Whether we're talking about a projected top-five pick, a fringe first-rounder or someone who just hopes to be drafted, the Final Four is a tremendous opportunity for prospects to catch an eye.
Because a whole bunch of them are going to be watching.
Each school participating has a couple of prospects with NBA potential and something left to prove. While Kentucky is loaded with future pros, don't sleep on a few of the prospects who contribute for Connecticut, Florida or Wisconsin.
There will be some key guys to watch during the Final Four—guys who are still looking to move the 2014 draft needle and others who are hoping to show up on the radar as breakout candidates for 2015.
|Top 15 NBA Prospects in the 2014 Final Four|
|Rank||Prospect||Position||What Scouts Will Look For|
|1||Julius Randle, UK||PF||Scoring, Finishing, Defense vs. Length|
|2||Willie Cauley-Stein, UK||C||Will He Play (Injured Ankle)? If Yes, Constant Interior Activity|
|3||James Young, UK||SG/SF||Shooting, Defensive Consistency|
|4||Shabazz Napier, UConn||PG||Point Guard Instincts, Scoring in Traffic|
|5||Marcus Lee, UK||PF||Activity, Ball Skills|
|6||Andrew Harrison, UK||PG||Point Guard Instincts, Finishing at Rim|
|7||Aaron Harrison, UK||SG||Creating/Making High-Percentage Looks, Spot-Up Shooting Consistency|
|8||Chris Walker, UF||PF||Activity, Ball Skills|
|9||Sam Dekker, Wisco||SF||Offensive Impact, Shooting Stroke|
|10||Dakari Johnson, UK||C||Post Game, Defense, Rebounding|
|11||Patric Young, UF||PF/C||Post Defense, Interior Touch|
|12||Frank Kaminsky, Wisco||C||Performance Against NBA-Caliber Front Line|
|13||Alex Poythress, UK||PF||Offensive Impact, Activity|
|14||DeAndre Daniels, UConn||SF||Complete Scoring Repertoire|
|15||Kasey Hill, UF||PG||Playmaking, Finishing in Traffic|
Spotlight Prospect: Julius Randle, Kentucky, 6'9", 250 pounds, PF, Freshman
Julius Randle quickly established himself as one of the potential prizes in the 2014 draft field. A double-double machine (he's got 24 of them), he's simply too strong, too physical and too athletic for the college interior.
Offensively, we've seen him work the back-to-the-basket game, where he uses his strength to establish position and his touch to flip shots in. Randle doesn't just finish through contact—he initiates it in order to bounce off and separate.
Despite his size and mass, Randle also has outrageous mobility—in the open floor, he's like a tank with the speed and agility of a Ferrari. He just might be the most dangerous when he can face his man up in space and attack him off the dribble, thanks to an explosive first step and adequate handle for a big man.
He's averaged 15.1 points and 10.7 boards a game as a freshman, but even with that level of production and visible talent, there are still questions and holes in his game scouts will be focusing in on.
What Scouts Will Be Watching
Compared to other power forwards his size, Randle's arms are short (6'11" wingspan). For example, our top power forward prospect in the class, Indiana's Noah Vonleh, has five extra inches of length (7'4" wingspan).
Normally, I'd say this is just a meaningless little detail. But when you consider Randle's style of play, it's something that needs to be taken into account during the evaluation process.
Randle does just about all of his damage in the paint or around the key—where NBA rim-protectors are a whole lot longer than college ones, meaning Randle's shot is more likely to be blocked or altered.
As an interior-oriented player, Randle is going to have to find ways to counter his length disadvantage. It could mean expanding his post repertoire or developing a jumper, something he'll surely need as a pro to diversify his game.
Randle relies a bit too heavily on his strength and not enough on skill. He's crafty with his left hand in terms of finishing around defenders, but you'll often see him try to bully his man instead of shake him with calculated moves.
We've seen Randle struggle to pick up buckets when the defense takes away his looks in the post. Scouts will be analyzing how Randle responds to double-teams and heavy traffic, like he successfully did against Wichita State when he dished out six assists in the round of 32.
Wisconsin doesn't have many athletes capable of competing with Randle physically down low, so it will be interesting to see what strategy the Badgers employ in their quest to slow him down.
Regardless of the outcome, Randle will be viewed as a top-10 lock and a potential top-five pick. But a dominant, winning effort will probably keep him closer to that No. 4-to-No. 6 range.
