Ranking the Top 2014 NBA Draft Prospects in the Elite 8

Daniel O'Brien@@DanielO_BRFeatured ColumnistMarch 29, 2014

Ranking the Top 2014 NBA Draft Prospects in the Elite 8

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    Bruce Bennett/Getty Images

    With the NCAA field of 68 narrowed down to the Elite Eight, only a handful of top 2014 NBA draft prospects are still in action.

    By staying alive and making a deep run in March Madness, these future professionals are giving themselves some extra time in the limelight and an opportunity to enhance their resume.

    Teams like Michigan State, Kentucky and Arizona all have multiple first-round-caliber players on their rosters. Keep an eye on these potential NBA studs as they battle for a spot in the Final Four.

    To honor the Elite Eight round of the tournament, we broke down our "Elite Eight" draft prospects.

    *Rankings include prospects widely projected to land in the first round of the 2014 NBA draft. Ranking order is based on prospects' overall draft value.

    *Player measurements gathered from ESPN.com.

8. James Young, Kentucky G/F (6'6" Freshman)

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    Michael Conroy

    Earlier in the 2013-14 season, James Young was ranked ahead of most of the players on this list, as his size and shooting upside earned him top-10 consideration on many mocks.

    Since then, he hasn't done enough skill-wise to maintain lottery projections. He remains an attractive long-term option, but his shot-creating skills and fundamentals on both ends leave something to be desired.

    When it comes to spot-up triples or quick, one-dribble slashes, he's a capable player who can put the ball in the hoop. But he can't square up high-level defenders and beat them off the dribble, and he's not explosive enough to blow anyone away.

    On defense, he needs to upgrade his on-ball footwork and his off-ball awareness. Both issues could make him a liability if his NBA coach gave him minutes next season.

    It's important to remember, however, that he's just 18 years old. Five years from now, we could be looking at a much different player.

7. Adreian Payne, Michigan State PF (6'10" Senior)

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    Young Kwak

    While consistently producing in the frontcourt during Michigan State's Elite Eight run, Adreian Payne has boosted his draft stock and solidified his status as a future stretch 4.

    There's only so much a player can prove in a couple of games, but Payne has looked impressive in five straight contests for the Spartans, bombing away from distance and converting key buckets around the basket.

    Entering the 2013-14 season, NBA scouts were cautiously hoping to see some efficient long-range shooting from the power forward.

    They certainly got it, especially in the Big Dance. Payne is 7-of-13 from beyond the arc in the tourney, and he's helped stretch opposing defenses to open up room for Spartans bruiser Branden Dawson.

    Payne also shows promise in other key areas, including his post-up turnaround and emphatic finishes above the rim. He's looking more and more like a dependable mid-first-round option.

6. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona F (6'7" Freshman)

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    Mark J. Terrill

    He stands just 6'7", but Rondae Hollis-Jefferson has utilized his 7'1" wingspan and top-tier athleticism to overwhelm opponents during the NCAA tournament.

    For much of the year, he was widely considered a 2015 prospect who needed another year of polishing. But after his exploits in March, his stock may improve enough to make the jump regardless.

    He has scored in double figures and crashed the boards in each of the Wildcats' tourney contests. His performance against Gonzaga was particularly impressive, as he shot 5-of-7 while dishing five assists and blocking four shots.

    With the agility of a guard and the length of a power forward, Hollis-Jefferson can cover a ton of ground and make brilliant plays in space.

    These physical tools are what fuel his draft stock, but it's his ability to impact the game with energy and unselfishness that give him an advantage over other great athletes.

5. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky F/C (7'0" Sophomore)

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    Thomas J. Russo-USA TODAY Sports

    Just four minutes into his outing against Louisville, Willie Cauley-Stein suffered a left ankle injury that kept him out for the rest of the game. Kentucky coach John Calipari told reporters after the game, "It's not a good ankle injury, let me just put it that way."

    His status for the rest of the tournament is unclear, and it's too early to tell whether this injury is big enough to affect his draft stock at all. For now, he remains the best center prospect on any of the Elite Eight teams.

