right of the basket last season, he still chose to finish left hand shots across his body. These shots fell with a limited success rate, and it would improve his effectiveness as a scorer to develop a right hand. Physically, Costner ranks as just an average overall athlete, and he lacks the ideal height youd like to see from a power forward in the NBA. Defensively, he gets burned often against smaller players due to a lack of lateral quickness, which may limit his future as an NBA small forward.
Costner had himself a great season last year, emerging under the national spotlight late in the season, and moving his way up the draft boards of many NBA teams. He will really have a chance to shine the ACC this season, and at 20 years old, he can seriously begin to weigh his draft options if he improves on his successful freshman season.