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.
Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17
Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.
We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.
A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.
Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.
While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.
6) Joel Embiid
Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.
One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.
5) Kristaps Porzingis
Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.
So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.
4) Nikola Jokic
At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.
Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.
3) Draymond Green
In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.
Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.
2) Al Horford
The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.
He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.
1) DeMarcus Cousins
Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.
Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.
The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.
Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.
There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.
Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.
Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.
That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.
Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.
Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.
“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.
“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”
In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.
What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.
From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.
There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.
So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.
Instead, he did the opposite.
“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.
“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”
Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.
Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.
Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.
Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.
I think not.
Death, taxes and the Spurs.
So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.
Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.
But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.
NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly
Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.
It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.
Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.
The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.
“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”
Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.
At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.
“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.
Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.
“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”
Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.
His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.
“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”
“Yep,” Bazemore replied.
“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”
Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.
“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”
With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.
Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.