Can the NCAA tournament really make or break a prospect's NBA draft stock?
Three months before the 2011 NBA draft, the Charlotte Bobcats had already crossed Kemba Walker off their wish list.
Charlotte spent a lottery pick on point guard D.J. Augustin in 2008 and still envisioned him as its starter for years to come. Team officials saw no reason to add a second undersized point guard when the franchise was coming off a 48-loss season and had more pressing needs at other positions.
The biggest reason Walker emerged as a potential option for Charlotte was that he captured the attention of Bobcats owner Michael Jordan over the course of a dazzling postseason run. He averaged 24.6 points and immortalized himself in college basketball history by carrying UConn to an unprecedented five wins in five days at the Big East tournament and to an improbable national championship three weeks later.
By the time Walker smiled and pumped his fist in triumph during the final seconds of college basketball’s 2011 national title game, Jordan was adamant that, positions of need be damned, this was the player Charlotte should target. A source familiar with Charlotte’s thinking at the time believes Walker reminded Jordan of himself because of his knack for clutch shots and thirst to win.
“Michael Jordan fell in love with Kemba because of how great Kemba was in the NCAA tournament, the source said. “Michael’s the greatest competitor of all time. Michael saw a little bit of the competitiveness that he had in Kemba. As good as Connecticut was at that time, they couldn’t have done it if Kemba hadn’t put that team on his back. I think Michael placed such a high value on that.”
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How Charlotte arrived at drafting Walker ninth overall seven years ago illustrates the potential value of an exemplary NCAA tournament performance for an NBA prospect. A player who thrives on college basketball’s biggest stage can validate prior interest from an NBA franchise or persuade teams that weren’t interested before to take a second look.
The caveat to that is every NBA team weighs NCAA tournament performance differently when evaluating a college prospect. Some view March as the best time to test how a prospect responds to facing elite competition or to playing under pressure. Others approach it as merely another data point in a scouting process that is often years long.
“A player’s tournament performance is just another cog in his overall development,” an NBA general manager said. “How he plays in one or two win-or-go-home games means no more or no less than a regular season game. Actually, how a player performs during their conference tournament when they play back-to-back days versus coaches and players that know their strengths and weaknesses is a better evaluation tool for me.”
While fans typically don’t get their first glimpse of elite prospects until their first college game, the scouting process begins much sooner than that for NBA teams. They’ll evaluate elite high school players each summer at USA Basketball events or Nike skills academies, providing an early data point from which to build on.
Scouts are typically on the road year-round evaluating top college prospects, but for many teams the NCAA tournament can sometimes still carry extra significance because of where it falls in the NBA calendar. It comes at a time when NBA front-office executives with decision-making clout are finally free from other responsibilities like preparing for free agency or the trade deadline.
When the NBA trade deadline passes each February, general managers often ask their scouts to recommend prospects who could be available in the range the team is projected to draft. Over the next month, general managers will then go see those prospects play in person and make direct evaluations.
“Every year in February, I would tell our scouting staff, ‘Give me the 10 names that I should concentrate on because you guys have been seeing them all year,'” a former NBA general manager said. “‘This way I can look to see if I agree with your reports or not.’ So I think March is a really important time for prospects because the key executive decision makers who may not have gone out much during the year are now in the midst of a real concentrated time where they can look at players.”
When NBA teams evaluate college prospects, playing in the NCAA tournament is certainly not a prerequisite to be drafted.
Thirteen of the 50 college players taken in last year’s draft did not reach the 2017 NCAA tournament including No. 1 overall pick Markelle Fultz (Washington) and fellow lottery selection Dennis Smith Jr. (NC State). Other recent lottery picks who never played in the NCAA tournament include Ben Simmons (LSU), Marquese Chriss (Washington) and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (Georgia).
This year’s NCAA tournament includes most of college basketball’s premier NBA prospects, from potential top-five picks like Arizona’s Deandre Ayton, Duke’s Marvin Bagley and Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson to lesser-known future first-round selections like Creighton’s Khyri Thomas, Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford and Wichita State’s Landry Shamet. They each will be hoping to make deep runs in the NCAA tournament and use the event as a springboard the way recent draft picks Frank Kaminsky, Brice Johnson and Jordan Bell all did.
Still undecided whether he would return to Oregon for his senior season or declare for the draft heading into last March, Bell made the decision easier with a strong showing at both the Pac-12 and NCAA tournaments. In the six games he played after fellow big man Chris Boucher got hurt, Bell averaged 13 points, 12.7 rebounds and 2.7 blocks, propelling the Ducks to their first Final Four appearance since 1939 and solidifying himself as no worse than an early second-round pick.
“I turned it up a little bit during the NCAA Tournament but I’d been doing that that whole year,” Bell said. “Everybody watching those four teams or just those eight teams play, I think actually put a focus on Oregon basketball. I think the further we went the more eyes were on us, so that helped out a lot.”
The performance that persuaded Bell he was draft-ready came in the Midwest Regional final against top-seeded Kansas. Bell swatted away eight shots and altered countless others, a display of dominance that forced scouts to consider whether an explosive but undersized defensive marvel would translate to the NBA.
“They kept going at me and I was there every time,” Bell said. “And not even [just the] eight blocks. There was a play where I think I blocked a shot, they got the rebound, dude drove and then airballed a layup. I think me just doing this scared them a lot. People seeing me do that made them look at me.”
For NBA teams, it can sometimes be difficult to tell whether a prospect’s success in the NCAA tournament is a sign of things to come or fool’s gold.
Former Xavier star Jordan Crawford cracked the late first round in the 2010 NBA draft after averaging 29 points in three NCAA tournament earlier that spring. Crawford has struggled to stick in the league since then, bouncing between five different NBA franchises, China and the G-League
Not so with Walker. The two-time all-star is on pace to eclipse former sharpshooter Dell Curry later this season as Charlotte’s all-time leading scorer.
Seven years after Michael Jordan decided to target him in the draft after his historic performance during the NCAA tournament, Walker is making that decision look smarter and smarter.
Yahoo Sports NBA writer Michael Lee contributed to this piece.
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Jeff Eisenberg is a college basketball writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter!