It didn't matter what Zion Williamson did during the opening weekend of the 2019 NCAA Tournament. If he had shot 0 of 14 and Duke had lost its first-round game to No. 16 seed North Dakota State, Zion still would have been the No. 1 overall pick in June's NBA Draft.
But for lots of collegiate prospects, the NCAA Tournament isn't just the pinnacle of their college career. It's a tryout -- for some, an abbreviated one-game tryout, for others an epic six-game journey -- for the NBA. Remember Donte DiVincenzo last year for Villanova? Sure, there was NBA draft buzz around him all season, but nothing like the buzz that surrounded him when he went off for 31 points in the national title game. The Milwaukee Bucks selected him with the 17th pick. Similar things happened when Kemba Walker was an assassin for UConnin the 2011 NCAA Tournament and the Charlotte Hornets picked him ninth, and when Shabazz Napier put the Huskies on his back in the 2014 NCAA Tournament, gaining the attention of LeBron James and pushing himself all the way up to the No. 24 pick of that June's draft.
The first weekend of this year's NCAA Tournament saw plenty of players affect their NBA Draft stock – some for the better, some for the worse.
Ja Morant, PG, Murray State
Morant owned the first day of the tournament with only the ninth triple-double in NCAA Tournament history, and the first since 2012. Who says college basketball is an amateur sport? Morant made himself $1.8 million on Thursday. How? In that game, he may have cemented himself as the No. 2 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, behind Zion Williamson, and $1.8 million is the difference between the first three years on rookie scale contracts between the No. 3 and No. 2 pick. NBA executives and scouts believe the top three in this draft are all but set, with Zion Williamson the near-certain No. 1 overall pick, and then Morant competing with Duke's R.J. Barrett for who is No. 2. Murray State's upset win over Marquette was Morant's coming-out party on the national stage. He didn't just net 17 points, 16 assists and 11 rebounds in the Racers' dominant win; he controlled the game from start to finish, showing preternatural feel for the game to go with his incredible athleticism.
Cam Reddish, SF, Duke
Reddish didn't help answer any of the questions surrounding his game in the first-round matchup with North Dakota State. He seemed to be floating around, only taking nine shots and making three of them, for 12 points. This is why some NBA executives believe Reddish profiles more as a Robin than a Batman, which is why he likely will fall short of becoming a star, despite his obvious physical attributes. He came up much bigger, albeit in that Robin-like role, in the nail-biter of a game Sunday against UCF, where he scored an efficient 13 points -- including some big 3-pointers -- and pulled down 11 rebounds. Being on this stacked Duke team, where he serves as more of a complementary player to Zion and RJ, might play to his strengths anyway, and make him a better NBA player in the long run.
Dylan Windler, SF, Belmont
It's a shame Belmont didn't advance past Maryland in a nail-biter loss. Windler was spectacular in that game, with 35 points on 7-of-14 shooting from 3-point range. He wasn't nearly as effective in his First Four game against Temple, but his 14 rebounds reminded NBA scouts that Windler is much more than just an elite shooter. He averaged double-digit rebounds on the season, and he has the size of an NBA wing. Do not be surprised if Windler sneaks his way into the first round come June.
Fletcher Magee, SG, Wofford
In his first NCAA Tournament game, Magee broke the NCAA career 3-point shooting record, hitting seven of his 12 3-point attempts in Wofford's upset over Seton Hall. In his second NCAA Tournament game, Magee made zero of his 12 3-point shots against the long and athletic Kentucky defense, reminding us why Magee is a great collegiate story but isn't likely to become a great NBA story. A shame to see this incredible collegiate career to end this way.
Aubrey Dawkins, SG, UCF
In his final collegiate game, Dawkins made about as big as impression to NBA scouts as he possibly could, putting his team on his back on the way to a near-upset of No. 1 overall seed Duke. Dawkins scored 32 points -- on 5-of-7 shooting from 3-point range -- and showed excellent athleticism and two-way play. Problem is, Dawkins turns 24 before June's draft. Dawkins' injury-riddled college career could have gone a lot of different ways. But a long, tall athlete who is an elite 3-point shooter ought to at least get some looks.
