Although history has mostly proven it’s best not to overreact to what happens in March when it comes to the NBA draft, this year’s men’s NCAA tournament has been a uniquely convenient opportunity to evaluate college prospects. A wide range of key players expected to be draft-eligible were in action across six different Indiana sites during the first weekend of the tournament. A small, but substantial complement of NBA executives and scouts were in and out of Indy to lay eyes on many prospects in person for the first time this season, with pandemic conditions impacting how teams have approached travel.
I was also in attendance, taking in 14 games over the course of five days and getting a much better feel for players and teams. As always, a number of prospects made early exits. Here are the most notable developments as far as the draft is concerned.
Evan Mobley, USC
Rest assured, Mobley has been a hot topic in NBA circles after the Trojans whomped Kansas on Monday night. After attending both USC wins (they also beat Drake comfortably in the first round), I think there’s a strong argument to be had that the 7' 0" Mobley has been the single most impactful player in the tournament so far. His immense wingspan and standing reach (previously listed at 7' 4" and 9' 0”), instinctive timing, quick hands and above-average athleticism combine to make him the single most impressive college shot-blocker since Anthony Davis. Mobley has not been viewed as the favorite for the No. 1 pick this season, and Cade Cunningham still holds the mantle, at least for now. But the key development from the weekend is that Mobley is now doing pretty much everything he can force the issue. If there’s a pathway for him to be the No. 1 pick, this is probably what it looks like.
Playing on the West Coast and outside of user-friendly TV windows has diminished some of Mobley’s broader appeal this season, but his rim protection skills and expanding offensive skill set are the primary reasons the Trojans are 24-7, and headed to the Sweet 16. They boast Ken Pomeroy’s fifth-rated defense and hold opponents to a mere 41.4% shooting on two-pointers, which covers for bouts of ugly offense and average guard play. They made a ton of shots against Kansas, which may be a one-time deal, but Mobley’s presence all but ensures their games will be competitive.
Mobley is massively impactful guarding the paint, with his combination of length, smarts, and quick feet enabling him to essentially erase entire portions of the floor for opposing shooters. He’s also been nearly impossible to get in foul trouble, finishing just two games with four fouls and never fouling out—a legitimately prodigious achievement for a 19-year-old shot-blocker. Mobley already understands how to use his own verticality: not only does he contest shots and erase space with his length and quick feet in rotations, but he’s learned that instead of making plays on opponents’ release points, he can simply wait for the ball to leave their hand and still swat it on the way up much of the time. Although he weighs only 215 pounds and needs to add core strength and fill out his narrow build a bit further, Mobley’s technique is so advanced that it’s hard to hold much concern over physical translation.
On offense, Mobley’s versatility is his primary calling card, and it’s a meaningful one. He could be a more assertive scorer at times, but he’s skilled enough to play all over the floor. Mobley can handle, pass, and shoot, with room for added growth in all three areas. One big takeaway from the Kansas game is that Mobley should eventually be able to punish switches in the NBA, a critical piece of the eval given his body type and high center of gravity. The undersized and undermanned Jayhawks tried to defend him with 6' 5” Marcus Garrett for much of the game, hoping Garrett could get underneath his handle and make a difference. Mobley has the composure to pass out of double teams, and a reliable hook shot that allows him to finish directly over most opponents. NBA teams think he’ll shoot threes just fine.
As a 7-footer who can play the four or five and pose danger as a face-up threat, spacer, screener, roller and playmaker (and couple it with elite defense), Mobley is a pretty special prospect. He has a chance at being a real offensive fulcrum, in a sense that recent blue-chip bigs like Deandre Ayton and James Wiseman likely do not. The odds of him evolving into a Nikola Jokic or Joel Embiid-type scorer aren’t likely, but eventual usage patterns in the vein of LaMarcus Aldridge, or Chris Bosh look more realistic. Mobley is a quiet personality on and off the floor, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for a lack of motor, and it’s evident the Trojans follow his lead.
From my perspective, Mobley now sits as the 1B to Cunningham’s 1A—I haven’t changed my mind on that front, but it’s a conversation teams are having, and there’s confidence in both prospects having stellar NBA careers, barring the unexpected. USC will face familiar opponent Oregon in the Sweet 16, and if they win, it’ll likely be title favorite Gonzaga. It’s hard to think of a better stage for Mobley than that matchup.
Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
Cunningham and the Cowboys were ousted by a red-hot Oregon State team on Saturday, ending hopes of a dark-horse Final Four run that briefly looked very real after Illinois lost to Loyola. Oklahoma State was down big at halftime, cut the lead to three, and lost after some bad shot selection late in the game. I was in attendance, and frankly, the Beavers were the stronger team. It was certainly disappointing to see Oklahoma State drop a winnable game, but it was also an invaluable opportunity to gain an understanding of Cunningham’s specific team context.
Statistically speaking, Cunningham was not at his best against Oregon State or Liberty, shooting a combined 3-15 from the field on two-pointers, 6-19 from three, and recording four assists to five turnovers. (On the bright side, he did collect seven steals.) But ultimately, the popular narrative that Cunningham simply did not have much help is mostly correct, as well as the fact that Oklahoma State was among the least experienced teams in the tournament. The fact they didn’t advance is a missed opportunity for Cunningham, but also isn’t some glaring stain in his ledger—after all, the Cowboys far surpassed most people’s preseason expectations.
In the end, NBA teams should understand that Cunningham’s immense basketball IQ and unusual level of maturity, calm and selflessness at a young age bodes extremely well for him long-term. I was impressed with the way he treated his teammates, and his unflinching in-game focus was a tone-setting factor in the Cowboys’ ability to mount a comeback against Oregon State in the first place.The Cowboys lacked consistent shooting in their role player corps, as well as a big with strong screening acumen to play a dangerous two-man game with Cunningham. Imagine Cunningham manipulating defenses with a steady diet of spread pick-and-roll opportunities in the NBA, and it’s hard not to envision that being a good place to hitch your attack. His turnovers have been a concern, but there’s also more to his game than we saw in college.
Mentally, Cunningham remains as unshakable a one-and-done freshman as I’ve seen in the last 10 years. That counts for something. He wore a target on his back all season from opposing defenses, and ultimately has done enough to hold the No. 1 spot. The Luka Dončić comparisons should stop—frankly, there won’t be another Dončić—but Cunningham’s size, shooting and playmaking ability could place him among the NBA’s better guards in relatively short order.
Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
While Suggs remains all but certain to be among the first five players drafted, he has not been particularly good in the tournament thus far, shooting 1-of-9 from three and recording eight turnovers to just five assists in Gonzaga’s two wins. But it was useful to see him play in person against Oklahoma and get a sense of his physicality, which has made him one of the most dangerous downhill guards in college basketball at 6’ 4”. Suggs is particularly explosive in small spaces, and his ability to attack defenders’ bodies off the dribble and finish above the rim should translate. He’s a good playmaker, but much better in transition than in the halfcourt, where he’s still learning to manipulate defenses and really run the team.
Suggs’ shooting splits have leveled out a bit after a hot start to the season, but that was to be expected. And even if he’s an average three-point shooter, he should add plenty of value on the defensive end, where he can cover more ground with less effort than most athletes his size. Some view him as more of a super role-player than as a high-usage star, but his floor remains high. Attending Gonzaga has made Suggs’ adjustment to the college game much easier. Surefire first-rounder Corey Kispert and sneaky-good Joel Ayayi can dictate perimeter flow and specialize away from the ball. Sure-handed Drew Timme, who lacks an NBA body but has big-time skill, is often their first read and a failsafe inside. Suggs has done a good job learning on the fly, even if his stats don’t always reflect that.
