March Madness moved from the Sweet 16 to the Final Four last weekend and, once again, a number of players outside our Big Board shined.
On Tuesday. we broke down the latest post-tournament thinking of our top draft prospects in our newest Big Board. Here's a look at five players who continue to catch the imagination of NBA scouts and GMs.
Mitch McGary | F/C | Fr. | Michigan
McGary is on fire. McGary picked up where he left off in the opening two rounds of the tournament. He dropped yet another career high of 25 points and 14 rebounds and three steals on Kansas. Kansas was one the top defensive teams in the country and Jeff Withey, who McGary was matched up against most of the night, might be the best shot blocker in college basketball. McGary struggled at times with Withey's length, but made up for it with his agility and quickness. If teams had concerns about McGary's ability to play against bigger shot-blockers, he quieted their concerns against KU.
McGary had a strong game against another potential first-round pick, Florida's Patric Young, on Sunday. He had 11 points, nine rebounds and five steals in the Michigan win. While the team didn't need him much on offense (they were too busy nailing 3s over the zone), McGary continued to show that he can play with the best college big men in the country.
McGary's stock is clearly on the rise. What's harder to gauge is where exactly to put him in our Top 100. While GMs warn that you can't put too much stock in the NCAA tournament, McGary's situation is unique. He didn't play big minutes or have a starting role on Michigan until the Big Ten tournament. Now that he's gotten a major role, you have to evaluate him differently.
McGary clearly has benefited from the play of point guard Trey Burke. Burke has been awesome at putting McGary in a position to score. Without him, I doubt he'd be putting up these numbers. However, McGary's motor, toughness and agility are all key indicators of potential NBA success. So is his excellent offensive rebounding percentage that has him ranked seventh in the country.
As Ken Pomeroy wrote Monday, McGary's closest statistical comp as a freshman is former Pitt big man DeJuan Blair. Blair would've been a lottery pick had he had ACLs.
What if McGary declares for the NBA draft this year? I think he goes somewhere in the first round. Where will likely depend on workouts.
Russ Smith | SG | Jr. | Louisville
Smith has a strong argument to make that he's been the best player in the country during the NCAA tournament and has been one of the top five players in the country all year. He has lit up the competition, scoring 23 against NC AT&T, 27 against Colorado State, 31 against Oregon and 23 against Duke on Sunday. He's shot over 50 percent from the field in the tourney, and has collected 13 steals in four games. Why isn't this guy being mentioned as a potential lottery pick?
Rick Pitino is asking the same question, and he had this to say after Louisville's win over Oregon:
"I spent eight years in the pros, and I don't read a whole lot of what goes on. But I look at Chad Ford's list, and I don't see Russ Smith, I don't see him on the All-America teams. Truly, I've been coaching a long time; I'm baffled, just baffled, because it wasn't like he's a Johnny-come-lately. He carried us on his back to a Final Four last year.
"And Allen Iverson was so good at the pro level because it's tough in the pros because you really have a 16-second shot clock, and now Allen always had the ball with five seconds to go and he had to create. And that's what Russ does ...
"So Russ, I mean, as the next pro guy, I look at him and say college today is much more physical than the pros. When you watch the pros today, they go right away, hand check or anything like that. And Russ is able to get to the foul line, get a shot off, make the play, turn around and guard. I'd have him in the top 12 in the draft because of the way his game transcends to the next level."
I can agree with Pitino on a lot of this. Smith is a poor man's Allen Iverson. He can score the basketball off the bounce as well as anyone in college basketball. But it's the other comparisons to Iverson that scare NBA scouts. The real Allen Iverson was an incredible scorer but was also difficult to coach and struggled to get his teammates involved. Like Smith, he was a shaky perimeter shooter (Smith is 6-for-17 from 3 and shot 33 percent from 3 for the year). He also is averaging more turnovers than assists in the tournament, and for the season has just 11 more assists than turnovers. For a 6-foot guard, that's a real issue at the next level.
While some NBA scouts like him enough to have him in the second half of the first round, there are also a ton of scouts who don't have him in their top 60. And the advanced statistic guys won't be doing Smith any favors either. Our own Kevin Pelton looked at everyone in our Top 100 through the lens of projected WARP. Smith with a projected -0.2 WARP. That put him at No. 69 of our Top 100 players. For comparison's sake, since 2002, only one player out of the 100s with a projected WARP that low turned into a regular NBA player -- Nick Young.
So while the sizzle is clearly there and he's the main reason Louisville is in the Final Four, scouts continue to be wary.
Deshaun Thomas | F | Jr. | Ohio State
Thomas might be the best pure scorer in the Big Ten, and he had a strong performance for the Buckeyes in virtually every game. He averaged 21.8 ppg, shot better than 50 percent from the field, and was 8-for-19 from beyond the arc. He clearly is a gifted scorer, has a NBA body and is a beast getting to the basket. So why isn't he slated to go in the first round?
A couple of issues hurt Thomas' NBA potential. One, he's not a great athlete. Second, he's a bit of a tweener at the next level. He's probably a small forward but would struggle to defend them due to a lack of foot speed and lack of overall intensity at the defensive end. Thomas, scouts believe, is a one-dimensional player who may struggle to put up the same results at the next level. While scouts clearly see him as a potential second-round pick, I couldn't find any scouts or GMs who had him in their top 30 at the moment.
He, too, struggled in Pelton's adjusted WARP model, with a score of 0.2, putting him at No. 57 among our Top 100.
LaQuinton Ross | F | So. | Ohio State
After a big 17-point game against Iowa State in the round of 32, Ross followed it up with an even more impressive 17 points in 18 minutes against Arizona on Thursday. Ross' ability to shoot the 3 and put the ball on the deck and get to the hole was on display again as he came up huge down the stretch for Buckeyes with a go-ahead 3-pointer with two seconds left in the game. Ross struggled a bit more on Saturday in a loss to Wichita State.
While he scored 19 points, he was just 4-for-12 from the field and struggled with his jumper. Virtually every scout agrees that Ross needs to return for his junior year and work on putting up these kinds of numbers in a starting role. But if he declared for the draft this year? Someone might swing for the fences with him in the first round.
C.J. Fair | F | Jr. | Syracuse
Michael Carter-Williams is getting all of the buzz, but Syracuse is getting great help from a number of players. However, Fair seems to be the player who draws the most attention from scouts. He's an elite athlete, and after being a tweener for his first two years at Syracuse, has settled into the role of small forward this year. He's dramatically improved his 3-point shooting and clearly has the ability to guard 3s. He's been consistently good in the NCAA tournament with one exception: He's just 2-for-6 from 3. Most scouts feel he needs another year to get firmly entrenched as a 3, but if he were to declare now, he's a likely second-round pick.