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While the main — and most important — purpose of the NCAA tournament is to determine a national champion, the event is also a big deal when it comes to the NBA Draft. There have been many cases over the years of players who may have barely been on the radar heading into the postseason improving their draft prospects significantly, while others have played poorly and fallen down boards as a result.
This year’s tournament may have an even greater impact on the draft as, due to the pandemic, NBA teams haven’t been able to do as much in-person scouting work. Over the next three days we’ll take a look at some of the top prospects in the NCAA tournament, providing a top-10 by region. First up is the East, and atop the list is a freshman wing who many expect to be a lottery pick should he turn pro at season’s end.
1. SG Scottie Barnes (Florida State)
Barnes is a 6-foot-9, 227-pound guard who doesn’t lack for versatility on the offensive end of the floor, and the combination of length and athleticism makes him an impact player defensively as well. Named ACC Freshman and Sixth Man of the Year, the freshman guard posted averages of 11.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.4 blocks per game, while shooting 50.0% from the field and 60.9% from the foul line.
With an eye towards the next level Barnes, who is shooting just 29.7% from three on the season, will need to become more consistent as a perimeter shooter. But at this level the athleticism has helped to make up for that, as according to hoop-math 44.3% of his field goal attempts have come at the rim, and he’s made 68.8% of those shots. Barnes is expected to be a lottery pick should he enter this summer’s draft.
2. C Kai Jones (Texas)
Next up on the list is another high-level reserve, as Jones was named Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year. The 6-foot-11, 218-pound sophomore is averaging 8.8 points, 4.9 rebounds, 0.6 assists, 0.9 steals and 0.8 blocks per game, while shooting 57.2% from the field and 68.6% from the foul line. A high-level athlete, Jones runs the floor well and is an active rebounder/defender in the post. While he is shooting 39.4% from three, it’s important to note that Jones is doing this on an average of just 1.3 3-point attempts per game, so that isn’t a major part of his game just yet. Like Barnes, it’s very likely that Jones would be a first-round pick this summer despite being a reserve for the Longhorns.
3. SG James Bouknight (UConn)
UConn struggled offensively during the eight games that Bouknight missed due to a left elbow injury that required surgery, going 4-4 and hitting the 70-point mark in just three of those games. Since the sophomore has returned the Huskies have played much better basketball, going 6-2 in their last eight games. Bouknight (6-foot-5, 190) is an athletic guard with tight handle, who can get his own shot at all three levels.
In 14 games he’s averaging 19.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.5 3-pointers per, while shooting 45.3% from the field and 81.3% from the foul line. Bouknight’s 3-point percentage (30.4%) is a bit low, but he did shoot better than 35% as a freshman. UConn’s reliance on Bouknight to sometimes “make something out of nothing” may be the issue when it comes to the 3-point percentage, as opposed to him not being a capable shooter.
4. SF Franz Wagner (Michigan)
Wagner’s older brother Moritz is already in the NBA, and it’s very likely that he will be joining him at some point. The only question is “when.” Listed as a guard, the 6-foot-9, 220-pound sophomore is capable of playing on either wing or even the power forward position, depending upon where Juwan Howard needs him to be. Wagner is currently averaging 12.8 points, 6.2 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 1.4 steals, 1.1 blocks and 1.4 3-pointers per game, while shooting 49.3% from the field and 84.1% from the foul line.
Returning to school after considering turning pro doesn’t guarantee that a player will improve his draft prospects, but that hasn’t been the case with Wagner. Not only has be become more efficient offensively, nearly tripling his assist average from a season ago while raising his 3-point percentage by seven-plus points, but he has also improved as a defender. Whenever Wagner turns pro, he’ll be a first-rounder as his game fits today’s NBA very well.
5. SF Greg Brown (Texas)
The Longhorns don’t lack for athletic forwards who can run the floor and defend on the perimeter in ball-screen situations, with Brown being one of those players. The 6-foot-9, 205-pound freshman has started 24 of the 25 games that he’s appeared in, posting averages of 9.6 points, 6.4 rebounds 0.4 assists, 0.6 steals, 1.0 blocks and 1.2 3-pointers per game. According to hoop-math, nearly 47% of his field goal attempts have been 3-pointers, but the freshman is making just 32.2% of those shots.