Key Prospects to Watch
|Shabazz Napier, Connecticut, 6'1", 180 pounds, PG, Senior|
|Draft Ceiling||Draft Floor||Projected NBA Role|
|Middle-to-Late First Round||Second Round||Backup Point Guard|
Shabazz Napier is one of the best point guards in college basketball. The question on everyone's mind is whether his game will translate to the pros.
He's averaged 18.1 points, 5.9 boards and 4.9 assists as a senior while carrying Connecticut all year and powering it through the NCAA tournament. But as a 6'1", 180-pound 22-year-old who plays below the rim, his upside is obviously limited.
While it's always a good look for Napier when he's able to take over a game as a scorer, scouts will be eager to see him run Connecticut's offense as a facilitator against Florida's stout defense. The shot-making and step-back threes are nice, but that won't be his role in the pros. Scouts will be looking for that breakdown handle to penetrate the defense and set his teammates up for easy buckets.
They'll also be evaluating how Napier plays and finishes in traffic. Given his lack of explosiveness, finishing around the rim will no doubt be a challenge for Napier at whatever level he plays moving forward.
He's been sensational this postseason, having gone for 25 points against Michigan State, 19 against Iowa State, 25 against Villanova and 24 against Saint Joseph's. If Napier is able to puncture that Florida defense by pushing the right point guard buttons, it could improve the odds of a playoff team valuing him as a potential backup late in the first round.
I'd imagine Florida hasn't forgotten about Napier's buzzer-beater that sunk the Gators back in December:
|James Young, Kentucky, 6'6", 215 pounds, SG/SF, Freshman|
|Draft Ceiling||Draft Floor||Projected NBA Role|
|Lottery||Late First Round||Shot-Maker, Offensive Spark|
James Young has been inconsistent this season at both ends of the floor, but there's no denying his talent and NBA-caliber tools. At 6'6", he's got good size and athleticism for the wing, along with a sweet lefty stroke, a quick release and deep range. Young knocked down over two three-pointers a game, and he's shown the ability to heat up and make shots in bunches.
In between, he works the runner and floater game on the move. He can slash and finish off the ball, and he's a weapon on the break.
The knock on Young is that he's limited off the dribble. And if he's not going to create, he has to finish the plays that come to him as an opportunistic scorer, whether he's catching and shooting or cutting through the lane.
Unfortunately, he's only shooting 40.6 percent from the floor this year, and though he's often praised for his outside shot, he's hit less than 35 percent of his three-point attempts.
He also averages less than a steal per game, which is odd for a wing and a decent athlete.
Regardless, Young can pack some difference-making offensive firepower when he's found his rhythm. And Kentucky will really be hoping he finds it against Wisconsin in the Final Four.
|Patric Young, Florida, 6'9", 240 pounds, PF/C, Senior|
|Draft Ceiling||Draft Floor||Projected NBA Role|
|Early Second Round||Undrafted||Enforcer/Interior Specialist|
Patric Young has been around long enough for scouts to know what they're dealing with. At 6'9", 240 pounds of rock-solid muscle, Young is an enforcer in the middle on both sides of the ball.
The SEC Defensive Player of the Year, Young's job in the pros will be exactly what it is in college: to finish around the rim and protect it.
This season, we've seen him expand his shot-making range on the interior, as he's shown some touch with his hook and short-to-mid-range jumper. But it's not his offensive game or his skills that will attract NBA attention.
For a team out there with a specific need for some frontcourt toughness, Young deserves a good, hard second-round look.
|Sam Dekker, Wisconsin, 6'8", 220 pounds, SF, Sophomore|
|Draft Ceiling||Draft Floor||Projected NBA Role|
|Middle of First Round||Second Round||Glue Guy, Jack-of-All-Trades|
Many had Sam Dekker pegged as a surefire first-rounder early in the year, but his production and consistency have fallen off down the stretch.
His NCAA tournament high this year is just 12 points, as he finished in single digits against Baylor and Arizona.
Scouts admire his size and athleticism, as well as his high basketball IQ and offensive instincts. Dekker ultimately does a lot of things well—just nothing great.
He also saw his three-point percentage fall to just 32.3 percent from 39.1 percent a year ago, a slightly discouraging sign.
Considering he's not a go-to option who can really create his own shot, scouts will want to see Dekker find more ways to threaten the defense as a scorer off the ball.
To his credit, he's playing the role that's been asked of him within Wisconsin's winning offense. Dekker just hasn't stood out individually.
Prospects with Something to Prove
Andrew Harrison, Kentucky, 6'6", 215 pounds, PG, and Aaron Harrison, Kentucky, 6'6", 218 pounds, SG, Freshmen
The Harrison boys didn't blow scouts away this year like many expected them to, with both falling off the majority of first-round boards.
