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.