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Pass on Walker at Your Peril

NBA teams should heed college coaches who underestimated UConn guard

There are few things to be sure about in next week’s NBA draft. Yes, it’s a weak draft and it’s entirely possible there are no stars. But this much is certain:

Kemba Walker will make NBA teams regret not drafting him.

The draft is next Thursday, and while the hype never approaches the NFL draft, it is a much more exciting – and franchise-altering – event. NFL teams comprise 53 players, plus practice squad players, injured players, free agent signings during the year, etc. Unless you are drafting a big-time QB, there isn’t much impact any single player can have.

The NBA draft provides teams an opportunity to add a full fifth of their starting lineup. When LeBron James was drafted in 2003 by the Cavaliers they went from a 17-win team to a 35-win team. These aren’t just outlook-changing picks like in the NFL, they are immediate franchise-changing decisions.

In other words, the draft is very important for NBA teams, more so than any other sport. (Don’t even bother debating the MLB or NHL drafts. Those players take years to develop and are part of much larger teams.)

Draft Kwame Brown, for example, and you’ve just sunk millions into a completely useless player you don’t know what to do with. In fact, throwing out last year’s draft because it is too early to tell, the last decade has had a bust in the top five every year except for 2008. We all know the names – Brown, Nikoloz Tskitishvili, Darko Milicic, Shaun Livingston, Marvin Williams, Adam Morrison, Greg Oden and, sadly, Hasheem Thabeet.

This is a bad draft class. There is no way around it. The only player with any real chance to be a star is Kyrie Irving, and because of injury we haven’t seen enough of him yet. If Irving goes No. 1 – and it looks like he will – there is no reason Walker should any go lower than No. 3. Minnesota has the No. 2 pick and even though Walker is immensely more talented than Ricky Rubio, they probably won’t draft another point guard.

Walker is a sure thing. Is he a future star? I would say probably not. But he instantly makes you a better team. I’m not going to lie. I’m writing this column mainly for one reason – Brandon Knight. I understand the former Kentucky point guard is younger, but he’s not better than Walker. And that’s what’s wrong with NBA draft strategies.

If you look at any of the NBA Mock Drafts a few things will stick out to you. First, you’ll say, “Who are these guys?” And second, you’ll say, “Why the heck are they going ahead of a guy who just led his team almost single-handedly to the NCAA National Championship?”

ESPN’s Chad Ford (the Mel Kiper of ESPN’s NBA draft coverage) has Walker ranked as the 8th best player in the draft. The people ahead of him are, in order, Irving, Derrick Williams, Knight, Jan Vesely, Enes Kanter, Jonas Valanciunas and Kawhi Leonard. I’ve already discussed Irving. The other three college players Walker beat last year in college (Knight twice). He outplayed them all and his team outplayed the other team. 

Vesely, Kanter (though he tried to play at Kentucky) and Valanciunas are all international players that we have no idea about. Scouts will tell you they have seen them play enough in Europe and their size or athleticism project well to the NBA. These are the same scouts who liked Yi Jianlian, Milicic, Tskitishvili, etc.

There have been two international players drafted in the top 10 in the past decade that worked out – Pau Gasol and Yao Ming. Nene, Andrea Bargnani and Danilo Gallinari haven’t been busts, but were drafted way too high. And you’re going to tell me that this draft is going to have three international players go in the top 7?

I haven’t seen enough of them to tell you whether it will happen. And that’s exactly my point.

Kemba Walker has played three years against the best young players in the country. He has never done one thing wrong. He has consistently improved his game. And he was the most clutch player in college last season. So you’re not going to draft him because he’s 6-foot-1?  That is literally the only reason scouts will give you.

Here’s a thought: Ask college coaches how underestimating Walker last season worked out for them.

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