“You can’t replicate the atmosphere of March Madness,” an NBA executive told The Ringer. “From the travel to the crowds, it’s a bonus for players to shine under the bright lights.” The NCAA tournament is a roller-coaster ride for fans watching the NBA’s next potential superstars. The excitement over its pageantry can make it seem like it’s the only thing that matters, though some might tell you it has no impact on a prospect’s stock — the reality lies somewhere in between.
The tournament, nevertheless, plays an important role in the scouting process. It’s the best time to make a good impression: You want the prospects you perceive as elite to have a moment that compels you to pick up your phone and tweet about it in all caps; you want moments that not only add to the madness, but also clarify their future as pros. It’s the time you want sleepers to translate their skills against higher levels of competition. The tournament turns the intensity to 11: Players are on the road for extended periods of time and taken out of their usual routines, much like they will be in the NBA. Positive performances essentially serve to bold and underline the opinions we already have.
For the purposes of scouting, March Madness can be thought of as overtime for the regular season — it’s free basketball for talent evaluators looking to build their knowledge database for every prospect. “It’s our last chance to watch them in five-on-five competition,” said a Western Conference scout. “The tournament also often leads to good scouting matchups against other future pros.” Unless a player participates in the NBA draft combine five-on-five scrimmages, March Madness is the last taste of real basketball action for any NCAA prospect until the summer league since the team workouts during the NBA’s pre-draft process allow for only three-on-three group workouts, and most top prospects often only conduct solo workouts.
With the NCAA tournament bracket officially set, there are two notable absences: Washington point guard Markelle Fultz, the likely no. 1 pick, and NC State point guard Dennis Smith Jr., a projected lottery pick. Their seasons are over. But there are plenty of names to watch in each region, from one-and-done prospects on top-seeded teams like Kansas forward Josh Jackson and Duke’s Jayson Tatum, to rising talents like Creighton’s Justin Patton and Wake Forest’s John Collins. Here are some of the key player to watch for in the coming days and weeks:
The Trio of High-Lottery Forwards
Jayson Tatum (Duke freshman forward)
Fourth-quarter scoring is a premium skill in the NBA. The best players are those that can dominate a high pick-and-roll or one-on-one isolation late in games when their team’s structured offense is neutralized. That’s the skill that separates great from good. Tatum possesses this trait more than any forward in the draft: He’s a 6-foot-8 freshman with qualities that’ll remind you of Danny Granger, Carmelo Anthony, and Rudy Gay.
Tatum is a polished scorer who uses spins, hesitations, and step-backs to create space for his shot. His silky smooth game comes naturally: He reads and reacts rather than predetermines his moves. Tatum’s shot needs work (33.6 percent from 3), he’s not an elite athlete, and he’s a shaky defender, but he’s a standout when it comes to go-to-scoring upside.
Jonathan Isaac (Florida State freshman forward)
Isaac is safe in the sense that he’s easily projectable as a 3-and-D style forward, but he is in some ways a mirror image of Tatum’s strengths and weaknesses. At 6-foot-10, 205-pounds with a long 7-foot-1 wingspan, Isaac’s measurables are comparable to Brandon Ingram. Isaac is a streaky shooter (35.3 percent from 3) but he can rise over smaller defenders or drive by slower ones, much like Ingram. With their long limbs and quick feet, they both project as highly versatile defenders once they add weight to their toothpick frames.
But Ingram is only one month older than Isaac and is far superior when it comes to passing, pick-and-roll vision, and pure feel. Isaac needs to show more scoring and playmaking upside. Sophomore wing Dwayne Bacon takes on the primary scoring role so Isaac’s chances to create for himself are limited, but the isolation and pick-and-roll reps he’s received haven’t been impressive.
Isaac doesn’t have the strongest (or biggest) hands or the quickest dribble off the bounce, and with a lean frame he prefers to finish with finesse at the rim. Even if he doesn’t develop enough in these areas, he’ll likely still become a contributing rotation player because of the complementary skills he does have, but with a high pick I’m looking for more. I hope defenses take Bacon away and force Isaac to beat them; it’d be encouraging if he shows progress.
Josh Jackson (Kansas freshman forward)
By contrast, Jackson has received loads of go-to-scoring opportunities already. He’s a menace cutting to the rim or flying in for putback slams, but his efficiency drops off when he needs to create for himself because he forces shots and struggles to finish at the rim against contact. However, Jackson has shown flashes of promise, even when the results aren’t good.
Here’s an instance when Jackson takes and misses a step-back jumper far too early in the shot clock, but it showcases the ability to create space. Moments like this are what make Jackson so enticing. He’s the best passer, defender, and athlete of the trio. His shot is a real question mark, though. Whether it’s Justise Winslow, Aaron Gordon, or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, we’ve seen story of the do-it-all forward who lacks only a jumper before. Jackson’s 3-point-shooting percentage has done a 180: He is shooting 51.3 percent from 3 since January 21 after hitting only 23.7 percent from behind the arc in his first 18 games. His 37.7 percent mark on the season is easily better than the three aforementioned NBA forwards, but there is a strong case to be made that it doesn’t tell us anything about how well he’ll be able to shoot in the pros. Jackson’s been on a hot streak from 3, but his free throw shooting has actually gotten worse, going from 57 percent in his first 18 games to 54.4 percent in his last 13. Jackson’s flashes are encouraging, but free throw percentage is historically a better indicator of future shooting upside.
The Lottery Sleepers
Every season there are prospects who, through their multiple seasons in college, rise from the ruins of the second round to the fringes of the lottery. There’s no better example than Buddy Hield, who entered his senior campaign at Oklahoma projected as a late pick, but rocketed into the lottery after his March Madness run and one of the greatest shooting seasons in college history. North Carolina junior forward Justin Jackson has made a similar push, transforming himself from an underwhelming perimeter scorer into a dynamic threat. A strong month with continued efficient scoring could help solidify Jackson’s standing as a late-lottery draftee.
There are always freshman surprises, too. Marquese Chriss wasn’t expected to be a one-and-done last season, but performed well enough at Washington to declare for the draft. We could have a few more prospects to come out of nowhere this season.
Justin Patton (Creighton freshman power forward)
In a draft class lacking premier big men, Patton is making his push.
Patton is averaging 13.1 points on a 70.8 effective field goal percentage, with most of his offense coming near the rim. He’s a bouncy leaper, but he also has a soft touch near the rim for situations in which he can’t flush down ferocious lob dunks. Patton is extremely raw, though, and teams might feel more comfortable drafting him after he spends an extra year in school.
John Collins (Wake Forest sophomore power forward)
Collins is the year’s advanced-stats darling. Collins averages an efficient 18.9 points while grabbing 9.8 rebounds per game, and posts a PER of 36, which leads the nation. Collins shines in Wake Forest’s prehistoric post-up offense, but it’s the other stuff that matters. I care about how a big man finishes with his body contorted awkwardly and a defender attempting to block his shot more than I do if he can do an up-and-under from the post. That’s the nature of today’s NBA. Fortunately, Collins has upside in these areas.
Collins hit face-up jumpers, finished with touch in traffic near the rim, and showed soft hands corralling some difficult passes. He also showed off his midrange jumper, which could someday be extended beyond the 3-point line. He’s a 44.2 percent shooter on 2-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.
Collins would benefit greatly from showing more on the defensive end, especially after his poor defensive performance in the ACC tournament. Collins has a high motor, but it doesn’t always translate into production. Wake Forest needs to win its First Four game against Kansas State to advance to face Cincinnati. A win against the Bearcats could lead to a Round of 32 matchup versus UCLA, where I’ll be watching how he handles switches against smaller, quicker players with pro potential.
Zach Collins (Gonzaga freshman center)
But don’t confuse John with Zach, the freshman center coming off the bench for no. 1 seed Gonzaga. Zach Collins can space the floor out to the 3-point line and finish with touch at the rim. He’s not particularly long, but he has good lateral quickness for his size, which should allow him to switch pick-and-rolls at the next level. Unless the Bulldogs limit his playing time during the tournament, it’s easy to foresee his stock rising from the late first round into the lottery.
