NCAA Tournament 2011: The 5 Most Underrated NBA Prospects of the Sweet 16
The NCAA tournament is the last chance for many players to show what they've got and how they fit in the context of a team. Of course there are individual workouts and pre-draft camps, but a good performance down the stretch in the NCAA tournament can set a player apart from the rest. Leading a team deep into March can really help a prospect improve his draft stock.
The more games you play, the more scouts will get a chance to see you in the spotlight. And the more they see a certain player, the more fresh they will be in their mind come draft time.
We all know about Jared Sullinger and Kyrie Irving, both of whom have locked down top t10 spots. While these guys may be the obvious future stars, the key to building a championship-caliber team is not always in the top 10.
Many times the key is making great picks further down in the draft. Whether you're drafting your team's next leading scorer or a key sixth man, making the right pick late in the first round or picking up the next Manu Ginobili in the second round can have a huge impact on a team. Here are some guys from the Sweet 16 who could be considered hidden gems come draft day.
5. North Carolina's Kendall Marshall
North Carolina was a good team when Kendall Marshall was coming off the bench. With a record of 16-5 the Tar Heels were looking like a pretty good bet for the tournament. They obviously weren't going to live up to their top 10 preseason rank, but they were still solid.
All of that changed when Kendall Marshall stepped in as the starter. Larry Drew owned that role for the first part of the season, but when he decided to leave the program and was replaced by Marshall the Tar Heels really started to excel. Since Marshall took over the offense, the Tar Heels are a much-improved team, going 12-2 and losing only to Duke. They quickly shot up the rankings and received a No. 2 seed in this year's tournament.
Kendall Marshall isn't exactly a great scorer although he certainly can be if called upon. He is an excellent distributor and is as good a passer as anyone in the nation. His 13-point, 14-assist performance against Washington in the second round of the tournament turned a few heads as he vastly outplayed the more experienced Isaiah Thomas.
I would be shocked if Marshall declared after this season. He needs more time in college to develop, but the fact that no one is talking about him surprises me. He has looked great as a starter, and if he can continue to develop as a scorer and a passer he should be a first-round pick. He is listed at 6'4" which would make him big for a point guard which could ultimately be used to his advantage.
The bottom line is that Kendall Marshall is the among the best distributors in the ACC as well as college basketball. He isn't really on the NBA's radar yet, but he is definitely one to keep an eye on.
4. Ohio State's William Buford
William Buford has been a key part of Ohio State's run this year. He has been an unsung hero of sorts this season during Ohio State's run of dominance. Jon Diebler is the three-point specialist. He is a streak shooter and shot 50 percent from behind the arc this season. David Lighty is regarded as the versatile senior leader, and super freshman Jared Sullinger is the star of the team.
Buford does a little bit of everything on the floor, but he's not the best at anything. He was second in scoring, second in three-point shooting, third in rebounding and third in assists. He does everything well, and doesn't really specialize in one specific area.
In the NBA, Buford likely won't make many All-Star teams, but at this point he's projected towards the back end of the second round. The second round is pretty much hit or miss, and Buford is a great player to take a risk on. He has deep range and will definitely be able to make shots from behind the arc in the pros. He is a solid defender and also a decent passer. He can definitely score and will be useful in the NBA.
Buford isn't really an upside guy, and it doesn't help that he's only 6'5", but he certainly could be this year's Landry Fields. He is someone who could step in and potentially contribute early in his career. With time he could be a high quality rotation player.
3. Kansas' Markieff Morris
Markieff Morris is a first-round pick by most standards. He is currently 25th on Chad Ford's Big Board, but let me be the first to say that his position needs to be changed. He should definitely be in the top 20, maybe even in the lottery. Let me explain.
Many people feel that Marcus is the better Morris twin, but I have to disagree—at least as far as their NBA outlooks go. Marcus is a better low post scorer, no one would argue that. However, Markieff is catching up to him slowly but surely. Marcus is more polished and has always been a little better, but no more.
Markieff has improved every year on campus, and his minutes have gone up with that. He didn't really contribute much his freshman year, but he has worked on his game and become a force in the Big 12.
Markieff is an inch bigger, and 10 pounds heavier than his brother. With that, he is a much better rebounder and defender. In four minutes less per game, Markieff averages one more rebound and .5 more blocks than his brother. That added size will help him succeed in the NBA. Marcus may be quicker, but Markieff is much stronger.
