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NBA Draft 2018: Zhaire Smith and Prospects on Rise After March Madness Round 2

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 20, 2018

Texas Tech guard Zhaire Smith (2) drives while defended by West Virginia forward Lamont West (15) during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game Monday, Feb. 26, 2018, in Morgantown, W.Va. (AP Photo/Raymond Thompson)
Ray Thompson/Associated Press

Several top NBA draft prospects were among the casualties of an upset-filled first weekend at the 2018 men's NCAA tournament.

Scouts hoping for more in-game intel on DeAndre Ayton, Trae Young and Michael Porter Jr. are out of luck. They've all been dispatched from the Big Dance, along with fellow (likely) lottery locks Jaren Jackson Jr., Mohamed Bamba, Collin Sexton and Miles Bridges.

But several NBA-bound ballers are alive and well in March Madness, and a few of them have been raising their draft stocks by the contest. The following three Sweet 16 participants are all riding high after scorching-hot starts.

                       

Jevon Carter (West Virginia, PG, Senior)

Given front offices' attraction to upside, there's only so high West Virginia senior guard Jevon Carter can climb. He'll be 23 before the next NBA season starts, and he's never going to be a jaw-dropping athlete, so he'll carry two significant marks against him through the evaluation process.

But at some point, his statistics should speak for themselves.

He's on a short list of the nation's top perimeter defenders, and he has driven that point home at the tournament. He snatched an absurd 10 steals over his first two outings—the same number Duke, Clemson and Gonzaga tallied as entire teams.

But Carter's growth at the other end is most responsible for spurring his rise. He has paced the Mountaineers each time out, first with 21 points and later with 28. He's shooting 54.3 percent for the tournament and has connected on five of his eight long-range looks (62.5 percent). He has tossed out 13 assists and only given away three turnovers.

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

Dagger in the corner! 👌 Jevon Carter with the 4-POINT PLAY to put @WVUhoops up 77-50 with 7:34 left to go in San Diego! #MarchMadness https://t.co/eXxZnoVMDy

"You have to understand how hard he works to appreciate Jevon Carter," West Virginia coach Bob Huggins said, per Brent Schrotenboer of USA Today. "He's the hardest-working guy I think I've ever had. It's nothing for him to go shoot an hour-and-a-half before the game."

The work is paying off, as Carter has helped himself as much as any prospect in this tournament.

                  

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Kentucky, PG/SG, Freshman)

The NCAA point guard prospect rankings have long featured Trae Young and Collin Sexton at the top (in whatever order). But a late-season surge has thrust Shai Gilgeous-Alexander into that discussion.

He was heating up before the Big Dance started, as it's been a month since his last single-digit scoring effort. He's averaging 19.4 points, 6.9 assists and 5.3 rebounds over this nine-game stretch, and he's found a way to elevate even from there in the tournament. Through two outings, his per-game averages are at 23.0 points (on 60.0 percent shooting), 7.0 rebounds, 6.5 assists and 3.5 steals.

It's no coincidence that his best performances have coincided with that of this young Kentucky team, as he embodies the floor-general aspect of point guard play.

"Where Trae Young and Collin Sexton thrive off scoring the ball, and within systems that play heavily through them, Gilgeous-Alexander's patient game sits on the opposite end of the spectrum," Jeremy Woo wrote for Sports Illustrated. "At 6'6", he plays a unique, unselfish brand of offense centered on his innate ability to change speeds and directions with the ball in his hands."

Gilgeous-Alexander might not have the boom potential of Young or Sexton, but the Wildcats' leader continues looking like the least likely to bust. Kentucky could have a deep tournament run ahead, and each outing gives Gilgeous-Alexander another chance to win over NBA execs.

                            

Zhaire Smith (Texas Tech, SG/SF, Freshman)

Casual fans may not have known the name Zhaire Smith before the tournament started.

It's possible they still don't. But he's made enough trips through the highlight reel that they should be able to recognize him as the player responsible for the tourney's top throwdown:

NCAA March Madness @marchmadness

ARE YOU SERIOUS, Zhaire Smith? 😳😳😳 #MarchMadness https://t.co/S3rNGvkM7b

Smith needed more to sway scouts than monster flushes, though, since elite athleticism has long been one of his best selling points.

Luckily, there's more to his March Madness run than ridiculous rim-rockers. The freshman has also set new career highs in rebounds (nine) and assists (seven), while totaling 28 points on 57.1 percent shooting (3-of-5 from distance) over two rounds.

This doesn't change the fact he's a project and relies heavily on his teammates to create his offense.

But it spotlights a ceiling that stretches high enough to put him in the first-round discussion. He's a long, bouncy swingman who plays disruptive defense (1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks per 40 minutes), and he looks like a capable shooter when he lets it fly (16-of-36 outside).

He isn't a lock to leave Lubbock after only one season, but his performance on this stage is presenting that option.

                          

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of ESPN.com and Sports-Reference.

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