Warning: GIFS galore hidden in spoiler.
So, How Have The Top NBA Prospects Fared In The NCAA Tournament?
Now that the games really matter, it’s worth looking at how these blue-chippers are handling the pressure of the Big Dance. Warning: Spoiler! (Click to show)
Even low-major teams that don’t roster elite players had to be able to execute well enough on both sides of the ball to win their conference tournament. Obviously, while there are only so many conclusions to be drawn from any one game, the NCAA Tournament can provide us with some insight into how the strengths and weaknesses of certain prospects are likely play out at the next level.
Even before hitting one of the most memorable shots in NCAA Tournament history, R.J. Hunter was a name that most pro scouts knew. An elite high school recruit, Hunter had offers from more glamorous schools, but chose, instead, to play for his father at Georgia State. During three seasons there, he has had painfully few opportunities to showcase his talents against top competition. And while Hunter did lead Georgia State to their second-ever NCAA Tournament appearance, he had a somewhat underwhelming season statistically. This was especially true from the three-point line, where he slipped from 39.5 percent as a sophomore to 30.5 percent as a junior.
For the most part, Georgia State’s two games in the Tournament played out similarly to how things went for Hunter and his team all season. Both Baylor and Xavier ran defenses determined to get the ball out of Hunter’s hands. They played a lot of match-up zone with one man extending out to wherever Hunter was on the floor, essentially forcing him to choose between chucking up highly-contested shots or giving up the ball. Without a ton of high-level talent around him — especially up front — neither opponent was all that concerned with getting beaten by Hunter’s supporting cast.
Xavier tried to run man defense on Hunter at the start of the game, but he’s so tall and long (6'6, 200 pounds with a 6'11 wingspan) that it’s very difficult to prevent him from getting clean looks at the basket. As Baylor found out to their dismay in their last-second loss, Hunter has a very quick release and he’s not afraid to hoist from anywhere on the floor:
Hunter isn’t just a one-dimensional shooter, either. He’s a versatile, multitalented player who can put the ball on the floor and finish from a variety of different release points, even in traffic:
As the game went on, Xavier tried to take the ball out of Hunter’s hands — he’s been criticized in the past for his shortcomings as a passer — and he took the opportunity to show off how much he has grown. He can find open teammates off the drive-and-kick as well as the pick-and-roll:
For all his heroics, Hunter was actually pretty inefficient in the NCAA Tournament, shooting 11–28 from the field and 5–15 from 3. However, unlike many SG’s, Hunter has the all-around skill-set to impact the game even when his shots aren’t falling.
•Against Baylor: 16 points on 13 shots, 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 turnovers and 3 steals
•Against Xavier: 20 points on 15 shots, 4 rebounds, 5 assists, 0 zero turnovers and 1 block
The biggest point in his favor when projecting him to the next level is that he’s never likely to face this level of defensive scrutiny again. At least early in his NBA career, Hunter will get the opportunity to be a role player, the guy who gets set up for shots instead of the one responsible for setting up others.
The biggest question mark hanging over him comes on defense. Georgia State fielded a thin roster without a ton of options on their bench so they played a short rotation and utilized a variety of match-up zones to conserve energy. Hunter was almost never asked to play 1-on-1 defense at the college level, and it’s something he will have to work on a lot if he wants to get consistent minutes in the NBA. If he can add more weight to his frame, he does have the physical tools to be able to match up with NBA-caliber players at the SG position, but it could be years before he has grasped the nuances of NBA defense well enough to be able to survive on that end.
D’Angelo Russell experienced all the highs and lows of the Tournament in his first — and almost certainly only — March Madness foray for Ohio State.
•Against VCU: 28 points on 20 shots, 6 rebounds, 1 assist on 4 turnovers, 2 blocks and 2 steals
•Against Arizona: 9 points on 19 shots, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 1 turnover
VCA and Arizona couldn’t have varied more in how they game-planned for Russell. VCU’s goal was to try and speed the tempo of the game up as much as possible, full-court pressing Ohio State and trying to force them into making mistakes they could turn into easy baskets. It was a loose, free-flowing game, and Russell had the opportunity to make a lot of 1-on-1 plays in space:
Arizona, by contrast, tried to stifle tempo as much as possible. They locked Ohio State into the half-court and forced them to score over the top of their set defense, one of the best in the country. They matched up a rotation of elite athletes with Russell defensively, keeping all of their guys fresh and wearing the freshman down. They sent multiple defenders at him and were determined to make him beat them as a passer, instead of a scorer.