That has impacted Brown’s overall field goal percentage (41.7%) noticeably, but no one would describe him as a “lost cause” when it comes to potentially improving as a shooter. His elite athleticism is what will catch the eye at first glance, but he will need to polish the offensive skill set in order to flourish at the next level. He’s projected to be a first-round pick should he turn pro after this season.
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6. SG Cameron Thomas (LSU)
Thomas has been outstanding during his freshman season in Baton Rouge, averaging 22.6 points, 3.4 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 0.9 steals and 2.3 3-pointers per game. Listed at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds, Thomas is an athletic scoring guard who does the majority of his work in the mid-range and from beyond the arc, breaking down opponents off the dribble for either jump shots or floaters. And even though Thomas hasn’t taken a lot of his shots around the rim (just 15.3% of his overall attempts per hoop-math), he has an effective floater, which has become a shot of even greater importance for guards in recent years.
The 3-point percentage (32.0%) is a bit lower than where you’d want it, Thomas is shooting 46.9% on 2-pointers and 88.0% from the foul line. There’s certainly room for growth as a shooter, but the freshman could very well turn into a first-round lock with a good NCAA tournament.
7. SF/SG Herbert Jones (Alabama)
Jones cleaned up on the SEC awards “circuit” this season, winning the conference’s Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year honors. Listed at 6-foot-8, 210 pounds, the senior wing can fill a variety of roles on both ends of the floor. And his presence is a big reason why Alabama won the SEC regular season and tournament titles. Jones is averaging 11.2 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 steals, 1.1 blocks and 0.7 3-pointers per game, while shooting 43.9% from the field and 72.6% from the foul line.
What may be most encouraging about Jones is the increased willingness to take perimeter shots. He’s shooting 39.2% from three with an average of 1.7 attempts per game; that may not seem like much, but in his first three seasons he attempted a total of 61 shots from beyond the arc (making 14). This season, Jones has gone 20-of-51 from three, and his free throw percentage improved by 10 points from the 2019-20 campaign (62.5%). Continued growth as a shooter is what will be needed for him to be his best self as a pro, but the defense is already there.
8. SG John Petty Jr. (Alabama)
A two-time all-SEC selection, the 6-foot-5, 184-pound Petty has been one of the conference’s best perimeter shooters for much of his time in Tuscaloosa. His scoring average this season (12.3) is two-plus points lower than his number from a season ago (14.5), but that has more to do with the Crimson Tide being an improved team offensively than anything that Petty may be doing wrong. In addition to the scoring average, he’s accounted for 5.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.3 steals, 0.6 blocks and 2.4 3-pointers per game, while shooting 43.1% from the field and 76.0% from the foul line. It’s been known that Petty can shoot, but he has also made strides as a defender, both individually (defensive rating of 94.6 per Basketball Reference) and within the team construct. He may not be a first-round pick this summer, but Petty has the potential to be an effective 3-and-D option at the next level.
9. SG M.J. Walker (Florida State)
Walker has steadily improved throughout his four seasons at Florida State, and he enters the tournament with averages of 13.0 points, 2.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 0.9 steals and 2.1 3-pointers per game. The biggest strides have been made as a perimeter shooter, as Walker is making a career-best 44.4% of his 3-point attempts while also shooting 44.1% from the field overall and 80.0% from the foul line. If there’s an issue offensively it’s the mid-range game as, according to hoop-math, the 6-foot-5, 213-pound senior is making just 28.6% of his attempts. Those shots make up nearly 27% of his attempts on the season, hence the overall field goal percentage being slightly lower than his 3-point percentage.
