NCAA: Best Players Not in the Tournament
Senior NBA & College Basketball Editor
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Most of the top NBA prospects will be participating in the 2012 NCAA Tournament, which kicks off next week. Being a part of the field of 68 is every team’s goal, but with 331 teams playing Division-I basketball it’s inevitable that some good teams, and especially players, are going to end up as just spectators.
There are actually two other postseason tournaments: the National Invitational Tournament and the College Basketball Invitational. 32 teams play in the NIT, while 16 play in the CBI. While nowhere near the same caliber, the teams involved value the opportunity to extend their season. For the prospects who didn’t lead their team to the big dance, it’s their last chance to showcase their talents in a 5-on-5 setting prior to the draft. Before the start of the tournament we will be pushing out positional rankings of those involved, but for now here’s a look at the best players whose teams won’t be competing for a national championship.
Damian Lillard (Weber State) – 6’3, 195 lbs. Point Guard
Thanks to a stellar senior season, Lillard has undergone a meteoric rise on most draft boards. He’s now widely regarded as a lottery pick, whereas at the beginning of the season he wasn’t even looked at as a first round pick. His 24.5 points a game ranked second in the nation. He also grabbed five rebounds and handed out four assists a contest.
“He’s going to be a good pro point guard,” said one NBA scout of Lillard. “He has great quickness and ball skills, can score without taking a ton of shots. He’s also a great kid. He’s much better than (Detroit Pistons guard) Rodney Stuckey was when he came out of the same conference.”
It’s disappointing that Lillard and the Wildcats couldn’t beat Montana, who is representing the Big Sky in the tourney, because one of the major questions surrounding him is how would he fair against high-major talent consistently. Lillard was a medical red shirt last year, so he could return to school if he wants. That is highly unlikely based on where his stock is at right now.
Meyers Leonard (Illinois) – 7’1, 245 lbs. Center
While the Fighting Illini as a whole disappointed this year, Leonard took a big leap forward and developed into one of the better centers in the nation. After being largely ineffective as a freshman, Leonard showcased above average touch, speed and explosiveness for someone of his size as a sophomore. He averaged 13 points, eight rebounds and nearly two blocks this year.
Still an unfinished project whose best basketball is ahead of him, Leonard has a tough decision ahead of him on whether or not to stay in school. Illinois head coach Bruce Weber was dismissed today. That factor, along with being a lock to be selected in the first round, could push Leonard to forego his remaining eligibility.
“He could be a lottery pick if he comes out on potential alone,” said the scout. “From a pure basketball and maturity stand point, he should stay in school, but I doubt he will.”
Leonard’s teammate Brandon Paul, a junior guard, is also a legit prospect who could bolt. He’s current projected as a second round pick.
Tony Mitchell (North Texas) – 6’8, 235 lbs. Power Forward
Academic issues prevented Mitchell, originally a Missouri signee, from playing last year as a true freshman. That unfortunate road led him to North Texas, where he just wrapped up the best freshman campaign in the school’s history. Running away with the Sun Belt’s Freshman of the Year award, Mitchell drew over 20 NBA scouts to the conference’s postseason tournament.
Possessing a ridiculous 7’4 wingspan with great rebounding and shot block ability, Mitchell would easily be a first round selection in this year’s draft. If he stays, remember his name as a future lottery pick in the 2013 draft. He’s an elite-level prospect in a league where nobody can check him.
LeBryan Nash (Oklahoma State) – 6’7, 230 lbs. Small Forward
In today’s day and age all it takes is one wrong person in a prospect’s ear to get them to leave early. It’s nice to see a kid like Nash, who would certainly be drafted if he decided to be one and done, opt to stay for another year based on the advice he received.
Nash will have stretches where he looks ready to play in the NBA right then and there, like when he put 27 points, four rebounds and four assists on Missouri in an upset victory. On the year, though, he shot 39 percent from the field and 23 percent from deep. He also turned it over 2.6 times a contest.
Consistency is all that is keeping Nash from being a Top 10 pick. A summer in the Cowboy offseason program, along with the experience he gained this season, should lead to a big sophomore year.
Moe Harkless (St. John’s) – 6’8, 208 lbs. Small Forward
Emerging as the top prospect from St. John’s head coach Steve Lavin’s heralded recruiting class was Harkless, who put up 15 points and grabbed eight rebounds while doing a wide variety of other things as a freshman. Harkless recently acknowledged that he will sit down with his coaches and discuss the possibility of leaving early.
Offensively Harkless does not have the game of a pro-level small forward right now. He mainly gets his points from posting up and attacking in isolation. The range and consistency on his jump shot could stand to improve significantly. Returning is the best decision for Harkless, but the situation at St. John’s could push him to leave early. Harkless would have to play himself into the first round of this deep draft with his play in individual workouts.
Harkless’ teammate and fellow freshman D’Angelo Harrison is on the NBA’s list as well and someone who would have been watched heavily on the big stage.
Scott Machado (Iona) – 6’1, 180 lbs. Point Guard
The body of work that Machado has put together over the last four years speaks for itself. He led the nation in assists this year with 9.9 and handed out 870 total in his career. He’s great in transition and has steadily improved as a three-point shooter over the years.
Like Lillard, Machado hasn’t played against the best competition. Leading up to the draft Machado is going to have to prove that he can stay in front of NBA caliber point guards and that he’s not just a run-and-gun point guard. He’ll have to be able to create in the half court too if he’s going to stick in the pros.
Alec Brown (Green Bay Phoenix) – 7’1, 222 lbs. Center
Coming out of high school Brown was unranked and recruited solely by mid-to-low major schools. He ended up at Green Bay Phoenix in the Horizon League and has turned into a serious steal for them. Brown, a sophomore, has started to draw the attention of NBA scouts. He scored nearly 14 a night and grabbed eight boards this season.
Standing a legit seven feet tall with a frame that can support the additional weight he has been adding recently and needs to keep adding. He blocked three shots a game and is skilled enough to play in the high post as well as the low post. Brown isn’t thinking about making the jump yet, but has the tools and upside to develop into a future first round pick.
Still chasing a guaranteed bid without a chance at an at-large berth: Andre Roberson (Colorado), Orlando Johnson (UC Santa Barbara), Andrew Nicholson (St. Bonaventure’s) and C.J. Leslie (N.C.) State.
Tournament time is almost upon us! Once again HOOPSWORLD will be bringing you the premier coverage of the big dance on the net. Immediately after the Selection Show we’ll have team-by-team previews, matchup analysis and picks. Throughout the tournament we’ll also provide round-by-round previews, stock watches and more so make sure to make HOOPSWORLD your destination for all the coverage you need for the 2012 NCAA Tournament!