Here are the cold, hard facts: This Draft brings no relief to anyone but the worst of the worst or the luckiest of the lucky. Blake Griffin, Oklahoma's athletic power forward and Spain's point guard prodigy Ricky Rubio are all that counts as sure-fire talent in this year's Draft. Everything after that is a complete crapshoot.
Now, similar threats of this nature are made just about every other year, talking about how that year's Draft is going to be one of the worst, only to see multiple prospects emerge from the ether. The truth is that that is probably going to happen again this year. The fact is that sometimes the right team drafts the right player and develops him the right way, things click for both parties and everyone is satisfied with their arrangement. A perfect example of this would be Thaddeus Young and Philadelphia from ‘07-‘08.
Likewise, every year there are the ‘Workout Wonders' that improve their stock dramatically by coming to workout for teams and blowing them away in the process, like Russell Westbrook did last year. It's just that this year it seems like with every candidate there are so many warts one has to look past if they are going to be confident in their pick. At the end of June it will be harder to fall in love with any one prospect between now and then. Still, just because someone says it's a bad draft doesn't mean that no one can improve with it, it just means that teams have to be extraordinary in the scouting and evaluation of their prospects, and realistic in terms of what they believe they are actually getting.
As that relates to the Raptors, it becomes a tricky business. Firstly because this draft is rich in point guards and the team is already stocked at that position, even if they have a perceived lack of depth there. Perhaps the Raptors fall in love with the strength of Ty Lawson or the gully of Johnny Flynn, but if they do then it just means extra work in the front office to try and move Roko Ukic or (impossibly) Marcus Banks. There is no doubt that the backup point guard slot for the Raptors is a concern, but is it enough of a concern to utilize the team's first first-round draft pick in two years on? GM Bryan Colangelo has talked about the possibility of acquiring a second pick in the first round, and that could be an place to nab a backup if they feel that three players at that spot simply isn't enough, but don't expect the Raps to emerge from the Draft with one point guard and nothing else.
The second tricky issue for the Raptors has to do the fact that they have several other areas of need on the roster and it is hard to tell which should be addressed in the draft and which should be addressed in free agency and via trade. Unless they wind up winning the lottery and moving up to a top-three pick, they'll probably be looking for help on the wing among the 2009 class. In fact, even if they did move up in the lottery, expect them to look to move the pick for veteran assets, a lower pick and a way out of contracts like that of Jason Kapono and Kris Humphries. While guys like Griffin, Rubio and Hasheem Thabeet could help the team, turning one asset into multiple assets elsewhere on the roster has to be considered, although the odds of them moving into the top-three are slim, so let's move on.
This draft is deep in wing players. Or, perhaps a better way to put it is that this draft simply has a lot of wing players. Not a one promises to bring anything more than scoring in the second unit out of the gate, mostly because of a lack of development in their game, but let's suss out the options the Raptors will have with the ninth pick (should they not be shifted around after the lottery):
James Harden: 6-4 SG Arizona State
To many, Harden is the best player available on the wing. His supporters see his high basketball I.Q. and deceptive offensive style and they think of Brandon Roy. However, his detractors see an undersized shooting guard who doesn't have the athletic tools to be an offensive force in the NBA; while Roy uses his brains to score, he has prodigious athleticism at his disposal if he wanted to use it. As the NCAA season wore on, Harden became easier and easier to shut down as teams loaded up on him and dared him to break them down. He couldn't. He would either attempt to force his offense or disappear from the game, and neither is an appealing trait for a lottery pick. Now, at the NBA level he won't see the kind of defensive attention that he did at Arizona State, but Adam Morrison is a good example of the kind of detriment a player who cannot create his own offense can be to a club, even if he has a good basketball brain. Harden is only an average shooter and defender, so while he may have the intangibles to make for a smart NBA player, even as the first wing off of the board he still has lots to prove about his NBA readiness. While the Raptors may be impressed by his mind, feeling that it is easier to teach skills than it is to teach I.Q., they are a team that has been plagued by a lack of athleticism in recent years and may be reluctant to go back to that route after seeing how effective guys like Shawn Marion were in Jay Triano's system.
DeMar DeRozan 6-6 SG USC
DeRozan was seen as the O.J. Mayo of his college year, coming in as the freshman phenom most likely to light up the skies like a flame. He didn't really do that, though. He had a rough start to the season but he did gain steam as the year went on. He's a freak athlete who reminds some of a Vince Carter/Tracy McGrady-type. He's still raw but the talent he has at his disposal is undeniable. However, the same was said of Gerald Green in 2005, he of the four teams in four years who never developed past his prodigious athletic gifts. DeRozan is the classic high-risk/high-reward pick, but he appears to have no character issues that would scare off Bryan Colangelo and the safe money would be on DeRozan wearing Raptors red if he is available when the Raps select in June. His potential to be a top-tier wing, set against the lack of safer picks around him, make him a seemingly ideal fit for the Raptors, but his stock could rise or fall as teams get a first-hand look at him in the next two months.
