It’s been brought to my attention by a certain editor-in-chief that there are people who consider themselves basketball fans yet don’t watch any college basketball until March Madness begins. Apparently, these people prefer the NBA. I guess these fans love following a regular season that drags on endlessly and hate seeing athletes play hard every night. The concept of playing for something bigger than oneself must seem really stupid to them. Either that, or they saw more than 30 seconds of a Wisconsin game and vowed to never again watch college basketball outside of the NCAA tournament. Whatever the case, I feel obligated to do whatever I can to get people interested in college basketball. This is why I’ve decided to help all the NBA fans who will watch their first college games of the season this week. Even though you probably like seeing upsets and thrilling finishes, I’m guessing that you’re most interested in scouting the players who will be in the NBA in the near future. Here are some of the prospects to keep your eye on as you watch the tournament.
One-and-Dones (the Carmelo Anthony All-Stars)
Shabazz Muhammad (UCLA)
I saw Muhammad play Arizona in Tucson in January, and while watching him hang 23 on the sixth-ranked Wildcats en route to an 11-point win, two things stuck out to me: (1) He was by far the best player on the court, and (2) he seemed to be the only person affiliated with UCLA’s program who knew it. In the first five minutes, he hit a spot-up 3, curled off a screen for a midrange jumper, and scored off a post move. Every move he made was fluid and effortless. It was apparent that he saw the game at a different speed, and I was sure that he was about to go for 40. Then Ben Howland inexplicably took him out for a couple minutes, and when Muhammad checked back in it was as if his teammates forgot that he was just torching Arizona minutes earlier. He became visibly frustrated, began forcing plays, and even though more often than not he ended up making something good happen, he had clearly lost his rhythm. This sort of thing has happened in just about every game I’ve seen him play.
So here’s your takeaway: Although Muhammad is more than capable of doing so, don’t expect to see him carry the Bruins. That doesn’t mean he’s a player who won’t live up to the enormous hype he had coming out of high school once he makes it to the NBA. Sure, he’s probably not going to have a game in the tournament that will leave you thinking My team needs to do whatever it can to get this guy, but I can just about guarantee that he will flash his brilliance enough to make you realize that if he’s drafted into the right environment, there’s no telling how good Muhummad can be.
Marcus Smart (Oklahoma State)
Smart is the closest thing the college game has to LeBron James. Before you lose your mind and call me out for making this ludicrous comparison, let me clarify. I don’t think Smart will ever be close to as good as LeBron, but that’s not what I’m trying to say. Smart is like LeBron in that he’s the only guy I can think of in college basketball who can do everything there is to be done on a basketball court. If he focused on only one facet of the game every time he played, he could probably score 30 points, dish out 20 assists, pull down 15 rebounds, or get 10 steals. Instead, he does a little of everything, which is why he’s so highly regarded and has a chance to be the top overall pick.
At 6-foot-4 and just a 30 percent 3-point shooter, intuition would tell you that Smart will play point guard in the NBA. In truth, I’m not sure he has a natural position. He’s just a basketball player with a great feel for the game, surprising leadership abilities for a young player, and a willingness to do whatever he can to help his team win. Smart is unlike any player in college basketball and it’s hard to fully understand his game unless you watch him play, so if you’re looking for one must-watch guy in the tournament, make it him.
Anthony Bennett (UNLV)
Bennett is the interior version of Marcus Smart. He’s the most versatile player in college basketball from the standpoint that he shoots 38 percent from the 3-point line but also has the ability to dominate on the block. Actually, I got that backward — he’s a guy who dominates on the block but also has the ability to step out and knock down 3s. This is an important distinction. Far too often, tall guys who can shoot get mislabeled as “versatile,” when in reality they’re just tall guys who can shoot.1 Bennett, though, is a legitimate post threat who can bang on the block with anybody, and oh, by the way, he can shoot from anywhere and put the ball on the deck, too. Assuming his jump shot continues to improve, he could potentially play three different positions in the NBA and create mismatches against just about anybody who guards him. This is why it wouldn’t surprise me one bit if he ends up being the best pro player from this rookie class.
I could go on all day about Bennett, but there’s nothing I can say about him that his performance at Cal last December can’t say about him 100 times better. Two things to look out for: the sequence that starts 23 seconds into the video, and the baseline drive and dunk with a minute left in the game.
