NBA Combine: With 3 stars absent, Randle, Vonleh make case
NBA • The Kentucky and Indiana forwards impress in Chicago.
Published: May 17, 2014 06:48PM
Updated: May 18, 2014 06:38PM
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Arizona forward Aaron Gordon puts in a reverse dunk as Weber State defenders watch during the first half in a second-round game in the NCAA college basketball tournament Friday, March 21, 2014, in San Diego. (AP Photo/Denis Poroy)

Chicago • Joel Embiid’s injured back kept him away. Andrew Wiggins just teased with photos showing off his supreme athleticism. And hometown hero Jabari Parker was nowhere to be found.

Julius Randle, meanwhile, wasn’t about to miss out.

With the three biggest names in this year’s NBA draft class no-shows at last week’s combine, Randle, the Kentucky star, was trying to separate himself from the rest of the pack.

“I think it was just good for me to be here,” he said. “I only get this opportunity once. This is my dream.”

After Embiid, Parker and Wiggins — and possibly Australian guard Dante Exum — Randle, Arizona’s Aaron Gordon and Indiana’s Noah Vonleh form the next tier of talent. And while the Jazz already have a pair of young, 6-foot-10 forwards on the roster, the Utah front office will be looking to take the best available player in the June draft. Depending on the outcome of this week’s lottery, that means the Jazz could end up targeting another big.

Of the three freshman forwards, Randle got the most exposure this spring, leading the Kentucky Wildcats to the NCAA title game and averaging 15 points and 10 rebounds a game for the year.

“What they’re going to get is a hard worker and somebody that’s really dedicated to the game,” his teammate and fellow lottery hopeful James Young said.

Randle adds another thing the team that drafts him will get: “Talent.”

The 6-foot-9 forward showed a blend of power and finesse and natural scoring instincts during his lone season of college ball. He shot 50 percent from the floor and said he wasn’t able to show off his 3-point game with the Wildcats.

But if he wants to be the class’s best power forward, Randle has competition.

Vonleh, who won’t turn 19 until August, helped himself at last week’s combine. Vonleh and Randle had identical times in the lane agility drill (11.45 seconds). But the Indiana forward outjumped the Kentucky Wildcat by two inches (31 vs. 29) in the standing vertical and by an inch and a half (37 vs. 35.5) in the max vert.

Vonleh also has terrific physical attributes. He measured 6-foot-8 without shoes but a had a 7-foot-4 wingspan.

Asked for a pro comparison, Vonleh offered up these names: “Some people say Chris Bosh because he can step out and shoot the three. Paul Millsap. I’ve heard a little bit of LaMarcus Aldridge too because he can play inside and out. But I’m just trying to be my own player.”

Like Vonleh, Gordon won’t be pigeonholed by comparisons.

Nor by position.

“There are really two positions: on the court and off the court. I want to be on the court,” said Gordon, who is seen as something of a three-four hybrid.

The freshman from Arizona has his shortcomings. He shot 42 percent from the free-throw line and struggled to hit jump shots at times.

One place where Gordon doesn’t leave doubt is his athleticism.

At the combine, Gordon finished with a 39-inch max vertical and a 32.5-inch standing vertical. The forward also had the best time in the shuttle run and the seventh-best time in the lane agility drill.

“I felt like I could have jumped higher,” Gordon said afterward adding that his personal best is 42 inches.

Gordon, a month younger even than Vonleh, can be an elite defender, with quickness and a wingspan to help shut down smaller players.

And the forward said his shooting is catching up to the rest of his skill set.

“I overhauled my free throws because I didn’t really have a consistent free throw,” he said. “I had about three different [jump shots] and that’s not OK. Now I have one jumper that shoots every single time … and it feels great.”

“I have blisters all over my fingers just from shooting so much,” he added. “It’s great.”

afalk@sltrib.com