Beyond the Lottery: Dion Waiters

Syracuse sophomore Dion Waiters helped lead the Orangemen to a team-record 34 wins this past season. The 6’4”, 215-pound combo guard was selected as the Big East Conference Sixth Man of the Year after averaging 12.6 ppg and 1.8 steals per game in only 24 minutes.

Waiters considered leaving the ‘Cuse in his freshman year after getting off to a rocky start. However, once he decided to stay Waiters gracefully accepted his bench role.

Waiters can handle the rock as well as play off the ball. He’s an above average shooter with NBA range and can create off the dribble, find the open man and deliver the difficult pass, rarely turning it over.

Waiters always looks to push the ball up court in transition and has the exceptional strength and athleticism to finish at the rim even when fouled. The Philly product utilizes screens effectively, which should translate well to the pick-and-roll obsessed pro game.

Waiters possesses a Manu Ginobili-like ability to change direction suddenly with the ball and glide into spots that the defense doesn’t anticipate. He plays with a controlled electricity and can be unstoppable when he’s feeling it.

On the defensive end, Waiters can D up either the 1 or the 2. With active hands, fast feet, lower body strength and a high basketball-IQ, he defends well in isolation and is the player on the court who often comes out of nowhere to break up a pass, make a deflection or bring the unexpected double-team.

Waiters was originally projected to go mid-to-late in the first round, primarily because he’s not a true point or scoring guard. Also, he played almost exclusively zone defense under HOF coach Jim Boeheim and lacks man-to-man experience. But after an impressive showing in Vegas, the superstar sleeper has been buzzing up the ranks and may wind up being fished out if the 2012 draft pool earlier than first expected.

Czar’s Playoff Preview: Thunder vs. Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs welcome the Oklahoma City Thunder to the River City tonight for Game 1 of the 2012 Western Conference Finals. The Spurs are Texas-strength H-O-T right now. Coach of the Year Gregg Popovich’s veteran squad is on an 18-game winning streak and has won its eight playoff games by a remarkable 14-point average. On their home court the Black & Silver are an ironclad 32-5.

On the opposite bench, the Thunder return to the WCF to take on another Lone Star State team after losing to the 2011 Champion Mavs in this round last year. OKC finished three games behind the Spurs for the top spot in the West after leading the conference for most of this compacted season.

Led by 3X NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant, All-Star PG Russell Westbrook and 2012 6th Man of the Year James Harden, the explosive Thunder swept Dallas in Round 1 and then dispatched the Lakers in 5 games in the second round.

These two sides represented the cream of the crop in the West all year long. Whereas the Eastern Conference had injuries, upstarts and legitimate speculation follow their top teams into the postseason, the Spurs and Thunder seemed statistically destined to do battle in this round led by their respective Big 3’s – the abovementioned 23-and-under Thunder group and the Spurs’ All-Star 30-somethings PG Tony Parker (30), all-time great Tim Duncan (36) and Manu Ginobili (34), though the crafty, clutch Ginobili missed 32 games this year with a broken hand including all three contests with the Thunder.

The Thunder and Spurs faced off three times in the regular season. On January 8th, the Thunder won in OKC, 108-96. On February 4th in SA, Parker had 42 points and 9 dimes to lead his team in a 107-96 victory. In the rubber match on March 16th in the Sooner State, Tim Duncan pulled down 19 boards as the Spurs gave OKC a rare home loss, 114-105.

With apologies to the Miami Heat, the Spurs and Thunder have the most balance, depth and mettle of any teams in the league. They also have superstars, focus and great coaching. Look for an exciting, possibly historic WCF over the week as these two uber-talented franchises do battle to represent the West in the 2012 NBA Finals. Game 1 tips off of at 8:30 PM ET on TNT.

Beyond the Lottery: Tony Wroten

University of Washington freshman combo-guard Tony Wroten declared for the 2012 NBA Draft on April 3rd. The 6’5” Pac-12 Freshman of the Year played in all of the Huskies’ 35 games this past season and averaged 16 ppg. The Seattle native was the first Washington freshman to be named to the first team All-Pac-12. And Wroten joined Detlef Schrempf (1985) as the only UW ballers to post 500 points, 150 boards and 100 dimes in a season.

Wroten’s offensive skills make him virtually unstoppable when he wants to attack the hoop. Wroten possesses a great crossover, first step, and he finishes well in the lane. He also led the Huskies in free throw attempts and makes, which should translate well to the pro game. He makes the smart pass but is not afraid to thread the tight needle to cutters or to throw the alley-oop. When Wroten plays off the ball he is an active, sharp cutter and gobbles up offensive rebounds.

