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June 18, 2011A funny thing is happening at the next level right now. The 2011 NBA Draft is closing in fast.
The big night comes Thursday at the Prudential Center in New Jersey.
Yet for a lot of the league's top decision makers - for the scouts and general managers and team presidents - there's a feeling of apathy and borderline indifference for this year's festivities.
In the past month, I've had a chance to put my finger directly on the pulse of the draft excitement. And the consensus is easy to summarize.
"Where's all the marquee talent?" NBA folks want to know. "And is it wrong to start fast-forwarding our outlook toward the 2012 draft?"
I asked one league exec late last month for his honest assessment of this year's draft.
"I've been doing this awhile," he said. "And I'm used to guys in the industry going to the reflex of saying, 'This draft is the worst we've seen in years' on what seems like a regular basis."
"But this really is the worst draft I've ever been a part of when it comes to high-end talent and overall depth."
But 2012? Now, that's a draft that should have some firepower in it.
And it's a draft that could very well feature three, possibly even four North Carolina Tar Heels as first-round selections if Harrison Barnes and John Henson and James Michael McAdoo all decide to leave school early next spring and Tyler Zeller closes out his college career on the same upward climb he showed last season.
As recent as three months ago, as UNC captured the ACC regular-season championship and went on to win three NCAA tournament games, there was a widespread belief that Barnes, Henson and Zeller could all be a part of this year's draft.
Yet when all three Tar Heels elected to plant themselves in Chapel Hill for another winter, many folks at the next level insist they weren't surprised.
Said one NBA scout: "Nowadays, the whole saga of whether to come out or stay in boils down to a strictly personal decision. And when you look at all three of the Carolina guys, they all have things to work on."
"Then when you look at places like North Carolina, when you look at places like Duke, those are nice places to be from a basketball standpoint. Chapel Hill is a nice place in the world. And so from the players' standpoint, if you have things to work on and you have the resources to get better, there's nothing wrong with being happy with where you are. From a life standpoint, I think those three guys will really enjoy next year."
It's a crazy dynamic really. Barnes would have been a shoo-in top five pick this year had he elected to come out and may have even challenged Kyrie Irving to become the top overall pick.
Henson would have been taken in the first round and could have cracked the top 20 if not the lottery.
And Zeller? He, too, would have likely gone in the first round.
Yet by resisting the powerful magnetism of the NBA, all three Tar Heels actually impressed folks at the next level.
"Just because you're pegged to go in the first round doesn't mean you're ready for the NBA," said the league exec. "That's never an easy message to convey. And it's even harder for kids to understand. But it's nice when kids recognize their room for improvement and don't try to rush things."
Needless to say, the folks in Chapel Hill better be prepared to start doling out those NBA scouting credentials for next season's home games. Because while Barnes, Henson and Zeller are all seen as likely first-rounders for 2012, the folks at the next level are still looking for growth and will gravitate toward the Smith Center to monitor the progress.
With Zeller, NBA scouts want to see an increased ability in recognizing double teams and passing out of them.
With Henson, strength and toughness are the biggest areas of concern.
"Physically, he's not ready," the league exec said. "In fact, he's a long way off. His defensive ability and his skills for his size are impressive. But even though there's intrigue with all that, he made the right decision to return."
Well, with the assertiveness and confidence he showed in the final two months of his freshman season, NBA folks now want to see him increase his shooting range and improve his ballhandling.
"As a wing player who will have the ball in his hands a lot, there are things he needs to prove," said the league scout. "And the first thing is showing that he can be a reliable decision maker and can recognize consistently when to put the ball on the floor and take it all the way to the hole, when to pull up and when to dump the ball down into the post."
BRAND NEW DAY
Even former Duke All-American Jason Williams has chimed in, offering his praise for the mature decisions UNC's three stars made this spring.
Williams was the No. 2 pick in the 2002 NBA Draft and understands the challenge of the leap to the next level.
He's certain Barnes, Zeller and Henson have the ability to have success in the NBA. But he also appreciates their appreciation for what they have a chance to accomplish next season in college.
"Honestly, when I think about what North Carolina has lined up I get goose bumps," Williams said.
"They have so many pieces of the puzzle to be a legitimate national title contender and a truly special team."
"And I think you also have to look at the advantage they might have if there is an NBA lockout and all eyes then turn to college basketball exclusively," Williams added.
"That will give those three guys a major, major platform to show everyone who they are and what they can do. And with that comes an opportunity for them to really build up their brand."
It's not that Williams is advocating selfishness or encouraging the three UNC standouts to turn their focus toward a branding mission.
But, he says, the payoff for being established headliners for a marquee show should not be underestimated either.
"Look at this year's draft," Williams said.
"There's no question Kemba Walker and Jimmer Fredette are the two biggest brands in this draft thanks to what they accomplished this season in college basketball.
A guy like Harrison is going to have a special platform next year. He's going to be on the cover of every magazine. He's going to be the guy. And if he plays up to his potential, everyone is going to know Harrison Barnes as a star.
With that, he's going to be able to come into the NBA with an already established and very significant following.
And he'll have a chance to capitalize on that marketing wise."
That's just another reason for Barnes to feel satisfied about the decision he made to return to school. But with that decision comes a test of patience. Barnes will have to wait for those spoils until next year.
Just as the eager folks at the next level will have to sit tight for 12 months before they get the draft they're really looking forward to.