The road to the Final Four is complete after an epic March Madness filled with defining moments that gained tournament immortality. Georgia State’s R.J. Hunter hit the shot of the tournament that had his coach – and dad – Ron Hunter literally falling out of his seat. People still debate whether UCLA should have advanced due to a goaltending call against SMU. Most significantly, Kentucky is two wins away from a perfect 40-0 season, which would be the first perfect season in men’s college basketball since Indiana went 32-0 in 1976.
While fans across the country have tuned in to watch the tournament, so have NBA general managers, executives and scouts while preparing for the upcoming draft.
I’ve spoken to a bunch of them, and with that in mind, here’s a look whose stock is rising within the league.
There might not be a hotter player in the tournament than Wisconsin’s Sam Dekker. The junior forward has averaged 21.8 points per game while shooting a staggering 60 percent from the field overall and 48 percent from beyond the arc.
“He was going to be picked 18-22 before the tournament, but now who knows?” one NBA scout told SheridanHoops. “He does everything good. He does nothing great, but keeps showing signs of growth.”
Thus far, Dekker has shown the ability to get to the basket off the dribble, come off screens or create space with the dribble for his own shot.
By the end of the tournament, Dekker may have convinced enough teams in the late lottery to consider nabbing him.
Dekker isn’t the only small forward in the Final Four whose stock is rising. One Eastern Conference general manager, along with another executive and a scout, all raved about Duke’s Justise Winslow.
When I asked the executive what he thought of Winslow’s stock, he simply pointed to the sky.
“If the two bigs (Jahlil Okafor and Karl-Anthony Towns) weren’t in this draft, he would be talked about as a top pick,” the scout told SheridanHoops.
Winslow’s upside was on display during the tournament against San Diego State as he filled the box score with 13 points, 12 rebounds, five assists, four steals and three blocks. He then followed up with 21 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks against Utah in the Sweet 16.
At this point, Winslow is the consensus top small forward prospect due to his versatility and could go as high as the fifth overall pick.
While there’s a chance we may not see Dekker and Winslow go head-to-head in the championship game, Frank Kaminsky will battle Towns on Saturday.
Kaminsky has been on fire, averaging 21.8 points and 8.3 rebounds per game while shooting the ball well from the field (.517), beyond the arc (.625) and at the foul line (.867) during the tournament. Kaminsky’s ability to stretch the floor will allow Wisconsin to run pick-and-roll or pick-and-pop plays similar to Notre Dame, which gave Kentucky some trouble at times.
Meanwhile, Towns is coming off his best game of the tournament in which he singlehandedly dominated Notre Dame’s frontcourt by scoring 25 points on 10-for-13 shooting in only 25 minutes.
Heading into the Final Four, Towns and Okafor have executives split on whom is the top prospect.
Okafor is one of the most polished low-post scorers to ever play the college game. He draws a lot of double-teams while establishing deep position on the block. From there, Okafor has the ability to pass out of the trap. He also can bring the defense out of the paint with the dribble and reset the offense or find a cutter heading towards the basket. When left one-on-one, he uses his footwork to spin off his defender with his back to the basket towards the baseline or restricted area. In addition, he can face up and attack the defense off the dribble as a last resort.
Okafor caught the eye of Carmelo Anthony when Duke played at Madison Square Garden in January. Okafor also said he was “a big fan” of Anthony. Against St. John’s that day, Okafor scored 17 points on 7-for-10 shooting and grabbed 10 rebounds to help coach Mike Krzyzewski win his 1,000th game.
The knocks on Okafor are his poor foul shooting (.511), limited range on his jumper, his lack of overall athleticism as a lateral defender and leaper, lack of defensive awareness as a rim protector and maintaining his conditioning.
Towns can stretch the defense with his mid-range shooting and ability to step behind the arc. On defense, Towns can block shots as a help defender and one-on-one in the post, rebound and guard the perimeter for brief stretches if caught on a defensive switch. While Towns’ post game needs further development, he has added a hook shot to his repertoire.
Each executive headed for the lottery and fans around the country would love nothing more than to watch both players go head-to-head with a national championship on the line.