NBA Math’s March Madness Prospects to Watch

The flowers are blooming, and the New York Knicks are tanking on accident.

It must be March.

The third month of the year signifies an important time for basketball fans, one that includes cramming in those last bits of research on the college teams they ignored all season in desperate attempts to win their office bracket pools.

Slightly bigger stakes await the players. After all, a good showing in the NCAA Tournament can take someone from the fringes of the first round to the heart of the lottery, or cement a prospect as the top overall pick.

A prime example would be Derrick Rose during his sole year at Memphis. The former MVP used a deep tournament run—he averaged 21.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 6.0 assists over six games —to catapult himself to the No. 1 pick of the 2008 NBA draft. That’s not to suggest he didn’t deserve to go first (the only other player who reasonably had an argument was…Michael Beasley), but he did go ahead of Kevin Love, Brook Lopez and Russell Westbrook.  

There’s also the case of Kyrie Irving, who participated in just eight regular season games before a foot injury sidelined him until the start of the tournament. Though the Duke Blue Devils didn’t make it far that year, ultimately losing in the Sweet 16 to the Arizona Wildcats, Irving’s three-game return was a triumphant one. He scored 17.7 points per contest with obscene shooting splits of 51.9/50.0/91.3—enough to hold off Derrick Williams (incredible college pla-—hey, stop laughing) and go first overall to the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Historically, March is the one month in which players can convince NBA teams to throw caution to the wind and ignore sample size.

This season will certainly be no different.

Time to Make a Push

The favorite to go No. 1 in June’s draft, Markelle Fultz, played for an awful Washington Huskies team that went 9-21. His season is over.

With brilliant showings over the next three weeks, could guys like Lonzo Ball or Josh Jackson do enough to overtake him?  

Probably not, but the No. 2 spot is still very much up for grabs, and the difference between going second and fifth in the draft is around $2.5 million over a two-year span. So yes, putting up a string of good performances with scouts from every NBA team observing will be vitally important for tomorrow’s professionals.

Which players could potentially make a move towards that No. 2 spot during the tournament? Using NBA Math’s total points added (TPA) metric, along with where players are presently being mocked by the incomparable gurus at DraftExpress, we start to get a clear picture:

Ball is one of the most explosive freshman in college basketball, scoring 14.6 points per game on 54.4 percent shooting overall. And, despite the infamously unorthodox shooting form I’m sure you’ve heard about, he’s converting on 41 percent of his 5.4 nightly three-point attempts.  
It shouldn’t be surprising that even the numbers like Ball and Jackson over the field.

Further, the UCLA freshman averages 7.7 assists to just 2.5 turnovers while leading the third most efficient offense in the country (according to KenPom). His 3.06 assist-to-turnover ratio is the sixth-highest among players in major conferences.

Meanwhile, although Jackson struggles with his shooting (55.9 percent from the foul line and 25.6 percent from three over the first 19 games of his career), he is so adept in other areas that it almost doesn’t matter. The Kansas wing averages 16.4 points, 7.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, to go along with 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks.

He’s explosive on both ends of the floor, and could be touted as a (much) better scoring version of Justise Winslow: a tough defender (third on our list in defensive points saved) with high basketball I.Q. who always seems to make the right play at the opportune time.

And if his recent improvements from beyond the arc are real, his shooting may not be as problematic as once believed. Over his last 12 games, Jackson is nailing 52.9 percent of his threes on 2.8 attempts per game. If he were to lead Kansas on a title run while maintaining his shooting and locking down opposing wings, he could very well run away with the No. 2 selection.

An Efficient March Monster

Despite finishing ahead of Jackson on our list, Luke Kennard probably won’t go in the lottery of June’s draft.

Though he’s No. 8 in NBA Math’s TPA rankings, his measurables hurt his next-level outlook. Kennard is 6’5” with a regular wingspan. He’s not going to tear up the Draft Combine with an insane vertical or dynamic agility-drill times, either.

Where he does shine, however, is with his efficiency as a shooter.

Kennard is a 20.1-point-per-game scorer, doing so while shooting 50 percent from the floor, 44.3 percent from three and 84.9 from the free-throw stripe. For a player who attempts just 18.6 percent of his shots at the rim, his true shooting percentage is an obscene 63.7 percent. And he’s one of just nine players since 1992-93 to average at least 20 points on 50/44/84 shooting splits.

Given numbers like that, it makes sense that Kennard leads the country in offensive points added with a 192.75 mark.

He’s done it while facing some of the stingiest defenses in the country, both in the ridiculous Atlantic Coast Conference and outside of it. On Dec. 6, Duke matched up against the now No. 4 seed Florida Gators, who are fourth overall in defensive efficiency, per KenPom.

Kennard responded by dropping 29 points on 16 shots.

Mimicking his overall college career, it may take the Duke sophomore a year or two to adjust his game at the professional level. (Kennard’s freshman season was nothing to write home about.) But once he does, he’s likely going to make an NBA team very happy it took a chance on him in the second half of the first round.  

Other Notables

The player with the lowest TPA (No. 51) and highest projected draft position (No. 9, per DraftExpress) is Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, who helped lead the Seminoles to their best season since 1972-73 as a freshman phenom. His raw stats don’t scream top-10 pick either, as he averages just under 12 points per contest, along with 7.6 rebounds and merely one assist.

Isaac’s two main selling points, though, are his efficiency and potential. He shoots 50.2 percent from the field and 79.6 from the foul line. His three-point shot is a work in progress, but he’s still converting on 35.3 percent of his 2.8 attempts per game.

He’s also measured in at 6’10”, yet has guard-like elements to his game. He can dribble, shoot pull-up jumpers, or get to the basket, where he finishes an astounding 70 percent of his looks.

One of his most impressive showings came on Jan. 21, when he dropped 16 points on seven shot attempts against the Louisville Cardinals’ sixth-ranked defense. He also had 10 rebounds and blocked two shots:

Teams in need of immediate scoring help should probably look elsewhere, as Isaac isn’t that guy. (Not yet, at least.) His best fit would be on a team full of scorers that needs a two-way role player with elite potential—the Minnesota Timberwolves, for example.

Alternately, three guys who are likely second-round selections while functioning as TPA darlings are Oregon’s Jordan Bell, Iowa State’s Monte Morris and Kansas’ Frank Mason.

Bell is a 6’7” power forward who is second in the country in defensive points saved. The junior big man blocks 2.1 shots per game while averaging 1.3 steals, and his explosive defensive capabilities have made Oregon a dark-horse national title contender. He’s an efficient offensive player as well, shooting 62.1 percent from the floor and 72.3 from the line.

Mason and Morris, on the other hand, are offensive juggernauts, ranking third and fourth, respectively, in offensive points added. Only Ball and Kennard fare better.

The former is the reigning Big 12 player of the year, scoring 20.8 points nightly on 48.7 percent shooting from both the floor and three-point territory. Morris, meanwhile, boasts the highest assist-to-turnover ratio in the country (5.71).

Limited upside hurts both guys at the next level, but they’ll be two of the most exciting players to watch over the next three weeks.


Follow Frank on Twitter @frankurbina_.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all stats are from NBA Math and are accurate heading into March Madness.