Most Final Four teams have at least one or two future NBA players on them, but that can be as much correlation as causation. Because those teams are playing so deep into March, NBA GM's will often take a much closer look at a player on a Final Four team versus one on an NIT squad. That's why the stakes are so high in the West Regional, by far the weakest in terms of NBA prospects.
The West features a number of teams being lead by fringe NBA prospects, exactly the type of guys who stand to benefit from prolonged exposure on the national stage. The distribution of basketball talent is pyramidal: there's a huge difference between LeBron James and the No. 500 player in the world, but the gap between No. 400 and No. 500 is marginal at best. For second-round prospects, the difference between the NBA and Europe often comes down to opportunity.
As a result, NCAA Tournament games can be the most important in a player's career. Carrying a team to a Sweet 16 might be worth 5-10 spots in the second round, which can be the difference between being given a chance to make an NBA roster in training camp or being sent overseas with no guarantee that you will ever return. And over the course of a 10-year career, that difference can be worth tens of millions of dollars. The West Region may be lacking in star power, but it won't be lacking any drama over the next few weeks.
Here are my rankings for the top prospects in the West region.
1. Kelly Olynyk, Gonzaga
Where Gonzaga differs from other elite mid-major programs is they have as much talent as any team in the country not coached by John Calipari. 14 years after their first NCAA Tournament run, Mark Few's international pipeline is starting to regularly churn out NBA prospects.
With all due respect to Adam Morrison, Olynyk might be the best one yet. A burly 7'0, 245-pound Canadian with flowing brown locks that go past his shoulders, he stands out instantly on the court. He has a versatile offensive game with the ability to score from almost anywhere on the floor, and he's not averse to contact. While he doesn't have a defensive position at the next level, there's a place in the NBA for someone with his size and skill.
2. Steven Adams, Pittsburgh
Adams is still very raw, but he's a solidly-built 7'0, 250-pound human being who moves very well for his size. There's nowhere on Earth someone like that can hide from basketball coaches. Originally from New Zealand, he ended up at Pittsburgh because Jamie Dixon played with a two of his older brothers overseas in the 1980s. He's a freshman averaging seven points and six rebounds a game, but he has the potential to become an elite defensive anchor at the 5 position.
If Pittsburgh can get past Wichita State, Adams' ability to match up with Gonzaga's massive front-line could create the deliciously ironic spectacle of a Big East team becoming a Cinderella by upsetting a team from the West Coast Conference.
3. Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona
In a regional relatively devoid of top NBA prospects, Tarczewski, like Adams, moves to the top of the list by virtue of being able to walk and chew gum at 7'0, 255 pounds. You have to judge these types of guys the same way that NFL teams look at left tackle prospects: the position is all about being strong enough to hold position, quick enough to shuffle your feet and long enough to protect the rim. He isn't nearly as long as Adams, but Tarczewski is a bit more advanced offensively. He's one of three freshmen with NBA potential in the Arizona front-court being held back by a lack of a true point guard to get them easy shots. Sean Miller is building something in Tucson, but they still might be one year away.
4. Tony Snell, New Mexico
Snell is one of a number of Mountain West players who could explode on the national stage in March. The conference's coaches have taken advantage of a down cycle in the Pac-12 to build talented programs with rabid fan bases up and down the Mountain Time Zone. Snell, an athletic 6'7, 200-pound junior shooting guard, had his coming out party in the conference championship game with 21 points on 8-11 shooting. There aren't many guards with his size, length and quickness who are comfortable running off screens and bombing from deep. Snell is more effective as a catch-and-shoot threat than as an off-the-bounce creator, but he's one of the best "3-and-D" wing prospects in this draft.
5. Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State
As you might expect for someone nicknamed "Buckets," Thomas isn't known for his commitment to the defensive side of the floor. A 6'7, 225-pound junior combo forward, he's a gifted scorer who can run off screens like a shooting guard, slash to the basket like a small forward and post up like a power forward. That's how you put up 20 points a night on 44 percent shooting in the Big Ten despite playing on a team with no other scoring options. Not many players could put up those numbers in 40-50-possession rock fights against teams like Wisconsin. Whether he will be able to defend anyone at the next level is an open question, but there's a spot on an NBA bench for a microwave scorer with his size.
