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8 Prospects Who Raised Their NBA Draft Stock In The NCAA Tournament

March is over–isn’t that hard to believe? Not many people would have guessed that the University of Connecticut would be the team ripping down the nets when all was said and done. I mean, I had them losing in the second round to St. Joe’s–but they kept coming back and proving why we should never doubt a program as prestigious as UConn in the tournament.

Over the course of the tournament, there was a certain group of players that made statements about their draft position, making it clear why they deserve to be high picks in the 2014 NBA Draft. No Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins, who bowed out early in the tournament with unimpressive performances. This is a group of players that took advantage of the bright lights and enormous stage of the NCAA tournament. These are the players that showed the grit and hustle and proved why the world deserves to know their names.

Players like Cleanthony Early, Shabazz Napier and Elfrid Payton were catapulted onto the national stage by tearing apart the tournament. Early and Payton are from mid-major conferences, which proves how much uncovered talent there is outside of the powerhouse schools. It doesn’t matter who you play, if you have the talent and determination to win, anything is possible. That was never more evident than Shabazz Napier leading his UConn squad to a national championship–something that only insane UConn fans could’ve imagined before the tournament began.

Here are eight players who raised their NBA Draft stock during the NCAA tournament.

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Cleanthony Early
Before the NCAA tournament, Cleanthony Early wasn’t known by many besides hardcore hoops fans and wasn’t on the radar of most mock drafts. The Wichita State Shockers only appeared in two games in the tournament after an undefeated regular season that garnered a lot of attention, but that was enough for Cleanthony Early to shoot up draft boards. After not helping his stock much in the regular season with a schedule full of mid-major opponents (16.4 points and 5.9 rebounds), the tournament set a fire in Early’s eyes.

Early went off for 23 points and seven boards on 9-of-15 shooting from the field and 3-of-8 from deep in an opening-round victory against Cal Poly. The Shockers would move on to face Kentucky and everyone knows the outcome of that game. Even though the Shockers were shocked by Kentucky, Cleanthony Early give the world a performance that would have NBA fans around the world screaming his name.

Against a very physical and brute Kentucky team, Early went off for 31 points and seven rebounds. Early shot 12-of-17 from the floor, which is a remarkable 71 percent. This includes hitting 4-of-6 shots from deep for 67 percent and 3-of-3 from the foul line. Cleanthony Early gave fans and NBA GMs a performance to remember and a reason to hear his name called early in the 2014 NBA Draft.
Draft Range: 20-30

James Young
If you watched James Young play at Kentucky this season, he embodies the stigma of a freshman to the highest degree. He’s always rocking a crazy new hairstyle and he has this sort of flamboyance about him that only Swaggy P could admire. Saw what you want about him, but James Young can ball. Like the rest of his freshmen squad, Young had a lot to prove in the NCAA tournament. His regular season was mildly successful, scoring 14.3 points and grabbing 4.3 rebounds per game. However, only shooting 41 percent from the floor, 35 percent from deep and 70 percent from the line was a concern. A lot of recognition for Kentucky’s run to the title game was given to the Harrison twins. While Aaron Harrison made the necessary clutch threes, James Young’s scoring was a huge reason why Kentucky was in a position to win those games.

James Young averaged 12.1 points and 5.0 boards in the tournament, shooting 43 percent from the floor and 43 percent from deep. His improved shooting from deep was something fans had been waiting for. The 6-6 guard shot 3-of-5 from deep in the third round against Wichita State and 3-of-4 in the Elite 8 vs. Michigan.

Perhaps the most striking part about James Young’s performance in the tournament was his increased play as the stakes were raised. In the Final Four against Wisconsin (a one-point victory for UK), Young scored 17 points, grabbed five rebounds and dished two assists, while also picking up two steals. Young hit 5-of-11 from the floor, 1-of-2 from deep and 6-of-7 from the charity stripe. In the National Championship Game, Young scored 20 points on 5-of-13 shooting (making two shots from deep) and hit eight of nine free throws.

The aptness to perform bigger as the stage gets bigger and the lights get brighter is something that can’t be taught. When the microscope was beamed on Young and his Wildcats, they performed. With his size and shooting ability, Young already has a lot of things NBA GMs are looking for. Hitting 43 percent of his attempts from deep in the tournament is another reason his stock increased. James Young had a lot to prove in the NCAA tournament after his team barely made it into the tournament field, and he proved quite a few things to a lot of people. That’s a reason his name will be called early on draft night.
Draft Range: 13-20

Julius Randle
People are dying to know whether the three-headed trio of NBA-ready freshmen are going to declare for the NBA Draft. Andrew Wiggins was a one-and-done since the day he arrived on campus at Kansas. Jabari Parker has his housing set up for his sophomore year at Duke, but I’m sure he can afford the cancellation fee if he enters the NBA Draft. Finally, reports surfaced yesterday on many major media outlets that Kentucky forward Julius Randle had indeed declared for the NBA Draft–which wasn’t a surprise to anyone. However, Julius Randle took to his Twitter page to deny the reports. It’s insane that we live in a world where we can trust a social media platform for accurate information instead of sports reporters.

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If Randle is smart, then he will declare for the NBA Draft. He was a mark of consistency for an extremely inconsistent Kentucky team during the regular season and this carried over into the tournament. During the regular season, Randle averaged 15.0 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. Towards the end of the regular season, Randle produced a double-double in nine of Kentucky’s final 11 games. This consistency carried right over into the tournament for Randle.

In the NCAA tournament, Randle averaged 14.8 points and 9.8 rebounds. He produced a double-double in Kentucky’s first four tournament games. His statistics didn’t improve much, but he proved his consistency as a 2014 lottery selection. He might not be a bonafide NBA star, but Randle looks like the player that a team can count on for 15 and 10 on a nightly basis. Most teams in the NBA would sign up for that type of production and that’s a reason why Julius Randle raised his stock in the NCAA tournament.
Draft Range: 5-10

Shabazz Napier
America fell in love with Shabazz Napier during the NCAA tournament, or maybe it was just me? Maybe it was his relentless ability to attack the basket, or his willingness to play through any and every injury suffered in a tournament game while other players would just proceed to the bench. Possibly it was his ability to hit clutch threes no matter the moment, or how big the situation. Shabazz Napier had frozen ice in his veins during the tournament and he was the main reason that UConn stands today as national champions.

Before the Madness began, the criticism about Shabazz Napier’s pro potential was everywhere and anywhere. He can’t distribute, he’s too small, takes too many shots, he’s just a backup point guard in the NBA, this and that about the 6-1 guard, 180-pound guard. His display of heart, leadership and composure during the NCAA tournament should mean more to any NBA team than worries about his height or abilities as a point guard. Right LeBron?

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Connecticut’s magical tournament run was spearheaded by Napier, who averaged 21.2 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.5 steals per game. Honestly, the numbers couldn’t matter any less, even in a day and age where all people care about is statistics. Shabazz Napier passed every eye test known to man during this run and his leadership and toughness on the court are two things that statistics will never be able to prove. These facts are why Napier has gone from a late second-round pick to a late first-to-early second-round selection, based off his performance in the tournament. Every time DraftExpress.com updates their 2014 mock draft, Napier rises higher and higher up the ladder.

In a college landscape where one-and-done prospects are more common than players staying at school, Napier proved what happens when a player stays at school for four years. He learned a lot more than someone who jumps right to the NBA after a season–valuable experience and leadership that is only attained from forming a brotherhood with the players you came into school with. He defied all odds, as did his UConn Huskies squad. When UConn was called a Cinderella team, Kevin Ollie said (via New York Daily News): “I was like ‘no, we’re UConn.’ This is what we do. We’re born for this. We’re bred to cut down the nets. We’re not chasing championships, Championships are chasing us.”

But Shabazz Napier said it the best: “Ladies and gentlemen, you are looking at the hungry Huskies. This is what happens when you ban us.”

Shabazz Napier will be an NBA player, a damn good one at that after leading his Huskies squad to victories over two-seeded VIllanova, three-seeded Iowa State, four-seeded Michigan State, one-seeded Florida and of course, the championship victory over Kentucky. Everyone always doubts the guards from UConn–first it was Kemba Walker and now it’s Shabazz Napier. Walker is about to make his first playoff appearance and Napier was the Final Four’s Most Outstanding Player.

After the hype from the championship dies down, scouts will go back to criticizing Napier for the things I mentioned earlier. That’s fine, because he proved on the biggest stage that he can lead any team to victory on any given night. Maybe everyone should keep doubting him, so he can go right to the NBA and lead a team to a championship just like he did at UConn.
Draft Range: 25-35

Aaron Harrison
Three straight game-winning shots and a trip to the National Championship Game because of those shots will do wonders to a player’s stock. Especially for someone like Aaron Harrison, who succumed to sky-high expectations placed on him when he arrived on campus in Lexington. Harrison averaged 13.7 points in the regular season, but only shot 42 percent from the floor and 36 percent from deep. There was little to no discussion of the 2014 NBA Draft after the regular season performance by Harrison–it was expected he would return to Lexington for another season. That is, until this group of freshman standouts defied the odds (and their No. 8 seeding) and tore apart brackets by the game by displaying poise and composure that was expected from veteran squads like Louisville and Michigan.

Aaron Harrison was a huge part, if not the main reason, that the Wildcats earned a berth in the title game. Three game-winning shots that propelled the Wildcats forward create a folk legend, one that Harrison might ride right into the 2014 Draft if he chooses to declare. In the tournament, Harrison scored 13.1 points, shooting 42 percent from the floor. Wait, so where’s the improvement? That came in his shooting from three. Harrison stroked 15-of-30 three-point attempts in the tournament, a clean 50 percent from downtown. Harrison was shooting 56 percent from three before his 1-of-5 performance in the title game. Harrison shot over 42 percent from deep in every game in the tournament besides the title game, including a 4-of-7 and 4-of-8 performance from the land of beyond.

