The term ‘prisoner of the moment’ is never more fitting than when weighing just how valuable an NCAA Tournament star turn is for a kid’s potential success as an NBA player.
We see it every year. Big tournament performances during deep runs in the dance is a great way to inflate draft stock while disappointing exits are an easy way to hurt it, even if it goes against the season-long data that is telling us something about a player.
Who are the players that helped themselves the most this March? And who may have put a damper on their chances of hearing their name called early on draft night?
Sindarius Thornwell, South Carolina: Thornwell has played his way into the discussion as a potential first round pick by leading South Carolina to the Final Four. He has the physical tools to be an excellent defender in the NBA, and he certainly has the toughness and physicality, but it’s his shot-making that is the game-changer for him. He shot 39.4 percent from three on the season and is hitting 43.2 percent from beyond the arc in the tournament, and while the knuckle-ball action on his jumper is concerning, at some point it’s fair to wonder whether or not his less-than-ideal form is less important than the fact that it goes in. Thornwell, who was the SEC Player of the Year this season, will be an interesting 3-and-D candidate come draft night, and the spotlight on him from averaging 25.7 points while leading the Gamecocks to the Final Four will only help.
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: Fox solidified his standing as a potential top five during the tournament. The red flags are still there — Can he make threes in the NBA? — but at the end of the day, the NBA Draft is about whether or not you want one guy or the other guy. This is a draft that is absolutely loaded at the point guard spot, and for the second time this season, Fox outplayed a guy that many have slotted above him, Lonzo Ball. In the Sweet 16, he put up 39 points, the most impressive individual performance of the tournament, as Kentucky skated by UCLA more easily than most of us expected. Ball should probably still be considered the better, but when you’re sitting in that room making those decisions, it’s not going to be easy to bypass the guy that bested him twice.
Jordan Bell, Oregon: Bell, a junior, has been one of the best defensive players in the country all season long, and never was that more apparent than when he went for 11 points, 13 boards, eight blocks and four assists against Kansas in the Elite 8. He totally changed that game, making Landen Lucas look like an eighth grader without any confidence and forcing the Jayhawks to miss a number of shots in the lane simply because they were aware that Bell could be lurking. He was probably worth a second round pick already, but that game very likely ensured that he will here his name called at some point on draft night.
Tyler Dorsey, Oregon: Dorsey is a shot-maker. That’s what he brings to the table offensively. He can score. He’s gone for at least 20 points in all seven tournament games — Pac-12 and NCAA — that Oregon had played this year, and he hit innumerable big shots in the process, including a game-winner against Rhode Island in the second round and a pair of absolute daggers against Kansas. Undersized scorers come a dime-a-dozen at that level, but Dorsey ensured that he will get a shot this spring.
D.J. Wilson, Michigan: Wilson has been one of the most intriguing prospects in college basketball this season given his size, athleticism and skill-set, and the attention that Michigan got as the darling of the conference tournaments and the first weekend of the NCAA tournament certainly didn’t hurt. I’m not convinced he’s in a position to be a first round pick, but I am certain that, if he opts to declare for the draft and sign with an agent, there will be a team willing to bet on the meteoric rise he had this year continuing.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA: With all the hype surrounding the Ball family heading into his showdown with De’Aaron Fox and Kentucky in the Sweet 16, you would’ve expected Lonzo, who has been terrific this season, to shine on the biggest stage. But that’s not how it went. He was completely overshadowed by Fox, who went for a career-high 39 points when they went head-to-head, bowing out of the tournament with nothing but a Sweet 16 to show for it. There’s a risk in making over-arching judgements on a player based off of one or two games when a season’s worth of data is telling you something else, but it is fair to note that Ball was outplayed in both of his matchups with another potential top five pick at his position.
Josh Jackson, Kansas: We’ve seen all season long what Josh Jackson can do on a basketball court, and one bad game where he got into foul trouble in the first four minutes is not going to change the way that scouts view his ability on the court. The concern with Jackson has nothing to do with basketball. It’s the off-the-court stuff, and it’s his temper. The biggest red flag surrounding him right now is an incident at a bar where he did more than $1,000 worth of damage to a person’s car. He got a few technical fouls this season. Against Oregon, he got into it with Duck players. Whether that affected his play, only Jackson will know, but it’s not all that hard to connect those dots. It’s easier to teach a 19-year old that cares too much to tone it down — the maturity that comes with getting older certainly helps — than it is to get a guy with no heart to be intense and tough, but that’s something NBA teams are going to have to consider when they decide whether to take Jackson in the top three of a draft this loaded.
Justin Patton, Creighton: Patton is incredibly talented and loaded with promise, but after seeing the dip in his production once Mo Watson went out with a torn ACL — 14.0 points and 6.2 rebounds per game on a 74 percent shooting vs. 11.9 points and 5.8 rebounds on 61 percent shooting post Watson — is concerning. Throw in that he was totally underwhelming against an undersized front line of Rhode Island in a first round loss, and there will be questions asked about whether or not he is a guy that is worth a first round pick.
Luke Kennard, Duke: Kennard, by all accounts, had a terrific season. He’s a skilled scorer that can get his buckets in a number of different ways. He’s a lights-out shooter with an advanced array of moves to create space to get his shot off and a knack for scoring around the rim with both hands. But the concerns with him is whether or not he will be able to do so against guys that are as athletic and strong as NBA wings are. Picking a second round matchup with a South Carolina team loaded with those kind of defenders to have his worst game of the season wasn’t exactly ideal timing.
Josh Hart, Villanova: Hart does everything well, and he certainly proved throughout the season that he had improved on the things that he needed to improve — shooting, playmaking, ability off the dribble. But the concern with Hart is whether or not he’s going to be able to get his own shot when the guys he plays against are bigger, quicker, more athletic and just as tough as he is, and the way Villanova bowed out of the tournament — with Hart being unable to create a shot or draw a foul on a drive to the rim — is a perfect summation of the concerns NBA teams have about him.