The NCAA men’s college basketball tournament is one of my favorite times of the year. It’s impossible to avoid the pull of high-stakes basketball on nearly the entire day - for a basketball lover, it’s paradise.
While there is almost always a Cinderella story, a heart-wrenching defeat, and occasionally, a chance to cheer on your alma mater, one thing is consistent - a chance for NBA prospects to introduce themselves to the nation. Players like Kemba Walker, Gordon Hayward, and Mario Chalmers were able to raise their draft stock with incredible runs through the tournament.
While a lot of draft analysis has already taken place, this is another chance to see how the prospects perform under intense pressure against the best teams in the nation. For Nuggets fans, it’s a chance to take a breath, relax from the stress of the playoff race, and possibly catch a glimpse of the next member of the Nuggets team (unless you’ve been watching European basketball, where Vlatko Cancar is killing it.
But that’s besides the point. Here are five players to watch for during March Madness, players that the Nuggets could (and in our opinion, should) be targeting in the upcoming NBA Draft.
The Tennessee Volunteers made it to the SEC Championship Game, where they lost to the Kentucky Wildcats. Schofield capped off a strong junior season with a nice performance in the championship game, scoring 22 points and grabbing 10 rebounds to notch a double-double. He was part of the third-best defense in the country, according to Ken Pomeroy, filling the role on the wing as a scoring option and rebounder.
What stands out most to me about Schofield is his size and strength. He plays like Anthony Bennett, the former No. 1 overall pick by the Cavaliers - just a bowling ball of a player, that can attack the rim, punish players on defense, and rebound the heck out of the ball. At a reported 6’5” and 240 pounds, he played in the frontcourt with Tennessee, proving able to switch onto bigs while also rotating out onto guards on the perimeter.
In terms of his fit in the NBA, he’s going to have to prove he can fill a role similar to PJ Tucker of the Houston Rockets - a wing defender that isn’t afraid to switch onto bigs, but has the motor to cover guards on the perimeter. He’ll have to rely on scoring in transition and on spot-up jumpers, but if he learns how to attack closeouts and pass the ball while on the move, he could become a valuable role player in the NBA.
In the tournament, watch for his ability to score in the halfcourt, and see how he’s able to make quick, assertive rotations on defense. He may return to Tennessee for another year of tutelage under Rick Barnes, but if he declares, he could be a target for the Nuggets in the second round.
With Denver, he may not be the steals and blocks specialist they could be targeting in the draft, but defensive rebounding and post defense are both very important skills for a successful defense, and those are both things he can already do.
Hunter is another prospect that could return to school rather than declare for the draft. The Virginia Cavaliers earned a No. 1 seed in the tournament thanks to their outstanding defense, rated tops in the nation by Ken Pomeroy. He has followed the OG Anunoby pattern for attracting attention, starting the season as the 80th best prospect from high school and coming off the bench for a veteran team. Like Anunoby, he has the physical tools that project him to be a talented wing defender in the NBA.
Hunter is a 6’8”, 212 pound cheetah, with a 7’2” wingspan helping him thrive in the Cavaliers switch-heavy defensive scheme. According to tracking data from Synergy Sports, Hunter rates in the 90th percentile defending spot ups, in isolation, against the pick and roll ball handler, and on post ups. There aren’t many players in the country that can switch from Marvin Bagley III, close out chasing a pass, and then elevate to block a shot - Hunter can. ock a shot
He’s a raw player, and has a lot of lessons to learn on both offense and defense. But the tools are there, and you see more positive moments than negative ones. The NCAA tournament is an opportunity for him to explode onto the scene with a jaw-dropping defensive play or a huge dunk in traffic that sets the Internet ablaze.
With the Nuggets, he could be the project 3&D wing many of us were hoping they’d acquire in the 2017 draft. He’s young, and has room to grow, but he’s already at a level where he could be a bench contributor. It’s getting more and more inexcusable to pass on wings that can defend 1-4; if he decides to declare, the Nuggets should avoid any shenanigans and just take a chance on him at whatever spot they wind up at in the first round.
