The NCAA Tournament — hands down one of the greatest spectacles in American sports — is something that every sports fan is tuned into every March, rooting for their favorite teams to make deep runs (or rooting for teams they picked in their bracket pool).
It’s also an excellent period of time for NBA scouts and executives to get an up-close look at some of the best college stars perform on the biggest stage. Some players, who are already projected as NBA talents, can improve their standing with the pro scouts, while others not even on the radar can shine and become a late-round selection.
This past tournament was no exception. We found six players that improved their NBA stock the most:
Hard to imagine a high-profile freshman at Kentucky can get overlooked throughout the season. That was point guard De’Aaron Fox for a lot of the season, who at the point guard position, in the NBA eyes of many, was second and even third fiddle to the likes of Lonzo Ball (UCLA) and Markelle Fultz (Washington). Talk about WEST coast bias!
Fox before the season and early on was projected as a first-round talent, given his ability to be a natural point guard and run an offense, utilizing his blazing, fox-like speed. He averaged close to 17 PPG and 5 APG on an absolutely loaded and talented Wildcats team this past season. But Fox played out of his mind in the conference and NCAA Tournaments, averaging 21.5 PPG in seven postseason games, including a 39-point outburst against Ball and UCLA in the Sweet 16.
If anything Fox, vaulted himself into being a lottery pick lock. Any lack in production or inefficiencies could very well be contributed to some small, nagging injuries mid-season, but he has all the makings to be a prototypical NBA point guard for years to come.
Halfway through the season, Xavier was penciled in as easily one of the top 10 to 15 teams in the country, perhaps with an outside chance of contending for a title even. That came crashing down when All-American talent Edmond Sumner was lost for the season with an ACL injury.
The X was able to muster up enough late-season magic to squeak into the field of 68 on the shoulders of junior Trevon Bluiett, and he definitely did not blow it. The junior finished with 18.4 PPG this season, and that’s after turning it up a notch in the tournament(s), where the scoring average was elevated to 20.4 in seven postseason showings, including games against the likes of Butler, Maryland, Florida State and Arizona.
Bluiett was able to shine after coming out from Sumner’s shadow, albeit under unfortunate circumstances for the Musketeers. His late-season heroics should no doubt give him some second-round consideration, should he decide to declare for the NBA Draft.
JORDAN BELL & TYLER DORSEY
Oregon was looking like a legitimate title contender when the calendar turned to March, albeit quietly being from a super top-heavy Pac-12 Conference. They had a lineup as deep and talented as anyone, but it took a major blow when Chris Boucher was sidelined in the conference tournament. The Ducks and Dillon Brooks needed help, and they got it in the form of Jordan Bell and Tyler Dorsey.
The junior Bell and the sophomore Dorsey were above-average contributors and excellent complements to Brooks and Boucher for Oregon this season. But the injury to Boucher heightened the roles of both Bell and Dorsey and neither disappointed.
Bell registered a double-double in six of his final nine games, including 10+ rebounds in eight of those nine. The highlight game was in the Elite 8 vs. Kansas when he recorded eight blocks. Dorsey meanwhile scored 20+ points in his final eight games played, all in postseason play, after having just four such games of 20 or more points in the regular season.
Dorsey has already declared for the NBA and hired an agent. He did so last season but eventually withdrew and returned for a second year in Eugene. Bell meanwhile has yet to do so and it is unknown whether or not he will. He appears to have a much higher likelihood of hearing his name called than Dorsey. Brooks has also yet to declare for the NBA, but a decision from both could be imminent following Dorsey’s NBA decision.
South Carolina senior guard Sindarius Thornwell may have been one of the quietest superstar in college basketball this past season, if not the quietest. The SEC Player of the Year was the unquestioned leader during the Gamecocks’ incredible run to the Final Four.
Thornwell finished his collegiate career with major upticks in almost every major statistical category and was the SEC’s leading scorer at 21.5 PPG, the only player in the conference to finish north of the 20-point per game mark. In the first four tournament games, he averaged 27.5 PPG, shot better than 42 percent from behind the long line and grabbed 7.5 rebounds per contest — as a guard. He, unfortunately, did not play at 100 percent against Gonzaga in the Final Four due to an illness, but as Sports Betting Dime points out, “the box score doesn’t do justice to his true value.”
Thornwell is a good, athletic guard at 6-foot-5 that could creep into the first round of the NBA Draft if he wasn’t projected to go there already. It will be impossible for South Carolina to replace what he brought to the program, but some NBA team will sure be lucky to have his skill set and work ethic.
Here is another guy, like Fox, that is a virtual lottery pick in the eyes of many NBA scouts and executives. Gonzaga freshman Zach Collins is a guy that a lot of rebuilding clubs in the Association would drool to have as a cornerstone piece.
The numbers for Collins are not going to jump off the page by any means — 10 PPG and close to 6.0 RPG in 17.3 minutes played per contest. It’s worth noting that Collins this season was primarily a bench player for the Bulldogs, which can only further speculate the high ceiling for the Las Vegas native. It also speaks to how deep and talented this group of Zags was this season, as evident by their national runner-up finish.
Collins’ best game late in the season was in the national semifinals against South Carolina, where he posted a double-double (14 pts, 13 reb) along with six blocks. He even managed to nearly post another (9 pts, 7 reb) in only 14 minutes of action. The efficiency is through the roof. Think of former Michigan State freshman big man Deyonta Davis, but more prolific and polished.
The potential is well-documented. It’s evident however that he needs some improvement in discipline that refrains him from being in constant foul trouble. It’d be hard to ignore passing up being a lottery pick for the 7-footer, but there would be some incentive in returning to school. With fellow big man Przemek Karnowski graduating, it opens the door for Collins to be a regular for head coach Mark Few.