The Top NBA Prospects to Watch in CBB Major Conference Tournaments

Joel Reuter@JoelReuterBRFeatured ColumnistMarch 10, 2021

The Top NBA Prospects to Watch in CBB Major Conference Tournaments

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    Mitch Alcala/Associated Press

    With so many one-and-done players drafted more on potential than production, the days of college basketball's top performers and top draft prospects being one and the same are a thing of the past.

    That's not to say there's not some overlap.

    Oklahoma State guard Cade Cunningham and USC forward Evan Mobley are among the semifinalists for the Naismith Trophy, and they are almost certain to hear their names called within the first five picks of the 2021 NBA draft.

    However, several of the nation's other top draft prospects play more of supporting roles on their teams.

    With major conference tournaments set to tip off this week, we've provided a rundown of the top 10 NBA draft prospects who will be in action. Included is an overview of their seasons and a few notes on what they can still do to improve their draft stock in the days and weeks to come.

    Each player's position on the latest big board from B/R NBA draft analyst Jonathan Wasserman is included for context.   

Scottie Barnes, Florida State

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    B/R Big Board: No. 11

    Scottie Barnes has a unique profile with a long 6'9" frame and the playmaking skills of a point guard.

    The 5-star freshman is averaging 10.4 points and 4.3 assists in a little under 25 minutes per game, and he ranks second on a good Florida State team with 29 steals.

    His combination of vision and defense gives him a high floor, but the development of his offensive game will ultimately determine his ceiling.

    At this point, he's not much of a deep threat, with just nine three-pointers made at a 26.5 percent clip, and too often he has blended into the background. He has 10 games in which he's taken fewer than 10 shots.

    He matched a season high with 17 points against Notre Dame on Saturday, and an assertive offensive performance in the postseason could go a long way in solidifying his lottery status.        

James Bouknight, UConn

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    David Butler II/Associated Press

    B/R Big Board: No. 6

    James Bouknight has returned with a vengeance since missing six weeks with an elbow injury, and a case can be made that the UConn Huskies are the best team in the Big East as a result.

    The 6'5" guard is averaging 20.0 points and shooting 49.4 percent from the field in six games since returning, and UConn is 5-1 during that stretch, with its lone loss coming against Villanova on the road.

    There are few players in the country better at creating their own offense, and that was on full display when Bouknight dropped 40 points against Creighton on 13-of-24 shooting in December.

    With his prototypical size (6'5") for the 2-guard spot and dynamic offensive game, it's not hard to see why he has been steadily climbing up draft boards all year.

    However, he has shown little in the way of playmaking ability, with far more turnovers (35) than assists (19), and he has some solid secondary pieces on the roster in R.J. Cole and Tyrese Martin.

    The Huskies are at their best when Bouknight is leading the offensive charge, but NBA teams would no doubt welcome him showcasing a bit more playmaking ability.             

Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

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    Brody Schmidt/Associated Press

    B/R Big Board: No. 1

    Just the fourth freshman in conference history to win Big 12 Player of the Year, Cade Cunningham has been No. 1 on most big boards throughout his freshman season at Oklahoma State.

    The 6'8" guard is averaging 19.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.4 steals per game, and he has done it while shooting a blistering 42.5 percent from beyond the arc.

    He exploded for 40 points on the road in a rivalry game against Oklahoma on Feb. 27, and he did his part in a loss against Baylor earlier this month with 24 points, seven rebounds and four assists.

    He missed the Cowboys' last game with an ankle injury, but he should return to action soon.

    There's nothing left that NBA teams need to see from the clear No. 1 talent in this year's draft class, though it remains to be seen if Oklahoma State will even participate in March Madness with a still-pending appeal of its one-year postseason ban.    

Keon Johnson, Tennessee

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    B/R Big Board: No. 7

    Keon Johnson looked very much like a true freshman finding his footing at the collegiate level for the first few months of the season.

    Over his first 16 games, he averaged 9.0 points in 21.9 minutes, taking at least 10 shots just three times. He reached double figures in scoring only six contests, with his high of 16 points coming against a bad Vanderbilt team.

    A 27-point outburst against Kentucky on Feb. 6 has proved to be a major turning point.

    Including that game, he's averaging 14.4 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists while playing 29.6 minutes in his last eight performances. He's reached the double-digit mark six times during that stretch, adding another 20-point performance with 23 on the road against Auburn on Feb. 27.

    His offensive game is still raw, so NBA teams will be watching him closely on that end of the floor. But his massive potential has become more and more evident over the last few weeks.   

Kai Jones, Texas

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    B/R Big Board: No. 14

    After a quiet freshman season in which he averaged 3.6 points, 3.2 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 16.7 minutes per game, Kai Jones has begun showing more of the potential that made him the No. 51 overall player in the 2019 recruiting class.

    He has continued to fill a reserve role, starting just two games so far this year, but he was recently named Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year for his contributions off the bench for the Texas Longhorns.

    The 6'11" forward has upped his playing time to 22.5 minutes per game, and he's averaging 8.5 points and 4.8 rebounds while chipping in 22 steals and 19 blocks on the defensive end.

    His elite athleticism and high upside on both ends of the floor could be enough to push him into the lottery, and he has quietly connected on 11 of 30 attempts from beyond the arc.

