One weekend of Madness is in the books, and the landscape of the NCAA Tournament is already vastly different. Gone are the likes of Duke and Louisville, as well as reigning champ Villanova. And with them, we also lost various intriguing prospects.
But despite short stints and small sample sizes, scouts still got a decent look at the NBA players of tomorrow. Some helped their standing, while others, well, didn’t.
Last week, we talked about which projected draft picks were favorites of NBA Math’s total points added (TPA) model. This week, we’ll discuss which of them shone over the first two rounds of the NCAA Tournament and which laid a good ol’ metaphorical egg on the sport’s biggest stage.
Competing at the Top
All eyes were on UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Kansas’ Josh Jackson over the weekend. The two freshmen have the most to gain with good showings, as the No. 2 overall spot in the NBA Draft is there for the taking for either of them.
Through two games, the race is still very much neck and neck.
Over the opening weekend, Ball averaged 16.5 points, 5.5 rebounds, 6.0 assists and 3.0 three-pointers on 76.5 percent shooting from the field and 60 percent from deep. Jackson’s numbers were a bit more impressive—20.0 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.5 steals and 1.5 blocks on 60.7/50/100 shooting splits—but he was playing weaker competition during victories over UC Davis and Michigan State.
After dismantling Kent State, UCLA faced Cincinnati, who boasts the 16th-most efficient defense in college basketball, according to kenpom.com. With fewer than 14 minutes remaining, the Bruins were teetering a bit, trailing by two and unable to find any offensive rhythm.
And that’s when Ball decided to take over.
The freshman point guard hit three-pointers on back-to-back possessions to regain the lead, then hit a cutting teammate for a beautiful assist before attacking the rack and finishing coolly.
In the span of four minutes, UCLA went from trailing by two to up 12, and it was mostly thanks to Ball.
That’s not to take anything away from Jackson, who was also pretty incredible, but I give the first weekend’s edge to the point guard with the funky release on his jumper.
Purdue power forward Caleb Swanigan also had a masterful weekend.
He enters the Sweet 16 averaging 18.0 points, 13.0 rebounds, 5.5 assists (!!!) and 2.0 blocks in tournament play. The low-post maestro did struggle with his overall efficiency, shooting 43.3 percent from the floor and turning the ball over three times per game, but he made up for it by nailing four of his nine attempts from beyond the arc.
Swanigan may not be the sexiest name on most teams’ draft boards; he’s a bit too “bulky,” not all that athletic and may not be a good enough shooter to stretch the floor at the next level. But if you watch him play, you’ll notice a rare sort of bruising elegance in his game. The sophomore big man is a great back-down player who will whizz dimes past your face when you least expect it.
Don’t be surprised if he ends up as the steal of the draft late in the first round.
Our other first-round winner of the first weekend is Arizona stretch-4 prototype Lauri Markannen. The freshman sharpshooter scored 18.0 points per contest over the first two tournament games of his career while securing 8.5 rebounds and shooting 61.1 percent from the floor, 50 percent from three and 92.2 from the stripe
After a month-long shooting slump in which Markannen shot 16.1 percent from three and had Arizona fans questioning their very existence, the young power forward is back on track, converting on 47.4 percent of his 3.8 three-point attempts per game over his last five appearances.
Other NBA Math darlings who helped themselves over the weekend are Oregon’s Jordan Bell (11.5 points, 12.0 rebounds, 2.0 combined steals and blocks), Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo (14 points and 14 boards per game) and Oklahoma State’s Jawun Evans (23-point, seven-rebound, 12-assist game in the Cowboys’ opening-round loss to Michigan).
Out of respect to an illustrious college career, I saved Iowa State senior point guard Monte Morris for last. Although he went cold from deep (25 percent), his raw averages were astounding: 18.5 points, 6.0 rebounds, 8.5 assists and 1.5 steals. His Cyclones were eliminated by Swanigan and Co., but keep an eye out for him over the offseason. He may have played his way into a top-35 selection in June’s draft.
Perhaps no one hurt themselves over the first two games of tournament action more than Duke’s Luke Kennard.
