NBA prospects to watch in NCAA tournament (cont.)
Top prospect: PF Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
At this point, Sullinger is a known commodity among NBA evaluators. He's the same player he's been since he first stepped foot in Columbus -- a bullish interior presence lacking elite athleticism. He boasts more low-post moves than any forward in the nation, and, heading into the tournament, is the key to the Buckeyes' championship hopes.
Though his draft stock has remained constant since his return for his sophomore season, a strong March showing, including potential victories over athletic Florida State and Syracuse, could dismiss ongoing concerns about his health ("I think he's been nicked a little bit all year," said a scout). And if he performs like he did in the Big Ten tournament -- he averaged 24 points, nine rebounds shot 56 percent from the field in three games -- he could reinforce his case as a top five talent.
"I think people expect them to win two games, but if they're gonna get to the round of eight or four it's gonna be because of him," one of the scouts said. "If someone has a great comfort level with [Sullinger] and they're not concerned about his vertical play, then he could get into that three, four or five conversation. If teams are a little hesitant, he'll probably go five through eight."
Player with the most at stake: SG Dion Waiters, Syracuse
While Lamb and Beal have received the lion's share of attention among potential 2012 shooting guards, Waiters has begun to gain early first-round recognition. He's displayed deft skill as a ball-handler, passer and defender (he ranks fourth in the Big East in Player Efficiency Rating), and enters the tournament following his strongest outing to date: a 28-point showing in which he went 7-of-10 from three. His all-around court-savvy has earned high praise -- and prompted some unlikely comparisons.
"He does a little bit of the stuff that Dwyane Wade does," said a scout. "Now, he's not as explosive, but he splits doubles like Wade does. And he's got a little James Harden to him because he can pass it."
The problem is Waiters averages just 23.9 minutes per game, good enough for fifth on the Orange's roster. It's downplayed his hype, something that could change in potential showdowns with prospect-laden Vanderbilt or Ohio State.
"I would say today that scouts are more enamored with Beal but only because he's played more," said a scout. "Why is this guy playing 20 minutes? He might be [Syracuse's] best player."
Second-round game to watch: No. 3 Florida State vs. No. 14 St. Bonaventure
Largely off the grid for most of his St. Bonaventure career, 6-foot-9 senior Andrew Nicholson has emerged as a late draft bloomer. His steady production has finally garnered acknowledgement, and he's impressed scouts with his comfort on the low block and around the perimeter. He also bolstered his stock by carrying the Bonnies to the Big Dance, entering the first round of some mocks after averaging 26 points and 10.6 rebounds over the team's final eight games (St. Bonaventure won seven).
Now comes the real challenge. Questioned for his toughness, Nicholson will meet a Florida State squad loaded with athletes. His head-to-head play against Bernard James, the Seminoles' 6-10 senior forward, should serve as a litmus test for Nicholson's first-round potential.
"He doesn't seem like he has a real physical NBA-body presence," said one of the scouts. "It'll be interesting to see him against one of the best athletic defensive teams."
Dream matchup: No. 1 Syracuse vs. No. 5 Vanderbilt in the Sweet 16
Similar to a Kentucky-North Carolina matchup, though to a much lesser extent, a Vanderbilt-Syracuse showdown would feature a litany of NBA prospects. The Commodores have pro-caliber talents in Jeffrey Taylor, John Jenkins and Festus Ezeli, and the Orange counter with Waiters and Kris Joseph. The battle of the bigs is not as tantalizing as it could have been -- heralded 7-foot center Fab Melo was ruled ineligible for the tournament -- but Taylor's defensive efforts against Waiters would pique significant scouting interest.
"We look at Taylor as a guy, in college, who can guard the 'one' through 'four' positions," said a scout. "We'd love to see that matchup."
Though Syracuse's zone scheme could camouflage some individual battles, it could actually benefit the 6-4 Jenkins. Pegged as late first-rounder to early second-rounder, he could improve his stock behind several dominant shooting performances -- an extension of a junior season in which he shot 44.8 percent from beyond the arc.
"It seems like [the zone] favors Jenkins' strengths, quite honestly," said the other scout. "He struggles more against heavy man-to-man pressure than he does when he's able to shoot the ball."
