NCAA Tournament: Which NBA Prospects Are Shining In March?
- With big name prospects headed home, the NBA draft picture has started to crystalize. More importantly, those absences open the door for less-heralded prospects.
You’re probably well aware the second week of March Madness is upon us, and an exciting weekend of games is already in the bag. Duke, Villanova and Louisville headed home, and a number of sneaky prospects have chipped in with big performances in the first two rounds. The draft picture starts crystallizing this week, as top underclassmen begin to make decisions on their pro futures (likely lottery pick Robert Williams is headed back to Texas A&M, most notably).
Beyond the obvious lottery conversation, the strength of this draft is its depth: there are more quality prospects than we’ve seen in the last few classes, stretching all the way down through the second round. After one weekend of games, here are some of the less-heralded pro prospects who stood out, many of whom will be active in the Sweet 16 and beyond.
Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
Swanigan’s had the Boilermakers on his back all season, and the early rounds were no different: in matchups with Vermont and Iowa State, the big fella totaled 36 points and 36 rebounds to lift Purdue into the Sweet 16. His soft hands, distance shooting, passing ability and strong instincts on the glass have been fully on display, and after a full season of elite production with his slimmed-down figure, Swanigan has solidified himself as a talent worthy of first-round consideration.
His NBA length helps offset his height as a power forward. Proving to scouts he can keep the weight off will be critical, but with his work ethic and the impressive strides he’s already made, he looks like a guy worth betting on. With a massive matchup against Kansas on the docket, Swanigan can take advantage of the Jayhawks’ interior defense and send another message. After declaring, returning to college last spring and making serious strides, expect the sophomore to enter his name in the draft pool again—and for real this time.
Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina
The SEC Player of the Year has been one of the stars of the tourney thus far, a dynamo on both ends who gave Duke fits in an upset Gamecocks win. Thornwell possesses ideal size and length for an NBA shooting guard and his team feeds off of his toughness. He dropped 29 on Marquette (with 11 boards and three steals) and 24 on Duke (plus six rebounds and five assists), and has come on strong as one of the better seniors around.
He’s been doing this all season, and were it not for his relatively advanced age (he’ll be 23 in November), would surely have received more credit. South Carolina has a legitimate chance at a Final Four run, and Thornwell’s tenacity makes them one of the more fun teams left in the tourney. He looks well-suited for an NBA role down the line.
DJ Wilson, Michigan
Standing 6’10” with high-level athleticism, Wilson has been a sneaky sleeper prospect all season. He’s got NBA-level physical attributes, a nice shooting stroke and the ability to attack the basket as a secondary option. He’s a solid defender and an intriguing bundle of potential with ability that will put him in the late first round on some boards. His output was up and down all year, but 26 points against Purdue in the Big Ten tourney and a pair of strong tournament games have pushed his case as a prospect. One team executive I spoke with earlier this season suggested Wilson would benefit from another year of school, and returning for another year could put him squarely in next year’s first round with his gifts. But as a redshirt sophomore who recently turned 21, he ought to take a hard look after this season.
Moritz Wagner, Michigan
Michigan’s other star big man has been the German-born Wagner, a 6'11" sophomore who was the key figure in an upset over Louisville with 26 hard-earned points. If you’ve been tracking him closely over the back end of the season, Wagner’s growth goes beyond that breakout game—he’s an extremely difficult matchup who can put the ball on the floor, shoot it and attack mismatches at the college level. He’s more of a pure scorer than Wilson, and there’s something to be said for his poor rebounding numbers, but he’s clearly on the draft radar and will get looks as high as the back of the first round if he comes out.
Rawle Alkins, Arizona
Alkins has been Arizona’s unsung hero this season, coming in as a lesser-heralded member of a star-laden freshman class, stepping up as a starter during Allonzo Trier’s lengthy suspension and winding up as an essential crunch-time piece for Sean Miller’s Wildcats. Alkins scored 20 points on perfect 8–8 shooting in his first tourney game, and competed after dislocating a finger on his shooting to make critical plays as Arizona held off St. Mary’s. He’s been a willing role player all season long, working the glass, playing defense and rarely forcing a shot.
Alkins's strong frame at 6’5” earned Lance Stephenson comparisons during his high school years in Brooklyn, but he comes with none of that baggage. Although it’s yet to be seen how the finger injury will affect his shooting during the tournament, a couple big games could further boost his NBA case if he decides to test the waters. With Kobi Simmons potentially off to the pros, another year with Trier could allow Alkins to showcase his considerable scoring chops and play his way up draft boards.
Zach Collins, Gonzaga
Although Collins is far from an unsung prospect (he clocked in at 14 on our latest Big Board), he’s made the most of his minutes behind Przemek Karnowski in Gonzaga’s two tourney wins, particularly on the defensive end. Collins has totaled seven blocks in two games and efficiently managed double figures logging 21 minutes in both. His two-way potential and elite skill level for a 7-foot freshman make him a clear first-round candidate if he comes out this season.
Collins may not be a Top 10 pick in this class, but with a full offensive workload next season, his production should take a major leap. As teams gameplan to keep Karnowski off the floor, a Gonzaga Final Four run could make Collins’s case even more interesting.
Wesley Iwundu, Kansas State
Versatile wings like Iwundu are critical roster currency in today’s NBA, and he capped off a quality four-year career at K-State with two strong showings against Wake Forest and Cincinnati. He’s a legit point forward who excels working in pick and roll situations, often serving as his team’s main shot creator in big situations. At 6’8”, Iwundu’s length should allow him to defend both wing spots and potentially power forwards at the NBA level, and he successfully addressed questions about his three-point shooting after adjusting his mechanics to shoot a career high 37% from deep this season. He’s the type of player that can fill out a rotation early in his career, and will be part of late first or early second round conversations.
Ethan Happ, Wisconsin
The redshirt sophomore has quietly—emphasis on quietly—been one of the better players in the country all season, serving as a steadying force for an inconsistent Wisconsin squad that has rounded into form this month. Happ does a little bit of everything, scoring expertly around the basket, rebounding well and playing dynamic defense at 6’10”—he racks up steals and blocks, switches comfortably and looks like a natural on that end. He’s got great feet and an extremely level on-court demeanor. Per-40 minutes pace-adjusted, his overall production has been astounding (21.4 points, 14.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.9 blocks). A lack of perimeter shooting is the only major hole in his skill set right now. He’s one to take seriously.
Chimezie Metu, USC
Metu has passed the eye test all season with his length, bounce and jump shooting potential as a power forward. He averaged 19 points across in USC’s three tournament wins, dropping 28 against Baylor and impacting games with his energy. Scouts are wary of his court awareness and thin build, but he’s certainly on the map and could be a first-round type prospect if he returns for his junior year.
Landry Shamet, Wichita State
Wichita State nearly knocked off Kentucky, and the plucky Shamet was the main reason why. The 6'4" redshirt freshman wowed with his shot-making ability, hitting tough threes off the bounce, competing with De'Aaron Fox for much of the game and looking like he belonged. His toughness, size and slipperiness on the perimeter make him a tough cover and a player to follow. Wichita’s success producing Ron Baker and Fred Van Vleet sets a nice precedent here.