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Who will be the player to break Northwestern’s NBA Draft drought?

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This past Thursday, college and professional basketball fans alike were once more able to indulge in the annual television extravaganza that is the NBA Draft. While you were glued to ESPN for hours paying attention to elements of the occasion like Jay Bilas making fun of himself for talking about people’s wingspans or Tom Penn jabbing a screen with his stubby fingers while yelling at you about cap space, you probably were not aware of the continuation of a disturbing trend that you were witnessing.

Yes, I am talking about Northwestern basketball’s second-most depressing current drought—that of 17 years without an NBA Draft pick after both Alex Olah and Tre Demps unsurprisingly went undrafted. The Wildcats have not produced a draftee since the former second-team-All-American Evan Eschmeyer was selected by the New Jersey Nets in the second round of the 1999 Draft, which unfortunately marks the longest barren stretch of any Big 10 school. During the same time period, Minnesota and Rutgers (yes, Rutgers) have had a combined six players hear their name called by the NBA Commissioner in June.

That should be almost as depressing for Northwestern fans as actually having to watch their team play basketball is for Rutgers fans.

Nonetheless, the beginnings of the Chris Collins era for Northwestern basketball have undoubtedly signaled positive progress towards bucking this trend. The program is becoming more relevant on the national college basketball landscape, and it is now consistently attracting high-caliber recruits with solid foundations for the development of NBA skill sets.

There is tangible proof of progress as well, with players that Collins himself did not even recruit. Drew Crawford tasted NBA pre-season action in 2014 with the Orlando Magic and enjoyed a prolific year in the D-League with the Erie Bay Hawks, and Olah and Demps both signed deals to play in the NBA Summer League, with the Pelicans and Bulls, respectively.

With the talent level coming into Evanston increasing every year from a recruiting standpoint under Collins, the talent level leaving Evanston will eventually start increasing with it. It cannot be long before we see a former Wildcat cross the Barclays Center stage in Brooklyn, shake hands with Adam Silver, and be perplexingly compared to a subpar NBA journeyman by Jalen Rose. But just how long, exactly, will we have to wait for that? Could someone on the current roster be that player to break the ice for the program and finally plunge into NBA waters? Let’s examine the prospects:

Bryant McIntosh

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Purdue Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

Although it may not seem like the case at first glance, the rising junior actually possesses an offensive toolkit that is well suited to the work of an NBA point guard. The NBA is a pick-and-roll dominated league, and McIntosh has the complete arsenal of a prototypical pick-and-roll ball handler. He is effective pulling up from mid-range off a screen, he can get into the lane and create with a lob or a pocket pass, he has a floater that he can convert with regularity, and he is not afraid to go into a defender’s chest to finish and/or get to the line.

The genesis of his frustrating inconsistencies over his first two seasons as a Wildcat has been his erratic decision making in pick-and-roll situations, but when he has been in tune with reading the game coming off of screens (i.e. Wisconsin last year), he has proven to be nothing short of elite. However, with two more years as the undisputed primary ball-handler, there is a good chance that consistency could develop. With the appropriate size and length (6-foot-3, 185 pounds), as well as the ability to shoot the three off the catch and the dribble, McIntosh would be a point guard ready to slide into a niche role in an NBA offense.

However, the black mark on his draft prospects would likely be his defense. Although it is often hidden by the “Chameleon,” McIntosh’s lateral quickness and on-ball instincts defensively are nowhere near NBA-level as of now. The vast majority of NBA backup point guards derive a considerable percentage of their value from their ability to provide the lead guards on their teams with much needed respite on the defensive end of the floor, by picking up opposing ball-handlers for long stretches of time. That is a role that McIntosh is not currently fit for and likely never will be fit for.

That being said, there is space in the league for jump-shooting, ball-handling bench guards who need to be hidden on defense. Think Jarrett Jack, Austin Rivers, CJ Watson, Shelvin Mack, or Randy Foye. Contingent upon major progression on his three-point shooting or the ability to regularly dominate in a screen-and-roll setting, there is an outside chance that B-Mac will fit this particular mold of NBA guard by his senior season and could be worth a flyer in the later stages of the Draft. However, a lot will have to fall into place for that dream to become a reality and his draft prospects as of now are unlikely at best.

Rapolas Ivanauskas

From all that has been made public of Ivanauskas’s game, he appears as if he's going to be one of the most unique basketball players ever. Seriously…

(via Rivals)

Yeah, that’s him facing up a 6-foot-5 dude on the wing and throwing up a finger-roll the likes of which only Steph Curry ever converts, and then the next time down the floor draining a pick-and-pop 3-ball with graceful ease. From the looks of it, I want to say this guy is a slashing 3-man stuck in a stretch-4’s body, but I honestly have no idea what he is. All I know is he can shoot, dribble, pass, and finish inside, and he is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-plus wingspan. That is a very good place to start, not only for Northwestern’s continuing evolution as a program that can recruit skilled athletes, but also for his NBA prospects. He also seems to possess a peculiar brand of athleticism in that he is tremendously coordinated and has a deadly first step, but lacks lateral quickness or vertical explosion of any kind.

