The opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament may not have delivered the wild upsets we’re used to, but it did provide plenty of interesting performances from prospects eligible for the 2019 NBA Draft.
It’s worth spotlighting a few of those from players who rank all over our Big Board to see how it affected their mythical draft stock.
NBA MOCK DRAFT: Full first-round breakdown
Ja Morant | Point | Murray State
Morant came into the tournament as a consensus top-five prospect for June’s draft, so it’s no surprise he delivered a pair of impressive outings prior to Murray State’s exit. The 19-year-old tallied a triple-double in the Racers’ opening-round upset of Marquette before delivering 28 points, five rebounds and four assists in a loss to Florida State.
Against the Golden Eagles, Morant’s court vision was on full display. He logged 16 assists, tying the second-highest single-game mark in NCAA Tournament history. Morant’s passing ability supplements his offensive package well. His handle is elite, and as such, he’s frequently able to break down defenses and get into the lane. The ability to pass out of those situations when defenses collapse is paramount.
His performance against Florida State was more of a mixed bag, however. Morant was able to consistently connect from beyond the arc, shooting 5-of-6 from deep, but he struggled on the interior against the Seminoles’ length and athleticism. He finished 3-of-10 on shots at the rim and missed all five of his 2-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math.
The latter accentuates concern regarding Morant’s ability to score in the midrange should teams funnel him toward shot blockers while taking away the outside shot with over and drop pick-and-roll coverages. He’s made just 39.1 percent of his 2-point jumpers this season, per Hoop-Math, and connected on a meager 10 of his 32 runner attempts, per Synergy. Those numbers track similar struggles he had last season.
Morant still figures to be a top pick come June, and realistically, he should go in the top three depending on how a team feels about Duke’s R.J. Barrett. Still, he’s not without his flaws. Morant had a chance to slide himself confidently into that No. 2 spot with a big NCAA Tournament performance, but he didn’t quite get there.
Up next: Morant’s season is finished. He’ll make his NBA Draft decision and then presumably prepare to be selected in the top five on draft night.
Brandon Clarke | Big | Gonzaga
Clarke entered the NCAA Tournament as the No. 13 prospect on our NBA Draft Big Board, slightly higher than the general consensus on him. However, after his impressive performance against Baylor in the round of 32, there’s an argument he should be pushing into the top 10. The 22-year-old finished with 36 points, eight boards, five blocks, three assists and two steals against the Bears.
It’s well known in draft circles that Clarke checks the boxes when it comes to piling up winning contributions outside of being a high-usage scorer. He’s averaging 12.1 rebounds, 4.4 blocks, 2.6 assists and 1.7 steals per 40 minutes this season. He has a future in the league as a versatile big man who can play the power forward spot in plenty of situations and the center spot in closing lineups.
Outside of the obvious age question — a sticking point when it comes to projecting potential upside — perhaps the biggest issue plaguing Clarke is his lack of center size combined with a lack of shooting productivity. He’s made just six 3-pointers in three seasons and is a career 61.3 percent free throw shooter.
The Baylor game highlighted why some feel more optimistic about Clarke’s shooting projections. The Bears typically play a zone defense that offers plenty of space to operate in the midrange. Against them, Clarke attempted six 2-point jumpers and connected on four of them, per Hoop-Math. It’s an expression of an improving touch that could point to potential shooting upside for a prospect who is largely valued because of his supposedly high floor.
Clarke may prove to be a fascinating prospect to track throughout the draft process. He’ll challenge teams to locate where their belief in youth as a sign of potential intersects with the value they place on production that contributes to winning basketball games.
Of course, this presupposes Clarke lacks significant upside. His growth since transferring to Gonzaga from San Jose State may suggest otherwise.
Up next: Clarke faces off against Florida State’s long, athletic frontline on Thursday night in the Sweet 16.
Mfiondu Kabengele | Big | Florida State
Speaking of the Seminoles, there may not have been a bigger beneficiary over the course of opening weekend than Kabengele. The 6-10 big man was instrumental in helping Florida State contain Morant on the interior. He finished with three blocks while using his lengthy wingspan as an effective deterrent. He also didn’t look out of place when switched onto the hard-to-contain point guard.
Offensively, Kabengele showed the full range of his skills. Over two games, he shot 2-of-3 from behind the arc. Over a limited sample, he’s now made 38.2 percent of his collegiate 3-point attempts. Kabengele also dominated around the rim against the smaller frontlines of Vermont and Murray State, converting 10 of his 13 attempts at the basket, per Hoop-Math.
As a 21-year-old sophomore, Kabengele has an opportunity to play himself into the first round if he continues to shine during the remainder of the tournament and in the pre-draft process.
Up next: Kabengele has another opportunity to prove himself in the Sweet 16 against Gonzaga’s frontcourt of Rui Hachimura and Brandon Clarke, two first-round prospects.
Dedric Lawson | Big | Kansas
Lawson features here for the polarizing nature of his NCAA Tournament performances, which reflect the general scouting report on him. The 21-year-old followed up a 25-point, 11-rebound outing against Northeastern in the opening round with 25 points and 10 boards in a season-ending loss to Auburn. In doing so, he became the first player since Blake Griffin in 2009 to put up 25 points and 10 rebounds in back-to-back NCAA Tournament games.
Whether Lawson could post counting stats, especially when he’s the focus of his team’s offensive attack, has never been the question. The 6-9 big man has always rated well in statistical models thanks to his ability to stuff the stat sheet in areas bigs traditionally don’t, including compiling assists, steals and 3-point makes.
The problem underscored in the Auburn contest: Lawson will be one of the least athletic players in the 2019 NBA Draft should he choose to declare. He struggled to keep pace in transition and failed to contain the Tigers’ ball screen actions either when forced to defend on the perimeter or when rotating back to his man. To have it happen on such a big stage only magnifies his primary concern.
NBA teams will have to make a decision on Lawson’s offensive value in order to decide whether his defensive shortcomings justify having him on the floor. There’s certainly a world where Lawson functions as an offensive focal point, knocking down jumpers, attacking closeouts and facilitating for his teammates.
If he can’t be that, though, there’s a reasonable chance his deficiencies on the other end will outweigh his offensive upside, leaving his team open to explosions like the one we saw Auburn have against Kansas.
Up next: Lawson faces an interesting draft decision. He’s a likely second-round selection, but it’s not clear returning to school would offer him much upward mobility.
Talen Horton-Tucker | Wing | Iowa State
Horton-Tucker has spent most of the year climbing up draft boards thanks to his youth and impressive statistical profile. The 18-year-old is averaging 3.4 assists to 2.5 turnovers while posting 1.9 steals and 1.0 blocks per 40 minutes. However, in Iowa State’s opening-round loss to Ohio State, he was scarcely seen.
Horton-Tucker played just 15 minutes against the Buckeyes, finishing with two points, one rebound and a pair of turnovers. The youngster wasn’t in foul trouble and appeared to catch a benching for poor shot selection in the second half. Those choices reflect something consistent from Horton-Tucker’s season-long profile: he loves to shoot, but he’s not very good at it.
Despite attempting 6.7 3s per 40 minutes, Horton-Tucker shot just 30.8 percent from deep this season while making only 62.5 percent of his free throws. There aren’t a ton of reasons to buy him as a projectable NBA shooter at this point outside of blind faith in his youth and a belief in the ability to improve him via a development system.
While that may be enough to get him selected early on draft night, his outing against Ohio State did little to quell existing worries.
Up next: Horton-Tucker will make a decision on his future.
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