Saturday, June 26, 2010

The Four-Year Player, The NBA Draft, And How It Looks For Benson in 2011

When Keith Benson declared early for the draft this spring, it was a bittersweet moment for Oakland University fans. If Benson were to be drafted, it would be a huge win for the program. At the same time, losing the reigning Summit League Player of the Year would no doubt leave a big hole in the Golden Grizzlies' front-court. A thumb injury made it impossible for Benson to participate in some of the pre-entry deadline workouts, meaning he would not be able to receive enough immediate feedback to make a sound decision about whether to stay in or out of the draft. Due to these circumstances, Benson announced he'd return to school for his senior season, poised to defend his conference honors.

But what will happen to his draft stock for 2011? There were scouts at many a Oakland University game this year to see Benson, who impressed with big-time performances against elite teams all year. However, the 2010 draft field included a wealth of big men with similar profiles, ignoring conference affiliation, as Benson. Larry Sanders, who is a long and athletic post player coming out a year early from VCU, benefited the most by going 15th to the Milwaukee Bucks. Craig Brackins, a highly-touted post from Iowa State, was also picked in the first-round. Aside from those two names, other long, athletic, shot-blocking centers often grouped with Benson (Hassan Whiteside, Jarvis Varnado, Jerome Jordan, Soloman Alabi) were all taken in the second round. Of these players, only two were seniors - Varnado and Jordan - which points to the growing trend where NBA teams draft more on potential than producticity over the course of a four-year college career.

For the past few drafts, specifically, seniors have been falling further down draft boards than ever before. This year's version saw Trevor Booker go at #23, the longest it has ever taken for the first senior to hear his name called. While the end of the first round was more kind to seniors than the first 20 or so picks, this is no doubt a trend to be worried about when it comes to Benson's first-round potential next year. The key for any player is to be a first-round pick because then a contract is all but guaranteed. Fall to the second round and there are no sure things, meaning great college players like Varnado and Jordan may not ever see an NBA court, despite hearing their names called on draft night. At this point - and it is early - it seems unlikely that Benson would go undrafted in 2011, given how the already-mentioned similar players and seniors fared this year. He's got too much talent and size to be where Brian Zoubek and Omar Samhan were on Thursday night. But to get a first-round guarantee, he'll have to continue to prove he has the skill, motor, and strength to be mentioned amongst the first 30 picks.

What is clear at this point is that there won't be as many big men to choose from in 2011. Soon-to-be-freshmen Perry Jones, Jared Sullinger, and Enes Kanter are lottery locks if they come out early, and Jonathan Givony and Gary Parrish even have a guy like John Henson (6-10, 200 pounds) as a top-30 prospect. I guarantee Benson will post better and bigger numbers and display more intensity than Henson next year, but Henson has the all-important "upside" that NBA scouts love so much. Aside from these possible early-entrants, the rest of the crop is rather slim, JaJuan Johnson (Purdue) and Kenneth Faried (Morehead State) leading the bunch. Both explored going out early this year but ultimately chose to return for their senior seasons. Benson is a better fit at center in the NBA than any of these players who may play the "5" in college but are being scouted as power forwards. And Benson has the skills to be more than just a back-to-the-basket center. His ability to impress scouts paired with slim pickings at his position bode well for Mr. Benson in 2011.

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