As March Madness unfolds in full force, NBA scouts are looking for the next mid-major draft gem lurking in the shadows.
In 2012, the Portland Trail Blazers liked what they saw in Weber State's Damian Lillard, and it worked out wonderfully for them. Now general managers are wondering if little-known playmakers Elfrid Payton and Deonte Burton can do something similar.
The Blazers' small-school gamble paid off in a huge way, as the No. 6 overall pick in 2012 won Rookie of the Year honors in 2013 and changed the direction of the franchise. In just his second NBA season, he became an All-Star, as he's one of the brightest young point guards in the league.
Does this year's mid-major crop have anyone like that? Will Payton or Burton emerge and stand out at the next level?
We don't have a crystal ball, and sometimes it's tough to project mid-major talent to the NBA. But we're going to take a look at a couple of the best candidates to see if there are any Lillard-esque diamonds in the rough.
Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette (Sun Belt Conference)
Ragin' Cajuns point guard Elfrid Payton is the best playmaker in the mid-major scene, as he uses his tremendous ball-handling skills and 6'7" wingspan to weave around defenders and score or pass.
He showcased his two-way talent during the summer of 2013, as a member of Team USA's U-19 World Championship squad. Payton's length, agility and creative instincts stood out.
As a junior at Louisiana-Lafayette, he's flourished, breaking down opponents off the bounce to the tune of 19.3 points and 5.9 assists per game. His ability to facilitate as well as finish in traffic make him an attractive option for teams looking for backcourt help.
...Deadly first step and killer crossover allow him to get to the basket seemingly at will...At 6'3", (he) has ideal size for a point guard...Quick hands and great defensive instincts allow him to get a ton of steals.
But is he a draft-day steal worthy of a lottery pick? Is he a sleeper with NBA star potential?
To project him as an NBA All-Star seems like a little bit of a stretch at this point, and it's also unfair to compare him to someone of Lillard's caliber.
Until Payton can keep people honest with his jump shot, he's probably not going to be massively productive in the Association. He's shooting 25 percent from distance on 1.5 three-point attempts per game, and he's hit 28 triples over his entire career.
If he can't develop a jumper, then his only hope for stardom is to become a rare elite quarterback along the lines of Rajon Rondo and Ricky Rubio. And that's asking a lot of him.
Bottom Line: Is he a mid-major NBA star? Close, but no. Not in Lillard's company.
Deonte Burton, Nevada (Mountain West Conference)
Termed as a "big time sleeper" by Draft Express analyst Mike Schmitz, Nevada's explosive scorer is athletically ready to turn some heads in the pro ranks.
He can flat-out bounce, if you couldn't tell based on the video.
In addition, he's got the foot speed and strength to beat opponents off the dribble and defend at a high level. With his physical tools and scoring instincts, Burton can put pressure on opponents.
There's reason to believe he could be a potent offensive weapon in the NBA, given the right opportunity.
However, there are some question marks surrounding Burton. Firstly, can he be a legitimate floor general and facilitator? He hasn't been a consistently productive distributor in the Mountain West, and at 6'1", he needs to be able to play point because teams can't afford to have him on the wing.
The other point of concern is his shooting reliability. He's been somewhat erratic, even as a senior, so how will he do from NBA range?
Bottom Line: Is he a mid-major NBA star? No, but he'll be an explosive backup point guard.
Payton and Burton are really the only 2014 mid-major stars worthy of even comparing to Lillard. And the fact that they don't quite stack up to him shouldn't be perceived as an insult.
After all, Lillard is one heck of a talent, and he was a ridiculously dynamic and productive asset in college.
Keep an eye on Payton and Burton, however, because their stocks may soar after their March exploits and spring workouts. NBA teams would love to steal them in the first round and add substantial value to their rotation.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA Draft for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR
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