March Madness 2019: Elite Prospects Who Will Improve Draft StockMarch 9, 2019
There are two carrots dangling in front of every player in the NCAA tournament.
One is the prospect of a championship run. The other is a sizzling stretch playing hoops on the national stage that either grabs the attention of NBA scouts or improves their perception of these prospects.
Granted, not every college star will have an NBA spot waiting for him. But once in a blue moon, a Stephen Curry will come along and take a blowtorch to the competition while simultaneously skyrocketing his draft stock. Maybe scouts liked him all along, but he perhaps cemented his lottery status by giving Davidson 128 points and 23 triples during its run to the Elite 8.
We're not suggesting the following players are Curry clones in the making. But these established prospects—each a top-16 selection in the latest mock draft from Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman—have the skills and opportunity to climb the draft board during the upcoming tournament.
De'Andre Hunter, SF/PF, Virginia
For as good as the Cavaliers have been under head coach Tony Bennett, this is in no way an NBA hotbed. They are a defense-first outfit that grinds out almost every offensive possession, which doesn't exactly make for the best tape in the eyes of an NBA that seemingly grows faster by the season.
But De'Andre Hunter is the rare elite prospect to come through this program, and this tournament could turn into his ultimate showcase.
The sophomore should be hungry for the national stage given a broken wrist kept him out of the Big Dance last year. And the more spotlight time he gets, the easier it will be to fall in love with his NBA tools—namely, a 6'7", 225-pound frame with a 7'2" wingspan, loads of versatility on the defensive end and an expanding scoring arsenal.
While defense might be Hunter's best NBA attribute, the guy has been on a scoring binge for more than a month. Since the start of February, he's putting up 16.9 points a night with a wildly efficient 57.6/57.1/83.3 shooting slash.
Considering how long the Cavaliers could be around—this is KenPom's highest-rated team—Hunter might have all the time he needs to play his way into the top five.
Brandon Clarke, PF/C, Gonzaga
This entire season has been a breakout party for Brandon Clarke, who spent his first two seasons at San Jose State and sat out last year to complete his transfer.
His player efficiency rating is a robust 34.5, per RealGM. If that number sounds massive, that's because it is. Only no-brainer No. 1 pick Zion Williamson's 38.8 is better.
If box plus/minus is your all-encompassing metric of choice, Clarke's sits at 18.9. Again, that number puts him behind only Williamson—except, that's not true just of this season but each in the 2010s. The third player on that list is all-galaxy superstar Anthony Davis, who had an 18.7.
The 6'8" Clarke is a defensive menace. He has the mobility to handle perimeter switches and the explosive hops to rack up rejections in bunches.
"He jumps faster and higher than any human being I've been around," point guard Josh Perkins told reporters.
We probably haven't seen Clarke at his best, which feels funny to say when his per-40-minute averages include 24.1 points, 12.2 rebounds, 4.5 blocks and 1.7 steals. If his improved shooting mechanics manifest into even a smattering of triples, he could slide into the top 10.
PJ Washington, PF/C, Kentucky
Normally, you might be tempted to raise some red flags when a John Calipari-coached freshman opts to return for a second season in Lexington. For PJ Washington, though, that decision might have made him a metric ton of money.
This time last year, Washington's flaws were clear and potentially problematic when it came to the NBA. He was essentially an undersized big man without a three-ball or the versatility of a modern 4. That player type has almost been wiped out of the Association.
But Washington is different this season—in a lot of NBA-friendly ways. His confidence is up, his post skills are more refined and his outside shot is suddenly a weapon in his repertoire. He's becoming the go-to scorer this roster lacked, averaging 18.8 points on 53.7 percent shooting and 1.5 threes with a 47.5 percent conversion rate over his past 13 outings.
If the Wildcats make a deep run in this tournament, they will do so on the shoulders of Williams. He could make himself a lottery lock in the process, showing potential as a possible three-position player at either end of an NBA floor.
Unless noted otherwise, statistics used courtesy of Sports Reference.