Cue the Madness: NCAA Tournament Players to Watch

The hype around the previous NBA draft class was in full swing this time last year. Wiggins, Parker, Randle, Smart, McDermott etc. all had their sights set on a deep run in pursuit of an NCAA title, but also a boost to their draft stocks.

Ultimately Kevin Ollie’s UConn Huskies shocked the world and Shabazz Napier became a 1st round pick as a result (with a little help from some King James marketing).

This year’s class is shaping up as another talented bunch, but these guys all have their sights on one thing; stopping Kentucky. The Wildcats are undefeated and will enter the Tournament as the #1 overall seed and a #1 seed in their region.

The Madness begins next week. The coaches are getting ready and the players are focused on the prize ahead, while for a select few, they know that a successful tournament run can drastically improve their draft stock.

You may just love Tourney Time; you may want to know who to look out for in next year’s NBA rookie class; or you might be already planning for your next Dynasty/Keeper league rookie draft. If you’re like me, it’s all of the above.

Downtown is here to guide you on which players to watch when the madness tips off.


Karl-Anthony Towns, F/C, Kentucky (Freshman)

Making a case to be the number 1 overall selection, Towns has gotten better as the season has progressed. Standing 6’11” and weighing in at 250lbs, Towns is still raw offensively, but has had no trouble making an impact with his shot-blocking and efficiency.

In just 20.7mpg, Towns is averaging 9.7pts, 6.6reb, and a whopping 2.4blk while shooting .558 FG% and a very solid .790 from the charity stripe. His PER of 30.6 ranks him 1st in the SEC and 10th in the nation.

Towns lacks polish on his low-post game, but does have the ability to stretch the floor with his outside shooting. His shot-blocking is advanced for someone his age and his length and timing have impressed scouts thus far. Towns blocked 7 shots in just 18 minutes versus Vanderbilt in late January and has blocked 4 or more shots on 9 occasions this season. Maybe we should start calling him “Blocktown”.

Keep in mind; he’s playing on the #1 team in the nation, so his touches (and minutes) are not as high as other top prospects. However, his impact is obvious.

Jahlil Okafor is still the front-runner to have his name called first come June, but Karl-Anthony Towns is a name you won’t soon forget and one to watch closely this month.


Willie Cauley-Stein, F/C, Kentucky (Junior)

Now a Junior, Cauley-Stein could have been a first-round pick after his freshman year and he had major NBA Draft buzz last year. He was projected to be a lottery pick by Chad Ford even after his injury in the Sweet 16 last year.

According to Kyle Tucker of the Courier-Journal, Kentucky Head Coach John Calipari has a rule as follows: “If you’re going to be a first-round pick, and especially if you’re a potential lottery pick, get out. Take the money and run.”

But Cauley-Stein shocked his Coach and many others when he withdrew from the 2014 draft to pursue some unfinished business; namely winning a championship after seeing his Kentucky Wildcats lose the title game to UConn without his help.

All the things Scouts liked about him last year (and the year before) are still there.

First and foremost, he is disruptive on the defensive end. He averages 1.6 blocks per game and also a career-best 1.4 steals this season, showing his active hands.

On the other end of the floor, Cauley-Stein is scoring 8.9pts on a TS% of .592 and is on pace for a career-best PER (24.1). He’s already topped his DWS number from last year (2.9 vs 2.2) and has improved at the free-throw line by nearly 10%.

Things are going great for Kentucky right now, so watch out for Cauley-Stein through the Tournament. This time he won’t be coming back for another year.


Jahlil Okafor, C, Duke (Freshman)

Family pedigree? Check. NBA-ready frame? Check. Dominating at the Collegiate level in a tough conference? Check. A potential NBA game-changer? Only time will tell.

Every year, there is one player who comes in as a freshman with the expectations that come with being the projected #1 overall pick in the next NBA Draft. This year, that man is Jahlil Okafor.

A 6’11”, 270 pound Center with a 7’5” wingspan, Emeka’s little cousin has lived up to all the hype this season. He is currently averaging 17.6pts, 9.2reb, 1.5ast, 1.4blk, 0.8stl and shooting .668 FG% in 30.7mpg. Quite simply, he’s dominating.

But it is how he’s dominating that is most impressive. He attempts just 11 field goals per game. His usage is not exorbitant at 26.9%. His PER (30.8), which ranks 1st in the ACC and 8th overall in the nation, indicates a high basketball IQ, making the most of every possession.

Named ACC player of the year and rookie of the year this week, his game has been compared to that of Charlotte Hornets centre, Al Jefferson. With an array of low-post moves and NBA ready footwork, a soft touch around the basket and a savvy passer out of double-teams, Okafor certainly looks like a game-changer; on the offensive end at least.

