As the end of the NCAA tournament approaches and the NBA draft comes into focus, much of the hype is surrounding sensational freshmen such as Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Julius Randle and Joel Embiid.
While all of them promise to be early selections if they decide to declare and all of them have the potential to be great at the next level, this could be one of the deepest drafts in recent memory. Because of that, there is definitely value to be had late in the first round and even into the second.
Here is a look at three potential draftees who will exceed expectations and outperform that draft status once they become NBA players.
Adreian Payne (Michigan State)
As the Michigan State Spartans continue to pursue a national championship, senior forward Adreian Payne continues to impress. The 6'10" forward has been a key player for the Spartans since his sophomore season, but he has taken huge steps forward as a player this year. Payne set a career high with nearly 17 points per game while adding seven rebounds and one block per contest as well.
Payne is a big-time factor in the paint, but his true value relates to his ability to step out and hit jumpers. Payne is pure from inside the arc, and he has improved his three-point stroke significantly as well. Payne has made nearly 44 percent of his attempts from downtown, which should make him an intriguing and dangerous NBA player.
On top of that, Payne manages to raise his level of play in big situations. That was on full display in the NCAA tournament's round of 64 as he dropped 41 points on Delaware. According to ESPN's Chad Ford, that put him in position to potentially get into the lottery pick conversation.
Adreian Payne with a huge 41 pt game today. One of the few stretch fours in Draft. More big games could make him a lock for the lottery.— Chad Ford (@chadfordinsider) March 20, 2014
With that said, Payne's name hasn't come up much in that regard due to the amount of talent among the underclassmen. Payne is already 23 years old, and while that means he is mature, some teams may look at his age as a negative.
Payne is a polished and NBA-ready prospect, though, and teams will certainly regret passing on him.
Cleanthony Early (Wichita State)
Payne still has an opportunity to improve his draft stock should he play well throughout a lengthy Michigan State tournament run, but Wichita State's Cleanthony Early no longer has that luxury. The Shockers were ousted in the round of 32 by Kentucky, but Early didn't go down without a fight.
He was spectacular in scoring 31 points on 4-of-6 shooting from beyond the arc, but it still wasn't enough to push the Shockers into the Sweet 16. Early's career ended on a bittersweet note with his team suffering a disappointing defeat, but he may have improved his draft stock in the process. As pointed out by SNY's Adam Zagoria, Early is currently viewed as a borderline first-round selection:
Cleanthony Early goes for 31 pts so far and is projected as the No. 31 pick. This gonna help his stock @DraftExpress ?— Adam Zagoria (@AdamZagoria) March 23, 2014
All Early did in his two years at Wichita State was make big plays. He helped the Shockers surprisingly reach the Final Four in 2013, and his individual level of play got even better in 2014. Early averaged over 16 points and nearly six rebounds per game along with almost two trifectas per contest as well.
Early has great size at 6'8", and although he could benefit from filling out his frame a little bit more, the fact that he can shoot the ball so well should make him an immediate threat in the NBA. He may not possess the athletic ability that many of the prospective top picks do, but he is the type of player who simply finds ways to produce. There is no reason to believe that will change in the NBA.
Javon McCrea (Buffalo)
While Payne and Early figure to be steals in the latter part of the first round, University at Buffalo forward Javon McCrea is a guy who seemingly isn't even on most radars as a second-rounder. McCrea never led the Bulls to a MAC title or earned an NCAA tournament berth in his four collegiate seasons, but he was a dominant force to say the least.
McCrea won the MAC Player of the Year Award for the 2013-14 season as he put up 18.5 points, a shade under 10 rebounds and better than two assists and blocks per contest. Few players in the nation were more versatile and efficient in all aspects than McCrea. In fact, ESPN.com ranked him as seventh in Player Efficiency Rating ahead of highly-touted players such as Parker, Embiid and a host of others.
Which player will be the biggest steal of the 2014 NBA draft?
Opposing coaches marveled at McCrea's ability, including Western Michigan head coach Steve Hawkins, who raved about the powerful forward ahead of the Broncos' NCAA tournament meeting with Syracuse, according to Jeff DiVeronica of the Rochester Democrat & Chronicle.
"He's just a beast, an absolute beast, one of my favorite players, a big, strong physical kid and he just loves to play basketball. You could tell," Hawkins said. "I'm glad we don't have to play him again."
The biggest knocks on McCrea are his size and his shot. McCrea is a load at 250 pounds, but some scouts may believe that he is too small to play power forward in the NBA at 6'7". Also, moving him to small forward could prove problematic since his shooting stroke is still a work in progress.
With that said, McCrea compares favorably to Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap, who was knocked for his size when he entered the NBA. Millsap has thrived, though, and McCrea can as well provided he continues to improve as a shooter.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter