March Madness hasn't done the New Orleans Hornets any favors in their search for a prospect who can lead the team out of the NBA's basement. Many of this year's top prospects were eliminated early in the NCAA tournament, leaving the door open for other players to raise their draft stock.
Traditionally, strong performances in the NCAA tournament have helped prospects move up draft boards. Last year, eight of ESPN's Chad Ford's Top 10 made it to the Elite Eight. Six of those eight were taken in the top seven of the 2012 NBA draft.
However, that won't be the case this year.
Of the first 10 players in ESPN's Chad Ford's Top 100, only two (Syracuse PG Michael Carter-Williams and Michigan PG Trey Burke) still remain in the tournament heading into the Final Four. Burke has been the best player in the tournament so far and his draft stock is steadily rising.
Meanwhile, half of the remaining eight prospects (Georgetown's Otto Porter, UNLV's Anthony Bennett, UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad and Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart) couldn't even make it out of the first round of March Madness. Kentucky's Nerlens Noel, Ford's top prospect, is recovering from a torn ACL and his Wildcats didn't even make the tournament.
With so much uncertainty at the top, the Hornets can go in a number of directions. They have a glaring need at small forward, but could also upgrade at point guard and center. As of April 2, New Orleans has the sixth-worst record in the NBA at 26-48, which should lead to another high draft choice in the lottery.
Who ends up in New Orleans will depend on what prospects declare and how the Hornets fare in the May 27 lottery. In their most recent mock draft, NBADraft.net has New Orleans picking sixth and taking Maryland center Alex Len.
Len is averaging nearly 12 points and eight rebounds per game for the Terrapins in his sophomore season. He's also helping out on the defensive end by contributing two blocks a night. At just 19 years old, Len could develop under current starter Robin Lopez before eventually forming a frontcourt tandem with current rookie Anthony Davis.
In other mock draft news, Bleacher Report's own Jonathan Wasserman has the Hornets using the No. 6 pick on Indiana guard/forward Victor Oladipo. Oladipo won The Sporting News' Player of the Year honors and helped lead the Hoosiers to the Sweet 16 this season.
At 6'5" and 210 pounds, Oladipo might be better suited to play shooting guard in the pros. He brings a lot of athleticism and energy to the table. He's also a solid defender, averaging 2.2 steals per game. Offensively, he's still a bit raw, but he's the kind of jack-of-all-trades that the Hornets could use in the lineup.
The Hornets couldn't go wrong opting for any of the other small forward options as well. UCLA's Shabazz Muhammad is a pure scorer who can help take some of the offensive load off of Eric Gordon's shoulders. Georgetown's Otto Porter is similar to Oladipo in that he can help out in a number of ways. UNLV's Anthony Bennett is an imposing physical specimen who could play either forward position.
Burke's excellent performance throughout March Madness makes him an interesting option for the Hornets, if none of the top tier small forwards are available. The team already has a point guard in Greivis Vasquez, but Burke might be too good to pass up.
At 6'0" and 190 pounds, Burke is a bit undersized for a point guard. Still, he's managed to be productive for the Wolverines and his recent play is a huge reason why Michigan is in the Final Four for the first time since 1994. The sophomore is averaging 18.8 points and 6.8 assists per game this season.
He had a big game against Kansas, leading Michigan to an overtime win that sent them to the Elite Eight. That night, Burke scored 23 points (including a late three that forced overtime) and dished out 10 assists.
In the highlight video from that game, you see Burke at his best. In the first minute of the clip, Burke is constantly getting others involved. He waits patiently for things to open up, then he penetrates. Once the defense closes on him, he delivers a pass to the open man. He's a willing facilitator, which is a nice surprise for a guy with his scoring acumen.
At the 55-second mark, we see some of that offense on display. He comes around the pick and nails the long three. A few seconds later, he goes coast-to-coast and gets the tough basket between two defenders. Even for someone with his lack of size, he's not afraid to attack the basket and initiate contact.
At the 1:12 spot, Burke dribbles through the Kansas defense and gets the bucket before being clobbered for the foul. At 3:40, Burke unleashes the biggest play of the game. After hitting a layup to make it a three-point game, he decides to take charge and drains the tough three-pointer to tie the game.
That willingness to take charge is the mark of a true leader. The Hornets could use another guy alongside Eric Gordon who has the heart to take over late in games. The jury is still out as to whether Austin Rivers can be that guy for them.
Burke gets another test on April 6 when he faces Syracuse and another point guard prospect in Michael Carter-Williams. If he declares, Burke has a chance of being the first point guard off the board. He could be taken by New Orleans or his rising stock could force a guy like Marcus Smart to fall to the Hornets.
Another prospect that has made some noise in the tournament is Gonzaga center Kelly Olynyk. The Hornets aren't in desperate need of a center, but the potential of a scorer like the Bulldogs big man makes him an intriguing option at the bottom of the top 10.
The junior averaged 17.8 points and 7.3 rebounds per game for the Bulldogs. He scored at least 20 points in both games Gonzaga played in the tournament. If drafted, he'd be an upgrade offensively over current starting center Robin Lopez.
Olynyk isn't without his limitations, though. He isn't particularly quick on his feet nor is a solid defender. He doesn't have the eye-popping athleticism of most elite NBA big men either. Still, for a team needing size and offense, Olynyk isn't a bad choice if the team falls out of the top six to eight picks.
Here's the big man against St. Mary's in a highlight reel from Gonzaga's win to clinch the WCC title. Olynyk finished with 21 points and 12 rebounds in this game. He also made a few quality plays worth keeping an eye on.
At the 28-second spot, he comes up with the steal and finishes with a nice slam. At the 38-second mark, we see Olynyk in the post for the easy basket. Olynyk shot nearly 63 percent from the floor this season and he's a dangerous weapon when he gets in the paint.
Forty-five seconds into the video, we get the icing on the cake. Olynyk is on the receiving end of an excellent bounce pass and finishes with a nasty one-handed jam. As good as he inside, the junior is also developing his outside shot. He shot 30 percent from the three-point line, which will get better as his jumper improves.
There aren't any safe choices in this draft and March Madness has unearthed very few new prospects, especially outside of Ann Arbor. Burke's emergence in this tournament can't be overlooked. He doesn't fill a need, but he could be an upgrade over Vasquez.
The Hornets' best strategy would be to opt for Porter or Mohammad, if either are on the board when New Orleans is on the clock. If both are gone, Bennett becomes a nice consolation prize. He isn't a natural small forward, but he'd be an intriguing prospect playing alongside Anthony Davis. The team could also take a long look at Burke and use Vasquez's breakout season as trade bait down the road.
In the event that the team gets unlucky in the lottery and is picking lower than expected, Carter-Williams and Olynyk are decent possibilities. They aren't ideal prospects nor do they represent huge upgrades over the team's current starters.
However, it is up to New Orleans GM Dell Demps to make the best out of a bad situation. This is one of the worst drafts in a long time. This year might be one of the rare occasions where the best rookies are the guys who were sent home early during March Madness.