To some, the NCAA Tournament is the greatest sporting event there is, a frenetic three-week contest of drama, luck and emotion. To NBA fans, though, the NCAA Tournament doubles as something else: A very public scouting combine for future NBA players.
We already know who the top prospects in college basketball are in terms of their NBA ceiling. What we didn't necessarily know in February is how those players can perform in the biggest spotlights. That's what we get to learn in March.
Plenty of March heroes have ridden NCAA Tournament success to help their NBA Draft stock. UConn's Shabazz Napier took his team to a national title in 2014, and famously earned the admiration of the best basketball player on earth, LeBron James, which led to him being selected with the 24th pick. There are plenty more examples: Kemba Walker. Mike Conley. Juan Dixon. Gordon Hayward.
Here's my new 2018 mock draft unveiled in the middle of March Madness. Maybe in the next couple weeks, we'll see a new March hero emerge, and inch himself skyward in my next mock draft.
|Marvin Bagley III, PF, Duke|
Yes, there are concerns with his defense; Duke sometimes seems a better defensive team when Bagley is off the floor. But I'm not sure how much of that has to do with Bagley or how much of that has to do with the fact that Duke struggles when they have two near-7-footers on the floor together. And that it's small sample size. And that, you know, Bagley should still be in high school right now. He might be the most physically gifted player in this draft, someone with the athletic gifts of an Andrew Wiggins. And if his ceiling is a supersized Andrew Wiggins, that's pretty damn good. Bagley's game is a little unique, a little quirky; he's a lefty, and he moves a bit herky-jerky. One of the issues with Wiggins in the NBA has been his propensity to drift; Bagley never drifts. He plays with one of the most incredible motors I've ever seen. I don't know who has the highest NBA ceiling out of the stacked top tier in this draft, but the easiest case to make is probably for Bagley.
|DeAndre Ayton, C, Arizona|
Luka Doncic would be a smart pick as well, but I don't see how you can pass on Ayton. He's an extraordinarily polished offensive talent with defensive potential that needs some work. In a draft filled with potential unicorns, Ayton feels like the surest shot to actually become a unicorn. The Giannis-like body - a powerfully built, explosive 7-footer - is there. So is the obvious and abundant offensive skill set. In a world filled with bad player comparisons, the comparison with David Robinson feels spot on. He is the type of physical presence that, when he walks onto the court, makes jaws drop. The fact he is not more dominant on defense is a bit befuddling. He could become an MVP candidate down the road.
|Luka Doncic, SG, Real Madrid|
The Slovenian wing is killing it in the Spanish league, dominating against grown men at the age of 18. Who knows what he'd look like in the American college game, but my guess is he'd be a top-five player in the national player of the year race. Doncic is a versatile and confident wing; his confidence might be the one thing that sets him apart over every player in this draft. What if he's a taller Manu Ginobili? I'd take that.
|Mo Bamba, C, Texas|
Bamba's defensive potential is much higher than anyone's in this draft. He's the best shot-blocker in college basketball as a freshman. He'll have the longest wingspan in the NBA after he's drafted. He's a potential defensive player of the year in the Rudy Gobert mold. But offensively I believe he can be much, much more than Gobert – and so does his college coach, Shaka Smart. Bamba recently told me he sees himself as a unicorn and models his basketball mind after Magic Johnson: Make your teammates better. I don't think he'll morph into Kristaps Porzingis or Karl-Anthony Towns or Giannis Antetokounmpo on the offensive end. But I think he can be a very good offensive big man who can stretch the floor, play smart, pass out of double teams and put the ball on the floor. His ceiling is a good-to-very-good offensive player with all-NBA defensive skills. Yes, it's a bit of a gamble, but it's one worth taking. Especially when you think of Bamba and the Magic's most recent top pick, Jonathan Isaac, being paired together.
|(via Brooklyn Nets)|
Jaren Jackson Jr., F, Michigan State
The athletic near-7-footer is one of the best shot-blockers in college basketball, and is shooting a remarkable 41.6 percent from three. He can play on the perimeter and in the post. He simply looks good on a basketball court - a smooth athlete and a well-apportioned body.
