2014 NBA Draft Prospects with the Most to Gain During March Madness
For college hoops prospects hoping to improve their 2014 NBA draft standing, March is a month brimming with opportunity.
A few key prospects have a chance to really boost their stock, enhance their resume and change scouts' minds over the next couple weeks. For some of these youngsters, their momentum is already heading in the right direction.
A pair of Pac-12 playmakers seek to leapfrog the competition by proving their West Coast exploits are more valuable than we thought. Meanwhile, a trio of midwestern standouts are poised to secure improved favor, hoping to use the NCAA tournament as a springboard to draft-day prosperity.
Who exactly are the top prospects with the most to gain during March Madness?
Nik Stauskas, Michigan SG (6'6" Sophomore)
Michigan shooting guard Nik Stauskas has all the offensive attributes to be a premier shooting guard in the NBA. Whether it's driving, creating his own shot or facilitating, he's got the skills and the sense to make all the right plays.
Throughout the season, his draft stock has gradually crept upward, but it hasn't quite boomed in accordance with his skill set. He's been in the shadow of fellow NBA draft candidates Noah Vonleh and Gary Harris, and the craziness of the Big Ten season has prevented the Wolverines from standing out nationally. The 6'6" forward is projected anywhere from 15th to early second-round in most mocks.
All Stauskas needs is the stage of March to cement himself as a late lottery pick.
He's currently gunning his way through the Big Ten tournament, leading Michigan past the likes of Illinois and Ohio State with 19 and 18 points, respectively. If he leads the Blue and Maize to a conference title and plays strong in the NCAAs, his draft status and NBA value could improve markedly.
"He could rise depending on the rest of the year and who else comes out," one NBA scout told SNY.tv's Adam Zagoria.
The difference between being picked in the 20s and landing in the lottery is huge, and Stauskas has that chance to move up. Elite draft status is ripe for the picking.
Russ Smith, Louisville PG (6'0" Senior)
If Russ Smith keeps up his electrifying play and newfound efficiency, he'll earn a place in the early second round, rather than flirting with going undrafted.
Prior to this season, Louisville's undersized speedster was a streaky shooter who couldn't truly operate as a floor general. In 2013-14, he cleaned up his shooting drastically, going from 41 to 48 percent from the floor, and his assist-to-turnover ratio improved from 1.1 to 1.7.
"Russ Smith has evolved," said B/R Lead Writer C.J. Moore. "Shot selection has improved. He's making smarter plays when he drives and is a willing passer."
So far in March, he's showing NBA scouts his dual-threat capabilities as a passer and scorer. He dealt 13 assists against Connecticut to cap the regular season, and he's shot at least 44 percent in six of his last seven games, including AAC tourney play.
Last year, he averaged 2.9 assists per game on Louisville's run to the NCAA title. He's poised to double or triple that number this year; that kind of production against a variety of national opponents would greatly enhance his value as he preps for the next step.
Andrew Wiggins, Kansas F (6'8" Freshman)
This case is a little different than the others.
Due to his skills and unparalleled athletic prowess, Andrew Wiggins entered March with a whole lot to gain (and not much to lose), in the sense that he could go from a top-three pick who's contending for the No. 1 spot to the front-runner who's all but locked up the No. 1 spot.
Securing the top selection is the ultimate gain, and through the first half of the month, it looks like he may already have earned that placement.
“Wiggins is the No. 1 pick,” one veteran NBA scout told Adam Zagoria of SNY.tv on March 14.
In his past three games, he's averaging 31 points and 7.7 rebounds per contest, and that has returned him to rock star status. He's attacking and creating like never before, and that's got NBA decision-makers salivating.
If he keeps playing like that in the NCAA tourney, he would put a vice grip on his place at the top of the heap.
Kyle Anderson, UCLA PG/SF (6'9" Sophomore)
UCLA's intriguing point forward Kyle Anderson is a polarizing figure when it comes to his NBA outlook.
He offers a special set of gifts as a 6'9" passer, but not all pro minds are enthralled with him.
When LA Times reporter Chris Foster asked an NBA scout whether Anderson would be a first-round pick, he said, "He's not on my list. It will depend on who's in love with him."
A good way to get more people in love with him is to carry his Bruins in the NCAA tourney.
Anderson averaged 15 points, 10.3 rebounds, six assists and two steals in the Pac-12 tournament. That's more than respectable, but it might not be enough to convince NBA minds that he's equipped to counteract the speed of the professional ranks.
He needs to show he can hold his own on defense and direct an offensive attack against athletic opponents. If he can deliver the goods against explosive national foes, it could propel him into the mid-first round conversation.
Nick Johnson, Arizona PG/SG (6'3" Junior)
He's been lurking in the reeds all year, widely considered a second-round pick.
Arizona's Nick Johnson is a 6'3" combo guard, so naturally some are concerned about his true NBA role. I don't necessarily blame them, but he has a chance to ease those concerns in a big way this month.
Aaron Gordon is certainly the more attractive prospect from a size and ceiling standpoint, but Johnson could be a rock-solid role player and handle both guard positions.
Somehow, the explosive playmaker is underrated. Grantland's Andrew Sharp talked about how Johnson's creativity and shot-making ability get lost in the shuffle:
...So steady and smart as a combo guard, it’s easy to forget how explosive he can be. On a team with eight stars, the undisputed go-to option when games get close. You might know him from tuning in to Zona games to watch Aaron Gordon, and quickly realizing that Johnson is the best player on the floor.
This time of year is a chance for Johnson to show everyone how athletic and competent he is as a scorer, and also how polished he is as a facilitator.
He only dishes three to five assists on any given night, but that's partially because Arizona doesn't need him to. A closer look at him against the country's top opponents will reveal his first-round appeal.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA Draft for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR