Prospecting: Players For NBA Fans To Watch From The NCAA Tournament’s Midwest Region

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The 2015 NCAA Tournament is set, and now we eagerly anticipate the basketball overload starting on Thursday. But what about the NBA heads dreading the upcoming 2-3 zones, preponderance of late-game foul shots, offensive sets that take forever to materialize, and the rest of the NCAA effluvia which forces us to watch NBA hoops over the subpar level on display in college.

We thought we’d preview each region so you know which players might be making a future appearance in the Grown Man League. This is based on their pre-Draft rankings right now, but some might fall out of the discussion altogether depending on how they perform this weekend.

The NCAA Tournament can make or break an NBA landing spot. While NBA scouts still look at upside and throw the word potential around like it wasn’t once applied to Darko Milicic, a Final Four dance goes a long way towards convincing those skeptical about a player excelling at the next level.

For today’s Midwest region, we look at four players and one whole team (I think you know which one), with their eyes on a prize in June, rather than March.

1. All of Kentucky

Kentucky has three players in the DraftExpress’ top 25 rankings: Karl Anthony-Towns, Willie Caulie-Stein, and Devin Booker. They’ve also got Trey Lyles (No. 26) and Dakari Johnson (No. 38) inside the top 50. So of the top 50 prospects for the NBA this college season, Kentucky has five players, and none of them average over 30 minutes a night. John Calipari is the Gregg Popovich of the NCAA.

The 7-0, 250-pound Karl Anthony-Towns averages 9.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 2.4 blocks in just 20.7 minutes per game. He plays half the game! This is the No. 2 prospect in the whole draft according to Jonathan Givony at DraftExpress, and he’s getting under 21 minutes a night. Calipari does not care about your hype (unless he’s trying to get you to commit).

Towns is legit. He can bang in the post, or turn on his defender and put the ball on the floor to finish. A threat facing up, or with his back the basket, an NBA scout tells Marc J. Spears of Yahoo, “There are not many players who can do all the things that he does.” Watch for Towns in a possible matchup against Purdue’s A.J. Hammonds; Purdue actually matches Kentucky’s size, so it could be a fun second round matchup if Purdue can get past Cincinnati.

You also can’t sleep on Willie Cauley-Stein, another hyphenated big man who is the yin to Towns’ yang as a defensive rim-protector who could morph into a Tyson Chandler pick-and-roll option at the next level. Cauley-Stein is the leader of this year’s young Kentucky team. The Junior is just as big and almost as highly coveted as Towns; most mock drafts have Cauley-Stein as a top-10 selection.

Then there’s freshman shooting guard, Devin Booker, who has NBA range (42.9 percent on 3-pointers) and could be the third Kentucky lottery selection if he declares early. Booker isn’t as explosive as some would hope and has a limited wingspan for his height, but his skill level is NBA-ready. Right now he’s right on the precipice as the No. 15 pick in Givony’s latest mock draft.

There are others on this deep Kentucky squad only robots can beat, but these three will likely be on an NBA roster next year if they don’t come back to school.

2. Myles Turner, PF/C Texas, 6-11 240-pound Freshman

Ah yes, the big man who prefers to let it fly from deep. Turner is a strong rebounder, but he needs to spend more time inside. He prefers to float outside the restricted area where his size and girth are often lost, and he shoots way too many three-pointers for his height. That’s one of the reasons his field goal percentage is so low: 46 percent in his freshman season. He takes almost two 3-pointers a game (1.8), but connects on fewer than 30 percent of those attempts (27.9). He’s like Josh Smith in this respect, but without Smith’s athleticism.

Turner needs to bang on the block more and develop a little mid-range game because he’s going to be a center in the NBA. That means he’ll have to develop a swoop, mini-hook or runner when he rolls to the rim. He does have good defensive instincts (2.7 blocks in 22.4 minutes per game), so he doesn’t have that problem on the defensive end, but he’s smart enough to make up for his mobility by getting into defensive position early. Then again, he struggles hedging on the pick-and-roll, and his defense on that oft-repeated NBA hallmark will be a problem when he makes the jump.