The problem for Ohio State against Arizona, which was really their problem all season, was that they didn’t have anyone other than Russell to run the offense through. There was no big man to command the double team, and no secondary perimeter scorer who could step up with Russell having an off shooting night. Instead, Russell fired up shot after shot even though he could never really find a rhythm on the offensive end of the floor.
The difference between Russell and Arizona’s Stanley Johnson was that Johnson was able have an off game and his team could still advance. Ohio State played in a match-up zone for most of the game, daring the Wildcats to shoot from the perimeter and forcing both Johnson (1–12) and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (3–12) into horrific shooting performances. Arizona, unlike Ohio State, however, is deep enough to overcome a bad performance from their star freshman guard.
Jahlil Okafor left his fingerprints all over Duke’s 68–49 victory against San Diego State. He was a dominant force offensively, finishing the game with 26 points on 16 shots. It mattered not that SDSU has one of the best defenses in the country — they simply didn’t have the size to match up with Okafor around the rim. At 6'11, 280 pounds with a 7'4 wingspan, Okafor dwarfed the Aztecs’ Skylar Spencer (6'10, 230) and Angelo Chol (6'9, 225), and he was able to overwhelm them with his physicality.
Okafor’s displays of quickness and ball-handling ability, two things you don’t really expect to see from a low-post scorer, were impressive, to say the least. He can put the ball on the floor and make plays happen in space, and he’s far more mobile than anyone with his size has any business being. While he fails to convert this opportunity, just appreciate the ridiculous series of moves he makes to get himself an uncontested look. It’s almost impossible to guard a guy like that 1-on-1:
In this next sequence, Okafor takes Spencer off the dribble and then hits a runner before the shot-blocker even has time to react. This is the kind of move you would expect from a point guard or a wing player, not a big man:
SDSU had no choice but to send double and triple teams Okafor’s way, playing right into Coach K’s trap. Okafor is a natural passer with superior court vision and an inate feel for the game. In Duke’s lineup, he’s surrounded by four guards who can shoot and make plays in space, and that spells trouble for the opposition.
When Okafor draws the double, the other guys on the floor know to look for their buckets. The result is Easy Mode cuts like this one:
Okafor’s defense still remains an area of concern for NBA scouts. The textbook is clear at this point: attack him right at the front of the rim. He’s a mobile big man, but he’s not an elite athlete like Karl-Anthony Towns or Willie Cauley-Stein. More importantly, he doesn’t play with their brand of defensive intensity. Rather, his main concern seems to be staying out of foul trouble — an legitimate concern for a big-time scorer, but it’s not the type of interior defense an NBA team wants to see from its starting center. Look how easily Winston Shepard (6'8, 205) finishes over Okafor here, and there are a lot of guys like Shepard, or better, at the next level:
Okafor’s D didn’t much matter against San Diego State, of course, as they were one of the worst offensive teams in the NCAA Tournament, but at some point in the next few rounds, Duke will face a team with the offensive firepower to exploit Okafor’s subpar rim protection. That will undoubtedly be biggest test of his young career, and it could help determine whether a team pulls the trigger on him or a more defensive-minded prospect like Towns at the top of the NBA Draft.
After a dominant performance in Wisconsin’s first-round blowout of Coastal Carolina, Frank Kaminsky came back to Earth in a 72–65 victory over Oregon in the round of 32, a game that was far more competitive than many people assumed it would be coming in.
•Coastal Carolina: 27 points on 14 shots, 12 rebounds, 4 assists, 2 turnovers, 1 block
•Oregon: 16 points on 13 shots, 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 turnover, 1 steal
Like Coastal Carolina, Oregon didn’t really have the size to match up with a skilled seven-footer like Kaminsky. The difference, though, was that the latter ran out a much more athletic lineup, so they were able to attack the big man on both sides of the ball in an effort to get him out of his comfort zone.
Oregon plays an NBA-inspired offense under coach Dana Altman, with the goal of spreading the floor with shooters in order to open up driving lanes to the rim for Joseph Young, the Pac-12 Player of the Year who finished with 30 points and 4 assists on 25 shots against Wisconsin. He only made 2 three-pointers and 4 free throws in the game — most of his points were scored in two-point range, either on drives to the front of the rim or pull-up jumpers. Wisconsin just had no answer for Jones as he sliced through every level of their defense, including this sequence where he humiliated Kaminsky at the front of the rim:
Kaminsky is a solid defensive cog in Bo Ryan’s defensive system, but he’s a positional defender who struggles to clean up dribble penetration. He’s not particularly quick or athletic, so he has trouble rotating over and preventing athletic teams from making plays like this around the rim:
NBA teams need defense from their center. If Kamisnky can’t protect the rim against NBA athletes, he will either have to shift to PF, or he will likely have to come off the bench. In that sense, the Oregon game was an interesting preview of some of the challenges he will face at the next level.