At this point, teams feel comfortable with what Suggs brings to the table—for many scouts I’ve spoken with, it feels like simply a matter of preference between him, Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga, who have settled in as the likely selections in the 3-to-5 range of the draft. If Gonzaga runs the table and wins the title, it certainly can’t hurt him.
Kai Jones, Texas
Despite Texas’s shocking first round loss to Abilene Christian, Jones has been one of the biggest risers in college hoops this season, to the point where there’s now a very real chance he’s the second big off the board after Evan Mobley. The 6' 11" Bahamian now projects to land in the lottery, and is shaping up as one of the more polarizing topics of discussion across NBA front offices. Jones’s upside is undeniable, as he moves with exceptional fluidity for his size, has been much more efficient this season, and ideally profiles as a big who can block shots and make open threes. His frame has filled out a bit, and he’s learned to play with more consistent energy. If you’re making the upside argument, Jones belongs near the top of the draft.
There’s still a lot of trepidation here, though. The sense I get is that NBA teams view Jones as a high-risk, high-reward prospect who will require a patient organization not just to maximize his potential, but to get him to the point where he can play positive rotation minutes as a baseline. Jones will turn 21 during his rookie year, so he’s a bit older than your typical toolsy project big. He’ll get pushed around a bit early in his career, and he doesn’t have much to hang his hat on in terms of role utility yet beyond playing hard and seeing what happens. The scouts I’ve discussed him with have framed this as a situation where they felt a team would take a chance on him early in the draft, but that it preferably wouldn’t be their own.
The range of outcomes here is seriously wide, and the recent track record with Texas bigs in the NBA has been mixed, but Jones looks like he’s going to be the next one. He’s surpassed teammate Greg Brown (who looks like an even bigger project) at this point. But the higher you draft Jones, the harder it will be to justify sticking him in the G League to develop as a rookie. That might be what he needs.
Keon Johnson, Tennessee
Tennessee was also hit by the upset bug, running into the unexpected Oregon State buzzsaw while trying to function absent their only true big, senior center John Fulkerson. But the feedback I’ve gotten on Johnson has been especially positive of late, following a strong pair of games in the SEC tournament and another mostly solid showing in the tourney loss. His combination of explosive run-jump athleticism, nonstop motor, and willingness to force turnovers and win 50-50 balls has won a lot of people over, despite a highly inconsistent three-point shot. Johnson is a hard player to not like on an intrinsic level, given his commitment to the small things and the complete lack of pretension he plays with. It’s easier to overlook his flaws when he’s flying all over the court and making things happen. He has enough basic feel and skill to be classified as more than just an athlete on the wing. When playing aggressive, he gets downhill more often than not.
We’ve projected Johnson in the lottery all season, but the question of exactly where he fits into that hierarchy is still a bit up in the air. The shooting issues will turn some people off, but organizations looking to inject a defensive mentality will have to look hard at him. Johnson is listed at 6' 5" and has a narrow, lithe body type. He’s tall enough for his athletic ability to play up, but may not pack on a ton of weight. Johnson should be a plus defending guards on the perimeter, but it’s not necessarily likely he’ll be able to physically battle with big, star wings or switch onto forwards. He’s comfortable scoring in the midrange already, and if you think he figures out how to extend his range consistently, then there's a high ceiling here. Scouts seem to widely prefer Johnson to teammate Jaden Springer, whose status as a projected first rounder is on shaky ground at the moment.
Moses Moody, Arkansas
Give Moody his credit as one of the few one-and-done prospects still alive in the dance, and the most consistent performer on an Arkansas team that grinds out games by committee. He’s not a jaw-dropping athlete, and can fade in and out of games, but he’s been quite steady all season and has earned a spot in the top half of the first round. Moody has yet to have a scorching performance in the tourney, but recent outbursts against LSU, Texas A&M and South Carolina (three poor defensive teams, to be fair) point to the type of shot-making upside the 18-year-old has to offer. Noting that Arkansas draws upstart, defensively allergic Oral Roberts in the Sweet 16, one of those big, flashy games could be on tap.
