At a glance, the East region seems to be least difficult region, which could lead to the assumption that there is also a lower amount of potential NBA talent, but there are plenty of quality players to watch here. The teams are led by more veteran talent, and the list below reflects that, with seven of the 10 players listed being seniors. Virginia is the #1 seed, but many are already looking at #4 Michigan State as being a tournament favorite. Here is a look at NBA Draft prospects to watch in the East Region:
Joe Harris, Virginia, Sr., Guard – In terms of individual numbers, Harris saw a big dip in many categories from his junior year to his senior year. However, with the offense becoming less reliant on Harris, Virginia found an identity on offense which has led them to a #1 seed. Harris has a great feel for the game on the offensive end and is capable of creating his own shot in a variety of ways. At 6’6, 225, he handles the ball well enough to get to the basket or knock down the mid-range jumper. Harris is also a career 41% shooter from three-point range, due in part to his ability to move without the ball and find open space. A fundamentally sound defender, Harris will never be mistaken for a lock-down guy, but he knows his weaknesses and knows how to play defense in a way to minimize them.
DeAndre Kane, Iowa State, Sr., Guard – After three good, but relatively unknown, seasons at Marshall, Kane transferred to play for Fred Hoiberg at Iowa State and took his game to a whole other level in the Cyclones’ quick-hitter based offense. A point guard as capable in the halfcourt as he is in transition, Kane has strong court vision and a great ability to get by his defender and into the lane. He also added a more consistent long-range shot, though he was helped by the great spacing in Hoiberg’s offense. Kane rebounds as well as any guard in the country, averaging almost six per game, and he is also an above-average defender. He likely won’t be considered for the 1st round of the Draft because of his age (he’ll turn 25 in June), but there still may be a place for him in the 2nd round.
Georges Niang, Iowa State, Soph., Forward – Niang’s potential as an NBA player is still somewhat up in the air, but people will enjoy watching him play when they get a chance. He is one of the most skilled forwards in the country, showing the ability to shoot, pass and rebound well for his size. Niang is not very athletic and can have trouble in bigger matchups, but he does a good job using a high basketball IQ to find ways to make plays. At 6’7, 245, he often plays as Iowa State’s “big”, but he is a subpar defender whether he is guarding power forwards or centers. He likely isn’t considering the Draft this year, but he’ll be an interesting case for teams once he does declare.
Gary Harris, Michigan State, Soph., Guard – A highly-touted recruit entering college, a shoulder injury limited what Harris could do last year. Expectations were just as high this year, and Harris delivered for the most part. A skilled shooting guard with the ability to knock down NBA-range threes as well as finish at the basket in spectacular fashion, Harris was a constant as Michigan State battled through various injuries this season to win 26 games. As the season wore on, Harris started to force his shot a little too much, leading to him relying on his jumper instead of looking to attack the basket. With the Spartans healthy entering the tournament, look for Harris to feel less burdened to score and take what comes naturally. This should also help on the defensive end, where Harris is one of the better on-ball defenders in the tournament.
Adreian Payne, Michigan State, Sr., Forward – Payne was an enigma his first three seasons as a Spartan. A good combination of size, athleticism, and skill, Payne just had trouble putting it all together. Finally, he did it this year, and the result has him looking like a future NBA 1st Round pick. At 6’10, 245, Payne can play with his back to the basket, face up out of the low or high posts and drive to the rim, or he can be a long-range threat, able to spot up behind the arc and use his size to get good looks (41% 3FG%). He’s not a big shot-blocker for his size, but he does enough to make teams think twice if he is around the basket, and he can move out to the perimeter and defend as well. Payne is a tough matchup for most teams, so don’t be surprised if he has at least one dominant game in his last NCAA Tournament.
