Friday April 3rd, 2015

The NCAA tournament is an exciting time for college players—and an influential one for NBA prospects. The intense scrutiny of the three-week window has helped dozens of players improve their stock over the years. Take Kemba Walker. In 2011, Walker was a solid point guard prospect at UConn. His play during Connecticut’s title-winning run in the ’11 tournament—which culminated with a Most Outstanding Player Award—pushed him into the top 10 of the NBA draft. It’s worked out: Walker is a cornerstone in Charlotte, signing a four-year, $48 million extension with the Hornets last fall.

Jahlil Okafor or Karl-Anthony Towns? SI roundtable debates NBA prospects

It’s not always a happy ending. Sometimes a strong run in the tournament can be fools gold. Consider the case of Derrick Williams.  Like Walker, Williams, a sophomore forward at Arizona, was a force in the ’11 tournament, a stretch highlighted by a 25-point first half in the Wildcats's win over Duke in the Sweet 16. A few months later Williams was drafted second overall, by Minnesota. Four years and two teams later, Williams has not come close to living up to that potential.

With four heavyweight programs in the Final Four, NBA scouts will pay extra attention to the games this weekend. Based on conversations with team scouts and executives, here are 10 players with the most to gain. This list excludes Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns, who are expected to go 1-2 in June’s draft.

Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Justise Winslow, Duke

SF | 6' 6", 225 | Freshman
Last Big Board: No.
SI Projected Range: 6-10

Few players have had more productive tournaments than Winslow, who entered the dance clustered in a group of small forwards in the middle of the lottery and could leave it as the best player in it. Winslow is an elite college defender, gifted with good size (6’6”), length (6’10”) and quickness for his position. Winslow was a solid scorer during the regular season; in the tournament, he has often been spectacular. He was a force in Duke’s win over Utah in the Sweet 16 (21 points) and strong in an Elite Eight win over Gonzaga. Here’s the stat that has wowed scouts the most: Winslow shot 60 percent from three-point range in his last three games.

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Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky

C | 7'0", 250 | Junior
Last Big Board: No. 9

SI Projected Range: 10-14

Scouts aren’t focused on Cauley-Stein’s offense; that analysis will come at the pre-draft combine. And most already believe Cauley-Stein to be an NBA-ready defender. “He can guard 1-5,” an NBA general manager said. “He is going to be a Joakim Noah-like menace defending pick-and-rolls at the next level.”

Still, the semifinals present an interesting matchup for Cauley-Stein. Frank Kaminsky is arguably the most skilled offensive big man in college basketball. Kentucky is expected to deploy Cauley-Stein on Kaminsky. A strong performance there—and another against, say, Jahlil Okafor, could rocket Cauley-Stein 3-4 slots higher in the lottery.

Stephen Dunn/Getty Images Sport

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin

C | 7'0", 242 | Senior
Last Big Board: No. 10
SI Projected Range: 11-15

As one NBA scout noted this week: “I love Kaminsky. But I know two or three other guys that hate him.” Kaminsky’s strength is his offensive diversity. He’s an accomplished scorer (18.7 points), passer (2.7 assists) and three-point shooter (41.5 percent). He lit up Arizona for 29 points in the regional final, shrugging off multiple defenders thrown at him. His weakness is, well, his strength, particularly defensively. But with possible matchups with Towns and Okafor looming, Kaminsky has an opportunity to emphatically address those concerns.​

Devin Booker, Kentucky

SG | 6'6", 205 | Freshman
Last Big Board: No. 14
SI Projected Range: 14-18

Booker is arguably the draft’s best shooting prospect. He made 53.2 percent of his three’s during an 11-game stretch midseason, quickly leapfrogging up draft boards. A late-season slump caused his three-point shooting numbers to dip (41.1 percent) but he has good form and his confidence in his shot has never seemed to waver. Shooting is a sought after commodity in the NBA; a couple of good shooting games in Indianapolis will make a potentially tough decision for the freshman guard much easier.

