For all the talk of a freshman takeover coming into the season, the 2014 NCAA tournament has been among the worst in recent memory for high-lottery picks.
Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Smart and Doug McDermott were all out before the end of the first weekend. Joel Embiid didn't even suit up. Noah Vonleh was out doing something, anything, other than playing in a postseason basketball tournament.
Heading into the Sweet 16, it was almost as if the NBA draft collective held a summit to decide to check out on school early and hit the draft running.
For that reason, though, there hasn't been a lot of change at the top of the draft board. Wiggins, Parker and Embiid top almost every pundit and scout's draft board in some order, most of which is dependent on team need. I've returned Wiggins to his No. 1 throne on my big board after an Embiid dalliance, though it's hard to argue against the Cameroonian's ceiling.
The remainder of the draft board has stayed mostly inert, for myriad reasons. One reason is that only a handful of players have actually stood out among those likely to hear their names called in June. The other, of course, being that it's clinically insane to take a 30-plus-game sample—admittedly small to begin with—and then make fundamental alterations on two or three good or bad games.
The NCAA tournament matters because, in theory, it shows how players react to the biggest stage. But as an evaluation tool, it should matter far less than it does—both among pundits and inside the NBA. It's the most public platform for players but nowhere near the best.
That said, there were a few players who stood out enough to trickle their way upward. Here's a look at a few potential first-round picks who have helped their stock this March.
Adreian Payne (PF-C, Michigan State)
College seniors consistently get the raw end of the NBA stick. Teams evaluate them differently (read: infinitely harsher) than younger players, and some of that is rooted in smart reasoning. Payne, at 23, should be overpowering mediocre Big Ten bigs and putting up consistently stellar numbers. He's a grown man at this point, and his long-term development curve is far more projectable than, say, Vonleh's.
Ageism, though, also results in players like Payne being vastly underrated by June. The Michigan State big man has a skill set that reminds me of a young David West, though certainly a little springier than West is now.
He has developed a consistent stroke from the college three-point line, knocking down 43.6 percent as a senior after attempting just three long-range shots his freshman and sophomore years. Decidedly less tied to the low block, Payne projects as a stretch 4 at the next level—something that wasn't foreseen even last season, when his curve was trending upward.
Only if a team bull-headedly tries playing him full-time at center would his frame be an issue. Teams are going to get him on a steadier workout and eating regimen, which should only help his already strong body. As long as he doesn't get too concerned with bulking up and ruins the progress he made as a shooter, there's no reason to think he can't hack it physically.
Though he's taken a back seat to Branden Dawson over the last two rounds, Payne's versatility was on display on the tournament's opening Thursday. He scored a career-high 41 points on 10-of-15 shooting in the Spartans' 93-78 victory over Delaware, flashing his full repertoire against an overpowered mid-major. Four of his five three-pointers went through the net, and when he wasn't stretching the floor, he was pounding his body down low and finishing through contact. Payne also made all 17 (!) of his free throws.
"When you're scoring like that and the game is coming so easy, it feels like you're in a rhythm, it feels like you can't be stopped," Payne told reporters afterward.
Barring a medical red flag—he was bothered by a foot injury this season—Payne is a first-round lock now. It obviously depends on how the records fall the rest of the way, but he'd be an awfully interesting pick for the Bulls with their Charlotte pick. With Carlos Boozer almost certainly going the way of the amnestied this summer, Payne fits the culture and could slide in nicely as a primary backup to Taj Gibson.
Aaron Gordon (PF, Arizona)
It's tough to call Gordon a huge riser, simply because he was never that low. Gordon was always a top-10 selection and was never in any real danger of falling out because everyone knew of his immense potential.
Nevertheless, he's still clearly entered himself into the conversation after the proverbial Big Three (Wiggins, Parker, Embiid). Dante Exum has the inside track on the fourth spot, and his ultimate place in the hierarchy will depend on how he looks in workouts for teams. Exum, a 6'6" Australian point guard in the Russell Westbrook-Derrick Rose mold, is an obvious fit for a team like the Orlando Magic, but his ultimate stock will be highly dependent on how he works out.
Depending on team need, though, there's a conversation to be had about the Vonleh-Gordon-Julius Randle trio at the top of the power forward rankings. Vonleh ranks third on that list for me at the moment, but the separation is minimal. Randle is probably the second-most polished freshman from an offensive standpoint behind Parker, yet he lacks defensive awareness and the lateral quickness to develop much past "average" on that end.
Gordon is almost the polar opposite. He's a brilliant on-ball defender already, executes team concepts well and was one of the anchors on the country's best statistical defense, per Ken Pomeroy. Opposing players shot just 31.4 percent against him in isolation situations and 37.5 percent in the post, per Synergy Sports (subscription required). He's a typical "tweener" at 6'9" and 225 pounds, but he uses his athleticism really well to defend collegiate 4s and has the lateral quickness to handle most NBA 3s.
In Arizona's first three NCAA tournament games, Gordon averaged 16.3 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists per game, even flashing range out beyond the three-point line. Saturday night's loss to Wisconsin wasn't nearly as great of a showcase. He shot only 3-of-11 from the field, was part of the defensive breakdowns against Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky and didn't finish well around the rim.
But he still managed to grab 18 rebounds—a slight consolation prize that is nonetheless telling. Gordon's motor more than anything jumps off the screen. For a guy that athletically gifted and that young (he won't turn 19 until September) to already have that work ethic is a promising sign. Where he lands on draft night is a major worry, because certain teams tend to shoehorn a player like Gordon into a 3 role when he's pretty obviously a 4 (see: Williams, Derrick and Bennett, Anthony).
If Gordon reaches his peak, he's a two-way menace who could average 15 and 10 while competing for All-Defensive honors.
Cleanthony Early (SF, Wichita State)
I'll be the first to admit it: I've been skeptical about Early's pro prospects. Probably still am a little more concerned with his pro translation than most. He needs to be set for his jumper to have any chance of falling, and creating off the dribble is a nonstarter. For a kid who turns 23 next month, there's an awful lot of work to be done.
And that's before we discuss the very real concerns about his competition at Wichita State.
The Shockers' two-games-and-out performance as a No. 1 seed isn't going to assuage those concerns much, but Early did as much as he could. The senior forward went for 23 points and seven rebounds against Cal Poly and then topped that with a 31-point, seven-rebound outing against a Kentucky team that may make the Final Four.
I'm still skeptical that Willie Cauley-Stein's ankle is actually hurt. If anyone demoralized me the way Early did Cauley-Stein in their round of 32 matchup, I'd probably still be in the hospital with a stress disorder. Early is a bouncy, 6'8" athlete whom teams have been tantalized by since Wichita State's Final Four run last season.
His increased versatility is what is starting to engender me more to his game, though. You still don't trust him to take shots off the bounce, but he knocked down 37.3 percent of his threes this season—nearly 6 percent better than in 2012-13. We're in the so-called revolution of 3-and-D players, and if Early can continue knocking down the set three, specifically from the corner, then he'll be a valuable rotation cog at the next level.
Early tries hard on defense and flies toward the basket to corral offensive rebounds. Opposing players did shoot 51.7 percent against him in isolation situations, per Synergy, so don't listen to any evaluator who says he's a ready-made NBA defender. The potential for a fit is here if teams are patient and allow him to learn the nuances of the pro game on both ends of the floor.
I'd have a tough time taking him before the very end of the first round, but if he ended up somewhere like Houston or Miami, it'd be hard to get offended. That's more than most would have said a couple weeks ago.
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