2023 NBA Draft Prospects Who Stood Out in NCAA Tournament's 1st Round

Jonathan WassermanMarch 18, 2023

2023 NBA Draft Prospects Who Stood Out in NCAA Tournament's 1st Round

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    Kobe Brown, Missouri
    Kobe Brown, MissouriCarly Mackler/Getty Images

    NBA scouts are spread wide across the country for the NCAA tournament's first round, not knowing how many other evaluation opportunities they'll get.

    Statements were made on Thursday and Friday, both from under-the-radar players trying to validate regular-season play and expected first-rounders attempting to strengthen their cases.

    A few freshmen who were gaining steam entering March Madness kept the momentum going during their tournament debuts.

Amari Bailey, UCLA, PG/SG, Freshman

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    Amari Bailey, UCLA
    Amari Bailey, UCLAEthan Miller/Getty Images

    More usage has given life to Amari Bailey's creation and two-way playmaking following Jaylen Clark's season-ending injury.

    Eyes have shifted toward the freshmen recently, as he entered the NCAA tournament averaging 18.0 points over his previous three games. He capitalized on that attention in the Round of 64 against UNC Asheville, finishing with 17 points, six assists, three steals and highlights that showed his craftiness, vision and energy for defensive activity.

    While scouts still have questions about his low-volume three-point shooting for the year (17-of-50 3PT), he made a strong pitch Thursday selling his passing. Bailey showcased his flash in the open floor and vision, IQ and patience in the half court, whether it was making quick, simple decisions or waiting for post scorers to get position before dumping it in.

    Bailey also uses his size well, both as a setup man over the top and finisher off drives.

    He was terrific defensively in UCLA's first game, particularly off the ball bouncing around, causing panic with his help and deflecting passes on multiple occasions. He did a good job on the ball as well, anticipating screens, sliding his feet and staying attached enough to contest and force missed jump shots.

    A case against Bailey likes to point to his unforced turnovers, unconvincing shooting numbers and questionable separation ability. However, the exciting playmaking does negate some of the pain caused by the errant passes. There is a decent amount of pre-college evidence of shot-making, and he's converted a respectable 39.2 percent of his two-point jump shots this season. And between his positional height, handle and explosion off one foot, he's starting to show more signs of being able to get shots off as his on-ball reps increase.

    The shooting needs to come around regardless, but if the creation doesn't translate so seamlessly, Bailey has shown enough effectiveness for teams to look at him as a positionless connector.

Kobe Brown, Missouri, SF/PF, Senior

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    Kobe Brown, Missouri
    Kobe Brown, MissouriBryan Lynn/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

    Missouri pulled away from Utah State behind Kobe Brown's 11-0 run in the second half.

    The highlights will focus on his three straight three-pointers—which included a pull-up and step-back, shots you typically don't see from 250-pound forwards. Improved shooting (44.7 percent 3PT) will be a key reason he's going to get draft looks this summer. But Brown was also able to showcase the surprising elusiveness, passing IQ and defensive movement that make him a more complete prospect.

    Twice he caught defenders off guard by easily spinning off them into baseline finishes. He controlled possesses from the post, not just as a scoring threat, but with his ability to manipulate defenses, draw help and find open finishers and shooters. Defensively, he made reads that put him in position to make plays on the ball, both away from the basket and under it.

    Brown's NBA fit isn't the easiest to visualize, mostly because of his heavy 6'8" frame and athletic limitations. At 23 years old, his age won't give him much wiggle room. But Brown has developed an effective mix of ball-handling, patience and abrupt moves to create while possessing high-level vision and touch to finish and make plays off the dribble. He's also given scouts enough reasons to buy his jump shot, between the long-range accuracy, 40.0 percent mark on pull-ups and 80.2 free-throw percentage.

    Defensively, a 2.9 steal percentage highlights encouraging movement for both ends of the floor.

    Between the season he's had and Thursday's standout performance, Brown should have a real case for an invite to the NBA Combine.

Gradey Dick, Kansas, SF, Freshman

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    Gradey Dick, Kansas
    Gradey Dick, KansasAP Photo/Charlie Neibergall

    Already an expected lottery pick entering March, Gradey Dick saved his most complete game of the season for the NCAA tournament's round of 64.

    The 19 points, 11 rebounds and six assists highlighted functional athleticism, shot-making versatility and passing that points to more upside than a traditional shooter. His bounce popped on a pair of putbacks. Assists off a drive-and-kick, an offensive board into a drop-off and a crosscourt dart highlighted Dick's quick processing and IQ.

    Elite shot-making for a 6'8" wing is still Dick's money-making skill. He hit three threes on Thursday, showcasing that high, instant release that doesn't dip. Shooting 46.0 percent on 87 pull-ups this season, generating 1.05 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, Dick has also proved to be effective scoring off the dribble, even if he isn't the most explosive.

    Though he's considered more of a safe lottery pick than one with upside, we've slotted him top 10 for a few months now, and this first NCAA tournament game helped point out why there are more paths to a ceiling that's higher than just a shot-making specialist's.

Dereck Lively, Duke, C, Freshman

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    Dereck Lively, Duke
    Dereck Lively, DukeBen Solomon/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

    Dereck Lively's improving awareness was evident during his six-block, 12-rebound showing against Oral Roberts.

