The first week of the NCAA Tournament was great to underdogs and not-so-great to high profile NBA prospects. The tournament featured a record 13 upsets in the first round, and seven of the 12 players I profiled in last week's prospect watch were knocked out (for comparison, last year seven of the top 12 players selected in the draft played in the Final Four, thanks to the deep, deep Kentucky/Duke rosters). By necessity, we'll delve deeper into the draft class and round out with the best seven players who made the Sweet 16.
Players are listed in order of my current draft rankings; note that my rankings do not currently include international players, who I will be studying after the tournament. Click on a player's name to open their DraftExpress profile, which has all of their basic information; stats all come from sports-reference.com or hoop-math.com.
2. SF Brandon Ingram, Duke
Next Contest: vs. 1 seed Oregon, Thursday, March 24th
Ingram continued to showcase his excellent offensive skills this week, averaging 22.5 points, 7 rebounds and 2.5 assists while shooting 45% from the field. The freshman rightfully took a backseat offensively to Grayson Allen, but still had plenty of opportunities to create for himself and show his offensive instincts. He's not afraid to force the issue somewhat when his team needs him too, but he's also a very willing passer for such a gifted collegiate scorer - and best of all, he had only one turnover during the week. Still showed too much hesitation on defense, though.
This shouldn't take away from Ingram's success, but he hasn't faced a good defensive matchup in this tournament; Neither UNC Wilmington nor Yale had any defenders close to Ingram's size or capable of keeping up with him athletically. Oregon on the other hand is a youthful, athletic team with a number of capable defenders they can try on Ingram.
5. SG Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
Next Contest: vs. 3 seed Texas A&M, Thursday, March 24th
Hield scored 29 of Oklahoma's 41 second half points in a 85-81 squeaker against VCU. He's the collegiate game's most capable scorer, able to hit from any of the three levels. Over the two games in week 1 he scored 63 points on 55.8% shooting (19 of 34) while only committing three turnovers, which is crazy considering how ball-dominant he's forced to be in the Sooners offense.
Up next for Hield and Oklahoma is Texas A&M, who pulled off the most insane win of the week against UNI after trailing by 10 with 30 seconds to go in regulation. Texas A&M has a size advantage down low and will probably attack the Sooners in the post, but Hield is the best player in the game and is hard to pick against. Aggies guard Danuel House will likely face off against Hield, and he's averaged 21 points in the tournament thus far.
While Oklahoma has surrounded Buddy with capable, smart veterans, it's not hyperbolic to suggest that without Hield the Sooners wouldn't be in the tournament. Hield has absolutely carried Oklahoma this season, and his ability to create his own shot and take over when needed shows to this armchair scout, at least a veteran who won't just be a role player in the NBA.
12. PG Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame
Next Contest: vs. 7 seed Wisconsin, Friday, March 25th
Jackson had two solid games in the tournament, averaging 14.5 points and four assists on 10 of 18 shooting. He hasn't had the breakout contests I was hoping for, but he's run the floor well and given the ball up to hot scorers to spur big Irish runs. He did show off his elevation with this highlight dunk.
The Irish needed a late-game tip-in to survive against Stephen F. Austin, and will next face off against a surprisingly good Wisconsin team. Jackson and Notre Dame will likely try to pick up the pace against the Badgers, but Wisconsin has shown an ability to play fast or grind out defensive battles as needed. While they might not guard each other constantly, Jackson versus Wisconsin's Bronson Koenig (clutch in their victory over Xavier) is the best matchup of the night.
14. PF Thomas Bryant, Indiana
Next Contest: vs 1 seed North Carolina, Friday, March 25th
Facing off against a higher profile prospect in Kentucky's Skal Labissiere, Thomas Bryant showed he belonged in the lottery conversation. He scored 19 points against Kentucky, 17 of them in the second half, and dominated the post on both ends in the Hoosiers 73-67 victory.
Bryant was slowed throughout the season with foul troubles and a foot injury, but his performance against Kentucky showed off his solid foundation of post skills. A whopping 76% of his shots come in the post, although he's making over half of his two-point jumpers, so the potential to stretch his game is there. A 6'10, 250 lbs big man who lacks great mobility doesn't fit a huge need in today's NBA, but Bryant has plenty of room to grow and his 7'5 wingspan compensates for some of his faults. If he opts for the NBA this year, I wouldn't be surprised if he goes in the late lottery.
North Carolina boasts a strong lineup in the paint, and it'll be interesting to see if Bryant can repeat his strong performance against the Tar Heels with Kennedy Meeks or Bryce Johnson on him - neither are great defenders, but they are veteran bigs who should pose a good challenge for the freshman Bryant.
15. PF/C Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga
Next Contest: vs. 10 seed Syracuse, Friday, March 25th
As a Saint Mary's alumni, it physically pains me to compliment a Gonzaga player, but Sabonis is a very solid NBA prospect - he picked apart Utah's Jakob Poeltl (who is No. 7 on my big board) on both ends in a Zags romp.
While he lacks his father's sheer size, he's got great mobility for a big man and has killer low-post footwork. He's developed a well-rounded offensive game - almost 40% of his 17.5 points come from two-point jumpers, and he's making 47.3% of them while also dishing out 1.9 assists per game at a 11.4% rate. If Sabonis can add more bulk and stand up to NBA bigs on the defensive end, he'll be a very good role-playing stretch four in the NBA.
Despite two wins against Dayton and Middle Tennessee, I don't have faith that Syracuse can stop Gonzaga (Syracuse shouldn't have made the tournament while Saint Mary's didn't... totally bitter about that). The Orange play good team defense, and have locked down their opponents in the tournament; Dayton and Middle Tennessee shot a combined 31% in the post against Syracuse. On the other hand, neither of those teams had a post player close to Sabonis' talent.
16. C Diamond Stone, Maryland
Next Contest: vs. 1 seed Kansas, Thursday, March 24th
Stone has been an inconsistent player for much of the season, but the matchup with Hawaii was one of his better performances; Maryland was struggling from the outside in the first half, and their offense didn't get going until they dumped the ball down low to Stone. He scored eight of his eventual 14 points and stabilized the Terrapins, and by the second half Maryland's shooters had broken out of their slump.
Diamond Stone, who wins this years "best basketball name" award, is a bruiser big man who lives in the post but shows the makings of a jumpshot (36.6% on two-point jumpers, and 76.5% from the free throw line). For his size, he hasn't been a great rebounder this year (13.7% rebounding rate), and he hasn't shown consistent instincts or motivation on defense. Like Thomas Bryant, Stone would be entering the NBA a decade later than optimal for a talented low-post scorer, but teams will always need someone who can battle at the rim.
Kansas' strength is in their wings, and Stone has the size advantage over Jayhawks bruiser Landen Lucas. It'll be interesting to see if Maryland tries to set their offensive tempo through Stone again - while I expect the Jayhawks to prevail, the Terrapins have an excellent starting five and I think it'll be closer than many expect.
24. SG Grayson Allen, Duke
Next Contest: vs. 1 seed Oregon, Thursday, March 24th
After a slightly disappointing freshman season, Allen has broken out in his sophomore stint. His usage hasn't gone up much this year (23.5% to 26.9%), but his points (4.4 to 21.8), efficiency (58.3% true shooting to 62%) and assist rate (7.8% to 19.8%) have skyrocketed. The Blue Devils don't have a true point guard, and he's taken more of the ball-handling role by necessity; While his decision making isn't great, he's got a nifty handle and a willingness to make the right pass rather than force the issue himself.
While Allen is primarily known for his deep shot, he's also capable of attacking the basket at the collegiate level and has thrown down some nasty dunks. He'll need to get significantly stronger to matchup at the NBA level, but he's proven he can score at all three levels and has a strong basketball IQ; potentially could be a good bench player after a few years of development.
Allen is averaging 26.5 points in the tournament, and made up for a 4 of 12 shooting night in the first round against UNC Wilmington by getting to the line 17 times (and making 15 of them). Duke's defense hasn't been great over the past month (UNC Wilmington scored 85 against them) and has been exposed by athletic squads just like Oregon. Allen and Ingram make a talented offensive force, but they'll need to bring it on both ends to beat the Ducks.
Week 1 Notes:
- Kris Dunn and Providence didn't get past North Carolina's small ball lineup, but Dunn (with some help from Ben Bentil) kept it respectively close. After Dunn torched them in the first half, the Tarheels threw Justin Jackson (and multiple double teams) on Dunn in the second, and Providence's offense crumbled against North Carolina's depth. Regardless, it was a great tournament for Dunn - he averaged 22.5 points and 3.5 assists on 15-29 (51.7%) shooting and 7-10 from three pointers. That long-ball success is key for Dunn; while he's not a great shooter on the move, he's shown he can be a consistent three-point shooter when he's got his feet set. With his insane athleticism and passing skills, I expect he'll be a top-10 NBA point guard by the end of his rookie contract.
- Jamal Murray's three-point success evaporated against the athletic Indiana defense, and 1-9 line from three overshadowed an otherwise solid performance of 16 points, seven rebounds, and four assists (on 7-18 from the field). Despite the loss, Murray remains locked at my No. 4 spot. His competitive approach, sweet shooting stroke and solid decision making will make his transition into the NBA easier than most shooters.
- I'm lower on Jaylen Brown than most - he's 6th on my big board, and after this past week, I'm feeling that may be too high for him. He's been struggling for the past month, but he was dreadful against Hawaii; he finished with 4 points on 1-6 shooting with no assists, five fouls, and seven turnovers. With Tyrone Wallace and Jabari Bird both sidelined, Brown had to handle the ball far too much for Cal. He's capable at attacking the basket, but Hawaii swarmed their defense inside and took advantage of his weak ball-control skills whenever he predictably drove towards the rim. Teams will love Brown's physical make-up, but I think he'll be a much rawer offensive prospect than expected - he needs to develop a much greater versatility in his offensive game.
- While Brown may be too high on my board, Ivan Rabb may be too low. He had an above-average contest against the Rainbow Warriors with 13 points and 12 rebounds on 5-11 shooting. Hawaii didn't have anyone who could guard Rabb one on one, but they were able to get up into him and double-team him as soon as the ball came his way. Add 20 pounds of muscle, and his versatility is going to look exceptionally intriguing come draft day.
- After a good game against Stony Brook with 12 points and six blocks, Skal Labissiere (and to be fair, the entire Kentucky frontline) were outmatched by Thomas Bryant and Indiana. Labissiere is very likely a lottery pick, but whatever team takes him will need to be patient - he's very much a long-term project.
- So much for my Final Four lock pick in Michigan State. The 90-81 loss by the Spartans should go down as one of the crazier 2 vs. 15 upsets in history (tied with Lehigh vs. Duke), and it's a shame Denzel Valentine's tournament had to end so quickly. Valentine wasn't great (13 points on 5-13 shooting with six turnovers) but he still showed off his excellent court vision with 12 assists, and played his heart out till the end against a Blue Raider team that were hitting insane shots after insane shots. Valentine checks all the intangible boxes teams need to look for in winners, and he's got a versatile skill-set to be an excellent NBA role player.
Additional players to watch: PG Melo Trimble, Maryland, PF Brice Johnson, North Carolina, SG Wayne Selden, Kansas, SF Perry Ellis, Kansas, PF/C Cheick Diallo, Kansas, SG Malcolm Brogdon, Virginia, SF Dillion Brooks, Oregon
Top potential 2016 Draftees outside the Tournament: 1. F Ben Simmons, LSU, 3. PG Kris Dunn, Providence, 4. SG Jamal Murray, Kentucky, 6. SF Jaylen Brown, California, 7. C Jakob Poeltl, Utah, 8. PF Henry Ellenson, Marquette, 9. PF Ivan Rabb, California, 10. PF/C Skal Labissiere, Kentucky, 11. SG Denzel Valentine, Michigan State, 13. PF/C Deyonta Davis, Michigan State, 17. F Taurean Prince, Baylor, 18. PG Wade Baldwin, Vanderbilt, 19. PF Marquese Chriss, Washington, 20. PF/C Damian Jones, Vanderbilt, 21. PG Tyler Ulis, Kentucky, 22. PG/SG Caris LeVert, Michigan, 23. C Stephen Zimmerman, UNLV, 25. Gary Payton II, Oregon State,