Unfortunately for ‘Rap,’ both the wing spots and the stretch-4 spot are incredibly crowded for the Wildcats this upcoming year. Vic Law, Sanjay Lumpkin, Aaron Falzon, Scottie Lindsey, Nathan Taphorn, and Gavin Skelly are all returning, so it is a complete mystery as to what role or even how much he will play in his first year in Evanston. However, amongst the hundreds of puzzle pieces strewn across the floor that make up his skill set, it feels as if there is some pattern of them that could be put together to reveal a picture of a unique college basketball superstar. That is why this young man from Lithuania is perhaps the most intriguing prospect that the Northwestern basketball program has ever unearthed.

If Ivanauskas can sort out the 3 vs. 4 conundrum of his game early in his Northwestern career, round out his athletic package, and prove to be a knockdown 3-point shooter, this Rivals four-star prospect could well turn into an NBA Draft pick. Only time will tell…

Vic Law

NCAA Basketball: Houston Baptist at Northwestern Caylor Arnold-USA TODAY Sports

Everything about Vic Law screams “future-3-and-D-guy.” He has length, quickness, athleticism, good rebounding instincts, tremendous speed getting up and down the floor, and an underrated and underutilized stroke from distance. In his freshman year (2014-2015), he never truly looked comfortable in the role of a go-to wing scorer, but did display the ability to guard positions 1-4 and cash in on spot-up opportunities, especially near the end of the year. Law shot 18 for 33 (55 percent) from deep over his final dozen games.

Now while Northwestern may need him to round out his game and become a reliable fulcrum of the team’s offense going forward, that is another conversation for another day. This article is about his NBA draft prospects, and when you dip past the lottery on draft night, NBA teams are looking for specialists. The 3-and-D small forward, whether he be a starter giving a team 33 minutes-per-night or a bench player providing energy for 10, has become a staple of how NBA GMs construct their franchises. Law was practically born for this role.

The one issue Law had during his freshman year was his weight, or rather lack thereof. At 6-foot-7 and 185 pounds, he had trouble with the elite, strong-bodied small forwards of the Big Ten. But two offseason’s worth of work in the weight room (albeit with a major interruption) will have transformed his body by the time the 2016-2017 season begins, and all the other pieces of Law’s 3-and-D game were visible from the first few games of his freshman year. The one red flag with him would be how his 3-point shooting — which ranked fifth in all of the Big 10 two seasons ago — and, moreover, the overall progression of his game will be affected by his season-ending shoulder injury in 2015-16.

This season will obviously be a crucial one for Law’s NBA chances. If he can return to the court and successfully assert himself as the Wildcats’ first or second offensive option, he could well be on track to break the draft drought, but if his injury and lost season have severely stagnated his development, the exit ramp to that track will surely be closed.

Aaron Falzon

NCAA Basketball: Northwestern at Michigan Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Time and time again in recent years, NBA GMs have reiterated the fact that if you have size and you can shoot threes, you have a shot at being an NBA player. That alone is why Falzon is on this list. While he was far from prolific behind the line in his freshman year, his high and quick release along with his ability to catch fire from deep showed that he has the potential to reach that point as a pure, standstill sniper.

The problem right now is his defense, as he cannot guard either wings on the perimeter or big men in the post in a man-to-man, pro-style setup. However, if he is able to work on his athleticism and strength over his coming years at Northwestern, and potentially expand his arsenal of ways to score the basketball from distance — mid-range, back to the basket, off the dribble, or off of screens — it is not outside the realm of possibility that he could get his shot in the NBA. Keep in mind that this is a league in which Duje Dukan and Christian Watford have received contracts, so putting Aaron Falzon’s name in with that list does not look all that ridiculous. However, it is highly unlikely that — even if Falzon were to add all the aforementioned elements to his game — he would be someone that a team would actually use a draft pick on, much like Dukan and Watford. He is probably the biggest long shot of the five players on this list.

Barret Benson

Two things are certain about Benson: a) He is a big, big boy, and b) He played against a lot of very, very small boys in high school. In fact, it was actually quite painful watching some of his highlight tapes and seeing him repeatedly eviscerate scrawny 6-foot-1 kids in the post to the point that they are probably still questioning their self-worth and value in this world. However, interspersed with the monotony of his inhumane low-post domination, there are a series of clips that are absolutely astonishing.

First there is this:

Then there is this:

Then this:

And finally this:

(via Hudl)

WHAT. You are telling me this dude is 18 years old, 6-foot-10, 240 pounds, can put the ball on the floor, hit from the midrange, move his feet on defense, get up and down the floor with a surprisingly graceful gait, and also drop beautiful long-range bombs? We have ourselves a gem. Imagine what the result will be when that excess weight he is carrying turns into 250 or 260 pounds of muscle after a couple college offseason programs.

Granted, he is not quite athletic enough to belong to the DeAndre Jordan/Tristan Thompson-type big man that the NBA is trending towards, but give me one reason why there is no place in the league for a guy of Benson’s size and build who has a refined and diverse offensive game and can defend pick-and-rolls.

As is the case with all freshmen who have yet to set foot on a college basketball court, there is obviously a high degree of uncertainty over the player that he could be. His ceiling is something like a Mareese Speights who is also a plus defender, but his floor is an out-of-shape, overwhelmed center who can never quite assert his influence in the Big 10 and fades into obscurity. Regardless, his prospects for Northwestern and beyond are as exciting as anyone’s.