The NCAA Men’s basketball tournament exists somewhat uniquely in terms of the weight it carries for individual players. It isn’t the college baseball world series, nor is it the college football playoff. It is, in one word, a gauntlet. When it comes to drafting players into the pros, however, that gauntlet can mean everything and nothing. Did Steph Curry need to lead Davidson to an improbable Elite 8 run in 2008 to become a top 10 pick in the draft a year later? Maybe. It’s not like Curry didn’t ball out in college, but that ’08 run sure helped. And what about Ben Simmons? LSU could have lost every game in 2015-2016, and Simmons still would have been a lock as a lottery pick. The tournament then seems most important for the guys who float in-between. They’re the older players, the borderline lottery players, and the players looking to build a legacy with one great tournament run. These are the players to watch during March Madness 2018:
The senior guard out of Duke, and the consensus ‘most hated player in college basketball’ may, in fact, have a lot to prove in this year’s tournament. As the team’s most seasoned player, emotional leader, and second-best scoring option, a deep run for Duke in this year’s tournament could mean a lot for the draft stock of a controversial but no-doubt effective player like Allen. Is he a dirty player? Maybe. His history of tripping, flopping, mocking, and instigating hasn’t endeared him to too many in the sports media, and many wonder how similar antics would play out on an NBA court full of players looking to take Coach K’s former bad boy down a few pegs. Here’s what we do know about Allen: he’s a competitor, and a personality, and a pretty damn good player. While he may be approaching the ceiling of his potential, the experience he brings and fire he plays with may be enough to land Allen somewhere at the end of the first round.
Bamba is expected to be a lottery pick, and may very well be the first overall pick in the draft. While his offensive skill set remains a bit raw in comparison to Duke big man Marvin Bagley III and Arizona center DeAndre Ayton, Bamba likely already has the length, athleticism, and defensive acumen to make an impact at the NBA level. Just a freshman, the 6-11 center still has time go grow even taller and fill out beyond the 225 pounds he currently sits at. With his Texas Longhorns seeded 10th in the South region, Bamba will need to put in work if he wants to A) make a meaningful tournament run, and B) make a meaningful push for the first spot in the draft. Something tells me he’s gonna rack up a few blocks, either way.
Villanova’s recent success (they’re a one-seed in the tournament this year) should reflect well on Bridges, a 6-6 junior whose reputation as a floor-spacer and keen defender has helped propel him to a first-round lock in the upcoming draft. Having already won it all in the Big Dance in 2016, Bridges is likely focused on cementing himself as a Villanova legend with his final tournament run as a Wildcat. Following a breakout sophomore season in which he unexpectedly started every game, Bridges was lauded as a high-school scorer turned five-tool player, the sort of intangible praise that’s likely to land the 21-year-old somewhere in the late lottery.
Bates-Diop may be the prototypical wing in the modern NBA, a role he’ll no doubt be drafted to fulfill on a team with immediate needs. The question then becomes how quickly he’ll be chosen to fill that role. At 22, he has the body and experience to dominate younger, smaller forwards at the college level, but it’ll take a serious run against the best in the country to propel Bates-Diop into the same draft conversation as a low-ceiling, high-floor plug-in player like Grayson Allen. He might just be ready to make that jump.
Michael Porter Jr.
Coming out of high school, Missouri forward Michael Porter Jr. was expected to spend one college season flat-out dominating before heading to the NBA as a potential first-overall pick. Things haven’t gone exactly as planned though, following a back injury in Missouri’s first game that caused the star forward to miss the entirety of the regular season. He’s returned at just the right time, though, and with many draft projections still treating him as a sure-fire lottery pick. So what does Porter Jr. have to lose? Well, at this point, just draft stock. While nobody really knows how deep in the tournament this already-good Missouri squad could go with the addition of Porter Jr.’s elite offensive skill set, it will mean a lot to NBA front-offices to see him play the way he’s supposed to against the best competition in the country.