If it's late March, it means the NBA fantasy playoffs are near.
For once, however, the Lab isn't going to get overly technical by breaking down the schedule, pointing out the hot free agents or dispensing indispensable playoff advice. Instead, we're just going to let the Madness spread and take over the column for the week. And you're going to like it!
Let's pause for a second and think back to last year's tourney. What do you remember? Mario Chalmers' miracle three-pointer that led to Kansas' title? Or freshman sensation Derrick Rose's Memphis Tigers failing to close out the game from the free-throw line? Perhaps you recall another freshman, Kevin Love, alongside combo guard Russell Westbrook helping lead UCLA into the Final Four again? As much as you remember the teams -- and live and die with them and your brackets -- the true fantasy basketball fan is always scouting the players, pondering how they'll perform at the next level. And that, my friend, is what the Lab is here to help you do beginning this Thursday.
While the sample size of the NCAAs is small compared to the players' body of work for the season, the sheer intensity of the Big Dance and amount of attention afforded to each game of the tourney can provide a glimpse as to how a player will actually perform under the spotlight on the grander stage of the NBA. Between now and the draft in late June, each of these prospects will be picked apart: their game tape broken down, their height scrutinized, their individual workouts magnified and their stats quantified in ways you don't even know exist. While we're certainly partial to the latter part, they've got to pass the smell test first -- something that can be accomplished under the burning spotlight of the NCAA tournament.
Listed below are a group of potential first-round draft picks, sorted by position, whose teams are part of the Madness. The Lab will focus on certain categories where these projected first-rounders could prove useful next year, provided they declare for the draft (if they're underclassmen). While you pay special attention to these guys, try to focus on these categories as well as their makeup to see how their skill sets should translate to the NBA level. That will give you a leg up on the competition -- especially to those of you keeper leaguers -- in drafting the gems of the rookie class.
Jeff Teague, So., Wake Forest
More of a combo guard than a pure point, Teague is a lights out shooter who gets into the lane at will, drawing a ton of fouls in the process. At 6-foot-2, he'll need to play the one in the NBA, but his 48.4 FG%, 82.3 FT% and deadeye 44.6 3PT% should ease the transition. He dishes just 3.5 apg, but that number could increase as he won't have to shoot as much and can use his quickness to set up his teammates once in the lane. For now, he's among the leaders in getting to the line. The Lab is reminded a bit of Monta Ellis.
Ty Lawson, Jr., UNC
Dude is so fast and so quick -- the Lab hopes he's able to play. His toe injury not only slows him down, but it bogs down the whole team. Lawson should be the best pro on this squad, especially with the way he can lead an offense and a fast-paced one at that. He has 10-assist potential on the NBA level and is among the NCAA's best with 6.5 apg. He also uses his blinding quickness to score 15.9 ppg on a whopping 53.8 FG%, his third straight year north of 50 percent. What really has impressed scouts is that he's upped his 3PT% over 10 percentage points. Did we mention the sick 3.32 assist-to-turnover ratio or 2.0 steals a night? He can be an impact guard immediately on the next level.
Eric Maynor, Sr., VCU
Averaging 22.4 ppg on 46.6 percent including 81.7 percent from the foul line and 36 percent from deep (39 percent each of the two previous years). No doubt he's a scorer, but with 6.2 apg, he can pass it too. Add in 1.7 spg and Maynor could be a fun find for a late-drafting NBA team.
Willie Warren, Fr., Oklahoma
Some people are calling him the most impressive freshman in the country. Playing with Blake Griffin certainly helps, but Warren can hold his own and might bounce to the L with Griffin. He's managed to lead the team to a No. 2 seed and shouldered the scoring load in big games against Kansas and Texas without Griffin. He's a scoring PG in the Rodney Stuckey mold, but he can drain the three.
Jonny Flynn, So., Syracuse
Few people boosted their stock the way Flynn did in getting 'Cuse into the tourney. The Orange are in like Flynn! Third in the NCAA in dimes, Flynn averages 6.7 apg and has a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio. He also scores an impressive 17.5 ppg (33rd in the NCAA) and picks up 1.5 spg too. His 3-point shot needs work, but he's not shy about launching them -- 133 attempts in 35 games through the Big East tourney -- so 3PM leaguers take note.
Jrue Holliday, Fr., UCLA
A high-profile recruit heading into the year, Jrue has underwhelmed and could use more seasoning, but might make the leap based on potential. If he has an impressive tourney, it will be because he plays within himself and under control, leading his assists to be up and his turnovers to be down. He won't make an impact in the NBA next year though.
