It’s been something of a lost season for the Cleveland Cavaliers, and not unexpectedly so. Despite Tristan Thompson’s bluster that the Cavaliers would still lead the Eastern Conference without LeBron James, most had more realistic expectations. There was some talk of the team at least being able to cling to playoff contention, but once Kevin Love went down injured and rookie point guard Collin Sexton proved to be more of a project than an instant star, the fate of the Cavs became clear. It’s not a strong team, and it’s one that needs to be focused on a long-term rebuild in the post-James era.
On the plus side, this adds clarity to things. Cleveland has trouble attracting major free agents, and will almost certainly not have another player like James. But the organization at least has a firm grasp on its reality at this point, and can devote all energy and resources toward the future. It may actually be a refreshing change, in a way, from the fevered urgency to compete in the present as long as James was in town.
The rebuild will involve Sexton and potentially Larry Nance Jr., but will otherwise involve plenty of young players we don’t see coming just yet. And the first major move will be made in June, when Cleveland makes what figures to be a reasonably high lottery pick in the NBA Draft. That brings us to the main subject of this article, which is, quite simply, which college players might represent ideal selections for Cleveland.
Zion Williamson – F, Duke
Zion Williamson is going to be the top pick in the draft barring an absolute shock. He’s a prospect the likes of which we’ve never seen, which is not to say he’s necessarily the best – just the most unique (and possibly among the best). A do-it-all forward with a lovable and competitive disposition and a penchant for generating eye-popping highlights, he’s an absolute dream for any franchise from both a basketball and marketing perspective. He will be the most coveted prospect since LeBron James, and as such he’s the correct pick for any team that might land the top pick. That’s unlikely for Cleveland, but should it happen, any debate is rendered unnecessary.
RJ Barrett – F, Duke
As great as Williamson is, his impact has been amplified by his teammate RJ Barrett, who has contributed to the show the Duke freshman class has been putting on. To put things in perspective, Barrett – not Williamson – has already become the highest scoring freshman in Duke’s decorated history, with a whole postseason left to play. And it’s because of Barrett in addition to Williamson that some of the Blue Devils’ games have been packed with celebrity guests. When Duke hosted North Carolina, Floyd Mayweather was in attendance, along with a veritable entourage of 10 or so guys. Now, Mayweather is known to throw money around on major sporting events – to the point that he’s even been written about as an athlete you wouldn’t want to run into in a casino, given that he’d be sure to out-spend you. So it’s no big deal for him to secure a ticket to the biggest event in college basketball. But the fact that he’d bother to speaks to the allure of both freshmen. Oh, and lest we forget, Barack Obama happened to be in attendance as well! Barrett is part of this show, and will bring some of the same fanfare – and rare scoring ability – to any NBA franchise fortunate enough to draft him.
Bruno Fernando – C, Maryland
Bruno Fernando is one of the most exciting prospects you don’t hear talked about very often, and he’s a strong candidate to be a late riser once there’s a bigger spotlight on him around draft time. In fact, it wouldn’t be a surprise at all for Fernando to crack the top five, particularly given that this is seen as a weaker draft. He’s not a generational talent like Williamson or a scoring sensation like Barrett; he’s probably not attraction high-roller athletes or ex-presidents to the arena. What he is, however, is a very strong and very athletic 6’10’’ center with a little bit of shooting ability and natural gifts that have led some to utter Hakeem Olajuwon comparisons. Fernando won’t be that good, but he does look like he could develop into a valuable, modern franchise center – something the Cavaliers will need when, presumably, they eventually move on from Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love in the post.
Jarrett Culver – SG, Texas Tech
Jarrett Culver falls into the same category as Fernando in that he’s a very nice NBA prospect who checks a lot of boxes but doesn’t get talked about too often. However, we’d agree with a recent article suggesting he could conceivably move all the way up to number three (likely behind Williamson and Barrett). That same article actually predicted that Culver could go to the Cavaliers, and looking at the potential fit, it’s a very nice idea. At 6’6’’, Culver is a good size to become a versatile NBA wing, which is exactly what he is in college. He’s one of the best defensive players in the country and can cover multiple positions, and he has a nice natural scoring ability despite the fact that his outside shooting needs some work. He’s actually vaguely reminiscent of Kawhi Leonard at San Diego State, though he’s a little bit ahead on offense. Culver would be a terrific defensive anchor to pair with Sexton as the Cavaliers look to build a new core.
Nassir Little – F, North Carolina
Nassir Little came into the college season as one of the most highly touted freshmen in the country, and was seen by many as the only one who could potentially challenge Barrett, Williamson, and Duke’s other freshman lottery pick, Cam Reddish, for a top pick. He spent a good chunk of the season as a backup with limited minutes, however, and presented more as a raw athlete and a project than a surefire stud. In all likelihood, all three of the Duke players will still go ahead of Little – but that means Little will likely be available wherever the Cavaliers end up picking, and there’s a certain point in the lottery at which he may make sense. Little still packs enormous potential and has an NBA-ready body, and he’s proven multiple times – mostly in high school – that he can go toe-to-toe with the best players in his class. In short, he’s more of a gamble, but one that could really pay off in Cleveland.