2021 NBA Draft Buzz: Scouts' Biggest Questions Entering Men's NCAA Tournament

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterMarch 17, 2021

2021 NBA Draft Buzz: Scouts' Biggest Questions Entering Men's NCAA Tournament

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    The NCAA tournament is one of the final phases of the evaluation process for the 2021 NBA draft.

    And scouts are going into it with questions they're still hoping to see get answered.

    Even though March Madness is a small piece of the puzzle for scouts, they can still learn enough to solidify a viewpoint.

    After talking with scouts, these are the storylines and prospects they'll be monitoring.

Who Will Be This Year's March Madness Breakout Prospects and Risers?

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    It happens every year—standout performances in the NCAA tournament are magnified and lead to draft-stock spikes. Who's going to use this year's March Madness to make an impression on NBA teams who didn't previously acknowledge or buy their pro potential? 

    Herb Jones jumps out as a candidate, especially considering how he lifted Alabama over LSU in the SEC tournament championship with 13 points, 11 rebounds, six assists and four blocks. The game highlighted his versatility and improved passing that's turned him into a point wing for the Crimson Tide. 

    Midway through his senior season, it started to become worth thinking about Jones as a pro prospect, with his ball skills, poise and shooting (finished 20-of-51 3PT) finally catching up to his signature defense. He now has scouts' attention heading into an NCAA tournament that No. 2 seed Alabama has a chance to make a deep run in.

    Florida's Tre Mann is coming off a 30-point effort in a loss to Tennessee in the SEC tournament. He'll enter the dance averaging 22.6 points on 58.2 percent shooting over his last five games. 

    The 6'5" combo guard is starting to figure out how to optimize his creativity and knack for getting to spots on the floor. He's more of a scorer than playmaker, but he still has that setup passing ability, while NBA teams value his self-creation, shooting off the dribble and soft floater game. 

    The NCAA tournament represents a big opportunity for Mann to make a first-round case against Virginia Tech and likely Ohio State if Florida can advance. 

    West Virginia's Miles McBride has earned a spot on scouts' radar this year. He also has the type of streaky, takeover ability and a track record of hitting clutch shots that could surface during the NCAA tournament. 

    His speed and pesky defense have been draws since last year. Carrying West Virginia to multiple wins with more shot-making and playmaking could help sway hesitant scouts on the fence.

    Freshman Andre Curbelo has given Illinois a significant jolt with his creativity, flashy passing and defensive energy. He'll enter the NCAA tournament having scored 10 or more points in seven of his past games, mostly by carving through defenses with his nifty ball-handling and unpredictability off the dribble. 

    Questions about Curbelo's shooting have kept his draft buzz to a minimum. But he plays an exciting, lively game, and it's possible the Big Ten's leader in assist percentage can draw interest for his playmaking and spark-plug potential.

    For the first time, Syracuse's Buddy Boeheim has been mentioned in conversations with scouts. He'll face San Diego State in the round of 64 after averaging 23.3 points over his last seven games. He's become worth thinking about for teams that want shooting with a second-round pick.

    Scouts hadn't mentioned Purdue's Jaden Ivey all year, and he's still more likely a future prospect for the 2022 or 2023 draft. But he's averaging 14.8 points over Purdue's last eight games and is coming off a 19-point effort (4-of-8 3PT) in an overtime loss to Ohio State. And for a 6'4" 19-year-old, he possesses the type of athleticism and scoring/playmaking skills that could buy him time with scouts when it comes to his shooting development.

    We've already mentioned Oregon's Chris Duarte, Gonzaga's Joel Ayayi and Baylor's Davion Mitchell as potential risers as well.  

How Will Evan Mobley Fare Versus Physicality, Non-Conference Bigs?

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    While most scouts agree that Oklahoma State's Cade Cunningham will go first in the draft, Evan Mobley has become the popular answer at No. 2. And his case is only looking stronger after consecutive 26-point efforts in the Pac-12 tournament.

    The one potential concern scouts have about Mobley focuses on his physicality around the basket and inconsistent aggressiveness. And if USC advances to the round of 32, scouts may get to see him match up against Kansas and the 6'10", 265-pound David McCormack. 

    Mobley, who's shooting only 37.1 percent out of the post (23rd percentile) and grabbing 14.3 percent of available rebounds, didn't face many NBA-caliber bigs during conference play. McCormack isn't viewed as an obvious pro prospect, but scouts will be interested in seeing how Mobley deals with a player of his strength. 

    Lottery teams are ultimately trying to sort out the top of their boards after the G League Ignite's Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga both made positive impressions. Mobley should earn an edge at the No. 2 spot on boards by carrying the momentum he's built into the NCAA tournament, particularly if he plays well in the game against Kansas or even Oregon or Iowa (and Luka Garza) in the Sweet 16.

Are These Prospects Ready for the Draft?

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    Justin Rex/Associated Press

    A handful of young prospects have flashed pro potential, but not consistently enough to convince scouts that they'll reach it. Strong finishes this month could help persuade scouts to invest on them early.

