Let's start with some cliches. The NCAA Tournament is where boys become men! It's where you separate the real players from the pretenders! It's where the best players step on on the biggest stage! It's where we find out what these prospects are made of!
Okay, so I'm going a bit overboard. You have to judge an NBA prospect on his full body of work instead of on just a few games. There have been countless players who have rode an NCAA Tournament hot streak into a high draft position they really don't deserve. There have been several others who struggled in the NCAA Tournament and turned out to be really good players. To judge an NBA prospect simply by what they do in the NCAA Tournament is like judging a book based on the first chapter.
At the same time, nobody can deny the tournament matters. It's when the key NBA decision-makers start watching closely for the first time instead of just delegating the scouting to their assistants. Since they're the ones who ultimately make the call on who to draft (Chris Wallace excepting), these games make a big difference. Their assistants may give them all the information they need to study prospects during the season, but if a player looks good while the head GM is watching, all that data doesn't matter. We've seen it time and time again, and hell, there are just as many cases of it foreshadowing future success as there are of it being a mirage. Just ask Derrick Rose and Tyreke Evans.
So with all that in mind, I'm going to try to put myself in the shoes of an NBA GM and sum up what we might have learned about some of the top prospects in the 2010 draft this weekend.
Let me start this off by saying that I'm not very high on Wesley Johnson as an NBA player. His advanced age (23 by this summer) means there's not a whole lot of upside, and he still has major deficiencies (ball-handling, inability to get to the free-throw line) that are going to be exposed on the next level. He's also a Syracuse guy, so while he has the tools to play good man-to-man defense, it's going to be a major adjustment for him to relearn man-to-man concepts after playing in Syracuse's zone.
Still, even I was thoroughly impressed by what he did to Gonzaga. It's more than the numbers - 31 points, 16 rebounds - it's how he got his points. The 31 points came on just 16 shots, and the 16 rebounds came against a very strong Gonzaga frontcourt. Johnson may not be adept at creating his own shot, but he showed that he's able to get his numbers without going out of his way to disrupt the offense. That has a ton of value to NBA decision-makers, because it's far easier in the NBA to run a guy like Johnson off screens and into catch-and-shoot opportunities, since more teams play man-to-man defense.
More importantly, Johnson's performance was a showcase of his biggest improvements this year. In his final season for Iowa State, Johnson's true shooting percentage was mediocre (52%), mostly because he took a ridiculous 7.7 three-pointers per 40 minutes. This season, Johnson's shooting fewer threes (only four/40 minutes) and he's reaping the benefits with an outstanding 59% true shooting percentage. With more GMs valuing scoring efficiency, particularly from guys who were once really inefficient, this will make Johnson look even better.
Personally, I wouldn't want him in the top five, but if Johnson keeps this up, some team will value him that highly.
Two years ago, there was a team littered with NBA Draft prospects that played a point guard out of position. That player slipped under the radar, posting so-so stats and showing that he probably needed another year in school. But then, he broke out with a fantastic NCAA Tournament, even while playing out of position, thereby convincing pro scouts that he was every bit as good a prospect as his decorated teammates. The player was then taken in the top five in the draft and is now one of the best young point guards in the NBA.
That player, of course, was Russell Westbrook. Now, two years later, we have another Russell Westbrook on our hands in Eric Bledsoe. His regular-season numbers are almost irrelevant because he played with John Wall, which explains the low assist totals. In the NCAA Tournament, though, he's shown he's capable of scoring efficiently, shooting the deep ball, defending and, on occasion, setting others up. He torched East Tennessee State from the three-point line, then went back into the background and quietly dropped 13 and 5 in 26 minutes on just nine shots against Wake Forest. He's capable of carrying the load when necessary, and he's learned to play off other great players by playing with this crew at Kentucky.
Assuming the Wildcats keep winning, Bledsoe will get more and more attention from NBA scouts. Don't be surprised to see his name called in the mid-lottery by a team who needs a point guard. I'm looking at you, Philadelphia, Indiana and New York.
Washington was a mess this year despite their talent, so nobody really noticed how Pondexter dramatically improved his game this year. Luckily, his underachieving teammates rallied behind him just in time to clinch the Pac-10's automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament, giving Pondexter the chance to show how much his game has improved on the big stage. The way he carried his team on his back in the second half against Marquette shows he's capable of getting his own offense even on the pro level, and the way he took a backseat to others against New Mexico while still dropping 18 points on 12 shots shows he's capable of being a role player too. Throw in his obvious perimeter defensive potential, and you know some contending team is dreaming of taking him in the mid-20s.