|Michael Porter Jr., SF, Missouri|
I believe every player in this mock draft, one through six, and maybe even later, would have been the top-rated player in last season's draft. While the 2017 draft was marked by its depth, this draft is marked by its stacked top. Porter was my top pick in the preseason. The back surgery makes him too much of an injury risk to take over the handful of other guarantees in this draft, but Porter's ceiling is high, high, high. Maybe not Kevin Durant, but Porter is a natural scorer. Think of him in the mold of Jayson Tatum, just a tick more talented, a tick bigger, a tick better of a scorer. You could even toss in a little bit of Dirk here. I've heard some people say that since Porter's two-game return from back surgery in March was so disappointing, NBA general managers will knock him for it. That's nonsense. Scouts have seen Porter's dynamic offensive game for years; they're not going to judge him poorly for two subpar collegiate games when he didn't appear quite physically ready to return.
|Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, PG, Kentucky|
If the versatile Gilgeous-Alexander sticks around for a sophomore season and progresses at the rate that he can progress, he can be a top-three pick in 2019. I can't imagine he'll stick around, especially since he's been the key for Kentucky's remarkable turnaround over the past month and since his draft stock has rocketed upward. Over the past nine games, the Canadian has averaged 19.4 points, 6.9 assists, 5.3 rebounds and 1.6 steals, and has shot 55 percent from 3-point range. More importantly, he's asserted himself as Kentucky's go-to guy, which is something this team was missing earlier this season. He's long and lean, with good-enough shooting and smart point-guard instincts. There's tons of upside here. There's a bit of risk, mostly with whether his thin body can sustain the physicality of the NBA. But I love the idea of pairing him with De'Aaron Fox for a dynamic Kings' backcourt.
|Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama|
A little bit of Eric Bledsoe, a little bit of John Wall, a little bit of Russell Westbrook, a whole lot of swagger. Sexton is the one reason this young Alabama team made a bit of a postseason run despite being up against the bubble going into the SEC Tournament. He single-handedly won them two games in the SEC Tournament and the first NCAA Tournament game against Missouri. Assuming he can get his subpar 3-point shooting (33.6 percent, though he heated up in the postseason) up to a higher level - something I'm less than concerned about given his 77.8 percent free-throw shooting - he can become a star. Sexton is a magician at getting to the rim.
|Wendell Carter, PF/C, Duke|
He's not the Big Fundamental - there will never be another Tim Duncan - but the strength and efficiency and unselfishness and long-range shooting of Carter brings to mind another master of the fundamentals, Al Horford. Carter's combination of intelligence and athleticism is among the best in this draft. While his ceiling isn't as high as some, look at his stat line this year: 13.6 points, 9.2 rebounds, 2.1 blocks and a remarkable 44.2 percent shooting from 3-point range.
|(via Los Angeles Lakers)|
Mikal Bridges, SF, Villanova
Bridges is a versatile player in the wing position that's much valued in the NBA. He's the closest this draft has to a Paul George. (I mean, he's not THAT close to Paul George, but there are certainly plenty of similarities.) He's a bouncy athlete who can shoot it and play excellent perimeter defense. And he's a winner, having spent four years in Jay Wright's team-first system. The 76ers are ready to win now. They don't need a project. Bridges is ready.
|(via Detroit Pistons)|
Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma
Chris Paul: Gone. Blake Griffin: Gone. DeAndre Jordan: Who knows? The Clippers need another face of the franchise, and I can't think of a better face of the Clippers than the young man who became the face of college basketball in 2017-18. The Steph Curry 2.0 are not as crazy as they seem. In his freshman year in the stacked Big 12, Young led college basketball in points and assists at 27.4 points and 8.7 assists per game, which has never been done before, and is shooting 36.1 percent from three despite being the centerpiece of every opponent's defensive game plan.
