Under-the-Radar March Madness Stars with Ideal NBA Skill SetsMarch 18, 2021
By now, most basketball fans know which names to expect at the top of this year's NBA draft. Consensus No. 1 selection Cade Cunningham of Oklahoma State, Gonzaga's Jalen Suggs and Florida State forward Scottie Barnes are just a few of the expected first-round picks who are set to take part in the Big Dance.
But others may be flying under the casual fan's radar. These players might not put up the biggest numbers and may be coveted by NBA teams more for their potential at the next level than their production on this one. But they're out there, and next fall you could see them in the pros.
Here are the five players who are flying the lowest under the radar heading into the Big Dance and are also sending up plenty of blips for NBA scouts and draftniks. For draft positioning, we're using the latest NBA mock draft from Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman and NBADraft.net.
Franz Wagner (Michigan Wolverines, SF, Sophomore)
All the love goes to Hunter Dickinson (and Isaiah Livers before he injured his foot), but Wagner may well be the best pro prospect on this loaded Wolverines team.
He is second on the squad with 2.9 assists per game, an illustration of his terrific passing and court vision. Wagner also has improved his shooting from 45.2 percent as a freshman to 49.3 percent this season.
Defense, however, is more his calling card. Most NBA teams would be happy to snag a 6'9" forward who can guard multiple positions. Wagner leads the Big Ten in defensive box plus/minus (6.4) and defensive win shares (1.7), and he sits second in defensive rating (92.5).
That Swiss Army knife skill set could translate well to the pros, where teams obviously have needs besides shooting. Let Dickinson take the praise for now.
Keon Johnson (Tennessee Volunteers, PG, Freshman)
Jaden Springer is a linchpin for this Volunteer team. He leads the group in scoring (12.5 ppg) and is ranked among the top in several other statistical categories.
Johnson is just behind him in scoring with 11.2 points per contest, but it hasn't always been easy for him. He has struggled to take care of the ball, ranking No. 10 in the SEC with 69 turnovers. His game has blossomed lately, however. Meanwhile, Springer outranks Johnson in key advanced metrics like player efficiency rating (21.2 to 16.3) and win shares per 40 minutes (.184 to .127).
Heck, Johnson didn't even start until January. Still, he has consistently been higher up than Springer on mock draft boards.
Springer is penciled in at No. 15 in Wasserman's mock, while Johnson is projected to go at No. 7. Johnson's athleticism and playmaking abilities are driving the ranking.
So while Springer is edging Johnson on Rocky Top, look for that to flip come draft day.
Kai Jones (Texas Longhorns, PF, Sophomore)
Jones has all the upside in the world, displaying top-shelf athleticism and all-around offensive talent in a 6'11" package.
But he's not heavily used in Austin, where he averages 8.8 points (sixth on the team) in 22.5 minutes (fifth) per game while playing second fiddle to senior big man Jericho Sims.
Still, you can't teach 6'11", and his athletic potential is clear. When draft day comes, Jones' speed and above-the-rim game will have him in the green room. The native Bahamian's game is tailor-made for the pros, even if his jump shot and free throws could use work.
Chris Duarte (Oregon Ducks, SG, Senior)
Duarte is a steady player. That may not sound sexy, but down the stretch of the Pac-12 season, it became clear his consistency was likely good enough to land him in the NBA, even if via the second round.
The 6'6" senior improved his shooting dramatically from last season to this one, going from 41.4 percent overall and 33.6 percent from three last season to 52.4 and 43.0 percent this season, respectively. Those numbers are good enough to put him No. 1 the Pac-12 in effective field-goal percentage (63.0) and true shooting percentage (65.4), and eighth with 16.7 points per game.
But he's a tenacious defender, too, especially in open space. He leads the conference in both steal percentage (3.3) and total steals (45).
Duarte's name might not ring bells, but he's the leader of an Oregon team that's on a big-time roll (minus that Oregon State loss in the Pac-12 title game), heading into the Big Dance as a No. 7 seed.
Herbert Jones (Alabama Crimson Tide, SF, Senior)
The SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year doesn't lead his team in scoring—he's fourth with 11.2 points per game, mainly earned through transition buckets and the like. But Jaden Shackelford and Jahvon Quinerly get the lion's share of the points (26.9 combined) for a high-octane group that ranks ninth nationally in adjusted tempo, per KenPom.com.
They do the scoring, Herbert Jones does everything else.
Can he shoot? He's connecting from three at a 39.2 percent clip (20-of-51). And the 6'8" swingman can do everything else, too, particularly on defense. He leads the SEC in box plus/minus (9.2), defensive win shares (2) and steals (53). He also sits fifth in defensive rebounds (125) and seventh in assists per game (3.4). He also leads the Tide with 6.5 boards per contest.
That's why Jones is sneaking onto draft radars and could continue to climb if he leads Alabama on a deep tournament run. If things line up his way, he has Defensive Player of the Year potential.
Stats via Sports Reference unless otherwise noted.