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What Has the NCAA Tournament Taught Us About the 2017 NBA Draft?

Our resident draft experts revise their top fives, point out a few under-the-radar players, and take a look at some disappointing performances from top-tier lottery prospects

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

By Kevin O’Connor, Jonathan Tjarks, and Danny Chau

With most of the best prospects in the lottery knocked out of the NCAA tournament, The Ringer’s resident draftniks huddled together to answer five questions about how March Madness affected their thoughts on this year’s draft class.

How does your top five look now compared with before the tournament?

Kevin O’Connor: Before the tournament, my top five was Markelle Fultz, Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, and Lauri Markkanen. With all of the top-tier prospects out of the tournament, here is my updated top five:

  1. Markelle Fultz
  2. Lonzo Ball
  3. Josh Jackson
  4. Jayson Tatum
  5. Malik Monk

I bumped Markkanen down and moved Monk up to no. 5. My changes are boring, I know. But during the season I put more thought into placing players into tiers rather than rankings. After the season I reevaluate each prospect within each tier and then establish a definitive order. There’s a lot of evaluation that still must occur, even though the tournament is over for all but four teams.

Jonathan Tjarks: The only major change I’d make to my top five is sliding Lonzo Ball down a spot from no. 2 to no. 3.

  1. Fultz
  2. Jonathan Isaac
  3. Ball
  4. Jackson
  5. Markkanen

I, too, view the draft in tiers, and I had Lonzo and Fultz as the top tier coming into the tourney. I might be overreacting a bit to the Kentucky game, but now I’m thinking Lonzo is solidly in Tier 2, along with Isaac and Jackson. Isaac is the guy I’m higher on than most, because I think his talent was somewhat hidden on a poorly coached Florida State team and he projects to have a valuable role at the next level, wherever he lands.

Isaac is a 6-foot-10 forward who can shoot 3s, move the ball, and clean the glass, and he has the defensive chops to play as a small-ball 5 and switch screens against point guards. FSU never played Isaac at the 5 this season, and he’s not big enough to handle the league’s bigger centers, but there’s no reason he couldn’t man up someone like Nerlens Noel, and having a player with his skill set at the 5 would allow for some killer lineups. He gets knocked because he hasn’t shown he can be a primary initiator, but he has a lot of potential to improve on offense if he’s going up against bigger and slower defenders — and he can still be insanely valuable as an off-ball player.

Danny Chau: I’ve reluctantly invited De’Aaron Fox to the party, dropping Markkanen.

  1. Fultz
  2. Ball
  3. Jackson
  4. Isaac
  5. Fox

There will be front-office decision-makers who rewatch Fox’s 39-point game against UCLA (which basically puts an asterisk next to the number, but still!) and home in on Fox’s touch on his running floaters, his remarkable body control in the air, and his poise. They’ll be whispering under their breath, We can fix you. I fall into the trappings of that line of thinking, which is why I am not a GM. In the final 10 games of the season, Fox was taking two 3-pointers a game and hitting them at a 47.4 percent clip — the sample is jarringly small, but that he was able to address his perceived weaknesses in real time means something to me. There is a sense that Fox, even as the freshman conductor of an Elite Eight team, has latent talents that haven’t yet risen to the top.

Who is your favorite under-the-radar player of the tournament in this draft?

Tjarks: I’m really intrigued by Cameron Oliver at Nevada, who lost in the first round to Iowa State. Any player with his combination of 3-point shooting (38.4 percent on 4.9 attempts this season) and shot-blocking (2.6 a game) has a chance to be special. He doesn’t have great length, but he’s an absolutely absurd athlete who can play way above the rim like it’s nothing. I’ve talked to some NBA people about Oliver, and they’ve relayed concern about his feel for the game and his effort level, but I wonder how much of that was playing on a Nevada team that didn’t have a point guard and struggled to execute in the half court. It’s hard for a big to be totally checked in when his guards are constantly throwing up nonsense. If I’m looking for second-round sleepers, I want to roll the dice on guys with some tremendous upside potential, and that’s Oliver in a nutshell. He has the talent to be a lottery pick.

Chau: If big-time Arizona commit DeAndre Ayton’s sources are legit and freshman Kobi Simmons does indeed declare for the draft, I like the 6-foot-5 combo guard as an early second-round flier. He was one of the more productive freshmen in the nation through his first 20 games, averaging 12.1 points, 2.3 rebounds, and 2.6 assists in that span, capped off with an outstanding performance in a win against UCLA, tallying 20 points, six rebounds, five assists, two steals, and only one turnover. He’s a phenomenal athlete with quick hands, excellent lateral agility, and a reported max vertical leap of 45 inches. Allonzo Trier’s return to the team after a lengthy suspension altered the Wildcats’ dynamic from top to bottom, and no player was more affected than Simmons, who effectively went from rising starter to benchwarmer; he played single-digit minutes in six of his final seven games of the season. Evidently, he won’t be an immediate contributor to any NBA team he’d land on, but the league is in constant search of versatile, 3-and-D athletes who can also serve as secondary creators off the bench. Simmons has the template for that kind of development.