Many of Kaminsky’s big scoring outings this season came against bigger, slower defenders in the Big Ten. NBA teams will want to know how he will fare against smaller and quicker defenders who seek to push him away from the basket and attack his dribble. For example, the Golden State Warriors and Milwaukee Bucks are two of the best defenses in the league because they play a number of interchangeable wing athletes who can switch screen-and-rolls and defend bigger players adequately.
These are the types of shots that Kaminsky was able to get against the aggressive man defense of Oregon, who tried to push him out of the paint and force him to make mistakes when he attacked off the dribble. Dirk Nowitzki has made a living making shots like this in the NBA, but pretty much no one else has been able to follow in his footsteps. Frank the Tank looks like he might have a decent chance of following in the German’s footsteps, but it’s going to be a tall order, so to speak:
In all likelihood, Kaminsky is not going to make a living based off his defense at the next level, so he’ll have to prove that he can score consistently against NBA caliber players in 1-on-1 situations. For as well as Oregon played, none of their big men fit that description. With Wisconsin squaring off against North Carolina in the Sweet 16 — followed by possible match-ups with Arizona in the Elite 8 and Kentucky in the Final 4 — we will probably learn more about Kaminsky pretty quickly. Every one of those teams has an NBA prospect who can present a different challenge for him, whether it’s the leaping ability of Brice Johnson, the quickness and ball-handling ability of Stanley Johnson, or the overall combination of size and athleticism of Karl-Anthony Towns.
Trey Lyles has become something of a forgotten man at Kentucky as a freshman. With Coach Calipari’s platoon system abandoned at this point in the season, everyone else has a defined role on the team. Towns is their best player, a future NBA superstar and the guy with the chance to go No. 1 overall in the draft. Willie Cauley-Stein is their most experienced player and a lock-down defender. Devin Booker spaces the floor, Tyler Ulis sets the table and the Harrison Twins play with the ball in their hands a lot. The other two big men — Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee — provide reserve minutes around the basket while the stars catch a breather. Lyles is the glue guy, playing multiple positions and moving around the floor as needed.
At 6'10, 235 pounds with a 7'3 wingspan, Lyles fits the mold of “dream NBA power forward.” However, of all the Kentucky big men, Lyles is the one most capable of playing on the wing — so he’s had to sacrifice his individual game for the good of the team. The biggest problem for Lyles is that he’s not a great three-point shooter — he’s just 4-for-29 on the season. Opposing perimeter players know this, and they give him a step at the arc, knowing there aren’t a lot of driving lanes behind them with two other Kentucky big men posting up around the basket.
When Lyles is playing as a 4, though? That’s when he’s able to exploit the matchup against a bigger, slower defender much less adept at guarding the dribble-drive. Plus, when he’s at the power forward spot, that means there’s one fewer obstacle to clog the lane when Lyles attacks the rim.
Cincinnati packed the paint and dared Kentucky to beat them from the perimeter. Calipari obliged and went small, playing a lot of line-ups with Towns at the 5 and Lyles at the 4. It’s a combination that they haven’t used all that much this season, but it’s one that’s almost impossible to defend. You’re tasked with defending two different 6'10+ guys who can knock down jumpers, take players off the dribble and make plays in space. Lyles doesn’t get a lot of chances to go 1-on-1 for Kentucky, but he’s adept at creating his own offense when given the opportunity:
Kentucky even ran a ton of offense through Lyles in the post over the course of the game, as he has the vision and the passing ability to find cutters out of the double-team:
And, while he plays a lot of perimeter defense for the Wildcats, he’s also more than capable of holding his own down low. Cincinnati repeatedly tried to attack Lyles at the front of the rim and repeatedly came up short:
Lyles finished with 11 points, 11 rebounds, 1 assist, 2 blocks and 1 steal on 9 shots — huge numbers in a molasses-paced game that Kentucky won 64–51. Along with Towns, he has the best combination of size and shooting ability on Kentucky’s front line, which is the way you want to attack a team playing a quasi-zone. Kentucky could see a lot more of this type of defense over the next few weeks, which could mean a lot more of Lyles at the 4. If they are in a tight game down the tournament stretch, don’t be surprised if that’s the line-up Calipari goes with. And when Lyles gets to play down low, as opposed to out on the perimeter, he looks like the star many expected him to be coming out of high school.