- Ja Morant is the biggest name, but he isn't the only under-the-radar NBA prospect to keep an eye on in small conference tournaments this week.
Conference tournament play tips off across the country this week, and if that totally crept up on you, that’s probably because the smaller conferences go first. In that case, this might be helpful. Most of the schools fighting for their league’s respective NCAA tournament bids aren’t NBA factories, but it won’t stop proactive teams from turning over every stone. Naturally, holding competitive games with stakes at one site makes for a good one-stop shop for scouts.
If you’re inclined to catch some of the under-the-radar action this week (or just want to watch Ja Morant), here’s what you need to know—and who you need to watch—from now through Sunday.
Ja Morant, Murray State | Sophomore
When to watch: Friday, 10 p.m. ET (Ohio Valley semifinal)
At long last, Ja Morant’s hype has come to precede him, and he will have fully earned his status as a likely top-five selection in June. By our estimation, he is the second-best prospect in the draft. However, that doesn’t mean he has nothing to gain over the final stretch of the season, beginning with Murray State’s Ohio Valley tournament opener on Friday night. A flock of NBA executives and scouts will be in attendance to catch what could be their final glimpse of him: Murray State’s at-large résumé won’t be strong enough to get them in the tournament, and they’ll likely have to win a pair of games in Evansville to seal their second straight NCAA bid.
If you’re not fully familiar, what Morant has done this year (he can finish as the first college player to average north of 20 points and 10 assists for an entire season) is absolutely legitimate. This is not a fluke. He’s set himself apart as the top guard prospect in the draft by taking over games with his playmaking ability as much as his athleticism, and might be the closest thing we’ve seen to a young Rajon Rondo (minus the attitude). Morant can get wherever he wants with his handle and quickness, and exploit almost any angle as an ambidextrous passer. His jumper is coming along. In a draft lottery mostly bereft of inspiring talent, Morant shines, and now is a good time—really, your last chance—to jump on the bandwagon before he makes the NBA leap.
For Morant, the rest of the season is simply about taking advantage of the increased visibility—early-season showcases against Alabama and Auburn drew strong NBA contingents, but this is a big stage for him to display the qualities that could make him a star. If Murray State makes it into the tournament, it should have an opportunity to pull a first-round upset. In essence, at this point, those who are already sold on Morant aren’t changing their minds, but he has a big opportunity to keep winning decision-makers over. If all breaks well, he should be in strong consideration to go second overall.
Chris Clemons, Campbell | Senior
When to watch: Thursday, 6 p.m. ET (Big South quarterfinal)
If you haven’t paid much attention to college basketball this season, you probably missed the fact that one of its most prolific scorers ever is on the verge of a vaunted 30 PPG season. The 5’9” Clemons, in addition to being top 10 in NCAA history in points scored, is a legitimate NBA prospect and strong candidate for a two-way contract (and perhaps a dark horse second-rounder). He’s explosive, tough, and occasionally gives off shades of Nate Robinson, who is probably his most direct NBA forebear at this point. It’s worth tuning in as often as possible to see Clemons chase 30 every night, and to try and envision him playing with NBA talent in a more wide-open system.
Dylan Windler, Belmont | Senior
When to watch: Friday, 8 p.m. ET (Ohio Valley semifinal)
A centerpiece of the very good Belmont team that is Murray State’s primary rival for a tournament berth, Windler is a consistent catch-and-shoot threat with good size for a complementary forward at 6’8”. He won’t be a guy who creates his own offense often at the next level, but he knows how to operate without the ball and could challenge for a roster spot. The central concerns with him are physicality and whether he can keep up with athletic threes and fours. Belmont is good enough to play spoiler going forward, and it'll need him at his best.
Milik Yarbrough, Illinois State | Senior
When to watch: Thursday, 9:35 p.m. ET (Missouri Valley first round)
This was not a banner year for Illinois State, but Yarbrough remains an intriguing sleeper, though unlikely to be drafted given he’s 23. He’s physical, tough, can initiate offense and facilitate a bit, and has shown enough shooting ability to think he can at least keep defenses honest. Whether he can adjust to an off-ball role is fair to question, but his ability to slash downhill and keep up defensively at his size is still somewhat interesting. If Illinois State bows out early, he’s a likely Portsmouth invitee and will need to take advantage of that opportunity.
Mike Daum, South Dakota State | Senior
When to watch: Saturday, 7 p.m. ET (Big South quarterfinal)
As far as big-time college scorers go, Daum is right on Clemons’ heels, following him into the 3000-point club while being, essentially, his polar opposite. As a 6’9” big with legit inside-out game, Daum has enough offensive chops to give himself a chance to compensate for slow feet on defense. For players with his profile, being a legit floor-spacer is pivotal, and his ability to catch and shoot or post up smaller defenders is something to hang his hat on. Daum is efficient, skilled, and has led the Jackrabbits to three NCAA bids in three years. He can make it four this week. He’s unlikely to be drafted, but will have interest on the free-agent market.
Justin Wright-Foreman, Hofstra | Senior
When to watch: Sunday, noon ET (CAA quarterfinal)
Hofstra won the Colonial’s regular-season bid on the strength of its star guard, who put together a career year scoring the ball and has drawn regular visits from interested teams. While the deck is still stacked against him a bit as a ball-dominant, 6’2” shoot-first player, his numbers and incredible efficiency using screens are worth noting. He’s going to have to play his way in through the back door, but deserves to be taken seriously and could benefit from carrying Hofstra into the big dance.
Jalen Pickett, Siena | Freshman
When to watch: Saturday, 9:30 p.m. (MAAC quarterfinal)
Pickett is still more curiosity than prospect in the eyes of the NBA, and a player whose numbers tell the story of his effectiveness better than the eye test. But he’s done enough to become someone who, at the very least, is forcing teams to do their diligence. Nothing about his game is particularly pretty, but after putting up impressive assist totals and immediately becoming one of the top players in his conference, Pickett might be the type of player who could break out further over the next year. It’s hard to do what he’s doing no matter what level you’re playing at.