It's been a productive freshman season for Kansas' Andrew Wiggins, who came in with expectations higher than any other prospect.
It's hard to argue 16 points a game for a title contender against the toughest schedule in the country.
But from day one of the regular season to the very last week, Wiggins' status as a transcendent, once-in-a-decade talent has faded.
Jerry West was the latest to question not just Wiggins, but this entire 2014 class. Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim isn't overly impressed with the group either. Plenty of debate has gone down over tanking and whether this class is even worth it.
And it's all an indirect knock on Wiggins, who was perceived as the headliner coming in.
The Philadelphia 76ers just lost every game they played in February. They're winless in March. And it's supposed to be all good because Andrew Wiggins might be on the way.
You can understand how that might frighten some people or sound delusional to others.
And that skepticism or doubt stems from Wiggins' on-and-off impact at Kansas. He can be great one week and lousy the next. He did have a rock-solid final month of the season, but Wiggins hit the 20-point mark only once since Feb. 1.
Even his best basketball just hasn't been that convincing. Since November, Wiggins has seemingly blended in with all the top prospects as opposed to standing out.
A lot of that has to do with the way Kansas runs its offense, as well as its depth and surplus of weapons, including upperclassmen.
But some games, you had to pause the television and count the guys on the floor to see if Wiggins was even out there.
1-of-5 shooting for three points against Oklahoma State, 2-of-12 in a loss to Texas, 4-of-14 in a loss to San Diego State—Wiggins was either off or a non-factor on too many occasions for him to maintain the superhero image.
And while Wiggins' production or performance fluctuated, his most direct draft-night competitor, Duke's Jabari Parker, has made the more consistent offensive impact from start to finish.
Based on the buzz, some supporters that were pro-Wiggins before the season have hopped onto Parker's bandwagon. Over the final month of this season, Wiggins will have his best opportunity to win back a fair amount of those turncoats.
When breaking down his NBA prospects, the weakness most commonly noted by scouts is his questionable mentality. His tendency is to take a backseat or disappear for stretches—it's just not a good look for a guy who a few general managers are hoping can come in and turn around their franchise.
But there isn't a better stage than the NCAA tournament for Wiggins to shake the "passive" label.
How good would it look on Wiggins' resume if he were to lead Kansas to the Final Four or a national championship? He certainly has the supporting cast to do it, and with big man Joel Embiid a little banged up, this is the perfect chance for Wiggins to make his move.
On the other hand, how bad would it look if the highly-ranked Jayhawks make an early exit from the dance after a no-show game from Wiggins?
The thing is, we've seen Wiggins activate takeover mode before. He just hasn't been able to sustain it for, in most cases, more than a half, let alone more than an entire game.
But when he's locked in and his confidence is pumping, Wiggins is capable of scoring in bunches and becoming Kansas' go-to offensive lightning rod. Take a look at some of Wiggins' best in-game stretches of the season when he's been able to put points on the board in a hurry:
|Takeover Ability: Scoring in Bunches (in-game scoring spurts)|
|vs. Texas||vs. Florida||vs. Iowa State||vs. TCU|
|Time it took||6:00||1:58||3:56||4:20|
While Wiggins has that electric athleticism that leads to easy buckets and free throws, he's also flashed a fairly sophisticated scoring arsenal, which he can tap into in one-on-one situations. He doesn't always need to wait for his shot.
Step-backs, pull-ups, spin moves into floaters, explosive drives to the rack—he's got the shot-creating capability to sink a defense on his own.
Down three with just over two minutes left against Oklahoma State, Wiggins had Marcus Smart isolated on the wing, where he hit him with two hard dribbles before pulling back, separating and knocking down the mid-range jumper while being fouled. (He would sink the and-one free throw that followed).
These are the types of basketball plays we wish we saw from Wiggins more frequently. The good news, though, is that we know he's got it in him.
Now is the time for him to put it all together and use his offensive tools to start taking over games—not just stretches.
Over the next month, Wiggins will have the opportunity to erase some of the doubts that been formed over the course of his freshman season. This is his chance to answer the critics who don't believe he can be "the guy." Skeptics won't have much ammo if Wiggins can take over and power Kansas deep into March.
The Jayhawks are going to have to play some tough teams in the Big 12 and NCAA tournaments, and its bound to find itself in some tight games.
Cue Wiggins, whom every scout in America will be looking to see perform when the stakes are the highest.
We know about his unlimited potential and all-star ceiling. And quite frankly, it's been his life preserver throughout the year. Despite Parker looking like the more complete player to date, Wiggins still has support from those who remain enthralled with his long-term upside.
Still, flashing talent is one thing—converting it into helping your team notch NCAA tournament wins is another. A dominant 2014 postseason for Wiggins would encourage a lot of people to forget about the questions and doubts he stirred up during the year.
Let's switch gears from the top guys to the more undervalued ones.
I spoke with an anonymous scout about some of the more under-the-radar prospects who aren't getting much attention. And the name he was quick to bring up was Thanasis Antetokounmpo, brother of Giannis, the Milwaukee Bucks' 2013 first-round pick.
