Underrated NBA Draft Prospects to Watch for in March Madness

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 15, 2017

Underrated NBA Draft Prospects to Watch for in March Madness

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    March Madness has something for everyone. 

    While NBA fans are inevitably watching their brackets unravel, they'll be keeping their eyes on the future waves of professional players. Lonzo Ball will be in action for the UCLA Bruins. Josh Jackson, Jayson Tatum, De'Aaron Fox and plenty of other top-tier prospects will be attempting to navigate through the loaded field. 

    But let's dig deeper. 

    The NCAA Tournament can serve as a proving ground for plenty of underrated prospects, giving them chances to gain national notoriety and start moving up the draft boards. These 10, for example, should do exactly that, even if their tourney runs last no more than a single game. 

    To be eligible for this list, players can't be ranked in the top 40 on either NBADraft.net or DraftExpress. They can't appear in the first round of the latest 2017 mock draft on either site, and the same holds true for the newest projections from Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman

    They truly have to be off the first-round radar. 

    For now, at least. 

Rawle Alkins, Arizona

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    Class: Freshman

    Position: SG

    Per-Game Stats: 11.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 0.9 steals, 0.5 blocks

    Advanced Metrics: 17.9 PER131.06 TPA

    If you're watching the Arizona Wildcats in preparation for the NBA draft, you're probably focusing on uber-prospect Lauri Markkanen. Kobi Simmons and Allonzo Trier will also draw attention, as both would likely become second-round picks if they left early. 

    But don't overlook the team's hidden gem.

    As a freshman shooting guard, Rawle Alkins has proved the defensive hype he received before moving to Tucson was legitimate. He has tremendous strength and lateral quickness for a 6'5" guard, and his vertical athleticism even lets him spend some plays lurking as a weak-side shot-blocker. That point-preventing ability should remain his primary skill going forward, regardless of whether he leaves for the NBA draft after one collegiate campaign or stays to boost his stock for another year. 

    We also can't gloss over his developing offensive game. His free-throw stroke was better than expected as a freshman. That, combined with his 37.2 percent clip from downtown, offers hope he can morph into a three-and-D stud in the NBA.

    Heading into the NCAA tournament, Alkins was one of just 41 college players to add 65 points on both offense and defense, per NBA Math. The only other freshmen? Lonzo Ball, Justin Patton, Josh Jackson, Bam Adebayo, Bruce Brown and Jonathan Isaac, all of whom will serve as serious lottery threats when they declare for the draft.

Trevon Bluiett, Xavier

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    Class: Junior

    Position: SF

    Per-Game Stats: 18.1 points, 5.8 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 0.8 steals, 0.1 blocks

    Advanced Metrics: 19.7 PER, 120.23 TPA

    After withdrawing his name from the 2016 NBA draft to return for his junior season at Xavier, Trevon Bluiett has done nothing but succeed. 

    Though his three-point stroke has regressed as he takes on more offensive responsibility, the small forward has displayed better finishing ability on the interior, as well as an improved mid-range stroke. He's even drilled 43.8 percent of his two-point jumpers this year, per Hoop-Math.com. Considering his defensive chops aren't anything to write home about, he's needed that well-rounded offensive game to move up NBA draft boards.

    Bluiett's limited athleticism forces him into a skill-oriented role, and that's what he'll have to show on the sport's biggest amateur stage. It would also help if he continued flashing an ability to draw fouls and get to the free-throw stripe.

    If he can create easy looks for the rest of the Musketeers while thriving as a spot-up shooter, he'll write his ticket into the second round of the 2017 NBA draft. If not, he may look into testing the professional waters once again while keeping his options open for a return to Xavier and his final year of eligibility. 

Mikal Bridges, Villanova

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    Class: Sophomore

    Position: SF

    Per-Game Stats: 9.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.9 blocks

    Advanced Metrics: 21.5 PER, 231.62 TPA

    Even though Mikal Bridges didn't average double-digit points for the defending champions, he trailed just six players in TPA, per NBA Math. Considering 4,813 different young men suited up during the NCAA season, that's impressive, leaving him in the 99.88 percentile. 

