- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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Editor's note: ESPN.com NBA Insider Chad Ford begins his bi-weekly sneak preview into the top NBA draft prospects, both here and internationally.
What do Jay Williams, Mike Dunleavy, Drew Gooden, Jonathan Bender, Jason Richardson, Joe Johnson, DerMarr Johnson, Jamal Crawford, Kedrick Brown, Steven Hunter, Gilbert Arenas, Kareem Rush, Marcus Haislip and Casey Jacobsen all have in common?
In a perfect world, they'd all be driving Pintos, scrounging for lunch money between the cushions in their dorm room couches and strutting around campus, ready to lead their teams to the coveted Big Dance. And a few months from now, they'd stroll across a podium somewhere, grab a diploma and begin preparing for the 2003 NBA draft.
In the real world, they're all driving Cadillac Escalades, have enough lunch money to buy an entire McDonald's and strut around campus wearing about 50 grand worth of bling-bling. The college basketball season is just underway, but instead of playing for an NCAA championship, these guys are flying form city to city hoping for a little time off the pine.
In the NBA world, if you're a college senior, plan on keeping the Pinto. You can't afford the Escalade on an NBDL salary.
Since Kevin Garnett broke the college barrier in 1995 and declared for the NBA draft directly from high school, the number of college seniors in the first round has dwindled at an alarming rate. In 1995, there were 20 college seniors taken in the first round, six drafted in the lottery. In 1998, the number dipped to 14 seniors with five in the lottery. In 1999, the number slipped again: 13 seniors were taken in the first round, only four in the lottery. The 2000 draft saw an even lower low for seniors when only 11 of them were taken in the first round, just three in the lottery. Last summer, only one senior, Melvin Ely, made it into the lottery as eight seniors were taken overall.
Are college seniors a dying breed?
The 2001 draft, on the other hand, was somewhat of a watershed year for seniors. Five were taken in the lottery. Only one, Shane Battier, had a college degree. The other four, Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Eddy Curry and DeSagana Diop were all proud recipients of high school's most prized honor.
Last year was a down year for high school seniors, but things appear to be perking up this year. LeBron James is the consensus No. 1 pick in the draft this summer. A 17-year-old Yugoslavian, Darko Milicic, is the consensus No. 2.
Kirk Hinrich, who had done just about everything humanly imaginable in college hoops, is considered the top senior. No one is sure if he'll even make it into the lottery. Listen to one NBA scout.
"If you're playing hoops in college for four years, you're either a sure thing like (Tim) Duncan or (Jason) Williams or you've got some serious holes in your game. There's very little in between. The best players, the ones with the most potential, go pro. That's the brutal truth."
By now you know the mantra. You've heard the word "potential" ad nauseum for the last few years. The media inundates college seniors with critical questions about "ceilings" and "upside" while fawning over a group of teenagers most have never seen play.
The truth is college seniors are losing in what is becoming an increasingly brutal war of expectations and fortune telling. While guys with potential, like Brown and Chandler, languish, seniors like Dan Gadzuric and Lonny Baxter (both of whom slipped into the second round of the draft) are making major impacts on their team.
"Teams are starting to figure out that the young kids are taking longer to develop than anyone thought," one veteran scout said. "It can take three years, four years, or in Jonathan Bender's case, five years. Upside is great, but guys like Gadzuric and Baxter can make an immediate impact."
That's a senior's badge of honor, one that the NBA is increasingly ignoring. With the college season now underway, several top NBA scouts and personnel directors could identify only one college senior -- Hinrich -- with a good chance of being drafted in this year's lottery.
Why Kirk Hinrich is the exception
So if seniors are out and young kids with 40-inch verticals are in, how does a skinny white kid from Iowa sneak into the lottery?
Poise. Savvy. A killer jumper. Surprising athleticism. You guessed it. Hinrich is a point guard. Maybe the best one in this year's draft.
"I love him," one NBA personnel director said. "He's one of the smartest players in college basketball. The point guard position is the hardest position to learn in the pros. He has the capability to come right in and help a team."
Hinrich has the size (6-foot-3), athleticism, floor vision, ball handling, unselfishness and a dead-on jumper. While a few scouts think his move to the wing to make way for prized sophomore Aaron Miles may hurt his stock a bit, others feel it will help him.
"I think it's made him a little more complete," a scout said. "I think the big question about him early in his career was whether he can score. He showed that last year. Everyone believes he's going to be real good."
Is Chris Marcus the next Shaq? Hardly
Two years ago, Western Kentucky center Chris Marcus was a sure-fire lottery pick. But Marcus decided he wasn't ready for the NBA life and it has cost him dearly.
After a fast start to his junior season, Marcus broke a bone in his foot and was forced to miss 17 games, dropping his stock on the NBA radar. When he did come back, he was out of shape and largely ineffective. Marcus pulled his name out of the NBA draft so he could have offseason surgery and come back to Western for one more season.
He's going to need a strong performance and a healthy senior season to regain his status as a lottery pick. At 7-foot-1 and 285 pounds, he has the size thing going. He's a strong defender and an excellent rebounder and has worked hard to develop an array of low-post moves that has boosted his scoring average this season. He can even step back and nail the three on occasion.
Before you get too excited, don't confuse him with Shaquille O'Neal. He doesn't have the athleticism that really gets scouts drooling. He can be a bit of a ground hog, which hurts his shot blocking, and he's still very raw. Plus he's played organized basketball for only three years. Think a stronger version of Michael Olowokandi, without the hops.
Now you see the problem.
Still, whenever you talk size, NBA scouts come running.
"You hear the knocks about his lack of athleticism, his weight problems, and his desire," one league executive said. "His age is also a big issue and teams will be scared to death of those feet. But, I promise you that if he's healthy this season and puts up good numbers, his stock will jump right back up there. Teams are desperate for size and someone will be willing to gamble on him."
Scouting the best of the rest
Scouts think several other seniors have got a good shot at the first round while a few other prominent names could be real disappointed on draft night.
Kansas big man Nick Collison got some props from coaches George Karl and Gregg Popovich after spending the summer with Team USA. Collison isn't a great athlete, but he's hard-working and crafty under the basket and plays tough defense. Scouts will be watching closely to see how he fares down low without Drew Gooden watching his back.
The jury is still out on Louisville guard Reece Gaines. Some scouts absolutely love him. He's 6-5, has legitimate point guard skills, is a great athlete and has a jump shot that's coming around. If he continues to improve under coach Rick Pitino, two NBA scouts said he has lottery potential. Others aren't nearly as sold. They think he plays out of control, makes poor decisions and doesn't really have a point guard mentality.
The feedback on Xavier big man David West was more consistent. He was considered a consensus mid-to-late first rounder. "I loved him as a sophomore," one director of player personnel said. "But he had an average year last year. He has the game to play (power forward) in the league, but I really wonder about his size."
Oklahoma guard Hollis Price drew comparisons to Juan Dixon. "He's talented, but what position does he play?" one scout said. "He's too small to be a two guard and doesn't seem to have the instincts of a point guard. He's tough as nails and a great leader, but I'm not sure that's enough. He's going to have to make the case in workouts that he can run the point. Juan did it. Maybe Hollis can, too."
Arizona's Luke Walton has a lot of fans. But he'd have a lot more if he had a consistent jumper. Four different scouts called him the best passer in college basketball. Period.
"He can really pass, but that's not saying that much since U.S. kids don't really know how to pass," one scout said. "He's very tough, more athletic than you think and a real cerebral player like his dad (Bill). But his shot is so suspect I think he'll slip into the late first round. Passing will only get you so far."
The book on his teammate, Jason Gardner, is less flattering. Apparently few teams are interested in the 5-10 shooting guard.
"You hate to hold things against a kid, but he was so awful in the Chicago camp a few years back, it really hurt him," one assistant general manager said. "He can score and he's tough, but there just isn't a lot of room for players his size anymore. I think he'll be drafted, but my guess is that it won't be in the first round."
UCLA small forward Jason Kapono's stock has also dropped. "He can shoot, but what good is it if he can't get his own shot," one scout said.
Duke's Dahntay Jones isn't getting much love either. "He's a great athlete, but there isn't much else there," another scout said. "He's a streaky shooter and he hasn't shown he has the ball handling to be a two guard in the league. I don't see him cracking the first round."
One sleeper to watch is Tennessee's Ron Slay. Several scouts thought his enthusiasm, hustle and ability to rebound and be an energy guy would win him a spot in the first round. "He could be another Dennis Rodman," one scout claimed. Just for clarity's sake, is that a good thing or a bad thing? "In this case, it's a good one."
Chad Ford writes the daily NBA Insider column for ESPN Insider. To get a free 30-day trial, click here.
Kansas guard Kirk Hinrich is the only college senior who looks to be lottery pick material.