As it does virtually every year, the NCAA Tournament has produced numerous upsets, brackets ripped to shreds across the country and glimpses of new NBA talent on the horizon.
The upcoming talent pool consists of a guard with the range of Jimmer Fredette and the flair of Stephen Curry, a second generation Sabonis big man and three seniors ready to make an immediate impact.
With the Final Four upon us, several league executives and scouts spoke to SheridanHoops about those five prospects that have improved their draft stocks.
1. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma, G, 6-4, 214 pounds, senior
“He’s played well enough where he could go as high as three,” one Western Conference executive told SheridanHoops.
Hield scored 27 points against CSU Bakersfield, 36 points against VCU’s stingy defense and 37 points against No. 1 Oregon. Despite being held to 17 points by Texas A&M, Hield grabbed 10 rebounds for a double-double.
Two other executives and two scouts told SheridanHoops they have Hield in the 5-10 range.
“The shooting is transferable,” a Western Conference scout told SheridanHoops. “He’s improved his handle. Not a non-handler, but not breaking guys down either.”
Hield’s most lethal weapon during the tournament has been a step-back jumper, both beyond the arc and in the mid-range area. In addition, Hield has shown the ability to come off screens off the ball and create space to shoot. When the tempo picks up, Hield can stop on a dime and pull up or trail on the break for a 3-pointer in transition.
Heading into the Final Four, Hield is averaging 29.3 points per game while shooting 57 percent from the field, 48 percent from downtown and 79 percent at the line. He’s also grabbed 6.5 rebounds per game, an impressive number for a guard.
“He’s got 3-point range off the dribble and a phenomenal work ethic,” the Western Conference executive added. “He’s trying to pattern his game off Stephen Curry. As he learns to come off screens he could become a Ray Allen or Damian Lillard type of player.”
While the comparisons are high praise, there are some knocks on Hield, including his shot selection and high turnover propensity at times. At 6-4, he’s also a bit undersized for an NBA shooting guard.
However, that won’t stop Hield from being the center of attention heading into Oklahoma’s matchup against Villanova.
2. Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga, F, 6-11, 240, sophomore
If the name Sabonis rings a bell, it’s because Domantas is the son of former Portland Trail Blazers center Arvydas Sabonis.
“He’s played well and has his body in really good shape,” a Western Conference executive told SheridanHoops. “He was a big part of their run. He’s got his old man’s toughness and that goes a long way.”
Sabonis recorded three straight double-doubles, including one against a potential top-10 pick in Utah’s Jakob Poeltl. He played his best overall game in the loss to Syracuse with 19 points on 8-for-12 shooting with 17 rebounds and five blocks.
For the tournament, Sabonis averaged 19.7 points, 14.3 rebounds and 2.7 blocks.
“He’s huge and young,” an Eastern Conference executive told SheridanHoops. “He has a great bloodline and has good fundamentals. He can make his free throws, too.”
It should be noted that Sabonis shot 66 percent as a freshman and 77 percent as a sophomore from the line.
While Sabonis’ improvement at the stripe is encouraging, he must develop the ability to shoot from the mid-range area more consistently. Furthermore, he will need to develop more than a hook shot with either hand to be a more effective scorer in the paint as a pro.
Sabonis has yet to declare for the draft, but two executives and a scout viewed his range as back of the lottery into the early 20’s should he leave school early.
3. Brice Johnson, North Carolina, F, 6-9, 228, senior
Johnson is surging at the right time heading into the Final Four with three consecutive double-doubles against frontcourts featuring Ben Bentil, Thomas Bryant and Zach Auguste.
In those three games, Johnson is averaging 22 points on 63 percent shooting from the field, 10.7 rebounds and two blocks.
“Brice is young and a human pogo stick,” an Eastern Conference executive told SheridanHoops. “He plays with great energy and enthusiasm. That’s rare and coveted in a big guy. Usually (you) have to beg them to play with energy. He’s different. He’s a force and still young and growing. He does a lot of things well.”
“He’s one of the quickest guys off the floor in the country,” one Western Conference scout added.
While Johnson’s athleticism can translate to the league, some executives worry he may fit the tweener label.
“The main thing is he doesn’t have a position,” one Western Conference executive told SheridanHoops. “He’s not a stretch-four. I don’t think his game is going to translate in that regard. I think he’ll be a backup player and plug him into the game. He’s not a starter in the NBA.”
Johnson has yet to attempt a 3-pointer at the college level. In today’s league where spacing is vital, Johnson must expand his range. After shooting 58 percent from the foul line as a freshman, Johnson has made gradual improvement and shot 79 percent this season, which provides optimism that his range can improve with repetition.
Four executives pegged Johnson’s range currently in the late lottery to mid 20’s.
4. Taurean Prince, Baylor, F, 6-7, 200, senior
“He has all the tools,” one Western Conference scout told SheridanHoops. “He does things okay, but nothing great. He could be very good with the right player development.”
Prince barely played his freshman and sophomore seasons before becoming a full-time starter this season as a senior. Even though Prince played four years of college ball, he will only be 21 on draft night.
Despite Baylor losing to Yale in the first round, Prince did all he could with 28 points on an assortment of mid-range jumpers and four 3-pointers.
Prince has ideal size for a wing player and is a good athlete that can score in a variety of ways. In addition, Prince is a good shooter beyond the arc shooting 38 percent over his collegiate career. In the mid-range area, Prince can pull up or take his defender off the bounce. In the lane, Prince can drop the occasional floater or post up smaller defenders on the block.
On defense, Prince uses his size and strength as an on-ball defender and length to deflect passes and contest shots. In today’s NBA, he can find a role as a 3-and-D player.
Moving forward, Prince can improve his consistency as a shooter, become a better passer and must learn to play more man-to-man defense after coming from Baylor’s zone scheme.
Prince is currently projected to be in the mid to late 20’s.
5. Georges Niang, Iowa State, F, 6-8, 230, senior
“If he leans his body out and becomes respectable athletically, he’s got a small chance to sneak in the first round by the draft,” a Western Conference executive told SheridanHoops. “He’s a winner. He’s got those intangibles. He’s also the definition of a tweener. He’s a below-average athlete defensively and will have trouble with length and bounce.”
That quote basically summed up the book on Niang from executives and scouts who spoke to SheridanHoops.
Niang averaged 28.7 points, 6.7 rebounds and 3.3 assists during Iowa State’s three-game tournament run. He displayed his offensive versatility, shooting 54 percent from the field, 47 percent from downtown and 86 percent at the line.
Against No. 1 Virginia, Niang had 30 points, eight rebounds and four assists in the Cyclones’ loss.
Two executives and two scouts pegged Niang in the mid second-round for now.
Michael Scotto is an NBA columnist for SheridanHoops.com. Follow him on Twitter: @MikeAScotto.