In his freshman year at Davidson — which was then in the Southern Conference, not even close to this year's Big 12 — Curry averaged 21.5 points and 2.8 assists per game on 40.8 percent 3-point shooting. Check out the comparisons in advanced stats between Young's freshman season and Curry's junior year, his final collegiate season: Young had a 38.5 percent usage (tops in college hoops), 48.5 percent assist rate (tops in college hoops), and is shooting 36.1 percent from three on 327 attempts. Curry had a 38 percent usage (tops in college hoops), 40.2 percent assist rate (eighth in college hoops) and shot 38.7 percent from three on 336 attempts. I know Young took criticism the final half of the season, but come on: He was the star of a young team that without him almost certainly wouldn't have made the NIT. The dude is a stud.
|Miles Bridges, SF/PF, Michigan State|
Bridges may be the most explosive athlete in this draft. While he's certainly a tweener, I'm not sure if that matters nearly as much in today's NBA. And while he doesn't always seem to have the killer instinct, nor is he someone who efficiently creates off the bounce, Bridges can do a little bit of everything on the court. And, man, can he dunk.
|Kevin Knox, SF/PF, Kentucky|
Knox does a little bit of everything on the court: He drives the rim, makes outside shots, rebounds the ball on both ends and plays really hard. His ceiling isn't a superstar, but it's as a winning player who brings lots of positive elements to his team. I love his competitive fire. He's not a No. 1 option, but the Nuggets don't need a No. 1 option. They need a team player.
|Chandler Hutchison, SF, Boise State|
I love when guys come back for a senior year and really improve their draft stock. That's what the late-blooming Hutchison has done. Hutchison could blossom in the same way that the late-blooming Kyle Kuzma has blossomed after being a late-first-round-pick.
|(via Milwaukee Bucks)|
Robert Williams, PF/C, Texas A&M
The decision to return for a sophomore year hadn't worked out well for Williams – at least until the NCAA Tournament started, and Texas A&M and Williams went from being massive disappointments both as a team and as an individual player to a trendy Final Four pick after upsetting North Carolina. Williams still has a Clint Capela-like ceiling. He's a big, tough, explosive big man; his game is somewhat limited, as you won't get much outside the post, but in the right role he can be a great addition to a team. His athleticism is among the best in this draft among big men.
|(via Miami Heat)|
Lonnie Walker, SG, Miami
You know how a guy can sometimes just have The Look? Walker has The Look. (And I'm not talking his amazing haircut, which teammates call "The Pineapple.") Walker just looks like a guy who belongs on the basketball court, all smoothness and explosiveness and beautiful shooting. He took a while to adjust to the college game – a preseason injury might have played a part – but once he did, he looked confident and talented.
|Bruce Brown, PG/SG, Miami|
I love, love, love Brown's get-after-it mentality on defense and on the glass; he's the best defensive guard in this draft, and the best rebounder too. A broken foot hampered his sophomore season, and the fact that his shooting has been worse in his second collegiate season than his first - he only made 26.7 percent of 3-pointers, and shot 62.9 percent from the free-throw line - is a bad sign. But get that shooting up and Brown could be a steal.
|Daniel Gafford, C, Arkansas|
Gafford is a long big man, with pretty darn good athletic skills and excellent shot-blocking abilities. We will see if he's ultimately limited offensively, or just a raw player who has the profile to develop into something much more. He's certainly raw at this point – but remember that he's only been playing basketball for a few years. Washington is 14th in the NBA in defensive efficiency and only 21st in the NBA in block percentage. Gafford can immediately be a great rim protector, and can potentially develop into much more.
|(via Minnesota Timberwolves)|
Hamidou Diallo, PG, Kentucky
Again: This is a ceiling draft. And you can't deny Diallo's ceiling, even if you can call into question his understanding of the finer points of basketball. Diallo is going to be a home-run swing no matter where he's selected. His measurables are off the charts. It's the intangibles I'm worried about. I'm not sure if he's a basketball player or just an athlete who plays basketball. I am sure that if he figures out how to play basketball, he can be great.
