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
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
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
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
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.