Andrew has been the bigger disappointment, as some aren't even sure point guard is his natural position.
But despite shooting it poorly as of late, he's done a better job of managing the game for Kentucky. Against Louisville, he had 14 points, seven assists and just two turnovers.
Though he's had to fight some inconsistency, Aaron Harrison has found his groove at just the right time. He practically propelled Kentucky to the Final Four all by himself, with four late three-pointers against Michigan, including the game-winner in the closing seconds.
Aaron has given Kentucky a potent weapon on the wing, where he can pull up or score off the dribble with the mid-range and floater game. Still, as mostly an under-the-rim athlete, Aaron will have to show he can create and make higher-percentage shots, as he's shooting only 42.4 percent from the floor despite having skill and size advantages over most of his defenders.
Both the Harrisons have obvious talent—they just haven't found a way to tap into it on a regular basis. It would be an awfully good look for them if they're able to play major roles as freshmen for a national title winner.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin, 7'0", 234 pounds, C, Junior
Frank Kaminsky has really started to make a name for himself this postseason after leading Wisconsin in scoring during the year.
In the NCAA tournament, he's gone for 19 points against Oregon, 19 against Baylor and 28 in a head-turning performance that helped topple No. 1 seed Arizona.
At 7'0", Kaminsky has really good footwork and offensive skills. He can wheel and deal in the post or stretch the floor as a shooter.
But he's only averaged 6.4 rebounds a game, while he lacks the strength, athleticism and foot speed shared by most NBA big men.
This Final Four will be a big test for Kaminsky, who will get to go toe-to-toe with a front line made up of future pros.
It's tough to say whether he's a candidate to declare for the draft after the tournament, but if he's able to take it to Kentucky, he might want to strike while the iron is hot.
Next Year's Breakout Stars: Who to Watch for 2014-15
Marcus Lee, Kentucky, 6'9", 215 pounds, PF, Freshman
After not scoring a point since Feb. 22, Marcus Lee got a crack at the rotation against Michigan, as center Willie Cauley-Stein was out with an ankle injury. And in the 15 minutes he was given, Lee erupted for 10 points, eight boards and two blocks.
Showing off that eye-opening athleticism and bounce, Lee threw down four dunks against the Wolverines off finishes and offensive rebounds. For one bucket, he even put it on the deck and attacked the rim from the foul line.
Lee projects as an active body who can make plays in the paint without needing the ball. And if Cauley-Stein misses more time, Lee just might use this Final Four as a launching pad and coming-out party heading into 2014-15.
Dakari Johnson, Kentucky, 7'0", 265 pounds, C, Freshman
Dakari Johnson has come on strong late in the year, as he's given Kentucky a 7'0'' body to feed on the block for half-court points. At 265 pounds, he's just too big and strong, and unlike Cauley-Stein, he's got some moves to go to in the post. Johnson isn't overly quick or elusive, but with exceptionally soft hands and a good feel for the rim, he's converted a number of field goals by simply drop-stepping into an over-the-shoulder hook shot.
He made seven field goals against Louisville in the Sweet 16, and when he's been given the chance, Johnson has come through as a reliable scoring option on the block.
With another year of regular reps, he should be able to improve his fluidity in the post and make some waves on that first-round radar.
Chris Walker, Florida, 6'10", 220 pounds, PF, Freshman
Chris Walker missed most of the season after being ruled academically ineligible, and it's a major reason why he's barely included in the rotation. It's tough to say if he'll be involved in the Final Four, but scouts are fully aware of his 6'10" size and electric athleticism. Despite barely getting any burn, Walker might still enter the 2014 draft and sell himself based on potential.
If not, expect Walker to return as one of the breakout prospects to watch as a sophomore.
DeAndre Daniels, Connecticut, 6'9", 195 pounds, SF, Junior
DeAndre Daniels certainly looks the part of a next-level wing at 6'9" with long arms and smooth athleticism. But he didn't make a name for himself like we thought he would as a junior.
Maybe he saved it for the tournament—Daniels went for 18 points against Saint Joseph's before blowing up for 27 points and 10 boards against Iowa State.
He's got a really nice outside stroke, having shot 43.2 percent from downtown this season. He also moves well, can play above the rim and can knock down shots around the key and from mid-range.
Daniels will need another year in a featured role to improve his offensive confidence and shot-creating ability, but the tools seem to be there. Look for Daniels to continue building his brand on the big stage against Florida.