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NBA Draft review: How do the Big Ten draftees fit in?

Four Big Ten players were selected Thursday night in the 2012 NBA Draft.

by Chris Johnson (@chrisdjohnsonn)

The moment NBA deputy commissioner Adam Silver revealed pick No. 60 at Thursday night’s draft, pundits, talent evaluators and self-proclaimed draft experts began handing out grades. These report card-like evaluations are created with assured conviction, as if the success of each team’s draft strategy bears a definitive conclusion, with no waiting period required. General managers are often berated for their draft selections almost instantaneously, with little regard to circumstance, team needs and player availability. A conclusive assessment on a draft class takes at least five years, sometimes longer, and often times players don’t pan out because of injury, unpredictable off-court issues or other unforeseen circumstances, rather than evaluative blunders like immaturity, laziness and lack of talent or athleticism.

So instead of grading each team’s selections, the more sensible exercise is looking at the players—because, after all, this whole draft thing is about the players—and gauging their chances of success with whatever team drafted them. Former Big Ten players, in particular, is the subject of curiosity at Inside Northwestern in the wake of Thursday night’s draft, players who, sometimes almost singlehandedly, played a large part in preventing NU from breaking its 74-year NCAA Tournament drought. While John Shurna went undrafted, four players from Big Ten teams—Illinois’ Meyers Leonard, Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger, Michigan State’s Draymond Green, Purdue’s Robbie Hummel—were selected by NBA teams.

Predicting how each of these players will perform at the next level—statistical projections, expected all-star game appearances, MVPs and championship rings—is not something I will take up in this space. What I can do, with perhaps some level of accuracy, is try to size up the players’ chances of succeeding with their new teams. Each player offers something different to his team, and those teams, in turn, are defined by different mindsets, work ethics coaching staffs and other important elements that figure into the NBA team calculus. Whether the new parts fit is one of the underlying arguments being hashed out among NBA GM’s, scouts and front office-types throughout their year-long draft preparations. It’s an inexact science with no hard-fast guide to guaranteed success.

The four Big Ten players, now NBA rookies, will either thrive or dive in their new environments. Here’s my best attempt at producing a guess as to how each player fits in his new setting.

Meyers Leonard: Illinois, C (11th pick, Portland Trailblazers)

NBA team record (2011-2012): 28-38

College statistics (2011-2012): 13.6 ppg, 8.2 rpg

College career capsule:

The expectations were sky high for Leonard, a consensus first-team all-state selection as a senior at Robinson (IL) and a member of the USA Basketball Junior Select Team, before he ever suited up for the Fighting Illini. Many believed his immediate impact would land Illinois a high seed in the NCAA Tournament, that a freshman could seamlessly integrate himself into the nation’s toughest college basketball conference and elevate his team to new heights.

It didn’t happen. For all the talk about Leonard’s arrival promising Big Ten championships and Final Four berths, the wunderkind freshman played just 33 games, averaged 2.1 points and 1.2 rebounds and finished with a grand total of 28 field goals, 14 of which were dunks. Perhaps his most impressive performance of the year came against the NU (Jan. 6, 2011), when he finished with 11 points on 4-of-5 shooting.

In year two, Leonard almost immediately began to validate the massive hype that trailed him from high school. He led Illinois to a 10-0 start, established himself as a team leader and controlled games with his freakish athleticism, sweet shooting touch and deft clever low-post passing. Conference play brought much of the same success, and the Illini, after a five-point home win over then-No. 5 Ohio State, started to look like a Big Ten contender, an NCAA Tournament birth already a foregone conclusion. For most teams, a win over the Buckeyes, a national championship hopeful, would inspire more consistent, improved future play; it had the opposite effect on the Illini, who would go on to lose 12 of their next 14 games. The tailspin accelerated as rumors swirled of coach Bruce Weber’s firing and the team, Leonard included, grew more apathetic and disinterested with each loss.

Portland believes it landed a future star in the seven-foot Leonard.

Despite his team’s collapse, Leonard, an All-Big Ten honoree, was widely by NBA scouts recognized as one of the nation’s most intriguing big men, with the body, skills and flair to excel at the next level.

How he fits in:

Portland’s run of three consecutive playoff exits came to an end last season, and the positive momentum building within its young, talented core reached an abrupt halt. Without a go-to perimeter scorer, they managed just 28 wins in a top-heavy Western Conference. Raymond Felton and Wesley Matthews formed a serviceable backcourt, though their inconsistent shooting and poor ball security hurt Portland in close games. Yet perhaps the Blazers’ most glaring weakness last season was the frontcourt, where talented big man LaMarcus Aldridge was the only reliable scorer and rebounder.

