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Head West young men! Thar's gold in them thar hills!
Readers may think ESPN has an East-coast bias, but when it comes to the NCAA tournament, for the third straight year, the NCAA has absolutely packed much of the potential NBA talent in the elusive NCAA West region, or, as they're calling it this year, the Phoenix bracket.
This year you can check out the only consensus anything in the draft, Emeka Okafor, or see a pretty impressive group of small forwards and guards whom NBA scouts are in love with. Even the lower seeds have players NBA scouts are keeping their eye on.
Insider talked to multiple NBA scouts and GMs to give you a look at the Top 5 NBA prospects they'll be watching in each NCAA region. Today, we finish our look with the West.
West Region NBA Prospects
1. Emeka Okafor, PF, UConn
The Skinny: 6-foot-10, 250 lbs, Junior. 18.5 ppg, 11.6 rpg, 4.5 bpg, 60 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: Just about everything. Okafor is physical specimen. He's strong, athletic, quick, and a very good leaper. Okafor's bread and butter is his defense. He's a big-time shot blocker and a very aggressive rebounder. In the past he's struggled some on the offensive end, but this year he's been dominant there, too. He's developed a nice 10-foot jumper and has been looking for his shot more. To top it off, he's extremely smart and a very hard worker. Most scouts consider him the most NBA-ready prospect in the draft. The comparisons to a young Alonzo Mourning don't seem that far off.
The Bad: Very little. Height is a small issue. Scouts are praying he's a true 6-10. Some believe he's closer to 6-8, but I can't see that. I've stood next to him on several occasions, and he looks like he's the full 6-10 to me. The back is a bigger concern. Okafor has a hairline fracture in his back right now that's causing him enormous pain. Scouts and GMs are always very wary of bad backs. Once you get them, they rarely go away. His free-throw shooting is pretty bad, and his perimeter game still needs some work.
The Ugly: Unless there is something seriously wrong with his back, Okafor will be either the first or second pick in this year's draft. It just depends on the team. Several lottery teams no longer have the patience to wait on Okafor's only real rival, prep star Dwight Howard. A team like the Bulls or Suns would definitely grab him with the first pick.
2. Ben Gordon, PG/SG, UConn
The Skinny: 6-3, 200; Junior. 18.4 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 4.8 apg, 44 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: Gordon is a big-time scorer who knows instinctively how to put the ball in the basket. He's an excellent shooter, especially from 3-point range and is a top-tier athlete with great lift and lateral quickness. He also has good strength for his position. Gordon is a good, but not great, passer with pretty good court vision. He knows how to find open teammates but dominates the ball a little more than some scouts would like. The fact he almost always plays under control also helps his cause. He's a good rebounder for his size.
The Bad: Is he a point guard or isn't he? That's still the big question on everyone's mind. He seems to have the skill set, but does he have the mentality? Reminds some scouts of the Pistons' Chauncey Billups. He really had an up-and-down year, which concerns some scouts.
The Ugly: Gordon's draft stock has taken a small hit the past few months. It could just be the product of over-analysis or unrealistic expectations. He can't answer the point guard question on his own, because his coach won't let him. Gordon is one guy who could gain a lot through an awesome tournament. If he can lead UConn to a national title, especially with Okafor ailing, he'll immediately stop the slide. Right now he's looking like a late-lottery to mid-first rounder, but there's room for him to move up.
3. Josh Childress, SF, Stanford
The Skinny: 6-8, 205; Junior. 15.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 49 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: He's an outstanding pro prospects because of his long arms, athleticism, and guard-like skills at his size. He reminds some scouts of former NBA great George "The Ice Man" Gervin. He's a pretty complete package. He can shoot both the mid-range J and the 3-pointer. He has excellent ball-handling skills and can play the point-forward position. He's an excellent rebounder and good shot blocker for his position. He's an amazing defender because of his combination of lateral quickness and huge wingspan. When he's guarding players on the perimeter, it's like having a 7-footer on them. He has shut down several of the best players in the nation. He possess very good athleticism and is a heady type of player.