It's hard to say Wall's stock could go up any more since he's the probable number one pick, but this weekend only cemented it for me. Wall's biggest strength is his ability to change the game without dominating the ball, and he was able to do that in both of Kentucky's games. He also flashed an improved jump shot, nailing six of his ten three-point attempts this weekend. Wall didn't shoot that well from three this year, so he'll need to continue to show his shot has improved in the NCAA Tournament to hold off Evan Turner.
I was tempted to say Turner's stock dropped, because he didn't shoot the ball that well and averaged 6.5 turnovers a game. But then I realized that, hell, Ohio State relies on him so heavily that he's going to have games where his numbers don't look great. Georgia Tech has one of the best perimeter defenders in the country in Iman Shumpert, as well as two outstanding interior defenders that dogged Turner on every screen and roll, and Turner still posted a 24-9-9 line in leading his team to victory. He definitely needs to improve his ball-handling to make it on the next level, but considering he has to do everything for Ohio State to even have a chance, it's somewhat defensible that he commits so many turnovers and sometimes struggles with his shot. His shiftiness and ability to create shots for others reminds me a lot of Chris Paul, to be honest, and that's pretty high praise.
I will say this much though: watching the NCAA Tournament makes me wonder why people like Turner over John Wall. It's worth noting that Turner went from being a good prospect to a can't-miss only when Ohio State made him the point guard. Turner gets compared a lot to Brandon Roy, but I wonder whether Turner can reach his full potential when he's taken off the ball. If you draft Turner, you immediately have to change your offense to one which puts the ball in Turner's hands as much as possible. You essentially have to do what Atlanta does with Joe Johnson, or, more recently, what Sacramento has done with Tyreke Evans. There aren't a ton of point guards in the league that can succeed under those circumstances. You can find them, but chances are, they're on someone else's team playing with someone else's ball-dominant shooting guard.
This isn't to put Turner down, because he'll be a really good pro, but he needs the right team to make it happen, whereas Wall could fit in anywhere and be a superstar.
Pretty ho-hum tourney so far for Cousins. He didn't flip out when Chas McFarland tried to get under his skin, so that's good, I guess.
Patterson's going to be a really tough guy to project on the next level. Like Bledsoe, Patterson's skills get hidden by playing with Cousins. One of the reasons Patterson's defensive rebounding has slipped this year is that Cousins is stealing his rebounds, for lack of a better term. Patterson's also not scoring nearly as efficiently as last year, which is a concern. However, Patterson's had to sacrifice more than anyone else on Kentucky, and he's still managed to turn himself into arguably as important a player as anyone on the Wildcats. If Cousins gets into foul trouble, the Wildcats still have Daniel Orton, but if Patterson goes out, Kentucky has nobody that can replicate all the things Patterson brings to the table.
It's also worth noting how Patterson took Wake Forest' Al-Farouq Aminu out of the game with his defense. Speaking of Aminu...
It was a tale of two games for Aminu. He was really good against Texas, scoring 20 points and grabbing 15 rebounds all while holding Texas star Damion James to 4-14 shooting. In a matchup of two NBA draft prospects, Aminu totally dominated. But he struggled against Kentucky, as he had just eight rebounds and struggled with foul trouble. Patterson clearly got the best of him in that matchup.
Overall, Aminu presents the most interesting body of work I've seen out of a prospect in a while. He's a really bad scorer compared to his peers because he doesn't shoot efficiently and doesn't always exhibit great shot selection. Against Texas, he shot 6-18, which hurts even though he dominated elsewhere. Against Kentucky, he was just 6-14, and that was a game he didn't display his other skills. He isn't very good creating his own shot or working off others, and it seems like he gets most of his points either on the offensive glass or by posting up smaller players.
On the other hand, the rest of Aminu's game is breathtaking. He's a terror on the glass, in transition and as a perimeter defender. He's also really young (only 19 on draft day), so there's a ton of upside, and I think his scoring efficiency would be better on another team, since Wake Forest really has no good perimeter shooters. On the whole, it's much easier for a prospect to become a more efficient scorer than it is for them to improve their athleticism and defensive fundamentals. Hell, Wesley Johnson basically did all that this season in college, so there's no reason Aminu couldn't do that in the pros, where he'll have more time to devote himself solely to basketball.
At the end of the day, I'm a big Aminu fan, even if I understand why many aren't. Honestly, Aminu reminds me a lot of Gerald Wallace. Both guys struggled with their shooting efficiency in college, but both guys showed they had the athleticism and defensive chops to succeed on the next level. In fact, if you compare Aminu's per-minute college numbers to Wallace's at the same age (Aminu's the age of a college freshman even though he's a sophomore), Aminu has the upper hand. I'd much rather have Aminu than Johnson, even if Johnson's stock will rise with a great NCAA Tournament.