The sophomore gunslinger had a meek eight-point, three-rebound performance against Troy in his team’s opening-round matchup. Most turned a blind eye at it, though, considering Duke rolled anyways. However, he then followed that up with a 1-of-6, 11-point, two-assist game against South Carolina that was impossible to ignore. Kennard struggled to get involved offensively, and when he did, he couldn’t get his shots to fall. He also fouled out in 28 minutes.
NBA teams want to know whether Kennard can score effectively against next-level athletes. And after the showing he had against South Carolina’s springy and fourth-ranked defense (via kenpom.com), the question not only remains, but became more prominent.
Creighton center Justin Patton also had a forgettable weekend, fouling out in 21 minutes in a first-round loss. He went 3-of-12, scored just eight points and secured seven rebounds against a very good, but undersized, Rhode Island team—the Rams don’t have a single 7-footer on their roster. If Patton struggled that mightily against a small mid-major, it’s fair to ask if he’s ready to face NBA big men.
Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac serves as another example, perfectly encapsulating why he’s such a confounding prospect in just two games.
In a first-round bout against Florida Gulf Coast, the freshman forward put up one of the craziest lines of the weekend: 17 points (on eight shot attempts), 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals and three blocks in 34 minutes. He drew fouls, was dominant defensively (in man-to-man situations and as a weakside help defender) and was often the best player on the floor.
Unfortunately for both him and Florida State fans, he essentially did the opposite against Xavier in the Round of 32. Isaac could not get himself involved on offense, was a ghost on the other end, and finished with eight points on seven shots. The Seminoles got obliterated by 25 points, and Isaac could do nothing to stop the bleeding.
His upside remains as high as anyone in the draft, but a team in need of a first-year scorer should look elsewhere. Isaac won’t fall out of the top 10, but he’s no longer in the running for a top-five pick, which is where he peaked in January.
We’ll finish the fallers with Louisville 2-guard Donovan Mitchell, who didn’t necessarily have a terrible weekend, but definitely didn’t help himself much. The main knock on the 6’3” sophomore is his efficiency, and the concern will only grow after he shot 34.4 percent from the field over the last two games, making just three of his 14 three-point attempts in the process. Plus, his team lost to Michigan, so he won’t get a chance to redeem himself in the Sweet 16.
Sweet 16 Matchups to Watch
The cream of the crop is rising to the top, and the Sweet 16 is littered with intriguing matchups:
- UCLA – Kentucky (Friday, 9:39 pm ET on CBS)
- The Friday night matinee is the one everyone should be looking forward to, as it features a whopping four guys from our list of prospects to watch: Ball, Adebayo, Malik Monk and T.J. Leaf.
- It’s the second time the two face off this season, and the first resulted in a thrilling 97-92 UCLA win on Dec. 3.
- Baylor – South Carolina (Friday, 7:29 pm ET on TBS)
- Keep an eye on Baylor power forward Johnathan Motley. He ranks 44th overall in TPA, is projected to be a mid-to-late first-round pick and is facing one of the toughest defenses in the country. With a good performance, he could earn himself some good money.
- Oregon – Michigan (Thursday, 7:09 pm ET on CBS)
- Michigan is the hottest offensive team in the country, so Oregon defensive stud Jordan Bell will have a chance to show off his abilities. The frontcourt stud is second in the country with 151.57 defensive points saved on the season, per NBA Math.
- Purdue – Kansas (Thursday, 9:39 pm ET on CBS)
- It’ll be interesting to watch Swanigan face one of the title favorites. Kansas is fifth in offense on kenpom.com, but 23rd in defense. The Jayhawks are also a little light on the inside, especially after losing 2018 draft prospect, center Udoka Azubuike. Swanigan should feast on offense, but the real question is whether he’ll be able to defend the paint against Kansas’ outstanding guards.
- Aside from Jackson, Kansas has two other players beloved by NBA Math’s numbers: Devonte Graham and Frank Mason. Both are slotted as second-round picks by DraftExpress, but they’re two of the most talented offensive players in the country. Mason is third overall in offensive points added (182.31), and Graham is 26th (129.39).
Follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.
Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math.