Aldridge is often forced to play center, but is more comfortable stepping out for jump shots and mini-hooks as a power forward. Joel Pryzbilla, an unrestricted free agent, is the Trail Blazers’ next best big man, and while he’s stout defensively, his offensive game leaves quite a bit to be desired.

In Leonard, Portland’s getting a dynamic scorer and a skilled passer with an evolving defensive repertoire. He’s a callow talent with plenty of development and maturation to do before he lives up to his lottery selection. Although the Blazers finished with just 28 wins last season, the frontcourt pairing of Aldridge and Leonard is intriguing, combining a crafty, adept scorer and a raw, but immensely talented true seven-footer. It may take time before this new low-post duo can lead Portland to a high playoff seed, but Leonard will have no shortage of opportunities to prove himself early on and develop a rapport with Aldridge as well as fellow first-round pick Damian Lillard (point guard, Weber State). Portland is in the midst of a crucial transition period, and this latest draft class—Leonard, Lillard and Will Barton (Memphis, SF)—provides a nice foundation for future success.

Jared Sullinger: Ohio State, PF (21st pick, Boston Celtics)

NBA team record (2011-2012): 39-27

College statistics (2011-2012): 17.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg

College career capsule:

The way Sullinger dominated the Big Ten for two seasons, it’s a bit of a mystery that he was selected 10 spots lower than Leonard in Thursday night’s draft. As a freshman, Sullinger’s led Ohio State with 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game, notched double-digit scoring efforts in 34 of his 37 starts and posted 18 double-double performances. The Buckeyes dominated conference play that season, thanks largely to Sullinger’s dominant post play, their only losses coming at 14th ranked Wisconsin and 11th ranked Purdue. They fell to a talented Kentucky team, led by first round picks Brandon Knight and Terrence Jones, in the Sweet 16, a game defined by Sullinger’s 21-point, 16-rebound performance.

As Sullinger mulled a return to Columbus, most mock drafts identified the robust, 6-9 power forward as a likely lottery pick, his stock peaking after a transcendent freshman campaign. Eschewing imminent NBA riches and first-round stardom, Sullinger opted to remain in college for another season in the hopes of capturing the national championship that eluded him as a freshman. The Buckeyes were the odds-on favorite to win the Big Ten and a likely NCAA Tournament 1-seed for most of the season. With depth, talent and experience at nearly every position, Sullinger, point guard Aaron Craft, forward DeShaun Thomas and shooting guard William Buford constituted one of the nation’s deepest, most explosive starting rotations. They breezed through non-conference play, with the one exception of a road loss at Allen Fieldhouse, and finished with a 13-5 conference record for a two-seed in the NCAA tournament. Again, it was Thomas Robinson and the Jayhawks that defeated the Buckeyes, this time in the Final Four.

Concerns over potential serious back problems hurt Sullinger's draft stock.

Meanwhile, Sullinger, who most believed would elevate his game in year two, didn’t live up to expectations. His numbers—17.6 ppg, 9.3 rpg (sophomore); 17.2 ppg, 10.2 rpg (freshman)—were similar, but the unguardable, relentless Sullinger we all witnessed his freshman year was largely absent and his draft stock suffered as a result. NBA talent evaluators pointed to his lack of athleticism, inability to defend the pick and roll, and apparent struggles creating his own shot against longer defenders. To make matters worse, Sullinger was red-flagged for potential chronic back issues after a medical exam at the draft combine. Once a surefire top-10 pick, Sullinger’s plummeting stock pushed him out of the first half of the first round. 

How he fits in:

Sullinger forms a case study for talented freshmen with NBA futures deciding between declaring for the draft or returning for a second year of college hoop. On the surface, his decision reflects poorly on the returnees. Yet Sullinger, thanks largely to his decision to return to school, has the opportunity to play for a first-class organization, with lowered expectations, while learning from one of the most accomplished power forwards in league history in Kevin Garnett, who announced over the weekend a three-year, $34 million deal with the Celtics. Garnett can mentor Sullinger, and groom him into a Glen Davis-like sparkplug off the bench.

The former Buckeyes forward’s work ethic has drawn criticism and his thickset frame, though often a useful weapon on both ends of the floor for moving and boxing out defenders, gave NBA GMs cause for pause on draft day. In a professional environment, with strong, willful leaders like Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, who may or may not resign with Boston in free agency, Sullinger will have no choice but to outwork his competition and adopt a more focused, driven psyche. He has added motivation in Fab Melo, who the Celtics took with their second first-round pick at No. 22. While Melo is a different sort player altogether, there are only so many available minutes on an Eastern Conference contender, and Sullinger needs to earn his share at Melo’s expense.