His defense is a concern though and interestingly, in a recent LA Times interview, Okafor agreed wholeheartedly.

“I feel it’s true. That is one of my weaknesses,” he told The Times. “I wouldn’t argue with that. That’s something I’ve been working with the coaches a lot this season, trying to get better at it.”

Right now though, Okafor is solely focused on hanging banners in Durham before he leaves.

“There’s three banners I want to hang — ACC regular championship, ACC tournament championship and of course the national championship,” he said.

The first one went unfulfilled (Virginia claimed it), but you can rest assured that Okafor will do everything possible to grab those other two, and we’ll enjoy watching him go after them.


Justise Winslow, SF, Duke (Freshman)

Okafor’s teammate, Justise Winslow, stands 6’6” and weighs 225lbs. He is a prototypical small-forward with the ability to shoot from distance (.398 3FG%), as well as do the dirty work that bigger wings are required to do today.

Winslow has a terrific motor and active hands (1.3 spg), is an excellent rebounder from his position (5.8 rpg) and is brings energy to both ends of the floor.

Quite simply, he’s the kind of guy you love to play with. Yet, for a while there, he was letting his teammates down by losing that aggression that makes him so good. He had a 4 game stretch in January where he scored 12 points combined and hit rock bottom in Coach K’s 1,000th career win when he played just 10 scoreless minutes.

Winslow quickly realised he needed to work harder.

“For me, it was more of a mental thing I had to get over … My coaches and teammates did a great job of encouraging me and keeping me confident,” Winslow said earlier this week. “That’s where my mental preparation really began, and I picked up in that department.”

Since that game, Duke has gone 11-1 and Winslow has scored 10 or more points in every game. He has averaged 15.3pts and 7.7reb over that stretch and had 10 or more rebounds in four of those games.

Now, getting to that next level is the only thing on Winslow’s mind.

“We are all focused,” Winslow said. “We are all locked in because we have a special group this year. Next year, the group could really change. We are trying to take advantage of the situation we have right now.”


D’Angelo Russell, PG, Ohio State (Freshman)

When the first word used to describe your game is “precocious”, chances are you’re pretty talented and NBA scouts are going to take notice. That is exactly the case for this 6’5” combo guard, currently projected by many to be the 3rd overall pick in this year’s Draft.

The Ohio State faithful sure have taken notice too and, despite Russell entertaining them all season, they don’t want to see him go. During their recent loss to No. 6 Wisconsin on Senior Day, the crowd started chanting “One more year! One more year! One more year!” in a bid to get Russell to return for his Sophomore year.

Check out Head Coach Thad Matta’s reaction when asked about it post-game.

Russell also played it cool.

“I didn’t hear it,” he said. “I’m just waiting for the next game.”

He sure is precocious. His numbers are also pretty advanced. 19.2pts, 5.2ast, 5.6reb, 1.6stl, 2.7 3ptm (.422 3FG%) and 22 wins. He had a triple double at Rutgers last month and his advanced stats show his impact on both ends with an offensive rating of 118.3, a defensive rating of 92.9 and a PER of 27.7.

Russell has drawn comparisons to Brandon Roy for his ability to impact a game in different ways and will be looking to make an impact as the Madness begins and his Buckeyes try to get the most out of him; while they still have him.


Myles Turner, PF, Texas (Freshman)

The Longhorns are right on the bubble but should hear their name called on Selection Sunday this weekend. Let’s hope so, otherwise we may be robbed of the chance to see this talented, but somewhat mysterious 7-footer.

Turner has had an up and down season, going from the highs of 25 point games with double-digit rebounds, to the lows of several 4 and 5 point games (and one 2 point game) with single-digit rebounds. You could say consistency is not his friend.

One area he has been consistent in is his shot-blocking. He averages 2.8 blocks on the season (1st in the Big 12) and has also blocked 4 or more shots on 10 occasions. On the back of hi outstanding rim-protection, Turner leads the Big 12 in defensive rating (85.8) and PER (26.5).

However, the stat that impresses me the most is his .838 clip from the free-throw line (3rd in Big 12). For a seven footer, that is an asset that scouts love and is part of the reason he’s projected to be a top 10 pick.

Some say he reminds them of LaMarcus Aldridge with his long frame, ability to face-up and hit from long range, and soft hands around the basket, but also given he’s not necessarily an elite rebounder (6.5rpg) for his size. Aldridge averaged just 8.1reb per-36 mins as an NBA rookie and 10.7 per-40 mins as a College Freshman (also at Texas), but developed into a double-digit rebounder as a pro.