Lottery Locks Who Aren’t One-and-Dones (the Blake Griffin Brotherhood)
Ben McLemore (Kansas)
I’m guessing my opinion doesn’t mean much to NBA GMs, but if any of them asked me who I think should be taken first overall in June’s draft, I’d say McLemore with no hesitation. He’s a 6-foot-5, long-armed, elite athlete with one of the prettiest jump shots in the game. In other words, he is the perfect prototypical NBA shooting guard. In what everyone agrees is a down year for college basketball from an individual talent perspective, McLemore is as close to a sure thing as you’re going to find. Oh, and he’s also responsible for my favorite college basketball GIF of all time.
What’s scary about McLemore is that I still don’t think he’s fully aware of how good he is. He’s had a few games this year — scoring 33 at home against Iowa State, including the banked-in 3 to send the game to overtime, and putting up 30 points and seven rebounds at home against 10th-ranked Kansas State — where he knew he was the man and he played like it. But McLemore also has a tendency to play passively. If every time he took the floor he had an “I’m better than all of you and I’m about to prove it” attitude, he could average 25 a game and be the most exciting college basketball player in recent memory. But because he plays for one of the best teams in the country and Kansas’s four other starters are seniors, he defers to them more than he probably should. This is why he needs to go to the NBA right now. He needs to be drafted first overall, spend all summer getting patted on the back and told how awesome he is, and let his ego swell. That way he’ll bust down the doors of the locker room on the first day of training camp and ask “Which one of you is the second-best player on this team?” before going on to a lengthy career of kicking ass and taking names.
Victor Oladipo (Indiana)
Oladipo is probably the most intriguing prospect in college basketball. At the start of the year, very few people outside the state of Indiana thought much of his NBA draft stock. Last season he showed that he was a great athlete who could attack the rim, play pretty strong defense, and make the occasional jaw-dropping play. But his game was way too unrefined for anyone to take him seriously as a legitimate first-round pick. He gambled on defense too much, he didn’t really have a jump shot, and he was a shaky ball handler. Somehow, he fixed pretty much every flaw in his game during the offseason,2 and by the time Christmas rolled around, Oladipo had wedged himself into the national player of the year discussion. A month later, some were wondering if he would be the first overall pick in the draft. Since then, he’s cooled off a bit and will likely get drafted in the 7-to-10 range, but it’s still remarkable to think that he’s a lottery lock when a season ago his chances at an NBA career seemed nonexistent.
The biggest thing standing in Oladipo’s way right now and the one thing that could keep you from being impressed as you watch Indiana play in the tournament is Hoosiers coach Tom Crean. All season long, Crean has defied logic with his substitution patterns, and he has left Oladipo on the bench during crucial stretches of games. In the same way that Ben Howland doesn’t seem to appreciate what he has with Shabazz Muhammad, Crean apparently doesn’t realize how good Oladipo has gotten since last year, as evidenced by the fact that Oladipo is averaging only 1.4 more minutes and 0.5 more shot attempts per game than he did a season ago. Despite being underused on offense, however, Oladipo still plays some of the best defense in the country and has a knack for making huge plays on both ends of the court, which is why he’ll definitely be drafted in the lottery.
Otto Porter (Georgetown)
If you value a player based on how much worse his team would be without him, Otto Porter would be your pick for national player of the year. Georgetown was unranked at the start of the season, yet it ended up getting a 2-seed in the tournament, primarily because Porter has been unstoppable in a breakout year. He’s averaging 16 points and seven rebounds, which becomes even more impressive when you realize that Georgetown is notorious for playing low-possession games. He has added a 3-point shot to his game, he sees the floor really well for a big guy, and his 7-foot-1 wingspan helps him play great defense.
What makes Porter truly great, however, is that he’s fundamentally sound. This, of course, is just my way of saying that there’s no flash to his game. So many guys these days are all about shooting 3s or dunking, but Porter is a throwback in the sense that he understands that a shot-fake, one-dribble pull-up from 15 feet is worth just as many points as a nasty dunk. He’s got a great all-around offensive game, his defense might be even better, and for being just 19 years old he plays with a maturity and poise that’s rare, even in the NBA. This, along with his high basketball IQ, is why he promises to have a great professional career.