Garnett and Brandon Bass, who is currently seeking a long-term deal with the team, have solidified themselves as major components of Boston’s frontcourt rotation. The Celtics also feature JaJuan Johnson and Greg Stiemsma (another free agent who Boston may or may not resign), two Big Ten products, as quality depth pieces. There’s plenty of minutes to be had for Sullinger, provided he buys into coach Doc Rivers’ style and develops new ways to score, rebound and defend against lengthier, more athletic big men. It’s a steep mountain to climb, but there’s no reason why Sullinger can’t be a productive NBA power forward and prove wrong all the NBA scouts, GMs and front office types who passed on him in the draft.

Draymond Green: Michigan State, F (35th pick, Golden State Warriors)

NBA team record (2011-2012): 23-43

College Statistics (2011-2012): 16.1 ppg, 10.4 rpg

College career capsule:

Although Green didn’t truly emerge as one of the nation’s best players until his senior season, it was largely because he was surrounded my so many good players earlier in his career. With Green playing a key reserve role in 2009 and 2010, the Spartans went to consecutive Final Fours. His workload and responsibilities grew over the next two seasons and Green eventually became team’s unquestioned leader and its best player. He averaged 12.6 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.1 assists as a junior, but the Spartans suffered a rare first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament.

They returned in 2011 as one of the odds-on favorites to win the Big Ten. After losing their first two games to North Carolina and Duke, Michigan State rattled off 15 straight victories before losing consecutive games at Northwestern and Michigan. The Spartans lost two home games late in the season, against Indiana and Ohio State, but recovered to win a share of the Big Ten regular season championship and the Big Ten tournament. A trendy national championship pick heading into the NCAA Tournament, one-seeded MSU, led by Green, eased past 16-seed LIU Brooklyn and 9-seed St. Louis. In the Sweet 16, Louisville’s lockdown defense suffocated the Spartans, who only managed 44 points in what was perhaps their poorest offensive performance of the season. Green, whose season-long, superman-esque heroics had many believing the Spartans would make another Final Four run, finished his college career on a sour note, posting a 5-16 shooting performance in the loss to the Cardinals.

Many analysts believe Green will thrive on a young, evolving Golden State team.

Yet the Spartans’ tournament slip-up doesn’t take away from the sheer consistency of the brilliance that defined Green’s career. He developed into a more diverse, versatile player in his final season in East Lansing, increasing his scoring (16.1 ppg) and rebounding (10.4 rpg), playing virtually every position in some games, and by season’s end had garnered support for the Naismith and Wooden national player of the year awards. More than perhaps any other senior in his class, Green truly left his imprint on the college game, an uber-versatile, do-it-all forward with the rare ability to lead, unify and mend a youthful team into a national championship contender.

How he fits in:

When Green fell out of the first round, I was beginning to wonder just how far he might drop before one team made the wise decision to draft him. Credit general manager Bob Meyers, who got great value in selecting Green with the 35th overall pick. Golden State is in rebuilding mode, struggling to find its identity, stuck somewhere in between low playoff seed and Western conference bottom feeder. They made a major trade late last season when they sent Ekpe Udoh, Kwame Brown and Monta Ellis to Milwaukee for Andrew Bogut and Stephen Jackson, who was later dealt to San Antonio for Richard Jefferson.

The backcourt is promising, with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, two of the league’s best pure shooters, giving Golden State a consistent source of perimeter scoring. In the front court, David Lee, who averaged 20.1 points and 9.6 rebounds per game last season, is a skilled scorer and passer. All in all, the roster has talent, but nowhere near enough experience or depth to contend for a high playoff seed in the near future. The good news is that new head coach Mark Jackson seems to have his team heading in the right direction.

It’s unlikely Green can earn a starting spot for opening night, even with two declining players, Richard Jefferson and Dorrell Wright, claiming the lions share of minutes at small forward. He was a transcendent, highly-skilled player in college, but transitioning to the league is often a difficult process, and Green, who may struggle defensively against athletic perimeter slashers, will need time to adjust. At Michigan State, he was able to roam the floor, play whatever position he wanted to and control the game as he saw fit. He won’t have that type of free reign in the NBA. Instead, Green must find his role, an area or scenario where he can operate effectively, and stick to it.