The (Blue) Devils You Know
Luke Kennard (Duke sophomore guard)
Kennard is one of my favorite prospects in this draft. He’s a below-average athlete but makes up for it with his craftiness, feel, and killer mentality. Here’s what Rick Pitino said after Kennard drained the life out of Louisville with dagger after dagger late in a ACC tournament matchup: “Sometimes I look at rankings, and I can tell you from spending eight years in the pros that what you see on this.net or this.net is not what the general managers are thinking. … I’ve always felt he was from an offensive standpoint one of the two or three best players in the country.”
Here are the big-board rankings Pitino is looking at: Kennard is ranked 22nd on DraftExpress, 32nd on ESPN, and 34th on CBS. That’s too low, in my opinion. I have Kennard ranked 14th. The level of improvement he made as a ball handler from his freshman to sophomore seasons unleashed his pick-and-roll playmaking and scoring ability. Even if he isn’t quick or athletic enough to become a go-to-scoring presence, the ability to make plays off a screen gives him an additional wrinkle on top of his already-established elite shooting. In a draft with a talent drop-off in the late lottery, I’d gamble on Kennard.
Grayson Allen (Duke junior guard)
Allen has regressed from his sophomore to junior seasons and would likely benefit from spending another year at Duke, but keep an eye on him if he turns it on during the tournament. Point guard Frank Jackson has shown two-way potential as of late by being a pest on defense while making big shots from each level of the floor. He’s comparable to Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell, who’s made the leap into the first-round conversation. Like Mitchell, Jackson would benefit from another collegiate season.
Harry Giles (Duke freshman forward)
The former top-high-school recruit has seen his minutes and role dwindle as the season’s worn on. He’s the seventh man in a Duke seven-man rotation full of capable scorers, so opportunities will be limited. For Giles to boomerang his draft stock back to the lottery, he’ll need to show in the time he’s allowed the same versatile defense and athleticism that made him an elite recruit in the first place.
The Three Best Guard Prospects in the Tournament
Fultz and Smith are notable absences from the NCAA tournament, but we will get the privilege to watch three other talented lottery guards at the top of everyone’s big board: UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, and Kentucky’s backcourt duo of De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk. We’ve written extensively about these guards at The Ringer, but I’ll be looking for each guard to answer the biggest question marks in their respective games:
Lonzo Ball (UCLA freshman guard)
Can Ball prove he can find other ways to score when his shot isn’t falling? (Aside: Make sure you keep an eye on Ball’s teammates, center Ike Anigbogu and forward T.J. Leaf, both potential first-rounders.)
De’Aaron Fox (Kentucky freshman guard)
Fox is shooting 23 percent from 3 and 33.8 percent on 2-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math. But over his last five games, he’s hit 6-of-11 triples, which has made him look more like an All-Star–caliber point guard. Will Fox sustain his hot shooting streak?
Malik Monk (Kentucky freshman guard)
Monk’s passing vision is far underrated, but if defenses neutralize Fox, Malik will have to carry the load on offense in more ways than he’s generally been asked to this season — can he?
With Kentucky and UCLA both in the South region, it’s possible we’ll see these three guards matched up in the Sweet 16.
The Two Best Lotto-Bound Bigs in the Tournament
Lauri Markkanen (Arizona freshman forward)
Markkanen was a mixed bag during the Wildcats’ conference tournament win. He dominated against UCLA, scoring 29 points on 22 shots, but he was a non-factor versus Oregon. Markkanen tallied 11 points, but he took only four shots and was largely neutralized against Oregon’s switching defense.
As a 43.2 percent shooter from 3, Markkanen is a lethal pick-and-pop threat with his ability to catch and shoot or take scrambling defenders off the dribble. But Oregon contained the Finnish forward by simply switching the screen between their versatile defenders, like wing Dillon Brooks (a potential first-rounder). This is how NBA defenders will play Markkanen. He might be a 7-footer, but he doesn’t have a big man’s pure strength or interior skill set. Teams have done the same thing against other stretch bigs like Kristaps Porzingis, Channing Frye, and Ryan Anderson to take their shot away. Markkanen will have better teammates in the NBA, but the real concern is how this impacts him on defense.
