In the life of an NBA prospect, there is no bigger showcase than the NCAA tournament.
Each year, every NBA team sends scouts across each region looking to get a real impression of how players fare against top competition. Other than individual workouts, the results of which are almost never publicized, the NCAA tournament is the most important event for these young players.
Most of that is because teams put an inordinate amount of weight on tournament performances—oftentimes to their own detriment. History is littered with tournament darlings who flamed out because, well, they weren’t that good to begin with.
In the age of five billion sports-related television channels, SportsVU cameras and other breaking technology, the problem is far less pronounced than in years' past. Coaches and scouts walk into the NCAA tournament with a far better idea of who these players are than they even did five years ago.
The system still isn’t perfect. Recency bias is an endemic that strikes all human beings in one way or another, and we oftentimes forget team executives answer to ownership. Outside of a few rare exceptions (see: Jordan, Jeffrey Michael), owners aren’t breaking down film on a nightly basis. They do, however, watch the NCAA tournament intently—especially if heading up a lottery team.
With that, top players’ draft stocks are always hanging by their knickers in March. One bad string of games, and say hello to the D-League, Perry Jones. A titillating rampage through the Big Dance can have an equal and opposite effect—just ask the checkbooks of Jimmer Fredette, Kemba Walker and plenty of others.
With that in mind, here is a complete breakdown of a few guys who will see their draft stocks rise after a great March Madness run.
Ben McLemore (SG, Kansas Jayhawks)
The 2013 draft class is largely considered a “weak” class, so the consensus regarding the No. 1 pick will likely not be set until the lottery. Team needs will be a massive factor this season, and if a team—let’s say Washington—gets the pick, McLemore would likely fall to the second pick.
That being said, McLemore has become the consensus best player on just about every pundits’ prospect rankings—especially following Nerlens Noel’s ACL tear. A 6’5” shooting guard with more physical skills than he can count, McLemore has averaged 16.4 points and 5.3 rebounds per contest while scoring from just about anywhere on the floor.
The freshman guard has three games of 30-plus points this season, each of which were astounding in their efficiency. In those three contests, McLemore made 31 of his 41 shots, including 17-of-22 from beyond the arc.
Those indicate McLemore’s all-around virtuoso skill set. He’s a boundless leaper who could win a dunk contest someday—you know, if good players would actually enter the dunk contest—and has a smooth stroke nearly on par with Bradley Beal, last season’s No. 3 pick.
When taking a look at their regional opponents, it becomes clear just how critical McLemore’s excellence will be.
Kansas comes into the NCAA tournament as a No. 1 seed in the South Region, which is filled with NBA-level talent. Otto Porter of Georgetown, Shabazz Muhammad of UCLA and Michigan’s Trey Burke all adorn the region and are possible lottery picks this June. With Florida also posing a major threat—the Gators have the ability to look like the best team in the nation—Kansas is going to have to be “on” in each game following the round of 64.
Center Jeff Withey, himself a first-round NBA prospect, bears some responsibility stepping on the defensive end. But it’s McLemore who everyone will be watching, and keeping the Jayhawks afloat falls at his feet.
If what we’ve seen this season is any indication, he should get the job done. McLemore has consistency issues, but has usually come through when Kansas has needed him most.
Look for the Jayhawks to make the Final Four and McLemore to emerge as a Most Outstanding Player candidate, cementing himself as the draft’s best player in the process.
Kelly Olynyk (C, Gonzaga Bulldogs)
It’s become the in-vogue trend to call Gonzaga the “weakest” No. 1 seed in this year’s tournament. The Bulldogs rampaged through a conference where their toughest competition was Saint Mary’s, and they have two losses against Butler and Illinois that stand out as questionable.
They are seen as not just a threat to miss the Final Four—but to fall as early in the second round. The argument goes that Gonzaga did not face tests and has an inflated record based on its schedule.
It’s the basis for the disrespect Olynyk gets as an NBA prospect. The seven-footer is averaging 17.5 points and 7.2 rebounds while emerging as a National Player of the Year candidate and ascendant young talent.
Heading into the 2012-13 season, Olynyk was completely off the radar. He voluntarily redshirted last season to give himself an extra year of eligibility and was not exactly a peach prospect before that seemingly strange decision.
Prior to redshirting in 2011-12, Olynyk’s career highs were 5.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and five total blocks for an entire season. This year, Olynyk has more than tripled his scoring output, nearly doubled his rebounding and added over a block per game to his arsenal.
He still resembles a forward in a center’s body than anything else. The rebounding and defensive numbers aren’t where NBA teams will want them to be, especially considering the skills advantage Olynyk had at Gonzaga.
But what sticks out about Olynyk—and what truly makes Gonzaga a serious tournament threat—is the young man’s versatility. He has a silky smooth face-up game up game, is an improved low-post threat and is a solid enough athlete around the basket.
When taking a look at Gonzaga’s side of the bracket, Olynyk could very well get tested early. Pittsburgh’s Steven Adams is a strong, defensive-minded athletic marvel down low who can lock down just about anyone in the country. Assuming the Panthers get get through their first matchup, that game will either be ground zero or propel the Bulldogs.
Something tells me we’ve all undervalued Gonzaga (and as a result Olynyk). The ‘Zags won’t be making the Final Four—congratulations in advance, Ohio State—but an Elite Eight run should both keep the critics quiet and get Olynyk some very real lottery consideration.
Victor Oladipo (G, Indiana Hoosiers)
Cody Zeller (C, Indiana Hoosiers)
Though we’ve using this space to discuss only individual prospects, choosing between Oladipo and Zeller is an impossibility. Both men are upcoming first-round picks that can make themselves stone-cold locks (which they likely already are) for the lottery by leading the Hoosiers to the Final Four—something they will do with relative ease.
By now, we all know the breakdown on both players. Oladipo is a late-blooming star who may be the best on-ball defender in college basketball and has drawn comparisons to Dwyane Wade. We’re not going to go that far, but there is no player more efficient, explosive or with a higher motor in college basketball.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Oladipo’s game is that he knows what he’s good at. He’s made just under 60 percent of his shots this season, and most of which were around the rim. Though the junior guard is quietly honing an increasingly efficient outside game, he doesn’t waste any shot attempt.
If you’re looking for a reason Indiana ranks as the best offense in college basketball by a country mile, per Ken Pomeroy, it starts with Oladipo.
If you’re looking for the second reason, look no further than Zeller. The sophomore seven-footer has taken every solid aspect of his game from last season and exemplified it in 2012-13. He’s averaging 16.9 points and 8.2 rebounds per game while hitting over 57 percent of his shots and emerging with an assorted array of post moves.
Zeller still needs to improve his strength to become an every-night NBA starter, but that won’t matter in March. There is no player on the entire East Region who can match up with him and he remains Indiana’s best overall player. Though I have Oladipo and UNLV’s Anthony Bennett higher on my board as a pro, Zeller will be the driving force behind the Hoosiers.
How far will he take them? Well, let’s just say there will be some net-cutting involved—and not just in Washington D.C.
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