The NCAA tournament is the ideal place for prospects to stake their claims as marquee players. We’ve seen it time and time again, with Stephen Curry and Jimmer Fredette perhaps being the most recent high-profile players who cashed in on stellar runs through the Big Dance. This year is no different, and with the June 21 NBA draft fast approaching, here are the prospects who helped themselves the most by excelling under the bright lights and raising their draft profiles.
G Donte DiVincenzo, Soph., Villanova
DiVincenzo had an excellent sophomore season starring as coach Jay Wright’s microwave off the bench. His coming-out party came in the national championship game, when he dismantled Michigan with 31 points on 10-of-15 shooting, including 5-of-7 from deep. An enticing combo guard with size and bounce, the 6-foot-5 Delaware native shot 48.1 percent from the floor and 40.1 percent from 3-point range this season, while limiting his turnovers to two per game in 29.3 minutes. He flashes a tight handle and superb pick-and-roll ability.
DiVincenzo also is clearly a winner. The Big East Sixth Man of the Year also won consecutive Delaware state tournament championships. “I like Donte a lot,” a former NBA executive told Yahoo Sports. “He plays big.”
F Moritz Wagner, Jr., Michigan
Wagner just keeps getting better. The junior from Germany was downright dominant in March, steamrolling his way to a slew of monstrous performances. At 6-11, Wagner is a fluid athlete who runs the floor and has the hands to snatch a lot of tough passes and rebounds. He’s a heck of a shooter (39.4 percent from 3-point range), but also thrives using his superior quickness to put the ball on the deck.
“He is a beast,” the former executive told Yahoo Sports. “I hadn’t really seen him until March. I like that dude.”
With his skill-set and nastiness, Wagner has legitimately gone from a mid-second-rounder to a bona fide first-round pick. The one drawback is that he’s not a shot-blocker, but that’s OK given his wide range of offensive pop.
PG Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Fr., Kentucky
Gilgeous-Alexander went from a reserve role at the beginning of the year to a starring role by March. Blessed with excellent size for a point guard, the 6-6, 195-pound Gilgeous-Alexander plays at his own pace, thriving in pick-and-roll while maximizing his dynamic passing ability and floater game to attack defenses as a facilitator and scorer. Better yet, he has the potential to become a defensive ace early in his career.
F Kevin Knox, Fr., Kentucky
Like Gilgeous-Alexander, Knox is a bit of a project, but the NBA is a league obsessed with wing play, and Knox — 6-9 with a near 7-foot wingspan — fits the bill as both a small forward and a small-ball four who can spread the floor. As the Cats hit their stride, it was Knox who became the focal point of coach John Calipari’s offense, including a terrific 25-point, six-rebound performance against Davidson in the first round of the tournament. Knox connected on just 34.1 percent of his triples, but he displays sound mechanics and an excellent mid-range game as well. He needs to develop a significantly stronger base, which will help him in the low post and to fight off fatigue as a shooter.
“Knox is nowhere near a guy like Michael Porter,” a former college coach told Yahoo Sports. “But he can score and he’s young and pretty good.”
PG Collin Sexton, Fr., Alabama
Sexton is a bulldog on both ends of the floor when he’s dialed in, using his 6-7 wingspan and otherworldly quickness. As he becomes a more consistent jump shooter, the rest of his game will open. Despite making fewer than 34 percent of his threes this year, Sexton shot the ball well down the stretch, propelling the Tide to its first NCAA tournament victory in 12 years. In fact, Sexton converted 52 percent from the floor as he completely took over the SEC tournament — including shooting 10-of-19 from deep — and went 14-of-28 from the floor during Alabama’s two NCAA tournament games.
The former McDonald’s All American plays with a change of pace, pure will and instinctive feel that you cannot teach. As a pro, he will be well served by his downhill mentality as a straight-line driver. Sexton also takes good care of the basketball. Despite one of the highest usage rates in the country, he averaged fewer than three turnovers per game. By comparison, Oklahoma’s Trae Young averaged 5.2 per game.
PG Tony Carr, Soph., Penn State
Carr lit up March — leading the Nittany Lions to an NIT title — by showcasing his floor game and high basketball acumen. At 6-5, Carr is a completely different style of lead guard than Sexton, but arguably even more effective. He possesses excellent size for the position and uses his court vision to deliver pinpoint passes off screen-and-roll, averaging five assists per game. He is also an excellent 3-point shooter (43.3 percent), though he will need to speed up his delivery when spotting up behind the line.
How he responds laterally against elite quickness is the key moving forward — especially in individual workouts — but Carr helped himself a great deal in March, even if it wasn’t in prime time. By averaging nearly 19.6 points per game, the Philadelphia native became the first player in program history to reach 1,000 career points as a sophomore.
SG Zhaire Smith, Fr., Texas Tech
Texas Tech leaned on Smith en route to its first Elite Eight appearance in school history. An upper-echelon athlete with real shot-making ability (45 percent from 3-point range), Smith will struggle from a creative standpoint in the early stages of his career. That said, he showed enough two-way ability (47.6 percent shooting during the NCAA tournament) to interest teams in his enormous potential as a powerfully built 6-5, 195-pound shooting guard. “Smith is a future pro,” a Big 12 coach told Yahoo Sports. “He has a really high IQ and feel for the game. He’s an NBA athlete. Just look at how much his skills have improved.”
PF Robert Williams, Soph., Texas A&M
A fluid athlete with quick-twitch leaping ability, Williams possesses all of the tools to become a high-level NBA four. Motivation has been an issue throughout his two seasons in College Station, but Williams, a natural rim protector, helped himself with strong performances in the tournament.
After terrorizing Providence for 13 points and 14 rebounds, he totaled 19 boards and five blocks against North Carolina and Michigan. Williams will now have to convince personnel evaluators that this is the rule and not the exception. If he can, the 6-10, 241-pound sophomore could see his name in the lottery. Worst case, though, there is little doubt the talented big man has cemented himself as a first-round draft choice.
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Jordan Schultz is an NFL, NBA and NCAAB insider/analyst for Yahoo Sports.