In a sense, Jeff Withey is the anti-Cody Zeller. While the short-armed Zeller's strength is his offensive game, Withey uses his long arms and athleticism to protect the basket like few others. Zeller is a 20-year-old sophomore who's been highly touted for a while, and Withey's a 23-year-old late-blooming senior. Both were increasingly overshadowed on their college teams by a pair of two-guards who made fast climbs up draft boards, but while there's still some debate about whether Zeller or Victor Oladipo is the better prospect, it's clear Ben McLemore has the edge on Withey.
Zeller is widely projected as a lottery pick, but Withey checks in at No. 19 on Jonathan Givony's DraftExpress rankings and at No. 24 with Chad Ford of ESPN.com. Yet if Withey was "arguably the best overall defender in the NCAA," as Givony writes, maybe he should be rated closer to Zeller. Defense is, after all, half of the game, even if it isn't as thrilling as offense. Withey isn't inept offensively, as he's shown the ability to finish around the basket. He doesn't have a back-t0-the-basket post game, and rarely dares to take a mid-range jumper, but there aren't many polished centers in the NBA, anyway.
He's either 6'11", as DraftExpress has him, or 7'0", according to ESPN's measurements, and his wingspan is variously described as 7'1.5" and 7'3". Regardless of his precise measurements, Withey used his length to block 3.9 shots per game this season. That average jumped to 5.7 in three NCAA tournament games, including back-to-back five-block performances against North Carolina and Michigan. He also had 16 points and a season-high 16 boards against the Tar Heels, showing not only an ability to perform in the spotlight but also a rebounding acumen that he rarely displayed during the season. Four of Withey's rebounds in that game came on the offensive glass, and as Givony points out, Withey had the fewest offensive rebounds per 40 minutes of any center among his top 100 prospects.
That stat is disconcerting, especially considering Withey does most of his offensive work around the basket. Not every center in the NBA is called upon to grab a bunch of rebounds, with Brook Lopez and the Nets, who rely upon Reggie Evans for their board work, as Exhibit A. Still, that, more than his offensive shortcomings, could be why NBA teams wouldn't consider drafting him until after the lottery picks are through.
Of the teams drafting 15th through 25th, the Celtics, at No. 16, and Cavs, at No. 19, jump out as clubs that could benefit from a shot-blocking center like Withey. If he winds up in Cleveland, he would coincidentally become teammates with Tyler Zeller, Cody's brother. The Nets, at No. 22, could see Withey as a backup to Lopez and once more rely on their power forwards to man the boards. The Hawks, at Nos. 17 and 18, and Jazz, at No. 21, are wild cards, given all their free agents, though Utah seems like a longshot because of its frontcourt depth.
All of that can change between now and draft night, as teams exchange picks via trade and players make impressions in pre-draft workouts. If Withey shows that he can be more active on the boards, I wouldn't be surprised if he sneaks into the latter part of the lottery. Size, after all, has always been a commodity in the NBA.