While most of Moody’s value lies in his ability to hit shots from all over the floor, he also flashed some good auxiliary skills against Texas Tech, where he turned things up in the second half defensively, committed harder on the glass, and helped guide Arkansas to a tight win. Moody is highly efficient for a player his age, particularly one whose shot selection centers so heavily around his jump shot. His game isn’t flashy, but continuing to make shots and defend his position will further solidify his place in the lottery.
Cam Thomas, LSU
While not every scout appreciates what Thomas brings to the table aesthetically, launching shots from all corner of the floor with zero conscience, at this point it’s difficult to ignore his sheer ability as a scorer. Thomas has a strong frame, knows how to draw fouls, and while streaky, he’s shown the ability to make a lot of the difficult shots he takes. Will Wade gave him the green light, and he ran with it. While Thomas finished the season shooting just 44% on twos and 32% on threes, his 88% clip from the foul line on heavy volume points to the consistency of his release.
The primary risk here, based on his long history as a player, is that Thomas never commits to better shot selection. The secondary issue is his frequent unwillingness to share the ball. Until those two things happen, it’s hard to see him really elevating his game. He didn’t show enough flashes in either area to inspire a ton of confidence. Thomas is dangerous and crafty enough that teams may be able to run actions for him early in his career, but he’d be so much better if he were a consistent threat to make the right pass once he draws defenses. There’s not really a venue left for him to show that between now and the draft, unfortunately. Regardless, he’s done more than enough to justify taking a chance in the first round, particularly relative to many of the other, more hyped players in his high school class.
Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois
One of the biggest shockers of the weekend was Dosunmu and the Illini meeting a bitter end against Loyola Chicago in the second round of the tournament. Without harping on the disappointment too much, this was a missed opportunity for Dosunmu to make a statement, and he scored just nine points and turned the ball over six times in that loss. He made inroads toward the first round with a strong season, carrying Illinois to a No. 1 seed and a Big Ten tourney title, but that type of exit has to leave a little bit of a bad taste for those who were already skeptical.
Dosunmu has great size for his position, and flashed improved playmaking skills this season while also improving his percentages from the three-point and foul lines. He can finish under duress and has added to his game each year. Unfortunately, Dosunmu’s jumper still escapes him at times, he struggles to create separation at times and can be turnover prone, making it hard to view him as a full-time point guard in the NBA. His block and steal rates have been underwhelming for a guy with his body type, and he’s not a defensive-minded player in the truest sense. The Illinois offense tended to hum a bit better with Andre Curbelo bringing the ball up and Dosunmu playing off. He still has a shot at the first round, but it’s not a guarantee.
Miles McBride, West Virginia
Though West Virginia fell to Syracuse in the second round, I was on hand for McBride’s 30-point, six-assist, no-turnover performance against Morehead State. While that was kind of to be expected given the matchup, I came away with a much better feel for him as a player. As a 20-year-old sophomore, McBride plays with an advanced level of maturity and competitiveness, and it was helpful to see him play on the same day as peers like Tennessee’s Jaden Springer and Florida’s Tre Mann, for visual context.
McBride is a heady, athletic defender, decent playmaker and capable shooter, and his ability to shift gears into his pull-up jumper borders on special. His ability to stop and pop in the mid-range will have to adequately compensate for his struggles scoring inside the paint, where he doesn’t get a ton of lift in tight spaces. McBride isn’t particularly big (his broad shoulders make him look a bit larger on television), but he’s much closer to providing useful minutes in the NBA than a lot of other guards in this class. Playing really hard all the time is a skill, and it’s harder to find these days. The total package McBride offers is clearly draftable, and he could be a useful extra bench guard for a playoff team in relatively short order.