March Madness is here again, and it wasn't just the elite players in our Top 30 grabbing the attention of NBA scouts.
The tourney always produces some performances that seem to resonate, and in particular open scouts' eyes regarding players facing a new level of competition.
Through the first weekend, while many of the top-ranked players struggled, other lower-ranked players shined. I spoke to a number of NBA scouts and GMs to see whom they've been buzzing about when it comes to players outside our Top 30. Here's a list of 10 players who caught the imagination of NBA scouts and GMs last weekend, and I've also added notes on the upstarts from Florida Gulf Coast.
Adreian Payne | PF | Jr. | Michigan State
Payne has been hovering in our Top 60 since his freshman season. After two seasons of teasing us, he's finally living up to the immense talent he showed coming into college. Payne had a dominant game for the Spartans on Saturday against a super athletic Memphis front line. His 14 points, 10 rebounds and 5 blocks turned some heads. Not only does Payne have the size and athletic ability to play on the block, he also can step out and hit 3s. If he continues to play this way and leads Michigan State to the Final Four, he'll likely end up in the first round.
D.J. Stephens | F | Sr. | Memphis
Not sure if any single player helped his draft stock more this past weekend than Stephens. While he definitely was on the NBA radar, there were few, if any teams, who had him in the top 100 prospects on their board. That changed this weekend. Stephens showed off his extreme leaping ability, elite quickness, a terrific motor and his shot-blocking skills against Saint Mary's and Michigan State. He had 12 blocks in the two games and was flying all over the floor. His offensive game is shaky, but it's rare to find a player with his motor and athletic ability.
Stephens suffers from asthma, which might set his stock back a bit, but his play this past weekend guaranteed virtually every team will be willing to bring him in for a workout. Combine how hard he plays with athletic ability that rivals anyone in the NBA, and I think he's going to have people fighting over him in the second round.
Khalif Wyatt | G | Sr. | Temple
Wyatt dropped a crazy 62 points on NC State and Indiana this weekend. Even crazier? He has been doing this all season, but has rarely gotten the attention he deserves. He had 30 against VCU, dropped 26 on Kansas and had 33 against Syracuse. His only bad game was a six-point stinker against Duke. Wyatt hasn't received a lot of NBA attention because he lacks the requisite NBA athleticism and size for his position. He also isn't a lights-out shooter. But his old-school game has wreaked havoc on some pretty athletic backcourts this season. After talking it over with scouts, I'm not sure he gets drafted, but he intrigued enough people to get a lot of looks during the workout process.
Russ Smith | G | Jr. | Louisville
Smith is having a breakout season at Louisville and that carried over into the tournament. He scored a combined 50 points this weekend against North Carolina AT&T and Colorado State. His elite quickness and ability to score in spurts are intriguing to NBA teams who are looking for a hot hand off the bench. He also is a terror on defense, racking up eight steals against North Carolina AT&T. If he were a few inches taller, or if he shot it with more consistency behind the arc, he'd be a lock for the first round. Still, some scouts see in Smith a young Lou Williams and that might be enough to get him in the first-round conversation.
Vander Blue | G | Jr. | Marquette
Blue has also been on our radar screen since his freshman season. In fact, despite struggling as both a freshman and sophomore, he has never fallen out of our Top 100. He has been a revelation during his junior season for Marquette and had one of the strongest performances of anyone this weekend against both Davidson and Butler. Blue hit the game-winning shot against Davidson and then exploded for 29 points and four steals against Butler. Nineteen of those points came in the second half as Blue rallied the Golden Eagles for another come-from-behind win.
His elite athletic ability, his defensive toughness and his leadership have all caught NBA scouts' eyes. If he shot it a little better, or was a little taller, he'd get a serious look in the lottery. However, don't count him out of the first-round conversation yet. Another great weekend might convince scouts he's the type of guy, like fellow Golden Eagles Jimmy Butler and Wesley Matthews before him, who can fight his way onto an NBA roster and stick.
Juvonte Reddic | F | Jr. | VCU
Reddic put up strong numbers this weekend against Akron and Michigan, showing off an improved skill set and a better body than scouts saw last season. He has improved dramatically this season as both a rebounder and a scorer. He has NBA length and athleticism and is starting to put some muscle on that frame. His inside-outside game is an intriguing one. He probably needs another season at VCU to continue to improve his skill set, but if he came out now he'd definitely be in the discussion as a second-round pick.
