We’ll spare you the hyperbole about how this could be the most monumental NCAA Tournament ever or how someone could propel themselves from being a virtual unknown to being at the forefront of the lottery discussion in this June’s upcoming draft that can accompany a lot of articles at this time of year. With that said, it is important to take a look at the realities of the tournament and how it can impact a draft class.
Remember the disastrous final game Andrew Wiggins – this year’s likely and deserving Rookie of the Year – had for Kansas during last year’s tournament? In 34 minutes, he was 1-6 from the field and had four turnovers, which was followed by people actually questioning whether the young man could succeed at the next level. Some people made similar assessments about Jabari Parker’s unsuccessful tournament performance at Duke. The fact is, guys like Parker and Wiggins rarely have to worry about tournament results, regardless of what the social media narrative tends to be because their talents and potential should have been obvious, regardless.
Most executives will tell you that the tournament can’t really hurt a prospect’s draft stock, but it can absolutely help those players that need to raise their draft stock. Stephen Curry was seen as a good player while playing for a mid-major in Davidson, but his run to the Elite Eight with the Wildcats literally put him on the map in terms of being considered a player with “star potential” and leadership qualities that might translate well in the NBA. Clearly, the folks in Golden State did their homework, because a guy that was actually criticized as a “tweener” by many critics prior to the draft is leading them to the league’s best record and an opportunity to compete for the West’s crown.
The same could be said for a player like Utah’s Gordon Hayward. Hayward watched his draft stock rise throughout two consecutive impressive runs with the Butler Bulldogs, and now finds himself with a well-deserved max contract and in a leadership role with a strong, young core in Utah that could surprise some folks over the next couple years.
One doesn’t even need to venture back long ago to find examples of players who helped their draft stock in March Madness. Last year’s 2014 NBA Draft also showed just how much a positive run and showing in the tourney can impact draft stocks, with examples like Aaron Gordon (4th), Nik Stauskas (8th), Elfrid Payton (10th) and even senior Doug McDermott (11th).
Put simply, a player can play relatively poorly and still have plenty of time to redeem themselves, but if they happen to insert themselves into the national discussion, it appears that even NBA experts and executives are not immune to at least a slight influence by the general consensus on a player, especially when said narrative is overwhelmingly positive. And due to the limited number of players that can impact the game at a given time, a single NBA player can influence the outcome of a game more than any other major professional team sport.
Among the players who could stand to benefit from a positive tournament showing are Arizona’s swingman Stanley Johnson, Kentucky’s other lottery-bound big man Willie Cauley-Stein and Wisconsin’s senior forward Frank Kaminsky. Johnson is a 6’8 small forward with the ball-handling, passing and shooting skills of a guard, a body that resembles a young Ron Artest (circa his ‘Hennessy’ days in Chicago) and athleticism similar to a young LeBron James. The Southern California product (Mater Dei High School), whom we’ve actually been following for years at the annual adidas Nations tournament, has seen his stock rise from being considered a fringe lottery pick somewhere most likely in the teens as recently as a few months ago to now projecting to land somewhere just outside the top-five. Teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Orlando Magic (projected to pick somewhere around four or five) could be interested in Johnson.
The Lakers legitimately need help or depth at just about every single position, and the Magic find themselves fully within a youth movement and with a decision about whether to offer starting small forward Tobias Harris the type of max or near-max deal he will likely command this summer. Johnson has star potential and the type of all-around game that should absolutely translate well to the next level.
Cauley-Stein finds himself in the unique situation of having the skills and athleticism to be even more of an impact player, but he’s limited by the team-oriented, platoon approach that the loaded Kentucky team uses since they have so many McDonald’s All American players. This willingness to subjugate his game for the betterment of the team may not always translate well throughout the mock draft process, but you can absolutely count on more than one lottery-bound executive eyeing Cauley-Stein as the answer for their rim-protection issues.
The 7’0 junior can also run the floor and finish in transition, but hasn’t shown great awareness or much consistency on the offensive end. He’s projected to go around the seven-to-nine range, depending upon eventual draft order and needs, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see that number creep or dip a pick or two in either direction based upon his impact throughout this tournament.
Kaminsky also finds himself in a somewhat unique position of being this year’s most well-known or distinguishable senior player, but also as a guy that has been projected as high as the top-10. However, others expect the versatile 7’0 power forward to get selected somewhere in the teens this June. Although Kaminsky has improved and developed his game throughout his four years at Wisconsin and is currently leading the Badgers as a top seed entering the tournament, apparently the jury may still be somewhat out on just how well his skill set will translate. For the record, not only can Kaminsky space the floor (shooting 39.5 percent from deep) as so many teams in today’s NBA seem to covet, but he also still manages to rebound fairly well (8.0 RPG) for a guy that can tend to hover around the arc on offense at times and can be a shot blocker (1.6 BPG) as a weakside defender.
A deep run and impressive showing from Kaminsky could go a long way in either making believers out of those that may still doubt his readiness for the rigors of the league or simply cement what those of us that have monitored his progress already hold as fact.
Whether you are an NBA executive or the self-proclaimed “draft expert” around your office, the NCAA tournament is easily one of the more exciting times of the year. Outside of the wild buzzer-beaters and bracket-busting upsets, it really does provide the best opportunity for guys like Johnson, Cauley-Stein and Kaminsky among others to propel themselves onto the national spotlight in a way that perhaps no other amateur sporting event offers. Play well and advance far enough, and you can have center-stage on what is actually developing into a global audience for the better part of two weeks.
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