    "Bridges has already proved that he can excel in a small role offensively, so it will be fascinating to see if his skill level blossoms to help fill the void, or if he once again plays a more complementary role," Jonathan Givony wrote for DraftExpress before the season began.

    "If he can improve his shooting from the perimeter, there's little question that he offers intriguing role-player potential at this end at the next level, but he could raise his profile considerably if he can flash the ability to create a bit off the bounce and make sound decisions with the ball."

    The athletic small forward still deferred to the more experienced players wearing Villanova uniforms throughout his sophomore season, but he answered any and all concerns about his future. There's been no question about his physical tools and defensive tenacity, and shooting 39.3 percent from downtown on 3.1 attempts per game helped him prove he could also thrive on the offensive end. 

    That said, he still filled a smaller role, often ceding looks to Josh Hart, Jalen Brunson and Kris Jenkins. If he can have one big scoring performance during a deep March Madness run by the Wildcats...

Vince Edwards, Purdue

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    Class: Junior

    Position: SF

    Per-Game Stats: 12.2 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 0.6 steals, 0.5 blocks

    Advanced Metrics: 20.2 PER, 157.89 TPA

    After Vince Edwards withdrew from the 2016 NBA draft and decided to return to Purdue for his junior go-round, head coach Matt Painter offered some thoughts on how he could improve his stock. 

    "Painter said last month the most crucial step for Edwards to 'complete his package' came on defense," Nathan Baird explained for JCOnline.com. "However, Edwards is an accomplished offensive rebounder who makes his biggest offensive impact when playing aggressively. He can create his own shot and possess both an ability to get to the rim consistently and the shooting range to stretch defenses."

    The offense didn't go anywhere.

    Edwards improved from both within the arc and outside it, thriving as a secondary scorer for the Boilermakers who could also create for his teammates from the wings. Considering the 6'7" prospect has experience operating as a power forward, it's abundantly impressive that he can average 3.2 dimes while turning the ball over just 1.7 times per contest. 

    Even more importantly, his defense did trend up.

    Not only did he average more steals and blocks per 40 minutes, but also his defensive box plus/minus went north for the second consecutive season. That increased comfort helped Purdue forge a strong defensive identity, and it gives Edwards credibility as a role-playing wing worth taking early in the second round.

Jacob Evans, Cincinnati

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    Class: Sophomore

    Position: SF

    Per-Game Stats: 13.7 points, 4.1 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.8 blocks

    Advanced Metrics: 22.9 PER, 184.63 TPA

    Another three-and-D prospect? Another three-and-D prospect. 

    That's a tried-and-true recipe for success as a second-round sleeper, since the versatility of the skill set allows for so many teams to remain interested. Franchises in need of shooting help off the bench can consider drafting the prospect in question, as can those looking for help on the point-preventing end. Plus, they have the luxury of doing so while in search of two-way upside. 

    Jacob Evans fits the mold here after draining 41.8 percent of his 4.6 three-point attempts per game as a sophomore for Cincinnati. Perhaps even more impressive was developing a finesse aspect after a freshman season in which he relied upon his 6'6" frame and overwhelming athleticism to torment opponents and score 8.4 points per game. 

    He was more involved this season, recording additional points and assists per 40 minutes without sacrificing any efficiency. Thanks to an improved mid-range jumper (3.4 percent better on two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com) and confidence finishing around the hoop (68.2 percent), his true shooting percentage skyrocketed from 49.7 to 59.3, leaving him as one of just 83 qualified players throughout the country to post a score north of 59 and a defensive box plus/minus of at least 4.0. 

    Evans currently sits at No. 41 in DraftExpress' 2018 mock draft, but a standout showing in March could expedite his jump to the Association. 