    These are the names they'll be monitoring to decide if they're just too far away for now.

    North Carolina's Day'Ron Sharpe has stood out at times with his 265-pound frame, activity inside and passing. But does he offer enough offensively? Scouts still want to know more about his shooting touch and defense in a full-time role.

    His teammate Caleb Love has been underwhelming, but he came into the year with scouts' attention due to his strong 6'4" frame, athleticism and scoring skills. A 25-point game against Duke in February created some optimism about his ability to turn things around, but he's shot only 30.2 percent since then.

    Florida's Scottie Lewis looked like he was poised for a breakout sophomore season, but he has scored 10 or more points in only two of his last 13 games. An explosive slasher, quick defender and capable shooter, Lewis has the type of three-and-D game NBA teams covet. But he'll need to come alive again in the NCAA tournament before teams deem his lack of improvement too problematic.  

    Texas Tech's Terrence Shannon Jr. has games where he looks like a lottery pick due to his athleticism, three-level scoring and defense. Then he has off nights that expose his lack of shooting touch and creativity. But in Shannon's last two games, he's 7-of-10 from behind the arc. Bringing the same level of shot-making to the NCAA tournament—to complement his driving and above-the-rim finishing—could sway scouts to remain patient with his skill development and reach early this upcoming draft.

    Though Virginia's Trey Murphy III is a junior, he's only 20 years old and has a proven shooting stroke at 42.9 percent from three. Scouts question whether his jumper is enough, or if he should come back to Virginia to expand his offensive game. 

Which Mid-Major Prospects Will Prove Themselves?

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    Holly Hart/Associated Press

    The NCAA tournament gives mid-major prospects the chance to prove themselves against power programs. And scouts are itching to see a number of good players from smaller schools in tough matchups. 

    After averaging 22.7 points on 65.1 percent shooting and 5.3 assists through three conference tournament wins, Ohio's Jason Preston now gets Virginia's defense in the round of 64. The 6'4" point guard has always demonstrated impressive passing instincts, feel for the game and three-point shooting, strengths that have allowed him to overcome a lack of speed and explosion. 

    Earlier this season, he erupted for 31 points against Illinois and National Player of the Year candidate Ayo Dosunmu. Success against Virginia and possibly the winner of Creighton/UC Santa Barbara or even Gonzaga in the Sweet 16 could be huge in his pursuit to convince NBA scouts that his athletic limitations aren't a deal-breaker.

    VCU's Nah'Shon Hyland gets Oregon in a round-of-64 matchup that scouts can't wait to watch. He'll face potential first-rounder Chris Duarte, a 6'6" guard with NBA physical tools. 

    Hyland, who's only 165 pounds, struggled early in the season in nonconference losses to West Virginia and Memphis. But he's averaging 19.5 points and 2.9 threes as a sophomore after burying Atlantic 10 defenses with his deep shot-making range and creative scoring moves. 

    Houston has earned a No. 2 seed behind Quentin Grimes' breakout. The former McDonald's All-American and Kansas transfer has taken his shot-making to a new level this year, averaging 3.3 threes per game on 40.8 percent shooting.

    His teammate Dejon Jarreau is another interesting prospect who's come alive over Houston's last 10 games to average 14.9 points, 5.6 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 1.7 steals while shooting 43.2 percent from three. He's a 6'5" combo guard and improved shooter with defensive tools who's been overlooked in the AAC. 

    With Houston capable of making a deep run, Grimes and Jarreau are in position to earn support from NBA scouts who hadn't been motoring or taking them seriously. 

    Utah State's Neemias Queta ranks third in the nation in blocks per game and first in both defensive box plus-minus and defensive win shares, per Sports Reference. He isn't quite the new-school offensive center that NBA teams thirst over, but at 7'0" and 245 pounds, his rim protection has the potential to draw some interest. He'll face a Texas Tech team that is guard and wing-oriented in the round of 64. 

Will We Learn Anything New About National Player of Year Candidates?

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    Michael Conroy/Associated Press

    Aside from projected No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, four National Player of the Year candidates will play in the NCAA tournament. And it seems like each still have room to improve their draft stock.

    Mid-second round is the popular projection for Iowa's Luka Garza, who's averaging 23.7 points while shooting 40.7 percent from three. Scouts have been trying to decide how or if he fits onto an NBA floor, given his post-up usage (47.8 percent of time, per Synergy Sports) and slow, heavy feet.

    They'll be hoping for an Iowa-USC matchup in the Sweet 16 so they could see how Garza holds up against the quick, athletic Evan Mobley.

    Scouts believe Illinois' Ayo Dosunmu will wind up going in the first round. But they're also hesitant to rank him too high despite the growth he's shown and volume production. He's very ball-dominant and struggles when moved off the ball (34th percentile spot-ups, 19th percentile). Limited explosion, poor touch around the key (11th percentile runners) and low-volume three-point shooting (3.1 attempts in 35.1 minutes per game) raise doubt about how his scoring will translate. 

