While the main — and most important — purpose of the NCAA tournament is to determine a national champion, the event is also a big deal when it comes to the NBA Draft. There have been many cases over the years of players who may have barely been on the radar heading into the postseason improving their draft prospects significantly, while others have played poorly and fallen down boards as a result.
This year’s tournament may have an even greater impact on the draft as, due to the pandemic, NBA teams haven’t been able to do as much in-person scouting work. Over the next three days we’ll take a look at some of the top prospects in the NCAA tournament, providing a top-10 by region. This installment focuses on the South, which is, compared to the other three regions, relatively light on high-level prospects.
1. PG/SG Jared Butler (Baylor)
Butler, who shares the backcourt with Davion Mitchell (who is discussed below), can play either on or off the ball for the top-seeded Bears. The 6-foot-3, 195-pound junior guard has made major strides as a shooter during his three seasons in Waco, and he enters the tournament shooting 48.8% from the field, 42.9% from three and 78.3% from the foul line. A two-time all-Big 12 selection, Butler is averaging 17.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, 4.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.6 3-pointers per game.
He shoots the ball well at all three levels, and can be an absolute handful defensively as well. In addition to receiving all-conference honors, Butler was also selected to the Big 12’s All-Defensive Team, combining with Mitchell to form the best perimeter defensive tandem in college basketball. Butler considered turning pro after last season but decided to return to Baylor. If the Bears play as deep into the tournament as many expect, that could set the stage for Butler to crack the first round.
2. SF Jeremiah Robinson-Earl (Villanova)
Villanova has become an NBA factory of sorts in recent years, as the program can claim multiple players who have not only been drafted but also gone on to lock down rotation spots for themselves. Robinson-Earl appears to be next in line in that regard, as he’s a skilled forward who can play both in the post and on the perimeter. Listed at 6-foot-9, 230 pounds, the sophomore has raised his scoring average by five-plus points per game from a season ago while also shooting a higher percentage from the field.
Averaging 15.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.0 steals, 0.5 blocks and 1.0 3-pointers per game, Robinson-Earl enters the tournament with shooting splits of 49.3% from the field, 28.5% from three and 72.2% from the foul line. The 3-point shooting does need some work, but to his credit Robinson-Earl knows where his bread is buttered offensively and rarely settles. Defensively he doesn’t offer much in the way of rim protection, but rarely is the sophomore forward out of position. A big tournament could improve his standing as a possible first-round selection.
3. PG Davion Mitchell (Baylor)
After coming off the bench during his first college season at Auburn, Mitchell has flourished at Baylor. The 6-foot-2, 205-pound redshirt junior enters the tournament with averages of 14.2 points, 2.6 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 2.0 steals and 2.3 3-pointers per game, while shooting 51.5% from the field, 46.2% from three and 69.1% from the foul line. Mitchell finishes well around the basket, making more than 68% of his attempts at the rim according to hoop-math, and he has made significant strides as a perimeter shooter.
There’s still work to be done at the foul line, but Mitchell’s positives outweigh the negatives on offense. Mitchell is also one of the best defenders in the country, a good athlete who moves well laterally and has quick, active hands. Mitchell is the kind of point guard that can carve out a long NBA career for himself, even if he isn’t discussed as a surefire first-round pick.
4. SG Tre Mann (Florida)
After filling a supplementary role for the Gators as a freshman, the 6-foot-5, 190-pound Mann has emerged as a high-level scorer this season. The sophomore guard enters the tournament with averages of 16.0 points, 5.7 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.5 steals and 1.8 3-pointers per game, while shooting 45.3% from the field, 39.8% from three and 84.9% from the foul line. One of the SEC’s most improved players, Mann earned all-conference honors while leading Florida in both points and assists. He shoots the ball well at all three levels, and can make plays off the dribble either for himself of his teammates. Mann is the kind of scorer that can get hot, and ultimately carry his team through the first weekend of the tournament.
5. C Neemias Queta (Utah State)
A popular name in NBA Draft circles after his freshman season, the 7-foot, 245-pound Queta is now a college junior. Having earned all-Mountain West honors in each of his three seasons at Utah State, the 7-footer is also the conference’s two-time Defensive Player of the Yeah. Queta enters the tournament with averages of 15.1 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists, 1.1 steals and 3.2 blocks per game, and he’s shooting 55.7% from the field and 71.0% from the foul line.
If there’s a concern offensively it’s how Queta deals with double-teams in the post, but that’s an area where he has made strides throughout his time in college. Defensively he’s a high-level rim protector, but there are occasionally issues when he has to move laterally on the perimeter in pick-and-roll situations. Queta has the look of a second-round pick, be it this summer or in 2022.
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6. SG Terrence Shannon Jr. (Texas Tech)
The 6-foot-6, 210-pound Shannon Jr. has improved his scoring by some three points per game from last season, accounting for 12.7 points per game on percentages of 45.4% from the field, 34.6% from three and 75.2% from the foul line. The sophomore wing is also averaging 4.1 rebounds, 1.4 assists, 1.2 steals and 1.0 3-pointers per game, and he has become more comfortable as a perimeter shooter. There are still strides for Shannon Jr. to make in that area, but he’s an above-the-rim finisher whose athleticism is also apparent on the defensive end of the floor. In order to ultimately stick in the NBA, whenever that time comes, Shannon Jr. will need to polish his offensive repertoire and become a more consistent shooter.
