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2019 NCAA Tournament: Which NBA draft prospects helped themselves the most?

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MFIONDU KABENGELE, Florida State

It’s frustrating watching Kabengele coming off the bench, because he has been such a valuable weapon for the Seminoles when he is on the floor.

At 6-foot-10, he has the length and athleticism to project as a five in the NBA. He can block shots, he can move his feet on the perimeter and his ability to switch is one of the biggest reasons that Florida State is able to switch 1-through-5 on the defensive end of the floor. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Kabengele as a prospect is that he is a really, really good shooter that can knockdown threes in pick-and-pop actions as well as showing an ability to step into a shot in transition.

He doesn’t start for the Seminoles, but I’m starting to believe that he will be worth a late first round pick come June’s draft.

LOUIS KING, Oregon

King has really come on down the stretch of the season. He’s up to 12.9 ppg on the season and is shooting 37.9 percent from three as a 6-foot-9 forward with the physical tools to play the wing in the NBA. Over the course of the last five games, he’s averaging 17.2 points, and he was really, really good in Oregon’s two games in the first weekend of the tournament.

And on Thursday night in the Sweet 16, he will draw a matchup with De’Andre Hunter, the best defender at that position in all of college basketball. King is trending towards early second round, late first round territory, and a big performance against the Wahoos could end up being the difference-maker.

JA MORANT, Murray State

Morant was terrific in the two games that he played in the NCAA tournament. He passing ability and high IQ approached to the game was fully on display against Marquette, while he knocked down his first five threes against Florida State in the second round.

Morant is already a guy that will be a top three pick in this year’s draft, but after what he did this first weekend, there has been some hype for him to be the No. 1 overall pick. That’s silly. On the one hand, what he did against Marquette was not all that different from what he has been doing all season long. It was one of his best performances of the season, don’t get me wrong, but anyone that had been watching Morant play and not simply watching the highlights knew he could pass like that.

Then there was the shooting display from the second round. While I do believe that Morant is getting better as a shooter, overreacting to one game where he hit five in a row is not a great idea. That was just the second time in 65 career games that Morant made five or more threes and the fourth time he’s hit four threes in a game. We know he can make that shot — it’s one of the biggest reasons he’s gone from being a guy projected in the top 10 to someone that could go No. 2 — but we also know he’s streaky.

NASSIR LITTLE, North Carolina

With 39 points in the first two games of the NCAA tournament, Nassir Little put together the best back-to-back performances of his freshman season on the biggest stage. He was aggressive, he found himself in the right spots on the floor and his physical tools and motor were on full display. The problem, if there is one, is that these games were played against teams where Little’s skill-set will always thrive.

Iona was one of the worst defensive teams in the field. Their uptempo brand of basketball combined with the fact that they just didn’t have the size or athleticism to deal with Little let him flourish. The success he had against Washington was similarly matchup-based, as that 2-3 zone was ripe for the picking; the Huskies had no answer for anyone in the paint, not just little.

I’m not sure how much there is to takeaway either way from the first weekend, but Friday’s matchup with Auburn will be an interesting one for NBA scouts. Auburn plays five-out offensively, using modern, perimeter-oriented bigs in Chuma Okeke and Anfernee McLemore at the four and the five. That will put little into a situation where he is being asked to defend NBA-caliber fours in a role that is similar to the one he projects to play in the NBA.

JALEN SMITH, Maryland

There were two plays in the tournament that really stood out for Smith. The first was the murder he committed against Belmont’s Dylan Windler:

The second was the corner three that he buried to tie the game up with LSU in the final seconds:

Smith hasn’t had the most consistent season. He’s shown a good motor on the offensive glass, he’s blocked some shots and we all know he likes to shoot threes, but he’s done all of those things in flashes. These are the kinds of plays that entice NBA scouts with potential Overall, those plays were too few and far between during Smith’s freshman season, but seeing him make them in this moment might be enough to convince him he should leave.

DYLAN WINDLER, Belmont

Windler finally had a blow-up game against one of the high-major teams that Belmont plays. He disappeared against Purdue, UCLA, Murray State in the OVC title game and both matchups with Lipscomb this season. The reason for that is that Windler is essentially built to be a role player, he just has the physical tools to be able to do that in the NBA. He’s 6-foot-7, he’s athletic, he gets to the glass, he can guard, he’s a knockdown shooter that takes shots within the flow of an offense.

All of that stuff would make him a very useful piece in the NBA, and the fact that he is bigger and more athletic than most of the people he faced at Belmont made him really tough to stop. The question was whether or not he could get all that done when the competition stepped up. Against a Maryland team with some bigger wings, he did, popping off for 35 points and seven threes as he lit up Maryland’s defense running off of off-ball screens.

AUBREY DAWKINS, UCF

Aubrey Dawkins will turn 24 years old in May, which is probably the most limiting factor in his potential at the next level. But what is clear right now is that the redshirt junior has NBA athleticism as a two-guard, he stands 6-foot-6 and he just put together the game of his life against one of college basketball’s best defensive teams. He cooked R.J. Barrett as he buried threes, mid-range pullups and finished at the rim.

His decision may depend on where his dad is coaching next season, but I don’t think it’s crazy to say that the younger Dawkins played his way into getting drafted with that game against Duke.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.