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NBA AM: Who Needs To Show Up Big In March?

March Madness gets underway tomorrow and a few would-be NBA Draft prospects can use the big stage to cement their appeal to NBA teams.

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Who Needs To Show Up Big:  The NCAA Tournament Selections Committee filed a bracket yesterday and games in the 2015 NCAA Tournament will get underway this week with the opening “first round” starting tomorrow.

While the tournament does weigh into the NBA Draft process, it’s not nearly the stock changer some bill it to be. But it is often the first time some NBA executives get an up-close look at would-be draft prospects and it’s also the first time many would-be NBA players will face off against talent comparable to their own. It’s possible that a strong showing in the tournament can help a player’s draft stock. With that said, few players get truly dinged in the draft process by a bad tournament, but it is a showcase moment and some players need to make the most of it to silence the pending questions.

Here are a few:

Jahlil Okafor – Duke – C – 6’11” – 272 – 19

Okafor is the favorite to be the top overall pick and his body of work this far likely locks him into that status. However, if he plays poorly in the tournament, or gets exploited at the free throw line or on defense, it could open the door for Kentucky big man Karl-Anthony Towns. The thing about being the front runner is the expectation bar is always too high. Last year, Andrew Wiggins was less than impressive in the tournament and his draft stock was fine, and the same is likely true of Okafor. There is a chance in this process for Okafor to silence his critics and detractors, and that should be the goal on the way to the Final Four. If Okafor nails some clutch free throws and shows a pulse defensively, he could wrap this up for himself.

Karl-Anthony Towns – Kentucky – PF/C – 7’0″ – 248 – 19

Like Okafor, Towns doesn’t need to do much to remain in the discussion for the top overall pick. Kentucky has been one of the more watched teams all year because of the volume of NBA prospects that are likely headed to the draft from this year’s team. For Towns, he need to show some flashes of dominance. The knock on him is the sample size of him being the focal point of the team. Kentucky is so deep and so talented, so some wonder is Towns really this good or is he this good because of the group of guys he plays with? Towns will have more than a few opportunities on the big stage to answer that question and if he does, he could give Okafor a run for his money as the top overall selection.

D’Angelo Russell – Ohio State – PG/SG – 6’5″ – 175 – 19

Like Kentucky, a lot of teams have been in to see Russell up close. Arguably the best guard in the nation, anyone considering a guard in the draft has watched Russell, so there is not much teams don’t know. But seeing how he handles the big stage and the big moment is important, and so is leading his team. Russell has been really good at setting a tone and pace for his Buckeyes squad, and doing that in the moment of the tournament should quiet the critics who think he may be more of a two-guard in the NBA, especially if he gets paired against some smaller, quicker guards. That’s the test for Russell.

Stanley Johnson – Arizona – SF – 6’8″ – 243 – 18

Johnson may be the best wing player in the nation, and with Arizona getting a good seeding in the West bracket, there is a window for this team to advance deep. If Johnson can be the lockdown, all-around defender he’s been all year and show he can shoulder the offensive load against elite talent, he too may close the gap on the other top prospects rated ahead of him and silence those who think Justise Winslow is the better get in the draft. Watching Johnson in the moment is a pretty special thing, and given who his squad will have to go through to get deep into the dance, teams should have plenty of game film to sift through.

Willie Cauley-Stein – Kentucky – C – 7’0″ – 244 – 21

It’s hard not to think of Cauley-Stein as the most pro-ready player in the tournament. What Cauley-Stein needs to show is there is more to his game than we have seen all year at Kentucky. Like it or not, NBA teams draft on potential ceiling. If Cauley-Stein shows that this is all there is to his game and there isn’t a next level to achieve, he could get a bad label. There is no question that Cauley-Stein is a monster on both in the ends of the floor and arguably the lynch pin to Kentucky’s title quest. For his own stock, he has to show there is room to improve, which may be hard to do on such a stacked Kentucky squad.

Justise Winslow – Duke – SF – 6’7″ – 229 – 18

While Johnson and Winslow are likely fighting for many of the same chairs in the NBA draft discussion, they are very different players. With that said, Winslow needs to showcase his entire game and consistency. The beauty of Winslow’s situation is that a lot of NBA eyes are going to be on Okafor, so all Winslow needs to do is score efficiently and be that defensive-minded presence teams hope he can be at the next level. There isn’t much that’s going to change Winslow’s status as one of the top wings, he can only cement his status.

Frank Kaminsky – Wisconsin – PF – 7’0″ – 242 – 21

Kaminsky is arguably one of the better players in college basketball – the problem is he looks to be a slightly above average NBA player. For Kaminsky, getting drafted is a forgone conclusion, but the question is can he show enough to NBA teams to get his stock buzzing. The problem with Kaminsky is there isn’t a whole lot of potential upside to his game. He is fairly proven, fairly established and should be a serviceable NBA big man and there may not be much he can do to change that perception in the tournament. Last season Kaminsky put himself on the map – not sure there is anything more he can do but win games and go deep. Teams do value guys on winning programs.

Myles Turner – Texas – C – 6’11” – 242 – 18

Turner may not be in the dance very long, but he’ll get a chance to showcase himself a little bit and try to break some misconceptions. There is a sense that Turner may simply be a utility player in the NBA, so showing that he can impact the game personally or that he could be a catalyst to his team advancing could help his stock marginally. The teams that like Turner already know what he is; unless he posts some game changing play in the second round, he may not be around for the the round of 32, so making the most of the stage should be the goal.