Ethan Happ, Wisconsin

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    Class: Sophomore

    Position: PF

    Per-Game Stats: 13.9 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.1 blocks

    Advanced Metrics: 31.5 PER, 240.81 TPA

    "[Ethan] Happ feels like a throwback trapped in the future. He's a big man who can do everything other than shoot outside of five feet, yet one who gets it done with a style that resembles few contemporaries. He doesn't have Lonzo Ball's panache, Miles Bridges' explosion or Malik Monk's flamethrower shooting stroke, but his game is every bit as entertaining," Ricky O'Donnell wrote for SB Nation in February.

    "As a former 3-star recruit, Happ isn't just Wisconsin's latest diamond in the rough. He's also college basketball's most underappreciated star."

    If you're thinking of Jahlil Okafor right now, stop. 

    Ethan Happ is much more unique than the Duke prospect, even if both have throwback games. The 6'8" frontcourt stud will likely have to shift to power forward or the wings in the NBA, but he has the defensive chops to do so—Jay Bilas even called him the leader for Defensive Player of the Year in early February.

    His lack of size and verticality may prevent the Badgers standout from earning a first-round nod. However, his IQ, ambidexterity around the basket and stopping ability almost guarantee him an eventual spot in an NBA rotation. The production in Madison has just been that overwhelming.

    If the efficiency around the hoop doesn't convince you, perhaps his ability to rack up dimes and rebounds will. And if the raw stats don't do the trick, we can always turn to his jaw-dropping advanced metrics: Only Lonzo Ball has earned a higher score in NBA Math's TPA metric this season.

Shake Milton, SMU

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    Class: Sophomore

    Position: PG

    Per-Game Stats: 13.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1.2 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Advanced Metrics: 19.2 PER, 150.21 TPA

    Averaging 4.5 assists in the college game isn't easy. That might not be an impressive number by NBA standards, but it certainly is in a league that plays 40-minute contests with a longer shot clock and more one-on-one action. Exactly 100 qualified players were able to do so in 2016-17—an average of just 0.28 per eligible school. 

    But Shake Milton doesn't just average 4.5 dimes; he does so while turning the ball over only 1.8 times per contest, which places him in a much more exclusive group alongside only 18 amateur guards. 

    That alone should put the SMU stud in the draft conversation, and NBA general managers should be doubling down when they see his ability to rebound the basketball, thrive as a No. 2 scorer and lead his Mustangs to victories. A bit more consistency would be nice, and searching for that is why Milton will probably return to school for his junior season. 

    But he's on the radar now as a potential first-round pick in 2018 who would draw significant consideration if he declared a year early. He won't go to work as an anonymous point guard during his first matchup against either Providence or Southern Cal, but instead as the leader of a competitive squad who's expected to produce plenty of offense. 

    Oh, and did we mention that this point guard checked in at 6'7" with a 6'11.5" wingspan at the 2016 Nike Basketball Academy, per DraftExpress

Monte Morris, Iowa State

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    Class: Senior

    Position: PG

    Per-Game Stats: 16.3 points, 4.8 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.3 blocks

    Advanced Metrics: 24.7 PER, 222.45 TPA

    Speaking of flashy assist-to-turnover ratios, only three players have averaged at least six dimes with no more than 1.5 cough-ups since the start of the 2007-08 season: 

    1. Cody Doolin, who did so for San Francisco in 2013-14 while appearing in just four contests.
    2. Jeremy Johnson, who achieved the feat in a single appearance for Milwaukee last year.
    3. Monte Morris, who joined the club for Iowa State this season over the course of 33 games. 

    Morris is one of the most efficient passers in recent memory, taking advantage of his experience to lead a potent offense while firmly eschewing mistakes. That, plus his improved scoring game and consistent three-point stroke, allowed him to add more points on offense (160.66) than everyone in the NCAA but Luke Kennard (192.75), Lonzo Ball (183.27) and Frank Mason (182.31) this season, per NBA Math.

    Already, the senior is drawing attention from one specific professional team. 

