Separated by just 110 miles, bitter Pac-10 rivals Arizona State and Arizona boasted two of the most talented players in college basketball. Both the Sun Devils' James Harden and the Wildcats' Jordan Hill shot up the 2009 NBA Mock Draft boards throughout the season with their All-American-caliber play and should be two of the top names called up to the podium June 25 by David Stern. That night will be a major chapter in the book of Grand Canyon state basketball history.
Despite being just 19 years old during his sophomore season, the Sun Devils' James Harden played with the poise and intelligence of a savvy veteran turning into one of the most versatile scorers in college basketball. His athleticism is average compared to other shooting guards in the 2009 NBA Draft, but his craftiness and ability to maneuver his body through traffic and finish around the rim is unbelievable.
When asked about a comparison to current NBA ballers, Harden said "Maybe Ginobli, who's crafty. He can get to the basket, he can shoot, I would say crafty is the word I'm looking for."
It's understandable if you have that Beastie Boys' song "Crafty" in your head right now. From the outside, Harden is also a major threat showing great range and the ability to create his own shot off the dribble. I also asked Harden about his abilities off-the-ball and coming off screens. "It's improved a lot. This year I didn't always have the ball in my hand, I had to come off down screens, and this whole workout process has been good because I can work on coming off ball screens and down screens and just reading them," Harden said.
At times, Harden didn't handle the pressure of being the go-to guy very well. He was sometimes taken out of games when teams would face guard him, not being able to get open off screens. The lefty was also too passive at times, deferring to his teammates rather than trying to take over a game when his team needed a big basket (which could be viewed as a positive due to his unselfishness style of play.) But he also tended to turn the ball over at a high rate trying to do too much all by himself. Still, scouts have praised his maturity and work ethic which is why he figures to land between the second and fifth picks.
I asked Harden at the 2009 NBA Draft Combine about how he improved his draft stock this past year. "Being more mature, knowing in different game situations how to attack and not to attack things like that," he responded.
When the season began, Arizona junior Jordan Hill was projected as a potential mid-to-late first-round pick. He was a lengthy, athletic 6-10 power forward loaded with the potential to blossom into a serious threat in the post. And that potential shined like the desert sun in June from the opening tip of the season.
Hill became a dominant force down low for 'Zona, using his quickness and athleticism to wreak havoc on opposing defenses. He also showed an improved jump shot with range out to the free throw line extended and an ability to attack the basket off the dribble, though he tended to be a bit out of control at times. His athleticism allows him to run the floor and be one of the most explosive finishers in college hoops.
Defensively, Hill is still learning as he too often relies on his length and athleticism rather than fundamental principles which caused him to get into frequent foul trouble. Becoming stronger and more physical will be a key for Hill as he enters the association. >br? >br?
"I got to work in the weight room, there's big guys at the next level so I got to be there to match," Hill said at the 2009 NBA Draft Combine.
Still, the Wildcat is a top-10 lock, possibly going as high as No. 5 to Washington (or whomever trades into that spot.)
Hill's college teammate, Chase Budinger, came to Arizona with a tremendous amount of hype and immediately lived up to those expectations. His volleyball background makes him a ridiculous leaper with the ability to posterize defensive players who mistakenly try to block one of his dunks. His shot has picture-perfect form and when it is on; the opposition has to guard him all over the floor as he can stretch defenses with his three-point range. The bleach-blond Budinger has a decent repertoire with his back to the basket and has no problem posting up smaller defenders.
Even with all those positives, Budinger's stock has dipped during the past season. He likely would have been a lottery pick if he declared after his freshman or sophomore seasons. This past year however, Budinger didn't make the strides that NBA teams were hoping he would. He lacks a "killer instinct" and too often disappears from important stretches of a game. His ball-handling abilities are less than average and he is a liability on the defensive end.
The name value is there and he could potentially go as high as No. 16 to Chicago, but more than likely falls into the mid-20s.
Budinger discussed where he might end up going, given what his agent has been saying to him.
"It's a very broad range right now, too tough to tell, anywhere from 9-25," he said.
A second Sun Devil should hear his name called on draft night. Power forward Jeff Pendergraph was the definition of consistency during his four seasons in Tempe, while also showing a steady improvement each year. He was dangerous down low, shooting a phenomenal 66 percent from the floor his senior season, though most of his baskets came off dunks or easy layups. He got most of those hoops because of his high basketball IQ and never-ending work ethic.
The rest of his offensive game is average-at-best as his mid-range game is limited, and he's not a major threat when receiving the ball on the block. Pendergraph is tabbed as an early second-round pick and will likely be nothing more than a role player at the next level, asked to provide energy and rebounding off the bench of whichever team selects him.
I asked many of the players at the 2009 NBA Draft Combine the same question: "If someone said you are the next ___," who would you want that to be?" Pendergraph had the best answer of anyone.
"I think I'd rather be my own guy," he said. "I'd rather just be me, I'm the best person at being me, so why try being someone else?"