Specialists (the United Steve Novaks and Reggie Evanses of America)
Deshaun Thomas (Ohio State)
If anyone in Thomas’s circle of family and friends has any sense, they’ll convince him to stay out of this year’s draft and to return for his senior season at Ohio State. But I’m including him here because my guess is that being the leading scorer in the country’s toughest conference will make him think he’s a better NBA prospect than he actually is. He’ll keep his name in the draft and he won’t get drafted until the second round because there’s really only one thing he can do well. In Thomas’s defense, however, that one thing is scoring, which makes him the best kind of one-dimensional player. Ohio State fans have joked for three years now about his refusal to pass, how he cares only about how many points he scores, and how he’s destined to have a 30-shot game before his time in Columbus is through. And although most of these jokes are derived from the truth and he can definitely take some pretty stupid shots from time to time, most Buckeyes fans don’t mind, because he has proven over the years that he’s capable of making anything. His defense is suspect, he’s not a great athlete, and he doesn’t always make the smartest decisions. But by God he knows how to put a basketball through a hoop.
Seth Curry (Duke)
Because his leg could supposedly fall off at any moment, I’m not sure if Seth Curry has a great chance to be drafted. Some team will probably take a chance on him, though, if for no other reason than his bloodline. Speaking of which, if for some reason you aren’t aware of who he is, informing you that he is Dell’s son and Steph’s brother should give you an idea of what his game is about. Spoiler alert: The answer is, in the words of Thad Matta, “shooting the piss out of the ball.” He’s the best shooter in the country3 and he’s in range as soon as he steps over half court, which is great for him because he likely won’t be able to do much else on an NBA court than knock down 3s.
Jeff Withey (Kansas)
I stopped caring about Jeff Withey’s blocks records the moment I found out that blocks weren’t an official statistic when Wilt Chamberlain played. But in case you’re into that sort of thing, you should know that Withey is the Big 12 leader in career blocks, he set the record last year for blocks in a single NCAA tournament, and he’s rumored to be the inspiration behind Cash Money Millionaires’ “Baller Blockin’.” Anyway, the point is that Withey — who is 7 feet and has a volleyball background4 — is a shot-blocking machine. He’s such a defensive force that he has a good chance at getting drafted in the first round. Some Kansas fans would argue that Withey has a solid arsenal of post moves as well, and I partially agree. But he’ll never be much of an offensive threat in the NBA and almost all of his production will come on defense and as a rebounder, so I’m tagging him as a specialist.
Second-Round Steals (the Chandler Parsons Award Finalists)
Rodney Williams (Minnesota)
Williams has had a disappointing season. His points, rebounds, assists, steals, and shooting percentages have all dropped since last year. But I think he could end up being a steal for somebody — probably the Spurs, because it’s always the Spurs — because his length is tremendous enough to send Jay Bilas into an upside-related seizure, he’s a phenomenal athlete, and most importantly he won’t be coached by Tubby Smith in the NBA. When Williams is mentally engaged and not thinking about how his team is in the midst of yet another nosedive, his defense is second to none. He has all the physical tools you could ever want in an NBA player — the only things he lacks are confidence, a coach who can identify his strengths, and a little bit more polish on his game (nothing a great offseason can’t fix).
Jamaal Franklin (San Diego State)
Can I interest you in a 6-foot-5 shooting guard who averages 17 points, almost 10 rebounds, and three assists per game in one of the toughest conferences in college basketball? That’s right — a shooting guard in the best conference on the West Coast averages 9.5 rebounds. This brings up an obvious question: Why isn’t he a surefire first-rounder? Well, um, there is one small thing — Franklin is a shooting guard who kind of can’t shoot. Last year he shot 33 percent from the 3-point line, which is pretty mediocre for most but is great for him considering this season he’s shooting 27 percent. Despite this, I’m still saying Franklin will be a steal, especially since jump shots can be fixed (or at least greatly improved) in a few months.5 Plus, he does everything else so well that even if his jump shot never comes around, Franklin still should be able to contribute.
Nate Wolters (South Dakota State)
Truth be told, I don’t know all that much about Wolters. I’ve seen him play only a few times because his games are rarely on TV, and the games I did get to see were against awful competition. But I know this: He’s a 6-foot-4 point guard who averages 23 points a game and shoots 40 percent from behind the arc, and in December he scored 28 points as his Jackrabbits handed New Mexico its only home loss of the season. And I know that he scored 53 points in a six-point win in February, and then followed up that performance two days later by scoring 36 in a five-point loss. The man can fill it up. Thankfully, with his first tournament game coming against Michigan, he’ll be matched up with Trey Burke — who will likely win most of the national player of the year awards this season — so we’ll get to see how good Wolters really is. With that in mind, think of Wolters as less of a “player who will be a second-round steal” and more of a “player who maybe might kind of sort of potentially be a second-round steal just because he averages a million points, but I’m not entirely sure since I haven’t seen him play against many good teams.”