Tyreke Evans 6-6 PG/SG Memphis
Here's the book on Evans: He's super-talented, but not as good a basketball player as he thinks. He's got serious skills, especially with the ball in his hands, but when the ball is in his hands it ain't leaving them, and that will scare away potential suitors. This guy has Ricky Davis/J.R. Smith written all over him, which doesn't mean teams should steer clear, jus that teams should make sure they have a strong coach and even stronger veterans surrounding Evans early in his career. The Raptors, the happy-go-lucky bunch that they are, could see their well poisoned by a guy like Tyreke. His talent is tantalizing, but it would take a hell of an interview to get Colangelo to take a flier on this guy.
Gerald Henderson 6-4 SG Duke
Henderson at nine would be a bit of a reach for the Raptors, unless they fell in love with him and his fit with the team. Henderson, more than any other high-Draft prospect, reminds me of Courtney Lee of Orlando in that he gets the job done on defense and can keep a team honest on offense. He's killer in the mid-range, can create off of the dribble, can run the floor, can rebound and has a basketball I.Q. in keeping with the Duke tradition. However, he was inconsistent at times in college, and there is no reason to think that he couldn't easily get lost in the shuffle of undersized two-guards kept in the league because they are good enough to be there, but not good enough to stick on any team's roster (think: Charlie Bell). However, if a team truly commits to him, and he commits to the team, he could have a Keyon Dooling-or-better kind of career, which is not bad for a player in this draft. It might be a trade-down scenario if the Raps fall for him, but he is the only high-I.Q. shooting guard that has some measure of explosiveness to his game, and that's something to consider.
Earl Clark 6-9 SF Louisville
Clark inspires comparisons to guys like Charlie Villanueva and Anthony Randolph; a big with a guard's skill set that struggles with focus in game action. If the Raptors feel shaky about their chances to re-sign Shawn Marion (they shouldn't), then Clark would be an interesting pick-up. He's got the skills of a Nellie-type of point-forward, affording a team another ball-handler in transition, and he has the passing skills to match it. His a pretty solid rebounder, averaging 8.7 per game in his last year at Louisville, and has the kind of athleticism that would inspire ESPN's Draft guru Chad Ford to use Josh Smith as an NBA comparison – for what that's worth. Basically, drafting Clark and keeping Marion creates a bit of a logjam on a team expected to resign Pops Mensah-Bonsu with regards to athletic frontcourt players, but he's an option in case the team feels skittish about their chances of keeping the Matrix (or of their interest in keeping Pops).
None of the above options scream success for a team in need of help in a lot of areas, but any one could provide a kick to a team with next to no depth on their current lineup. Bryan Colangelo actually has a fairly good track record when it comes to the draft (thanks in no small part to Andrea Bargnani's emergence this season) so there is no reason to believe that he will whiff on his pick this year, however the draft class is so unpredictable that good scouting and best intentions may not get the team much help when all is said and done. The Raptors may also look to other positions for help in the draft, though with only Jason Kapono currently under contract for the team next year, it stands to reason that as much help as is attainable there might be a line of thinking should the Raptors wind up with only one pick in the draft (keep in mind Colangelo often talks about acquiring multiple picks in a draft but as the Raptors' GM he has yet to do so).
The fortunate reality for the Raptors, though, is that they aren't looking for homerun help. This is not a club, despite its record, that is trying to unearth a potential franchise player in the draft. All that the Raptors are really looking for are players that they can work to develop internally to provide help in key areas on the roster. If Colangelo's sudden affection for Carlos Delfino bears fruit and he does return to Toronto, then there is a chance that the team might not even be looking for a daily rotation player, regardless of where they pick. They have a pretty clear-cut core today, and their win-now mentality suggests a pursuit of veterans this summer to round out the team's lineup. If a guy like DeRozen or Clark can be grabbed, stashed and developed that could help mitigate the lack of NBA readiness many see as an inherent trait of this class.
Of course, as with any draft speculation at this point will only be proven increasingly inconsequential over the next two months. As the results of both the draft Lottery and player workouts start to trickle down and shape the events of the draft, much of what has been discussed here today will be less relevant, though it should provide a starting point for draft talk to commence from. We'll check back in on May 20th after the draft lottery has taken place and the Raptors have a clearer idea of where they'll be picking.