Turner also averages 10.7reb per-40 mins, so it’s not something to be too concerned with. Not when he brings so much else to the game. His ability in pick and roll and pick and pop situations makes him particularly attractive to scouts; something to keep an eye on as the Longhorns fight for survival this month.


Stanley Johnson, SF, Arizona (Freshman)

Make no mistake about it. The other Wildcats are going to make a serious run at the NCAA title this year. Ranked 5th to end the season and looking at a likely #2 seed when the Madness tips, they started the season 12-0 and won their last 8 regular season games too. A 28-3 mark overall, they dominated the Pac-12 with a 16-2 record.

Leading the way in both scoring and rebounding is Pac-12 Freshman of the year Stanley Johnson.

At the small-forward position, Johnson’s 6’7”, 240 pound frame is very intimidating. He uses his size and strength to his advantage in attacking the basket, getting on the boards and defending on the ball against weaker opponents.

It’s his defense that is considered the most NBA-ready part of his game and where, like Metta World Peace (the player he’s most compared to), he’ll earn his minutes; but he’s a pretty handy offensive threat too.

Averaging 13.9pts, Johnson also made 1 triple per game and got to the line 5.2 times per game. He attacks, but he does it in a controlled manner that may surprise you. As one scout put it recently, “he plays to his strengths, never takes bad shots, never tries to show off, instead takes what the game gives him.”

That is rare for an 18-year old, but then makes perfect sense at the same time, given the success Arizona has had will have this year.

Others to watch:

Kelly Oubre, SF, Kansas (Freshman)

With a staggering 7’2” wingspan, the 6’7” Oubre has the body every NBA GM dreams of for their starting small forward. He’s still a bit of a work-in-progress offensively and regressed a little after a strong start, but will play a prominent role as Kansas makes their run.

Bobby Portis, PF, Arkansas (Sophomore)

A prototypical power forward, Portis has shown strong development since his freshman year. He’s averaged 17.8pts, 8.7reb, 1.5blk and 0.9stl while shooting .563 FG%. He may be the best frontcourt prospect out of Arkansas since Corliss Williamson and could become a Greg Monroe type in the NBA.

Frank Kaminsky, C, Wisconsin (Senior)

The Badgers have legitimate Final Four aspirations but may only go as far as Kaminsky takes them.

A 7’0” centre, Kaminsky has improved every year in school and boasts Senior averages of 18.4pts, 8.1reb, 2.6ast, 1.6blk and even 1.1 3ptm. He shoots over 55% from the field, over 40% from downtown and a solid 75% from the charity stripe. There aren’t many with his offensive skill-set so enjoy his final tourney run.

Kevon Looney, PF, UCLA (Freshman)

UCLA is on the outside looking in right now and that could mean we don’t see Looney, which would be a real shame. He could have the most upside of anyone in the draft. He averaged 12.3pts, 9.5reb, 1.3 stl and 1blk per game and at 6’10”, he has the length to play either forward position and cause trouble.

Montrezl Harrell, PF, Louisville (Junior)

Think Kenneth Faried.

Despite being a Junior Harrell is still raw offensively, scoring mostly off transition buckets, offensive rebounds or cuts/lobs to the rim. His energy and athleticism are his biggest weapons, and his toughness will likely make him a fan favourite at the next level.


Selection Sunday is on March 15 – Monday Australian time - where we’ll find out where each of these players and their teams will sit in the all-important bracket. No matter where they sit, these guys will all play a big role in how their teams fare.

The longer the ride, the higher their stock will climb come June.

Cue the Madness.


Follow me on Twitter @tomhersz

Follow Downtown @downtownball


Article written by

When you’re introduced to the NBA as a 6 year old in 1984, staying up late to watch Bird, Magic and Dr. J, it’s pretty hard not to fall in love with the game. I became consumed with the Association, and as my own game was developing, I tried to emulate as much as I could at an early age and learn how to play “the right way”. I have memories as a teenager of being glued to Saturday Basketball on TV and spending every spare cent I had on basketball cards and replica jerseys and so began my obsession with NBA knowledge and stats. I played my first season of Fantasy Hoops in 2002, as my serious playing days were slowing down. I now play in 5 or 6 leagues every year. To say I’m obsessed with Fantasy Hoops would be an understatement. To say I love nothing more than sharing my opinion on a player’s value would be entirely accurate, and I guess, the reason why I’m here. Follow me on twitter: @tomhersz @downtownball

One Response

  1. Daniel at |

    Great read

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