If teams can get away with defending Markkanen with wings and forwards, there’s no guarantee he’ll be able to defend those smaller players on the other end. He’s shown flashes of being able to slide his feet on the perimeter, but just as often, his ability to move laterally has been exposed. In the tournament, I’ll be watching how he handles smaller defenders.
Miles Bridges (Michigan State freshman forward)
Markkanen and Bridges debuted against each other way back in November. Both players have made significant strides since then. You’ll see plenty of highlight packages featuring Bridges’s dunking, but watch closely how he completes difficult finishes like this one:
Bridges has turned himself into a well-rounded threat by refining his shooting mechanics and playing consistently hard on defense. Bridges averages two made 3s and 1.6 blocks per game; Kevin Durant and Shane Battier are the only lottery picks over the last 20 years to match those numbers, per Sports-Reference. Bridges is currently projected as a late lottery pick on most big boards, including The Ringer’s, but it wouldn’t stun me to see him rise with a strong month.
Whither the Seniors?
At least one senior has been selected in the first round every year for as long as NBA Draft has been in existence. That could change in a 2017 draft that is loaded with underclassmen. Over the last 10 drafts, the first round has claimed an average of five seniors; this year, the highest-ranked seniors are barely on the fringes. The greatest hope is Josh Hart, the leader of no. 1 seed Villanova. Hart’s an easy prospect to fall in love with. He has a high basketball IQ, plays with energy, and can spot up and shoot or attack a closeout. Just watch his trademark game of the season:
The NBA could always use do-it-all guards like Hart, but I can’t shake the image of him getting utterly dominated at the NBA draft combine five-on-five scrimmages last May. Hart looked overmatched athletically, couldn’t create his own shot in pick-and-roll situations, and didn’t exactly stand out on defense like he does at the collegiate level. Maybe Hart struggled because he needed time to adjust to the speed of the game.
Maybe the scrimmage atmosphere, where everyone’s trying to get their own, just isn’t right for a player who will be more of a role player who fits into a structured system. Those are plausible reasons for his performance last year, but it’s still hard to forget about it. A strong run over the next month would help.
There will probably be at least one senior this month who shines as his team makes a run but goes undrafted. Notre Dame sharpshooting guard V.J. Beachem and Arizona’s gritty point guard Kadeem Allen seem like ripe candidates. They have NBA skills, but may need to claw their way to the pros.
Though going undrafted doesn’t bode well for seniors, it’s not a death sentence. The Mavericks have three examples: Yogi Ferrell and Dorian Finney-Smith have already become contributors as rookies, and Seth Curry is making significant strides as of late. Sixers starting point guard T.J. McConnell is more clutch than Michael Jordan. Tyler Johnson is a $50 million man. Matthew Dellavedova got paid, too. JaMychal Green and Kent Bazemore are impact players on playoff teams. These guys are the exceptions, not the rule, but they should serve as hope for the senior prospects who don’t do enough this month to solidify their résumés.
A Word of Caution
March Madness is exhilarating. A spectacular performance can appear to send a prospect’s stock soaring, while a dud can evidently cause his stock to plummet. The truth is that although these games do matter, they won’t necessarily make or break a prospect’s future.
Keep that in mind. Be careful if you ride any one player’s wave. That’s where you get yourself into trouble — falling in love with the tournament darling when every prior game matters, too. Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis dominated Utah’s Jakob Poeltl, yet Sabonis still got drafted behind Poeltl. Jaylen Brown’s stock looked way down after he had more turnovers than points in Cal’s opening-round loss to Hawaii. Brown still got selected third. Go back a few years: Both Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker had disastrous final games, but they were the top-two picks in 2014.
There will be players with similar stories this year. Maybe UCLA gets bounced first-round because Lonzo Ball goes 0-for-10 from the field. Maybe Justin Jackson heats up and leads North Carolina to the Final Four. That would matter, but it’s one important game of many important games that NBA teams will assess. Scouts look at the full picture: A positive or negative tourney won’t override an evaluation that’s been developed over years of gathering intel about these prospects from every source possible. The implications of their NCAA tournament performance are significant, though never as much as it seems in the moment. The draft is more than three months away, and the scouting process will continue long after the madness begins and ends. There is a process to be trusted here, too.