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NBA Draft: NCAA Tournament Winners & Losers

Nick Whalen

RotoWire's NBA Editor and award winning host of the RotoWire NBA Podcast. Many years ago, Stromile Swift gave Nick his unbelievably sweaty headband after a preseason game. Despite its failure to match his school colors, Nick went on to wear that headband for the entirety of his sixth grade basketball season. Catch Nick on Twitter @wha1en.

With the NCAA Tournament coming to an end last week, Nick Whalen takes a look at which prospects helped or hurt their NBA Draft stock.

WINNERS



Justin Jackson, G, North Carolina


Jackson missed all nine of his three-point attempts in Monday’s championship game, but prior to that he’d been the Tar Heels’ best offensive player throughout the tournament. An outstanding regular season already propelled Jackson into the lottery conversation, and closing out his junior campaign with a title only adds to the momentum. Jackson’s rail-thin frame is a bit of a concern, but at 6’8” with a 6’11” wingspan and 35” vertical, he has prototypical length and athleticism for an NBA two-guard.

Kennedy Meeks, F, North Carolina


Despite scoring only seven points in the title game, Meeks probably should have been the Final Four MOP. The senior grabbed 10 boards against Gonzaga, had the game-clinching block on Nigel Williams-Goss, and, in a touching tribute to Sean May, threw up a 25-point, 14-rebound double-double in North Carolina’s win over Oregon, including the game-clinching offensive rebound.

While Meeks undoubtedly solidified his place in Carolina lore, he’s still a second-round prospect, limited by his lack of shooting range and relatively pedestrian athleticism. Still, at 280 pounds with a 7’0” wingspan and soft touch around the rim, Meeks will be given an opportunity to prove himself in summer league and training camp, at the very least.

Sindarius Thornwell, G, South Carolina


Despite taking home Player of the Year honors over De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk in one of the country’s premier conferences, it felt like the NCAA Tournament was Thornwell’s national coming-out party. The 6-5 senior carried South Carolina to its first Final Four, averaging 25.8 points and 7.5 rebounds over the Gamecocks’ first four games. Hampered by an illness, Thornwell’s run came to a disappointing end against Gonzaga, but he certainly forced his name into the conversation as a potential second-rounder

The question facing Thornwell is how his unique style will translate to the pro level. In college, Thornwell was able to get away with using his strength and physicality to create mismatches and bully defenders, a tactic that simply won’t work consistently against bigger and more-athletic defenders. Thornwell will need to function as a more-traditional two-guard, and proving his 39% three-point shooting as a senior wasn’t a fluke will be key. If he can do that, he becomes one of the more intriguing two-way players in the back-half of the draft.

Jordan Bell, F, Oregon


A pair of blown box-outs at the end of Oregon’s loss to North Carolina marred what was otherwise an outstanding run for Bell, who was the Ducks’ best two-way player through the first two weeks of the tournament. The 6-9 forward recorded four double-doubles in five games, headlined by an 11-point, 13-rebound, 8-block, four-assist effort in Oregon’s Elite Eight upset of Kansas. It was one of the more impressive individual defensive performances in recent tournament history and catapulted the junior into early second-round consideration.

Bell has not yet announced if he’ll enter the draft, but it’s hard to imagine his stock rising much higher, unless he returns and proves to scouts he can develop into a reliable outside threat (3-16 career 3PT) to complement his defensive abilities.

Zach Collins, C, Gonzaga


The presence of Przemek Karnowski kept Collins somewhat under wraps this season, but with Karnowski in foul trouble and battling an eye injury against South Carolina, Collins showed the nation why he’s a lottery-caliber talent.

The highest-rated recruit in school history was the best player on the floor for much of Saturday night, flashing an array of polished post moves on one end and protecting the rim with ferocity on the other. Collins finished with 14 points, 13 rebounds, six blocks and an assist in just 23 minutes -- easily his best performance of the season.
In the title game, Collins was one of several victims of an excessively quick whistle, fouling out in just 14 minutes. Still, he managed nine points, seven rebounds and three blocks before exiting midway through the second half. If Collins decides to become Gonzaga’s first ever one-and-done, the late-lottery likely awaits.

Nigel Hayes, F, Wisconsin


The preseason Big Ten Player of the Year has drawn his fair share of criticism over the last two seasons, but he was at his best when it mattered most. Hayes put up a double-double in an opening-round win over Virginia Tech and followed up with 19 points, including the game-winning basket, and eight rebounds in the Badgers’ upset of one-seed Villanova. While Wisconsin’s run to the Sweet 16 ended in heartbreak, Hayes capped off his stellar collegiate career with 22 points, six rebounds and two assists.

Hayes will be one of the more interesting cases to follow throughout the pre-draft process. Despite the inconsistency, his combination of size, playmaking ability and intelligence has kept him in the second-round conversation. Realistically, though, Hayes is going to need to demonstrate tangible improvement as a shooter (59% FT, 31% 3PT as a senior) to convince a team to take a flyer somewhere in Round 2.