James Harden, So., Arizona St.
He's faded a bit in the second half of the season, so a big performance to get the team to the Sweet 16 or beyond would boost his stock. Still, he's incredibly talented to average 20.8 ppg on 50.2 FG%, 5.5 rpg, 4.2 apg and 1.7 spg with nearly two 3PM per game. The 3.4 turnovers is unsightly, but you can't help but like what you see when looking at the complete package.
Wayne Ellington, Jr., UNC
One of the more recognizable names on the list due to UNC's high profile, Ellington is NBA-bound due to his sugary sweet jumper and NBA three-point range. He also is very athletic and well-schooled in the fundamentals. Playing in the powerhouse ACC and always under the national spotlight, Ellington will be as ready to contribute immediately as anyone on this list -- he just might not be drafted as high. He has the potential to be a star in this tourney and have the Tar Heels still balling in April. His stock will rise, especially if he's draining contested threes, popping off for 20-plus points and doing all the little things to win games.
Gerald Henderson, Jr., Duke
A high-school teammate and close friend of the aforementioned Ellington, Henderson is every bit on pace to have his name called by David Stern in June. Capable of shouldering the scoring load for Duke while also providing veteran leadership, Henderson also could be an instant impact player on the pro level. His dad was a player so the groundwork has already been paved for what to expect. He won't dominate a category but is capable of contributing across the board like a do-it-all lead guard that the NBA loves.
Darren Collison, Sr., UCLA
A combo guard who will need to play point in the pros, Collison is the old man of the tourney and capable of being the most outstanding player -- if he can lead UCLA past Villanova in Philly in the second round. He's a sniper as a shooter; that's very attractive when also dropping 4.9 apg. Peep the percentages: 51.9 FG%, 91.4 FT%, and 39.4 3PT% (though he shot 44.7% and 52.5% from downtown in his two previous seasons). He's reminiscent of another Pac-10 undersized combo SG -- Jason Terry.
Tyreke Evans, Fr., Memphis
Uber-hyped for years, Evans seemed destined to be a one-and-done player after his one-year preps-to-pro tutelage under Coach Cal, but there's a chance he sticks around. More likely though, he'll have a few 20-point games and use his long frame to add some boards and steals as the Tigers tear through the flesh of their opponents on the way to the Final Four. He should become an NBA superstar, but the impact won't be significant during Year One because of his youth. Year Two is a whole different story.
Demar DeRozan, Fr., USC
After the O.J. Mayo experience last year, the Trojans have another diaper dandy on their hands with DeRozan. Oozing potential, DeRozan hasn't put it together as quickly as the hype would have had you believe. He's still a top prospect -- he did just dominate the Pac-10 Tourney as USC took the title -- who could seek a paycheck after the season, but he won't be the type to make a splash his rookie year.
James Anderson, So., Oklahoma St.
The sophomore scorer can light up the scoreboard, but he might not get past Tennessee to that marquee matchup with Pitt in the second round. Catch a glimpse if you can in Friday's opener.
Chase Budinger, Jr., Arizona
Thanks to his volleyball background, Budinger has some incredible hops that allow him plenty of space for his sweet jumper and makes him a strong rebounder for a wing player with 6.3 rpg. He's a talented outside shooter who has gone from 36.8 percent to 41 percent over his three seasons. He's probably lottery-bound and is capable of helping in points, threes, steals and boards if he plays guard.
Al-Farouq Aminu, Fr., Wake Forest
Still raw, but what an athlete. As a freshman in the ACC, he's averaging 12.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.2 bpg and 1.0 spg. Just 18 years old, his potential is through the roof and is a likely one-and-done candidate. It might take him a year or two to adjust, but if given some minutes or even a starting gig, he could pay dividends in the hustle and defensive categories (rebounds, steals, blocks) with his 7-foot-plus wingspan.
Terrence Williams, Sr., Louisville
A jack of all trades, Williams is the most versatile player in the NCAA and plays the Don Nelson-inspired point forward role for Pitino's squad. As the leader and elder statesman of the top-ranked team in the tourney, Williams will have an instant impact on the next level if given the opportunity. He needs a strong tourney -- a distinct possibility -- to move up from late first round to possibly late lottery. His lone Achilles' heel is his FT% (below 60 percent), but check the other numbers: 12.3 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 5.1 apg (from a forward), 2.5 spg (again, ridiculous) and 0.8 bpg. He also hits nearly 1.5 3pg.