7. SG Scottie Lewis (Florida)
Lewis was pegged by some as a one-and-done prospect when he committed to Florida, but things haven’t worked out that way. And you know what? That’s fine, as the path predicted for a player isn’t always the one that they will ultimately travel. The 6-foot-5, 189-pound sophomore is averaging 7.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 1.6 steals and 1.2 blocks per game, while shooting 44.4% from the field and 66.7% from the foul line. While Lewis does need to improve as a shooter/scorer, the combination of athleticism and basketball IQ can make him a difficult player to account for on the other end of the floor. Due to the offensive struggles, Lewis’ draft prospects at present time don’t match what they were before he arrived in Gainesville.
8. SF/PF E.J. Liddell (Ohio State)
After coming off the bench in all 31 games as a freshman, Liddell has taken full advantage of his move into the starting lineup. The 6-foot-7, 240-pound sophomore is averaging 15.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.1 blocks and 0.9 3-pointers per game, with splits of 46.5% from the field, 33.8% from three and 75.2% from the foul line. Liddell’s 3-point percentage isn’t great, but he has made noticeable strides as a perimeter shooter with regard to both accuracy and a willingness to take those shots. Having made a significant jump from his freshman to sophomore season, Liddell’s name is one that should be filed away for the 2022 draft cycle.
9. PF Keve Aluma (Virginia Tech)
After two seasons at Wofford, the 6-foot-9, 235-pound Aluma made the decision to follow his head coach Mike Young to Virginia Tech. And it’s safe to say that the partnership has worked out for both parties. In his first on-court season at Virginia Tech, the redshirt junior is averaging 15.6 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 0.7 steals, 1.3 blocks and 1.0 3-pointers per game. For his efforts Aluma, who boasts shooting splits of 48.9/35.1/72.6, was named second team all-ACC. His offensive skill set has expanded since transferring to Virginia Tech, and his ability to play in pick-and-pop situations makes Aluma a tough cover for many opposing big men.
10. SF/PF Mark Vital (Baylor)
The 6-foot-5, 250-pound Vital is a versatile defender who can be used at either forward position despite being a bit “undersized.” The senior brings good physicality to the table, and he enters the tournament with averages of 6.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. Vital is a three time Big 12 All-Defensive Team selection, and the work that he does on that end of the floor should get him some looks. He isn’t much of a scorer, averaging just 6.0 points per game on the season, but his offensive rating (114.5) is the highest number of his Baylor career. Not sure Vital hears his name called this summer, but the defensive skill set should get him a summer league (provided it is held) opportunity.
For this portion, one player from each team in the region will be mentioned along with a brief note. While some of these players could become the focus of NBA conversations at some point, it’s more likely that these will be honorable mentions whose names you’ll need to become more acquainted with before the tournament begins.
No. 1 Baylor: SG MaCio Teague (After spending two seasons at UNC Asheville, Teague has been consistent scorer on all three levels for the Bears)No. 2 Ohio State: SG Duane Washington Jr. (The junior guard has improved his scoring average by nearly five points from a season ago, up to 16.3 ppg)No. 3 Arkansas: SG Moses Moody (The 6-foot-6, 205-pound Moody won SEC Rookie of the Year honors, beating out LSU’s Cameron Thomas) No. 4 Purdue: PF Trevion Williams (The junior power forward is shooting nearly 53% from the field, and he leads the Boilermakers in both points and rebounds)No. 5 Villanova: PG Justin Moore (With Collin Gillespie out due to a to a torn MCL, it can be argued that Moore’s play will determine how far the Wildcats go)No. 6 Texas Tech: PG Mac McClung (A scoring point guard, McClung is averaging 15.7 points per game after spending his first two seasons at Georgetown)No. 7 Florida: PF Colin Castleton (The Michigan transfer is a skilled big who runs the floor well, protects the rim, and is shooting just over 58% from the field)No. 8 North Carolina: PF Armando Bacot (Part of the Tar Heels’ deep frontcourt, the 6-foot-10 sophomore leads the Tar Heels in points and rebounds while shooting 62.7% from the field)No. 9 Wisconsin: PG D’Mitrik Trice (Trice leads the way on the perimeter for the Badgers, averaging 13.7 points and 4.0 assists per game)No. 10 Virginia Tech: SG Tyrece Radford (The 6-foot-2 sophomore earned honorable mention all-ACC honors, averaging 11.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and 2.1 assists per game)No. 11 Utah State: SF Justin Bean (Combines with the aforementioned Queta to form one of the better frontcourt tandems in the field, especially on the defensive end of the floor)No. 12 Winthrop: PF Chandler Vaudrin (The senior forward leads the way for the team that boasts four double-digit scorers, and he averages nearly seven assists per game)No. 13 North Texas: SG Javion Hamlet (Hamlet has been an all-Conference USA selection in each of his two seasons at UNT, winning Player of the Year honors in 2020)No. 14 Colgate: PG Jordan Burns (A three-time all-Patriot League selection, Burns won Player of the year honors after leading the Raiders in points and assists this season)No. 15 Oral Roberts: PG Max Abmas (The 6-foot-1, 165-pound sophomore was the Summit League’s best player, and he’s averaging 24.4 points per game)No. 16 Hartford: PG Traci Carter (The well-traveled guard, with prior stops at Marquette and La Salle, was an America East all-defensive team selection in each of his two seasons at UHart)