Markieff also has much better range on his jumper, leading the Jayhawks in three-point percentage at 42 percent this season. He can pop or roll off a pick and gives the offense an extra dynamic.
Markieff would likely benefit from another year at Kansas as he has improved drastically every season on campus. He continues to develop, and it is my belief that he would easily make his way into the lottery with another year of college ball. But he could be a steal if he declares after this season.
2. Butler's Shelvin Mack
Shelvin Mack has been a force ever since he arrived on campus at Butler just a few years ago. Now he's a junior having been a part of not one, but two Sweet 16s with the best the Horizon League has to offer. Last year, Mack was a role player alongside stars Gordon Hayward and Matt Howard. This season, Mack has stepped into the spotlight as Butler's second-best player. Matt Howard is still there, but Mack is right behind him.
Mack is built like an absolute tank. He is 6'3" and 215 pounds, but he is extremely muscular. His build reminds me a lot of former Kansas point guard Sherron Collins. Collins was considerably smaller, but he had a similar look. Although Mack is big, he is still extremely quick.
Mack is a good distributor, but his real strength is putting the ball in the basket. He is an extremely good shooter with unbelievable range on his jump shot. He had one of the best performances of the tournament against Pittsburgh and essentially carried the team through Matt Howard's struggles.
Matt Howard shot just 5-15 from the field, and although he came through in the clutch, Shelvin Mack put the team in a position to win that game with his ridiculous 30-point performance on 10 of 16 shooting, 7 of 12 from behind the arc. He has struggled from behind the arc at times this season, but he certainly didn't struggle against Pitt.
Many people are worried about Mack's ability to run the point in the NBA, but as he gains more experience running the offense he will only get better. He might not be an immediate impact guy in the NBA, but he has big potential. He is certainly more of a project, but he could be very good on both sides of the floor some day.
Next year he will have a chance to show what he's got as Butler's number one offensive option once Howard graduates. With another deep tournament run, declaring for the draft would not be out of the question for Shelvin Mack, but if he can successfully lead Butler back to the Sweet 16 on his own, he will get a fair look by many NBA teams.
Shelvin Mack could have a long NBA career ahead of him, and he could be a steal in the second round of either this year's, or next year's draft.
1. Richmond's Justin Harper
The best word I can use to describe Harper is silky. Man, this guy has got a J. He is a 6'10" big man from Richmond who averaged 18 points and seven boards a game this year for the Spiders. He also shot 54 percent from the field including a team-leading 46.5 percent from beyond the arc, which was good enough for 22nd in division one. He has very deep range and can take advantage of less mobile big men from outside the paint.
Harper is not necessarily a traditional big man, he trades a little bit of strength and rebounding for shooting and athleticism. He excels in the open floor and can run with the best of them. His athleticism is intriguing to many and it makes him fun to watch. It wouldn't surprise me if he ended up playing a lot of small forward in the NBA depending on whether or not he puts on weight.
He hasn't played extremely well in the tournament thus far but a good performance against Kansas, who has one of the best frontcourts in the nation, could really boost his stock.
At this point Justin Harper seems like a borderline first-round pick, and that seems too low for his talent level. If he stays this lean, he could be a good small forward. If he bulks up, he could be a good big man with three-point range.
Harper had one of the highest Player Efficiency Ratings in college basketball this season, and quietly tore apart the Atlantic 10 all season. He scored in double figures in all but two games. In those two games he played a combined 29 minutes. Whether it was an injury that plagued him, or just a little rest there is no doubt he is an elite scorer. If he can shake his "soft" reputation he will likely shoot up boards as we approach draft day. There is no doubt Harper has work to do, and also that he is a risk but he could be a very good player some day.
He projects similarly to 2010 top 10 pick Al-Farouq Aminu in a way. Harper is a better shooter, a little bigger and not quite as athletic, but he will project in a similar way. A stretch four who will struggle to rebound in the pros, but will be extremely useful in transition. While it is unclear who Harper will guard in the NBA, or where he fits offensively, he remains an interesting prospect who will be studied very closely up to draft day.
He could be a steal come draft day, and could be one of the best players to come from this year's draft class based on potential.