Wherever he ends up playing, Green is the type of high effort, gritty, well-schooled player that will always find some measure of success in whatever challenge confronts him. Improving his athleticism may be Green’s biggest hurdle, but his skills and attitude on their own merits will be a boon for Golden State’s young roster. Green’s playing time will increase later in the season as he adjusts to his new team, league and lifestyle.

Robbie Hummel: Purdue, F (58th pick, Minnesota Timberwolves)

NBA team record (2011-2012): 26-40

College Statistics: 16.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg

College career capsule:

While Hummel’s career at Purdue will mostly be defined by what could have been rather than what was, there’s no questioning the impact he had on the sport in his six years with the school. As a freshman, Hummel started 31 games, averaged 11.4 points and 6.1 rebounds, led the Big Ten in three point field goal percentage (44.7) and received first team All-Big Ten honors, becoming the first Purdue freshman ever to receive the distinction. Such a transcendent freshman season demanded even greater sustained excellence in his second season, and Hummel obliged. Despite battling a back injury in several games, the Purdue forward posted averages of 13 points and seven rebounds per game while leading the Boilermakers a Big Ten championship and winning the conference tournament most valuable player award.

Hummel had emerged as one of the Big Ten’s best all around players, a sharp-shooting wing in a power forward’s body that always seemed to save his best performances for the biggest, most important moments. Showered with preseason accolades, Hummel played the Boilermakers to a 14-0 start only to have his season end in devastating fashion when he tore his anterior cruciate ligament on February 24 during a game at Minnesota. Hummel promised to return in time for his senior season with teammates JaJuan Johnson and E’Twaun Moore, two NBA-bound players that withdrew from the 2010 draft in the hopes of capturing a national championship alongside Hummel. This was without question the most talented team of Hummel’s tenure at the school, replete with skilled scorers, veteran leadership and a collective drive for greatness. And then, in what amounted to a tragic stroke of bad luck, Hummel re-tore his ACL, and was forced to sit out the season.

The fifth-year senior had one remaining year of eligibility, albeit with a team, after losing Johnson and Moore, that lacked the talent and potential of the previous season. He recorded career-high game averages in points (16.4) and rebounds (7.2) while leading the Boilermakers to a 22-13 record (10-8, Big Ten) and a first-round win in the NCAA Tournament. Hummel’s heroic effort (26 points, nine rebounds, 3 assists) in the second round against Kansas left Purdue just three-points short of an upset over the eventual national runner-up Jayhawks. His long, tumultuous college basketball career ended when senior guard Ryne Smith, who ranked eighth among Big Ten players in three point field goal percentage (.432 %), clanged a potential tying three-point shot off the front rim.

Two severe knee injuries have limited Hummel athletically, but he can still be an effective three-point shooter with Minnesota.

At the time, it was almost inconceivable that Hummel, after suffering back-to-back ACL injuries, could return and play some of the most inspiring basketball of his college career, that he could persevere through such hardship, regain his athleticism, strength, basketball savvy and distinguish himself as a top-60 talent in this year’s draft class. What he accomplished in six years is truly remarkable, though it’s uncertain whether his success will translate to the next level. Hummel, at 6-8, 215-pounds, was an aptly-sized big man in college, but his height will limit him against longer, more athletic NBA power forwards. Small forward is his next option, though he lacks the mobility to stay in front of smaller, nimbler three-guards. Hummel’s best asset is his three-point shooting, which he can use to draw opposing big men away from the basket. His ball-handling is impressive for his size, and he’s shown the ability to attack opponents off the dribble.

Minnesota has an intriguing roster, with loads of talent, youth and depth at nearly every position, and was in the running for a low playoff seed last season before point guard Ricky Rubio tore his ACL in March. Rubio and all-star power forward Kevin Love developed a nice rapport last season and will continue to get better in the future. Love and center Nikola Pekovic carry the bulk of the scoring load and Rubio, along with a handful of other point guards, facilitate the offense, but the Timberwolves lack a spot-up three-point shooter, a niche role befitting Hummel’s skill set. It’s highly unlikely Hummel earns a starting spot this season, perhaps not in the future either—his limited mobility would be exploited on the perimeter and he’s yet to prove himself as a strong rebounder and back-to-the-basket scorer—but we all know he’s a deadly-accurate three-point shooter when given the opportunity, and there’s no reason to think he can’t do that in the NBA.

Hummel needs time to develop and learn his role. He may be the least likely of the four Big Ten draftees to make an immediate impact on his new team, but there’s little doubt that Hummel will develop into a valuable player in the future.