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Fringe Prospects to Watch During March Madness

Keep an eye on these fringe NBA prospects, who could use March Madness to climb into the first round.

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With the 2015 NCAA Tournament bracket now officially out, basketball fans can get excited about the big games to come. For die-hard NBA fans who only watch college basketball to get a look at future pro stars, this tournament is the best opportunity to do so.

We all know that Duke’s Jahlil Okafor and Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein are destined for this year’s lottery, but the tournament should also give us a good look at how some other potential draft studs will pan out on college basketball’s biggest stage. Here are a few potential first-rounders worth keeping an eye on over the course of the next few weeks:

Jerian Grant, PG, Senior, Notre Dame – Before this year, the University of Notre Dame had never won an ACC tournament championship, but behind the efforts of Grant, who scored 24 points and dished out 10 assists in the final, the Irish took that title for the first time this year. Grant, naturally, was named the ACC Tournament MVP. He also was runner up to Okafor for ACC Player of the Year after averaging 16.8 PPG and 6.6 APG for the Irish this season. He’s on the lottery bubble as it is, but could easily play himself into top-10 territory with a big tournament. Considering how hot Notre Dame is right now, we could see plenty of Grant in the next few weeks.

Kevon Looney, PF, Freshman, UCLA – While young and in dire need of a long summer in the weight room, one look at Looney makes it clear he’s built for the NBA. After averaging 12.3 PPG and 9.5 RPG during his freshman season with the Bruins, Looney looks like a mid-first rounder if he decides to come out, but after speaking with former Bruins like Kyle Anderson and Jordan Adams, Looney apparently isn’t 100 perfect sure he wants to come out after this season. UCLA is an 11 seed bumping up against Larry Brown’s SMU team in the first round, so Looney may face an early exit, but an upset or two and a big tournament showing could all but assure Looney’s stock as a bubble lottery guy come June.

Bobby Portis, PF, Sophomore, Arkansas – This year’s SEC Player of the Year, Portis is coming off a pretty disappointing conference tournament in which he scored only four points in the SEC semifinal against Georgia, then saw his team lose to the University of Kentucky in the championship for the second year in a row. Despite all that, the 6’11 Portis is an energetic, supercharged big man who is all but assured to be selected in the first round in this year’s draft. He averaged 17.7 PPG on 54.9 percent shooting and hauled in 8.8 RPG for the Razorbacks this year, so he clearly is capable of playing better than he has over the last few days. He’s an intense guy, and since Arkansas is a 5-seed, we should see a decent amount of him in the tournament, particularly since Arkansas won’t have to face Kentucky again until the Final Four, should both teams make it that far.

Kris Dunn, PG, Sophomore, Providence – The Friars just barely fell short of upsetting #4 Villanova in the Big East tournament last week but ultimately fell short, though not without a strong effort from Dunn, who scored 22 points, dished out 9 assists and hauled in 7 rebounds in the loss. Unsurprisingly, the dominant Dunn was the Big East Player of the Year, and with his penchant for taking over games, he could easily become one of the NCAA tournament’s brightest stars. He’s a player who absolutely could play himself into the lottery with a big tournament, and as fate would have it, Providence ended up in the Villanova bracket. Nothing could be better for Dunn’s draft stock than a rematch with ‘Nova in the Elite Eight.

Jakob Poetl, C, Freshman, Utah – Unlike some of the guys on this list, who were big-time high school recruits and McDonald’s All-Americans, Poetl is an Austrian giant who stole the starting center job in camp and hit the ground running his freshman season, scoring 18 points and hauling in 10 boards his very first game for the University of Utah. He’s been a double-double machine ever since, drawing the attention of NBA scouts, but he could just as easily return to school for at least another season. Of course, should the 5-seed Utes make a big run in the tournament behind big showings from Poetl, the call of the big league could be too strong to ignore.

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, SF, Sophomore, Arizona – While Stanley Johnson is the Arizona Wildcat player NBA scouts are most excited about, there absolutely is a place for Hollis-Jefferson in the NBA as well, particularly since he’s one of college basketball’s most respected defenders. He’s an athletic two-way player on one of the country’s best teams, so it’s easy to see him having some huge games for a team expected to go deep into the tourney. The more big games he has, the more likely it is he’s a first-round pick in this year’s draft.

Obviously, players like Jahlil Okafor, D’Angelo Russell and Frank Kaminsky could also have big tournaments, but they already seem to be lottery locks, barring some sort of career-altering injury. But the players on this list are a little less known but equally deserving of attention during the tournament. It’s a time when rising stars shine, and the young men on this list could see their draft stocks rise astronomically during the upcoming games.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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