The fast-paced basketball takeover that is the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament is behind us.
After four consecutive days of 12-hour basketball, we get a few days of a break before the Sweet 16 kicks off on Thursday. Through the first four days, we saw players either help or hurt their draft stock for the 2019 NBA Draft. For some teams, the NCAA Tournament is the first time that their scouts and front office members will get a true look at this crop of prospects.
March Madness has impacted where players have been drafted before and it likely will again. Here’s a look at the 10 players whose draft stock was most impacted after the opening weekend of games.
Ja Morant, Murray State
The Murray State Racers looked like they were well on their way to being this year’s Cinderella story in the NCAA Tournament on the back on Ja Morant’s star power. To kick off the tournament, Morant dominated the Marquette Golden Eagles with a triple-double (only the ninth in the history of March Madness).
As opposed to being a one-man demolition crew, Morant controlled the game while getting his teammates involved early and often. Morant’s display of high-level playmaking and basketball IQ in Murray State’s two tournament games have helped cement him as one of the top players in the 2019 NBA Draft — his triple-double outing in the opener had him in the discussion for the number one overall pick for some.
Mfiondu Kabengele, Florida State
A key part of Florida State’s depth is the fact that they bring their best player, Mfiondu Kabengele, off the bench. Kabengele led the Seminoles in scoring (13.4 points per game in 21.4 minutes per game).
In the Seminoles two games, he’s averaging 21.5 points, 8.5 rebounds, two blocks, and a steal while playing just 26 minutes per game. Despite Leonard Hamilton’s reliance on depth — the coach played a whopping 14 players against Murray State — Kabengele has managed to carve out some room as the team’s star. If Kabengele can keep producing at this level, the redshirt sophomore might play his way into first-round consideration.
Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga
With the rise of small ball in the modern NBA, Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke is emerging at the right time. The 6-foot-8 Clarke operates as the Bulldogs rim protector and de facto center and Mark Few’s team looks like a legit title contender because of it.
Clarke was utterly unstoppable against the Baylor Bears in the Round of 32 going for 36 points while shooting 15-of-18 from the floor. Zion Williamson is the only other player this season that we’ve seen have as efficient of a game. The Gonzaga frontline also features future NBA players Rui Hachimura (projected 2019 lottery pick) and Killian Tillie, that duo allows for Clarke to have more room to operate allow the basket.
Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
In Texas Tech’s run to the Sweet 16 Jarrett Culver has been a man on a mission. Culver posted 29 points, 8 rebounds, and 7 assists and followed that up with 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 5 assists as the Red Raiders compiled two double-digit victories.
Culver’s ability to contribute in a multitude of ways on the floor is what makes him stand out in this class. Culver is a multifaceted offensive weapon, capable of initiating the offense, creating for others, or getting his own shot. Add in Tech’s defensive acumen under Chris Beard and Culver looks to be a plug-and-play type of player as a rookie.
Nassir Little, North Carolina
Nassir Little was the crown jewel of North Carolina’s 2018 recruiting class, however, as the season has worn on, Little’s contributions haven’t matched preseason expectations. Through two NCAA Tournament games, Little has lived up to the hype so far.
Like Gonzaga, the Tar Heels’ strength comes from their frontcourt depth. However, unlike the Bulldogs UNC’s options served as a detriment to Little in what will likely be his only college season. With Roy Williams preferring to play big, Little came off the bench and was initially slotted as a small forward. Yet, Little’s inconsistent outside shot made him an easier guard for opponents. About midway through the year, the team made a switch and played Little more as a smallball four and kept either Luke Maye or Cam Johnson on the court with him to space the floor. That has been more successful with Little looking his best during the tournament.
Miye Oni, Yale
The Yale wing took home Ivy League Player of the Year honors and was looking to cement himself as a viable NBA prospect with a strong showing after Yale earned a spot in the field after winning the Ivy League conference tournament. In the end, that wasn’t the case for Miye Oni.
