NBA Draft 2014: Previewing Top Mid-Major Conference Tournament Prospects

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterMarch 6, 2014

NBA Draft 2014: Previewing Top Mid-Major Conference Tournament Prospects

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    Sarah Bentham/Associated Press

    There will be a few NBA prospects playing in some of the mid-major tournaments coming up, and they deserve the attention of draft fans everywhere. 

    This is a chance to see some of those sleeper prospects who rarely hit national television. And any tournament setting is an opportunity for a prospect to make a statement. 

    Every year we see players from lower-profile schools hear their names called on draft night. These are the guys who'll be in the conversation should they choose to declare in 2014. 

    Note: I did not consider the Big East Conference or the American Athletic Conference mid-major. 

Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette, 6'3", PG, Junior

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    Have you seen Elfrid Payton's numbers lately? He's averaging 19 points, six assists, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 steals a game for Louisiana-Lafayette, after spending the summer playing with USA's FIBA World Championship team in Prague. 

    There are only so many point guards who are able to drive to the rim for a dunk in the half court. Payton reminds you a bit of John Wall in that he can shake and bake off the dribble, explode to the rack and throw one down as opposed to having to lay it up. 

    He's super quick and shifty. Given how tough he is to contain, Payton does the majority of his damage within 15 feet of the rim.

    But his limited perimeter game has helped keep his draft stock in check. Payton has only hit eight three-pointers all season, and despite his uncanny ability to get to the line nine times a night, he's only shooting 63.1 percent. 

    Still, he's ranked No. 8 in the country in points produced, and a shaky outside stroke shouldn't keep the NBA guys from checking in. 

    Payton has been a two-way fireball this season, and with loads of production to show for it and plenty of room to grow, the 2014 first round isn't that long of a shot.  

    “I had several scouts that came in my room, in the coaches’ room, before we played at UT Arlington and at Texas State, and visited with all those guys,” coach Bob Marlin told Tim Buckley of The Advertiser. “And there’s a chance Elfrid could go in the first round. We’ll see. It fluctuates daily, and it depends who you ask.” 

Cleanthony Early, Wichita State, 6'8", SF, Senior

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    After playing a major role in the Shockers' 2013 run to the Final Four, Cleanthony Early has followed up strong in 2014.

    He's the leading scorer for the No. 2 team in the country—not a bad title to own. 

    Early sure fits the physical profile of an NBA wing with 6'8" size, smooth athleticism and long arms. 

    He's developed into a pretty tough cover when facing up on the perimeter, too, where he can jab-step into a jumper or beat defenders with a quick first step. He's also shooting nearly 36 percent from downtown this season, and it appears he's tied up a few loose ends following last year's breakout. 

    Early is going to have a phenomenal opportunity to boost his draft stock this postseason, given how good his team is and how far it could go. If he is able to take the Shockers on another meaningful run with everybody watching, it would look awfully good on his resume. 

Deonte Burton, Nevada, 6'1", PG, Senior

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    We've seen Deonte Burton's scoring average gradually rise with each season at Nevada, and now he's putting up nearly 20 points a game as a senior. 

    Burton is one of those potent offensive weapons who's just unstoppable when in the zone. He's relentless attacking the rim, where he can finish after contact or above traffic thanks to a devastating blend of strength and explosiveness.

    DraftExpress is both sweet and sour on Burton:

    Burton ranks among the top point guards in this draft class in a variety of categories, but is completely off the national media's radar and looks to be struggling to move the needle on his draft stock playing for a dysfunctional team that sports a mediocre 12-14 record in the Mountain West Conference. Nevertheless, he shows intriguing potential in a number of areas and might end up being a better pro than many thought coming out of college.

    He's an inconsistent but capable shooter—Burton's percentages aren't too impressive, but he's gone off on the perimeter before, like when he nailed four three-pointers against UCLA and five against Wyoming. 

    Without much support around him, Burton has always been relied on to score, so his poor assist-to-turnover ratios can be taken with a slight grain of salt. 

    Whether you view him as a point guard or a combo guard, there's no doubting his NBA-caliber tools, including high-level athleticism and dangerous playmaking ability. 

    And he's no slouch on defense either. 

    If an NBA team feels it can mold him into a scoring backup point guard, someone might be inclined reach late in Round 1, even if his postseason ends early.

Kendall Williams, New Mexico, 6'4", PG/SG, Senior

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    Troy Babbitt-USA TODAY Sports

    Kendall Williams has had a pretty darn good year, and one that I'm not sure enough people have really appreciated. 

    He's averaging nearly 17 points and over five assists a game while shooting it 41.4 percent from downtown.

    Williams has really been solid all year round, and he's produced against superior and inferior competition in every which way. He recently went for seven assists and one turnover in a strong win over No. 7-ranked San Diego State after dumping 29 points on UNLV in a road win. 

    And scouts had to be pleased earlier in the year when he scored 24 points against Kansas on 7-of-13 shooting.

    Williams is a big-time athlete who can handle the ball, create for teammates or take over games as a scorer. He's more of a combo guard than a point guard, but overall, he is a flat-out playmaker. 

    New Mexico could be dangerous this postseason, and if it is, it's probably going to be Williams who powers the run. Consider him a second-round prospect who could benefit from a head-turning conference or NCAA tournament. 

    In a big win over UNLV during the regular season, Williams explained his pass-first mentality (via

    “I’m always going to look for my guys first,” Williams said.

Alec Brown, Green Bay, 7'1", C, Senior

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    Andy Manis/Associated Press

    Alec Brown had the monster year he desperately needed to have after falling off a bit as a junior in 2012-13. 

    At 7'1", 235 pounds, it's no secret what drives his appeal. But Brown can play—he averaged 15.8 points this season, and he continued to demonstrate some lights-out touch on the perimeter. 

    How many guys his size can nail 41 three-pointers at a scorching 44.1 percent clip? He shot 42.9 percent from behind the arc last season, and he's shot above 72 percent from the stripe in all four years at Green Bay. 

    As a scorer, he's slow but fluid in the post. However, it's that shooting stroke that's going to be his offensive money-maker wherever he ends up. 

    Brown was also just named the Horizon League Defensive Player of the Year, averaging 3.3 blocks a game.

    He's really blown up on a few separate occasions this year, with his most memorable performance against Fairfield when he went for 40 points on 14-of-15 from the line and 12-of-17 shooting from the floor. 

    Unfortunately, Brown plays a finesse brand of ball, and when you're his size and only have two double-digit rebounding games all year, it's going to raise some flags.

    Still, with few standout centers in the field and Brown offering a combo package of rim protection and pick-and-pop potential, he's likely to get himself some NBA looks.

Xavier Thames, San Diego State, 6'2", PG, Senior

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    Otto Kitsinger/Associated Press

    Xavier Thames had himself a breakout senior year as San Diego State's catalyst. 

    He averaged over 16 points a game on 40.5 percent shooting from downtown this season, and he's erupted on quite a few occasions. 

    Thames went for 26 points in a win over Creighton, 29 in a win over Marquette, 28 in a win over Fresno State and 31 in a win against Utah State. 

    He's a scoring point guard who can take over a game with the ball in his hands, whether he's attacking the rim and weaving through traffic or pulling up from 24 feet away. 

    At 23 years old, this is Thames' last shot. It would be good for him if he's able to put this team on his back and power it through a couple of postseason tournaments.