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COLUMN: Vonleh, Harris are top local NBA prospects

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I can’t help myself – I love everything about the NBA draft. It’s so much easier to project and get a feel for the NBA draft than the NFL’s version, but at the same time its unpredictability is fascinating – see the Cavaliers taking Anthony Bennett with the first pick last year. I think my infatuation began during the Greg Oden-Kevin Durant debate in 2007 and has only swelled since. I’ve been looking forward to this draft since even before the 2013 edition. Why? Hoop heads like me knew the 2013 class was lackluster, while the 2014 draft had the potential to contain the deepest talent pool in years – which is exactly what’s happened. Factor in prospective No. 1 pick Joel Embiid’s foot surgery, and ESPN TV executives have to be drooling over the drama that will be unfolding Thursday night in Brooklyn. Here are five things to keep an eye heading into Thursday:

1. Where will Noah Vonleh and Gary Harris go?

Regarding prospects who played either their high school or college ball in Indiana, Noah Vonleh is the clear top prospect.

No matter the reputable mock draft you glance at – DraftExpress.com, SI.com, etc – the former Hoosier is firmly in the top 10. It’s a pretty safe assumption the six-foot-9, 247-pound power forward won’t make it past the Sacramento Kings at No. 8.

The foot injury that dogged Vonleh late in his one and only season in Bloomington isn’t a concern anymore, and the Massachusetts native is seen as a preeminent talent because of his measurables (7-4.25 wingspan), his inside-out game (he made nearly 50 percent of his 33 3-point attempts for Indiana) and his youth (Vonleh won’t turn 19 until Aug. 24).

Former Hamilton Southeastern and Michigan State standout Gary Harris will join Vonleh in the first round Thursday.

Concerns about Harris’ smallish stature (6-4.5) for a clear two-guard have arisen lately – a silly notion considering all of the cross-matching that goes on during NBA games – but that won’t keep Harris from dropping out of the top 20. As anyone who has seen Harris play knows, he’s a dogged competitor and has no trouble in big moments. Harris has to prove the poor shooting campaign he endured this past winter as a sophomore was an aberration, but he’s NBA-ready defensively from spending his days guarding the opposing team’s best guard/wing for MSU coach Tim Izzo.

As for other Indiana natives, ex-Michigan Wolverines Glenn Robinson III and Mitch McGary are fringe first round prospects, but will definitely hear their names called at some point Thursday.

Jake Odum (Indiana State) and Will Sheehey (Indiana), a pair of productive college players who recently worked out for the Pacers, are going to have to go overseas or to the D-League to play professionally. It would be a shock to see either drafted.

2. Will the Pacers do anything on draft night?

Probably not. Indiana’s first-round slot at No. 27 belongs to the Phoenix Suns via the regrettable Luis Scola trade from last July. And given the Pacers’ lack of cap flexibility and movable assets, it’s going to be a quiet night at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

The team does own the No. 57 pick in the second round, which I would wager will be spent on a point guard or an international player to be stashed overseas.

3. How far will Joel Embiid fall?

Kansas center Joel Embiid had surgery to repair a broken navicular bone in his right foot on Friday. The 20-year-old’s recovery is estimated at four to six months.

If the Cavaliers had a basketball-sane owner, they’d still take Embiid at No. 1. But since Dan Gilbert – author of the Comic Sans-fonted post-Decision letter to Cavs fans – calls the shots and wants to win right away, Cleveland will select Duke forward Jabari Parker instead.

The history of the NBA is littered with big guys with bad feet – Bill Walton, Rik Smits, Yao Ming, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Brook Lopez are just a few tall guys that come to mind. Also, Embiid’s injury concerns are magnified because he missed time at KU because of back problems.

I’d still take Embiid first though. He’s a taller version of Oklahoma City forward Serge Ibaka, but with better post moves and an occasional temper I love to see in big guys.

But, since Embiid’s going to fall, let’s find out how far he will drop.

Milwaukee Bucks co-owner Marc Lasry has publicly ruled out the team taking Embiid with the No. 2 pick.

That puts the Philadelphia 76ers in a tough spot at No. 3. The Sixers nabbed center Nerlens Noel – the presumed No.1 pick last summer – with the sixth pick in 2013. Noel suffered a torn ACL late in his one season at Kentucky and didn’t play a single minute for Philly in 2013-14. If the Sixers’ brain trust selected Embiid, it would be tantamount to a public admission that they are throwing away another season – a risky proposition considering this past season’s obvious tank job that produced a 19-63 record.

On the other hand, Philly – also the owner of the No. 10 pick – gives itself trade options by taking the top overall talent in Embiid – and you can bet that possibility will be leaked in the coming days in order to drive up the price of the pick.

If the Sixers pass on Embiid, I can’t fathom how he would get past Orlando at No. 4, despite the Magic’s jilted history with franchise centers Shaquille O’Neal and Dwight Howard.

4. Who are the draft’s top eight players?

Embiid, Parker, Vonleh, Dante Exum, Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle, Marcus Smart and Andrew Wiggins. With the exception of Exum – a virtual unknown given his lack of television exposure in his native Australia – I’ve seen the other seven players extensively and followed them since the end of their high school careers.

Embiid, Parker, Wiggins and Exum are regarded as the draft’s top four talents, with Gordon, Randle, Smart and Vonleh comprising the next tier. I’d be stunned if any of the Great Eight falls out of the top 10.

As for the next round of players outside of the Great Eight, look for Rodney Hood, Doug McDermott and Nik Stauskas to be taken quickly because of their Larry Bird trait (elite shooting).

5. Eight teams own at least two picks in the first round. That will create all kinds of awesome chaos.

Boston, Charlotte, Chicago, Oklahoma City, Orlando, Philadelphia, Phoenix and Utah own two first-round picks, with the Suns boasting three.

The Bulls (No. 16, 19) and Thunder (21, 29) fancy themselves championship contenders, so the likelihood of those teams keeping both picks is minimal – especially the Carmelo Anthony-chasing Bulls.

The Sixers (3, 10), Magic (4, 12), Jazz (5, 23) and Celtics (6, 17) are likely to stand pat, though the rebuilding Celtics are a prospective destination for Kevin Love, Minnesota’s disgruntled All-Star forward. Rajon Rondo, Boston’s All-Star point guard, could be on the way out, too. Love and Rondo can be free agents after the 2014-15 season.

Don’t be surprised to see the Hornets (9, 24) – an East team on the rise – and the Suns (14, 18, 27) – a young squad a star or two away from contention in the West ­– package one or more of their picks for more established talent. Phoenix could look to trade its way into the top eight.

Grant Freking is a sportswriter for the Daily Reporter. Contact him at (317) 477-3230 or gfreking@greenfieldreporter.com.

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