    Cauley-Stein's NBA value lies primarily in his shot-blocking ability, which we recently saw in the SEC title game against Florida (five blocks) and the NCAA round of 64 against Kansas State (four blocks). Steve Kyler of Basketball Insiders noted that the Wildcats' 7-footer "might be best rim-protector in the draft."

    Although his offensive game lacks anything beyond basic moves and close-range flip shots, Cauley-Stein's physical tools are hard to ignore.

    He's got bounce in his step and a 7'3" wingspan to corral rebounds, alter shots and score above the rim on alley-oops and putbacks. That kind of size and mobility shouldn't drop too much further than 15th on draft night.

4. Nik Stauskas, Michigan SG (6'6" Sophomore)

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    David J. Phillip

    He hasn't lit up the scoreboard much the past couple of games, but Nik Stauskas' draft stock isn't too vulnerable, especially because he continues to pass the eye test as a polished wing.

    Michigan's sweet-shooting star has been tormenting opposing defenses all year, but not just as a shooter. He's proven he can drive and finish at the rim, create mid-range opportunities and facilitate better than many point guards.

    His exceptional perimeter stroke is aided by a 6'6" frame and a superb feel for being in the right place at the right time.

    Stauskas finds the gaps, especially in transition, and opponents have to play near-perfect defense to stop him. He's also adept at using screens while dribbling as he maneuvers around the corner and quickly fires up bull's-eyes.

    Keep an eye on how he manipulates Kentucky's defense in the Elite Eight, and watch how he takes what the Wildcats give him.

3. Gary Harris, Michigan State SG (6'4" Sophomore)

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    Young Kwak

    Despite his quiet performance in the Sweet 16, Michigan State's Gary Harris remains the best guard prospect left in the NCAA tourney field.

    He has all of the qualities NBA executives like to see in a future starting shooting guard. The 6'4" sophomore has a confident outside shot, superb off-ball instincts, ball-handling skills and defensive talent.

    Harris didn't stand out as the most NBA-ready prospect throughout the season, but when he enters the Association, he should be able to contribute as part of an effective rotation. He's got enough skill, athleticism and court sense to hold his own and be one of the top rookies in his class.

    Drawing comparisons to guys like O.J. Mayo and Bradley Beal, Harris' future seems bright. If he can improve his deep-range shooting and become a bit more assertive as a mid-range attacker, he could average 15-18 points for much of his career.

2. Aaron Gordon, Arizona F (6'9" Freshman)

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    On Arizona's run through the West region, Aaron Gordon has done a little bit of everything.

    In addition to the usual defensive prowess and rebounding tenacity, the Wildcats' star freshman has been assertive on the other end. He's averaging 16.3 points and 3.7 assists in the NCAA tourney, showing off his terrific court vision and tremendous finishing ability.

    Early in the 2013-14 season, Gordon was overshadowed by marquee names like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Joel Embiid. He's not as prolific offensively, so his stock is a tick lower than the top-five group.

    However, he's not far behind those studs and should be highly considered by teams picking in the mid-lottery range. Gordon won't pile up points for his NBA club, but he'll help things run smoothly and make all of the hustle plays and key passes a coach could ever want.

    And remember, he's doing all of this in a 6'9" body with elite leaping ability. When foes give him space, he's a human rocket.

1. Julius Randle, Kentucky PF (6'9" Freshman)

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    Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

    With three straight double-doubles in the NCAA tourney, Kentucky freshman Julius Randle is doing his best to secure a top-five spot in June's draft.

    Whether he lands in the top five may depend on a host of outside factors, but he is a big-time producer. After dominating Kansas State and dropping six dimes against Wichita State, he poured in 15 points and 12 boards against rival Louisville.

    His game still needs quite a bit of refining, as he's too left-hand dominant and lacks a consistent outside jumper. But while he develops, his NBA squad will enjoy a heavy dose of rebounding and low-post scoring.

    Armed with 250 pounds of muscle and cat-like quickness, Randle will be a threat in the open floor and a tough matchup in half-court scenarios. He doesn't have "Hall of Fame" written all over him, but with his motor and combo-forward potential, he has a good chance of becoming a star.

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