NBA fans are forgiven for not having seen many of the top 2021 NBA Draft prospects. To keep up with these young hoopers this year meant keeping track of which college basketball games were actually going to happen, studying G League Bubble games in the middle of a weekday, or doing the sleuth work of paying for a subscription to watch FIBA games.
Happily, we actually have an NCAA Tournament this year, which is when many get a chance to catch up on the college players they didn’t get eyes on during the regular season. The typical bright lights and high-level matchups that signify March Madness make for some great opportunities to see future NBA players go up against elite competition, and while teams aren’t picking based on a few games in March, it always plays a role in a player’s stock.
Not every game has a player who will be at the top of the draft, but we’re here to help you know which ones to tune into (the full TV schedule is here) if you’re an NBA-only hoops fan or if your team finds itself in the draft lottery for the first time in awhile and you’re out of practice with this stuff (hey, Houstonians).
We are breaking it down by region, starting in the “West” — every game is being played in Indy — where there are a few heavy-hitters.
Jalen Suggs, G, Gonzaga
Back in November, we broke down Suggs’ game and how he had improved his flow as a floor general and ability to create and make 3s enough to become a top five-type prospect. All that is true, and Suggs has won at a high level all season. He’s exactly the type of electrifying player who could dominate March.
Corey Kispert, F, Gonzaga
Smoothness, baby. Kispert has mastered his role and it will translate perfectly to the NBA. The success of players like Duncan Robinson and Joe Harris provides the template for Kispert to make an impact as a pro.
Evan Mobley, F/C, USC
The best player you might not have heard about a ton, Mobley has flown somewhat under the radar (as many Pac-12 prospects do), but is among the more ready-made modern big man prospects to come through college basketball since Anthony Davis. Watch him, as he very well could be headed to whoever picks No. 2 overall.
Chris Duarte, G/F, Oregon
The Ducks have a knack for producing wings like Duarte, from Tyler Dorsey and Dillon Brooks to Troy Brown and Damyean Dotson. That’s a solid track record, and Duarte’s improvement from deep (43 percent this season) means he’ll get a look from NBA execs.
Luka Garza, F/C, Iowa
He may not have the most easily translatable NBA skillset in the tournament, but Garza is among the front-runners for National Player of the Year and has gotten better every year at Iowa.
Franz Wagner, G, Michigan
The brother of the Wizards’ Mo, this stretch big man (albeit smaller than the elder Wagner) shot 38 percent from deep for the Wolverines and has turned into an excellent turnover-creator on defense, finishing second in the nation in Defensive Box Plus-Minus at 6.4.
Cameron Thomas, G/F, LSU
This one-and-done prospect from Oak Hill is a pure scorer who didn’t tap into many of his other athletic skills in Baton Rouge. The team Will Wade put together around him is strong, but Thomas needs to show other skills to excite NBA scouts.
Scottie Barnes, G/F, Florida State
Say it with me: ‘Nooooles. Cade Cunningham’s high school teammate is a quintessential Leonard Hamilton recruit, at 6’9 with ball skills, a high IQ, and defensive versatility. The best reason to watch him is so you can tell his game apart from the likes of Patrick Williams, Jonathan Isaac and Malik Beasley.
James Bouknight, G, UConn
The NBA success of Beasley, Malik Monk and even someone like Immanuel Quickley should bode well for Bouknight, a smooth tweener guard who can score with anyone. While Bouknight’s three-point efficiency went down as a sophomore, he contributes to winning and can create shots at a high level.
Greg Brown and Kai Jones, F/C, Texas
This region is so stacked with prospects that we have to double up on Longhorns. Shaka Smart’s squad boasts two projected first-round picks, with the sophomore Jones a stretch big man who can also play some defense and Brown a bit smaller but more athletic and unrefined big. Both take a lot of threes and bring strong physical tools and thus should have a clear role in the NBA.
Jared Butler, G, Baylor
Few players have solidified themselves as draft prospects over this season like Butler, who has always had NBA tools as a long, 6’3 guard with 3-and-D potential but now is a legitimate play-making option in addition to a truly elite shooting prospect after hitting 43 percent of his triples this season.
Davion Mitchell, G, Baylor
A fun thing about these Bears is that Butler and Mitchell are so similar, with Mitchell now also coming off an elite three-point shooting season and upping his assists. They are basically two parts of a whole, but unlike the Harrison brothers or other similar duos in the past, they both ought to be high-level NBA role players in the right situation.
Day’Ron Sharpe, F/C, North Carolina
Few NCAA players are as fun as Sharpe. Another former Montverde stud, Sharpe is brilliant. His assist totals don’t tell the whole story, but his incredible turnover creation numbers on defense do. The Heels are largely only as good as they’ve been because of Sharpe’s underrated impact.
Tre Mann, G, Florida
Another player who improved his deep shooting in his second college season, Mann also nearly quadrupled his assist totals from a year ago while maintaining a high steal rate. A good comparison for the way he filled out his game might be Kira Lewis Jr., who became a lottery pick after two years at Alabama.
Moses Moody, G/F, Arkansas
The last of the Montverde squad outside of Cunningham, it was a unique college path for Moody, who went to Arkansas, which is not typically a high-profile hoops program. But the Little Rock native helped Eric Musselman take the program a step further in 2021 while flashing what makes him special as a prospect. Moody is a near-lock to go top ten, as there are just not many basketball players alive who are 6-6, elite shooters, efficient all-around shot creators, and versatile defenders.
Ayo Dosunmu, G, Illinois
Another player who gets a lot of credit for contributing to winning, Dosunmu doesn’t wow as an athlete but has improved as a shooter and play-maker while filling out his 6’5 frame. Maybe he’s just a backup combo guard, but he’s a leader for the impressive Fighting Illini and keeps getting better.
Keon Johnson, G/F, Tennessee
Johnson has been in the top ten of mock drafts since before the season, and for good reason. His athleticism and smarts make him an appealing project, and he plays within himself on offense as well, shooting 51 percent on twos this season.
Jaden Springer, G/F, Tennessee
The co-pilot of the Volunteers’ elite young wing rotation, Springer is a bit more refined on offense than Johnson but is similarly athletic and versatile, as is Rick Barnes’ preference in recruits. A hot shooting tournament from Springer could vault him up NBA teams’ draft boards.
Josiah Jordan-James, G/F, Tennessee
This is the guy who was supposed to be the next great Tennessee rep in the NBA but ended up coming back to Knoxville, and the decision paid off. Jordan-James’ three-point shooting fell off a bit, but his free-throw percentage remains pretty strong and he got a lot better from inside the arc. Jordan-James also cut down his turnover rate in a smaller role and upped his turnover creation ability with more talent around him. He could use a nice tourney.
Cade Cunningham, G, Oklahoma State
We saved the best for last. If you aren’t tuned into every minute of Cunningham’s run, are you really a hoops fan?