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Biggest "Project" Rookies of 2014 NBA Draft

Daniel O'BrienFeatured ColumnistJune 30, 2014

Biggest "Project" Rookies of 2014 NBA Draft

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    The 2014 NBA draft class is seemingly overflowing with talented ballers who could make a huge impact in the league.

    While that might be true, it will take some prospects longer to evolve than others.

    A few youngsters in the group are essentially developmental "projects" in their team's system or rotation. For one reason or another, or multiple reasons, their games still need polishing or significant upgrades.

    Which 2014 draftees are diamonds that need cleaning? We focused on the biggest project picks in the first round.

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers C (Drafted No. 3)

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    Orlin Wagner/Associated Press

    Vitals: 20 years old, 7'0", 250 lbs

    2013-14 Kansas Stats: 23.1 MPG, 11.2 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 2.6 BPG, 63 FG%

     

    Joel Embiid is an awe-inspiring basketball specimen, but he's a project in more ways than one.

    Before the 7-footer makes an impact on the court for the Philadelphia 76ers, he must successfully rehab his foot. And it's not going to be a swift process: General Manager Sam Hinkie told Matt Lombardo of NJ.com that the recovery timetable is five to eight months.

    As far as actual basketball goes, Embiid must refine several areas of his game.

    Offensively, he must learn when to refrain from forcing plays. He often tries highly difficult shots in traffic while teammates are open, and he frequently attempts tricky passes when he should have made the simple move. During Big 12 competition, Embiid coughed up 4.7 turnovers per 40 minutes in 2013-14.

    He also must learn to play a stronger brand of basketball in the post, as he relied heavily on his length and agility at Kansas.

    Meanwhile, Embiid's shot-blocking is impressive, and it fueled his conference Defensive Player of the Year honors. However, poor weak-side positioning and missed assignments weren't uncommon occurrences. He must clean up those lapses if he wants to be an efficient low-post stopper in the Association.

Noah Vonleh, Charlotte Hornets PF (Drafted No. 9)

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    Steve Freeman/Getty Images

    Vitals: 18 years old, 6'9", 247 lbs

    2013-14 Indiana Stats: 26.5 MPG, 11.3 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 1.4 BPG, 52 FG%

     

    The Charlotte Hornets may have picked up a tremendous building block for the future in Noah Vonleh. But if he's ever going to make a substantial impact, he needs to learn and expand his game.

    Vonleh didn't display the best alertness or court awareness in five-on-five sets at Indiana. He was a willing passer, but too often he just couldn't quickly find his teammates and instead forced up a bad shot.

    One specific task that begs for improvement is in the pick-and-roll, where his positioning and feel beg for improvement. ESPN.com's Amin Elhassan (subscription required) details the flaw:

    Despite his physique and athleticism, he's not a very good pick-and-roll player, as he tends to drift toward the pop more often, and when he does roll, he doesn't have great timing or conviction coming out of the screen...He owns good use of either hand around the rim, but has a tendency to bring the ball down.

    Vonleh is promising defensively as well, but he's still largely a novice. He failed to stay a step ahead of his opponents and consequently committed 4.1 fouls per 40 minutes. It might take him a little while to master the art of weak-side rotations and on-ball discipline before he's a consistent rim protector.

Zach LaVine, Minnesota Timberwolves SG (Drafted No. 13)

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    David Sherman/Getty Images

    Vitals: 19 years old, 6'6", 181 lbs

    2013-14 UCLA Stats: 24.4 MPG, 9.4 PPG, 1.8 APG, 44% FG, 38% 3FG

     

    There aren't many NCAA or NBA players who are more exciting in the open floor than Zach LaVine. The Minnesota Timberwolves scooped him up at No. 13 due to this explosiveness and also because of LaVine's promising outside shot.

    He's got a chance to become a lethal slasher and shooter, but it takes much more than athleticism to be proficient in those departments. LaVine is wanting for situational awareness, ball-handling polish and strength.

    After the 6'6" leaper was drafted, Mike Schmitz of Draft Express expressed in a series of tweets that LaVine is far from stardom at this juncture, and he may even make a trip to the minor leagues at some point:

    LaVine has the athleticism, jumper but he has a long way to go as a player and with maturity. Can see him in the D-League this year...The tools are there but LaVine struggles with feel, contact around the rim and defense.

    In addition to his subpar instincts and slight frame, LaVine is not an advanced shot-creator at this point. Moreover, at UCLA he showed that he's far from maximizing his physical gifts on the defensive side.

    He'll be able to attack from the wing and shoot early in his career, but it will take a chunk of time before he's a truly versatile guard.

Jusuf Nurkic, Denver Nuggets C (Drafted No. 16)

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    Vitals: 19 years old, 6'11", 280 lbs

    2013-14 Cedevita Stats: 16.6 MPG, 11.7 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 55% FG

     

    For Denver Nuggets newcomer Jusuf Nurkic, the developmental process is more important in between the ears than anywhere else.

    Sure, the Bosnian center should improve his left-hand hook shot and turn over his right shoulder. And yes, he would do well to improve his conditioning, physique and athleticism. Those are key factors for his progression.

    But the mental side of things is probably more important for the Nugs. Nurkic is far too erratic defensively, not knowing when to rotate or when to refrain from challenging a shooter. The result was an astonishing 7.7 fouls per 40 minutes in the Adriatic League.

    He's also got work to do offensively, where he has trouble making sound decisions. Sometimes it's an ill-advised foray through the heart of the defense, and other times it's a botched pass. Nurkic has to eliminate these bad habits before he's considered a passably efficient big man.

    In a league where efficiency is paramount, Nurkic leaves something to be desired on both ends of the floor.

James Young, Boston Celtics SG/SF (Drafted No. 17)

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    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Vitals: 18 years old, 6'7", 213 lbs

    2013-14 Kentucky Stats: 32.4 MPG, 14.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 41% FG, 35% 3FG

     

    A fluid shooting stroke, seven-foot wingspan and Final Four run helped scouts notice James Young's potential, and after one year at Kentucky he's Boston-bound.

    Be patient, though, because his natural shooting talent and size won't automatically turn him into a Celtics star.

    Young must expand and polish his creative dribbling in order to create separation for mid-range jumpers and slashes to the rim. He's still a bit left-hand dependent, which makes him more guardable at the next level. And defensively he must play with more alertness and quickness, as he was highly disappointing on that side of the court in college.

    Even Young's jumper has some blemishes.

    Kevin O'Connor of CelticsBlog.com highlights Young's balance issue:

    He certainly has potential as a scorer since he is very smooth from outside, but some changes will have to be made to his mechanics since he typically lands unbalanced.

    Celtics fans hope he develops significantly over the next two or three years, so he'll be peaking right when the team is operating in contender mode.

Bruno Caboclo, Toronto Raptors SF/PF (Drafted No. 20)

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    Mike Stobe/Getty Images

    Vitals: 18 years old, 6'9", 200 lbs

    2013-14 Pinheiros Stats: 13.0 MPG, 5.2 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 51% FG, 39% 3FG

     

    In one of the gutsiest draft selections you'll ever see, the Toronto Raptors picked obscure Brazilian forward Bruno Caboclo with the 20th-overall pick on Thursday.

    Caboclo is a high-flying youngster with exciting two-way potential, but even general manager Masai Ujiri knows he's rolling the dice.

    "It's an outright gamble," he told reporters of the pick.

    Although Caboclo's length and agility is ideal for defending NBA wings, opponents would outsmart him countless times per game if he played heavy minutes right away. It seems like he doesn't know when to stay home or when to apply pressure.

    On the other end, it's more about skill refinement. His handle isn't strong or advanced, so he can't do much in the way of generating his own baskets. On top of that, he needs to put on 20-30 pounds before he reaches his peak physical effectiveness.

    Based on his athleticism and promising outside shooting (39 percent in 2013-14), I'm a believer in Caboclo, and I don't think Ujiri is crazy. Nevertheless, the Brazilian is certainly a project.

     

Clint Capela, Houston Rockets PF (Drafted No. 25)

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    Jennifer Pottheiser/Getty Images

    Vitals: 20 years old, 6'11", 222 lbs

    2013-14 Chalon Stats: 22.0 MPG, 9.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 1.5 BPG, 62% FG

     

    During transition plays or pick-and-roll lobs, it's easy to see why Swiss big man Clint Capela is an attractive asset for the Houston Rockets.

    He can bounce with ease, extend with his 7'4.5" wingspan and run the floor as speedily as any 6'11" player you've ever seen. He's a classic "above the rim" finisher who can cover a ton of space and comfortably hang with NBA frontcourts athletically.

    Conversely, he won't be able to keep up with NBA frontcourts in half-court sets. Kevin McHale can't count on him for post-up scoring, crafty drives or mid-range shooting. It's part of the reason why Capela will likely stay in Europe for a couple more years.

    "I believe he's not ready for important minutes yet," said ESPN international hoops analyst Fran Fraschilla.

    Many of the game's essential fundamentals are not second nature to him yet. He's not a consistent jump-shooter yet, and he mixes in several bad decisions per night as a driver and passer. On defense he doesn't demonstrate basic principles, such as simultaneously tracking his man and the ball or maintaining an aggressive approach.

     

    Follow Dan O'Brien on Twitter for more NBA coverage: @DanielO_BR

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