For all of the arguments surrounding the NBA's age limit, one key factor sticks out when it comes to projecting pro prospects: You have to prove you're worthy against the best amateur players in the world.
You can't come straight out of high school anymore, schooling undersized prep players, or sizzling through a few AAU tournaments. If you're playing in the U.S., the new format puts NBA hopefuls in a team-driven system, against top talent, where they can try and earn their spot in the draft.
Sure, plenty of players ride extraordinary high school hype into decent freshman seasons and wind up as high picks, but you still have to show something on the NCAA courts to prove your NBA worthiness.
The NCAA tournament provides another stage for players to do just that, but it's not the be-all and end-all -- there's a reason college coaches prize regular season conference championships. The regular season offers a broader glimpse into the quality of a team. The same is true for potential NBA prospects.
Here are five players who improved their draft stock the most with superb play this season:
Nik Stauskas, G, Michigan -- While two Michigan players wound up on our biggest disappointments list last week, the catalyst driving the Wolverines as Final Four contenders is its sharp-shooting sophomore.
A 6-foot-6 guard who can handle, score, and defend, Stauskas not only upped his usage rate as a sophomore, but his efficiency. That rare combination has made him intriguing to NBA teams, along with his versatility and toughness. As a freshman, Stauskas put in 11 points per game. This season, playing five more minutes per night, he upped his scoring to 17.5 points per content, while shooting 48.3 percent form the field, 44.5 percent from deep and 81.4 percent from the free throw line. He's safely in the first round if he declares.
Tyler Ennis, G, Syracuse -- As an incoming freshman, Ennis was just the fourth-best point guard prospect in the country according to Rivals. But after a sensational freshman season, marked by heroic efforts in the second half, Ennis has ascended to the top of 2014's point guard rankings, and has a chance to be the first pure point guard selected (Marcus Smart and Dante Exum are both score-first point guards).
Ennis doesn't possess outstanding size -- just 6-foot-2 and 180 pounds -- but he's a cerebral lead guard capable of running an efficient offense. His 3.19 assist to turnover ratio ranks 9th in the country, despite posting a 32.6 percent assist percentage. Lately, he's even showing the ability to take over games with his scoring, posting 17.6 points per game over the last five contests.
His game-winning 35-footer against Pittsburgh earlier in the season even netted him a call from Vice President Joe Biden (a Syracuse Law grad).
Rodney Hood, G/F, Duke -- Amid the hype surrounding Jabari Parker, the sensational skill set of Rodney Hood tends to get lost. He was seen as a fringe first-round player coming into the year after transferring from Mississippi State, but he's played his way into the lottery.
At 6-foot-8 forward with a feathery touch from anywhere on the court, Hood proved his game was more than just as a catch-and-shoot player. His mid-range game still isn't where it could be, but the potential is tantalizing for NBA teams.
Like Stauskas, Hood's efficiency has increased despite his usage rate also going up. Taking nearly three more shots per game, Hood has bumped his field goal percentage four points to 47.4 percent, including a seven-point bump from deep -- up to 41.4 percent from 36.4. Certainly this efficiency has something to do with playing on a more talented team, but no matter how many open looks you get, they still have to drop for you. And they drop with regularity for Hood.
Joel Embiid, F/C, Kansas -- I know, I know, the back injury. A stress fracture has sidelined Embiid indefinitely, but if he checks out medically, there's no reason to think the seven-footer from Cameroon isn't a top-3 lock. Bill Self suggested before the season to Embiid he could be the No. 1 pick some day, but he certainly didn't think it would be this season.
Embiid grew up playing soccer, not basketball, and the expectation was that he'd need time to figure the game out, work on his footwork, and refine his feel. Instead, he developed into the most dominating two-way low-post player in college basketball. Despite playing just over 23 minutes a game and battling assorted injuries, Embiid notched nine double-doubles in 28 games.
Athletically, Embiid has the tools to become a force in the NBA at both ends, assuming he can come back to 100 percent. We've seen the kind of effects back injuries can have on players, especially big men, so health remains his biggest question mark at this point.
K.J. McDaniels, G, Clemson -- NBA teams love to see a player stay in school, work on his game, while making steady improvement. McDaniels improvement hasn't just been steady; it's been sensational.
After averaging 3.9 points per game as a sparsely used freshman, McDaniels jumped his average to 10.9 his sophomore season. This year, he's seen a similar leap, pushing his production to 17 ppg.
He's also boosted his PER from 21.1 as a freshman playing 10 minutes per game to 28 as a junior playing over 32 minutes per game. Over that same type, he boosted his true shooting percentage five points, more than doubled his assist percentage and rebound rate, all while turning himself into one of the best two-way wing players in college basketball. Peachtree Hoops chronicles his rise up boards.
His shot remains a work in progress as he's shooting just 29.1 percent from deep, but he's an elite free throw shooter, and shoots 51.7 percent on twos. This season, he averaged 17.0 points and seven rebounds for Clemson as a 6-foot-6 guard. His athleticism and defense have always been first-round level, but his scoring has improved to match and his dunk reel is as impressive as anyone's.
McDaniels has gone from a borderline draftable talent, to a potential top-20 player come June.