The NCAA Tournament gives college basketball players looking to move to the next level a grand stage to perform on — one that all NBA scouts will be watching.
Tournament games are huge for players, and with them come expectations and overreactions.
The tournament is more about re-affirming a player’s current status on big boards and showing scouts you can play on the biggest stage against the best teams.
On the overreaction front, Cal’s Jaylen Brown isn’t going to fall out of the top 10 of the draft because he played his worst game of the season against Hawaii, but it’s also foolish to say that it didn’t have an effect on his draft stock.
It’s very unlikely that Thomas Walkup of Stephen F. Austin will get selected in the NBA Draft despite putting on arguably the best performances thus far, but he showcased his game to other outlets that could provide him a career playing professional basketball.
With that in mind, it’s still important for these prospects to show scouts they aren’t afraid of the spotlight and can play at a high level against some of the best teams in the country. Here are some of the prospects that succeeded and failed to do that.
Tyler Ulis, PG, Kentucky
Ulis is a pure point guard that can do anything for you on the floor. He’s got hyper-speed that allows him to get anywhere on the court with the ball and he is the pass-first point guard that can find teammates at virtually any angle because of some tremendous floor sense.
Some of the playmaking comes from his one defining weakness — his height. Ulis is only 5-foot-9, but similar to former Suns guard Isaiah Thomas, he appears to be completely in control among the giants in the paint and knows how to manipulate his agility and smaller frame to lanes other guards cannot create.
That’s what Ulis is simply outstanding at. He is always moving with purpose when he has the ball. If you are even less than a step out of position trying to cover him or a teammate of his around him, he will exploit that by beating you to the spot and either scoring or dishing.
He proved that Saturday against Indiana by showing off a quality mid-range game, something that is crucial for a small guard that is always going to have trouble finishing at the rim. Being a threat from the 3-point line (43 percent last year and 35 percent this year) and more importantly, how fast he is, makes him a nearly impossible cover for defenders on ball screens.
His 27 points against very good Indiana point guard Yogi Ferrell showed that he can do more than pass, thrive in ball screen situations and has the leadership and guts to lead an NBA team.
Ulis likely locked himself into a first-round selection and could threaten for the lottery under the right circumstances.
Domantas Sabonis, C, Gonzaga
Scouts were looking forward to the Gonzaga-Utah matchup because Utes center Jakob Poeltl hadn’t faced elite competition down low for most of the season and they wanted to see how he fared against Sabonis.
Instead of Poeltl further solidifying himself as a top-10 pick, he got dominated in every aspect of the game by the smaller Sabonis.
Sabonis’ footwork, intuitiveness and strength were too much for Poeltl. Flashing a game that is somewhat similar to his father’s (Arvydas), Sabonis can get a positive result out of almost any post touch with his masterful footwork, vision of the floor and soft touch around the rim.
The concerns about Sabonis’ athleticism are valid, but the Lithuanian confirmed his toughness by banging around with Poeltl after picking up his dribble and finishing against contact and length.
His jumper — which included a rare 3-pointer — is reliable enough to respect and like Ulis, there’s a slim chance of him slipping into the first round after his play this weekend.
Jaylen Brown, F, Cal
The tournament provides a platform for draft prospects to not only confirm their skill set, but alleviate some of the concerns that scouts develop over the course of seeing them play in high school and college.
Brown had a chance to do that Friday after a disastrous ending to his season in Pac-12 play. He failed miserably.
Seen as too one-dimensional and out of control on offense, Brown had seven turnovers, made just one shot and fouled out after only 17 minutes of play in California’s loss to No. 13 seed Hawaii.
The physical profile of Brown and the positive signs of his slashing game on offense are enough for him to remain in the top 10 of the draft.
What he didn’t do after potentially ending his career at California, however, was show how much he’s grown over the course of a season in Berkeley. Brown will still probably get looks in the top 5 of the draft and remains an intriguing option for a team like the Suns that need a wing, but the tournament showed that he still needs time.
Ben Simmons, F, LSU
Simmons didn’t play in the tournament, but like Brown, he could have used this stage to prove that naysayers wrong and show why he is the No. 1 overall prospect in the draft.
During the tourney, Duke’s Brandon Ingram has showed poise and potential as a scorer in his two games while the negative buzz about Simmons’ game continued.
The Vertical’s Jonathan Givony wrote a piece earlier in the week on why Simmons isn’t the No. 1 prospect in the draft, citing maturity concerns that were present even before arriving at LSU. The hammer in the article was one NBA executive calling him a “taller Rajon Rondo, a more athletic Evan Turner, or a skinnier Royce White,” meaning that some of Simmons’ flashy passes and stuffed box scores aren’t what they appear to be.
Instead of throwing that right in Givony’s face this weekend, Simmons sat at home after his lackluster effort in the SEC Tournament that Givony covered.
The red flags are there for Simmons, and the team selecting first in June potentially have a difficult decision. That very well could be the Suns.