A player will be not be judged by NBA teams solely on their NCAA Tournament performances. It’s silly to think that the small sample of postseason games is all the information a NBA team will utilize to make the evaluation come draft time. But at the same time, these games provide scouts with some of the best opportunities to evaluate these players.
These are high-leverage games, many of which come against strong competition especially, as we progress later into the tournament. While it’s not fair to make sweeping generalizations based on just a few games, scouts are still watching closely to see how the top prospects perform on the biggest stage. So with that said, let’s check in on some of the performances of a handful of the expected lottery picks.
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Brandon Ingram, Duke
UNC Wilmington: 20 points, 7-12 FGA (1-2 on 3FGA, 5-10 FTA), 9 rebounds, 3 assists, 1 turnover, 2 blocks
Yale: 25 points, 7-19 FGA (3-7 3FGA, 8-10 FTA), 5 rebounds, 2 assists
Two 20 point games for Brandon Ingram, but only one where he was efficient from the floor. Against the smaller UNC Wilmington he was regularly guarded by Chris Flemmings, who gave up four inches. Without a rim protector, he looked comfortable driving the ball to the rim and finishing in the paint. He showcased both a straight line drive and some nifty ballwork to beat his defender.
He didn’t have the same success from the field against Yale, who had more size to defend him than UNCW. Although the Bulldog defenders were not NBA caliber, they were able to bother him with their strength and Ingram didn’t have the same clear paths to the rim he did in Duke’s opening round game. He was forced into tough mid-range jump shots and contested attempts at the paint, leading to a true shooting percentage of just over 50 percent.
His three-point stroke didn’t fail him and his percentage from distance has been steadily increasing over the course of the season, now up to 45.5 percent in March. With his long arms, the shot is unblockable and he is able to rise and fire in catch and shoot situations either when stationary or off the move.
Ingram isn’t much of a defender at this point and has plenty of room to improve his feel for the game as his body develops. He had one of his best rebounding performances against an overmatched UNCW team but didn’t fight as much on the glass against Yale.
Looking ahead, Ingram’s matchup against the no. 1 seeded Oregon should be more revealing than either first weekend game. Not only will he have to find ways to score against a pretty good Oregon defense that includes some individual defenders who could give him trouble in the 6-foot-7 Dillon Brooks and Dwayne Benjamin, and even the 6-foot-10 Chris Boucher at times, Ingram will be tasked with putting the team on his back if he wants the Blue Devils to pull the upset. The top overall pick is still in flux and while no single remaining game will be the deciding factor, a strong performance from Ingram will just be more fuel for the fire that is burning hotter and hotter in his corner.
Jaylen Brown, California
Hawaii: 4 points, 1-6 FGA (0-0 3FGA, 2-2 FTA), 0 assists, 7 turnovers, 5 fouls
To put it nicely, the end of the season was not kind to California. A top assistant coach became embroiled in sexual assault allegations while Tyrone Wallace broke his hand in the practice session the day before their game against Hawaii. The Bears flamed out in an 11-point loss and Brown was a key component in their struggles.
This game was an embodiment of Brown’s performance down the stretch. His true shooting performance in his last five games was an ice cold 33.6 percent. He’s not a perimeter shooter, and his two-point percentage slipped at the same time. Against Hawaii, he had to pick up some of the scoring slack and appeared to press the issue too much. His decision making was off all game and it showed in his zero assist, seven turnover performance before fouling out.
Brown passed up open driving lanes on some possessions, and drove into multiple defenders on others. He was determined to get to the rim at every opportunity but was unable to deal with defenders in his way, which led to drives ending in a turnover with Brown pleading to the referee for a foul call. He was out of control on nearly every drive and Hawaii took advantage by drawing several charges against him.
The Cal team was an impressive collection of talent but the pieces never seemed to fit. In fact, they seemed to be from six different puzzle boxes which did no favors to a non-shooter like Brown. While his decision making needs some serious work, his driving lanes were suffocated from the onset with so many other non-shooters around him. With a different set of teammates around him, there may be more room for Brown to display his slashing ability.
It’s entirely possible that Brown’s skill level may never catch up to his athletic potential, but that athletic ability will be hard for teams to pass up. It was an ugly end to the season for Brown, culminating in an awful performance in the tournament, which shows just how far he has to progress as a player before he turns from a prospect to a NBA rotation player. He will now move on to the pre-draft process where it is imperative he puts his performance down the stretch behind him and move on to the next phase of his career.
Jakob Poeltl, Utah
Fresno State: 16 points, 5-11 FGA (6-9 FTA), 18 rebounds, 4 assists, 0 blocks
Gonzaga: 5 points, 2-5 FGA (1-1 FTA), 4 rebounds, 2 assists, 1 block
In an anticipated frontcourt matchup between Poeltl and Gonzaga’s Domantas Sabonis, Poeltl was completely overwhelmed by Sabonis in a blowout Gonzaga victory. Sabonis outmuscled him on the block, pushing him way outside of his comfort zone before the catch. With space between himself and the basket, Sabonis could guard Poeltl one-on-one with his teammates choking off passing lanes. Poeltl didn’t have the face up game to be able to adjust to catching the ball in the mid-range area instead of five feet from the rim like he is used to.
Although not known to be an offensive juggernaut, Sabonis also got the best of Poeltl on the other side of the floor. Sabonis scored on him both from the perimeter and the paint and left scouts pondering what more offensive-minded NBA level big men could do against Poeltl. Poeltl couldn’t contribute elsewhere either, pulling down just four rebounds to Sabonis’ 10 and blocking only one shot. The game was out of reach rather quickly and Sabonis’ dominance of Poeltl was a big reason why.
In the end, this is just one game and we should not overreact to the performance by either player. It’s hard to say whether this says more about Poeltl or Sabonis – Poeltl could have had his worst game of the season, Sabonis his best, or a combination of both. In a game that scouts were hoping for Poeltl to dominate and cement his position as a top five draft pick, they got the exact opposite.
Jamal Murray, Kentucky
Stony Brook: 19 points, 7-16 FGA (2-7 3FGA, 3-4 FTA), 7 rebounds, 2 assists, 2 turnovers
Indiana: 16 points, 7-18 FGA (1-9 3FGA, 1-2 FTA), 7 rebounds, 4 assists, 3 turnovers
In the game against Indiana, Murray struggled with the athleticism and length of the Hoosier guards. He couldn’t get past defenders like Robert Johnson, Troy Williams, or O.G. Anunoby, and had to resort to push-offs to create space, which led to offensive fouls. When he could get a step on a closeout, he was forced into tough, contested pull-up mid-range shots by the help defense.
He couldn’t get on track from beyond the arc and even had two three-point attempts blocked by Anunoby. He had to work extremely hard to get open and several of his second half attempts were short, suggesting the Hoosier defense may have worn him out. Even his made three came in the face of heavy pressure with the shot clock winding down after Murray couldn’t shake his defender off a ball screen.
This wasn’t an inspiring performance by Murray, but it didn’t provide much in the way of new information. NBA teams knew he would likely struggle at times against the type of elite athleticism that was on display versus Indiana. He had a rough shooting day and struggled down the stretch at just 33 percent in his last five games. He can point to his overall track record as a shooter, which ended at 40 percent overall and 44 percent in conference play.
Diamond Stone, Maryland
South Dakota State: 4 points, 1-3 FGA (2-2 FTA), 5 rebounds, 2 blocks
Hawaii: 14 points, 6-8 FGA (2-2 FTA), 2 rebounds, 1 block
Diamond Stone continued his inconsistent season, scoring just four points against the smaller SDSU team before bouncing back with a solid 14 point performance against Hawaii. Neither team had much of a post presence to defend Stone, and he didn’t dominate the interior liked scouts would have liked. Many of his points came off of Trimble drawing the defense and passing to Stone for a dunk rather than individual offense created by him.
Stone has never been much of a rebounder and that showed in the opening weekend. He has had just four games with double-digit rebounds and was invisible on the glass during large stretches of the game.
Maryland’s next game against Kansas will be a much better measuring stick for Stone, matched up with the 6-foot-10 Landen Lucas. NBA teams will want see a strong performance against Lucas, one of the better defenders Stone has faced in recent weeks. He also needs to defend Lucas adequately, who is not known for his offensive skills. A few big men have had career days at the expense of Stone and putting in the required defensive effort to not allow Lucas room will be a factor to watch for scouts
Biggest off the board riser
O.G. Anunoby, Indiana
A back end of the rotation player in the non-conference portion of his freshman season, Anunoby has emerged as a key piece of Indiana’s wing depth, especially on the defensive side. The long-armed, 6-foot-8 Anunoby bothered Murray into a rough shooting night. He’ll now get another tough matchup against North Carolina’s Justin Jackson.
While another strong weekend could cause him to at least test the NBA waters, it would be a big surprise to see him keep his name in the 2016 NBA Draft. His offensive skills are still catching up to his potential and with him joining the conversation so late, it makes his case one of the special circumstances where it would probably only help his stock if he returns to school and takes on a larger role in his sophomore season. At the very least, Anunoby showed NBA teams in the opening weekend that he has the athletic baseline to become a serious prospect heading into next season.
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