The Bad: He's very thin and looks a little fragile at times, both physically and emotionally. He's a bit of a finesse player. Can get down on himself and lose his confidence. He could be more aggressive. At times he'll take over a game, at other times he'll fade into the background a bit. However, recently that's started to change, and Childress has begun dominating games.
The Ugly: He's one of the hottest names in the draft right now. He got off to a slow start because of injuries, but he's been great lately. Had a big 36-point, 11-rebound performance against USC and a 29-point, 12-rebound game against Oregon in the past month. Scouts believe he'll test the waters, and if he does, don't be surprised to see him crack the lottery. There are very few people in college basketball or the NBA with his full complement of skills. Strength and aggressiveness are the only things holding him back at this point. If Childress goes off and leads Stanford to a national championship, he could theoretically be the first small forward taken in the draft, especially if Duke's Luol Deng doesn't declare.
4. Hakim Warrick, PF, Syracuse
The Skinny: 6-8, 215; Junior. 19.6 ppg, 8.8 rpg, 51 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: He's probably the most athletic big man in the draft. Warrick can jump out of the gym. He improved in almost every aspect of his game this year. He added a nice mid range jumper to his repitoire. He put on some weight and muscle and found ways to score down low. He's very, very quick, posing matchup problems at both the small forward and power forward positions. He gets to the line a lot.
The Bad: No one is sure exactly what position he would play in the NBA. He doesn't have the perimeter or ball-handling skills to really be a three. He doesn't have the strength or low-post moves to excel at the four. Despite being so long and having great hops, he doesn't really block shots. Scouts wonder if he's the second coming of Darius Miles, an athletic big man without a go-to skill.
The Ugly: He's all over the board. Some scouts think he could be a very good four, because of his length and quickness. They believe he'll get stronger once he gets on an NBA strength training regiment and be just fine in the post. Very few of them see him having much future at the three. Warrick will be very hard to project, because he's really an "eye of the beholder" type kid. Someone like Isiah Thomas will love him. Someone like Larry Bird probably won't. He could go anywhere between the late lottery to early 20s.
5. Julius Hodge, SG, North Carolina State
The Skinny: 6-6, 191; Junior. 18.6 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 3.8 apg, 51 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: Don't let his wiry frame fool you. He's a great, tough athlete who can be absolutely fearless taking the ball to the hole. His passing skills are above average, leading some scouts to believe he could make the transition to the point in the pros. He's shooting an impressive 51 percent from the field this season and has a knack for drawing fouls.
The Bad: His perimeter shot, heavy turnovers and his defense are the biggest question marks.
The Ugly: Hodge is one of the most improved players in the country and has watched his stock skyrocket over the past few months. Expect Hodge to go in the late teens or early 20s if he declares.
Sleeper: Rafael Araujo, C, BYU
The Skinny: 6-11, 280; Senior. 18.2 ppg, 10 rpg, 57 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: Araujo has been one of the most dominant college centers on the offensive end in the country this year. Physically he's huge and very, very strong. He uses his strength to bulldoze opponents in the paint. He's an aggressive rebounder, sometimes a little too aggressive. His solid frame allows him to hold his position in the post. He runs pretty well for a big man. A pretty good free-throw shooter. Plays with a passion that we rarely see in big men.
The Bad: He's just an average athlete. His lateral quickness, leaping ability and overall agility leave something to be desired. His aggressiveness often gets him into early foul trouble. He's not a great shot blocker for his size. Was destroyed by Okafor in the tournament last year, leading some to question how well he'd fare in the league.
The Ugly: Some considered the native of Brazil a late first-round sleeper last season, and he's improved in all facets of the game this year. A recent fight in the Mountain West tournament in front of a host of scouts actually helped his cause. Teams are desperate for big men with a little fire in their belly. Expect him to go somewhere in the second half of the first round.
Others to watch: Charlie Villanueva, SF, UConn; Kennedy Winston, SF, Alabama; John Gilchrist, PG, Maryland; Matt Freije, F, Vanderbilt; Denham Brown, SG, UConn; Gerry McNamara, PG, Syracuse; Delonte Holland, SG, DePaul; Andre Brown, F/C, DePaul; Ramod Marshall, PG, Dayton;Darren Brooks, G, Southern Illinois; Mike Williams, F, Western Michigan