March Madness Guide to NBA Prospects

Or, as it could be known, the Ben Woodside corollary. One of the big debates between Bill Simmons and Chuck Klosterman when it comes to pro vs. college basketball is that Simmons thinks of college in terms of pro suitability and Klosterman solely thinks of them as college players. I think I side with Klosterman: college success should be viewed on its own merits and not closely connected to pro hoops. A lot of sports fans I know watch the NCAA Tournament and come to the conclusion that NCAA Tournament success correlates directly to NBA success. Generally, these are the same people who thought Todd Bouman was a better QB than Daunte Culpepper in their primes. Here are some general thoughts about NCAA players and their NBA suitability.

I've been watching March Madness since '88 and have seen the difference between college stars who'd become NBA stars (Carmelo Anthony) and college stars who realized this was going to be their biggest stage (Donald Williams - if your reaction is "who?", then my point is proven) and never made it to the NBA. In general, I think there are some assumptions that can be made regarding the players in this tournament:

  1. At this point, they and their coaches know what caliber of an NBA prospect they are. College hoops players want to keep playing, and I'd guess most college coaches strike a bargain where they do what they can to figure out their players' pro potential from outside sources.
  2. Upperclassmen realize their NBA chances are slimmer. The numbers are there: most drafts have underclassmen outnumbering upperclassmen in the lottery and in the overall draft. Whether that works or not (Wesley Matthews would say no), teams will often take the players with "upside" before the ones with "limited potential."
  3. Smaller-college (I mean colleges making up seeds 11-16) prospects realize their NBA chances are miniscule. There are obvious exceptions, but the Ben Woodsides of the world aren't more talented or productive than even guys like Sundiata Gaines. Unless they have the athletic prowess of a guy like Larry Sanders, they're most likely summer-league invites and early camp cuts.
  4. There are plenty of NBA prospects on non-tournament teams. Guys like Paul George, Craig Brackins, and Sanders weren't in the tournament last year. These guys are often underrated after the tourney and then move up as the pre-draft process evolves.
  5. Underclassmen who know they are pro prospects don't necessarily [Edited] succeed in the tournament.[Edited] For every Derrick Rose, there is a future All-Star who goes out in the first or second round. They're not the ones remembered during the tournament, but that obviously has more to do with the team than the player.

With these things in mind, there are multiple categories of standout players in the tournament:

  1. The obvious pro prospects. Examples of this include Rose, Blake Griffin, John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins. These guys know they are the best players on the court and play with that mentality for the most part. One could argue that Wall and Cousins didn't play up to their potential, but having them instead of, say, Brandin Knight and Josh Harrelson (their replacements) probably took them further than this year's Wildcat squad will.
  2. Upperclassmen who are trying to improve their draft stock or prevent it from falling while trying to lead their team to a title. Guys like Tyler Hansbrough and Evan Turner would fit into their category. Often, these guys are also the upperclassmen on All-America teams. In some cases, their performance is overrated. Either way, they know where they stand regarding the NBA and are partially playing for their livelihood and partially for their college legacy.
  3. Upperclassmen who know this is the biggest stage they will ever play on and play their hearts out. For those who don't remember the name Donald Williams, he was the Most Outstanding Player of the '93 Final Four, which included NBA players like George Lynch, Eric Montross, Chris Webber, Jalen Rose, Juwan Howard, and Jamal Mashburn. Compare him to Voshon Lenard, who the MOP of the NIT that year (well, in my memory he is; according to the NCAA, the Gophers were 0-0 that year). Both were undersized 2-guards, but one had a long-yet-average NBA career while the other didn't. But my guess is that guys in this tournament like Talor Battle know their next games will either happen overseas on in places like Sioux Falls and Bismarck.
  4. Small-college players who do something memorable and/or take their team further than expected. Remember Omar Samhan? Not sure how he did in summer league, but he sure isn't in the league.

To me, the most important distinction to make is between #2 and #3, because that's what distinguishes which guys will or won't be good pros. Overall, what it comes down to is fitting the physical profile of an NBA player and having skills that fit that profile. For example, Shane Battier and Juan Dixon were similarly-productive NBA players, but one is a respected role player while the other is out of the NBA. Or Dixon and his college teammate, Steve Blake: one was higher profile in college, but the other is still in the NBA and might've been just as good in college but just filled a different role in the team. Here are some guys who get overrated based on tournament success:

  1. Scorers. These guys may keep their teams in games, but it's not clear whether other guys are picking up their slack in other areas (like defensively).
  2. Non-spot-up shooters. Remember Ali Farokhmanesh? His shooting display through the Sweet 16 last year was awesome, but guys who need a lot of dribbles to get their shot off in college won't fit well with teams who have better players that can get that same shot much more efficiently.
  3. Shooters who get open through using a lot of screens. Let's just put it this way: Rip Hamilton and Reggie Miller didn't need all those screens when they were in college. This is what separates guys like Richie Frahm from guys like Gordon Hayward.
  4. Short guys who dribble a lot. This one hits close to home for most of us, but the rule is pretty basic: unless you can score efficiently/run an offense/make spot-up Js/beat athletic guys off the dribble/move the ball by passing more than dribbling, you're just a volume college scorer who's more important than you seem.
  5. Skilled low post guys. Often, these guys are unathletic and/or undersized, but either way, pro post players have to be at least one of the following: athletic/long/strong/decent passers/good perimeter shooters. To put it another way, there's a reason why the Hornets don't go to Aaron Gray like his Pitt team did.

Thoughts on the tournament to this point? To what extent are you able to distinguish between "this guy's a good college player" and "this guy should be in the NBA?"

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