The ins and outs of scouting NBA Draft prospects in the NCAA tournament
The NCAA men's tournament is the biggest stage in college basketball and one of the most-watched sporting events of the year. Many basketball fans tune into the tournament to see Cinderella teams emerge, big shots at the end of games and the upcoming talent about to hit the NBA in June.
NBA scouts and executives are also on the road, getting a last competitive look at some of the players they've been watching all season. Some players help their draft stock in the tournament, rising to the occasion against tough competition and excelling when the stakes are higher than they've been all season. Other players might crack under pressure, leaving fans wondering why different players are projected so high in the upcoming NBA Draft.
"I would not drop anyone significantly on my board, personally, if they have a bad game in the tournament," one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. "If there’s someone who exceeds my expectations during the tournament and had a big moment, I would maybe give them a double look from what they did over the season. Those type of things are worth reconsidering a player if they step up in a big moment."
In the first two rounds of the tournament, the players projected at the top didn't necessarily play great. Alabama freshman Brandon Miller, who is a projected top-three pick in the upcoming draft, was held scoreless for the first time all season in the first game against No. 16 seed Texas A&M Corpus Christi. He bounced back in the round of 32, connecting for 19 points and adding 7 rebounds in the win to send No. 1 seed Alabama to the Sweet 16 in the South Region.
Arkansas had one of the most talented freshmen backcourts coming in this season with Nick Smith Jr. and Anthony Black as both are projected lottery picks in the NBA Draft. After hitting the game-winner against Auburn to advance in the SEC tournament a couple weeks ago, Smith played only 16 minutes and was held scoreless, while Black was relatively quiet too, contributing 4 points in the 72-71 win over No. 1 seed Kansas in the West region.
"We’ve watched some of these players, in some cases, for years," another NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. "If they have one or two bad games, it would be crazy to drop them for that."
The NBA is getting younger and franchises are now drafting young, one-and-done prospects who show signs of upside they can mold under their system, as opposed to older, three- or four-year players. There have been exceptions in recent drafts.
In the 2022 NBA Draft, the Oklahoma City Thunder took Santa Clara junior Jalen Williams with the 12th overall pick. Williams has been one of the most productive rookies this season for the Thunder. The year before, the Indiana Pacers selected Oregon wing Chris Duarte with the 13th pick. Duarte was already 24 years old entering the NBA, but had a great rookie season for the Pacers.
Projected at the top of this year's draft are 19-year-old 7-foot-4 French center Victor Wembanyama and 19-year-old Scoot Henderson (who has already played two seasons in the G League for the Ignite). Scattered throughout the rest of the lottery are first-year collegiate players who are either 19 or 20 years old.
"There’s a correlation between youth and upside, historically speaking," one NBA scout said. "You expect inconsistencies at 19 or 20, but the combination of youth and production is the best-case scenario. Youth, in general, suggests upside."
There are still plenty of talented players to keep tabs on in the next round of Sweet 16 games. Each year, the tournament has proven to be a good sample size for how players perform under pressure, but it's not the end-all, be-all for player's overall draft stock.
Each NBA team has several scouts within its organization who have been on the road for multiple weeks throughout the season getting eyes on the players in the upcoming draft class. After the NCAA tournament, there are still the NBA Draft Combine, individual workouts and interviews that all go into where players will fall on draft night.
Fans might be quick to jump to different conclusions while watching NBA Draft prospects in the NCAA tournament, but it's just a small piece in the much bigger puzzle for NBA teams and their ultimate draft decision when June 22 rolls around.