One of the great things about there being so many ACC teams in the Sweet 16 this year is that casual college basketball fans will have the opportunity to watch a ton of potential first-round NBA draft picks play deep into the tournament. The teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament offer quite a few players with NBA talent. In fact, it wouldn’t be entirely shocking if over a third of the players selected in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft are players from these final 16 teams.
Knowing all that, here’s a semi-comprehensive list of players worth watching closely over the course of the next few weeks as March Madness winds down:
Brandon Ingram, SF, Duke – The fact that Ingram is still playing and top prospect Ben Simmons didn’t even make it into the field of 68 has generated a lot of momentum for Ingram. He now has the chance to further increase his draft stock, and Ingram is receiving serious top overall pick consideration. There’s something to be said about a deep tournament run putting an exclamation point on a strong season, and Ingram has certainly had one of those. As tall and long as he is, Ingram offers the sort of intangibles that others frankly cannot. Watch him create on offense as Duke takes on top-seeded Oregon in the next round and you’ll see why so many NBA scouts are drooling over the kid. He has great vision and leadership for a kid his age, and even though he doesn’t take a ton of three-pointers, he can knock them down with solid accuracy. Topping Simmons will be hard to do, but an upset over Oregon and a Final Four appearance certainly wouldn’t hurt Ingram’s chances at becoming the top overall pick.
Buddy Hield, SG, Oklahoma – There simply aren’t many players in college basketball as electrifying as Hield. And the amount of interest he’s garnering as an NBA prospect is rather special considering how little attention seniors typically get from scouts because of their perceived lack of potential. Hield, though, is arguably college basketball’s most entertaining scorer. He has averaged 25 points per game on the season, and that 36-point gem he put up in the second round to help Oklahoma advance to the Sweet 16 is exactly why fans should plan on watching No. 24 for as long as the Sooners stay in the bracket. When Hield gets hot, there’s not much opposing teams can do. Against VCU, he dropped 29 of his 36 points in the second half – and he scored 21 of Oklahoma’s final 26 points to seal the win for the Sooners. Hield’s performances have become must-see TV.
Demetrius Jackson, PG, Notre Dame – There weren’t a ton of people who had Notre Dame pegged as a team to advance this deep into the tournament, but the 6’1 Jackson’s leadership and explosiveness offensively have been instrumental in making them one of the bracket’s biggest surprises through two rounds. In the second round against Stephen F. Austin, Jackson led all scorers with 18 points in the Irish’s one-point win, but it was how he earned those points – attacking the basket pretty much at will – that makes him such a thrilling NBA prospect. He’s not a big guy, but he’s probably a lottery pick all the same, which absolutely makes the Notre Dame/Wisconsin game worth watching. Even better is that the Badgers are beatable, which means there’s a good chance we could get at least two more games of watching the explosive Jackson in action.
Brice Johnson, PF, North Carolina – Through the first two games of the tournament, Johnson is averaging 19.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5 blocks, which should be enough to show exactly why NBA teams are falling in love with the athletic, emotional Tar Heel forward. His monstrous block against Providence got him trending on social media pretty quickly, but his defense only tells part of the story. As a senior, he’s physically stronger than almost any other player on the floor on any given night, and the Heels are at their best when they’re running things through him. So far they’ve been pretty good about adhering to that game plan, but as for fans, the more Johnson touches the ball, the more we’re able to envision him wearing an NBA uniform by fall.
Domantas Sabonis, C, Gonzaga – Son of former NBA and international legend Arvydas Sabonis, Domantas is an absolute gift for fans simply because he’s just as fun to watch as his father was when he played. He destroyed projected lottery pick Jakob Poeltl of Utah in the second round, a matchup that showed the young man’s grit and hustle (which he’ll need to continue using to compensate for his lack of length and athleticism at the next level). Despite his physical shortcomings, Sabonis is a grinder who looks like he’ll have a long NBA career, even if he may not be All-Star material. His skill set and hustle make him an intriguing mid-first-round flier and more than worthy of watching closely for as long as Gonzaga stays in the tourney.
