Players evaluated closely during NCAA tourney

Thu, 03/20/2008 - 2:54pm

By Aran Smith

[img_assist|nid=3426|title=Magic Johnson|desc=|link=none|align=right|width=310|height=310]Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson, Bill Russell, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Isiah Thomas. What do they all have in common? Besides being among the greatest players ever at their respective positions, they all won championships on both the NCAA and NBA level.

Every year, the Big Dance sets the stage for the NCAA's elite to prove themselves and solidify a spot in the NBA draft. It offers a chance for NBA scouts to turn up the microscope and see how prospective draft picks perform when the pressure hits a fever pitch.

Obviously it isn't the only factor, as players are able to perform well enough in workouts and in the regular season to withstand a poor showing in the NCAAs, but the tournament can validate a player's ability to step up on the biggest stage, giving NBA scouts confidence about the players ability to handle the limelight.

In recent years the trend has been for the elite prospects to skip out on college altogether, or at least before having a real shot to win an NCAA championship. But with the age rule implemented two seasons ago, the top players are now forced to play a season of college ball, greatly enhancing the star power and talent level of the NCAA tournament.

Recent tourney risers

Florida's 2006 and 2007 back-to-back championships produced three top-10 picks, all juniors: Al Horford, Corey Brewer and Joakim Noah, plus point guard Taurean Green found a spot in the second round.

When North Carolina won the title in 2005, UNC's quartet of Marvin Williams, Raymond Felton, Sean May and Rashad McCants all found spots in the lottery. May in particular enhanced his status with UNC's title, elevating his status from a borderline first-rounder to being a lottery pick.

Their opponents in the 2005 title game, Illinois, also parlayed a great run into a draft stock boost. Deron Williams was able to elevate his stock from a borderline lottery pick to a top-3 pick, and Luther Head went from a likely second-rounder to a late first-round pick.

In 2004, UConn's Emeka Okafor and Ben Gordon rode a national championship to becoming the second and third picks of the draft. Charlie Villanueva went seventh the following season.

When Maryland won the national championship in 2003, Juan Dixon, a borderline first-rounder going into the tournament, was able to parlay his stellar play into a spot in the mid-first round. He has had a steady though unspectacular NBA career.

Dwyane Wade was another tournament riser who became a top-5 picks after taking Marquette to the Final Four.

Recent tourney slips

The tournament can also hurt a player's draft stock as a dreadful shooting night or poor performance can send his draft stock into free fall. Even a player's team failing to live up to expectations can have a negative effect.

In 1997, the Kansas Jayhawks were the heavy favorite to win the national championship. They ran into a buzz-saw (eventual champion) Arizona team led by a bevy of talented guards including freshman Mike Bibby. After the upset, a number of Kansas stars felt the effect as their draft stock took a hit. Highly-regarded Paul Pierce ended up going 10th in the 1998 draft, while Bibby wound up going second.

In 2006 the UConn Huskies were the prohibitive favorites with four potential first-rounders in Rudy Gay, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Boone and Marcus Williams. After UConn lost in the Elite Eight to Cinderella George Mason, Rudy Gay fell from a possible top 5 to the eighth pick and Marcus Williams fell from a possible lottery pick to the 22nd pick.

Last year's best example was Josh McRoberts, who came into the tourney with lottery aspirations. But after VCU's infamous upset of Duke with Eric Maynor knocking down a last-second shot, McRoberts fell all the way into the second round (37th) on draft day.

This year's draft hopefuls will have a chance to solidify their draft stock by leading their teams deep into the tourney, but a poor performance could certainly cost them on draft day.

Who to watch in this year's tournament

UCLA's starting five would all like to jump into the draft this year. Russell Westbrook, Darren Collison and Kevin Love are all projected to be mid-first rounders. But a title would likely boost all of their stocks as NBA teams certainly have an affinity for winners. Josh Shipp and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute are both considered possible second-rounders.

Westbrook has been this year's biggest riser and a big tourney performance would help him solidify a place in the top 10. Love has won on every level, including high school and AAU. Collison has been the rock for UCLA late in the season, making the big plays when his team needed them. His ability to knock down free throws is just another reason the Bruins will be an extremely difficult out in the tourney. A title run could potentially push both Love and Collison into the lottery.

If North Carolina were to win it all this year, its talented trio of Tyler Hansbrough, Ty Lawson and Wayne Ellington would all likely solidify spots in the first round. All three would probably elect to capitalize on it and jump into the draft, with less incentive to return. Without a title, Hansbrough and Lawson would be bubble first-rounders, and all three would likely return to Chapel Hill and be the favorites to win it all next year.

Kansas has three potential first-rounders (Darrell Arthur, Mario Chalmers and Brandon Rush) and three others with second-round aspirations. A title run could help Arthur possibly become a lottery pick, while Chalmers and Rush would be likely first-rounders. Darnell Jackson, Sasha Kaun and Russell Robinson could all claim spots in the second round with a Jayhawk championship.

Derrick Rose is seen as the odds-on favorite to be the second pick for this year's draft. Leading the Tigers to the Final Four would solidify that and winning a championship could potentially make a team think about taking him over Michael Beasley with the top overall pick. A Memphis championship would also help shooting guard Chris Douglas-Roberts and bigman Joey Dorsey get into the late first round.

The first round features a scouts' delight matchup with Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo's teams squaring off. Beasley will be hard-pressed to mess up his top overall pick status, while Kansas State teammate Bill Walker will need to make some serious noise to get into the first round this year.

Should USC make a deep run in the tourney, going to say the Elite Eight, Mayo could raise his stock from being a late-lotto pick to being a mid-lotto pick. Trojans bigman Taj Gibson stepped up his play in last year's tournament, dominating Hansbrough before being called for a number of questionable fouls which reduced his playing time and allowed the Tar Heels to get back into the game and eventually beat USC. A deep Trojan run could help Gibson go from a projected second-rounder to a possible late first-rounder.

Arizona's big three — Jerryd Bayless, Chase Budinger and Jordan Hill — could all enhance their draft stocks with strong performances individually and as a team. Beating West Virginia and then Duke in the second round is certainly within their grasp, but it will take putting the team over their individual performances to accomplish it.

Texas point guard D.J. Augustin has been on the rise all season. A strong performance leading the Longhorns into the Final Four, particularly in a featured matchup with Derrick Rose in the Elite Eight, could cement a spot in this year's lottery. Small forward Damion James could also reap the benefits of a deep Texas run with a spot in this year's first round.

Georgetown's Roy Hibbert has been on the decline of late but making a second consecutive Final Four run could put his stock back to where it was going into the year as a possible top-10 pick.

By the numbers

- Eighteen of the 30 projected first-rounders in this year's's 2008 mock draft are in the NCAA tournament field, including 11 lottery picks.

- Every champion since 2000 has had at least one player from its roster eventually picked in the top five of the NBA draft except 2002 Maryland. Every champion since 1995 has had at least one player from its roster eventually picked in the top 10 of the NBA draft except 1998 Kentucky.

- Other players who won both an NCAA and NBA championship include: John Havlicek, James Worthy, K.C. Jones, Arnie Ferrin, Clyde Lovellette, Gail Goodrich, Jerry Lucas, Henry Bibby, Jamaal Wilkes, Butch Lee, Rip Hamilton, Glen Rice, Antoine Walker, Corliss Williamson and Nazr Muhammad.

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