De’Aaron Fox, G, Kentucky


Fox’s best performance of the season could not have come at a better time. Matched up with Lonzo Ball and UCLA in one of the most anticipated Sweet 16 games in recent memory, Fox put up a career-high 39 points, converting 13-of-20 field goal attempts and going 13-of-15 at the line. It was a dominant performance from a player most considered inferior to Ball, and it firmly cemented Fox’s place as one of the six or seven best prospects in the draft. Questions about his shooting ability (25% 3PT) will shadow Fox throughout the pre-draft process, but he’s polished enough in nearly every other area to convince teams that, even if the jumper never comes around, he can still be a starting-caliber point guard in the NBA.

Trevon Bluiett, G, Xavier


Bluiett was the best player on the closest thing this tournament gave us to a Cinderella team. The junior was outstanding throughout 11-seed Xavier’s first three games, totaling 75 points, including 25 in a Sweet 16 win over Arizona, on 52% shooting. Bluiett was smothered by Gonzaga’s defense in the Elite Eight -- 10 points, 3-14 FG -- and after the loss it doesn’t feel like he generated quite enough buzz to justify declaring for the draft a year early. Nonetheless, Bluiett’s performance grabbed the attention of NBA scouts and set the stage for what could be a huge senior season.

LOSERS


Frank Mason, G, Kansas


Mason is to college basketball what Troy Smith was to college football a decade ago: an undeniably great player on an undeniably great team who simply doesn’t profile as an elite pro prospect.

From a production standpoint, few players were in Mason’s class this season. The Naismith Award winner averaged 20.9 points, 5.2 assists, 4.2 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game, while shooting 49% from the floor and hitting 47% of his threes. The senior carried that production into the tournament, scoring at least 20 points in all four games, including a 26-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist gem in the Jayhawks’ Sweet 16 drubbing of Purdue.

So with that in mind, it’s not necessarily fair to say Mason truly hurt his stock. He performed as well as expected and will still likely hear his name somewhere in Round 2. But as an undersized 23-year-old with unremarkable athleticism, a run to the Final Four would have been the momentum boost Mason needed to potentially make a late rise up draft boards, a la Shabazz Napier in 2014.

Luke Kennard, G, Duke


Duke bowing out on opening weekend was one of the biggest disappointments of the tournament, and Kennard’s performance left a sour taste in the mouths of evaluators. The sophomore had an off-night (3-12 FG) in the Blue Devils’ blowout win over Troy and was a non-factor in the Round-of-32 loss to South Carolina, hitting just 1-of-6 field goal attempts before fouling out in 28 minutes.

Kennard’s overall body of work is strong enough that a two-game slump won’t kill his stock, but like most of the players on this list, he missed an opportunity to potentially move up a few spots.

Lonzo Ball, G, UCLA


Let’s be clear: Ball is an elite prospect who is going to be a top-5 pick come June 22. His performance in the tournament didn’t change that. However, Ball entered March with the best chance of any player to challenge Markelle Fultz’s status as the draft’s No. 1 prospect. With Fultz sitting at home after a nine-win season, Ball had an opportunity to audition on a national stage, positioning himself as the selfless winner in contrast to Fultz’s good stats, bad team perception.

It’s easy to imagine what a UCLA run to the Final Four would have done for Ball’s already-ubiquitous celebrity status. Instead, the Bruins bowed out rather unconvincingly in the Sweet 16, with De’Aaron Fox getting the best of Ball in what was a shockingly lopsided one-on-one matchup. Ball is still going to be drafted ahead of Fox, but the loss, and Ball’s mediocre play -- relative to his standards, that is -- sucked a small bit of the momentum out of one of the most captivating freshman campaigns in college basketball history.

Lauri Markkanen, F, Arizona


Like Ball, Markkanen is another Pac-12 prospect who’s still going to go in the top-10 but had a chance to use the tournament stage as a springboard. Instead, Markkanen strung together a pair of solid showings -- 18.0ppg, 8.5rpg through first two games -- before struggling in Arizona’s narrow loss to Xavier in the Sweet 16.

Despite playing all 40 minutes, Markkanen scored just nine points on 3-of-9 shooting (1-6 3PT) and did not attempt a field goal over the final 11-plus minutes. Of course, Markkanen isn’t to blame for the late-game Allonzo Trier hero ball exhibition that ultimately sealed the Wildcats’ fate, but his timidness against an inferior opponent wasn’t exactly encouraging.

Justin Patton, F, Creighton


About midway through the season, Patton began to climb up draft boards, but his performance in the tournament wasn’t the ending to his breakout freshman year that he’d hoped for. Patton struggled in Creighton’s opening-round loss to Rhode Island, going just 3-of-12 from the floor before fouling out in 21 minutes. No one is questioning Patton’s raw abilities, and it’s only one game, but the seven-footer didn’t do himself any favors, and scouts will be right to question his NBA-readiness.