There's a hidden gem in the 2015 NBA Draft.
The expected top two picks, Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns and Duke's Jahlil Okafor, have superstar potential, while a host of other players like Justise Winslow, D'Angelo Russell and Emmanuel Mudiay have the traits to be future franchise players.
Looking outside the expected top five or seven picks, the draft's youngest player has all the tools to become a critical piece to a championship puzzle.
Kentucky's Devin Booker, who won't turn 19 until Oct. 30, arrived in Lexington as part of John Calipari's most recent heralded recruiting class. Ranked No. 29 by Rivals, he was the Wildcats' fourth best recruit behind Towns (5), Trey Lyles (13) and Tyler Ulis (21). His role was a distinct one: to provide mismatch problems at shooting guard with his 6-foot-6 frame and provide valuable outside shooting on a team stacked with five-star big men and average returning outside shooters in Andrew and Aaron Harrison.
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Even the most casual basketball fan could assume that Booker did just that. On a Kentucky team that won its first 38 games - an NCAA record - Booker played the role of sharpshooter, connecting on better than 41 percent of his 141 3-pointers, finishing with the SEC's fourth best true-shooting percentage (60.0 percent) and best among all guards in the conference. As was the case for all Wildcats, which played a 10-man rotation, Booker deferred to the Harrison twins and Ulis and was never relied upon too heavily, only logging more than 25 minutes in a game six times.
That distinguished niche off the bench earned him SEC Sixth Man of the Year honors, finishing with 10.0 points, 2.0 rebounds, 1.1 assists and 1.5 3-pointers in 38 games.
"We were surrounded by a lot of talent at Kentucky so I found my niche, and that’s what we needed to do," Booker said at last month's NBA Draft Combine in Chicago. "We had plenty of ball handlers out there with Tyler (Ulis) and Andrew (Harrison), so I felt I could show a little more (at the Combine), create for others. And I’m trying to become a two-way elite player."
The final part of Booker's quote may be the only hesitation. He mentioned multiple times during his availability that he's focusing his efforts in pre-draft workouts on improving his defensive game, which admittedly lacked and was covered up by the Kentucky bigs; opposing teams who got by Booker and any other UK guards were met by the country's tallest and most talented frontcourt.
Booker's 6-foot-8 wingspan helped make up for some of his lateral quickness deficiencies. That won't cut it at the next level guarding the likes of James Harden, Jimmy Butler and other two-guards with lightning-quick first steps. It's why he's also dedicated himself to studying film, specifically Golden State shooting guard Klay Thompson. Thompson was a more complete draft prospect and better defender in 2011, though he was also a junior when he was selected No. 11 by the Warriors.
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Initially known for his shooting and scoring prowess, Thompson has transformed into a lockdown defender on the NBA's best defense and arguably the best two-way defender in the NBA.
"You watch Klay Thompson and that’s what he’s become," Booker said. "He has the respect of defenses, and I’ve been working on my quickness. That’s what I’m going to keep working on."
Booker's shooting will be his calling card, at least initially. He needs to prove he can play off the dribble and, more importantly, defend at the next level. He's undoubtedly a project, but has all measurables NBA teams are looking for in their shooting guards. He's got the athleticism, his shooting will translate at the next level and has plenty of room to grow. It doesn't hurt, either, that he's coming from a Kentucky program that has churned out one-and-done talent for years.
"I was expecting to stay there two to three years, but it’s crazy when you focus on a team concept and the team has success the personal success comes with it, and it just comes back to hard work," he said. "There was a lot of talent at Kentucky and I found my way to fit in."
Soon enough he'll do the same at the next level.