|Jalen Brunson, PG, Villanova|
You already know this, but I'm the president of the Jalen Brunson Fan Club. When people tell you that he's too short or not athletic enough to be a high-impact point guard in the NBA, mention to them that he might be the smartest player in college basketball, and one of the sport's most efficient scorers. There's not a more Spurs-like player in this draft.
|Keita Bates-Diop, SF, Ohio State|
An incredible senior season for one of the most surprising teams in college basketball has vaulted Bates-Diop into the conversation to become a first-round pick. The versatile Bates-Diop did it all for Ohio State this season on both ends of the floor. This being a draft low on high-impact wings will only help his stock.
|Grayson Allen, SG, Duke|
For years, the 76ers were willing to take on long-term projects. That is no longer the case. This talented team is in win-now mode. Allen is many things, but he's most certainly a winner. He plays hard. He's a great athlete. He can shoot it, and he can create shots. Allen could immediately contribute off the bench.
|(via New Orleans Pelicans)|
Gary Trent Jr., SG, Duke
In a weird way, Trent has been the forgotten man for this Duke team that's the most talented in college basketball. It's not been because he hasn't been doing what he was brought here for, and that's get buckets: Trent is shooting 41.7 percent from 3-point range, and has the highest offensive rating on Duke. How about the Pelicans, 16th in the NBA in 3-point shooting, add one of the highest-upside shooters available in this draft?
Landry Shamet, PG/SG, Wichita State
The best shooter in the college game? If not, he's certainly close. The unselfish Shamet won't wow you with his athletic gifts, but he'll certainly wow you with his 44.2 percent shooting from 3-point range as well as great shooting from inside the arc as well. Shamet would be a nice, NBA-ready backcourt addition for if LeBron stays.
|(via Oklahoma City Thunder)|
Aaron Holiday, PG, UCLA
There haven't been a ton of bright spots for this mediocre UCLA team this season, but the continued development of their junior point guard has been one of them. He's an electric scorer and shooter; if you added four inches to his frame, he'd be a lottery pick. I don't think Jeff Teague is the long-term answer at point guard for the Wolves; I'm not sure if they'll be able to afford keeping Tyus Jones. Holiday would be ready to come in and get minutes immediately.
|Jarred Vanderbilt, PF, Kentucky|
There's a lot to be disappointed by in Vanderbilt's injury-shortened season. What you should never be disappointed by is his motor or athleticism. Vanderbilt is going to be able to make a living off being a gifted athlete who loves to hustle. It will be fascinating to see if he can add to that.
|Mitchell Robinson, C, N/A|
Robinson is a remarkable shot-blocker - not as naturally gifted as Bamba, but the next-closest in this draft - who is full of red flags. His saga of going back and forth with attending Western Kentucky before finally deciding to skip his one-and-done season of college altogether makes you wonder about his maturity and the people around him.
But you can't deny the natural gifts here. He's very raw offensively, but he's an incredible post defender who would have led college basketball in blocks if he'd played in Conference USA. He's a 7-footer who is a great athlete. Boston is a team with a lot of things, but despite leading the NBA in defensive efficiency, the Celtics rank only 14th in block percentage. Robinson will help there immediately. But he should be considered the definition of the word "project."
|(via Toronto Raptors)|
Troy Brown, SG, Oregon
Maybe too low for Brown and his high ceiling as a scorer. Brown has wing size and versatility and can do a lot of things on the basketball court. His 29.1 percent 3-point shooting is a concern, but he still has a high upside for a franchise that is looking for high upsides.
|De'Anthony Melton, PG/SG, Southern California|
One of the travesties of the current scandal of college basketball is that talented players like Melton were stripped of an entire season of eligibility. Whether he cheated or didn't, I feel for the young man. Luckily, his NBA future is bright as an all-around combo guard who can play great defense on multiple positions.
|(via Houston Rockets)|
Austin Wiley, C, Auburn
Wiley is an intimidating presence in the post, although the FBI investigation into college basketball meant we didn't get to see him in his sophomore season. He can rebound and block shots; he was the top rebounder on the USA Under-19 team that played in the FIBA U-19 tournament in Egypt last summer.