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NBA Draft 2014: March Madness Stars Who Played Their Way into 1st Round

Shabazz Napier secured first-round-pick status with his sparkling tourney play.
Shabazz Napier secured first-round-pick status with his sparkling tourney play.Jamie Squire/Getty Images
Josh CohenCorrespondent IIJune 26, 2016

March Madness was as wild as ever in 2014, and the guys who made it great will be rewarded in the first round of the upcoming NBA draft.

These players proved not only their talent but also their indispensability to their respective teams. As prospects striving to climb up draft boards, they benefit significantly from that distinction: They have the skill sets and mindsets to fill the roles they're asked to play, with the potential to become even greater contributors.

After all, we're talking about guys who sneaked into the late first round here. They were stars this March, but that's not what they're projected to be at the next level. What's important is that their big-time college performances can translate to fulfill more modest responsibilities at the next level.

 

Cleanthony Early, Wichita State

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 23:  Cleanthony Early #11 of the Wichita State Shockers celebrates after a basket in the second half against the Kentucky Wildcats during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 23, 20
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Remember Cleanthony Early from way back in the tournament's first weekend? Here, let's refresh our memory.

Though the Cinderella Kentucky team finally ended Wichita State's undefeated run, Cleanthony Early was unquestionably the best player on the floor in that game. Sure, Julius Randle and James Young have more upside, but Early just outplayed those likely lottery picks.

He scored his 31 points on 12-of-17 shooting, including 4-of-6 from beyond the arc, and he crashed the boards to grab seven rebounds over the towering Wildcats forwards. At 6'8", 219 pounds, he won't be able to go inside like that in the pros, but he has shown his willingness to do the dirty work—an attractive trait for a college star.

Given his length and physical gifts, Early had always projected as an intriguing second-unit wing, but now he looks like the type of defense-threes-athleticism guy NBA teams are craving nowadays.

 

Aaron Harrison, Kentucky

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 05: Aaron Harrison #2 of the Kentucky Wildcats reacts during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal against the Wisconsin Badgers at AT&T Stadium on April 5, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)
Jamie Squire/Getty Images

Even after a magical run to the brink of a national championship, Aaron Harrison's game is as perplexing as it has always been.

There are advantages to being a 6'5" combo guard, but Harrison isn't adept enough at running an offense and viewing the court to make best use of them. In the pros, he'll be able to provide some extra passing and ball-handling as an off-ball guard, but he won't be able to run the point himself.

Still, having multiple guys who can make plays off the bounce is essential to running a modern NBA offense. Harrison will never be a dribble-drive threat, but he is agile enough to put the ball on the floor and probe defenses.

Oh, and when the ball's in his hands, he can hit the high-pressure shots.

No one's asking Harrison to play crunch-time minutes from day one, but he's proved he can succeed in the big moments, and that's attractive. Teams will be willing to work with his flaws and inconsistencies because of his strengths and killer instinct.

 

Nick Johnson, Arizona

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 27:  Nick Johnson #13 of the Arizona Wildcats with the ball in the first half against the San Diego State Aztecs during the regional semifinal of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at the Honda Center on March 27, 2014 in Anahei
Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Nick Johnson could be the multifaceted point guard everyone thought Aaron and Andrew Harrison would be.

Though not a lights-out shooter in his own right, Johnson brings more reliable scoring production to a team than the Harrisons do. He's a couple inches shorter, but he's still 6'3", with the speed to penetrate and draw fouls.

He also has the wingspan (6'7.25") to make up for his difference in height, allowing him to defend both guard positions. That two-way play will give him great utility coming off the bench in the pros.

Johnson will never master any of his trades, but he'll be able to do a little bit of everything. All he'll be asked to do is hold things steady and not take over himself, so he'll work out just fine. 

 

Shabazz Napier, UConn

ARLINGTON, TX - APRIL 07:  Shabazz Napier #13 of the Connecticut Huskies celebrates on the court after defeating the Kentucky Wildcats 60-54 in the NCAA Men's Final Four Championship at AT&T Stadium on April 7, 2014 in Arlington, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

And, of course, there's the Most Outstanding Player of this NCAA tournament.

For his star turn as a score-first UConn point guard, Shabazz Napier has drawn tons of Kemba Walker comparisons. This March, they were plenty accurate, but Napier wouldn't have a chance at an NBA career if his game actually resembled Walker's.

Napier is nowhere near as dangerous an offensive threat as Walker; the current UConn guard is a solid shot-maker who gets to the line at will, but he'll struggle to put up as many points against better, cleaner defense.

But he is a purer point guard than Walker and a plus defender, something his former Husky teammate cannot say even today. Napier wreaks havoc when he's on the ball, which can disrupt less composed second units. He'll be able to make up some of his lost offense with transition opportunities off turnovers.

There's no chance Napier's pro career will be as exciting as his college one, but his shining moment at UConn has given him a good enough reputation to get some first-round money.

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