Earl Clark, Jr., Lousiville
Clark has more of an impact on the court than he does statistically, which is one of the reasons Louisville is the top ranked team in the land and Clark is a rising prospect. He's shown improvement through the years and while he can attack the glass well (8.8 rpg), he has a great handle and dishes out 3.2 apg. Think of a Boris Diaw type player. He'll continue to improve but is probably a couple of years away from fantasy significance.
Sam Young, Sr., Pitt
Probably Pitt's top player in the tourney, Young is old for a college player now, but the experience should serve him well in the pros. A capable scorer averaging over 18 ppg for the second straight year, it's his ability to take over games that impresses most. Unless he can do that on the next level where there are better athletes, he'll have a tough time making an impact.
Blake Griffin, Jr., Oklahoma
The consensus No. 1 pick, Griffin has been an absolute beast this year. He already possesses an NBA body (a chiseled 6-10, 252 lbs.) and sharp basketball IQ making for a quick transition to the pro game. He averages 21.9 ppg and an NCAA-best 14.3 rpg to go along with 2.3 apg, 1.2 spg and 1.3 bpg. The steals and assists show his great hands and understanding for the game, not to mention his unselfishness, which leads to more minutes on the pro level. He also shoots 63.5 FG% while his lone weakness is his 59.1 FT%, a deterrent given the amount of times he gets to the stripe. With his hustle, the points, rebounds and steals will be plusses, while it's reasonable to assume a decrease in blocks and FG%, though it will still be useful. He's an impact player from the get-go who will thrive in the right situation.
Jordan Hill, Jr., Arizona
A top-five prospect, Hill's game has really ascended this year as he's been asked to play more minutes and handle more of the load. He's responded beautifully with averages of 18.5 ppg, 11.0 rpg, and 1.8 bpg. His FG% decreased as he shot more, but dropping from over 60 percent to 54 percent isn't a big deal. The Wildcats have dropped five of the last six games, so he'll need to show he can take over a game and lead his underdog team to the win. If he can do that, he's much more likely to be a featured offensive threat on his NBA team next year, especially if he does go top-five.
DeJuan Blair, So., Pitt
A wide-body, Blair is an undersized power forward in the way a 6-foot-7, 265-pound man is in the NBA. He's a ferocious rebounder, especially on the offensive glass (four games with 10-plus offensive boards), with a very wide wingspan that will help him at the next level. Don't expect him to carry over his 12.2 rpg pace, but he will be useful there, in FG% and steals for a PF. Pitt has a legit chance to win this whole thing -- Blair will be a big reason why.
James Johnson, So., Wake Forest
A 22-year-old sophomore, Johnson is old for his class and needs to declare after this year. With three projected first-rounders on Wake's roster, it will be hard for all of them to stand out so Johnson will have to do what he does best which is hit the glass, play defense (steals and blocks) and be a glorified garbage man.
Jarvis Varnado, Jr., Mississippi St.
We're not going to lie: Varnado is on the outside of the first round looking in. But a monster defensive performance in the tournament can change that. All you need to know is that over the last two seasons, he's averaged an NCAA-best 4.7 blocks per game in only 28.4 mpg. He's an instant category specialist and is already on the Lab's radar.
Hasheem Thabeet, Jr., UConn
Speaking of blocks, the 7-foot-3 Big East Co-POY is second in the NCAA in blocks with 4.6 per game. He also averages 10.9 rpg and shoots a whopping 64 percent from the field for 13.7 ppg. The free-throw shooting is ugly and the points probably won't translate nearly as well as the blocking and boarding will on the next level. Still, as an improving, mobile true center, he's someone to target.
Cole Aldrich, So., Kansas
There's a lot to love with Cole's stellar improvements in his sophomore campaign. With so much talent departed to the NBA from last year's championship squad, Cole was forced to play big minutes (29.4 compared to 8.3 as a frosh) and has delivered. He's averaging a double-double of 14.6 ppg and 10.6 rpg on 60.1 FG% and a very impressive 79.9 FT% for someone who shoots as many FTs as the 6-foot-11 center does. He's also swatting 2.4 shots per game. Look for the rebounds, FG% and blocks to translate. Points will depend on his role and that won't be his role for a couple of years.
BJ Mullens, Fr., Ohio St.
There's obviously a scarcity of talented true centers out there, so Mullens could come out this year with his potential to be a top tier NBA center down the road. Just don't expect much from the youngster if he's drafted. He's not ready to contribute outside of blocks, and it won't be enough to make him rosterable.
The Fantasy Lab hopes your brackets are winning ones. Best of luck with the Madness! Email email@example.com with any comments or questions. Let me know who I omitted. Any Taj Gibson fans out there? Fantasy Ball Above All.