Yale faced off against the LSU Tigers in their lone NCAA Tournament game this year, and while the Bulldogs made it a fight to the end, Oni’s performance wasn’t the reason why. Oni shot 2-of-16 from the field and 1-of-10 from behind the arc, both well below his seasonal averages (44.1 field goal percentage and 37.1 3-point percentage). Putting an evaluation on the back of small sample sizes is never a prudent idea, but after spending most of the year as an under the radar prospect, Oni had a chance to become a bigger name within draft circles. His performance against the Tigers left most observers left wanting for more.
Talen Horton-Tucker, Iowa State
Versatility is the name of the game in the modern NBA, and there might not be a more versatile player than Iowa State’s Talen Horton-Tucker. Listed at 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, Horton-Tucker has a similar build to the Houston Rockets’ switching defensive keystone PJ Tucker while possessing a wingspan that rivals Draymond Green (both have a wingspan greater than 7-feet). On looks alone, Horton-Tucker seems to have a future role in the NBA already carved out for him.
The 18-year-old however has been mostly up and down in his first season with the Iowa State Cyclones. His scoring average of 11.8 points per game was highest among Big 12 freshmen, but conversely, he wasn’t the most efficient scorer shooting 40.6 percent from the field, 30.8 percent on 3-pointers, and 62.6 percent from the free throw line. Horton-Tucker was able to contribute in other ways and his all-around capabilities made him a player worth watching. For all of the things that Horton-Tucker was able to provide to the team, it seemed like he would disappear for stretches of play during the year. March Madness provided him with a chance to change that perception and yet with more eyes on him, Horton-Tucker’s unreliability left him glued to the bench for the better part of Iowa State’s first-round loss to Ohio State.
Ignas Brazdeikis, Michigan
Once again, John Beilein’s Michigan Wolverines are making their way through another extended NCAA Tournament run. However, one key member of the Wolverines have yet to match the level that he played at during the season. Big Ten Freshman of the Year, Ignas Brazdeikis hasn’t found his groove yet in Michigan’s first two games.
After averaging nearly 15 points and 5.2 rebounds per game and shooting 40.6 percent on 3-pointers, Brazdeikis is down to 9.5 points per game, 5 rebounds per game, and shooting 14.2 percent from deep. Brazdeikis’ appeal has been that he can operate as a combo forward who can space the floor and create his own shots. In Beilein’s system, Michigan gives all of their players the freedom to operate with the ball in their hands so Brazdeikis could re-correct things in the matter of just one game. Yet, for someone who was getting mid-to-late first-round love during his breakout freshman campaign, Brazdeikis’ slump is coming at the wrong time.
Jordan Nwora, Louisville
Jordan Nwora was possibly the biggest beneficiary of Louisville making the switch from Rick Pitino to Chris Mack. As a freshman, Nwora had shown some promise but wasn’t on the court enough to back up the production his advanced stats displayed. In year two, Nwora’s minutes per game skyrocketed from 12 to 31.9 per game and the advanced numbers matched up with the traditional stats he produced.
Louisville would suffer a disappointing loss to Minnesota in their opening game ending Nwora’s chance to showcase his skills for scouts. In that game, Nwora went 4-of-10 from the field and 2-of-6 from deep to total a lowly 10 points — his fourth-lowest scoring output of the season; coming off the heels of his worst a 7-point effort against UNC in the ACC Tournament quarterfinals. A deep run for the Cardinals wasn’t necessary to help boost Nwora’s stock, but he needed to be better than he was against the Gophers. He could still potentially test the waters, but with how he finished the year he’s unlikely to hear the news that he wants.
Markus Howard, Marquette
In possibly the most anticipated game of the first day of the NCAA Tournament, Markus Howard led Marquette against Ja Morant and Murray State. Morant was the higher-rated prospect, but Howard had an opportunity to show that he could hold his own against a surefire lottery pick at his position.
The chance came and went for Howard. Not only did he allow Morant to collect a triple-double in the game, but he didn’t have the stats that we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from him over time. Howard scores 26 points, but it took him 27 shots to amass that total. He went a ghastly 9-of-27 from the field and 4-of-14 on 3-pointers; not known as a facilitator his two assists were still a negative in comparison to Morant’s 16 (with Marquette’s defense selling out to slow him down). Howard’s game is along the lines of Stephen Curry/Dame Lillard/Kemba Walker/Trae Young, but in his biggest game to date, Howard’s shot failed him.