- Chad Ford, ESPN Senior Writer
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With the NCAA tournament just a few weeks away, NBA executives are on the road trying to cram in a little more scouting before the end of college basketball's regular season. As player evaluations move away from the scouting department and into the front office, we've seen some changes to our top 100.
Some of the changes have to do with differences in priorities between scouts and GMs. Most scouts are just looking for the best talent, while GMs tend to focus more closely on who fits well on their team. And some of it has to do with late-season surges by a handful of top prospects.
Ricky Rubio, PG, Spain
Rubio isn't dominating in Spain, but he's getting better and better by the game. A number of NBA scouts and executives are just getting back from Spain and, after watching Rubio play in Copa del Rey, I haven't heard one that doesn't have him ranked in the top three. Most of them have him at No. 2 now, ahead of Georgetown's Greg Monroe.
Rubio's position in the top three is significant for one big reason: He has a huge buyout from his team in Spain. To afford the buyout, he really needs to be a top-three pick. Publicly, the mood has been pessimistic that Rubio would be in this draft, with a series of international stories claiming Rubio is staying overseas and other draft sites pulling him from their 2009 mock drafts. Privately, his agent, Dan Fegan, has been working on this for months, and we've been getting the same signals all along: Rubio is entering this year's draft.
Rubio still needs to work on his jumper and get stronger, but his floor leadership and energy are just remarkable. He's a special playmaker.
Jordan Hill, PF, Arizona
In a draft weak on big guys, Hill's stock has slowly been on the rise all season. Hill isn't a dominant offensive player, but his rebounding, shot blocking and improvement on the offensive end have given scouts hope that he could be a starting power forward in the league.
Hill's 22-point, 13-rebound (eight offensive) performance against UCLA -- in front of a number of NBA personnel in town for All-Star Weekend -- pushed his stock into the top five.
Willie Warren, G, Oklahoma
Probably the hottest name in the draft right now, Warren has not only been the top freshman in the country lately, he's been the best player on his team. With Blake Griffin out the past few games with a concussion, Warren has stepped in and dominated. He had 27 points and 6 assists versus Texas and 23 points and 4 assists versus Kansas. Both were losses for Oklahoma, but it was Warren who kept his team in the game.
A number of NBA executives I spoke with compare him to Ben Gordon. However, I think he is a better passer than Gordon and has a legit shot at being a point guard in the league ... kind of like Gilbert Arenas. Warren has been ranked in our top 25 all season, but over the past few weeks he's moved all the way up to No. 9 on our big board.
DeJuan Blair, PF, Pittsburgh
The other red-hot prospect right now is Blair, who has put up ridiculous numbers in February. He had 32 points and 14 rebounds against DePaul; 22 points and 23 rebounds against then top-ranked UConn and lottery pick Hasheem Thabeet; and 20 points and 18 rebounds against DePaul again.
Although he's undersized for his position, Blair's freakishly long arms (he has a 7-foot-3 wingspan), power in the paint and nonstop motor have NBA GMs gushing about him. We've had Blair projected as a late first-round pick for most of the season primarily because of his lack of size. But with more and more NBA executives endorsing him, he's moved up to No. 15 on our big board. I think his lack of size puts a ceiling on him, but he looks like a lock to go somewhere between Nos. 10 and 20 on draft night.
James Johnson, PF, Wake Forest
Johnson is slowly catching up to the other two lottery prospects on Wake Forest, Jeff Teague and Al-Faroq Aminu. He has been fantastic of late, averaging 26 points and 13 rebounds per game in his last three contests in the ACC.
Johnson's versatility -- he can play both the 3 and 4 on offense and defense -- athleticism, strength and toughness have some NBA executives predicting he'll join Teague and Aminu in this year's lottery. However, not everyone is in love with him yet. Some teams are worried about Johnson's erraticness and lack of basketball IQ.
Perhaps this GM said it best: "No one is going to mess with that kid. He and his dad are serious kickboxers. That will get you instant respect in the NBA. Instant."
Donatas Motiejunas, F, Lithuania
Every year NBA GMs fly around the world looking for the next Dirk Nowitzki. There have been lots of pretenders -- from Nikoloz Tskitishvilli to Vladimir Radmanovic to Andrea Bargnani (who actually looks pretty good this season) to Danilo Gallinari -- but the next Nowitzki has proven to be pretty elusive. This year's Dirk wannabe is Motiejunas -- a 7-foot, 215-pound forward who, you guessed it, runs the floor, has a pretty jumper and can play multiple positions.
Motiejunas has many of the same red flags as those other guys. Scouts say he is soft, needs to add a lot of strength and is playing against watered down competition in Lithuania. However, he's averaging more than 20 points and shooting around 50 percent from 3-point territory -- that's not bad for an 18-year-old in any league in Europe. While it's highly likely he stays in Europe for another season, a couple of international scouts are telling me there are rumblings he might leave.