Kelly Oubre – Kansas – SF – 6’6″ – 204 – 19

If there was a time for Oubre to shake his labels, it’s likely now. With no Cliff Alexander due to eligibility issues, Oubre needs to show up big in the tournament. Oubre may have some of the best NBA upside on this list, but to say he’s been underwhelming at Kansas is a huge understatement. The odds Oubre returns to Kansas are pretty slim, so he needs to give the scouts and executives in his corner some solid game film and situations that can get him in the building. If there is one guy on this list that needs to show up strong in the tournament, it might be Oubre.

Jerian Grant – Notre Dame – PG – 6’5″ – 204 – 22

Topping North Carolina in the ACC Championship game with 24 points and 10 assists was a good way to start the postseason process. Grant might be the third best guard in the 2015 NBA Draft, but he’s not a great shooter, especially from three-point range. Hitting some big shots and proving he can defend at an NBA level will go a long way toward cementing Grant as a legit point guard prospect. If he struggles to shoot, it is always tough to shake the “can’t shoot” label in the draft process. If Grant lays an egg in the tournament, it’s just going to be harder. He is a solid prospect and his team has a favorable bracket, so being on the big stage for two weeks could help his stock considerably, especially if he shoots it well.

Kevon Looney – UCLA – PF – 6’9″ – 220 – 19

Play big. That’s all Looney needs to worry about. Playing bigger than his 220-pound lanky frame is most important. Showcasing his attack-mode game and hitting shots would help too. Looney’s game is a lot more about the perimeter, but he need to showcase that he can mix it up a little in the paint and that he can handle physicality. At the next level, he may be more of a small forward given his touch, so he has to hit shots and answer that question. UCLA is one of those programs that get scouted a lot so teams have a pretty good feel for what Looney is as a player. Showing his best attributes in the tournament is going be big for him. If he gets pushed around or has those 2-for-6 or 2-for-4 nights because of foul trouble or poor shooting, his critics get more to talk about.

Devin Booker – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 186 – 18

It’s hard not to like Booker in the NBA. He is a knock down shooter. He plays tough. There is a lot to like in his game. Booker could be one of those guys who could change how teams see him if he gets hot in the tournament. It might not be enough to catapult him up, but when you look at where Nik Stauskas ended up last year after a showcase postseason, Booker could be on the same elevator ride with a strong showing. Kentucky’s path to the Final Four should create plenty of opportunities; the question is will Booker show up to make the most of it? Booker doesn’t get a lot of looks and touches in a game, so it will be on him to make the most of the limited shots.

Montrezl Harrell – Louisville – PF – 6’8″ – 230 – 21

Like Looney, Harrell needs to play big and intimidating. In the month of March, he’s been a double-double machine and if that continues he too joins the most-ready-to-contribute club. Harrell gets dinged a little in the potential category, but given that his likely draft stock puts him on a border-line playoff team, proving he can defend and impact a game on a NBA level through the tournament will go a long way toward cementing him as a 12-20 draft pick. Harrell has a huge body of work, so there isn’t much that’s going to hurt his stock, so he truly is, as they say, playing with house money. He can only help his stock showing up big in the dance.

Jakob Poeltl – Utah – C – 7’0″ – 235 – 19

Poeltl is such a mixed bag. The smart move for him might be to stay in school for another year, but indications are he is likely in the draft due to his size and his age. If Poeltl really wants to make a case for himself, he’s going to have to show up big in the tournament and that means more than his typical 2-for or 3-offensive showing or, worse yet, his low single-digit rebounding. There really isn’t a lot there for scouts to get excited about beyond the potential of a 19-year-old seven footer. He needs to break out to be taken seriously as a draft prospect.

Sam Dekker – Wisconsin – SF – 6’9″ – 229 – 20

When Dekker wants to play, he can really post numbers; the problem is he is massively inconsistent. If there is anything Dekker needs to showcase, it is that he can put together solid games back to back. Dekker has a huge body of work so NBA teams know who and what he is as a player, so he may not hurt himself if he’s streaky, but stringing together some solid games or helping power Wisconsin go deep might get him a few more looks at the next level. He is a borderline first rounder, so unless he just catches fire, the big stage may not mean much for him.

Tyus Jones – Duke – PG – 6’1″ – 184 – 18

This time last year, it seemed like Jones was on his way to the top of the draft class. He has been less than stellar more nights than not this season, so this will be the chance for him to prove that he’s worthy of discussion inside the lottery. The biggest knock on Jones is his shooting, so if he needs to do anything in the tournament, it’s prove he can hit shots, especially contested shots. Duke’s path through the tournament should give him a few favorable matchups, so making the most of those and posting solid film could help his stock, simply because more teams are not overly high on him as a pro. If Jones falls flat in the dance, he may be better served staying at Duke for another year. He could have a long draft if he shows in the tournament the kind of play he’s shown this season.

Starting to fill out your March Madness Bracket? We want to help.

Our 2015 March Madness Headquarters is open and we have detailed capsules on every team in the tournament and will have predictions for every match-up all the way to the Final Four. Before you pick your bracket, make sure to see what our experts think about each team and game.

Yannis Koutroupis leads our March Madness team this year.

He is joined by IMG Academy Head Skills Trainer Dan Barto. Dan has trained and worked with hundreds of NBA and college players and sends at least a half dozen players to the NBA each year.

Cody Toppert is also joining our March team this year. Cody is also an NBA skills and development trainer with ELEV8, as well as a former professional and stand-out collegiate player at Cornell. Cody has trained countless NBA players, including five draft picks in the 2014 NBA Draft and works with dozens of NBA players every year.

Throughout the tournament, our March Madness team will update the team capsules and give insight on who is helping their case, and who has an advantage as the tournament rolls on.

Check in early and often.

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Steve Kyler is the Editor and Publisher of Basketball Insiders and has covered the NBA and basketball for the last 17 seasons.

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