    He's making quicker reads than he did earlier in the season. With outstanding defensive tools, he's now optimizing them in rim protection and pick-and-roll coverage, reacting smarter and doing a better job of timing his challenges around the basket. His foot speed in space, along with his level of alertness and motor for recoveries, popped often on Thursday night.

    Lively now has a higher block percentage (12.5 percent) than last year's No. 15 pick and Duke center Mark Williams (11.4 percent), who's suddenly emerged as an impact rookie for the Charlotte Hornets.

    With a high center of gravity, opponents have been able to get decent position and shots over him over Lively. But at 7'1", 230 pounds and 19 years old, he should be able to reach a weight that will make him tougher for opposing post scorers to move in back-to-the-basket situations.

    Offensively, though, he's still mostly just a catch-and-finish target. The faster processing has also shown on his passing, as he's making quick decisions knowing where his shooters are on kickouts.

    After a rough start, Lively has ultimately regained enough confidence from the scouting community. It's still more likely he winds up somewhere in the No. 16-30 range, given the likelihood that his lack of positional/skill versatility limits his suitors to just teams looking for big-man depth or defense.

Jalen Slawson, Furman, PF, Senior

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    Jalen Slawson, Furman
    Jalen Slawson, FurmanAP Photo/Chris O'Meara

    Jalen Slawson executing his versatility and imposing his toughness on Virginia should lead to more NBA phone calls requesting workouts.

    It was a validating showing for an out-of-the-box prospect who put up unique production against a weak schedule. Scouts figure to go back and look closer at a prospect who averaged 15.7 points on 65.1 percent true shooting with a 19.7 assist percentage, 3.0 steal percentage and 5.4 block percentage.

    Slawson made a few momentum-shifting plays throughout the game, including an and-one finish off a spin move and a three-pointer to cap off a personal 9-0 second-half run.

    Virginia's bigs ultimately had trouble containing his physicality off the dribble and passing. And Slawson's activity level under the glass also put pressure on Virginia's frontcourt.

    His weaknesses were still evident today. For a 23-year-old, he doesn't take enough threes for scouts to confidently buy the 39.4 percentage. His lack of quick-twitch and burst showed on some slow fakes and drives when he couldn't turn the corner. One step-back jumper miss seemingly took forever to get off.

    Regardless, the draw to Slawson from an NBA standpoint focuses on his comfort level operating away from the basket, his facilitating and vision and energy/athleticism for hustle plays, finishes and disruptive defense.

Terquavion Smith, North Carolina State SG Sophomore

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    Terquavion Smith, North Carolina State
    Terquavion Smith, North Carolina State Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Terquavion Smith will enter the pre-draft process coming off two 30-point games in three postseason games, with both serving NBA teams a reminder about the self-creation and shot-making he offers.

    Friday night's production against Creighton required 27 shot attempts, but the 11 made two-pointers were refreshing for a prospect who's struggled inside the arc for consecutive seasons.

    Shifty and constantly changing with advanced footowork off the dribble, Smith was difficult for Creighton defenders to stay in front of. He got to his spots, used his floater touch and and did a better job at finishing lay-ups after contact or in traffic than he usually does.

    Smith didn't have his best shooting game around the perimeter, but that's less of a worry for scouts. They acknowledge the streakiness while valuing his confidence to catch fire and skill for converting difficult jumpers off the dribble.

    He went out swinging last night, demonstrating the type of aggressiveness and shot selection that makes Smith both vulnerable to inefficiency or capable of scoring in volume/bunches.NBA teams will know precisely what they'd be getting with the 6'4", 165-pound lightning rod who fits the Immanuel Quickley, Bones Hyland and Jordan Poole mold.

Ryan Kalkbrenner, Creighton C Junior

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    Ryan Kalkbrenner, Creighton
    Ryan Kalkbrenner, CreightonSean M. Haffey/Getty Images

    Ryan Kalkbrenner put on a play-finishing and rim protection showcase against North Carolina State, erupting for a career-high 31 points with three blocks.

    He hasn't needed wild athleticism to shoot 71.7 percent from the floor this year. Friday night's performance highlighted his excellent feel for spacing, ability to read ball-handlers, technique to gain position and body control, reach and hands for finishing.

    Anyone getting their first live look at Kalkbrenner last night wouldn't be surprised to see he grades in the 97th percentile as a roll man, 95th percentile as a cutter and 96th percentile on putbacks, per Synergy Sports.

    But he also flashed his strong command of his hook shots, and at 7'1", NBA teams could see that part of his offense translating given his release point, sturdiness and touch.

    Kalkbrenner even hit a three-pointer for the second straight game after not making any in 2023. NBA interest in the center will certainly grow during workouts if he's able to sell them on hidden shooting potential.

    He was terrific defensively as well against Creighton, not falling for fakes, contesting straight up and reading pick-and-rolls as a drop big man. High IQ and feel play a major role in his ability to maximize the effectiveness of his height and length.

    Friday night's showing was ultimately timely for Kalkbrenner, who likely earned himself a spot on more draft boards and in more front-office conversations.