Mfiondu Kabengele, PF/C, Florida State
Who, you say? This would be Dikembe Mutombo's nephew, a redshirt sophomore who comes off the bench for Leonard Hamilton's incredibly talented team. The tough big fella will turn 22 before the next NBA season, but he showed in his first two games of this NCAA Tournament why he's an intriguing pro prospect. Kabengele had 21 points and 10 rebounds against Vermont, then 22 and 7 against Murray State -- even knocking down a couple of 3-pointers. When he's on the floor, his presence is always felt. That he averaged only 21.4 minutes per game this season for Florida State is a testament to this team's depth.
Brandon Clarke, PF/C, Gonzaga
Clarke did it all, as he often does, in Gonzaga's blowout win Saturday over Baylor: 36 points (on 15-of-18 shooting), eight rebounds, five blocks and two steals. The San Jose State transfer may not be a star in the making, but in today's NBA, where the 22-year-old could take on a Jordan Bell-like role, he's a winner. NBA folks have him rated all over the place in this extremely fluid draft, but he certainly helped his case over the first weekend.
Carsen Edwards, G, Purdue
Edwards is a microwave scorer, someone who could come off the bench in the NBA and play the 2 on offense while defending the 1. He wore down late in the regular season -- perhaps because he has one of the biggest usage rates in college hoops -- but absolutely exploded the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament to power an inspiring Purdue team into the Sweet 16. Edwards dropped 26 points on Old Dominion before absolutely dicing up Villanova on Saturday, scoring 42 points on 9-of-16 shooting from 3-point range. Edwards has an assassin's mentality and is the type of player who, a la Kemba Walker or Shabazz Napier, could put a team on his back all through March.
Cassius Winston, PG, Michigan State
Bradley, as a No. 15 seed, gave Michigan State a scare on Thursday, as Michigan State was down with seven minutes left. But Winston, the cool-headed leader of this Michigan State team, stayed in control, pouring in an efficient 26 points and four assists while only turning the ball over once. He didn't need to do nearly as much in the Spartans' blowout win over Minnesota on Saturday, but he still played like he was in control the entire game. Winston is a fringe NBA prospect because of his size, but he's a very efficient shooter, and has been awesome as a leader. Winston shot higher than 40 percent from 3-point range this season, and had the second-highest assist rate in college hoops. He plays with active hands on defense. As one scout put it to me: If Monte Morris can be such a success story for the Denver Nuggets, can't Winston be one as well?
Nassir Little, SF/PF, UNC
Here's something an executive for a Western Conference team told me the other day about Little: "He may have the highest ceiling outside the top three in this draft -- if he learns how to play." Little hasn't come close to his preseason expectations. He's raw and reliant on his athleticism, with an incredible basketball body but without incredible basketball skills ... yet. But Little had one of the best games in his collegiate career on Friday against Iona. With his teammates struggling -- UNC was down five at half -- Little stepped up off the bench and delivered 19 points on 9-of-13 shooting in only 17 minutes. He was just as impressive in North Carolina's blowout win over Washington on Sunday, scoring 20 points on 8-of-11 shooting in 21 minutes.
Grant Williams, PF, Tennessee
Williams is a difficult pro prospect to evaluate. NBA teams love him for his character -- a great leader, unselfish, knows how to play, has a great motor -- but is limited in his size and athleticism. Still, NBA executives believe there's a good chance the David West-like player will be able to find a role in the league, and after being a bit of a non-entity in Tennessee's too-close first-round win over Colgate, Williams showed why in Sunday's overtime win over Iowa. Williams filled the box score -- 19 points, seven rebounds, five assists, three blocks and four steals -- and both of Tennessee's game-saving moments came from the hands of Williams. With under a minute left in regulation and Tennessee up three, Williams came from behind and blocked what felt like a wide-open layup by Tyler Cook, and then with about a minute left in overtime and Tennessee up five, Williams snatched the ball out of Cook's hands in the paint before he could put up a shot. He makes winning plays.