Philadelphia, PA (SportsNetwork.com) - Although they would be loath to admit it, NBA general managers in cities like Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee can't be too upset about their teams suffering through losing seasons.
They covet the top pick in the 2014 NBA Draft.
This year's draft is considered to be the most talent-rich since a corn-rowed freshman from Syracuse and a high school phenom from Akron, Ohio, were set to take the stage in New York. Adding even more intrigue is the fact that, aside from Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart, the biggest names in this year's pool will have just a year of college hoops under their belt come June.
Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and even Aaron Gordon road a freight train of hype into this season, but now that conference play has begun in earnest, it's time to really examine how well each player has performed, and what other rookies may actually have some GMs shuffling their draft boards.
If the NBA Draft had been held in October, there is little doubt Wiggins would have gotten the nod as the top pick. The 6-foot-8 swingman from Canada with the moniker "Maple Jordan" was having his name uttered in the same sentences as one LeBron James all summer, due to his immense potential.
Wiggins has shown some signs he is still in need of development, with a rather uneven season plagued by some turnover issues. That is not to say he has been producing poorly. In fact, he is scoring a team-high 15.8 points per game for the 15th-ranked Kansas Jayhawks and is coming off a double-double Monday night against Iowa State in which he pulled down a career-high 19 rebounds. However, Wiggins had a career-high in turnovers (six) as well.
The talent is clearly there, but the consistency has not been. Cutting down on the miscues and avoiding efforts like the six-point showing he had against UTEP or the nine-point performance against Oklahoma will be needed going forward for Wiggins to be the player most expected.
Wiggins has actually slipped a bit in value, not only due his inability to live up to admittedly impossible expectations, but because of the play of one of his teammates.
Freshman center Joel Embiid wasn't a household name for the Jayhawks early in the season, but the seven-footer has forced himself into the national spotlight with a slew of high-light reel dunks and blocks to go with a frame reminiscent of Hakeem Olajuwon.
Embiid still needs some polish as a scorer - he is netting just 10.9 ppg - but has finished off 67.7 percent of his field goal tries and has been an absolute force in protecting the rim, ranking second in the Big 12 in blocks (2.9 per game). Like Wiggins, Embiid has had some trouble with turnovers. He had seven against Iowa State, but made up for it by swatting five shots.
Speaking of powerful frontcourt players, Randle may have seen his draft stock take a falter a bit earlier in the season, but that could have more to do with Kentucky's fall from grace than his own play. The Wildcats began the season as the No. 1 team in the AP Top 25, but have fallen back to No. 13, a spot they will likely drop from after losing to Arkansas this week.
Randle scored 20 points and pulled down 14 rebounds in the loss to the Razorbacks, marking his 11th double-double this season. The 6-9 forward has been scoring at a healthy clip (16.9 ppg) and leading the SEC on the boards (11.1 rpg), which is no small feat considering teammate Willie Cauley-Stein and his 7-foot frame also patrol the interior. Randle's instincts on the glass are extremely appealing, and have made up for some lackadaisical shooting performances.
The debate over which touted freshman has been most successful would be a simple one if all that was taken into account was wins and losses. Gordon (12.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg), who just this week was named USA Basketball 2013 Male Athlete of the Year, has been a key cog for the top-ranked Arizona Wildcats, a team that has yet to lose a game this season.
Gordon, who as long as we're making comparisons to NBA stars has been likened to Blake Griffin, has perhaps the least flashy numbers (12.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg) of this group, but he was also the least-heralded on the national stage. That hasn't stopped the 6-9 forward from hanging up five double-doubles this season, although he has been inconsistent from the floor at times, with six games in which he has shot less than 40 percent from the field.
Still, there is something to be said for a player who has done nothing but win, especially considering Gordon's more careful play with the ball. He has not had a game of more than three turnovers. Wiggins and Embiid have three apiece, while Randle has been the worst with seven.
A discussion of the country's top freshman would be incomplete without Parker. Other than Wiggins, no freshman in the nation was more sought after or touted coming into this season. Parker showed why in the first two months of the season, powering the Duke Blue Devils to an 11-2 record, while scoring at least 20 points in his first seven college games.
Parker's armor has begun to show some wear lately, and it has been illustrated not only in his numbers, but in his team's success on the floor. The 6-8 forward, who is still fourth in the ACC in scoring (18.8 ppg), has averaged just 10.5 ppg in conference play, with the Blue Devils going 2-2 in those contests. If Randle has been hurt by a drop in the national rankings for Kentucky, the collapse to No. 23 for the Blue Devils cannot be overlooked for Parker.
Debates like these are fun, but not ones that can have a definitive winner. If the argument is for the best rebounder, clearly Randle is your guy. The most important player to his squad and best scorer would be accolades bestowed on Parker. Gordon is playing for the best team, while Wiggins and Embiid are perhaps the most naturally talented athletes.
Regardless of your preference, all five are playing at an incredible level considering they were in high school last year. They still have two months, including all of March, to really settle things.