NBA prospects in NCAA Tournament: Seven guys to watch Thursday/Saturday

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The NCAA Tournament, with its orgy of games the first weekend, is a hoops junkie’s dream. It is also when a lot of fans of an NBA team — particularly lottery-bound NBA teams — fall in love with a particular player they hope their team can draft come June. NBA scouts and GMs already have far more formulated opinions on players by this point; they want to see how players react to better competition, and under the pressure of a lose-and-go-home situation.

While watching your bracket disintegrate (you know it will), here seven NBA prospects to keep an eye on from the Thursday/Saturday games. We reached out for some expert opinions from Ed Isaacson of Rotoworld and NBADraftBlog, as well as Rob Dauster of our NBC sister site CollegeBasketballTalk.

Of course, any tour of potential draft picks starts in Kentucky.

1) Karl Towns, Kentucky: Half of the most-watched front line in college ball, Towns is a potential No. 1 pick (depending on who lands the top spot in the lottery). He’s got an NBA body, and defensively is solid on-ball, plus can block shots and protect the rim. Offensively he knows how to score in the post, but also he shoots 82 percent from the free throw line and shows that he could have an impressive midrange game (or beyond) game as well. He could take a couple years to develop but in three to five years could be the best player out of this class.

From Ed Isaacson: “He can move. In a lot of ways, he moves like a wing when he gets the ball in his hands. And he’s skilled. He’s a very skilled player, especially on the offensive end. When he gets the ball, he has a lot of options. He can back you down, he can face you up.”

2) Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: It’s hard not to love his athleticism and defense — he’s a 7-footer who can show out off a pick and switch onto a guard without losing a beat. He is the key reason Kentucky’s defense is fearsome, plus he can get back and block shots. His offense is raw, but think of Cauley-Stein like a more athletic Nerlens Noel.

From Ed Isaacson: “If you’re going to have him on the floor at the NBA level you’re going to have some things you have to work around. But in terms of a raw, long, athletic big guy it doesn’t get any better than him in this draft.”

3) Devin Booker, Kentucky: This is a 6’5” two guard who could slip down draft boards after the combine — he’s not long, he’s not mind-blowingly athletic. But the name of the game is getting the leather ball through the metal ring, and that Booker can do that — he is a pure shooter. He provides the floor spacing that the Wildcats need with those bigs.

From Ed Isaacson: “He’s probably a better athlete than people give him credit for. He’s a very good defender, especially out on the perimeter he can contain…. What makes Booker so attractive is the guy can shoot. There are very few shooters like him in this draft. Whether it’s off the dribble, off the catch, coming off screens, he’s as competent a shooter as you’re going to see in this group.”

4) D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State: He is a guy who can score — 19.3 points a game, shoots 41 percent from three — but also is a gifted passer with great court vision. He’s also a big guard at 6’5” and it’s easy to put him in the Russell Westbrook mold of combo guards (although he’s not Westbrook athletic).

From Ed Isaacson: “I’m not as high on him as a lot of people. A lot of teams have found ways to be successful in pretty much stopping him — in all aspects, whether it be distributing the ball or scoring…. In games against the top 60 we’re talking about a guy who was shooting 36-37 percent, even less from three, was getting his assists but also was turning the ball over a lot more…. On the bright side, in a big spot he wants the ball, very aggressive, always looking to make something happen.”

5) Jerian Grant, Notre Dame. He’s one of the top two seniors in this NBA draft (along with Frank Kaminsky of Wisconsin), and his game seems to have matured after missing the end of last season due to academic issues. At ND, he has shown both the ability to score and set up teammates.

From Ed Isaacson: “The Notre Dame offense runs through him, and after he had to leave for a year he definitely came back with a different mindset, becoming more aggressive. He’s done very well in pick-and-roll situations, especially finding guys — although it helps a lot when you have the shooters Notre Dame has on the perimeter… The problem with Grant is there is still a lot of that dribbling around, waiting to make something happen, which you see more in younger point guards. The thing that separates Grant though is you can move him over to the two — he’s a very good perimeter shooter, he can attack from the wing… the problem is he doesn’t have a lot of those natural point guard skills.”

6) Stanley Johnson, Arizona: At 6’8”, 240 he comes with an NBA body, and that plus his defensive skill set will make him a Top 10 pick for sure (DraftExpress has him No. 5 currently). This is not a guy with the perimeter shot or finishing skills to come in and put up numbers immediately in the NBA, but he has the potential to get there.

From Rob Dauster: “Stanley is a tough, versatile and physical wing. I think he has he potential to be an excellent defender at the NBA level, and his perimeter stroke has looked better as the season has progressed. He had a bit of an attitude issue early in the year, but he’s seemed to embrace the role he’s been asked to play now. My biggest concern with Johnson is his ability to finish around the rim. He tends to struggle finishing against length.”

7) Myles Turner, Texas: This guy passes the eye test as an NBA big at 6’11” and with a solid frame. He has a good shooting touch and plays a very high IQ game — he reads plays well. What holds him back is a lack of athleticism that could be exposed at the next level.

From Rob Dauster: “I love Turner’s skill set. He’s 6-foot-11 with long arms and solid timing when it comes to blocking shots, but he also has a nice stroke for someone his size. He hits three at the college level and can probably extend that range to the NBA line. He’s never going to be a bruising low post player, but he’s got a good feel for where he is around the paint and has shown off a nice turnaround/faceup jumper. But the concern with Turner is that he just doesn’t move all that well. He runs like it’s painful, and that’s never a good thing to hear about a freshman you’re going to invest millions into.”