College basketball in March represents the culmination of countless hours spent by players throughout the season honing their craft.
The NCAA Tournament provides Cinderella stories, feel-good program “firsts,” and usually the postseason savvy of blue-blood programs looking to continue their dominance. When it is all said and done, however, only one team can be crowned champion.
For this reason, the Big Dance also serves as a platform for a handful of players to impress decision makers at the next level. A solid stretch of play on college basketball’s biggest stage can do wonders for a prospects NBA draft stock.
Throughout this season’s NCAA Tournament there hasn’t been any shortage of draft stock boosting. Here are the players who have helped themselves the most heading into draft season.
Despite not helping Kentucky advance to the Final Four, Fox’s play in the tournament has vaulted him from his already lottery-projected status into potential top-five pick territory. DraftExpress.com currently has Fox listed as the No. 6 pick.
The knock on the 6-foot-3 point guard this season was his inability to consistently knock down a jump shot. Over the last four games Fox played, he was able to shoot 50 percent from the field. In the process, he displayed decent shooting mechanics and that he could hit shots once he got into a groove.
Averaging 21.2 points per game in the tournament and being the catalyst behind Kentucky’s near Final Four appearance, Fox’s Sweet 16 matchup against Lonzo Ball will largely be considered the game that helped his draft stock the most.
Going head-to-head with Ball, the projected No. 2 pick in the draft, Fox was smothering defensively and imposed his will offensively. En route to a 86-75 Kentucky victory, Fox dominated Ball by scoring 39 points and committing just one turnover. Even more impressively, the pesky defender disrupted Ball all night, allowing him to only score 10 points and turn the ball over four times.
While Fox’s elevated play in the tournament is crucial to where he may land in the draft, teams will also be impressed with the level of commitment and heart Fox has to winning. After falling to North Carolina on buzzer-beating shot in the Elite Eight, Fox was filmed breaking down in the locker room over the outcome.
Very emotional Kentucky locker room as expected. pic.twitter.com/ksNn4iOGHW
— Joe Mussatto (@joe_mussatto) March 26, 2017
Devastation that pure certainly suggests a player that will work hard enough to make sure they don’t feel that way again.
The SEC Player of the Year and catalyst behind this year’s Cinderella story, Thornwell has turned heads during South Carolina’s run all the way to the Final Four.
Averaging 25.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.0 steals per game, Thornwell keeps impacting the game on both ends to the point where it may be hard to ignore the senior guard as a legitimate NBA prospect.
Age is always a factor in the NBA draft, and while Thornwell’s experience seems to be helping him in March, it may wind up hurting him in June. But after putting up 24 points, six rebounds, and five assists against a freshman-laden Duke team to propel South Carolina into their first ever Sweet 16, Thornwell showed signs that he could more than keep up with the heralded one-and-done picks.
Over the course of the season, Thornwell shot 39.7 percent from the beyond the arc. During the tournament, that figure has increased to 42.3 percent. At 6-foot-5 Thornwell brings decent size to an off-ball guard position. Coupled with his skill and high-level intensity on the defensive side of the ball, Thornwell could project nicely into the coveted “3-and-D” player in the NBA.
Currently projected the No. 49 pick on DraftExpress.com, Thornwell’s play this March should help him get consideration from drafting team’s well before that pick.
Another conference player of the year winner, Jackson is battling the similar age problem as Thornwell, despite being named the best player in the ACC this season.
At 6-foot-8, Jackson possesses the necessary size from an NBA wing player, but the fact that he is a junior at North Carolina may keep Jackson out of the lottery. However, if there is any way to sway an NBA front office that your age is an issue, it would be to keep winning. In the Final Four yet again, should Jackson deliver the Tar Heels a national championship he may surpass his current No. 12 projected selection by DraftExpress.
Throughout the tournament, Jackson has turned in impressive numbers. By averaging 19.8 points and 6.3 rebounds a game Jackson continues to show his consistency, but as the game’s importance continues to climb in the tournament, so does Jackson’s performance.
