NBA risers, fallers from first week of NCAA tournament
Kevin Durant won just one NCAA tournament game as a one-and-done player at Texas. Greg Oden, on the other hand, won five in his only season at Ohio State and led the Buckeyes to the national title game.
No, I'm not trying to rub it in for Ohio State fans -- who saw their team upset in its first game this year -- or Blazers fans, for obvious reasons. But it's worth pointing out that March Madness success doesn't necessarily guarantee NBA stardom, nor does failure preclude professional prowess.
The 2014 iteration of the tourney has already thrown out its fair share of madness, and some of the top prospects in this upcoming draft find themselves watching the rest from home.
With the first week of the Big Dance in the books, let's examine the best and worst performances from 2014 NBA draft hopefuls.
Cleanthony Early, F, Wichita State -- Don't blame Early for the top-seeded Shockers' third-round loss to Kentucky. He dominated in the second half, scoring 21 of his 31 points and doing unspeakable things to Willie Cauley-Stein. Early beat every defender Kentucky threw at him, whether it was lottery pick Julius Randle, the athletic Alex Poythress or Cauley-Stein -- an ultra-smooth 7-footer and potential lottery pick -- on switches.
At 6-foot-8, 219 pounds, Early possesses the physical tools to be an NBA forward, not to mention the skill set. He shot 37.5 percent from three-point range this season, 48.6 percent overall and 84 percent at the free-throw line. He's projected as a late first-round pick, but if Early measures out well at the combine, then his draft stock could coincide with his surname in June.
Marcus Smart, G, Oklahoma State -- Did you miss this one? Probably. This makes two straight seasons in which Smart's Cowboys lost their first tournament game, but you can't blame this defeat on the sophomore point guard. Smart stuffed the stat sheet with 23 points, 13 rebounds, seven assists and six steals against Gonzaga. He shot just 5-of-14 from the floor -- par for the course for the impaired jump shooter -- but bulled his way to the free-throw line 19 times. More important for NBA teams, this represents a positive trend for Smart. Despite his reputation for not fixing his jump shot last offseason (because, you know, he didn't actually fix it), Smart upped his scoring average by 2.5 points because he took the ball to the basket more to earn 8.1 free throws per game.
Julius Randle, F, Kentucky -- Randle has a chance to re-solidify his spot in the top five if he can sustain his play from the opening weekend. Against a rugged Kansas State team, Randle got to his spots offensively, putting up 19 points to go with 15 rebounds. He followed that up by flashing a different part of his game against Wichita State: his passing. Randle dished out a season-high six assists, while also adding 13 points and 10 rebounds. His performance -- two double-doubles, 16 points per game and 52.4 percent shooting -- is how you want NBA teams to remember you. The other good news? He stayed off any Cleanthony Early posters.
Jabari Parker, F, Duke -- If Parker's college career is indeed finished, a stunning loss to a No. 14 seed will be an unfortunate ending. Parker shot only 4-of-14 against Mercer, settling for jump shots too often rather than getting inside and using a clear length and athletic advantage. The Carmelo Anthony comparisons ring truer there than perhaps anywhere else, as Melo has often been accused of not taking advantage of his estimable post skills, preferring instead to settle for contested jump shots. A game like this underscores the concerns about the freshman forward: At what NBA position does Parker fit? Where can he be an elite player?
Andrew Wiggins, F, Kansas -- Yeesh, talk about a bad weekend for potential No. 1 overall picks. Parker and Wiggins combined to win just one game in the tournament and didn't have an impressive performance between them. Meanwhile, Wiggins' teammate Joel Embiid, another freshman and potential top pick in his own right, sat out because of a stress fracture in his back.
Wiggins, for his part, had a shiny statistical game against Eastern Kentucky with 19 points, but in a 21-point victory against a No. 15 seed, it's hardly praise-worthy. In the round of 32, Wiggins did what Wiggins does far too often: disappear. He scored just four points on 1-of-6 shooting in 34 minutes in a 60-57 loss to an inferior Stanford team. Not a great lasting image for NBA teams.
LaQuinton Ross, F, Ohio State -- Ross took a much bigger role in Ohio State's offense this season, and nearly doubled his scoring average. But he struggled on both ends of the court against Dayton, scoring just 10 points on 5-of-14 shooting. Scoring has been OSU's bugaboo all season and Ross never really found his niche, despite putting up much better gross numbers. Ross possesses some intriguing talent and physical ability, making him a potential late first-round pick, but his lack of polish and defined role in the NBA were encapsulated against Dayton.
The Mixed Bag
Tyler Ennis, G, Syracuse -- The case of Tyler Ennis proves something important about using the tournament as a measuring stick. Was a bad game just a bad game, or did it expose flaws you already suspected would be exploited in the NBA? For Ennis, there was only an outcome-driven difference between the game he had against Western Michigan and Dayton. Ennis was who we thought he was: a point guard always in control, always cool under pressure and always willing to take the big shots when his team needs him.
They went in against Western Michigan and didn't against Dayton. For the most part, he got the looks he wanted, from open jumpers to floaters in the lane. The shots simply didn't fall, for Ennis or frankly anyone on the Orange team. In fact, if Ennis hadn't taken over late in the game against the Flyers, Syracuse would have had no chance. Nineteen points, four rebounds and three assists is a nice line, but Ennis shot 7-of-21 overall and 0-of-5 from three-point range, including his miss of the potential game-winner. None of that changes the fact that Ennis would be a top-10 pick in June if he declares.
Doug McDermott, F, Creighton -- Mr. McBuckets went off against Louisiana-Lafayette in Creighton's first game, dropping 30 points and 12 rebounds. But against Baylor, a team that was clearly geared to stop the Big East Player of the Year, McDermott struggled to find a rhythm, missing shots he usually makes. This wasn't quite a case of longer, more athletic wing players getting in his grill and preventing him from getting to his spots. The bigger problem was that Creighton uncharacteristically struggled to get him the ball consistently. Much like with Ennis and Syracuse, this was more a "hang with 'em" game than a hint at a bigger problem.
Adreian Payne, F, Michigan State -- The early favorite for the tournament's Most Outstanding Player, Payne set a school record with 41 points in a second-round victory over Delaware. It was a different story against Harvard, though, with Payne shooting just 4-of-10 from the field for 12 points. It wasn't that he played poorly; he just wasn't as magnificent as his tour de force performance from the first matchup.
Payne can score from anywhere on the floor, although his dribble-drive game isn't great. That doesn't matter because, at 6-foot-10, he has a patient, potent post game and range out to the college three-point line (he shot almost 44 percent on the season). Payne is every bit the modern NBA power forward, which makes it all the more surprising he didn't take fuller advantage of a favorable matchup against Harvard.