6. Will Clyburn, Iowa State
Clyburn, a fifth-year senior with only one year of Division I ball on his resume, is the latest reclamation project who has thrived under Fred Hoiberg. The Mayor has turned around the Iowa State program by welcoming in transfers from all over the country and playing a wide-open style of basketball with five shooters on the floor at nearly all times.
An athletic 6'7, 210-pound shooting guard, Clyburn has taken the reigns from Royce White to lead the Cyclones to their second-consecutive NCAA Tournament bid. He has excellent quickness and vision for a guy his size, and when Iowa State needed a spark in the Big 12 Tourney, they gave him the ball and got out of the way. The red flag for him is an iffy outside shot (31 percent on the season), as he'll need to be able to spot up off the ball at the next level.
7. Kendall Williams, New Mexico
The MWC player of the year as a junior, Williams is a jack-of-all-tools guard who may end up being a better college player than NBA prospect. He's a good scorer (13.5 points a game), shooter (41 percent from the field, 36 percent from three-point range, 76 percent from the free-throw line) and passer (five assists vs. 2.1 turnovers) that's also able to defend multiple perimeter positions at 6'4, 185 pounds.
However, guys his size in the NBA are generally either pure point guards, elite three-point shooters or explosive bench scorers. Williams needs to show teams that he's a good enough all-around player to overcome not having a clearly defined role at the next level. He exploded for 46 in a game against Colorado State this season. If he can do that in March, he could end up a much richer man.
8. Eric Atkins, Notre Dame
A 6'2, 180-pound junior point guard, Atkins is rarely the biggest and most athletic player on the court. He's just a solid floor general with a really good feel for the game. He projects as a prototype backup point guard at the next level, capable of running the offense for 10-15 minutes while the starter rests and able to manage the game in case of an emergency.
The problem is there's a whole bunch of those guys playing in Europe right now that are just like that. For guys like Atkins, it's often just a matter of catching the right person's eye and making the most out of an opportunity. Steve Blake and Eric Maynor are two examples of guys who turned one shining moment in March into long NBA careers.
9. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
The nephew of Horace, son of Harvey and older brother of Jerami (a freshman at Syracuse), Jerian comes from a long line of NBA players. A 6'5, 205-pound sophomore combo guard, he doesn't have the athleticism of some of his family members, but he has an excellent feel for the game that makes him a perfect fit for Mike Brey's offense. He's the rare shooting guard who can also run point and distribute the ball, averaging 5.3 assists a game for his career. The only thing holding him back from being a more highly-regarded prospect is his mediocre shooting percentages (41/34/75). If the Irish can make a deep run this March, Grant will be on a lot more NBA radar screens coming into his junior season.
10. Solomon Hill, Arizona
Like a lot of the prospects in this region, Hill is an older player who puts up good, but not great statistics and is undersized for his position at the next level. If he can't dominate against younger and more inexperienced players, what's he going to do against older, bigger and more athletic NBA players? A 6'7, 225-pound senior small forward, Hill averages 13 points, five rebounds, three assists and one block a game on 48/37/78 shooting.
Jared Dudley has turned that package of skills into a long NBA career, but he was averaging 19 points, eight rebounds and three assists on 56/44/74 shooting in his final season at Boston College.
Sleeper: Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga
A freshman big man behind three upperclassmen with NBA potential on a team that often plays small, Karnowski has been slowly phased out of the rotation towards the end of the season. Nevertheless, the Polish product is a 7'1, 305-pound center with surprising athleticism and a great feel for the game. Gonzaga isn't going away anytime soon. Karnowski and Sam Dower, who back up Elias Harris and Olynyk, could be the most talented frontcourt in the country next season. When you can roll a guy like Karnowski off the end of your bench, you know you have a serious program.
They aren't comparable players, but one of the most memorable Tourney games in recent years came in the 2009 Elite Eight when UConn dug up a sporadically used freshman point guard named Kemba Walker to break the Missouri press.
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