Diamond Stone, C, Maryland – Aside from having the sweetest basketball name since God Shammgod, Stone is a massive presence on the court and a huge reason why Maryland is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. He’s too big to stop offensively and too strong to keep off the boards. However, unlike some of the other players on this list, he’s not necessarily a focal point on offense so viewers may need to pay some special attention to see him at his best. Melo Trimble is the star of the show for the Terrapins, but Stone complements him well enough (and he has enough potential) that he’s receiving consideration as a potential lottery pick. When motivated, he’s an absolute monster and extremely fun to watch, and making it this deep into the tournament obviously has kept him pretty motivated.
Melo Trimble, PG, Maryland – Trimble, meanwhile, dropped 24 points and hauled in eight rebounds in that second-round win over Hawaii, showing just how dominant a scorer he could be at the next level. Actually, Trimble could have come out of school a year ago and been drafted by some team, but instead opted to stay another year. Now, he seems poised to be a first-round selection, and an even deeper run by the Terps would only solidify that and help his draft stock even more.
Grayson Allen, SG, Duke – Maybe he’s the Matthew Dellavedova of college basketball with all his questionable dirty scuffles, but one thing we have learned about Grayson Allen this year is that he has the grit and talent to make an impact in the NBA. He dropped 22 points in the second round against Yale and he absolutely has the ability to go on an offensive run that will drive a stake through an opponent’s heart. Love him or hate him, he’s headed for the NBA and there aren’t many more entertaining players to watch in college hoops right now.
Malcolm Brogdon, SG, Virginia – Brogdon has been Virginia’s best defensive player this tournament, most notably shutting down Butler stud Andrew Chrabascz to advance to the Sweet 16. However, he was also named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year this past season, showing that his tournament play is no fluke and he’s consistently this dominant and intense on the defensive end. That’s going to be Brogdon’s best attribute in the NBA, and for those fans who love watching an elite defender shut down the opposition’s best scorer in the game’s most meaningful moments, Brogdon and his top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers are a must-see for you from here on out.
Nigel Hayes, F, Wisconsin – It’s hard to make the argument that Hayes is entertaining to watch right now, as he’s been absolutely atrocious from the field (5-27) in the first two rounds of the tournament. But he’s a bubble first-rounder who really could benefit from at least one good game before the seven-seeded Badgers get bounced from the tourney. He’s drawing a lot of attention defensively, which is helping his teammates pull out tough wins, but despite his bad showings he’s a legitimate NBA prospect who typically is much better than his tournament performances would indicate. If he’s just a little bit better, Wisconsin’s surprising postseason run could easily continue beyond their next game against Notre Dame.
Cheick Diallo, PF, Kansas – There was a time not that long ago when Diallo was seen as a potential lottery pick and, at the very least, a sure-fire first-rounder. But due to a crowded frontcourt situation in Kansas, he really hasn’t gotten the minutes to consistently showcase what he can do on the floor. He’s only played seven minutes through two tournament games so far, so enjoy whatever flashes of him you may get in the Sweet 16. He would benefit tremendously from another year in school, but if he does come out early, a team would draft him based on his exciting potential rather than his track record.
Wayne Selden, G, Kansas – Unlike Diallo, Selden has received plenty of playing time for the Jayhawks and has really made the most of the opportunities granted to him. His athletic dunks have helped his popularity in the last couple weeks, but he’s a tremendous talent with skills that should translate quite well to the NBA level. He and Perry Ellis are likely second-round picks this June, but Selden in particular could jump into the first-round if things bounce the right way for him. Some more strong showings and a national championship would help him tremendously.
There are, of course, several other players left in the Sweet 16 who could realistically be drafted, but these are the top individuals of the bunch and probably the players with the best shot at eventually being selected among the draft’s first 30 picks. The NBA Combine in May and pre-draft workouts obviously matter too, but the tournament is a lot of these players’ last chance to show what they can do in a five-on-five setting and against real competition. Let’s hope they all make the most of it, which would help them as they prepare to make the jump to the NBA and also give us an even more exciting conclusion to the NCAA Tournament.
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.