Here’s who Phoenix Suns fans should watch in the NCAA Tournament Sweet 16

Mar 27, 2024, 2:43 PM | Updated: 3:27 pm

Tyler Kolek, Marquette...

Tyler Kolek #11 of the Marquette Golden Eagles celebrates after defeating the Colorado Buffaloes in the second round of the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Gainbridge Fieldhouse on March 24, 2024 in Indianapolis, Indiana. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

The Phoenix Suns’ first round pick in the 2024 NBA Draft sits at No. 19 overall entering Wednesday’s action and there are plenty of March Madness stars who will be available in their range just outside the lottery.

Over general manager James Jones’ tenure making selections for the Suns, he has only selected three players, Cam Johnson (No. 11, 2019), Jalen Smith (No. 10, 2020) and Toumani Camara (No. 52, 2023). None were freshmen and all had good shooting projections.

That criteria has been applied to drafts since then to project ahead for who Jones could be considering in other drafts. That’s why every player listed here is older than a freshman — often much more so — with a solid shooting projection.

We also know that Jones doesn’t mind taking a player well ahead of their projected range, as Johnson and Smith were both expected to be late-first rounders if not second rounders. Camara was completely off many public draft boards entirely.

When Sweet 16 action starts on Thursday with Arizona-Clemson and UConn-San Diego State, here are the players Suns fans should watch closest.

Potential NBA Draft options for Suns fans to watch in the NCAA Tournament’s Sweet 16

Terrence Shannon Jr., Illinois, No. 33 on ESPN’s mock draft

Shannon has been a proven first-round-level player for a while now, and he may have been a first-round pick if he had entered the draft a year ago. 

Instead, he came back to Illinois in hopes of leading his team to postseason success in his fifth collegiate season. The Illini won a Big Ten tournament championship and are in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2005. 

Shannon has been on a tear over his last 14 games, averaging 27.1 points, two assists and one steal per game while shooting 37% on more than seven 3s and getting to the line nearly 10 times per game. 

He scored 30 points on fewer than 15 shots in his team’s second-round win over Duquesne.

He was suspended for part of the season due to a pending rape charge with a May 10 court date in Kansas, but he was reinstated after a judge ruled that him not playing would do more harm to his career than him playing could do to the university. Whatever develops from that is sure to affect his stock.

Shannon and No. 3 Illinois play No. 2 Iowa State on Thursday at 7:09 p.m. on TBS and truTV.

Tyler Kolek, Marquette, No. 29 on both ESPN’s mock draft and The Athletic’s mock draft

Kolek found his way onto NBA radars after his Big East Player of the Year season as a junior. The 6-foot-3 floor general wasn’t able to repeat as a senior but he still earned first team all-conference honors. 

Paired at Marquette with Oso Ighodaro — a big man who starred at Desert Vista High in Phoenix and might be a first-round pick in his own right — Kolek spearheads one of the most dangerous pick-and-roll offenses in the country. 

Kolek averages 7.9 assists per game — the most in the country — and makes 44.9% of his 3s off the catch and could fit seamlessly on a Suns team that may finally be interested in a more traditional point guard. His 22 assists in the tournament thus far rank tops with 11 in each game.

Plus, he would fill the Cameron Payne-sized hole on the team in terms of rotation point guards with a lefty scoop shot off the glass.

Kolek does leave some to be desired defensively, but that’s more because of where his athleticism is at, not a reflection of his basketball smarts or effort.

Kolek and No. 2 Marquette play No. 11 NC State on Friday at 4:09 p.m. on CBS.

Tristen Newton, UConn, No. 29 on ESPN’s tournament rankings among players left

Newton served as a drink stirrer for the Huskies’ championship season a year ago and may lead them to another this season after UConn faced little-to-no resistance in the first two rounds.

He was unrated coming out of high school with no major colleges in pursuit, according to 247Sports, but he enrolled at East Carolina where he played his first three seasons.

In two seasons as a Husky, Newton has made 45-of-111 open 3s off the catch (40.5%) and averaged 5.6 assists per game to just 2.5 turnovers. Although he missed all six of his 3s in the second round against Northwestern, he still managed 20 points and 10 assists to just three turnovers.

He’s happy to play on or away from the ball, which UConn needs from its point guard because of its bevvy of play finishers such as Donovan Clingan, Stephon Castle and Cam Spencer. Plus, his solid positional length at 6-foot-5 lets him defend either backcourt spot well.

His efficiency and ball security will be put to the test in the Sweet 16 against a No. 5 San Diego State team that holds teams to the seventh-lowest effective-shooting percentage among teams left in the field, according to Team Rankings.

Newton and No. 1 UConn play No. 5 San Diego State at 4:39 p.m. on TBS and truTV.

How did potential Suns prospects do in March Madness’ first weekend?

Tennessee wing Dalton Knecht is averaging 20.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and one assist over his two games thus far, including 23 points on 15 shots in a first-round win over Saint Peter’s.

He hasn’t had one of his signature games, such as a 40-point game against prospect-laden Kentucky to close the regular season, but he has a chance to in the Sweet 16 matching up against a high-tempo Creighton squad.

Dayton big man — and Valley native — DaRon Holmes II also averaged 20.5 points over his first two games, but he added 10 rebounds, two assists, three steals and one block per game as well.

He showcased his defense that will translate into the modern NBA very well in both a first-round win over Nevada and a second-round loss to Arizona, while also showing his versatile offensive game at 6-foot-10.

Grand Canyon wing Tyon Grant-Foster had to shoulder a heavy load for the Antelopes, taking 35 shots over the two games he played. He averaged 25.5 points over those two games, resulting in a first-round upset win over Saint Mary’s before nearly upsetting Alabama too.

Grant-Foster is a no-doubt NBA talent especially given how he defends, but he needs to work on his shooting behind the free-throw and 3-point lines to ensure a long career while also managing his heart situation that teams will ask about.

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