If you have paid any attention at all to NBA draft prospects this season, you have heard about this year’s great freshman class, which is widely projected to make up the vast majority of the lottery. The five members of it who are left in the NCAA tournament field — Josh Jackson, Lonzo Ball, De’Aaron Fox, Malik Monk, and Lauri Markkanen — will have their chance to put a stamp on the Sweet 16 and possibly beyond, but they will go high in the draft regardless of what happens over the next two weeks. It’s the fringe first-round picks who have the most to gain by playing well on the biggest stage in college basketball.
It’s hard for a team to advance to the Sweet 16 without having one or two players worthy of being tracked by NBA scouts throughout the season, and the increase in profile that comes with a strong performance in March is invaluable. For guys who weren’t considered elite recruits coming out of high school, it can be easy to slip through the cracks over the course of the regular season. There are more than 300 teams in Division I basketball, and there are 65 teams in the Power Five conferences. No one can stay on top of all of them for five months.
Now, with only 16 teams alive, the NBA hopefuls of each school have a chance to grab the attention of decision-makers in league front offices, many of whom don’t start to lock in on players until March. Here’s a look at six under-the-radar players who hold the keys to their team’s success, and who will have a chance to make a bigger name for themselves — and potentially earn millions more through a higher draft position — if they continue to advance.
Devin Robinson, Florida
Robinson hits all the check marks for a 3-and-D wing, one of the most coveted types of players in today’s game. At 6-foot-8 and 200 pounds with a 6-foot-11.5 wingspan, he glides across the court like a fighter jet and plays way above the rim; he also has the strength to battle bigger players in the paint and fight for rebounds. Robinson has steadily improved as a 3-point shooter in his three seasons at Florida, going from 25.6 percent as a freshman to 34 percent as a sophomore to 39.4 percent in his junior season, in which he’s taken 3.1 attempts per game.
Robinson is playing some of the best basketball of his career at the perfect time, averaging 19 points and nine rebounds a game on 60 percent shooting in Florida’s tournament victories over East Tennessee State and Virginia. His ability to switch screens and slide among multiple positions on defense was crucial to the Gators holding Virginia to 39 points on 29.6 percent shooting on Saturday. At various points in the game, he guarded UVA point guard London Perrantes, wing Marial Shayok, and power forward Mamadi Diakite, and none of them had an answer for his size and athleticism on the other end of the floor.
While Robinson is never going to be a primary option at the next level, his ability to both attack closeouts and shoot over the top of smaller opponents on the block will go a long way toward earning him a spot in an NBA rotation. Watch what happens when Florida goes small against Wisconsin in the Sweet 16: Robinson will guard either Nigel Hayes or Ethan Happ in the post. If he can hold his own on defense, his shooting and driving ability will stretch out Wisconsin’s stifling defense and give the Florida guards some breathing room to attack the lane.
Johnathan Motley, Baylor
Baylor has sent a long list of big men to the NBA under Scott Drew, and Motley has a chance to be the best of all of them. At 6-foot-10 and 230 pounds with a 7-foot-3.5 wingspan, he fits the prototype for long and athletic frontcourt players that Drew prefers. What separates Motley from his predecessors is that he combines the motor of role players like Quincy Acy with the skills of more gifted talents like Perry Jones III. He is practically unguardable at the college level, averaging 17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.1 blocks a game while shooting 52.4 percent this season.
A fourth-year junior, Motley is an old-school big man with the athleticism and scoring ability to survive in the small-ball-oriented NBA. He is a terror on the offensive boards, and he also has the ability to step out and knock down 15-foot jumpers, and possesses a wide array of post moves to get himself open in the paint. None of the South Carolina big men will be able to handle him one-on-one, and Frank Martin’s team will either have to send double-teams or stay in a zone if it wants to slow him down.
Motley starts the game at power forward, but he often slides up to center, which opens up a spot in the lineup for Terry Maston, who is averaging 19 points a game on 64 percent shooting in the tourney. Baylor is extremely difficult to guard when it goes small, and its success with that lineup depends on Motley’s ability to anchor the defense as a small-ball center, which may be the position he ends up playing at the next level, given how many NBA teams are downsizing upfront.
Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga
If there’s a difference between this year’s Gonzaga team and the previous versions that fell short of the Final Four, it’s the play of Williams-Goss, a McDonald’s All American who transferred from Washington and is now a redshirt junior. Williams-Goss is the type of perimeter athlete that Mark Few had never been able to recruit to Gonzaga, and his size and poise at the point guard position is invaluable in the team’s attempt to finally get over the hump in March.
At 6-foot-3 and 195 pounds with a 6-foot-6 wingspan, Williams-Goss can swing between either backcourt position. He’s not an elite athlete by NBA standards, but he’s a smart caretaker with the ball in his hands. He is averaging 16.7 points (on 50.4 percent shooting), 5.8 rebounds, and 4.7 assists a game this season, and he’s shooting 90.3 percent from the free throw line, an indication that he will be a good enough shooter to play off the ball at the next level.
