As if four months of regular season play isn’t enough, plenty a college basketball player’s NBA Draft stock has been dictated – both positively and negatively – by their performances on the big stage in the NCAA Tournament. And while the mainly freshman rotation at Kentucky was chock full of prospects, you better believe that their tournament performances will impact where they wind up being drafted.
With that said, I wanted to take a look at the players who I felt really impacted their futures over the last three weeks, and even pay homage to those who didn’t. Let’s start with who didn’t:
Before Julius Randle even logged a minute of NCAA action there was no question that he was going to at worst be a top-5 pick. The 6-foot-9 southpaw mixes strength and agility better than 99.9% of players his age/size, which was on display from the first night he stepped onto the hardwood at Rupp Arena and went for 23 points and 16 rebounds in 26 minutes against UNC Asheville. Randle creates mismatches by being too strong for smaller defenders and too quick for bigger ones, and is a face-up four who can both handle the rock and knock down the mid-range J.
As discouraging as Randle’s championship game performance was (10 points, 6 rebounds, 3-7 fg) mainly from the standpoint that he wasn’t aggressive enough in a big spot, we’re talking about a freshman who led the nation in double-doubles, and got to the free-throw line 10+ times in 10 games this season. His tournament highs more than likely won’t raise his stock above the likes of Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid, but his lows also won’t drop him…at all.
I also don’t think sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein‘s stock was affected at all. Granted Cauley-Stein got hurt in the first half of the Sweet 16 matchup against Louisville, but the 7-footer has been considered a low-end lottery pick for the better part of the last two years because he has unbelievable athleticism for a guy his size and has a real nose for the ball. Cauley-Stein best displayed this against Kansas State, when he went for 8 rebounds, 4 steals and 4 blocks in the win that fueled the ‘Cats tourney run.
As Cauley-Stein went down (literally), freshman Marcus Lee stood up (figuratively), going from a player who was pretty much completely out of the rotation to a major contributor in Kentucky’s Elite Eight win over Michigan. In a career-high 15 minutes, Lee went for 10 points and 8 rebounds (also a career best), dominating the offensive glass and pretty much dunking home every opportunity he had around the rim. Granted we’re working with a limited sample size with Lee, but that one game showed that instead of a timid, skinny, young big, Lee can really make a difference around the rim, cleaning up the glass and finishing with authority.
Cauley-Stein’s injury also guaranteed more minutes for – wait for it – freshman big Dakari Johnson, who certainly didn’t hurt his stock by turning in big games in wins over Louisville and Wisconsin. Essentially the Daniel Orton of this team, it’s been rumored that Johnson is likely to enter the draft because he doesn’t want to be the lone holdover of his class, but it’s also been contested that he’s just a big stiff. Nothing that Johnson does really sticks out, but he has the makings of a veteran NBA center’s body, which if you look at guys like Kwame Brown and Kendrick Perkins, is enough to keep you in the league 10-plus years. Despite possessing any resemblance of a post-up game or explosive athleticism, Johnson understands positioning and at the very least will make for a productive 6 fouls at the next level.
While I’m not totally sure about Johnson but am leaning towards saying he improved his draft stock, I’m also not totally sure about freshmen Aaron Harrison and Andrew Harrison, but am leaning towards saying they didn’t do themselves many favors. Now I’m not saying that they hurt their stock, for all of the big shots that they hit – repeatedly – and the way they both attacked the passing lanes, they continued showing the strengths that they displayed over the course of the season. However, neither of them really showed impressive speed or athleticism, which I’m going to imagine they’ll need at the next level when neither are particularly good facilitators, especially Aaron.
In all fairness, I hate that I just grouped two players, twins no less, together. Aaron obviously displayed a flair for the drama and a clutch gene, hitting go ahead threes in three straight games. Andrew did a pretty solid job guarding the point guard position, but I don’t think he really had to stick any next level talent, besides for Shabazz Napier who had his way with the Wildcats for the most part. Either way, I don’t think that we saw these two big guards display anything that we didn’t see during the regular season, so I’m hesitant to say that they bettered their draft stock this past month.
Lastly, there’s James Young, who is absolutely trending in the right direction. The 6-foot-6 wing looked like the best player in blue in Kentucky’s Final Four and Championship Game appearances, showcasing explosive athleticism and a smooth scoring ability. After going 0-for-3 against Kansas State, Young shot 9-for-18 from downtown for the rest of the tournament, seemingly knocking down a longball every time Coach John Calipari needed a big bucket that didn’t come out of Aaron Harrison’s hands. As Kentucky’s second most consistent scorer this season, Young seemed to be hitting a wall in early March putting together a slew of bad shooting nights. But Young didn’t only look comfortable scoring the ball towards the end of the tournament, he answered questions about his athleticism and will to win, while still displaying impressive length, a quick release on his shot, and a well-rounded fundamental offensive game.
I don’t know where Alex Poythress stands heading into his old man junior season so I’ll reserve my judgment on him, ditto for Coach Cal.
Kentucky may not have emerged as champions this season, but they sure had a hell of a tournament run. I’m very much looking forward to seeing how that impacts this young roster’s future.