If the first weekend of the NCAA tournament felt like an eternity to you, you’re not alone. While a shocking number of upsets led to the elimination of many top NBA prospects, there’s still plenty of action left to watch and intriguing players on scouts’ radars. Though teams aren’t judging guys off of one or two great games, March can be extremely valuable when it comes to perception, and being seen by the right team at the right time can make a big difference.
Without any intense overreactions after the first weekend of March Madness, here are three players who helped themselves and three who didn’t.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky, Freshman
Height: 6'6" | Weight: 180 | Age: 19
There’s arguably no prospect who’s had a more individually impressive last two weeks than Gilgeous-Alexander, who led Kentucky to an SEC tournament title and wins over Davidson and Buffalo to make the Sweet 16. Back in November, he looked tentative and unprepared to run a team. Now John Calipari can’t afford to take him off the floor. His arc has been a total sea change: over his last 10 games dating back to Feb. 17, he’s averaging 18.1 points, 5.2 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 1.7 steals and just 2.3 turnovers, while shooting 51.2% from the field and making 11–21 attempts from three-point range. His stellar play predates the tournament, and to be fair, slicing up lesser opponents out in Boise this week should have been expected. There’s a sneaky case for the 19-year-old as the most intriguing point guard prospect in the draft, and at the very least a lottery-caliber talent.
Where Trae Young and Collin Sexton thrive off scoring the ball, and within systems that play heavily through them, Gilgeous-Alexander’s patient game sits on the opposite end of the spectrum. At 6’6”, he plays a unique, unselfish brand of offense centered on his innate ability to change speeds and directions with the ball in his hands. He’s become more aggressive going to the rim, where his long strides and ability to find gaps in the defense help split the difference with his lack of explosiveness. Though his jump shot is still in question, it doesn’t hurt that he’s been making them, and quality free throw numbers help support his case to sustain a productive clip from three long-term. A Final Four run could be in the cards for Kentucky, which faces Kansas State on Thursday and as the No. 5 seed is the highest-ranked team left in the South Regional. Each win is another opportunity for Gilgeous-Alexander to keep it rolling.
Zhaire Smith, SG, Texas Tech, Freshman
Height: 6'5" | Weight: 195 | Age: 18
Smith was an unknown recruit when he arrived at Texas Tech as a freshman last year. Now, he’s firmly on the NBA radar, turning heads over the course of the season with his athletic feats and disruptive defense. He’s an essential piece for the Red Raiders, and after posting 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in a win over Florida, Smith is forcing the issue a little bit when it comes to his draft case. Right now he’d probably be an early second-round selection. Stranger things have gone down thanks to the glare of March.
Though he’s certain to be a project if he comes out and needs time to develop his offensive skills and defensive technique, there’s something to be said for players turning pro when their athletic upside effectively eclipses the worth of the sample size (read: how long) teams have to figure them out. Smith’s main tools are his explosiveness and instincts for blocking shots and creating turnovers. He struggles to create his own looks off the dribble and is almost entirely reliant on teammates. He turns 19 later this year and has barely played high-level basketball. But think about Hamidou Diallo, who stayed at Kentucky last season instead of leaving for a likely late first-round selection, returned to school and got exposed. For Smith’s actual development, it’s probably good for him to stay in school, but for his draft stock, it could break either way. The Sweet 16 is another chase for him to showcase his upside.
Zach Norvell, SG, Gonzaga, Freshman
Height: 6'5" | Weight: 205 | Age: 20
After Norvell redshirted last year, it became apparent early this season that the 6’5” freshman sharpshooter is far and away the most talented member of Gonzaga’s backcourt. And while he should be considered a name for the 2019 draft and beyond, his late-game heroics against UNC-Greensboro and a ridiculous 28-point, 12-rebound line while playing 39 minutes against Ohio State haven’t gone unnoticed. The Chicago native has come a long way in a short period of time, and brings essential dimensions of floor-spacing, athleticism and toughness for the Bulldogs.
Gonzaga runs an egalitarian style of offense, but shots have gravitated toward Norvell, who has a sweet lefthanded stroke, can attack closeouts off the dribble and is especially dangerous off the catch when the play swings back to him on the weak side. He’s got a projectable body and can function with or without the ball in his hands. Don’t heap massive expectations on him too soon, but keep an eye on him as the spotlight increases. Between Norvell, Rui Hachimura and Killian Tillie, the Zags have a solid trio.
Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma, Freshman
Height: 6'2" | Weight: 180 | Age: 19
Young actually played fine in Oklahoma’s first-round loss to Rhode Island, but as Jake Fischer detailed last week, the NBA’s perception of his potential is a departure from what the court of public opinion has suggested all season. He had an unspectacular February, which was predictable as Big 12 teams got second looks at him and gameplanned to take him out of his comfort zone. But the NBA is asking other questions, too. How much of his late-season swoon was due to the physical rigors of the season? Can his slight build handle that? There were also times he appeared to check out mentally. The mid-to-late lottery feels about right for Young, who’s now in competition with Sexton and Gilgeous-Alexander to be the first point guard drafted. Don’t obsess over the lows, but consider what it might take to replicate his peak production, and the situation is a bit more complicated.
Michael Porter Jr., SF, Missouri, Freshman
Height: 6'10" | Weight: 215 | Age: 19
To be clear, we’re not piling on Porter Jr. for wanting to come back and close out the season. It’s nice that he cares, and the move may not impact his draft slot much at all. But most expected him to return sluggish and out of shape, and that’s exactly what happened. He managed 16 points against Florida State in an early tournament exit, but didn’t look mobile at all and shot just 4-12 from the floor, though he did grab 10 rebounds. It’s less about the numbers than the fact that some of his weaknesses were laid bare. He has a bit of a loose handle, isn’t exceptionally explosive and doesn’t play a ton of defense—and all those things were true pre-injury. The cat is out of the bag in terms of where he’s at, and it’s fair to expect his individual workouts to be carefully curated after we know the lottery order. All 30 teams have now seen what the situation is, and some are skeptical as to why he’d even risk his health. Maybe none of this matters. But the overall level of doubt doesn’t feel promising.
Allonzo Trier, SG, Arizona, Junior
Height: 6'5" | Weight: 205 | Age: 21
NBA scouts are by and large way down on Trier, who despite his impressive efficiency and shooting splits managed to hurt himself this season by failing to re-orient his selfish style of play. Trier shot 62% on twos, 38% on threes and 86% from the stripe, and while he tallied up assists, they often came as a byproduct of game flow rather than any degree-of-difficulty creation for others. His bad habits were on full display in Arizona’s shocking loss to Buffalo, as he opted to chuck threes and stop the ball on many occasions and failed to make a positive impact. If he wants to play like that in the NBA, his window of opportunity will shut quickly. One bad game can’t break a player, but it can certainly reinforce opinion over their shortcomings.