Point guard play is the key to beating the West Virginia press, and Williams-Goss will be tested by the speed and toughness of Jevon Carter on both sides of the ball Thursday. He will have to prove he can beat high-level athletes off the dribble and stay in front of them on defense, two things he didn’t have the chance to do often in the West Coast Conference. He doesn’t have the burst necessary to be a primary initiator in the NBA, but he could carve out a niche for himself as a secondary option in a multiple-ball-handler system, similar to Kendall Marshall, a former lottery pick out of UNC whose NBA career has been cut short by knee injuries.
Joel Berry II, UNC
Roy Williams’s teams seem to go only as far as their point guards take them. His two national titles came in 2005 and 2009, when he had future first-round picks Raymond Felton and Ty Lawson, respectively, orchestrating his run-and-gun offense. Berry has taken a backseat to Justin Jackson this season, but he’s UNC’s most indispensable player, which became clear when he badly rolled his ankle in their first-round win over Texas Southern. A hobbled Berry is 3-for-21 from the field in the tourney so far, and his poor shooting was a huge factor in Arkansas pushing the Tar Heels to the brink in the second round.
At 6-foot and 195 pounds with a 6-foot-3 wingspan, Berry will be pretty undersized in the NBA, but the success of guys like Yogi Ferrell and Tim Frazier shows there’s a place at the next level for smaller point guards who can shoot off the dribble and use ball screens to get into the lane. He’s averaging 14.4 points a game while shooting 40.3 percent from 3 on 5.8 attempts a game, and he boasts a healthy 3.7-to-1.8 assist-to-turnover per-game ratio.
Berry outplayed potential top-five draft prospect Dennis Smith Jr. in UNC’s two head-to-head meetings with NC State this season, and he will get a crack at either Fox or Ball if the Tar Heels can make it to the Elite Eight. However, they will have to get by a pesky Butler team that will try to slow the game down and which features an intriguing young freshman, Kamar Baldwin, at point. If Berry is still hobbled by the ankle injury, UNC could easily lose in the Sweet 16. If he’s healthy, he could be the key to Williams’s third national championship.
Rawle Alkins, Arizona
Along with fellow freshman Kobi Simmons and sophomore Allonzo Trier, Alkins is part of a trio of interchangeable NBA prospects on the perimeter for Arizona. The Wildcats are one of the deepest teams in the country, so it’s hard for anyone to stand out unless you’re Markkanen, one of the best shooting 7-footers to ever play college basketball. A five-star recruit out of high school, Alkins is a powerfully built 6-foot-5, 220-pound wing who might be hiding in plain sight sharing the ball with so many other talented players.
He does a little bit of everything for Arizona, averaging 11.1 points (on 46.7 percent shooting), 5 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.9 steals, and 0.5 blocks a game, including shooting 37.9 percent from 3 on 3.2 attempts per game. Alkins had a career-high 20 points on 8-of-8 shooting in the Wildcats’ first-round win over North Dakota, and came back minutes after dislocating and fracturing his right index finger in the first half of Arizona’s second-round win over Saint Mary’s to make some huge defensive plays down the stretch. His versatility in the 3-and-D role will be crucial for Sean Miller to reach his first Final Four.
A deeper dive into the numbers shows why Alkins might be the diamond in the rough in this draft. According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, he averages 2.1 possessions per game in the pick-and-roll and is in the 88th percentile of ball handlers in the play in the country. He’s also the rare young player who already rates as an excellent defender across multiple categories: pick-and-rolls, isolations, and chasing players around screens. Alkins has an NBA-ready body and an intriguing skill set, and he could power his way into the first round of the draft with a strong performance this weekend.
D.J. Wilson, Michigan
Moritz Wagner had a breakout performance in Michigan’s 73–69 victory over Louisville in the second round, but his frontcourt partner, junior D.J. Wilson, is the player NBA scouts are really tracking carefully. At 6-foot-10 and 240 pounds with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, Wilson is a versatile player who can stretch defenses out to the 3-point line (36.3 percent from 3 on 2.8 attempts per game) and put the ball on the floor and finish in traffic. He’s also an intriguing defensive prospect who averages 1.5 blocks and 0.5 steals a game and rates as one of the best pick-and-roll defenders among big men in the country, according to Synergy.
He put himself on the map a round earlier, with 19 points, five rebounds, and four blocks in Michigan’s win over Oklahoma State. Wilson is a mismatch nightmare at the college level because of his ability to take bigger players off the dribble and smaller players into the post. Wilson is a better athlete than Wagner, and he has already had several electrifying dunks in the tournament. He’s exactly the type of player NBA teams are looking for at the power forward position.
Michigan’s Sweet 16 game against Oregon will be a great test for Wilson, who will likely start the game on Dillon Brooks, the Pac-12 Player of the Year. At 6-foot-7 and 225 pounds, Brooks is exactly the type of combo forward that Wilson will be matching up against at the next level, so it will be a great opportunity for him to prove he can stay in front of a smaller player on defense and use his size to score over the top of Brooks on offense. If Wilson and Wagner can get rolling at the same time this weekend, there’s no telling how far Michigan can advance.