2018 NCAA Tournament: Players whose NBA Draft stock can rise in March Madness
Michael Porter Jr. and Trae Young can make themselves a lot of money during the Big Dance
The NCAA Tournament is here. But you've still got time to fill out your bracket. CBS Sports' Bracket Games allow you to pick against friends or play solo to compete for the trip of a lifetime.
To college basketball fans, March is the culmination: The greatest event in sports, three wacky weekends of upsets and greatness culminating in a magical moment on a Monday night.
But to NBA fans, it's something quite different. Sure, there's the drama of March, which is well and good. But March is also a way for a prospect to rocket up NBA Draft boards. Over the course of the past five months, NBA scouts have gotten ample opportunity to measure the skills and ceilings of all of these players. But March gives us all an opportunity to see how these players can shine when the stakes are highest.
In descending order, here are the 10 players with the most to gain by succeeding this March.
When Porter played in the SEC Tournament, his first game since opening day of the college basketball season, it was a dud. He made five of his team-high 17 shots. He looked tentative and out of sync. Missouri lost to a lesser Georgia team. And yet scouts call Porter the best natural scorer in college basketball this season. He's going to go in the top seven in June's draft no matter what he does in the NCAA Tournament. But a bravura performance could catapult him all the way up to fourth. (I don't see him making it into the top sure-thing tier of Deandre Ayton, Marvin Bagley III and Luka Doncic.)
9. Lonnie Walker, Miami
The long and athletic freshman wing has been Miami's best player in the second half of this season, playing with a confidence that you didn't see in non-conference play when he was catching up with the speed of college basketball. Before Jan. 13, Walker was averaging a paltry 8 points per game. Since then he's been averaging 14.7 points per game. If Walker can string together a few games like in late January when he scored 25 on Louisville and 23 on Florida State, Miami could go on a bit of a run, and Walker could solidify his spot late in the lottery, if not higher.
You've heard me beating this drum since October: Jalen Brunson is the smartest player in college basketball, and Villanova's the best team because of it. And yet the worries about his size at the next level continue. I don't buy it. I see plenty of small point guards making a huge impact in the NBA (Chris Paul, Steph Curry, Isaiah Thomas). Brunson's not in that mold, but he can still be an impact player in the league. A potential second-round matchup against No. 9 seed Alabama is huge. If Brunson can dominate certain lottery pick Collin Sexton on both ends of the floor – which is not an easy ask – his draft stock could see a significant bump. And if he ably can navigate through the brutal West Virginia press in a potential Sweet Sixteen matchup, that can help only further.
The bracket lines up nicely for Gonzaga to play UNC in the Elite Eight in a potential rematch from last year's national title game. It's amazing to say, given that Gonzaga's frontcourt last season had a lottery pick in Zach Collins and an immovable force in Przemek Karnowski, but Gonzaga might have a better frontcourt this season. Can one of the three frontcourt stars – Johnathan Williams, Killian Tillie or Rui Hachimura – have a breakout tournament? My bet is on Hachimura, who has the highest ceiling of the three.
Nobody doubts Duval's potential and athletic ability. It's the consistency – and the tendency to sometimes do too much – that scouts say worries them. Duval might be the key to a Duke NCAA Tournament run: If he plays his best, Duke can beat anyone; that's what happened in the second half of Duke's win over UNC to end the regular season. If Duval plays sloppy, like he did in Duke's loss to UNC in the ACC Tournament, Duke can lose to a lesser team.
5. Devonte Graham, Kansas
Kansas is a limited team this season due to a lack of frontcourt depth. If Udoka Azubuike is still slowed by an injury, that makes this tournament even more difficult for Bill Self's team. The main reason Kansas is a No. 1 seed, and coming off an incredible 14th straight Big 12 regular season title? It's Graham, who ought to get some buzz for national player of the year awards. He's a bulldog out there, and the type of guy who can take over a game. If he can take over four games in a row and lead Kansas to the Final Four, that could vault him into the back end of the first round.
The senior point guard had been a revelation this season for one of the most surprising teams in college basketball until he was slowed by a toe injury late in the season. After his injury, the Red Raiders lost four games in a row and just haven't looked the same. If Evans bounces back and leads the Red Raiders into the second weekend, it'll give his draft stock a noticeable bump. When healthy, he's one of the better all-around point guards in the college game.
3. Theo Pinson, UNC
Pinson is the highest-rated recruit from the 2014 class to still be playing collegiate ball. And that's not a sign of failure; Pinson has enjoyed every minute as a fan favorite for a North Carolina team that made one national title game then one another national title game during his run. Pinson's athletic attributes have never been questioned. His consistency has. Pinson reminds me of a mini Draymond Green. At his best he's flying all over the floor, disrupting on defense and facilitating on offense. Some of his passes are breathtaking. But when Bad Theo comes out – like he did in the ACC Tournament against Virginia, when he shot one of 10 from the field – it can cost UNC a game. NBA teams have had four years to evaluate Pinson; at this point, their views are pretty cemented. But Pinson having an impressive performance in the NCAA Tournament is the type of thing you want to end a college career on, and NBA teams will remember it.
As a recruit who was ranked in the 30s nationally, not too many people gave thought to the long, sinewy Gilgeous-Alexander as potentially the top NBA prospect on this Kentucky team. But here he is, the main reason this up-and-down Kentucky team has an upward trajectory going into the NCAA Tournament. He's shooting 40 percent from 3-point range on the season; he can dictate pace and rebound the ball; he dropped 29 points on a tough Tennessee team in the SEC Tournament title game. If Gilgeous-Alexander stays for a second at Kentucky, he could develop into a top-five pick. But if he leads Kentucky to the Final Four, he might get pretty close to that anyway.
Who did you expect? Young has ridden a roller coaster of emotion over the past five months. He started the season as a top-25 recruit who wasn't considered a one-and-done candidate. He became the face of college basketball during the next two months as Steph Curry 2.0 got Oklahoma all the way up to No. 4 in the nation around New Year's. Then he became exposed as the only scoring threat on an Oklahoma team that without him would be challenged to make the NIT. Teams focused their entire game plan on Young; sometimes he rose to the occasion, but more often he either shrunk from it or he was a victim of his less-talented teammates. If Young can have a productive, efficient NCAA Tournament – say, scoring 30 points and netting 10 assists for two straight games before Oklahoma bows out in a loss to Duke – that can only help him in his case to be a certain top-10 pick. But if he struggles in his biggest spotlight yet, that will be one more red flag.
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