This March Madness, some of the largest players on the court made the most substantial improvements as NBA draft prospects.
Young bigs are worth their weight in gold, mainly because they're affordable on rookie contracts and the developed forwards are making much more. The draft is the one avenue through which teams can acquire skilled size on a budget.
So when someone tall shows a glint of potential or a flash of ability in the NCAA tournament, talent evaluators take notice. When someone shows more than that, his draft stock soars.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
In an interesting case, though, Willie Cauley-Stein's value has benefited most from his time off the court.
He was sidelined on the biggest stage of his career with an ankle injury, first missing Kentucky's Elite Eight date with Michigan before watching both the Final Four and national championship games from the bench.
When Dakari Johnson, Alex Poythress and little-used Marcus Lee stepped up in Cauley-Stein's absence, it was a shock. Even though Kentucky's interior defense didn't crumble without the 7-footer, it made everyone think harder about what Cauley-Stein can do. After all, nothing speaks to the power of a rim protector in the middle than a void there.
NBA coaches and general managers are clamoring for shot-blockers with the nimbleness to follow floor-stretchers out to the three-point line. Both when he was on the floor and when Kentucky was scrambling to defend without him, Cauley-Stein reminded everyone he's up to that task.
Aaron Gordon, Arizona
Meanwhile, the 6'9", 225-pound tweener from Arizona proved he can play inside regardless of the size going against him.
He'll have to put on some more weight to be a pro power forward, but Aaron Gordon has the tools for the position.
Gordon isn't just an athletic freak; he has the technique and fundamentals down to neutralize either forward position, complementing his rangy physique with quick, on-point footwork.
But we knew he could do that going into the tourney. What Gordon proved is how his offensive game has progressed over the season.
Once you look past his awe-inspiring dunks, you see he has started knocking down his threes at a higher clip and is flashing some back-to-the-basket post moves. If a guy with his physical gifts can post up, face up or step back for a jumper on any given touch, it won't matter if he can't hit his free throws; he'll make a major impact.
Adreian Payne, Michigan State
The Delaware Blue Hens received a fine education in just how dominant a power forward like Adreian Payne can be.
Payne's skill set will be dangerous at the next level, but it was downright unfair for the college game. Someone 6'10", 245 pounds shouldn't be knocking down 42 percent of his threes and shooting 79 percent from the line. When he's on, like he was when he dropped 41 points on the Blue Hens, he's unstoppable.
Sometimes Payne can get too enamored with the three-ball and stop bullying people on the block, but that can be coached and game-planned out of his system.
Concerns like those are trivial, anyway. Bigs with his strength and shooting stroke don't come around every day. Needing to develop someone like Payne is a good problem to have.
Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee
Tennessee nearly took its surprise run all the way to the Elite Eight as Jarnell Stokes reminded everyone what a classic inside scorer can accomplish.
At 6'8", Stokes doesn't have Cauley-Stein's height, and the junior forward hasn't even attempted a trey since his first year at Tennessee, during which he took three. However, he's not in the game to block shots or stretch the floor.
What Stokes does is put his 260 pounds right into his man's chest, muscling his way to the hoop to power up for lay-ins or to pull down boards. When he drives his shoulder through an opponent, Stokes gets the positioning he wants. Defenses don't bend around his offensive game; he bends them himself.
With the evolution of what big men can do, especially in the NBA game, old-school brute force can get overlooked. Not in Stokes' case though; he might not have earned himself a first-round selection, but he has gone from the second-round/undrafted ranks to the fringe of the first. He has made his presence felt.
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