O’Connor: Kansas State’s Wesley Iwundu is a 6-foot-7 wing with a smooth game and versatile skills that NBA teams value. He can switch between guards and wings on defense, and offensively he can take on playmaking responsibilities. Iwundu is particularly advanced running the pick-and-roll, and it’s easy to envision a team using him as a “big guard” off the bench. The question is whether his shot is for real. He made strides as a senior after tweaking his mechanics, but there’s still room to grow. If he improves his shot, he could have a long career.

Which Final Four standout has a better chance at sneaking into the first round: Jordan Bell or Sindarius Thornwell?

O’Connor: Jordan Bell is dope. In the Elite Eight he appropriately looked elite, swatting away eight shots for Oregon. No one could score near the rim against him. It’s like he was using a cheat code. But more important than the quantity of the blocks is the quality: a number of them were chase-down blocks born of pure hustle. He showed fast-twitch leaping ability. His lateral quickness was impressive when rotating to protect the rim and defending the perimeter. Sticking with guards and wings is ever so important for modern NBA players. Bell has a short wingspan, though he makes up for it with his athleticism and a lean frame, so he might not be able to hold his ground or rebound well against stronger bigs. His physical dimensions may hold him back, but for a projected second-rounder his versatile skills may make him an appealing choice for a team late in the first round.

Tjarks: I think Bell is the better player, but South Carolina’s Thornwell probably has a better chance of sneaking into the first round because it’s easier to project him into a role at the next level. Bell has taken a big step forward in the tournament because he’s playing as a small-ball center next to four perimeter players following the injury to Chris Boucher, but he will be really undersized for the 5 position at the next level (6-foot-9 and 225 pounds with a 6-foot-11 wingspan). There are so many 5s in this draft and not enough teams that need one. Thornwell is a classic 3-and-D guy — he was the SEC Player of the Year and first-team All-SEC defense — and he has the frame (6-foot-5 and 211 pounds with a 6-foot-9 wingspan) to make up for his lack of elite quickness. You will hear this comp about a lot of older wings in the next few drafts, but there’s some Malcolm Brogdon in his game.

Chau: Ah, yes, the Brogdon comparison. The surprise dark-horse ROY contender out of Milwaukee has done more to advance the notion that prospects past the age of 21 should not be considered senior citizens by NBA front offices than we’ll ever know. Although, should Thornwell improve upon his résumé this weekend, maybe teams won’t need to rationalize their love for him as a potential first-round talent through the success of another. What stands out to me about Thornwell is how much bigger he seems on the court compared with what the actual measurables read. He hits from deep and he scraps for second-chance buckets with the same zeal; with his length, he can stay with most guards, and also defend low on the block. This isn’t exactly a sexy comparison, but what if P.J. Tucker didn’t need five years abroad to find himself as a basketball player?

Did we learn anything new about Lonzo Ball or De’Aaron Fox in the tournament?

Tjarks: Coming into the tourney, I thought Lonzo had really narrowed the gap with Markelle Fultz and made it a two-man draft at the top. However, the way he played against Fox in UCLA’s Sweet 16 loss has me really concerned about how he’s going to hang athletically with the top point guards at the next level, especially since Fox also got the better of him in their regular-season matchup. I thought what happened in that game was more about Ball than Fox. Lonzo just doesn’t have the top-shelf athleticism to get down in a stance and guard quicker, NBA-caliber point guards. It’s hard for him to create shots off the dribble against elite perimeter defenders for the same reason (and due to the mechanics of his shot). He could really struggle against someone like Avery Bradley, and I’m not sure how great he’d be in the two-man game, either.

All that said, I still think Lonzo will be awesome. He will be better on defense as he puts on weight and he has the size (6-foot-6) to match up with 2s, where he won’t have as pronounced of a disadvantage with quickness, and he would offer a ton of value as a secondary initiator in an up-tempo offense instead of a guy who is forced to create shots for everyone in the half court. I’m just not sure he’s exceptional enough in his strengths to where I would ignore fit and take him over Isaac and Jackson.

Chau: No, we’re still looking at two of the most polarizing players in the draft, who, along with Josh Jackson, have set the agenda for draft evaluation this season. We are all beholden to S.C.R.E.A.M (Shooting Consistently Rules Everything Around Me) — and the shifting league dynamic forces us to consider how any deficiency in one’s ability to shoot might be able to derail an entire career trajectory. Both Ball and Fox had highs and lows in the tournament that more or less correspond with our assumptions and biases in either direction. I don’t think Fox’s performance means he’s leapfrogged some of his peers in the point guard class, nor do I think Ball’s muted performance against Fox is indicative of his viability in the pro game. Lonzo is still, in my opinion, the most interesting NBA prospect of the decade as a generational talent — not in that he is a surefire Hall of Famer, but in how his style of play distills the essence of this era. Fox provokes thought, but not nearly in such abstract terms — for him, it really boils down to how much he can be the aggressor in the NBA, and whether he falls into a similar hesitance from the outside against better, smarter, stronger opposition the way he did at Kentucky earlier this season.