"He is clearly raw but if he continues to grow like his brother and working with NBA strength and development coaches, he could be a great pick," the scout told me.
Antetokounmpo, who will be draft-eligible this June, is averaging almost 14 points over his last six games in the D-League.
|2014 NBA Draft Big Board|
|6||Marcus Smart||Oklahoma State||PG/SG||Sophomore|
|8||Gary Harris||Michigan State||SG||Sophomore|
|18||P.J. Hairston||Texas Legends||SG||Junior|
|23||Adreian Payne||Michigan State||PF||Senior|
|26||T.J. Warren||N.C. State||SF||Sophomore|
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville, 6'8", PF, Sophomore
Harrell is in the midst of the best stretch of his career—he's averaging 21.5 points and nine boards over his last four games.
Power and athleticism—that's Harrell's game. Harrell plays well above the rim, and coupled with his overwhelming strength, makes him capable of dominating the interior.
During his current stretch, we've even seen him knock down a couple of mid-range jumpers.
"Montrezl is developing into a good passer, a better shooter," coach Rick Pitino told The Associated Press via The Times Herald. He has become a better low-post player, he's blocking more shots of late, grabbing more defensive rebounds of late. The next thing he's got to improve on is free-throw shooting."
Harrell isn't the most polished or refined offensive player, but his physical tools alone are first-round worthy. And now that he's producing in a big way, the draft-stock arrow is pointing upwards.
Deonte Burton, Nevada, 6'1", PG, Senior
Despite his team's uninspiring record, Burton has been tremendous this season for Nevada. He's fresh off a 25-point, eight-assist, six-rebound game in a win over Boise State, where he scored eight of his 25 points in the second overtime.
He also threw down what could be one of the best dunks I've ever seen:
Burton previously went for 15 points and five assists against New Mexico and 21 and five against Air Force on one missed shot.
Off-the-charts explosive and offensively potent, Burton has emerged as one of the top senior prospects in the country. If he's able to convince the NBA guys he can play the role of a backup scoring point guard, it shouldn't be a surprise to see a playoff team grab him late in in the first round.
James Young, Kentucky, 6'6", SG, Freshman
When Young isn't on his game, it can get real ugly. He finished 1-of-11 shooting against Alabama, with nine of those misses coming from behind the arc. Kentucky lost its previous two games, in which Young combined to shoot 8-of-24 from the floor.
He's a bit too one-dimensional at this point. Young can attack a driving lane if it's there, but if not, chances are most of his shots will be coming on catch-and-shoot opportunities. And that's led to some erratic shooting throughout the season.
Adreian Payne, Michigan State, 6'10", PF, Senior
Michigan State has lost its last two games, and Payne wasn't much of a factor in either of them. He finished just 2-of-5 shooting with four turnovers against Illinois. He's become a bigger threat from outside this year, but his post game is still limited. Most of Payne's interior buckets are either off offensive rebounds or feeds from guards.
Inconsistency has been something that's plagued Payne throughout his college career, so keep an eye on him moving forward with the Big Ten tournament approaching.
Jusuf Nurkic, KK Cedevita (Croatia), 6'11", C, 1994
Nurkic is the hottest name amongst NBA prospects abroad right now, as he continues to produce big results with little opportunity.
He recently went for 14 points in 16 minutes after blowing up for 16 points and 15 boards in 20 minutes the game prior.
Nurkic is a monster at 6'11", 280 pounds. Like Minnesota Timberwolves' center Nikola Pekovic, he's an overwhelming interior post player who takes up a lot of space. Given his age, production and room for growth, look for Nurkic's name to start generating first-round buzz as we get closer to June.
Dario Saric, Cibona (Croatia), 6'10", SF/PF, 1994
Saric has been torching the Adriatic League this season, which he currently leads in both scoring and rebounding. He's fresh off an 18-point, 16-rebound game, which followed a near triple-double of 20 points, 14 boards and nine assists.
There's still question as to whether or not he'll enter the draft, but based on the numbers he's putting up and the NBA's familiarity with his game, the lottery will be in play for him whenever he chooses to declare.
Saric just might be the most versatile offensive prospect in the field.
- Oklahoma State's Marcus Smart has looked awfully good since returning from his three-game suspension. Smart racked up a season-high 10 assists against Texas Tech and followed by taking over down the stretch in a must-win game against Kansas. He's playing like he's got something to prove, because he does. Look for Smart to try and alter Oklahoma State's somewhat disappointing season by making a run in the conference tournament.
- Michigan's Nik Stauskas looks like he's here to stay in terms of his place on the NBA radar. He's averaging over 21 points and 3 assists over his last three games. But against Illinois and Minnesota, Stauskas combined to shoot 12-of-17 from downtown. A dead-eye shooter at 6'6" who can handle the ball and create his own shot? I've heard a Klay Thompson comparison this week, and it's really not far off.
- This NCAA tournament isn't just a big one for Kansas' Andrew Wiggins—it's also big for Duke's Jabari Parker. They're both in the conversation for that coveted No. 1 overall pick, and this is the last competitive opportunity they'll each get to separate themselves. Sure, the combine and workouts count for something, but for general managers who value in-game performance, the better one this March could be the difference-maker.