Could be a late lottery selection if he declares after his first year, but if he never learns the intricacies of life on the block, he’ll be useless for NBA squads who want his rebounding and defensive presence without the three-point attempts.

3. Kelly Oubre, SF Kansas, 6-6 200-pound Freshman

Kansas’ small forward is listed in some places as 6-6 and others at 6-7, but he’s long enough to thrive at the three when he plays in the NBA. He feels the game better than his other freshman brethren, but his shooting — 36 percent from deep isn’t so great in college — might be an issue in the professional ranks. His arc and rotation might mean he has to redevelop his form if he wants to get consistent minutes in the NBA. A small forward who can’t knock it down from beyond the arc is a liability. Even power forwards are expected to stretch the defense in the NBA these days.

Plus, Oubre is a borderline minus defender. He’s got lazy habits that predominate the collge level, but he’ll be expected to take on some of the best players in the world at the wing when the NBA comes calling. He also needs to develop his right hand and should watch what Mike Conley does on this off-hand runners in the lane (though, to be fair, Conley is basically ambidextrous).

Cliff Alexander would have been someone you should keep an eye on — but he’s not playing. The 6-9 PF is a late first-rounder if he declares after one year, but we’re guessing he sticks around, especially after being deemed ineligible for this year’s Tourney. Although if it seems as though he’s in trouble with the NCAA, he might bolt.

4. Jerian Grant, PG Notre Dame, 6-5 200-pound Senior

Grant is the youngest son of NBA player, Harvey Grant (brother of Horace), so he knows what it takes at the top-level (see also: the Splash Brothers). But he fell into academic trouble last year and the Irish fell to a .500 club when he didn’t dress.

Grant’s tremendous in the open floor, but less so in the half-court. He’s not an eye-opening athlete, but he’s a consistent shooter with good form on his jumper who shot 48.6 percent from the field this season; although, his 3-point shooting dipped from above 40 percent during his 12 games last season to 32.6 percent this year.

He’s a facilitator, too, with good vision and the ability to bend the defense and hit the open man. HE should do well as a backup point guard when he makes the next step, but we’re not sure he’s quick enough to be a starting NBA One — likely the deepest position in the NBA today.

Like Oubre and Turner, Grant is on the cusp of a lottery selection, but he’s older than the other two, and more polished as a player. As is usually the case, more polish usually leads talking heads to unfairly equate that with less upside, but a strong tournament could vault Grant into a top-10 pick in June.

5. Jake Layman, SF Maryland, 6-9 200-pound Junior

The 6-8, or 6-9 — again it’s impossible to tell since all of these guys lie about their height (most get measured in sneakers) — small forward can stroke it from 3-point territory (37.7 percent on 3.6 attempts per game) and is strong on the glass despite his svelte frame. He’s improved his shooting percentge, free throw percentage and rebounding per-minute numbers in each of his first three college seasons.

Right now, he’s listed as a possible late-first, early second-round selection in the 2015 Draft, so maybe he should stay an extra season to bulk up and show he can bruise and board inside at the NBA level. Hopefully he also continues to improve the above numbers. Right now, he’ll get tossed around in the NBA, and he’s old enough to have filled out more. But his length and shooting stroke are what make him a true pro prospect — even though there’s no scarcity of 6-8 of guys his size who can shoot.

For a player like Layman, think of him as a two-year project who hopefully stays his senior season.

HONORABLE MENTIONS: Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame; Ron Baker, Wichita State; A.J. Hammonds, Purdue;  Melo Trimble, Maryland; Yogi Ferrel and Troy Williams, Indiana; Trey Lyles and Dakari Johnson, Kentucky.

Printable bracket | Tips for filling our your bracket | 10 possible Cinderellas