O’Connor: The short answer is no. We didn’t learn anything new since these players had matched up once before (and the result was similar). Their strengths and weaknesses are already established. But as I alluded to in the first answer, I’m at the stage where I’m reevaluating prospects. The Ball-Fox matchup was essentially a repeat of the first one, with Fox completely outplaying Ball. My rankings may not have shifted much yet, but my focus and thinking has. You need to hear as many opinions as you can, even if those dissenting voices come from within. I’m playing devil’s advocate to myself. I recommend finding your own Tyler Durden. I’m also seeking out contrasting opinions from other humans because other perspectives can enhance and clarify my own.

You’ll find that not everyone loves Lonzo like LaVar loves Lonzo. Their reasons were largely confirmed and solidified watching Fox completely outplay Ball for a second time. Here are three facts:

  • Ball isn’t a great athlete at the league’s most athletic position.
  • Ball’s strange shot works, but only in certain situations (as I wrote about here).
  • Ball’s lean frame and relaxed attitude may limit his defensive upside.

I came into this season perceiving Ball as a mid-late lottery pick. So what changed? Did I fall victim to riding the wave of his tremendously exciting college season and overlook my initial and still-valid concerns? Does that mean I should shuffle my draft board and push Ball back down to the spot I had him before? Or did I originally undervalue him in the first place by not comprehending how immense his passing talent is? Ball is to passing as prime Blake Griffin is to dunking. Ball has it. I know you’re probably reading this looking for answers, but maybe what we really need is to first ask ourselves more questions.

There were many top-flight lotto forwards who had relatively poor performances; which one is most concerning?

Chau: A glance at the stats over Tatum’s final 15 games of the season would tell you most of what you needed to know about him: 17.5 points on 46 percent shooting (37.7 from 3). He was one of the best scorers in the country, and it’s his ability to score in isolation that serves as the bulk of his appeal at the next level. Pass him the rock, wind him up, and let him go. He certainly passes the eye test as a reliable NBA player in the phylum of players like Carmelo Anthony, Rudy Gay, or Jabari Parker — it’s the rest of his game that still gives me pause in terms of hailing him as a top-five prospect. Tatum’s final college basketball game was solid — 15 points on 50 percent shooting from 2 and 3 — but considering the stakes, and considering his singular ability to create his own shot on that team, it was disappointing to see him completely vanish for a 10-minute stretch when Duke was trying to claw back against South Carolina in the second round. When that’s the basis of your brand as a prospect, and especially when that brand is so heavily linked to late-game execution, it wasn’t the greatest end to a college career.

Tjarks: A bad performance in the tourney doesn’t necessarily mean anything in and of itself. It becomes a concern when it ties into a pattern from the regular season. That’s what we saw with Markkanen in Arizona’s Sweet 16 loss to Xavier. The Musketeers played a lot of wing players around one big man, which forced Lauri to guard on the perimeter and have to create his shot against smaller and quicker defenders, two things he has struggled with and that he will have to do a lot at the next level. It was the same thing against Xavier as what happened in their two games against Oregon this season. He averaged 7.5 points and two boards against the Ducks, and teams will go small against him in the NBA until he proves he can handle it.

O’Connor: I feel better about Kansas forward Josh Jackson now than I did prior to the tournament. Just watch what he did against Michigan State:

But Jackson’s 10-point, eight-shot performance in Kansas’s Elite Eight loss to Oregon brought back some of my concerns. I already wrote about my worries about his shot here (in a nutshell, I don’t think he’ll be a good NBA shooter unless he makes changes to his mechanics, and his poor 56.6 free throw percentage is a strong indicator of that). What I’m thinking about is the other stuff that was apparent against the Ducks.

Jackson is a frantic, frenzied player and that hurt him in the Jayhawks’ loss. He fell into early foul trouble and it felt like he was pressing the entire game offensively. He was tense. Personality matters, and it’s not just alleged off-court stuff that must be accounted for when assessing Jackson as a prospect. I wonder if he got into his own head. Jackson has always been a reactive, incendiary player. Sometimes he channels that energy; other times it gets the best of him. Jayhawks head coach Bill Self could’ve done a better job of integrating Jackson into the offense (rather than letting Frank Mason III jack up 20 shots), but it still would’ve been nice to see Jackson rise above the adversity rather than succumb to it in what was the biggest game of his life.