Using the NCAA tournament as an evaluation tool is a dangerous game. Not only is every game broadcast on national television and thus easier to scrutinize from a groupthink sense, but recency bias is something everyone watching these games must consider.
Yes, Aaron Gordon regressed to his rawest form offensively against Wisconsin on Saturday night. Should that cloud our evaluation of how utterly brilliant he was on both ends of the floor in his first three games? Of course not. Gordon, being used here entirely as an example, and other players like him deserve more nuance.
The sample size we get for collegiate players—30-35 games for freshmen—is already small enough. Throw out a handful or so of those games (and maybe more) because of inferior competition, and you begin to understand why the NBA might want to up its age limit.
I'm not in favor of an age limit—until college athletes are able to adequately profit on their likeness. And plenty of people like at ESPN (subscription required) have proven the league is no less prone to busts among older players, nor do colleges develop players better than the NBA.
But I can't think of too many scenarios in which having a larger sample is ever a bad thing.
For now, though, we deal with the system we're in. Six of my top seven players in the 2014 draft are freshmen, and the outlier is an 18-year-old Australian whose usable sample of games is essentially a gigantic shrug. Nothing about this stuff resembles a precise science, no matter how much work you put in.
That said, two weeks through the NCAA tournament and the overall big board is starting to cement itself in place. Combine performances, individual workouts and leaguewide buzz will help solidify it between now and June 26, as will players' decisions to stay or come out early. Note that these rankings are based on the assumption that everyone comes out, though it has been adjusted for players who have announced their return.
With that in mind, let's take a look at the top 30 prospects and highlight some interesting March takeaways thus far.
|Tyler Conway's Top 30 NBA Prospects - 2014 Draft|
|8||Marcus Smart||Oklahoma State||Sophomore||PG|
|9||Gary Harris||Michigan State||Sophomore||SG|
|13||Adreian Payne||Michigan State||Senior||PF|
|16||T.J. Warren||North Carolina State||Sophomore||SF|
|25||Cleanthony Early||Wichita State||Senior||SF|
|28||Glenn Robinson III||Michigan||Sophomore||SF|
|30||P.J. Hairston||North Carolina||Junior||SG|
2014 NCAA Tournament Takeaways
Not a Whole Lot Changes
As a rule, this should be the case every year. Mitch McGary's ascent to a borderline lottery pick last season was confounding on a number of levels, as was his decision to return to Michigan rather than take advantage of the highest his stock would ever be. Seemingly every March, there are one or two players who go rocketing up draft lists simply because they had a nice three or four games.
By virtue of early elimination more than anything, that wasn't the case in 2014.
Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, Tyler Ennis, Marcus Smart and Doug McDermott were eliminated by the end of the first weekend. Noah Vonleh (bad team) and Joel Embiid (bad back) didn't even participate in the festivities. Only three of the current top-10 players (Julius Randle, Aaron Gordon and Gary Harris) made it to the Sweet 16, and only Randle is in the Final Four.
Gordon probably did the most for himself among those players. His increased comfort stretching beyond the college three-point line is a promising sign, and though Randle is still a tick above him in the rankings, Gordon has the highest two-way ceiling between the triad of power forwards at the top of the draft. Randle mostly stays because he has the potential to be a truly elite offensive power forward; he's safer.
Otherwise, the lottery essentially stays the same. Dario Saric (No. 10 prospect) won't be entering the draft this season, according to ESPN's Chad Ford (subscription required), and his departure allowed for Doug McDermott's re-entry. McDermott certainly didn't do much to help his own cause against Baylor, but he starts a tier in this draft where you're just hoping for a long-term starter.
There is, unlike hardcore Twitter analysts, zero change in my grades for Parker or Wiggins.
Parker drew criticism after Mike Krzyzewski substituted him out for defensive purposes down the stretch in Duke's upset loss to Mercer. That Parker is not advanced defensively is already known; it was a problem all season. He's also the most offensively polished freshman in this class and someone I could see scoring 20 points a night as a rookie.
I'll tell you this: Parker is my favorite for Rookie of the Year, and it's not particularly close.
Wiggins, umm, haven't we been here before? You mean to tell me a team played a matchup zone against Kansas, strangled its spacing and left Wiggins a little wide-eyed offensively? The zone was an Achilles' heel for the Jayhawks all season. They didn't have enough outside shooting to space the floor, and Stanford's bigs played intelligently.
Wiggins is still the best player in this class. Parker is still going to be great. As will Embiid if his medical nonsense checks out. This has been a great, unpredictable tournament, but one that's a snoozer at the top of the draft.
A Tale of Three Seniors
There are three—and only three—seniors worth first-round consideration: McDermott, Adreian Payne and Cleanthony Early. They're ranked in that order on the big board, and that's how I'd expect them to come off the board in June.
Their tournament experiences, however, were wildly different. After a typically brilliant game in the round of 64 against Louisiana-Lafayette, McDermott got into foul trouble early and was held to 15 points in a blowout loss to Baylor. Only three of McDermott's points came in the first half, which was about the only 20 minutes that game neared respectability.
A zone defense was again at fault, something McDermott won't see in the pros. He's still one of the best scorers in college basketball history, equipped with a series of post moves and perhaps the nation's most reliable jump shot. The post is going to be mostly eliminated from his game in the pros, though, because he's neither a good enough athlete nor strong enough to make it work against NBA 3s.
Those who were looking for him to improve as an off-the-dribble shot creator were probably disappointed, though.
Early and Payne, meanwhile, took mini-leaps within their strata.
Wichita State's tournament lasted only an unfortunate two games, but Early made the most of his opportunity for a second straight March. His 31-point, seven-rebound performance against Kentucky was perhaps the finest of his entire career, flashing improvements in areas where scouts needed to see them most. His 4-of-6 shooting from three brought him up to a respectable 37.5 percent rate for the season.
It will be a major uptick in competition for Early, and he'll be 23 on draft day. But if you're drafting him at the end of the first round with the expectation he becomes a solid three-and-D guy off your bench, then there are a lot worse guys in this class. He has to get into the right situation, though, because he's far from the typical polished college senior.
Payne embodies that polished trait and may have locked himself into the middle of the first round. A David West type with a strong body, Payne is undoubtedly going to work his way into an NBA rotation. He's flashed the ability to stretch beyond the collegiate three-point arc with comfort—perhaps too much comfort at times during the Elite Eight—and plays with a competitive fire that's really entertaining.
Until further notice, I'm 'shipping Payne and the Bulls with their Charlotte pick.
Up and Down
|5 Players Moving Up Big Board|
|Player||School||Year||Position||Previous Rank||Current Rank|
|Adriean Payne||Michigan State||Senior||PF||17||13|
|Cleanthony Early||Wichita State||Senior||SF||33||25|
|5 Players Moving Down Big Board|
|Player||School||Year||Position||Previous Rank||Current Rank|
|Marcus Smart||Oklahoma State||Sophomore||PG||6||8|
|Jahii Carson||Arizona State||Sophomore||PG||29||33|
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