Said one NBA executive who watched Motiejunas this year: "He's the closest kid I've seen to Dirk coming out of Europe. Honestly. I know what you're thinking. But this kid could be really good."
Somewhere, Bill Simmons is licking his chops for the third round of our annual draft debate.
Nick Calathes, G, Florida
There's no polite way to say the obvious: A 6-foot-5 white point guard isn't exactly in vogue in the NBA these days. And many scouts haven't paid close attention to Calathes as they probably should. He may not look the part of an elite NBA point guard, but he's played the part this season at Florida.
He's played really well lately, hanging a triple-double on Georgia in late January and then almost doing it to the Bulldogs again (he was one rebound short) in mid-February. He dropped 33 points on Kentucky and 22 on Alabama, and he's shooting the lights out from 3-point range.
He's not the quickest guy nor is he a great on-the-ball defender -- and he'll probably never be -- but I've heard more and more NBA scouts talking about him as a steal in the late first round or early second round if he declares.
Craig Brackins, PF, Iowa State
Another name to watch as a late-first-round sleeper is Brackins, who got a lot of attention in late-January when he scored 42 points and grabbed 14 rebounds against Kansas. Since that game, he's been consistently very good. He had 19 and 10 versus Oklahoma, 16 and 7 versus Missouri, and 20 and 11 versus Kansas State.
Brackins plays on a pretty awful team, but scouts aren't holding that against him -- they like his size, versatility and increased effort on the glass. He's not a lock for the first round, but I think he's got a realistic shot of going somewhere between Nos. 20 and 35 in this year's draft.
Sylven Landesberg, SG, Virginia
Landesberg is my top sleeper right now. While everyone is focusing on freshmen like Warren and Memphis' Tyreke Evans, Landesberg has put up the best numbers of the bunch -- and he's doing it in the ACC. A number of GMs were shocked to learn that Landesberg is quietly averaging 18 points and 6 rebounds. He scored 24 points against Florida State, 20 against Duke, 32 against Boston College and 23 against Clemson.
A terrific slasher who knows how to get to the basket, Landesberg is very aggressive and can hurt opponents in many ways. He's also been hitting 3-pointers with much more consistency lately.
Teams have been watching a lot of film on him recently -- a couple of sources suggested NBA teams heard that Landesberg is thinking about declaring for the draft -- and a number of them haven't ruled him out as a first-round pick.
Tyler Hansbrough, PF, North Carolina
For the first time since his freshman season, Hansbrough is no longer in our top 30. He hasn't been able to bounce back from an early injury and his rebounding numbers are the worst of his college career. Said one NBA executive, "What can I do with an undersized power forward who isn't athletic and doesn't rebound?"
That feeling is shared by many NBA executives who feel Hansbrough will have, at best, a Mark Madsen-type impact in the league. It's still not out of the question that he goes late in the first round, but all of the talk about him being a late-lottery to mid-first-round pick is over.
Austin Daye, F, Gonzaga
Daye began the season in our top 10, but will likely end the season out of our top 30. He has struggled to stand out on a loaded Gonzaga team and especially seems to disappear in big games. In his past six conference games, he's scored in double digits only twice.
A very talented forward with great size and deep range on his jumper, Daye needs to add a lot of strength and work on his confidence. If he declares this year, he could slip out of the first round.
Gani Lawal, PF, Georgia Tech
After looking like a potential lottery pick during the first half of the season, Lawal has struggled in the second half, particularly on offense. In the past two months, he's scored more than 14 points only twice. His rebounding numbers are still solid, but most NBA executives who've seen him lately feel he needs to return to Georgia Tech for his junior season.
Michael Washington, PF, Arkansas
Washington, who started the season on fire, has really cooled off. His 24-point, 11-rebound performance in a win against Oklahoma was the highlight of the season. Since then it's been all downhill. Not only has Arkansas lost 12 of its past 13 games, but in that stretch, Washington has scored more than 20 points only twice and pulled down 10 or more rebounds only three times.
Teams love his athleticism and body, but it looks like he's a second-round project right now.
Tyler Smith, G/F, Tennessee
Smith was very impressive as a sophomore at Tennessee last season, but his productivity has tailed off this season. His scoring is up, but his rebounds, assists and shooting percentages are way down. He still has his moments, like his 30-point game against Vanderbilt in mid-February, but then he has his stinkers, like his 1-for-11 performance against Kentucky.
He has talent, but he didn't have the breakout season many scouts were expecting. If the draft were held today, he'd probably be a second-round pick.
Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.
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