2021 NBA Draft: Predicting Biggest Risers in March
March is a crucial month for NBA prospects and scouts making final game observations for their draft notes.
The higher stakes and brighter spotlight can enhance the power of standout performances. There are always a handful of prospects who move the needle during the conference and NCAA tournaments.
We expect the following players who are entering the month with momentum to continue building on it and ultimately rise up draft boards.
Chris Duarte (Oregon, SG, Senior)
Draft ceiling: No. 15-30
Chris Duarte has already risen to the point where he's at least entered the first-round discussion. A big NCAA tournament could help the 2019 junior college Player of the Year earn a guaranteed NBA deal on draft night.
And Oregon has the ingredients to make a run with Will Richardson back at full strength.
While Duarte has established an attractive three-and-D profile, shooting 44.0 percent from three and averaging 1.9 steals at 6'6", March Madness represents an opportunity to showcase underrated scoring ability.
Grading in the 93rd percentile in ball-screen situations and converting 16 of 36 shots out of isolation (83rd percentile), Duarte is 35-of-80 shooting off the dribble. More than just a spot-up threat, he can get to his shot in different ways around the perimeter. He's an outstanding 21-of-35 on jumpers inside the arc.
And though he lacks explosiveness, Duarte does a good job picking his spots to drive and using his body to shield his man on finishes (60.7 percent at the rim).
Firmly on NBA radars with his shot-making versatility, secondary creation and tough defense, Duarte seems like a few big performances away against quality opponents from convincing teams he's first-round-worthy.
Davion Mitchell (Baylor, PG, Junior)
Draft ceiling: Late lottery
Our latest big board reflects a Davion Mitchell rise, but more NBA teams should jump on board during March Madness, assuming Baylor makes a run.
His backcourt partner Jared Butler, a potential first-team All-American, has stolen national recognition and creation reps. The NBA scouting lens could see more potential in Mitchell.
His case to NBA teams starts on defense, where he's viewed as one of the nation's toughest players pressuring the ball. Opponents are turning it over a whopping 27.6 percent of their possessions when guarded by Mitchell, who's registering a 3.4 steal percentage.
NBA coaches are bound to value his knack for making life difficult for opposing ball-handlers. But it's not a new development. His improved shooting and playmaking have led to the spike in interest and could pop even more with the stakes higher in the NCAA tournament.
With explosive burst, it's easy to buy his success as a driver and finisher (67.3 percent at the rim) translating off isolation (13-of-20) possessions, ball screens (6-of-10) and spot-ups (9-of-13). He's evolved as a perimeter shot-creator and shot-maker (92nd percentile dribble jumpers), having added an effective step-back. And he's shooting 47.2 percent from three on 4.8 attempts per game.
Averaging 5.7 assists despite sharing the ball with Butler, Mitchell has grown as a passer as well. It's become key when picturing his fit at point guard for the next level, considering he entered the season viewed more as a 6'2" scorer.
Size and age (22) are drawbacks when projecting upside, but at this time last year, no NBA scouts were talking about Mitchell. Over the next month, he'll have the chance to solidify himself as a potential mid-to-late first-rounder.
Isaiah Livers (Michigan, SF, Senior)
Draft ceiling: Late first round
Let's assume Michigan's Franz Wagner has already risen, since he's been projected in our lottery for the past few months. His teammate Isaiah Livers could help himself more during March Madness, with valued NBA skills and a knack for making big plays.
At 6'7", 230 pounds, he's shooting over 40 percent from three for the third consecutive season. And if that doesn't reflect convincing-enough shooting touch, his 87.0 percent free-throw mark should (after he made 95.7 percent of his attempts last season).
Aside from his trustworthy catch-and-shoot game and tools/IQ to defend 4s, he finds ways to score without dribbling by converting off screens (92nd percentile), cuts (8-of-10) or rise-and-fire shots from the post (87th percentile). And this also marks the third straight season he'll finish with a turnover percentage below 10 percent.
His shot-making versatility, decision-making and defensive tools help create an attractive role-player profile in spite of his limitations as a playmaker and athlete. More key scoring outputs and clutch shots that propel Michigan deep into March should result in more interest from NBA teams.
Joel Ayayi (Gonzaga, PG/SG, Junior)
Draft ceiling: Late first round
Assuming Gonzaga makes an NCAA tournament run, Joel Ayayi figures to have moments that highlight potential that had been overlooked during West Coast Conference blowouts.
Projected lottery picks Jalen Suggs and Corey Kispert overshadowed Ayayi all season. The 6'5" combo guard is shooting a ridiculous 68.7 percent inside the arc while making 39.7 percent of his threes.
Though he clearly doesn't have to create as much in a lineup with two projected lottery picks and Drew Timme averaging 18.7 points, he's aced his supporting role. And scouts should start to believe that Ayayi has the tools, skills and mentality to excel in that same role for an NBA team.
He grades in the 98th percentile as a pick-and-roll ball-handler, making good decisions as a scorer (driving and pull-ups) and passer. Off the ball, he's been one of nation's best cutters (29-of-35, 93rd percentile) and a 44.8 percent spot-up shooter. And he's averaging 7.0 rebounds a game, which translate to grab-and-go transition opportunities and second-chance points on the offensive glass.
Ayayi lacks the breakdown ability of a lead guard, but NBA coaches should be able to plug-and-play him for complementary offense at either backcourt spot. He should receive more recognition over the next month under the microscope of a Gonzaga team with high expectations.
Santi Aldama (Loyola Maryland, C, Sophomore)
Draft ceiling: Late first round
Regardless of what happens during Sunday's Patriot League championship, Santi Aldama has used March to improve his draft stock.
Earning a spot in the NCAA tournament field would create a greater opportunity to make an impression with a Loyola team that probably hasn't been scouted as closely others.
Still, the 2019 U18 European Championship MVP has already caught scouts' attention, especially after Wednesday night's 33 points, 12 rebounds and five threes against Army.
His clean shooting stroke pops first for a 6'11" big, with Aldama now up to 37.8 percent on 5.1 three-point attempts through 16 total games (including the conference tournament). As a center, he's even looked comfortable pulling up (9-of-22) and handling the ball in transition or dribbling over screens.
He still has some traditional big-man game, grading in the 87th percentile out of the post and demonstrating good footwork and craft.
At the NBA level, he'll have to bank heavily on skill execution and touch to compensate for such limited speed, quickness and explosiveness. But Aldama's offensive versatility and dribble-pass-shoot skill set should be an obvious draw to scouts.
Trey Murphy III (Virginia, PF, Junior)
Draft ceiling: Early second round
A potential rise for Trey Murphy III will be tied to Virginia's ability to advance multiple rounds in the NCAA tournament. March Madness' spotlight could illuminate his strengths and archetype, which typically appeal to the NBA.
At 6'9", he's making 2.0 threes per game on 44.6 percent while demonstrating solid foot speed for switching and sliding his feet in space.
His scoring game is fairly basic and limited to spot-up shooting, cutting and straight-line driving. But he excels in those off-ball situations, grading in the 99th percentile in overall half-court offense. He's one of three players this season with 40 triples and 20 dunks.
His fit at the next level is more intriguing than his upside. NBA teams could see a big they can plug right in to stretch the floor, finish plays that don't require self-creation (67.5 percent at the rim) and provide serviceable defensive versatility.
Young for his class (20), Murphy could return as a senior to expand his skill set and build his stock for the 2022 draft. But enough glimpses of shot-making, finishing and defensive range could lead to new interest for 2021.