NCAA Tournament NBA Draft Watch: Six Prospects Teams Will Watch Closely
Mitchell Leff/Getty Images. Pictured: Jarace Walker (Houston)
While college basketball’s die-hard fans have been locked into this season since the fall, March Madness provides a chance for more casual fans to parachute into the chaos for a month of fun.
That group includes NBA fans, who get a little bit of extra basketball in their lives via the NCAA Tournament, but also a glance into the future of the pros.
The NCAA Tournament provides a spotlight in the basketball world that turns first-round picks into lottery selections and little known players into household names.
Let’s explore some future lottery picks, with a chance to improve their draft stock this month.
Top NBA Prospects in NCAA Tournament
Brandon Miller, Alabama Crimson Tide
In recent weeks, even the most casual sports fan has likely become aware of Miller and his situation at Alabama. For those that may have missed it, Miller’s former teammate, Darius Miles, has been charged in the fatal shooting of a woman in January. In late February, law enforcement testified that Miller brought the gun that was used in the murder to the scene of the altercation.
Tuscaloosa police added that Miller had not and would not be charged with a crime. Despite any potential involvement in this case, Miller has never been suspended or missed any time playing for the Tide.
In total, the resulting situation has made for uncomfortable times in college basketball. The best player and leading scorer on the top overall seed in the NCAA Tournament is embroiled in a murder case, even if his involvement is tangential.
For NBA scouts, a litany of questions surely have popped up, with the answers those questions critical to Miller’s future. Prior to this news hitting the airwaves, Miller was the most promising NBA prospect in college hoops. As a 6-foot-9 swingman, Miller is shooting 40 percent from long range and acting as a primary creator in one of the most high-octane offenses in the country.
In many ways, Miller reminds me of Paul George, but Miller is scoring more points per game, grabbing more rebounds, and shooting a better 3-point percentage than George did in his two years in college — Miller faced one of the 10 hardest schedules this season and George played in the WAC.
Miller’s promise is off the charts and we’re likely to see that on the court in the next three weeks. Hopefully we also receive some clarity and resolution about his involvement in the tragedy that occurred in Tuscaloosa.
Jarace Walker, Houston Cougars
Last year, Houston won the American Athletic Conference and made the Elite Eight despite injuries to Marcus Sasser and Tramon Mark. Most of last year’s team returned, propelling the Cougars onto the short list of national title contenders.
When I first saw the Cougars take the floor back in November, my jaw nearly dropped. Kelvin Sampson brought back the bones of a very good team and added freshman Jarace Walker, a 6-foot-8, 240-lb forward who is built like a superhero. Walker also shoots about the national average from beyond the arc and can defend anyone in the frontcourt.
Not only is he built like the perfect NBA prospect, Walker is in the perfect position to be evaluated. He doesn’t need to generate offense, working instead off the creation of experienced veteran guards. He sees plenty of open looks thanks to Jamal Shead’s passing vision and defenses skewing towards Sasser.
Perhaps best of all, on the defensive end he’s joined by a pack of junkyard dogs and coached by Sampson, who has led a top-25 defense each of the past six seasons.
March should give Walker a chance to show how much he has grown this year, especially offensively. From November to New Year’s Day, Walker averaged 8.8 points on 7.7 field goal attempts per game. Since then, he’s posted 12.9 points per game on 10.7 field goal attempts. Six of his nine games with 15+ points have come after the halfway point of the season.
If he can continue to showcase added offensive aggressiveness, Walker could become a consensus top-five pick.
Keyonte George, Baylor Bears
There is a long list of reasons to be impressed by Keyonte George. His athleticism for a guard his size is off the charts. He’s shown the ability to score at every level of the defense. When he gets hot shooting the ball, there are few players who can score as quickly and repetitively as George.
Maybe the most impressive thing in George’s favor is his emergence as the leading scorer and highest usage player for a team stacked with veterans. Adam Flagler taking a backseat to a freshman is a noticeable occurrence, especially because it has been warranted.
Flagler may be the guy Baylor wants taking the big shot in crunch time, yet Scott Drew knows that the Bears’ ceiling is determined by how aggressive and effective George looks this month.
NBA scouts will have a keen eye on his defense, which has ebbed and flowed with the rest of his teammates, stuck trying to make up for size and length issues in the lineup.
Gradey Dick, Kansas Jayhawks
At the top of every NBA Draft, every team is picking with the intention of drafting a future star. The first handful of players taken are all projected to be the lead ball-handler or bucket getter for their new NBA team.
At a certain point, usually late in the lottery, some teams are more willing to bet on a player who has a higher floor, but lower ceiling. Teams drafting in that range need to decide they want to try to develop a player with a small chance of becoming a star, but who has a potential to bust, or if they prefer a player with a defined non-star role in the NBA, where that player could really thrive.
For many teams, Gradey Dick will embody that decision. I don’t know that he has the ceiling to be an All-Star in the NBA. I do know that he may be the best pure shooter in this draft class, making 40 percent from long range while taking many of those shots off movement, with a hand in his face, or in crowded spaces.
His size and athleticism make Dick project as a good, but not all-league type of defender. It’s his lack of playmaking off the bounce that would leave teams thinking Dick can’t rise to stardom.
If he chooses the NBA this summer, he’ll hear his name called in the first half of the first round, yet part of me hopes that in a world with NIL money, Dick would return to Kansas. He’d be an early contender for All-American and potentially National Player of the Year honors next season.
If he could show more playmaking ability off the bounce, playing in a larger role in the Jayhawks lineup, he could emerge as one of the most coveted prospects amid a very mediocre 2024 NBA Draft class.
Nick Smith Jr. & Anthony Black, Arkansas Razorbacks
I’ll cheat a bit here and lump these two freshman teammates in as our final entry. It’s hard to believe that a team with two potential lottery picks is only an 8-seed.
That is misleading, though, because Smith has only played 14 games. Since he’s fully recovered from injury, Smith has been a mixed bag with mostly encouraging results. He’s less efficient than a player with his physical gifts should be at this level, posting some wonky shooting nights and high turnover performances.
No player could potentially raise their stock more than Smith, who could really tip the scales in his own favor due to the small sample we’ve seen so far.
His teammate, Black, may be the higher upside prospect. As a 6-foot-7 point guard, Black is a matchup nightmare against college players. His shooting and decision-making aren’t quite at the level to make him really pop off the screen, but with the right coaching and system at the next level, he could be a star.
If the Hogs can advance to face Kansas, NBA teams will be very interested to see how Smith and Black co-exist while facing one of the best teams in college hoops.
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