Do NBA Scouts Put More Stock in NCAA Tournament Games?

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterMarch 31, 2017

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 26:  Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks reacts in the second half with teammates PJ Dozier #15 and Maik Kotsar #21 against the Florida Gators during the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament East Regional at Madison Square Garden on March 26, 2017 in New York City.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
Elsa/Getty Images

NEW YORK — The NCAA tournament creates a high-stakes setting that magnifies performance, and NBA evaluators each watch it through their own custom scouting lens. 

Interpretations of postseason impact vary among scouts who all have different values and viewpoints on projecting talent. Some believe strong tournament play can be an indicator for future success.

"Yes, it's a big stage, and the passion and desire to win means a lot to me," one NBA executive told Bleacher Report. "It's about the care factor; at the end of the season, who makes the push to continue to succeed? It does come into play for sure."

For other scouts, it's the gradual buildup and progression, not necessarily the tournament itself. 

"The tournament factor isn't so much of a big deal. I think what guys really want to see is a development line on the uptick from Day 1 up to now," said another NBA scout. 

From a draft-stock perspective, we've seen prospects salvage inconsistent regular seasons with breakout showings in the tournament.

Syracuse's Malachi Richardson was the most recent in 2016. Through 31 regular-season games last year, he hung below the radar, shooting 37.5 percent for a bubble team. But a few scoring outbursts on Syracuse's Final Four run propelled Richardson into the first-round discussion, and the Sacramento Kings snatched him (via trade) at No. 22 overall. 

This year, Michigan's D.J. Wilson and Moritz Wagner jumped out early as possible risers from this year's tournament. Neither garnered much attention in the draft discussion coming into the tournament, having each finished at least 15 games with single-digit point totals. But Wagner's 26-point explosion against Louisville in the round of 32 raised eyebrows. Wilson has averaged 16 points and hit six threes through three tournament games.

Michigan's D.J. Wilson, left, and Moritz Wagner, right, earned added NBA draft buzz after brilliant NCAA tournament performances.
Michigan's D.J. Wilson, left, and Moritz Wagner, right, earned added NBA draft buzz after brilliant NCAA tournament performances.Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Suddenly, both names make for relevant draft chatter. Scouts seem more hesitant on Wagner, but Wilson has raised interest with just two weeks of high-level play. "I think Wilson can do what (Dallas Mavericks forward) Dwight Powell is doing and possibly more," said one Eastern Conference scout.

Dominant NCAA tournaments often help the perception of seniors, despite struggles to win over evaluators after four years of college basketball. Before the 2014 NCAA tournament, Shabazz Napier had played 137 games at Connecticut and never generated serious NBA interest. It wound up taking 143 games.

In an update right after the 2014 NCAA tournament, ESPN's Chad Ford wrote: "No one did more to help his draft stock in the tournament than Napier. Previously billed as a borderline second-round pick by many scouts, his brilliant play for Connecticut has pushed his draft stock into the first round."

In those six games during the Huskies' national title run, Napier managed to diminish concerns that lingered after 137 career games and convince the Miami Heat he was worth taking No. 24 overall (via trade).

This is all promising news for South Carolina's Sindarius Thornwell, who's 22 years old and had never received much love from NBA scouts. Even after being named the SEC's Player of the Year, there was little buzz surrounding Thornwell. 

GREENVILLE, SC - MARCH 19:  Sindarius Thornwell #0 of the South Carolina Gamecocks reacts in the second half against the Duke Blue Devils during the second round of the 2017 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Bon Secours Wellness Arena on March 19, 2017
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Averaging 25.8 points through four tournament wins, with another chance to strengthen his case against Gonzaga, it now seems like a given Thornwell gets drafted. Teams may buy into the timing of his performance or simply admire the steady improvement. 

There are, of course, plenty of evaluators whose scouting scopes don't account for the increased magnitude of the NCAA tournament. A few polled gave hard-no answers to whether they scout postseason games any differently. One viewed them as any other "big regular-season game."

Those who don't put any stock into raised play during March Madness could point to former NCAA tournament stars like Napier, Mitch McGary or R.J Hunter. It's safe to say each of those drafted prospects was the result of overvalued postseason success.

Still, it won't stop front offices in the future from moving prospects up their board following impact play in crunch time. 

Thornwell will have the chance to raise his stock further in the 2017 Final Four. Other than age, the knock on him revolves around his use of strength over quickness and explosiveness. A physical driver and bully with the ball, he gets to the line at excellent rate (8.4 times per game), but only shoots 47.4 percent inside the arc (a career high) after shooting under 40 percent his first two years and 41 percent in 2015-16. 

Finishing against Gonzaga's 7-footers, Przemek Karnowski and Zach Collins, would assuage concerns over Thornwell's ability to convert against NBA-sized rim protection. And if South Carolina can advance and meet North Carolina in the championship game, another opportunity would present itself.

Showing he can score on Justin Jackson, a 6'7" wing and potential lottery pick who kept Monk quiet during the Elite 8, would undoubtedly improve Thornwell's credibility. 

For scouts, it's about assessing the significance of high-stakes performance versus month-by-month progress and consistency. For prospects thriving in the tournament, it only takes one team to believe there's meaning in their raised level of play during the most crucial time of the year. 

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