LaQuinton Ross | F | So. | Ohio State
I've been arguing all season that Ross, not leading scorer Deshaun Thomas, is the Buckeyes' best long-term draft prospect. On Sunday, Ross lived up to the promise, scoring 17 points in just 21 minutes against Iowa State. Ross is a smooth athlete who can shoot 3s and put the ball on the floor and get to the basket. His issue has been consistency. He can look like a lottery pick one minute and an NBDL prospect the next. If he can string together a few more performances like the one he had on Sunday, he could project as a first-round prospect in the 2014 NBA draft.
Mitch McGary | F/C | Fr. | Michigan
McGary struggled coming out of the gate for Michigan, but he has been on fire of late and put up two very strong games for Wolverines, including career highs in points (21) and rebounds (14) against a feisty VCU team on Saturday. McGary is particularly skilled. However, he has a great motor, has NBA strength even as a first-year college player and ranks No. 8 nationally in offensive rebound percentage. He clearly is benefitting from having an elite point guard like Trey Burke setting him up, and he's older than your average freshman (he actually turns 21 before the draft this year), but rebounding typically translates at the next level -- as do toughness and motor. McGary went a long way this weekend toward putting himself firmly on the NBA radar as a potential second-round prospect.
Andre Hollins | PG | So. | Minnesota
Teammates Rodney Williams and Trevor Mbakwe have gotten all the love from NBA scouts in the past, but it is Hollins who really has turned some heads of late. He was terrific this weekend, scoring 28 points against UCLA and following it up with 25 points against Florida. In those two games he shot a combined 11-for-18 from 3-point range and grabbed 14 rebounds. While scouts still have questions about his playmaking abilities (he's more of a combo guard than a true point right now) he has shown improvement all season. He's tough, he's a leader and still seems like he hasn't tapped out his potential yet. Hollins' strong play could thrust him into the second-round discussion this year or as a possible first-round pick next season.
Ramon Galloway | PG | Sr. | La Salle
Our own Fran Fraschilla called this earlier in the season when he said he thought Galloway could wind up on an NBA team someday. Galloway has been critical in leading La Salle to the Sweet 16. Galloway has good size as a point guard, has shot better than 40 percent from 3 the past two seasons, and is an above-average defender and a good athlete. He scored a combined 43 points over the weekend against Kansas State and Ole Miss and shot 9-for-17 from 3. The biggest question about Galloway is whether he's a point guard or not. He committed more turnovers than assists this weekend. For his career he has just 19 more assists than turnovers.
Florida Gulf Coast
I'm getting a lot of questions about the players on this year's Cinderella team: Florida Gulf Coast. Sherwood Brown, Bernard Thompson, Brett Comer and Chase Fieler have all had huge moments this weekend. Given the level of competition they beat up on -- Georgetown and San Diego State are hardly patsies -- are any of these players legit NBA prospects?
Brown seems to be getting the most attention right now. He's the heart and soul of the team and the Eagles' leading scorer. The former walk-on was huge this weekend, scoring a combined 41 points, grabbing 17 rebounds and going 5-for-9 from 3. He's a good shooter, has a great motor, rebounds the ball very well for a guard and has an NBA body. And he has done this before. He had 14 points and seven boards against Miami in a win earlier in the season. Is it likely that he gets drafted? Probably not. But he has moved himself into the conversation, and that's all you can ask for at this time of the year.
Thompson, a 6-foot-3 sophomore 2-guard, was equally good. He had a combined 46 points, got to the line 16 times against San Diego State and racked up five steals against Georgetown. He's obviously not ready to play in the NBA this season, but he's now on every scouting list in the country.
Ditto for Comer, the crafty point guard and former high school teammate of Austin Rivers. Comer isn't an elite athlete, nor is he a great shooter, but he's got amazing court vision, basketball IQ and patience. While the rest of the team is flying up and down the floor, Comer seems to know what's going to happen before everyone else. He needs to add strength and quickness and improve that jumper. If he does that he could get a look in 2014 or 2015.
Fieler is an athletic junior who will forever be remembered for a ridiculous finish on an alley-oop pass by Comer with 1:58 left in the game that put the final nail in Georgetown's coffin. Fieler has had a solid tournament outside of the highlight-reel dunks and is actually a better perimeter shooter than he has shown against Georgetown and San Diego State. Like Thompson and Comer, he needs to come back to school, work on his body and jump shot, and build on this incredible run.