    On the other hand, the 6'5" guard has improved his pull-up game (40.9 percent) and playmaking (5.3 assists), and he's led Illinois to a No. 1 seed. From an optics standpoint, scouts may feel less likely to nitpick if Dosunmu cruises through the field. He could face a tough test in the round of 32 if Georgia Tech gets there, as Jose Alvarado has been one of the nation's better guard defenders.

    Baylor's Jared Butler has clearly helped himself with NBA teams after improving as a shooter and playmaker. He's still viewed more as a pick in the late teens or 20s, however, as scouts still have questions about his burst and execution off of his own creation.

    But at 6'4", he's developed plenty of skill versatility between his ball-handling, dribble jumper, catch-and-shoot game and passing. Limiting the bad decisions (20 turnovers over his last four games) while continuing to deliver a balanced mix of creation and shot-making during a Baylor run could help push Butler up a draft tier. 

    Meanwhile, Gonzaga's Corey Kispert appears locked into the late lottery range regardless of his NCAA tournament numbers. His draft ceiling seems to reach No. 7 or No. 8 overall, with scouts seeing a high floor tied to his 6'7" size and bankable shooting, and a ceiling projection that continues to draw Joe Harris mentions. 

Who Will Emerge from NBA Draft's Perceived Second Tier?

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    Sean Rayford/Associated Press

    Scouts largely believe the draft's top five is already set (though not the order). After Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley, Jalen Suggs and the G League Ignite's Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga, there is a tier of prospects who are considered the next-best group worthy of mid-to-late lottery looks, and most will be playing in the NCAA tournament.

    This is their last chance to make their draft case, and scouts seem more interested in scouting these players than Cunningham, Mobley and Suggs. 

    Arkansas' Moses Moody has been the hottest of them all, entering the tournament with 28-point efforts in three of his last four games. It's starting to look like he may have the least to prove of the pack, though he could rise to as high as No. 6 by continuing to light up defenses with his shot-making and showing more creation ability in the half court.

    Scouts are eager to get eyes on Florida State's Scottie Barnes, who's known for his defensive upside but just went for 21 points in the Seminoles' loss to Georgia Tech in the ACC tournament. Performances that help eliminate concerns about his potential to score could help Barnes generate interest in the Nos. 6-10 range. 

    Scouts are trying to figure out if Connecticut's James Bouknight is the type of scorer NBA teams can go to as a No. 2 or 3 option. A worst-case outlook sees him in a specialist role off the bench. His shooting has been inconsistent, but he's developed into an advanced shot-creator with a knack for hitting tough jumpers and finishes. Carrying the Huskies past Maryland and Alabama would help Bouknight's case. 

    Scouts are high on Tennessee's Keon Johnson, who seems locked into the lottery but is capable of rising to No. 6 by convincing scouts that his skills will catch up with his explosiveness, defense and motor. He's been making that case over the second half of the season, and carrying that momentum into the tournament, scoring with more off-the-dribble footwork, mid-range touch and threes, could help Johnson finish as the most desirable prospect outside of the top five.

    Scouts have been more divided on his teammate Jaden Springer. There is clearly more room for Springer to improve his stock this tournament, and it may just be by producing. He's been efficient, but scouts want to see more upside tied to his scoring skills and playmaking, which they question due to his lack of burst that limits his creation. Springer is also one of the nation's youngest players and tougher perimeter defenders. And he's very well-rounded in terms of skill when it comes to passing, shooting and finishing.

    Michigan's Franz Wagner has a big opportunity to own the spotlight with teammate Isaiah Livers injured. Wagner's easy-to-picture fit at the next level is his selling point given his 6'9" size, three-ball, passing and defensive versatility. He should have a chance to show more creation and scoring on a Michigan team that will suddenly need more of it. 

    Texas also has a pair of bigs who'll be competing for lottery looks. Kai Jones regularly earns himself easy baskets by sprinting the floor and making plays above the rim. And he's moved up draft boards with flashes of shooting and defensive movement. But he hasn't been productive enough to lock in a top-15 spot on every draft board. Making a consistent impact in the NCAA tournament could help.

    Greg Brown has can't-miss talent that shows on high-flying dunks and effortless shooting range. But his lack of feel for the game, wild decisions and bad fouls have kept his draft buzz in check. Limiting mistakes and optimizing his athleticism and shot-making skill in March Madness could help persuade skeptics that the long-term upside is worth the short-term lapses. 

    LSU's Cameron Thomas leads all freshmen in scoring, but scouts aren't sold on his NBA fit due to his wild shot selection, zero passing and lack of defense. They buy his shot-making, but more in a Malik Monk role at the next level. Thomas may be able to change their minds by leading the Tigers to NCAA tournament wins so his stats don't appear empty. Right now, he's viewed as a mid-to-late first-round pick despite his historic production.