Busts (the Michael Olowokandi Society)
Cody Zeller (Indiana)
I’m sure Zeller will end up having a decent NBA career. He’s a skilled 7-footer who runs the floor like a guard and has looked like the best player in the country on a few occasions this year. But for a guy who was hyped as the preseason national player of the year, a potential top overall pick, and the savior of Indiana basketball, I just can’t envision a scenario in which he lives up to these expectations. As Indiana fans know all too well, Zeller lets stronger big men push him around far too easily, he doesn’t play great defense other than hedging ball screens, and he just isn’t that aggressive. That last bit is the source of most of my doubts — Zeller lacks that “give me the damn ball and get out of my way because I’m about to drop-step dunk on someone and rip down the rim” kind of tenacity. That’s something you want to see from a big man. Again, I think he’ll be a decent NBA player. But considering he’ll likely be drafted in the top five and will therefore be expected to be a franchise-changer, “decent” won’t be good enough.
Michael Carter-Williams (Syracuse)
If there’s a projected lottery pick who could benefit most from returning for another year of NCAA ball, it’s Carter-Williams. Although he’s a sophomore, this is his first year receiving solid playing time for Syracuse, and unfortunately his inexperience has been apparent throughout the season. If Carter-Williams came back for his junior season, he’d be on my short list of national player of the year candidates. He’s so physically gifted that his flaws won’t be as obvious against college competition and he can continue to improve. But if he goes to the NBA, he’ll get drafted in the lottery and possibly be the starting point guard on opening night for a terrible team with high expectations for him. He’ll struggle in that role because his decision-making can be pretty bad and he can’t really shoot, and then the local media will start to pick him apart. His confidence will begin to erode and might get destroyed beyond repair, and Carter-Williams will end up being a career role guy. But as The Dude would say, that’s just, like, my opinion, man.
Glenn Robinson III (Michigan)
I’m not sure if Robinson will turn pro after this year, especially since John Beilein can promise that he’ll be the man at Michigan next year if he comes back. But if he does enter the draft, he’ll probably be a lottery pick. And based on what I’ve seen from him, he’ll probably struggle in the NBA. This isn’t to say that Robinson doesn’t have the potential to be great. It’s just that right now potential is all he’s got. Some NBA fans and GMs see that as a reason to take a chance on a guy and hope he develops, but I’ve always believed in drafting proven guys. If I’m spending millions on a player and planning to eventually hand the franchise over to him, I want to know what I’m getting. With Robinson, you’re not entirely sure what you’re going to get. He’s been inconsistent all year for the Wolverines, he doesn’t play great defense, and even when he does play well he doesn’t dominate like a lottery pick should. I wouldn’t blame him one bit for getting his NBA riches, but much like Carter-Williams, another year of college would do wonders for him and could end up making a big difference in his NBA career.
Won’t Get Drafted but Is Still Worth Watching (the Jeff Sheppard Appreciation Club)
Khalif Wyatt (Temple)
I’ve signed up for the Khalif Wyatt Experience three times this season, and in each game I was blown away by how good he is. Actually, let me rephrase that — I was blown away by how good he is, given that he’s smaller than I am and probably less athletic, too. I tuned in to see him drop 33 on Syracuse in December, 26 on Kansas in January, and 34 on Saint Joe’s in February. During these three games, I must’ve heard commentators say “He has an old-man game” or “He has a lot of junk to his game” no fewer than 100 times. I want to make fun of them for harping on Wyatt’s playing style, but the reality is that it’s the first thing you notice and it sticks with you. Long after you watch him play, you’re still scratching your head trying to figure out how he just put up 25 points against bigger and better athletes. He’s a king of pump fakes, using angles to score, leaning into guys to create separation, and various other tricks that you’d find in any rec league in America. Because of his athletic deficiencies, he has virtually no chance of being drafted. But that doesn’t mean he’s not worth watching. Believe me when I say that if he brings his A-game, he’s one of the most fascinating players in the sport and he’s more than capable of single-handedly carrying Temple past North Carolina State and Indiana.