Under The Radar Prospects In This Year’s Tourney | Prospecting: Midwest Region | Prospecting: West Region
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 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 South region, we look at five players with their eyes on a prize in June, rather than March.
1. Jahlil Okafor PF/C Duke, 6-11 270-pound Freshman
Jahlil Okafor entered the season as the consensus No. 1 overall prospect for the 2015 NBA Draft, and his play this year validated those claims. Okafor is a front-runner for the John Wooden Player of the Year Award and was the primary scoring option on one of college basketball’s most dynamic offenses.
Okafor consistently flashed a low-post skill-set that comes around on the collegiate game once in a decade. His footwork is impeccable, and his touch around the rim second to none. In isolation post-ups, Okafor bullied his way towards the rim and finished with both hands. But that’s not the extent of his post moves. He also showed the ability to spin off defenders and finesse his way to the rim, something very few 6-11, 275-pounders can do. He has massive hands that allow him to palm the ball with ease so he can easily zip bullet passes across the court to beat oncoming double teams. Dominant low-post scorers are becoming an endangered species, but Okafor has the tools to become the next back-to-the-basket monster in the NBA.
Although there are a lot of positive things going for Okafor, he’s far from a perfect prospect. He lacks the elite athleticism to take him from a very, very good player to a great player, and he’s not much of a presence on defense — at least in comparison to his refined offensive game. Okafor is a good but not great rebounder and his lack of foot speed makes him a liability guarding the pick-and-roll.
Jahlil Okafor has a post game that most NBA big men would drool over, enough to make him a sure-fire lock to be a top-five pick in this year’s NBA Draft.
2. Justise Winslow – SF Duke, 6-7 230-pound Freshman
Unlike Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow is a NBA-ready athlete whose skills merely need refinement. Winslow is a big, physical wing with elite speed and athleticism.
The Duke guard has already shown tremendous growth in his first season at Duke. His spot-up jumper has transformed from a weakness to a strength, and he’s learning to play under control offensively. Often the best athlete on the court, he has tried to force things offensively, but now he’s learning how to pick his spots and make the most of them.
The Duke freshman is a terrific slasher who uses his body to create and absorb contact around the rim. He’s strong enough to finish through the contact, and he’ll often end plays with dunks that make the Sportscenter highlight the next morning. While Winslow is an effective player in half0court situations, he’s at his best in the open court where he can fully realize his athletic gifts.
Winslow is a terrific on-ball defender as well. He uses his length to keep small defenders in front of him on the perimeter, and he’s strong enough to hold his own against smaller big men on the block. Duke often put Winslow at the power forward position this year alongside Okafor at center, something the team wouldn’t have been able to do if Winslow weren’t able to hold his own against opposing fours and fives.
Justise Winslow has the potential to be a star on the next level. The 6-7 lefty has a smooth game and NBA-caliber hops and explosiveness. He needs to become more consistent offensively and work on his perimeter shot, but he’s one of a small handful of players in this upcoming Draft with “star” potential.
3. Kyle Wiltjer – PF Gonzaga, 6-9 230-pound Junior
It was just a couple of seasons ago we read the headline “Kyle Wiltjer Transfers To Gonzaga,” which left many fans in the “Big Blue Nation” with the notion that Kyle may be making the worse mistake of his college career. Especially so after winning a National Title and Sixth Man of the Year award along Tobacco Road.
In retrospect, judging by how the Bulldogs have played this year, the move Kyle made to Spokane may have saved his career. From SEC Sixth Man of the Year to WCC First Team, Wiltjer has busted onto the scene after transferring from Kentucky, averaging 16.7 PPG while shooting 54% from the floor. His game couldn’t get any sweeter.
The leading scorer is a threat pretty much anywhere on the court and standing at 6-10, he can space the floor, making him an incredibly hard player to guard. Becoming a more balanced player and overall threat has been the main ingredient in Gonzaga’s 32-2 record, and his transformation from spot-up shooter at UK to “Mr. Do-It-All” at Gonzaga is exactly what the program has missed in recent years. His ability to play so well with his teammates and score in big games, makes Kyle Wiltjer a big factor in the success of the Bulldogs come tourney time.
4. Nic Moore — PG Southern Methodist University, 5-9 170-pound Junior
After falling in between the cracks and not making the NCAA Tourney last year (still unbelievable), SMU managed to win its first regular season title since 1993 and nab a relatively high seed in the upcoming tourney. With the Mustangs running on all pistons, it’s Nic Moore who provides this team with the leadership capabilities and hunger to prove naysayers wrong, making him an important player to hone in on in the south region.
Despite being a top-20 caliber group, Nic Moore effortlessly puts the team in a better winning situation whenever he steps on the hardwood. Averaging 14.2 PPG while shooting an efficient 47.9 percent from the field, it’s a no brainer why Nic Moore will be a problem come tournament time. To make matters worse for opposing teams, the floor general and AAC Player of the Year will be riding an incredible high coming into the tournament after knocking off last year’s NCAA champion Huskies in the AAC title game.
5. Malik Pope – SF San Diego State, 6-10 205-pound Freshman
Some players have skill. Some have size. And then some have the perfect mix of both but haven’t put it all together yet. That’s the case with San Diego State’s Malik Pope, who is still a year or two away from being able to compete on the NBA level but oozes potential every time he steps on the court.
Pope only plays about 15 minutes per game for Steve Fisher’s Aztec squad, and he hasn’t been all that productive, but 6-10 forwards with smooth perimeter games don’t come walking down Main Street that often. The 18-year-old drew comparisons to Kevin Durant coming out of high school, and while those are definitely a little (or a lot) off, the comparisons to Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo have some validity. The Greek Freak came into the league with an unpolished game and tremendous athletic ability; less than two years into his NBA career, he’s starting to see major improvements on both ends of the court. Pope has similar athletic abilities as Antetokounmpo, but his offensive game may be a little more advanced at this stage of his career. In a few years, Pope could be an effective player on the professional stage but he definitely needs at least another year or two to hone his offensive skills and add some strength.
Most experts expect Pope to return to SDSU for his sophomore season. If he does, he’ll likely be in the lottery conversation for the 2016 draft.
Honorable Mention: Jakob Poeltl, Utah; Chris Obepka & Rasheed Jordan, St. Johns; Joshua Smith & D’vauntes Smith-Rivera, Georgetown; Delon White, Utah; Tyler Kalinowski, Davidson; Most of Iowa State; Aaron Wright, Iowa