6. D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State
Russell surprised many with his freshman year performance at Ohio State and has emerged only in recent months as a potential lottery selection. Just as Elfrid Payton rose in last year’s draft on the strength of intangible traits, Russell's standing seems to be quickly rising due to qualities that you can’t exactly put your hands on. D’Angelo is confident and creative and has instincts that seem tailor-made for a bold step up into the next level. We might look back and see him as a steal.
5. Kristaps Porzingis, Latvia
The Latvian big man has enjoyed some rising buzz in recent days. Like Dirk Nowizki before him, Porzingis is a lengthy European with a tantalizing skill set. A seven-footer with unusual mobility and shooting range, his upside has scouts drooling. Kristaps can leap like a man much smaller than him, and frequently gets out ahead of the pack on the break, for alley-oop finishes. Players this tall, who run the floor this well, simply don’t come around very often. His wiry frame is a source of concern — can Porzingis beef up enough to avoid the abuse of NBA bullies, and can he keep his unique body healthy while doing so? These are seemingly valid questions, but they may be asked in vain if Porzingis is what he looks like: a singular player.
4. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Okafor is still regarded as the top man in the upcoming draft by many analysts. But while the dominance he displayed as a post scorer in college does look largely translatable to the professional level, it’s not clear the Chicago-born big man can do much else that will carry over. An average defender, at best, under Krzyzewski, Jahlil’s strong suit of scoring down low is of debatable relevance in the contemporary NBA. Today, professional centers — more than ever — are expected to squash easy attempts at the rim from the opposition. Skeptics believe Okafor might give up, on the other end, as much he gives as a scorer.
3. Justise Winslow, Duke
Winslow appreciators came out in droves during the NCAA tournament, in which Justise became an indispensable piece of a title run, and arguably a more important one than Jahlil Okafor, Duke’s center who’d enjoyed much of the team’s glory throughout the regular season. Winslow’s versatility, mobility, and poise under pressure make him an appealing option at the small forward position, which has been one of the NBA’s weakest for years. And, of course, it never hurts to have gone through a year of the Mike Krzyzewski thresher.
2. Emmanuel Mudiay, China
Mudiay is the best 2015 point prospect for a league that’s increasingly guard-driven. A bit off the radar for his decision to play in China for $1.2 million (as opposed to zero dollars, in the NCAA), Emmanuel is along a path previously only forged by Detroit Pistons guard Brandon Jennings. The same questions that plagued Jennings (a No. 10 overall selection by the Milwaukee Bucks in 2009) and his draft status are likely to threaten Mudiay’s stock. The choice to go abroad will help his wallet in the short term, but it leaves many scouts wondering if his development wouldn’t have been better served domestically. Mudiay is big for a point guard, though, without sacrificing any elite athleticism for his frame, and the right organization could easily turn him into a franchise player over time.
1. Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky
The role of big men in the NBA has changed quite bit over the last decade, and Kentucky’s Towns is perhaps better suited to fit into the demands of contemporary league centers than any draft prospect we’ve seen this decade. As a freshman, he showed an all-around knack that bodes well for his future as a pro. He’s not just a post scorer, or a defensive bully — though he’s capable of being both — but is also comfortable operating near the elbow, playing a pass-first style, or chasing stretch bigs out to the perimeter. If his outside shooting can improve, he has the chance to be something like a very bulky wing man. Towns is not only massive — he’s also incredibly skilled.
— John Wilmes