Here comes a cringe-worthy joke - for a guy from Normal, Illinois, Bates-Diop is anything but!
The Ohio State redshirt junior forward was the Big Ten player of the year, putting up 19 points and 8 rebounds per game for a team that finished 24-8 this season and grabbed a 5-seed in the tournament. He’s shown off the talent that made him a five-star recruit that arrived in Columbus with D’Angelo Russell and had coaches raving about him instead of the former No. 2 overall pick and current Brooklyn Nets point guard.
Bates-Diop has taken the reins of the offense for the Buckeyes, showing an ability to score in a variety of ways. He has the offensive talent to drop 32 points on the Michigan State Spartans, and the defensive ability to pick up four blocks and two steals against Indiana in the final game of the regular season.
Ohio State could surprise the nation with a nice run in the tournament, and if they do, it’ll be because of Bates-Diop elevating his game again. He’ll have to adapt to a new role in the NBA, where defenses will take force him to put the ball on the deck, but he’s shown the work ethic to overcome that. Watch in the tournament to see how he does when defenses are keying to stop him - it hasn’t slowed him down this season one bit.
With the Nuggets, they’d need him to be more of a fourth or fifth option in the offense as he fills the wing spot in their rotation. He’s a capable 3-point shooter (35 percent for his career at Ohio State), and can attack closeouts. If he can keep the ball from getting sticky after he catches it, he could fit in nicely alongside Nikola Jokic.
I don’t know how anyone can see players like Fred Van Vleet and Ron Baker find a role in the NBA and not think that Landry Shamet is going to be able to do the exact same thing. Shamet has been taught by Gregg Marshall how to play elite defense, and is a smart, efficient playmaker on offense, capable of playing both guard positions.
Shamet stepped into a starting guard spot for the 2016-17 season, and this year, averaged 15 and 5 per game while shooting 46 percent on his 3-point attempts. He’s got great height, length, and agility, and uses his physical tools to navigate into open shots off screens and in the pick and roll.
Shamet has shown off some deep range on his 3-point shot as well this season. He’s able to rise up and strike like a snake, lashing out against defenses that fall asleep in the pick and roll or lose track of him as he winds across the court into open space. The Shockers defense hasn’t been good at all this season - 107th in the nation according to Ken Pomeroy - but their offense has been good enough to counter that.
For the Nuggets, they’d be gambling on a young point guard to lead their second unit, taking a chance that Shamet has the defensive tools to be a positive on that end of the court while not being a turnover-prone, layup-missing, midrange jacking minus on the other end of the court.
Evans is an intriguing prospect with the Cincinnati Bearcats. The 6’6”, 210 pound wing can play small forward, shooting guard, and point guard, he’s able to show off his above-average athleticism in a variety of ways. It’s not every day that your point guard has a 44”-vertical jump and arms that look like they don’t fit in t-shirts, but there’s Evans, leading the Bearcats to a 30-4 record this season.
Evans is an intelligent player, often finding himself in the right position to steal a pass, contest a shot off a rotation, or make the other team think twice before passing the ball into his area of the court. On offense, he finished this season with a 51.3 effective field goal percentage, showing a pull-up jumper off while also showing a sense of comfort shooting from the perimeter in catch-and-shoot situations.
Evans is another player on this list that could return for another season of college ball. He’s most likely going to be available in the first round if the Nuggets keep their pick, and they’ll have to decide if he has the strength and length to play as a small forward. If he returns to school, he’ll need to show scouts that he can thrive as a primary scoring option, and not just as a guy that looks for his teammates to shoulder part of the responsibility of getting the ball in the hoop. He has the talent, just not the mindset quite yet.
With the Nuggets, if he can show that he can play up in the tournament, he should absolutely be a player they should consider. He checks off a lot of boxes for the Nuggets, and could develop into an important role player for the next half-decade.