Top prospects: SF Harrison Barnes, North Carolina; PF Thomas Robinson, Kansas
What else is left to write about these two? Both Barnes and Robinson are surefire early lottery selections, potential franchise building blocks who have proven themselves on countless occasions. Their 2012 campaigns were no exception: Barnes averaged 17.4 points while shooting over 45 percent from three, while Robinson garnered Player of the Year consideration by averaging 17.9 points and 11.8 rebounds.
"Those guys are realistically in the top five whether they're two and three, three and four or four and five," said a scout. "It's just a matter of teams' needs, unless one of them totally blows up in the tournament."
If one does have something to gain, however, it's Robinson, who could silence his small circle of critics during a potential Elite Eight bout with UNC. The traditional knock on Robinson is that he's undersized by NBA standards, with his 6-9 frame paling in comparison to prototypical power forward prospects like Perry Jones (6-11). Robinson could cement himself as the nation's preeminent big -- with the exception of Davis -- by rising to the occasion against the Tar Heels' vaunted front court of John Henson, Tyler Zeller and James McAdoo.
"I'd like to see how Robinson and Henson match up," said the other scout. "That might be the best matchup head-to-head. I'm hoping that Henson is all right physically and his wrist doesn't give him any problems."
Player with the most at stake: SF Doug McDermott, Creighton
At first glance, it's hard not to see McDermott's deficiencies from an NBA standpoint. He's undersized (6-7, 210) and athletically limited. And though he's a terrific scorer (he ranks third in the NCAA in scoring, at 23.3 points per game), he could be a defensive liability: He may not be quick enough to guard professional-level wings.
"He's gonna be able to make shots," said a scout. "Our question is he athletic enough to defend in our league?"
It's a valid drawback, but not a complete deterrent. Former Creighton star Kyle Korver has evolved into a valued NBA producer, and McDermott has been even better during his time on campus. While Korver averaged 17.8 points and 6.4 rebounds and shot 48 percent from distance as a sophomore, McDermott averages 23.2 points, 8.2 rebounds while converting 49.5 percent of his three-point attempts.
"We know what he is and we know his limitations, but if he can have two good games against a couple of quality teams, especially Carolina, it might help boost his stock down the road," said the other scout. "I think if he has a great tournament then he can move up into the late first round."
Second-round games to watch: No. 8 Creighton vs. No. 9 Alabama; No. 6 San Diego State vs. No. 11 N.C. State
NBA interest here revolves almost solely around the play of McDermott. He's torched major-conference competition -- he averaged 25.3 points in three games against Big Ten teams this season -- and could leave a strong final impression by playing well against Alabama, and if Creighton wins, against his high school teammate Harrison Barnes and Carolina.
"If he goes out against Alabama, and it's another test against athletes, and he puts up great numbers we'll go, 'Wow, another feather in his cap,' said one of the scouts. "If he has two games on national TV and is pretty representative, our league would go, 'this guy is pretty good.'"
As for the rest of the region? It's largely a year or two removed from draft relevance. Michigan's Tim Hardaway Jr. and Trey Burke seem set to return to Ann Arbor, and San Diego State's Jamaal Franklin -- though a blossoming talent -- remains starkly raw. NC State's C.J. Leslie, a 6-8, 206-pound sophomore power forward, has come on strong and could warrant late first-round consideration if he declares.
"Leslie has helped himself," said the scout. "He was a McDonald's All-American so he's always had some talent. He's intriguing. He's worth watching a little bit to see if he can take another step."
Dream matchup: No. 1 North Carolina vs. No. 2 Kansas in the Elite Eight
If this matchup were to materialize, it could turn into the most anticipated game of the tournament. The storylines are endless: UNC coach Roy Williams against his former team. Robinson against the Tar Heels' front line. Perhaps most captivating: Kansas guard Tyshawn Taylor against Kendall Marshall.
The latter would give Marshall and Taylor an opportunity to showcase their playmaking ability, and more importantly, their defensive potential against NBA-level talent. The gritty Taylor would be tasked with slowing the nation's leader in assists-to-turnover ratio (3.51), while Marshall would be forced to contain one of the game's most athletic prospects. In Marshall's case, it could help eradicate doubts that have plagued Carolina's sophomore -- and potentially catapult him past Lillard and Wroten in the minds of NBA evaluators.
"Marshall is an elite passer," said a scout. "And he's making open shots now. My question is will he be able to defend at our level? His foot speed is not great. He's not great laterally.
"He's obviously played against elite players his whole life -- at Carolina and in high school -- and has done really well. But this is the best of the best. Will he step up and be a star?