In North Carolina’s Sweet 16 matchup with Butler, Jackson poured in 24 points, five rebounds, and five assists. Against Kentucky in the Elite Eight, Jackson delivered 19, five and four in those same categories. But most importantly, in each game, the latter decided by just one possession, Jackson turned the ball over just one time.
Playing three seasons under head coach Roy Williams seems to have developed Jackson into a prospect with the ability to stay cool under mounting pressure. A quality like that can always find a home in the NBA.
Not only is Brooks battling the age question as a junior at Oregon, but he also doesn’t necessarily have a true position. At 6-foot-5, Brooks is slightly undersized to play the wing in the NBA and his athleticism isn’t really up to NBA standards either. A backcourt position is unlikely for Brooks as well, as he isn’t much of a playmaker. Paired with his below-average rebounding ability and previously mentioned lack of size, a stretch-four position seems out of the question as well.
Despite all of the knocks against Brooks, none of it has seemed to matter.
The junior has his team in the program’s first Final Four since 1939. Projected to be drafted No. 38 this June by DraftExpress, Brooks is dispelling the documented negatives against him by just going out there and playing basketball.
Averaging 16.5 points per game while shooting 39 percent from three-point range in the tournament, Brooks has delivered in big spots for the Ducks when they have needed it the most. While trailing lower-seeded Rhode Island in the second half of their second round tournament matchup, Oregon turned to Brooks to help pull them back. The positionless upperclassmen delivered 19 points and seven rebounds to help Oregon live to see another day.
Against Kansas Brooks delivered once again, notching 17 points along with five rebounds and four assists to upend the No. 2-seed Jayhawks and send Oregon to the Final Four. Brooks doesn’t seem too worried about his clear lack of position on the basketball court, and with continued performances like those, it may be hard for an NBA team to worry about it too.
Few players in the tournament have proved as much as Bluiett did by dragging No. 11-seed Xavier all the way to the Elite Eight. After losing their starting point guard and projected NBA draft pick Edmond Sumner to a torn ACL, the outlook was bleak for the Xavier Musketeers. Then, in stepped Bluiett.
Averaging 21.3 points per game while shooting 41 percent from downtown during the tournament, Bluiett displayed his full offensive repertoire against higher-seeded opponents each night.
Scoring over 20 points in three of his four games, Bluiett produced two back-to-back dominant performances. He scored 29 and 25 points against Florida State and Arizona, respectively. Beating the No. 3-seed and No. 2-seed in consecutive games showed that Bluiett was up to the challenge going head to head with blue-chip prospects.
While not currently projected in DraftExpress’ 2017 or 2018 mock drafts, and with a year of eligibility remaining, it isn’t a guarantee Bluiett declares for the NBA. However, should he test the waters, the junior guard certainly has a beefed up resume to show teams after his performance this March.
The second player from South Carolina’s Cinderella squad, Dozier’s second fiddle role this March has shown the impact two-way player he can be at the next level.
Averaging 15.3 points and 1.5 steals a game during the Gamecocks’ tournament run, Dozier has delivered consistency alongside Thornwell’s dominance. Just a sophomore, the 6-foot-7 guard is currently projected No. 39 in the 2018 draft by DraftExpress.com.
In the game that started South Carolina’s run to the Final Four, a first round matchup with Marquette, Dozier scored 21 points while shooting 9-of-14 from the field. His shooting percentage from the two-point range this tournament sits at an impressive 66.7 percent. With his length advantage for his position, Dozier should be able to consistently do damage from the mid-range at the NBA level.
Whenever South Carolina’s improbable run comes to an end, Dozier should have a legitimate decision on his hands whether to declare for the NBA draft or not. With a few more impressive performances under his belt, Dozier could make waves in the 2017 draft class and skip another year of school altogether.
With all of the attention that winning the NCAA Tournament brings each March, it’s hard to see anybody else as a winner besides that final team left standing. But for those programs and players that don’t get to the hoist the trophy after the madness subsides, March is a great opportunity to audition for their next team.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.