    Averaging just 5.4 shot attempts per game, he could give his stock a boost by showing a bit more assertiveness on the offensive end.

    That's not necessarily what the Longhorns need from him, though. He has been a valuable role player on a good team, and scouts will likely have to continue to settle for the occasional glimpses of greatness.   

Evan Mobley, USC

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    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    B/R Big Board: No. 3

    While Cade Cunningham is the consensus No. 1 prospect in the 2021 NBA draft, the No. 2 spot is up for debate, with USC forward Evan Mobley and Gonzaga guard Jalen Suggs both building a strong case.

    Let's dig into Mobley.

    A legitimate 7-footer, he handles the ball extremely well for his size, and he has a smooth jump shot that should eventually translate to an effective outside game.

    For now, he does most of his work around the basket, and he's averaging 16.1 points per game on 58.2 percent shooting from the field.

    He's also added 8.6 rebounds and 2.1 assists, but his biggest present strength is on the defensive end as a rim protector. His 77 blocks lead the Pac-12 and rank third in the nation and tops among major conference players.

    Despite a lackluster stretch in which he's averaged 11.6 points over his last five games, he has rock-solid draft stock as one of the elite players in this year's class.    

Moses Moody, Arkansas

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    Michael Woods/Associated Press

    B/R Big Board: No. 10

    The Arkansas Razorbacks were picked to finish sixth in the SEC in the preseason media poll.

    Instead, they are battling Alabama for the top spot in the conference standings and in a prime position for their highest placement in the NCAA tournament since they were a No. 4 seed in 1999.

    The dynamic play of guard Moses Moody has been the biggest reason for their success.

    The 6'6", 205-pound freshman leads the team in scoring at 17.5 points per game, and he's chipped in 29 steals and 16 blocks defensively while ranking second on the team with 5.7 rebounds per contest.

    His collegiate career began with a thud when he shot 5-of-21 from the floor against Mississippi Valley State and North Texas to start the year. But he quickly righted the ship, and he's been rolling of late with back-to-back 28-point performances.   

    He has connected on 19 of 30 shot attempts in his last two games, following a 9-of-40 showing in the three games prior. More efficient scoring nights like he's had of late would be a boon to his draft stock.       

Jaden Springer, Tennessee

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    Butch Dill/Associated Press

    B/R Big Board: No. 12

    For once, the Kentucky Wildcats are not the SEC team with multiple potential lottery picks on their roster.

    The Tennessee Volunteers have seven players averaging at least eight points per game, and while that well-rounded approach has not meant gaudy numbers for their two 5-star freshmen, it has shown that duo's ability to contribute as part of a bigger picture.

    The 82-71 victory over Kentucky on Feb. 6 that was a turning point for Keon Johnson was also a breakout performance for Jaden Springer.

    The 6'4" guard was coming off a two-point dud against Ole Miss and averaging 9.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists on the year when he poured in 23 points on 9-of-17 shooting against Kentucky.

    He's averaging 17.3 points, 4.1 rebounds and 3.3 assists in his last eight games including that strong showing against the Wildcats.

    There are some questions about his athletic ceiling, and even during his recent hot streak, he's had a pair of four-point games in which he has disappeared. But as long as he keeps showing the ability to go off for 20-plus points while connecting on 46.2 percent of his 39 attempts from beyond the arc, his stock will continue to trend in the right direction.        

Franz Wagner, Michigan

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    Paul Sancya/Associated Press

    B/R Big Board: No. 15

    Iowa center Luka Garza and Illinois guard Ayo Dosunmu are the headliners of the Big Ten Conference this season, but it's Michigan sophomore Franz Wagner who has the highest draft stock of any player in the conference.

    With a 6'9" frame and a package of skills more befitting a guard, he provides the kind of length and versatility teams are looking for at the next level.

    He's averaging 12.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, and he's one just four players in the Big Ten averaging at least one block and one steal per contest.

    Beneath the surface of his slightly improved counting numbers across the board, he has enjoyed a significant spike in his accuracy from deep, with his three-point percentage climbing from 31.1 to 39.2 percent this year.

    Ohio State limited him to nine points at the end of February, and Illinois held him to just two points on 1-of-9 shooting earlier this month. So a big performance against a top-tier team would be a welcome addition to his resume this March.        

Ziaire Williams, Stanford

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    B/R Big Board: No. 9

    Inconsistency has plagued Ziaire Williams throughout his freshman season.

    While he is averaging 10.7 points per game, he's shooting just 37.4 percent from the field and 29.1 percent from beyond the arc. His streaky shooting has resulted in single-digit points eight times this year, including five times in his last seven games.

    During that stretch, Stanford has gone 2-5 and fallen to the other side of the bubble, which means the Pac-12 tournament may be his last chance to showcase his talents for NBA teams.

    Despite his struggles, it's still easy to dream on the upside he possesses.

    With a 6'8" frame and elite athleticism, he's a potential matchup nightmare, and looking beyond his middling shooting rates, he has a smooth jumper that should eventually translate to success.

    He would benefit from another year in college as much as any top freshman in this year's class, but he has already shown enough upside in terms of his physical tools that someone will call his name early enough for him to be a one-and-done.


    All stats courtesy of Sports Reference and accurate through Monday's games.