March Madness is a time for drama, excitement and overall mayhem. It’s also a time for players who have flown under the radar to leave their mark. We all know the Karl-Anthony Townses, the Jahlil Okafors and the D’Angelo Russells, but here are a few relatively unknown names who could see their stocks soar in the tournament.
Domantas Sabonis – F, Gonzaga (Freshman)
If the last name sounds familiar, there’s a good reason why. Domantas is the son of former Portland Trail Blazer Arvydas Sabonis. Like his dad, Sabonis displays exceptional vision and passing ability, which should entice any team. Perhaps his greatest skill though, is his rebounding. The younger Sabonis is elite on the boards, posting an eye-popping total rebound rate of nearly 19 percent.
Scouts are already high on Sabonis’ ability, but if he can knock down shots from the perimeter, that’ll go a long way towards boosting his draft stock even higher. Right now, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Sabonis was drafted in the low first round (provided he enters the draft). If he has an exceptional tournament, however, his name could be called much, much earlier.
Jake Layman – F, Maryland (Junior)
Layman’s an interesting case — and a Midwest region prospect to watch. Last year, he was mostly just an athlete – promising, but raw in terms of actual ability (though he did knock down 36.5 percent of his three pointers on 5.2 attempts). This year he’s improved every aspect of his game, becoming not just a better scorer but a more efficient one, too. His PER is up nearly five points, from 16.3 to 21.2. He’s knocking down his three-pointers at a 38 percent clip and is drawing almost two more fouls per game, per DraftExpress.com. Wing three-and-D players are at a premium in the NBA today, and it appears as if Layman could fit the bill perfectly.
Layman’s firmly a second-round pick at this point, but if he has a strong showing for Maryland, not just knocking down his shots but creating for others (the one aspect of his game that could still use major improvement), he could vault himself into first-round contention.
Dakari Johnson – C, University of Kentucky (Freshman)
Let’s rewind a few years ago, when a talented, freshman center out of Kentucky declared for the NBA draft despite playing limited minutes because the guy ahead of him was just world’s better. His name was Daniel Orton, and he’s, well, he’s not in the NBA anymore. When he was in the NBA, he was probably most famous for looking like Russell Westbrook’s identical, though gargantuan, twin brother.
Now fast forward to this year, where Johnson finds himself in a similar situation. On almost any other team, Johnson would start. On Kentucky, he has the misfortune of playing behind Towns, a contender to be the first overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. If Towns has one game with foul trouble, John Calipari has the luxury of going to Johnson, while Johnson has an opportunity to bust out on college basketball’s biggest stage.
Buddy Hield – G, University of Oklahoma (Junior)
Hield built upon his already impressive sophomore season with a terrific junior campaign. Coming into this season, the main concern for Hield was whether he could become more than just another 6-4 catch-and-shoot one-tool player. He’s more than assuaged those concerns, showing an increased offensive versatility and defensive intensity.
Oklahoma was a surprising three seed this year, and the Sooners are probably the only three seed without a “household” name. If Hield shows up for the tournament as he has all year, that will change very quickly.
Nigel Hayes – F, University of Wisconsin (Sophomore)
Draymond Green is set to earn a lot of money this offseason, be it from the Golden State Warriors or another team eager for his services. Green emerged this season as a key cog to one of the NBA’s elite teams, doing anything and everything on both sides of the ball.
Teams and fans looking for the next Draymond Green, or at least a player of a similar mold, would do well to familiarize themselves with Hayes. Like Green, Hayes is a bit of a do-it-all on both ends of the court. He can score, rebound, handle the ball, defend multiple positions, and he keeps adding range on his jumper. Wisconsin already has two likely first-round picks in Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker. If Hayes has a big tournament, he could find himself in that conversation as well, especially given Green’s 2014-15 season.
RJ Hunter – G, Georgia State University (Junior)
Every year, there’s one player from a low-seeded, unheralded team that bursts onto the stage and becomes a national darling. Stephen Curry is probably the most memorable of these Cinderellas, but there are others, too, including Eric Maynor and CJ McCollum to name a few.
Of all the players in this year’s field, Hunter is most likely next in line to wear this glass slipper. The tournament is a place for high-scoring guards to shine, and that fits Hunter to the letter. He scores twenty points per game on nearly 15 shots per game. That 40 percent field goal percentage certainly isn’t good, but Hunter can light it up in a hurry (sub-par field goal percentage be damned). Don’t mistake Hunter for a simple gunner, though. He sports an incredibly high PER of 26.9, probably due to his high-volume shooting and his almost seven free-throw attempts per game. He’s also become a better passer, averaging nearly four assists per game, which makes him even more dangerous as defenders can’t play him as just a scorer.
Georgia State has a tough first round match up with Baylor, but if Hunter gets hot, as he’s able to do in a flash, Baylor could be on their heels before they know it.