    "One dark horse for the [Chicago] Bulls is Iowa State's Monte Morris. Fred Hoiberg coached him, and sources say the Bulls coach loves him," Chad Ford revealed for ESPN in January. "While Morris doesn't have a huge upside, he posts an incredible assist-to-turnover ratio every season and is shooting 40 percent from three as a senior. Morris is ranked in the 30s right now, but some teams, including the Bulls, have him ranked much higher."

    Limited upside? Sure. Four years of college experience? That tends to be a drawback in the drool-over-youth NBA draft. 

    But Morris has plenty of production under his belt, the perfect skill set to serve as a distributing floor general in the Association and the luxury of proving himself by leading a competitive team sans Georges Niang.

Cameron Oliver, Nevada

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    Class: Sophomore

    Position: PF

    Per-Game Stats: 15.8 points, 8.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 2.6 blocks

    Advanced Metrics: 22.5 PER, 131.66 TPA

    It's stunning that NBA teams aren't already more intrigued by Cameron Oliver. 

    Sure, there are weaknesses. His shooting stroke is a bit elongated, and his motor can leave him taking possessions off after putting together a string of highlights. His post moves show promise, but they're by no means polished. He can get baited into leaping for a block attempt, only to be tortured with another whistle or easy bucket while he's up in the air. 

    But those are all fixable flaws. What can't be taught is Oliver's 6'8" frame, which comes with hops and shooting touch in a package deal.

    The power forward spent his sophomore season taking 4.8 three-point attempts per game—3.2 more than he did as a freshman before declaring for the 2016 NBA draft and eventually withdrawing after he failed to secure a combine invite. But whereas he connected at a 32.8 percent clip last year, he's drained 38.3 percent of his treys in 2016-17.

    That leaves him as the only qualified player throughout the NCAA averaging at least 1.5 triples and 2.5 blocks per game—as good an indicator as any of his unique skill set. Even if we drop the decimal places off the restrictions, just four more contributors join the club.

    Oliver's reason for returning to Nevada, per Brandon Blake of Ridiculous Upside, was that he "wanted to develop more of a better motor, be a more consistent shooter, work on my mid-range game and three-point game...Teams can definitely see me being a stretch 4 and a Draymond Green type, so I want to get my ball-handling better and be a more consistent shooter and go from there."

    Mission successful. 

Nigel Williams-Goss, Gonzaga

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    Class: Junior

    Position: PG

    Per-Game Stats: 16.9 points, 5.7 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 1.8 steals, 0.0 blocks

    Advanced Metrics: 27.1 PER232.55 TPA

    Time off didn't hurt Nigel Williams-Goss in the slightest. The junior point guard sat out for a season after transferring from Washington to Gonzaga, but he's been better than ever while directing the Bulldogs' dominant offense.

    He contributes in every area imaginable, thriving as a distributor and scorer while avoiding turnovers and shooting efficiently from all over the court. The simple fact that he's hitting free throws at a 91 percent clip should serve as enough indication that we're no longer dealing with the same player.

    However, there's still one potential issue. 

    "The concerns from scouts center around his lack of speed, quickness and explosive athletic ability. It doesn't affect him quite as much on the offensive end because he's so crafty, but you do see the impact when you look at his numbers finishing at the rim and his relative lack of free-throw attempts," Chad Ford wrote for ESPN.com before his junior campaign.

    "He's got a great floater, but otherwise he's a relatively average player when he gets to the basket, especially given his size. Where the lack of explosion really hurts is on the defensive end of the ball where Williams-Goss struggles to contain quick, athletic guards."

    The reputation still persists, but Williams-Goss' steal rate skyrocketed with Gonzaga, and he posted (easily) the best defensive box plus/minus of his career. Plus, he knocked down 45.7 percent of his two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.com, while generating 5.6 free-throw attempts per 40 minutes; those numbers stood at 43.5 and 3.5, respectively, during his final year with Washington. 

    Now, can he keep up the improvement while facing a tougher schedule?

    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    Unless otherwise indicated, all stats from Sports Reference or NBA Math and accurate heading into the NCAA tournament.