March Madness is finally here, which means 2015's crop of rookies only has a handful of games left to prove their worth to NBA scouts. These clashes will be the most widely scrutinized games of these young players’ careers, as the NCAA tournament provides the biggest stage for prospects to improve their standing or tumble down draft boards.
You already know about top prospect Jahlil Okafor, the Duke frosh who has long been the odds-on favorite to go No. 1 overall in this summer’s NBA draft. The 6’11” center hasn’t done anything to lose that distinction, but there are a handful of other youngsters who will at least make that decision interesting for whichever team ends up choosing No. 1.
Here are some players who are hoping to improve their first-round value, along with a few entertaining standouts who are just hoping to land somewhere on the Big Board come draft day. Here are nine players to watch during March Madness:
Okafor’s potential challengers
Karl-Anthony Towns, freshman Kentucky center
Towns has scouts swooning over his measurements (7’4” wingspan, 9’5” reach) and athleticism (36.5-inch vertical jump) for a big man. His combination of rim protection, passing, ball-handling skills and overall athleticism makes him a very intriguing prospect, like a more dangerous version of Joakim Noah. Towns is pretty raw when it comes to offensive technique in the low post, but he’s still managed to use his natural touch near the rim to post a stellar conversion rate near the rim.
Note: You can hover over each zone to see a player’s shooting percentage and the NCAA average for that area.
Since Towns plays with a bevy of other NBA-ready players in Lexington, his per-game statistics (9.7 points, 6.7 rebounds in 20.7 minutes) aren’t overwhelming. But he’s wowed enough onlookers to make NBA scouts question whether Okafor really should be the top pick come June.
D’Angelo Russell, freshman Ohio State guard
This freshman phenom has been this season’s biggest riser while acting as Ohio State’s savior, leading the Buckeyes in points (19.3) and rebounds (5.6). Russell also claimed the title of being the highest-scoring freshman guard in the country this season.
Russell has the height (6’5”) to be a point guard or wing at the next level. Most NBA teams are likely viewing him as a point since Russell has shown superior court vision (5.1 assists per game) this season. He’ll have to take on what might be his toughest test yet from a distributor’s standpoint in VCU’s vaunted “Havoc” defense in the round of 64.
But if anyone can carry his team to the Sweet 16, it’s Russell. One NBA general manager told ESPN’s Chad Ford that the 19-year-old could end up being a “James Harden-type player.” Sounds like a ringing endorsement to me.
Stanley Johnson, freshman Arizona forward
Johnson won’t be selected in the draft before Okafor, but as one of the youngest prospects in this draft cycle (Johnson doesn’t turn 19 until late May), he might possess the highest ceiling of any future rookie.
Johnson’s shooting has exceeded expectations (36.6% from downtown), and he’s exhibiting the quickness and knack for rebounding that scouts already knew he possessed. Arizona has yet to reach the final weekend of the Big Dance since Lute Olson’s tenure ended, but this team seems like a decent bet to halt that streak. If Johnson gets a chance to show off his talents against Kentucky in the Final Four, it could do wonders for his draft stock.
Jerian Grant, senior Notre Dame guard
Notre Dame’s standout point guard is the older brother of 76ers small forward Jerami Grant, who inherited a bit more height and beat his relative to the NBA (Jerian missed the second half of last season due to academic issues).
Returning to Notre Dame was clearly the best choice for Grant, who routinely terrorized opponents with aggressive drives to the paint that usually resulted in lay-ups or foul shots. Grant sinks a whopping 69.2 percent of his attempts inside the restricted area, where he takes 40.2 percent of his shots.
Grant powered Notre Dame to the ACC championship this past weekend and won the tournament’s MVP award even though his shot wasn’t falling the entire weekend. Despite connecting on just 10 of 27 field goal attempts, Grant’s aggressiveness was rewarded with 31 trips to the charity stripe over three games. He sank all but three of those attempts.
Notre Dame hasn’t qualified for the Elite 8 since 1979, and haven’t made the Final Four since 1978. If Grant can help snap one or both of those droughts—which would likely require topping Arizona and Kentucky—he could easily go off the board in the first half of the first round.
Myles Turner, freshman Texas center
The Longhorns went from being a trendy Final Four preseason pick to being one of the last teams to get an at-large bid Sunday. Texas fields a ton of talent that hasn’t quite meshed, but perhaps they can concoct some sustainable on-court chemistry before their clash against No.6-seeded Butler on Thursday.
If the Longhorns do advance, it’ll likely be because Turner (with a team-leading 6.4 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 22.4 minutes per game) bullied the Bulldogs into submission. The freshman center makes 66.3% of his shots in the restricted zone, and doubles as the fulcrum of a defense that ranked second in the Big 12 with 60.4 points allowed per game. At 240 pounds, Turner will need to bulk up to do the same in the NBA, but it’s nice he’s showing the aptitude to anchor a stout defense right now.
Devin Booker, freshman Kentucky guard
A 6’6” shooting guard with impeccable form, Booker projects as a more athletic version of Kyle Korver. Booker catapulted himself into the top 15 of SI’s Big Board last month with his pinpoint shooting across the board. His shot chart is the type of thing analytical experts dream of, with high volume and conversion rates near the rim and in three-point range.
If you remember Kentucky’s thrilling tourney run last year, you’re probably expecting the Harrison twins to take the clutch shots for the title favorites. But don’t be surprised if Booker gets the majority of looks down the stretch for the Wildcats.
Big Board or bust
Georges Niang, junior Iowa State forward
Niang’s arrival at Iowa State has coincided with the school’s rise into the upper tier of the Big 12—the Cyclones wrestled their second straight Big 12 tournament championship from Kansas’ historical grip on Saturday. Niang is too small to play at his customary power forward spot in the NBA, but his proficiency from beyond the arc (40.2%) hints that he could morph into a rangy stretch four a la Draymond Green.
Last year, Niang broke his foot in the Cyclones’ opening round matchup against North Carolina Central, and Iowa State ended up losing in the Sweet 16 to eventual national champion UConn. This season they are once again a No. 3 seed, but look primed to go further as long as Niang avoids another injury.
Joseph Young, senior Oregon guard
If the Ducks are still dancing during the second weekend of the tournament, it’ll be because of Young, the Pac-12 Player of the Year (20.2 points per game). Oregon’s point guard racked up 74 points in three games to lead his squad to the conference tournament finals, but was contained in the championship game by Arizona.
Young’s unique strength lies in his mid-range shooting, as he’s sunk 53.8% of his shots around the elbows.
He isn’t always very efficient, but the dominant ball-handler and shooter in Oregon’s run-and-gun offense is supposed to play hyper aggressive. With better teammates around him, Young could blossom if given a chance on the next level.
Larry Nance Jr., senior Wyoming forward
The son of the three-time All-Star and Slam Dunk Contest champion (Nance Jr. can throw down, too), is the star of the Cowboys squad that stole a bid by winning the Mountain West tournament. Wyoming might have qualified for an at-large bid if Nance Jr. hadn’t been struck by mononucleosis in the midst of conference play, which sidelined him for four games and seemed to affect him for several more curious losses in late February.
You should be happy that the Cowboys saddled up and won their conference tournament (in which Nance Jr. was on the floor for 123 of a possible 125 minutes), because it gives their senior stud more time to showcase his talent against elite competition. If Wyoming is to prevail in a tantalizing 5-12 matchup against defensive-minded Northern Iowa, Nance Jr. will have to be the player who leads the charge and prove that he has the talent to follow in his father’s footsteps to the NBA.
More from Will Laws:
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