Pelicans could go big in NBA draft

NEW ORLEANS — In any NBA draft, there’s usually not enough quality big men. That should be less true in this year’s draft.

Led by Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel, Maryland’s Alex Len and Indiana’s Cody Zeller, an estimated 11 big men — centers and power forwards who are big enough to play center — could go in the first round of Thursday’s draft.

“There are a lot of bigs in this draft who are appealing,” Pelicans coach Monty Williams said.

Nineteen players are available who are 6-foot-10 or taller, including eight 7-footers. By comparison, there were three 7-footers taken in the 2012 draft.

Size alone, won’t cut it, however. What makes this group stand out and helps define the depth of this draft is the consensus they can play. This isn’t a draft of Jon Koncaks.

“There aren’t any that you would say are franchise-changers,” said NBA director of scouting Ryan Blake. “Those only come around once every so often. But there are a lot of quality guys with a lot of upside who will be able to contribute, many of them right away. It may take a few years for some of them to develop.”

Adding intrigue is that this is an eclectic mix. There are some traditional centers, defensive ones and the new-agers who play facing the basket and have range on their jump shots. It seems there’s something for every team.

Noel, assuming he comes back well from his knee injury, is an excellent defensive player at 6-11 with great quickness, anticipation and a huge wingspan. And, he runs the floor the best of all the big men. If he is selected No. 1 overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers, it will mark the first time in draft history two players from the same school were picked first in consecutive drafts.

Len, 7-1, Zeller and Gonzaga’s Kelly Olynyk are the more traditional ones, coveted because of their size and ability to score the old-fashioned way, with their backs to the basket, although Zeller and Olynyk shoot from outside, as well. They are invaluable because of their fit in half-court offense, the staple of every team’s scoring.

The Pelicans have Len on their radar and could take him with the No. 6 pick.

“Olynyk is a hybrid, and he brings a lot of energy,” Blake said. “Len will be one of the top guys picked.”

The Minnesota Timberwolves are expected to take a small forward at No. 9 but could tab Zeller to replace free-agent center Nikola Pekovic. Olynyk is considered a good selection in the middle of the first round.

However, a center whose name keeps coming up with teams is Bucknell’s Mike Muscala, 6-11, because of his offensive polish in the low post and as an overall package. Muscala played four years in college.

“He is very skilled offensively and plays well defensively,” Blake said. “He’s able to rebound and set screens. He could be serviceable for many years.”

Joining Noel as defensive centers are Louisville’s Gorgui Dieng, the Big East’s Defensive Player of the Year; Kansas’ Jeff Withey, the Big 12’s career leader in blocked shots; Pittsburgh’s Steven Adams and France’s Rudy Gobert.

The Oklahoma City Thunder would like Adams, 7-0, 250 pounds, a physical player, to replace Kendrick Perkins.

“He’s got a great motor, he competes and he’s coachable,” Blake said.

Gobert could make for temptation at some point in the first round. At 7-2, he has a 7-9 wingspan. He showed at the draft combine he is more athletic and coordinated than many thought, and he’s a good shot-blocker. He is raw offensively, however, and may to need to get stronger. His fate may be to get drafted but spend another year overseas to develop.

Duke’s Mason Plumlee heads the new-age centers, which are more like the European type known for their outside shooting while still being able to defend in the low post and rebound. Some would even put Zeller in this group.

“A guy like Plumlee shows that we have to think differently about the five position now,” Blake said. “He’s really like a 6-11 power forward, yet he can definitely play underneath the basket.”

The Pelicans are said to like Plumlee but can get a better player at the No. 6 spot.

Other big men who shoot well from outside, likely second-round picks, include Miami center/power forward Kenny Kadji and Baylor’s Isaiah Austin, Arizona’s Grant Jerrett, Florida’s Erik Murphy, Tennessee State’s Robert Covington and Plumlee’s Duke teammate, 6-foot-11 Ryan Kelly, who are power forwards.

Murphy, 6-10, led the SEC in 3-point shooting (45.3 percent) as a senior and shot 43.5 percent from behind the shorter college arc for his career.