10. PG McKinley Wright IV (Colorado)
Wright is one of the best players in Colorado history, and he’ll finally get the opportunity to show what he can do in the NCAA tournament. The 6-foot, 196-pound senior is averaging 15.5 points, 4.3 rebounds, 5.6 assists, 1.1 steals and 0.9 3-pointers per game, while shooting 48.4% from the field and 83.8% from the foul line. Wright hasn’t been a great 3-point shooter this season, making just 31.0% of his attempts (33.1% for his CU career), but the other percentages show that there is room for him to be effective at the next level. The senior point guard defends his position well, and he’s an outstanding leader for the Buffaloes. This is the time of year when point guards, especially experienced ones, can carry their teams to great heights. Wright certainly fits the mold.
For this portion, one player from each team in the region will be mentioned along with a brief note. While some of these players could become the focus of NBA conversations at some point, it’s more likely that these will be honorable mentions whose names you’ll need to become more acquainted with before the tournament begins.
No. 1 Michigan: C Hunter Dickinson (With Isaiah Livers a long shot to play due to a stress reaction in his foot, the 7-foot-1 Dickinson is of even greater importance to the Wolverines)
No. 2 Alabama: SG Jaden Shackleford (The sophomore leads the Crimson Tide in scoring with an average of 14.2 points per game)
No. 3 Texas: PG Matt Coleman (An experienced floor general who is more than willing to step up in crunch time)
No. 4 Florida State: C Balsa Kopravica (The 7-foot-1 pivot was one of the ACC’s most-improved players this season, and he leads the Seminoles in blocks while ranking second in rebounds)
No. 5 Colorado: PF Jabari Walker (The Buffaloes’ top four scorers are all upperclassmen, but the freshman — whose father is former pro Samaki Walker — is the talent with the most upside)
No. 6 BYU: PG/SG Alex Barcello (The Arizona transfer leads the Cougars in points and assists, and he’s also averaging 4.7 rebounds per game)
No. 7 UConn: PG R.J. Cole (A prolific scorer during his first two seasons at Howard, Cole leads the Huskies in assists while ranking second in scoring behind Bouknight)
No. 8 LSU: SF/PF Trendon Watford (Listed at 6-foot-9, 240, Watford is more of a combo forward who has the freedom to get his shot anywhere on the floor)
No. 9 St. Bonaventure: PF Osun Osunniyi (The 6-foot-10, 220-pound junior was the Atlantic 10’s best defender, rejecting 2.9 shots per game)
No. 10 Maryland: SG Aaron Wiggins (A bit inconsistent, the talented Wiggins could be the key to Maryland’s NCAA tournament hopes. If he shows up with that “dog” in him, look out)
No. 11 Michigan State: SG/SF Aaron Henry (The 6-foot-6, 210-pound junior has been Michigan State’s most consistent player on both ends of the floor)
No. 11 UCLA: SG Johnny Juzang (The redshirt sophomore, who began his career at Kentucky, averages a team-best 14.0 points per game)
No. 12 Georgetown: PG/SG Jahvon Blair (While it was freshman Dante Harris who took the Big Apple by storm last week, Blair has been the Hoyas’ most consistent perimeter scorer)
No. 13 UNC Greensboro: SG Isaiah Miller (If you haven’t seen the highly athletic/skilled Miller in action, buckle up. He won’t look out of place playing against Florida State’s athletic guards)
No. 14 Abilene Christian: C Kolton Kohl (The Wildcats, making their first-ever Division I NCAA tournament appearance, have a 7-footer in Kohl who leads the team in scoring and earned first team all-Southland honors)
No. 15 Iona: PG Asante Gist (The redshirt senior will be making his second NCAA tournament appearance at Iona after beginning his college career at Eastern Kentucky. Gist’s shooting percentages aren’t great, but he’s been a very good leader for the Gaels)
No. 16 Mount St. Mary’s: PG Damian Chong-Qui (The NEC’s Most Improved Player last season, the 5-foot-8, 155-pound point guard is averaging 15.1 points and 5.5 assists per game)
No. 16 Texas Southern: PG Michael Weathers (Weathers, who has prior stops at Miami University and Oklahoma State, averages 16.5 points, 5.2 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per game)