Harrison scored in double-figures in Kentucky’s first four games, before coming back down to earth in the Final Four and National Championship. Besides the shooting, Harrison displayed the ability to finish with both hands and a nifty Euro-step. After it was almost written in stone that Harrison would return to coach Calipari after his freshman season, an outstanding performance in the NCAA tournament raised his stock enough to seriously question if he should come out for the draft.
Draft Range: 25-35

Adreian Payne
When watching Adreian Payne play, it almost looks like he’s a guard trapped in a 6-10, 245-pound body. That’s not a slight, either, because Payne’s ability to play as a stretch four was put on national spotlight in the NCAA tournament. There was nothing more telling than Payne’s 41-point performance in the opening round against Delaware. This singular game might have been telling enough to show his potential as an NBA prospect and raise his stock. Payne tallied 41 points on 10-of-15 shooting, 4-of-5 from deep and a perfect 17-of-17 from the free throw line. Payne also grabbed eight rebounds in the victory. The performance was the most points scored in an NCAA tournament game since Steph Curry in 2008, while also setting a record for the most free throws without a miss (17-of-17) and the most points scored in a tournament game by a Spartan. All of this in 24 minutes of game action–talk about a rising stock.

Besides basic statistics, Payne showed an ability to work in the post, flashing several up-and-unders, pump fakes and fadeaway jumpers in the post. This also comes on top of shooting 80 percent from deep and hitting all 17 of his free throws. Payne embodies the persona of a stretch-four, which is the way the NBA is currently moving towards with shooting big men like Kevin Love becoming one of the top players in the NBA. In four games in the tournament, Payne averaged 20.5 points and 6.5 rebounds on 45 percent shooting from the field and 43 percent from three. His performance shrunk after his monstrous game against Delaware–as his minutes increased in the tournament his production went down. However, the performance against Delaware spoke volumes about the type of impact Payne can have on a game when he’s feeling it.

Regardless, Payne’s overall tournament was still mightily impressive. Payne’s draft stock has suffered in a draft full of young and popular freshman. Payne is a senior and already 22 years old, but the talent is obvious. He’s expected to come into the NBA and contribute immediately–there is no room to sit on the bench and learn. Payne is considered a mid-to-late first-round pick and regardless of his draft selection, he will be a steal wherever he lands in the NBA.
Draft Range: 15-25

Elfrid Payton
Elfrid Payton wasn’t on the draft radar before the NCAA tournament. However, people that knew Payton declared that the world would know his name after the tournament. Payton was the buried treasure of the NCAA tournament, as there isn’t much recognition for mid-major schools such as Louisiana-Lafayette.The 6-3 guard from the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin’ Cajuns had a great regular season, posting 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists and 2.3 steals per game. Payton was a stat sheet stuffer in the regular season, collecting six double-doubles and one triple-double. The triple-double actually came in a double-overtime loss to UL Monroe, where Payton put up 34 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists and five steals. Not to mention, Payton recently won the Lefty Driesell award, which is given to college basketball’s top defensive player. Payton was a problem, but a problem that many people weren’t aware of.

The Ragin’ Cajuns only played in one NCAA tournament game this season, but that was enough for Elfrid Payton. Against Creighton, Payton played all 40 minutes and posted 24 points, eight boards, three assists and three steals–a vintage Elfrid Payton performance. After this performance, his stock catapulted as scouts realized how special this little known player from mid-major ULL was. The next Damian Lillard? Who knows, but if Payton declares, there are a lot of NBA GMs that could use a shooting guard of his caliber. He can shoot, score, rebound, defend, pass–the list could seemingly go on forever. He could go as high as the mid first round or the late first round, but regardless, Elfrid Payton is going to become a treasure chest for an NBA team when he declares.
Draft Range: 25-40

Jordan Adams
Jordan Adams didn’t do anything to explode in the NCAA tournament, but he showed a polished game in a multitude of areas–exactly what NBA GMs want to see. Adams was a stat-sheet stuffer in UCLA’s three tournament games, recording 19 points, 5.7 boards, 3.0 assists and 1.7 steals per game. Adam’s was efficient from the field, shooting over 46 percent in each game. In three games, Adam’s was 22-of-39 from the field for a smooth 56 percent.

Adams had a reputation for being able to shoot threes and in the tournament he proved he can do more than simply strike fear from deep. With a draft stock that fluctuated all season, ranging from the first round to second round, Adams needed a consistent performance in the tournament to solidify his draft stock. Shooting guards that are as tall as Jordan Adams at 6-5 are in style, which should help his stock even more. Expect Jordan Adams to be selected in the mid-to-late first round after an excellent performance in the NCAA tournament.
Draft Range: 20-35

Who else really helped their stock in the NCAA tournament?

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