Underrated NBA Draft Prospects to Keep an Eye on During March Madness

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterMarch 7, 2018

Underrated NBA Draft Prospects to Keep an Eye on During March Madness

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    John Minchillo/Associated Press

    NBA scouts and executives already have a good feel for the projected lottery prospects of this year's draft class. During March Madness, they'll be more focused on the under-the-radar names they haven't seen live or studied as much.

    Last year, it was late risers like D.J. Wilson and Jordan Bell who moved the needle late in March. Bank on more breakout surprises in 2018.

    Bleacher Report spoke with NBA evaluators about some of the underrated names they'll be monitoring. We only included players on teams expected to play in or compete for a spot in the NCAA tournament field.

Jacob Evans (Cincinnati, SG, Junior)

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    Michael Reaves/Getty Images

    Jacob Evans is trending upward after his gritty, 19-point effort to beat Wichita State in the regular-season finale.

    He'd just returned from injury, got banged up in the second half and still made key plays while fighting a limp.

    Cincinnati is now in position to earn a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament, per ESPN's Joe Lunardi. At the least, it has the chance to advance to the second weekend. This could be a good opportunity for Evans to draw attention and strengthen his credibility against nonconference opponents. 

    He possesses a number of qualities scouts look for in role players, including shot-making ability, secondary playmaking and defensive intensity. With solid 6'6", 210-pound size, he is shooting over 40.0 percent from three (again), averaging 1.22 PPP passing to the roll man off ball screens, and he's the top wing defender for the nation's No. 2 defense, per Kenpom.com.

    Praised for his toughness and versatility, Evans has become an NBA prospect worth tracking during the postseason and predraft process.

De'Andre Hunter (Virginia, SF/PF, Freshman)

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    Eric Espada/Getty Images

    De'Andre Hunter is starting to appear on more scouts' radars, with Virginia ranked No. 1 and the freshman impacting games at both ends. 

    The eye test says yes. An athletic, 6'7" wing with a 7'2" wingspan, Hunter plays both forward spots, using his quickness to face up and attack slower 4s, as well as defend the perimeter. 

    He's also making 40.0 percent of his jump shots in the half court (38.0 from three), and he's flashed potential in the shot-creating department, having converted on 12 of 20 scoring chances out of isolation. 

    Hunter only plays 20.0 minutes and averages 9.1 points per game, numbers that wouldn't normally scream one-and-done. But with a projected 2018 field that could lack depth, long-term potential may be enough for teams picking in the 20s.

Jontay Porter (Missouri, C, Freshman)

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    There is a growing belief that Michael Porter Jr. could be ready for the NCAA tournament, which would draw a ton of attention from the NBA scouting community. That could create a big opportunity for his younger brother Jontay Porter, who's finished with at least 17 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two threes in three of Missouri's last four games. 

    At 6'11", 240 pounds, Porter is a big, mobile body who checks the right boxes for today's NBA, even if his athletic ability underwhelms. 

    He's making 1.2 threes per game and 76.6 percent of his free throws, showing soft touch and a clean stroke out to the arc. His 3.6 assists per 40 minutes also highlight vision and passing skills, both out of the post and off the dribble attacking closeouts. 

    Porter blocks 2.8 shots per 40 minutes as well, and if he can convince scouts the rim protection will carry over, it should help ease concerns about his limitations defending in space away from the basket.

Zhaire Smith (Texas Tech, SF, Freshman)

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    Ray Thompson/Associated Press

    Averaging 15.2 points since the start of February, Zhaire Smith is making a late push, generating buzz with exciting athleticism and improving skill.

    One of the country's most explosive leapers, the 6'5" wing ranks in the 94th percentile in transition points per possession (1.44) and shoots 78.1 percent on cuts to the basket. He's even blocking a shot per game, showing the ability to erase would-be easy finishes at the rim.

    From a skill standpoint, he's behind. Creating offense isn't a strength—he's 6-of-24 out of isolation and has only had seven possessions as a pick-and-roll ball-handler. But Smith has shown he can make an outside shot (13-of-30), including off the dribble (10-of-22), and he's demonstrated impressive vision and passing on various assists throughout the season. 

    It's easy to think teams could view Smith, who's still 18, as a more enticing long-term play than some of the productive sophomores, juniors and seniors expected to be available outside the lottery. Enough flashes of budding scoring ability over the next month could ultimately lead to first-round interest.

Aaron Holiday (UCLA, PG, Junior)

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    Ralph Freso/Associated Press

    Coming off a career-best 34 points against USC on Saturday, Aaron Holiday is gaining steam, with more scouts now entertaining the 6'1" junior as a first-round option.

    UCLA is on the last-four-in line entering conference tournament play. Getting in would open the door wider for Holiday, the type of scorer and playmaker capable of carrying his group and strengthening his draft case even further.