Monroe basically played a typical Greg Monroe game against Ohio. He showed his improved scoring efficiency (19 points on 11 shots) and rebounding (13 boards), and was able to make several beautiful passes to cutters. However, he also had seven turnovers from trying to thread the needle too much, and he doesn't exactly have a diverse post game. It's tempting to say his stock should go down for his team's awful performance, but I don't think that Georgetown's loss should be pinned on Monroe. He did pretty much what he's done all season.
Now improve that jumper, young man. To be the evolutionary Vlade Divac, you have to shoot the ball.
I honestly didn't have a chance to check out Baylor much last weekend, but Udoh followed up a great game against Sam Houston State with a bit of a clunker against Old Dominion. However, he's got a great chance to dramatically improve his stock next weekend, with a game against Omar Sanham and St. Mary's followed by a potential Elite 8 matchup with Duke's slow front line. If Udoh plays well, he could vault ahead of Cole Aldrich on a lot of teams' draft boards.
Favors has had the deck stacked against him all season long. He's playing with a set of guards that are completely incapable of making a decent basketball decision offensively. He has to share the paint with Gani Lawal, who is a good player, but doesn't exactly provide much in terms of spacing the floor for Favors. Finally, he's had to play for an overmatched coach in Paul Hewitt that has no clue how to use him.
Sorry Paul, but it's true
That said, Favors was pretty terrible this weekend. He went 25 minutes without scoring a point against Ohio State, despite being matched up at times against tiny David Lighty. When he got the ball in the paint, he had a ton of trouble finishing, and he has yet to show a legitimate post move since coming to Georgia Tech. Those are pretty big problems, if you ask me.
NBA GMs have to ask themselves how much of Favors' disappointing season has to do with him and how much has to do with his environment. As mentioned before, Georgia Tech might have been the worst place for Favors to go to show himself off. If Favors and DeMarcus Cousins switched places, you know Favors would look so much better. It's also worth noting that Favors' defensive potential, both in terms of interior D and pick and roll D, is miles better than Cousins' and will easily translate to the pros.
On the other hand, is Favors receiving all this attention from other teams because they know he has no post moves, can't finish well and can't pass out of a double team? To some degree, this has to be true. Favors had really favorable matchups this weekend, and he still struggled mightily because teams trapped the hell out of him. If it was someone else, surely they'd find a way to get cheap points or figure out how to deal with the double teams. Favors couldn't, and that's a huge strike against him.
Before the NCAA Tournament, this was the one guy I thought was slipping under the radar. It's not just that he averaged almost 23 points a game this year in one of the nation's toughest conferences, it's that he did so in an incredibly efficient manner. I honestly didn't see what separated him from, say, James Harden last year.
At the same time, my god was he brutal against Georgia Tech. After a strong start, he was virtually invisible and didn't come through at all down the stretch. He was dominated in his matchup with Iman Shumpert, which doesn't bode well because Shumpert's the type of defender Anderson will have to face on the next level. He wasn't able to get open to get the ball, and when he did get it, he was turning it over and failing to get off shots.
It's just one game, though, and Harden himself is proof that teams shouldn't make too much out of the NCAA Tournament. I wouldn't be surprised to see Anderson tumble in the draft, with a contending team like the Spurs reaping the benefits. Like they always do.
We covered James in the Al-Farouq Aminu section. He did nothing against Baylor in the Big 12 tournament and he did nothing against Wake Forest in the NCAA Tournament. It's worth wondering whether James packed it in a bit because of Texas' problems.
Cole Aldrich, Xavier Henry and Sherron Collins
The three Kansas guys are all going to suffer because their team loss, but it's well deserved. Aldrich has regressed this year, as evidenced by him being outperformed by Jordan Eglseder yesterday. Henry started the season strongly, but hit a wall sometime during the Big 12 season and didn't recover in the NCAA Tornament. As for Collins ... well, I think Collins' dropped stock is pretty obvious.
The real indictment against these three is that they were all outperformed by Marcus Morris, their own teammate. In an NCAA Tournament that's surprised anyone, that's got to be one of the biggest surprises for NBA scouts. It's one thing if their team lost despite the best efforts of their best players, but they lost with all of their best players playing terribly. That doesn't bode well for any of their stocks, to say the least.
Hah! Just making sure you were paying attention. Greece really isn't that bad a place to make a living, you know.