If you’re reading this, it’s likely that you’re a big college basketball fan. If you’re a big college basketball fan, it’s likely that you understand that this is the less popular of the two mainstream brands of basketball (oh hi NBA), and that most people only watch the last month or so of the season.
Most people doesn’t just mean casual basketball fans, and while I’m not coming out and saying NBA scouts aren’t paying attention to the regular season, there’s an extra spotlight on players come tournament time.
Last week I highlighted the Kentucky Wildcats roster which is full of NBA prospects, but this week I want to open it up for the rest of the field. There may not have been a Tyrus Thomas – who wasn’t considered a top-level prospect until he helped get LSU to the Final Four in 2006, leading to him become the fourth pick of the following NBA draft – type of prospect this March, but a number of players used the spotlight to their benefit.
Shabazz Napier, Senior, Connecticut
As much of a no brainer as Napier is on this list, this is a great example of a player who continued his stellar regular season play when the lights were on. Napier’s draft status wasn’t discussed much before the draft, as the barely 6-foot-tall, 23-year old year old combo guard was seen as having very limited upside at the next level. Napier turned his age from a disadvantage to an advantage, looking like the most poised player on the court more often than not, and showing his maturity by hitting huge shots in huge moments game-after-game. Despite a lack of size and athleticism, Napier averaged 5.5 rebounds to go along with his 21.2 points per game in the tournament, and is even being discussed as a late-first round pick now.
Cleanthony Early, Senior, Wichita State
There were few single-game performances better last month than Early’s 31 gritty points in the loss to Kentucky, but if one game could ever help a draft status, it sure worked for Early. Going up against NBA competition, Early continued to do what he did all season, showing the ability – albeit ugly looking – to shoot from anywhere on the court, and showcasing elite athleticism despite not having great size. Early was clearly a power forward in college, but I think he can be a (very) poor man’s Luol Deng at the next level as he works on creating his own offense as a small forward. Early knocking down 7 three’s in two tournament games certainly helped his case, as he now bears some resemblance of an outside game that was nowhere to be found last season.
Adreain Payne, Senior, Michigan State
If Cleanthony Early’s 31 point game was one of the most impressive performances of the tournament, Adreain Payne’s 41 points and 8 rebounds against Delaware might’ve been THE most impressive performances of the postseason. Payne spent four seasons being the biggest dude on the court at all times, but averaging 16.4 points per game as a senior might’ve been the difference between him being drafted or not. His 41-points, which came from literally every spot on the court (including 17-17 from the free throw line), elevated his status to first round pick. I don’t necessarily love Payne’s shot selection, as I think a guy with his size has no business camping out near the top of the key, but his shooting touch combined with his size and ability to score in the low post make him the prospect that Tom Izzo hoped he was getting four years and about 50 pounds ago.
Frank Kaminsky, Junior, Wisconsin
It was known around the country that Frank Kaminsky was Wisconsin’s best player prior to their tournament run, but I can’t imagine anyone would’ve thought that come Final Four time, Kaminsky stood a chance at being one of the three best players left in the tournament (Napier and Kentucky’s Julius Randle rounded out the top three, in my humble opinion). The Badgers went as far as their 7-footer would take them, and after going for 19 points in the Sweet 16 against Baylor, and 28 points and 11 rebounds in an Elite Eight win over Arizona, Kaminsky had Wisconsin looking like a legit title contender. Kaminsky showcased great footwork for a guy his size, surprising athleticism for a big white guy, and a special ability to step outside and knock down three’s. It was a bad look having his worst game of the tournament in the Final Four against Kentucky, but the work he put in against big, tough teams like Baylor and Arizona showed scouts all they needed to see.
Traevon Jackson, Junior, Wisconsin
I don’t think that we see Jackson come out this season, but this kid was one of the most impressive/least talked about guards in the tournament. Son of Ohio State great Jimmy Jackson, Traevon looked like the total package last month, dishing against Baylor, leading the comeback in the second half against Oregon by getting to the free throw line 11 times, and being a Bo Ryan guy by taking care of the ball like a new born baby. Jackson’s more of a jack-of-all trades type of player than he is an electric scorer or game changing playmaker, but he’s a great athlete with a high basketball IQ, a very good defender, and a consistent three-point shot away from being an NBA draft pick. There were games this tournament where Jackson outshined Kaminsky, and I think that will stick with scouts whenever he decides it’s his time to give it a shot at the next level.
DeAndre Kane, Senior, Iowa State
There were few teams that I was more excited to see in the NCAA Tournament than Iowa State, and their star DeAndre Kane did not let me down. After having just an incredible senior season, Kane came into the tournament with something to prove, and willed the Cyclones to victory over North Carolina in the round of 32, going for 24 points, 10 rebounds, and 7 assists in a game that went down to the wire. Kane seemingly got to the basket at will during the tournament, and finished with thunderous dunks…the perfect compliment to his great court vision and ability to lead a fast break. Kane’s age (25) will turn off some scouts come June, but his body and game are ready for the NBA and he did his best to prove that this season/March.
Jarnell Stokes (Junior) and Jordan McRae (Senior), Tennessee
I don’t know how much this small sample size really helps either of these Volunteers at the next level, but Jarnell Stokes and Jordan McRae were awesome in the tournament, and they took a team that was playing for their lives in the first round to being 3-points away from the Elite Eight. Stokes followed up an 18 point, 13 rebound game against Iowa by going for 26 points and 14 rebounds against UMass, which led to 17 points and 18 rebounds in the win over Mercer, propelling Tennessee into the Sweet 16. McRae was the out to Tennessee and Stokes’ inside-out game, as the 6-foot-6 wing averaged 19.8 points in 4 tournament games, displaying great mid-range game to go with above average athleticism and size. While Stokes continued to be a workhorse and show how much more he wanted to win than his opponents, McRae just looks like an NBA-level athlete, and has a good enough stroke that he should at least be able to play in the D-League.
Did I miss/get anyone wrong? Hit me up on Twitter at @JMintzHoops to keep the draft/college basketball conversation going…