Last year, Jerel McNeal had one of the best individual seasons that the Marquette University program had ever seen. He led the team in points in a year at 19.8 per game, pulled down 4.5 rebounds and handed out 3.9 assists. Defensively, he was outstanding once again this year, averaging two steals per game and .6 blocks. He scored a career high 30 points in a loss to Missouri in the Second Round of the NCAA Tournament to end his career, and now has his sights set on pre-draft camps and ultimately having his name called on June 25th.
McNeal will have to play the shooting guard position in the NBA unless he makes a drastic change to become strictly a point guard which I can not see happening. He is listed at 6’3” but is really closer to 6’2”, which could drop his draft status for being undersized. While McNeal plays bigger than he is and is very physical, the height itself will be a problem in the draft process because players like Nick Calethes, Jermaine Taylor, and Jodie Meeks possess close to the same skill set but are two inches taller.
I liken McNeal’s potential talent level and characteristic skill set to that of Jason Terry of the Dallas Mavericks. Terry stands at 6’2” as well and is known for his excellent outside shooting and quick release on jump shots. Terry is also considered a combo guard that can really play the point guard position but play it like a shooting guard. His deceptive quickness off the dribble combined with his great jump shot makes for a deadly combination. When Terry gets to the rim, he goes up with force and at the same time is smart, knowing where his teammates are. Dallas loves to run the fast break and Terry leads the break with both quickness and power.
When I watch Terry, I see a lot of McNeal. McNeal’s best quality is his outside shooting and he will live and die with that in the Association. Despite his lack of size, McNeal has an extremely quick release and never leaves the ball low where shot blockers could get a hand on it. Because McNeal was asked to do so much scoring for the Marquette Golden Eagles, his passing abilities were not always seen as one of his strong points, but I can tell you that this is not the case. McNeal has one of the strongest passes on the team and seems to thread the needle better than most while still making good decisions with the basketball. I can see him being very valuable in the passing game especially if he can get a little quicker off the dribble and draw the defense in. In half-court sets, McNeal will have to be more patient and not force shots and use his dribble more. His aggressiveness going to the hoop will result in continued free throw attempts that make his NBA stock that much more valuable.
Defensively, McNeal is going to thrive in the NBA guarding the shooting guard position. While he will always lack the height to match up fairly in that category, his tenacity and on-the-ball defense make him valuable to teams. Because he is quick enough to stay very close to his man with his hands in the air, some of that size disadvantage is taken out of the equation. His break on the ball is outstanding as well and, when players put the ball on the ground, McNeal always has a hand going for the ball. He is not lazy by any means but can get lost in the crowd when he is not guarding his man. Fortunately, that does not mean as much in the NBA but is still something McNeal will need to work on. On the boards, McNeal has good leaping ability and is a smart player that seems to always be in the right position at the right time to grab boards, but I would not expect to see much from him in this department at the next level.
Places that I could see McNeal going in the draft include the Bobcats who do not have much depth at the shooting guard position, the Heat who love combo guards (remind you of any Marquette player on their current team?) and the New Orleans Hornets. While all these teams would look at McNeal in the second round, a good draft camp could vault him into the first round. The one thing going against McNeal is that he is 22 years old and while he gained a lot of good experience due to four years in college, there are a lot of younger players that can produce like he can. Still, that experience factor as well as being a clutch player that can lead his team will undoubtedly get himself a roster spot on the team and, with a few years of seasoning, McNeal could be a very serviceable role player in the NBA.
My prediction: 2nd Round, 42nd overall to the Miami Heat