    Despite lacking the explosiveness that traditionally points to upside, Holiday compensates with enough quickness, length and proven shooting. He's making 2.5 threes per game at a 43.9 percent clip, the third consecutive season he's been over 41.0 percent.

    Though 26.1 percent of his possessions come as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (.86 PPP, 71st percentile), he's also been super efficient playing off the ball as a spot-up threat (23.3 percent of offense, 1.104 PPP), where he shoots 51.0 percent on catch-and-shoot jumpers (97th percentile), 43.5 percent on dribble jumpers and 38.9 percent on runners.

    Scouts also admire his toughness and value his basketball genes, being the younger brother of two productive NBA guards. 

    His 5.8 assists to 3.7 turnovers highlight weakness in his decision-making, but NBA teams won't be looking at Holiday as a 30-plus-minute ball-dominator. To start, they'll value his offensive versatility and firepower in a change-of-pace role.

Khyri Thomas (Creighton, SG, Junior)

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The Big East Defensive Player of the Year, Khyri Thomas also shoots 42.5 percent from behind the arc. His three-and-D caught the attention of scouts early in the season, and his consistency throughout has kept interest alive despite some well-documented weakness. 

    A 6'3" guard, Thomas isn't an adept shot-creator, grading out below average as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (.625 PPP, 26th percentile). He's totaled just 17 points out of isolation all season.

    But Thomas has still finished with double figures in scoring in 29 of 31 games, generating 1.534 PPP in transition (97th percentile) and 1.17 PPP (89th percentile) out of spot-ups. He converts inside the arc at an outstanding 64.2 percent clip by regularly capitalizing on what's given to him.

    A feisty perimeter defender and wildly efficient complementary scorer (66.0 true shooting percentage, per Sports Reference), Thomas stands out as a role-playing fit for the right NBA team. He'll have the chance to boost his national brand in the NCAA tournament.

Landry Shamet (Wichita State, PG, Sophomore)

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Scouts see something in Landry Shamet, who lacks burst and strength but has earned fans for offensive versatility and high-IQ decision-making.

    Sharp with the ball, averaging 5.2 assists to 2.0 turnovers and ranking in the 79th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, Shamet has also been one of the most efficient off-ball scorers in the country.

    Among players who've received at least 50 possessions in spot-up situations, he ranks No. 3 in points per possession (1.521 PPP, 100th percentile). 

    He's shooting 45.5 percent on half-court jump shots and 44.0 percent from three. 

    And despite his underwhelming athletic ability, he's crafty and picks his spots wisely, which is why he's fared well finishing at the basket (59.1 percent).

    Shamet ultimately has a knack for playing well on the big stage. As a redshirt freshman last year, he went for 20 points against De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Kentucky in the NCAA tournament. 

    Another big showing this March should help him solidify his status as a first-round-caliber guard.

Kerwin Roach (Texas, PG/SG, Junior)

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Kerwin Roach has made noticeable strides, leading scouts to finally take him seriously as a draftable NBA prospect.

    Enticing for his explosiveness and ball-handling, Roach has improved significantly as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, generating 0.853 PPP (70th percentile), up from .609 PPP (25th percentile). He's sharpened his off-ball scoring as well, particularly his ability to attack closeouts and get to the basket (11-of-16). 

    Shooting remains a question mark, but he's looking better. Roach is connecting on 35.9 percent of his half-court jump shots (1.3 threes per game) after making just 27.8 percent in 2016-17. 

    Defense has been another selling point. Oklahoma's Trae Young, the nation's leading scorer, shot a combined 14-of-43 in two games against Texas, with Roach's quickness and pressure creating problems for Young during each matchup.

    Averaging 12.3 points and 3.6 assists, he hasn't produced enough to warrant widespread first-round interest. But a strong postseason should still help his draft case. There aren't many point guards as athletic as Roach.

Donte DiVincenzo (Villanova, SG, Sophomore)

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Donte DiVincenzo takes a backseat at Villanova to National Player of the Year candidate Jalen Brunson and potential top-10 pick Mikal Bridges. But strong supporting play gets magnified in the NCAA tournament. 

    And with the Wildcats looking to make a run to the Final Four, DiVincenzo should have a chance to open the eyes of scouts who've been hesitant to view him as a legitimate NBA prospect. 

    His size and athletic ability check out. And this year, he's taken his shooting and playmaking to new levels, generating .979 PPP as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (88th percentile) and averaging 3.4 assists while knocking down 2.2 threes per game at a 39.2 percent clip.

    Along with his offensive versatility, teams should also put stock in his fearlessness, energy and physical defense, more qualities that suggest DiVincenzo could stick as a two-way, role-playing combo guard.


    Advanced stats courtesy of Synergy Sports Technology unless otherwise noted.