Long Beach State's Casper Ware, left, is up for a host of awards as the… (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles…)
It could have been a nice NBA draft class for UCLA, with a dominant center and a highly skilled power forward both taken in the first round.
Of course, that was before Joshua Smith's conditioning issues and Mike Moser's move to Nevada Las Vegas left the Bruins as likely nonfactors in the draft for the second time in three years.
USC is pretty much assured of a draft shutout to go with its dismal season.
That leaves UC Santa Barbara as the closest thing to a winner in another down draft year for Southern California. Gauchos senior Orlando Johnson is the only area college player on a few of the most prominent mock draft boards, signaling a continued decline in the region's talent pool.
"Overall, the West is pretty dry this year," said one NBA scout, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss college players publicly. "There are some below-the-radar prospects, guys that are intriguing in the second round with some special skills whether they can score or are versatile like Orlando, but overall, it's been disappointing."
Johnson — a 6-foot-5, 205-pound senior shooting guard whose all-around excellence is reflected in his averages of 20 points, six rebounds and three assists — is widely projected as an early second-round pick.
His mid-major pedigree is not expected to deter potential suitors because he scored 36 points against UNLV and tallied 24 against Washington, showing that he can excel against higher-end competition.
"He's got NBA size, he has NBA length, he has an NBA frame, and he's one of the best scorers in college basketball, especially when you look at his perimeter shooting ability," said Jonathan Givony, president of draftexpress.com, a website that evaluates college players. "That combination right there is pretty intriguing."
Another captivating prospect is Casper Ware, Long Beach State's scary-good senior who is up for a host of awards as the top point guard in the country. While NBA executives won't hold Ware's little-school status against him, his 5-10 frame could be another matter.
"He has some really intriguing attributes to him," Givony said of Ware, who is considered a borderline second-round player. "Unfortunately, he's really small."
But couldn't the same be said of Isaiah Thomas of the Sacramento Kings and Nate Robinson of the Golden State Warriors? One NBA scout said Ware could be drafted thanks to his undersized predecessors.
"Teams are more open-minded about it now," the scout said. "It just comes down to if a team has a need for that type of guy off the bench and if they value his ability to play the game."
It seems eons ago that UCLA and USC produced the stellar draft class of 2008, when O.J. Mayo, Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love were all top-five picks. The Bruins then had Jrue Holiday (No. 17 overall) and Darren Collison (No. 21) in 2009 while the Trojans followed up with DeMar DeRozan (No. 9) and Taj Gibson (No. 26) in 2010 and Nikola Vucevic (No. 16) in 2011.
Givony said the recent lack of high draft picks from Southern California is largely a function of UCLA and USC experiencing down years. The Trojans are still recovering from the fallout of the Mayo scandal and the Bruins have whiffed on several prospects and misevaluated others.
UCLA has also had more than a few high-profile defections. Moser, who arrived in Las Vegas before the 2010-11 season, is projected as a first-round pick, and former Bruins Chase Stanback (UNLV) and Drew Gordon (New Mexico) are projected by at least one mock draft board to go in the second round.
Reeves Nelson, dishonorably discharged in December after twice being suspended for insubordination, is not likely to have his named called on draft day, June 28. Too small for his position, too unskilled, too many issues.
"He's got some strikes against him that he's going to have to overcome," an NBA scout said of the 6-8 forward.
So does the 6-10, 315-pound Smith, whose disappointing sophomore season, in which his point and rebound averages have both dipped from his freshman year, could compel him to return to Westwood to shrink his waistline and increase his draft value.
"Josh Smith needs to mix in a salad and a sit-up every once in a while," one NBA executive told The Times last year, and that was before an off-season in which the former McDonald's All-American gained more weight.
Assuming he returns for a third college season and shows a dedication to weight management, Smith could be a high first-round pick — in 2013.
"A lot of his evaluation comes down to, is he going to be able to keep off the weight?" Givony said. "How seriously is he going to take his profession? If he does, you're looking at a guy who could be a top-20 draft pick, if not higher. If he doesn't, he might not be an NBA player, period."
Given the way the recent draft classes have gone around here, neither scenario would be a surprise.