Top 2014 NBA Draft Prospects to Watch in NCAA Tournament
For college hoops' top NBA draft prospects, the 2014 NCAA tournament is one last chance to make a statement.
Some of the safer studs in the class won't be affected too much by the tournament's adventures, but it's still a pleasure to watch them as they prepare for the next level.
How will the sensational freshmen fare in their first (and last) Big Dance? And what kind of show will the polished crew of upperclassmen put on?
We're breaking down all of the top draft candidates playing on the country's biggest stage. There's a great reason to tune in to watch each one of them.
*Joel Embiid was omitted due to his back injury, as he's ruled out for at least the first weekend of the tournament.
10. Doug McDermott, Creighton F (6'8" Senior)
Why tune in? He's got legitimate NBA range and some of the best footwork around.
2013-14 Stats: 26.9 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 53% FG, 45% 3-PT
NBA fans, this is your last chance to watch Doug McDermott do his thing at the college level.
There's been a lot of discussion this year as to whether his game will translate to the pros, and in the NCAA tourney, you'll find that his offense is worth the late-lottery interest.
Creighton's decorated senior doesn't just "possess" NBA range like some other prospects. He makes NBA range look downright easy on a regular basis, and he owns a quick, picture-perfect delivery.
While he possesses great instincts and footwork as a post player, his college production in the paint isn't indicative of his professional role. McDermott will be a small forward in the pros.
He won't be able to create off the bounce too much, nor will he be a good defender. Nevertheless, McDermott will prove to be more than a shooting specialist because he's so sharp with and without the ball.
9. Tyler Ennis, Syracuse G (6'2" Freshman)
Why tune in? His veteran-like poise and instincts are amazing for a freshman.
2013-14 Stats: 12.7 PPG, 5.6 APG, 37% 3-PT
With a phenomenal January and February, Syracuse freshman point guard Tyler Ennis skyrocketed up draft boards and earned lottery projections. His cool command of the Orange revealed that he's one of the best backcourt options in this draft, period.
Let's see how he fares in the pressure-cooker that is the NCAA tournament.
Ennis' NBA appeal is based on his polished ball-handling skills and ability to set up teammates. The young floor general finds shooters in transition, controls the tempo when necessary and feeds the bigs on a dime.
But what about his less-than-stellar athleticism? Can he score enough to be a threat in the Association?
In the Big Dance, he'll answer both of those questions. Ennis craftily uses hesitation and change of direction to create separation against athletic opponents, and his jumper is more than promising. The Orange will go as far as he can take them.
8. Zach LaVine, UCLA G (6'5" Freshman)
Why tune in? He shows flashes of bullet speed and long-range prowess.
2013-14 Stats: 10.0 PPG, 1.9 APG, 45% FG, 40% 3-PT
Despite the UCLA Bruins' Pac-12 title, Zach LaVine had an up-and-down finish to the conference tournament and didn't see much playing time in the semifinals and finals.
Therefore, the Big Dance is an opportunity for him to remind everyone why he's such a tempting prospect.
LaVine is somewhat of a risky pick in the lottery, because his shot-creating skills aren't advanced and he owns a slight frame. Plus, we haven't even seen a truly substantial sampling of his work, as he rarely played more than 20-25 minutes in any game.
However, if he eventually accesses his ceiling, the team that picks him will be absolutely thrilled. LaVine could be a dynamic scorer from long-range and as a slasher, and he could also become a part-time point guard. Who wouldn't want to have a guy who could post 15-20 points, 4-5 dimes and 40 percent from distance?
7. Rodney Hood, Duke SF (6'8" Sophomore)
Why tune in? He's one of the best role players you'll find.
2013-14 Stats: 16.4 PPG, 3.9 RPG, 47% FG, 42% 3-PT
Rodney Hood doesn't wow you with jaw-dropping plays and demonstrations of physical superiority like Jabari Parker. He's not explosive, doesn't have an impressive wingspan (6'8") and has a slender build.
But he scored 16 points per game in ACC play, and that has to count for something.
During Duke's games, most of the cameras have been on Parker, but it was Hood who bailed the freshman out during his slump.
The Mississippi State transfer does an excellent job of scoring within the flow of the offense. Of course, it doesn't hurt that he owns a reliable three-point jumper that burns opponents when they stray too far.
Hood can do a lot more than score from the perimeter, and we'll see his mid-range game on full display as the Blue Devils work their way through the Midwest bracket.
6. Nik Stauskas, Michigan SG (6'6" Sophomore)
Why tune in? He's a multidimensional offensive juggernaut.
2013-14 Stats: 17.5 PPG, 3.3 APG, 48% FG, 45% 3-PT
From his freshman to sophomore seasons, it became increasingly difficult to defend Nik Stauskas.
