Under-the-Radar 2014 NBA Draft Gems in Position to Crack the NBA
For every gem that's found in the second round, there are dozens of duds that get called who never crack the NBA.
The following prospects have made strong impressions early on, whether it's been in team workouts or NBA Summer League. And many of them have already signed contracts.
Most of the following rookies weren't given much of a chance to make to make an NBA team coming out of college. Now, they're in prime position to make a roster and find its rotation.
Only second-round or undrafted prospects were taken into under-the-radar-gem consideration.
Russ Smith, New Orleans Pelicans, PG
Entering his final year at Louisville, Russ Smith had one season left to make some adjustments and ultimately present himself as a viable NBA option. And he succeeded.
Smith learned to channel his quickness off the bounce into playmaking (as opposed to strictly scoring), having raised his assist rate from 2.9 to 4.6 a game in 2013-14.
He even led the Las Vegas Summer League in dimes, looking more and more like a point guard instead of the gunner we'd seen in the past.
The NBA appeal to Smith stems from his ability to generate offense, whether he's breaking down defenses and driving-and-dishing or pulling up in transition for a jumper.
The New Orleans Pelicans recently announced they have signed Smith to a deal, though the details have not been released.
With an injury-prone starter in Jrue Holiday and only Austin Rivers and Jimmer Fredette behind him, Smith could have a real chance here to climb the depth chart in New Orleans.
Jordan Clarkson, Los Angeles Lakers, G
The Los Angeles Lakers haven't offered him a contract yet, but following his strong showing at summer league and this team's lack of young talent, it only seems like a matter of time.
After signing Wesley Johnson, Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders guesses that Clarkson could be next in line.
At 6'5", Clarkson has terrific size and athleticism for a ball-handler, regardless of whether you think he's a point guard or a 2-guard. He's a backcourt weapon either way—a guy who can generate offense with the ball or finish plays off it.
He didn't shoot the ball particularly well as a junior at Missouri (28.1 percent from downtown), though you wouldn't know it from his numbers in Vegas. He nailed eight of 19 (42.1 percent) of his three-pointers through five games. If that sample size isn't enough, he did hit 37.4 percent of his threes his final year at Tulsa (before transferring).
His shooting consistency will improve over time. The only question is whether or not his facilitating and passing skills will too.
Still, between his physical tools and versatility, Clarkson has an excellent foundation to build on moving forward. Even though he went in the second round, there's still legitimate upside here for the Lakers coaching staff to tap into.
Nick Johnson, Houston Rockets, SG
Nick Johnson has long-term role player written all over him. It's been there for years. The fact that he lacks a true position only limits his upside, which is what led to teams passing on him 41 times in the draft.
But Johnson's shot-making ability and intangibles, specifically fearlessness, leadership and basketball IQ, hold NBA value to a supporting cast. This is the type of guy who makes the extra pass, the hustle play and the big shot.
And he happens to be fueled by some premium NBA athleticism, which should help neutralize some of the size disadvantage he'll face as a 6'3" guard playing mostly off the ball.
The Rockets are expected to sign him to a three-year deal, per Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle, following a strong showing in the Orlando and Las Vegas Summer Leagues.
Quite frankly, Houston's backcourt is fairly shallow, with only Isaiah Canaan, Troy Daniels and Ish Smith behind Patrick Beverley and James Harden.
Not only will Johnson crack the NBA, but he'll have a good opportunity to land a spot in the Rockets' 2014-15 rotation.
Jarnell Stokes, Memphis Grizzlies, PF
Despite averaging a double-double in college and sporting a rock-solid NBA figure, Jarnell Stokes slipped into this year's second round, where he'll be giving the Memphis Grizzlies tremendous value assuming they sign him to a deal.
Stokes carried his massive interior presence into the Orlando Summer League, where he averaged 9.4 boards in just 26.6 minutes a game. He doesn't just have the body and strength—Stokes has terrific instincts and hands around the rim.
If nothing else translates, his rebounding ability should, even if it's into a specialist role. And I can think of a number of teams out there that could use some frontcourt physicality under the boards.
Whether it's in Memphis or somewhere else, I'd imagine Stokes will catch on somewhere as a motor in the paint.
Cameron Bairstow, Chicago Bulls, PF/C
The Chicago Bulls were quick to ink Cameron Bairstow, the No. 49 pick in the draft, to a contract that included a guaranteed year.
“We like Cameron’s combination as a player with his size, energy and physicality,” Bulls general manager Gar Forman said on the team’s website. “He is a hard worker who will only get better with time.”
Despite putting up monster numbers (20.4 points per game) as a senior at New Mexico, Bairstow's lack of athleticism diminished the excitement surrounding his breakout and NBA chances.
But the jumper he developed in 2013-14 could hold significant value in the pros, given the pick-and-pop potential it gives him as an inside-outside weapon. Bairstow connected on an astounding 68.3 percent of his shots from 17 feet out to the arc, per DraftExpress' Derek Bodner.
And though he only took three three-pointers all season, he drained 15 of 25 of them at the NBA combine, where he looked comfortable shooting with range.
But Bairstow didn't just drop 20 a game as a senior by knocking down jumpers. He's pretty solid with his jump hooks and touch in the post.
There isn't any upside attached to Bairstow—he just has the right physical tools and fundamentals to carve out a niche for himself in the league.
He averaged 10.2 points and seven boards on 53.1 percent shooting in Las Vegas Summer League.
Markel Brown, Brooklyn Nets, SG
Markel Brown was one of those guys who got burned by the "tweener" projection in the draft. At 6'3" without point guard instincts or the size of a 2-guard, there isn't a natural position waiting for him to fill.
But the Brooklyn Nets went ahead and signed him anyway, a move that could give Brown an immediate opportunity.
For starters, with Deron Williams, Jarrett Jack, Joe Johnson, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez, we could be looking at one of the least explosive lineups in the league. And few prospects, or NBA players for that matter, pack a more potent athletic punch than Brown, who tied for the highest standing vertical and max vertical at the NBA combine.
But it's more than just his hops and bounce—Brown has evolved into a fairly complete player over the years.
Despite the inefficiency tied to combo guards, he managed to shoot 47.3 percent as a senior and 52.9 percent in summer league, where he also matched his college three-point shooting mark at around 37 percent.
And though not a point guard by any means, he's improved dramatically as a passer and playmaker (averaged 2.9 assists as a senior, 3.2 assists in summer league).
Brown can fly, shoot, finish and even create a little bit off the dribble. The two inches he's lacking in height shouldn't keep him from cracking the NBA.