Hey, did you hear that the NCAA Tournament is back? Apparently they didn’t play it last year or something. While I strongly suggest not basing all your opinions on the Draft on what you see in the Tournament, the reality is that most NBA fans aren’t going to see much college ball outside the occasional primetime ESPN game. So if you’re looking for some players whose stock could actually rise nationally with a deep run, here’s some names to keep an eye on.
Nah’Shon “Bones” Hyland, guard, VCU
A lightly-recruited scoring guard from the class of 2019 (he missed an entire year due to tearing up his knee while escaping a house fire in which he lost his grandmother and brother), Hyland has spent this, his sophomore campaign, destroying defenses in the Atlantic 10 to the tune of 19.5 points per game while shooting just over 37 percent from three on just under 14 attempts per 100 possessions. At 6’3, Hyland is a little small for a pure scorer-type guard. He’s not much of a passer, but he’s gotten much better this season at getting to the rim and to the line, and the shooting is good enough to carry both him and VCU to the Sweet 16 and beyond. For our purposes, perhaps this will cement him as a mid-to-late first rounder this year, whenever the Draft may be.
Tre Mann, guard, Florida
Another scoring guard from the class of 2019, Mann was a five-star recruit who disappointed during his first season, mostly because he just couldn’t create enough space for himself, shooting only 35 percent from the field and 27 percent from three with a ghastly offensive rating of 87.6. This year, with Keyontae Johnson out most of the season, Florida has needed someone to step up offensively, and Mann has been more than up to the task, putting up 20.2 points, 7.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game while shooting 45 percent from the field, 39 percent from three, and just under 85 percent from the line.
Most impressively, he’s doing this while only being assisted on 19 percent of his shots at the rim, 36 percent of his threes, and an astounding two percent of all other field goals. Shot creation is the name of the game for Mann, and he’s matured enough both physically and mentally to do it well enough to pull an otherwise just okay team as far as possible. Right now, he’s sort of stuck in that morass between the late lottery and the second round if he declares, but a strong tourney run could easily and deservedly make Tre Mann into a lottery pick.
Jaden Springer, guard, Tennessee
Unlike teammate Keon Johnson, Springer has not spent most of the season as a projected lottery pick. Despite their similar pedigrees and production, Springer, one of the youngest players in this class, has mostly flown under the mainstream radar this season.
Statistically, there’s really no explanation for it. He scores (19.5 points per 40), rebounds (5.5 boards per 40), makes passes (4.5 assists per 40 for a primary shooting guard), shoots (44.4 percent from deep), makes plays on defense (2.3 BLK% and 2.8 STL%), and just overall produces at a very high level for a freshman in the SEC. He’s also a tremendous perimeter defender, skills he doesn’t always get to flash with players like Johnson or Yves Pons around him. A potential second round matchup with Cade Cunningham may await, and Springer acquitted himself quite well in that matchup in high school.
With Springer, the limitations seem to just be aesthetics. He’s a two-footed leaper who doesn’t play way above the rim, his shot is a little janky, and his game is mostly predicated on intelligence and physical power. He’s not a sexy player at all, but he’s exceptionally good, exceptionally young, and exceptionally ready to prove himself a top-10 player in this class.
Trey Murphy III, forward, Virginia
A transfer from Rice, Murphy — along with fellow transfer Sam Hauser and longtime Cavaliers standout Jay Huff — has formed one of the best shooting frontcourts in recent NCAA history. All three are 6’8 or taller and all shoot at least 40 percent from three and 83 percent of the line. On the latter, Murphy is almost at 93 percent. While he’s not an elite athlete vertically, Murphy is very lean, lanky, and active. He moves fairly well, and despite his pedestrian block and steal rates (a common problem for UVA wings), he’s a good defensive player. He’s likely not too much of a shot creator on his own, but the value of an elite shooting 6’9 wing player should be obvious in today’s NBA. At almost 21, Murphy is one of the older players on this list, but he’s NBA ready and a strong showing in the Tournament could propel him into the late first round range, where I believe he belongs.
Chris Duarte, guard, Oregon
Speaking of older, elite shooters, Duarte’s relative lack of Draft hype has been nothing but confounding. Sure, he’s almost 24 years old, but Desmond Bane and Duncan Robinson have proven that age is less important when you’re not drafting in the lottery or hunting for superstars. If you want a player who will shoot and defend at an extremely high level on the wing, Duarte is your man.
He’s a 43 percent three point shooter on a high volume, with only about two-thirds of his makes coming off assists, which gives him a little more versatility than guys like Murphy or even Corey Kispert. A huge 3.3 steal rate can be misleading, but in Duarte’s case, it’s very representative of how great he is on defense. He’s 6’6, makes passes, and just generally looks like a plug-and-play wing in the NBA right now.
This Oregon team has dealt with its share of injuries, but they look to be close to fully healthy, and Duarte is their best player, as well as being one of the best players in the entire Pac-12. He should be getting looked at by NBA teams anywhere outside the lottery.
Cade Cunningham, guard/forward, Oklahoma State
Cunningham is the consensus No. 1 player almost everywhere, but hear me out. There’s been far too much speculation about Jalen Suggs or Evan Mobley or Jonathan Kuminga overtaking this spot for my taste. Cunningham came into the season a surefire, no doubt No. 1 prospect and he’s only solidified that position more and more. Sure, he’s got more turnovers than assists, that’s not great, but the context of his situation at Oklahoma Stat needs more context than that.
He’s the only player on the team shooting 38 percent or higher from three (on any real attempts) and he’s essentially playing full-time power forward. The defense and rebounding have been as advertised, the quality of his passing has been excellent (most of the turnover issues have been dealing with on ball pressure from two or more defenders) and most importantly, the shooting has been tremendous. Aside from the aforementioned Mann, no player anywhere near my top-100 prospects shoots a higher percentage from three on a lower amount of assisted makes than Cunningham. He’s shooting just under 42 percent from deep and only being assisted on 42 percent of his attempts. This level of shotmaking, which he has shown off consistently throughout the back half of the Big 12 schedule (some of the best competition in the country) is really a huge step forward for him, given how hesitant he was to shoot before now.
The truth is, Cunningham wants to be Chris Paul, setting up teammates instead of hunting for his shot, but the relative lack of firepower around him in Stillwater has sort of forced his hand, and he’s that much better a player and prospect for it. As it stands now, he has very few flaws, if any (aside from a relative lack of burst, which is excusable for a player his size), and his ceiling as a top player in the NBA seems higher than ever. The problem is, I’m not sure the mainstream Draft coverage quite understands that. Mostly I think it’s just to stir up clicks about Suggs or Mobley or Green or whomever, but Cunningham seems to be viewed historically on a much lower tier than Luka Dončić or Zion Williamson are. I’m not sure that’s correct, and I’m hoping a Sweet 16 or better run will help alleviate that.