You can't give him an inch, or he'll torch you from deep. You can't overcommit to his jumper, because he'll beat you off the bounce. You can't simply clog the paint, because he'll quickly find the open man. And you can't lose track of him in transition, because he'll finish at the rim.
So college teams basically have to play perfect defense to stop him. And in a few years, NBA teams will have to be 100 percent sharp against him or he'll do the same thing.
I know it seems like I'm raving about him and putting him on a pedestal, but he's not perfect. He'll have some trouble defending the quicker wings in the NBA, and he's not strong enough yet to consistently take the rock into the lion's den.
5. Gary Harris, Michigan State SG (6'4" Sophomore)
Why tune in? He's the best two-way shooting guard in the draft.
2013-14 Stats: 17.1 PPG, 2.7 APG, 42% FG, 35% 3-PT
The No. 4 seed Michigan State Spartans are one of the hottest teams in the country, and many are anticipated a deep NCAA tournament run out of them.
Let's hope it happens, because that means we'll get to see more Gary Harris.
He hasn't posted eye-popping numbers this year, but the eye test is more than enough to warrant top-10 consideration. Harris upgraded his ball-handling skills, displayed increased assertiveness on drives and his defense has been solid all season.
The 6'4" shooter gets bonus points for moving magnificently without the ball and making life easier for his point guards.
4. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State G (6'4" Sophomore)
Why tune in? His competitiveness, aggressiveness and defensive playmaking isn't exaggerated.
2013-14 Stats: 17.8 PPG, 4.7 APG, 5.7 RPG, 43% FG, 30% 3-PT
There are competitors, and then there's Marcus Smart.
Oklahoma State's sophomore combo guard doesn't miss an opportunity to drive to the hole, blitz an opposing point guard or crash the boards. He's completely comfortable taking over as a scorer, but he's also willing to work away from the ball or operate as a facilitator.
All of these attributes will keep him in the league for a long time and help him thrive as a versatile contributor.
But competitiveness and defensive instincts won't help him create shots, and his off-ball toiling won't make his jump shot more consistent. Those are two significant areas he must work on.
Let's see how he gets his buckets in the Big Dance. Will he show signs of improvement?
3. Julius Randle, Kentucky PF (6'9" Freshman)
Why tune in? He's a relentless force in the paint.
2013-14 Stats: 15.0 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 50% FG
Kentucky's Julius Randle entered the 2013-14 season in the same draft neighborhood as Jabari Parker and Andrew Wiggins, but he hasn't kept up with their brilliant pace.
But we're not about to scoff at a nightly double-double and routine domination of the paint.
Randle was constantly a presence on the glass, and even if his scoring repertoire isn't fully developed, he was able to face up and punish foes at times.
One scout told Basketball Insiders' Alex Kennedy he believes Randle would have shined more this season if the Wildcats played more efficiently:
I really think he’s someone who will benefit from playing with a better team. If you watch Kentucky, their point guard play and shooters have been bad, which has made things really tough for him.
If the 'Cats can parlay their good SEC run into a great NCAA run, will we see Randle's best NBA audition yet?
2. Jabari Parker, Duke F (6'8" Freshman)
Why tune in? He's the only freshman in this class who can legitimately take over a game on the perimeter and interior.
2013-14 Stats: 19.3 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 48% FG, 37% 3-PT
Over the past couple weeks, we've seen Jabari Parker take over several games and put Duke in a position to win.
In the open floor, he showed his ability to go coast-to-coast or splash triples to keep the defense honest. When he gets the ball in close quarters, he can beat you in a bunch of ways: Parker can square up to the hoop and powerfully drive with either hand, or he can put his back to the basket and turn over either shoulder.
Doug McDermott may have the most polished scoring skills in this draft class, but Jabari Parker is the player who's best equipped to quickly become a star.
It looks like he'll be better served playing against better competition next year. This NCAA tourney is his last chance to make his case for No. 1 overall in June.
1. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas SF (6'8" Freshman)
Why tune in? He's the most electrifying prospect, period.
2013-14 Stats: 17.4 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 45% FG, 35% 3-PT
Jabari Parker is an outstanding prospect, and may be deserving of the top pick in the draft.
However, for my money, Andrew Wiggins is the top prospect to watch in March Madness, especially after what he did during the Big 12 tourney.
This new, aggressive Wiggins is loads of fun to watch. He's consistently attacking the basket off the dribble, confidently knocking down jumpers and applying himself on the boards. That kind of approach, coupled with the absence of Joel Embiid, makes him much more of a threat to frequently drop 25-plus points.
Whenever his offensive polish and defensive fundamentals catch up with his raw athleticism, the NBA will be on red alert.
Wiggins is still much more of a long-term asset rather than a near-future savior. With that in mind, let's enjoy a potentially scintillating NCAA tourney.
Dan O'Brien covers the NBA draft for Bleacher Report.
Follow him on Twitter: @DanielO_BR