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Trey Lyles, Kentucky

PF | 6'10", 235 | Freshman
Last Big Board: No. 19
SI Projected Range: 17-21

Lyles is one of Kentucky’s more unexpected NBA prospects—at least for this season, anyway. Lyles's first round candidacy picked up steam in February with back-to-back 18-point games against Mississippi State and Arkansas; his play in the tournament, including a 14-point, seven-rebound effort in a blowout win over West Virginia, has only increased NBA scouts fascination with Lyles. Lyles isn’t a superior athlete and he has been a non-factor from three-point range (13.8 percent). But scouts like his stretch-four potential, with several seeing his range eventually stretching beyond the arc.

Andy Lyons/NBAE/Getty Images

Andrew Harrison, Kentucky

PG | 6'6", 210 | Sophomore
Last Big Board: N/A
SI Projected Range:​ 35-40

Harrison followed up a subpar freshman year with lower numbers in his sophomore season. Of course, Harrison was victimized by Kentucky’s depth; his minutes dipped from 31.7 in his first year to 25.3 this season. And his three-point shooting ticked up to 37.6 percent. But scouts still grumble about Harrison’s pedestrian assist-to-turnover ratio (2.1 to 1) and lack of consistency. Scouts love his size though (6’6”) and several project him as a solid defender in the NBA. A spectacular Final Four might not be enough to earn Harrison a spot in the first round, but it’s the only thing that can.​

Sam Dekker, Wisconsin

SF | 6'9", 220 | Junior
Last Big Board: N/A
SI Projected Range
: 13-17

The book on Dekker has been the same all season. Great body. Pretty good athlete. Can’t shoot. That’s why the five three-pointers (on six attempts) Dekker made against Arizona, a pair of them coming at critical moments in the second half, were so impressive. If Dekker puts on another shooting display against Kentucky it will go a long way towards mitigating the 33.8 percent he shot from beyond the arc during the season. With Kaminsky figuring to have his hands full against UK’s long and athletic front line, Dekker’s production has never been more crucial.

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Harry How/Getty Images

Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin

SF | 6'7", 250 | Sophomore
Last Big Board: N/A
SI Projected Range: 30-35

Hayes is an interesting prospect. Wisconsin’s super sub as a freshman had a strong sophomore season, adding a decent three-point shot (38 percent) while continuing to shoot better than 50 percent from the field. Hayes covers his lack of size (6’7”) with terrific length (7’2” wingspan). The biggest question undersized big men have to answer: Can they score against length? A strong game against Kentucky’s Towns and Cauley-Stein could answer a few of those questions.​

Denzel Valentine, Michigan State

G/F | 6'5", 220 | Junior
Last Big Board: N/A
SI Projected Range: 35-40

Many NBA executives hate position-less players and it’s hard to figure out where Valentine fits at the next level. He has the sturdy frame of a two-guard but lacks the quickness to stay in front of them. Still, Valentine’s improved scoring (14.3 points) and three-point shooting (41.1 percent—along with an extreme spike in his free throw shooting (82.9 percent)—have caught the eye of NBA scouts. A junior, Valentine would benefit from another college season but a strong performance against, say, Winslow might impress NBA scouts enough to make him think about testing the waters.​

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Travis Trice, Michigan State

PG | 6'0", 170 | Senior
Last Big Board: N/A
SI Projected Range: Undrafted

Duke’s Mike Krzyzewski saved his most lavish praise this week for Trice, declaring that the senior guard has been “the best player in the tournament.” Trice is averaging 19.8 points in the tourney, including 23 against a stingy Virginia defense. Trice evokes skepticism from NBA scouts: He’s an undersized (6’0”) scoring guard who shot 37.1 percent from three this season, a four-year low. Still, Trice more than doubled his assist average (5.1) this season and has carried the Spartans offensively in the tournament. A strong finish to the tournament won’t make him a first round pick but it could create enough interest for a team to take a flyer on him in the second round. ​

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