Wroten led UW in steals with 1.9 per game. He has above average strength, size, length and instincts on D. He can guard both the 1 and the 2 spots, and with added muscle and maturity he may be able to someday lockdown the small forward position. Wroten has active hands and disrupts and deflects lots of balls. He understands and practices help-side D. When motivated he can smother an opposing player and take him out of the game.

19-year-old Wroten is projected to go in the bottom third of the first round on June 28th in Newark. Like most of the NBA these days, Wroten is young and will be gathering the experience necessary to compete at the pro level while in Mr. Stern’s league. With his superior body and athleticism, Wroten takes chances and plays overconfident at times. A southpaw, he has a lot of work to do on his right-hand dribbling and finishing. And he needs to improve his outside shot. Look at his development and maturity over the next few years to see if he can effectively contribute night-in and night-out at the pro level.

Czar’s Playoff Preview: Lakers vs. Thunder Game 5

The 16-banner Los Angeles Lakers come to Oklahoma City tonight to try and extend their season and get this second-round series back to Hollywood. The young Thunder, with a 3-1 advantage, will push, prod and pounce on the teetering LA squad in an effort to return to the Western Conference Finals for the second year in a row.

Current 3X NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant and his teammates are 30-7 in their building this season and have exhibited more poise and composure than the finger-pointing Lakers at the end of games in this high-profile series. Los Angeles and their worldwide fan base know that tonight’s 48 and accompanying scenario could be reversed very easily if this group performs better down the stretch.

The Purple & Gold were blown out in Game 1 in OKC, 119-90, but their other two defeats in Games 2 and 4 were by two and three points respectively. And in the last game on Saturday at Staples, LA blew a 13-point lead with eight minutes remaining, capped off by a KD tie-breaking 3-pointer with 13 seconds left. 2X All-Star, SoCal native and UCLA product PG Russell Westbrook poured in 37 in the victory.

14X All-Star Kobe Bryant had 38, 8 and 5 in Game 4, but needed help down the stretch from his two All-Star 7-footers. Both Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum have performed decently in this series. However to beat this surging OKC group they’ll have to significantly upgrade their end-of-game focus and production.

Bryant, in a sign of frustration and lonely leadership, has called out Gasol specifically. The Mamba knows that this core Laker group went to the NBA Finals three years in a row and ended up with rings in 2009 and 2010 – so they have the experience and talent to get back there. Granted this year in LaLa land is different in that Phil Jackson and Lamar Odom are gone, and 5X champ Derek Fisher now plays for OKC.

The Denver Nuggets took the Lakers to seven games in the first round, whereas OKC swept the defending champion Mavericks in four. Team fatigue was definitely a factor in the Lakers’ loss in Game 1 of this tilt. The other pair of L’s that have them on the edge of elimination this evening had more to do with crunch-time execution, trust and desire. If they lose Game 5 tonight, this will most probably be the last time this championship Laker group will play together as teammates.

Tune in to TNT at 9:30 PM ET to see if the Lakers can stay alive against the title-hungry Thunder.

Beyond the Lottery: Fabricio del Melo

2012 NBA draft prospect Fabricio del Melo aka Fab Melo could soon join the ranks of Brazilian post players who have flourished in the league as of late. The 21-year-old, 7-footer has the basic components required to be an NBA big. And as the saying goes, “You can’t teach height and length.”

The 255-pound big man didn’t start playing basketball until the ninth grade and came to the U.S. in 2008 as a high school junior. As a senior at Sagemont High School in Florida, Melo earned McDonald’s All-America recognition. He was a member of Brazil’s Under-17 National Team and is currently a starter on the Brazilian National Basketball Team.

The pride of Juiz de Fora, Brazil played for HOF coach Jim Boeheim for two years at Syracuse University before declaring for the draft. Melo worked hard to shed 30 pounds and to improve his quickness and help-side D when he arrived at Syracuse. He was named the 2012 Big East Defensive Player of The Year and averaged 2.9 blocks per game during his breakout season.

Although Melo’s skills and footwork still need improvement due to his late start on the court, his game and competitiveness have benefited from all of his international experience. He has above average mechanics and can hit the mid-range jumper, which could translate into a deadly NBA weapon with his size and length. Melo possesses a natural feel for positioning in the paint and can grab offensive boards and score easy put-backs.

Melo is no sure bet. He had a variety of academic concerns while at the ‘Cuse, and that’s one of the reasons why he’s projected to be chosen in the 18 to 24 area on June 28th in Newark. However, his upside is tremendous, and many hoops experts feel that if the right pro team grabs him, Melo could be one of the steals of the 2012 NBA Draft.