Sean Kilpatrick, Cincinnati, Sr., Guard – The leading scorer in the American Athletic Conference this season, Kilpatrick raised his game to another level by often taking the offensively-challenged Bearcats on his back and carrying them to wins. He isn’t the most efficient offensive player, but he found ways to score even when the opponents knew he was getting the ball. As with many volume-scorers, Kilpatrick’s shot selection can be an issue as the defense is keyed on him, but he has the ability to knock down shots from anywhere on the floor. He is a hard-nosed defender who has can guard the ball very well and he is a strong rebounder for his size. Another “old” senior, Kilpatrick is already 24 years old, so his path to the NBA may not be through the Draft, but he is still someone who may find a spot in the league sooner rather than later.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina, Soph., Guard – A natural point guard, Paige has spent most of the season over at the shooting guard position because the Tar Heels have needed him to focus on scoring. Paige is a threat to score anytime he has the ball in his hands, whether he is isolated on a defender or taking the ball off of high screens. The left-handed Paige is capable of attacking the basket on either side of the rim and he isn’t afraid to take some contact along the way (one free throw for every two field goal attempts this year.) He doesn’t shy from the big moment, and at times seemed to single-handedly bring North Carolina back from double-digit deficits. Though playing off the ball, Paige was still the leading assist man on the Tar Heels while playing over 35 minutes per game. He’s not a great defender, but still handles himself well against some bigger guards. In another year, he may be considered a solid 1st round draft pick.
Shabazz Napier, Connecticut, Sr., Guard - Following in the footsteps of former teammate Kemba Walker, Napier had turned himself into a one-man wrecking crew for the Huskies. He can be flashy at times, but he is much more controlled than he was early on in his college career. Napier’s first step may be one of the best out of college point guards, and once he gets into the lane, he is an extremely creative finisher around the basket. As his shot selection has improved, he has also become a much more consistent three-point threat, though at a generous 6’1, he sometimes needs help getting the space he needs to get his shot off against bigger defenders. Napier can be a terror on the defensive end, with his feet and hands constantly active, and the ability to anticipate passes or trap players as well as anyone in the tournament. Expect Napier to find a place in the NBA next season as a solid back-up point guard option.
Bryce Cotton, Providence, Sr., Guard – There seems to be a common theme running through many of the players in this region, smaller guards who are relied upon for offense, and Providence’s Cotton is another on that list. To understand how much Cotton meant to his team this year, there is one stat you need to look at: Cotton averaged 39.9 minutes per game for the Friars this year. Four times he played all 50 minutes of a double-overtime game, and in 21 games he played at least 40 minutes. Cotton took over point guard duties from the graduated Vincent Council this season and did a tremendous job spurring on the Friars’ offense. Cotton averaged six assists per game and had a 2.4:1 assist-to-turnover ratio. On top of that, he scored over 21 points per game, and went to the free throw line 258 times, hitting 85% of them. His offense would be enough to make him valuable, but he is also a very strong on-ball defender, and while he may not pile up a lot of steals, he makes it difficult for teams to get into a rhythm offensively. There are a lot of guards similar to Cotton in this draft and he deserves a chance to go to head-to-head against them in team workouts this spring.
Devon Saddler, Delaware, Sr., Guard – Saddler has been an important part of the Blue Hen’s offense for four seasons now, and he will finally get a chance to show a bigger audience what he is capable of as a scorer. A month-long team suspension put a damper on his early season, but he came back strong to lead the team in scoring at just shy of 20 points per game, while also grabbing four rebounds and close to four assists per game. Along with teammate Davon Usher, Delaware will have one of the best 1-2 scoring punches in the tournament, though Saddler will need to step it up on the defensive end. He doesn’t have the speed of a lot of smaller guards, but relies on physical play to gain an advantage. Saddler will have his hands full guarding the Michigan State backcourt, but he will be a challenge for them as well, and don’t be surprised if he puts up big numbers in his first NCAA Tournament appearance.
Others to Watch
Malcolm Brogdon - Virginia
James Bell - Villanova
Melvin Ejim – Iowa State
Branden Dawson, Keith Appling – Michigan State
Joe Jackson, Shaq Goodwin - Memphis
Ronald Roberts – St. Joseph’s
Davon Usher - Delaware