Analyzing the lottery picks in the NCAA Tournament

March Madness is in full effect, and the Phoenix Suns have lost seven of their last eight games. It’s officially time to start looking toward the NBA draft.

As of today, the Suns own the fourth worst record in the NBA. With 11 games left, they could realistically end up with anywhere from the third to the 10th pick. No matter how the Suns finish, it will be the highest Phoenix has selected since before Steve Nash came to the desert. Though this has been a lost season, there is potentially a pot of gold at the end of this dreary rainbow, depending on who the Suns select in June.

To kick off the draft conversation, we watched eight of the projected Top 10 picks (according to Chad Ford’s Top 100) and analyzed their performances in the second and third round of the NCAA tournament. Each of the players we’ve broken down is listed below along with his season averages and individual game lines.

Now, obviously it is quite subjective to judge a player based on his performance in one or two games. But Tournament games, with their heightened competition, coverage and stakes, aren’t normal contests. They are far and away the closest thing to an NBA game that any of these young men have played in up to this point in their career. Thus, their performances in these big games carry more than the usual weight. How they play in the pressure environment that is the Big Dance says a lot about how they will play in the NBA and how much they will or will not be able to contribute as rookies. ESPN’s Peter Keating wrote about this subject in the most recent issue of ESPN the Magazine (Insider Only.) Here’s how these eight sure-fire lottery picks performed on the big stage.

Ben McLemore

Freshman – SG – Kansas

Season Averages: 15.8 pts, 49% FG, 41% 3PT, 87% FT, 5.3 reb, 1.0 stl, PER 24.24

Game 1 vs. Western Kentucky: 32 min, 11 points, 2-5 FG, 7-8 FT, 6 reb, 4 TO

Game 2 vs. North Carolina: 24 min, 2 pts, 0-9 FG, 0-6 3PT, 5 reb, 2 TO

The dead guy in Weekend at Bernie’s had a better weekend than Ben McLemore. The Jayhawks’ freshman phenom was a no-show in both of Kansas’ wins over the weekend. Right now he’s projected as the No. 2 pick behind the injured Nerlens Noel, but he’ll have to redeem himself in a huge way during the upcoming rounds if he hopes to maintain that projection. In both matchups, McLemore was tight and tentative. His jumper was a mess, and he missed several easy layups. He did put his tremendous leaping ability on display a few times, but otherwise there was nothing spectacular about his performance. Defensively, he turned his back on his man and left the job of defending the opponent’s best perimeter player to his teammates. He is incredibly quick which allows him to recover when he makes a mistake, but that speed won’t help him in the NBA when everyone he guards is just as quick. It was disappointing to see him fail to contribute in other areas when it became clear his shot wasn’t falling. McLemore has talent – just look at his season averages – but as a freshman about to enter the NBA draft (albeit a 20-year-old freshman) he may not have the requisite maturity to put that talent to use.

Marcus Smart

Freshman – PG – Oklahoma State

Season Averages: 15.4 pts, 40% FG, 29% 3PT, 78% FT, 5.8 reb, 4.2 ast, 3.0 stl, 3.4 TO, PER 24.23

Game 1 vs. Oregon: 37 min, 14 pts, 5-13 FG, 0-2 3PT, 4-8 FT, 9 reb, 4 ast, 5 stl, 5 TO

Analysis (by Dave Dulberg):

In spite of Oklahoma State’s 13-point loss to Oregon in the second round of the NCAA tournament, freshman Marcus Smart proved that he’s one of the more intriguing lottery candidates in June’s draft. Smart filled up the stat sheet against the Ducks, showed off his impressive lateral quickness on the defensive end, and did a decent job of containing Oregon’s speedy guards on the perimeter.

The concern is what position does the six-foot-four Smart play? Coach Travis Ford had Smart off the ball for most of the first half until the Cowboys fell behind by double digits. Ironically, it felt like Smart was less of a playmaker with the ball in his hands in the second half, and often forced shots that weren’t there. Rarely do you see a point guard excel off the ball, but Smart certainly fits in that category.

Otto Porter

Sophmore – SF – Georgetown

Season Averages: 16.2 pts, 48% FG, 42% 3PT, 77% FT, 7.5 reb, 1.8 stl, PER 27.88

Game 1 vs. Florida Gulf Coast: 38 min, 13 pts, 5-17 FG, 2-6 3PT, 11 reb, 3 ast

Georgetown’s loss was the Cinderella story of the second round, and much of the responsibility for it should fall on Otto Porter’s shoulders. Despite posting a double-double, the Big East Player of the Year was invisible for much of this game and never really found his shot. Porter went scoreless for a 25 minute stretch. It wasn’t just that his shots weren’t falling, it’s that by the end, he wasn’t even squaring up. Every time he caught the ball, he looked to pass immediately. The only reason Georgetown was in this game was because Porter’s teammate Markel Starks was incredible.

Porter reminds me a lot of Rudy Gay. He’s got great size and a good looking jump shot. He’s still very skinny and gets pushed around down low, but that doesn’t seem to stop him from getting boards. Defensively, he was the Hoyas’ floor general, calling out assignments and helping. He found ways to contribute even though his shot wasn’t falling. That said, him winning POY in the Big East is more an indictment of the Big East than an endorsement of Porter. I’m not sure he’s ready to be as substantial a contributor as his draft projection might suggest. He could be Jeremy Lamb 2.0.

Anthony Bennett

Freshman – PF – UNLV

Season Averages: 16.1 pts, 53%, 37% 3PT, 70% FT, 8.0 ast, 1.2 blk, PER 28.24

Game 1 vs. California: 37 min, 15 pts, 4-11 FG, 7-10 FT, 11 reb, 2 blk

Analysis (by Dave Dulberg):

Anthony Bennett is a physical specimen. That much was known even before the Running Rebels entered the NCAA tournament. In UNLV’s 64-61 loss to California in the second round, Bennett was not at his best, yet still managed to put up a double-double (15 points and 11 rebounds). He reminds me a lot of Derrick Favors when he came out of Georgia Tech after one year.

Bennett commands a double team in the post, has decent foot work in the paint and a nice touch around the rim. The problem for the 20-year-old, is that he also has an affinity for the 15-foot jump shot. Against the Golden Bears, Bennett seemed rather content firing up jumper after jumper.  While his shot is above average for a player of his size, it felt like he began every possession either facing up or catching passes well outside the lane.  At 240 pounds, I’m not sure Bennett fully recognizes yet how to best utilize his body.

Victor Oladipo

Junior – SG – Indiana

Season Averages: 13.6 pts, 59% FG, 43% 3PT, 75% FT, 6.4 reb, 2.1 stl, PER 29.09

Game 1 vs. James Madison: 26 min, 11 points, 3-7 FG, 1-3 3PT, 4-4 FT, 6 reb, 3 ast

Game 2 vs. Temple: 32 min, 16 points, 7-12 FG, 1-3 3PT, 8 reb

Oladipo played the best of any player on this list, and it wasn’t really that close. The junior shooting guard has been rising up the draft board all season, and recently surpassed his own teammate Cody Zeller as a possible Top 5 pick. Oladipo flies under the radar a bit because he doesn’t score over 15 points a game, but his scoring is just one of the many ways he can contribute.

Oladipo looks and plays like a shorter Luol Deng. He’s a tenacious defender with an incredibly high motor. He’s a highly efficient shooter and can get to the basket and finish against almost anyone. His first step is very quick and his lengthy stride allows him to get to the hoop with just one dribble. He rebounds as well as any guard in the draft and is incredibly fast in the open court. Down the stretch against Temple, he guarded the Owls’ best player (Khalif Wyatt went off for 31 points but many of those points came with Oladipo guarding other players) and nailed the dagger three to put the game out of reach. He can handle the ball like a point guard, but he’s much better off the ball. The only knock on his game I can see is that he may not have much of a left hand. After the first weekend of Tourney, he looks like the most NBA ready player in the draft.

Shabazz Muhammad

Freshman – SF – UCLA

Season Averages: 17.9 ppg, 44% FG, 38% 3PT, 71% FT, 5.2 reb, PER 21.99

Game 1 vs. Minnesota: 39 min, 20 pts, 6-18 FG, 0-6 3PT, 8-10 FT, 4 reb

Don’t let his line fool you, Muhammad could not hit the broad side of a barn in this game. UCLA got blown out by the Gophers and Muhammad’s struggles were a big reason why. The 2nd leading freshmen scorer in the country eventually got his twenty points, but they came on free throws and transition layups. In the halfcourt, he was totally ineffective.

Muhammad is incredibly strong for his size. He is not afraid to initiate contact and does a great job of getting to the free throw line. Offensively, he can get a bit lost on the weakside and can go long stretches of possession without touching the ball. Defensively, he might as well be a ghost. In an incredibly physical game in which the Bruins played only seven guys and were whistled for 19 fouls, zero of them were charged to Muhammad. He consistently guarded Minnesota’s weakest perimeter player and had no impact whatsoever defensively. Someone projected as highly as Muhammad should be able to contribute in ways other than scoring.

How he plays in the NBA will depend on what sort of situation he lands in. If the he lands with a team that is counting on him to contribute right away, he could be a big disappointment. After Jordan Adams went out with injury, UCLA had to rely on Muhammad even more than before. He was not up to the challenge. However, if he lands with a team that just needs him to run the floor and be athletic, then he has a chance to grow and become a very good player.

Muhammad’s birth date came under scrutiny in the last week (he’s 20, not 19) and he’s closer in age to Victor Oladipo than he is to Marcus Smart. While that hurts his stock and the thought of his upside, it does make it more likely that he will drop to Phoenix’s pick.

Cody Zeller

Sophmore – C – Indiana

Season Averages: 16.7 pts, 57% FG, 76% FT, 8 reb, 1.3 blk, PER 30.93

Game 1 vs. James Madison: 27 min, 11 pts, 4-5 FG, 3-4 FT, 4 reb, 4 TO

Game 2 vs. Temple: 29 min, 15 points, 4-10 FG, 7-8 FT, 6 reb, 6 TO

Cody Zeller is a good college basketball player. He has a high basketball IQ. He runs the floor. He gets great post position and can finish inside. He can even throw down a pretty thunderous dunk if given the opportunity. All that said, I don’t know if any of his skills are going to translate effectively to the NBA.

Averaging 8 rebounds per game in college is admirable, but Zeller has one of the lowest rebounding rates I’ve ever seen for a high profile big man. Indiana often plays four perimeter players around Zeller, giving him ample opportunities to grab boards, but in these two games, he grabbed maybe 10 percent of the rebounds available to him. His 6’5 teammate, Oladipo, outrebounded him in both games. Players very seldom improve as a rebounders after they get to the NBA.

Zeller also has below-average hands. Most of his 10 turnovers were plays where he lost the handle or had the ball stripped from him in the paint.  Defensively, he’s not a shot blocker, and he’s not very fast laterally. At seven feet and 240 pounds, Zeller isn’t bulky enough to defend NBA big men in the post, but he’s also doesn’t appear to be quick enough to defend on the perimeter. As I said before, he’s a great college player, but I don’t see any way that a team taking him in the Top 10 isn’t disappointed.

Gary Harris

Freshman – SG – Michigan State

Season Averages: 13.1 pts, 46% FG, 42% 3PT, 77% FT, 1.3 stl, PER 19.08

Game 1 vs. Valparaiso: 32 min, 10 points, 4-11 FG, 2-5 3PT, 4 reb, 4 ast, 2 stl

Game 2 vs. Memphis: 25 min, 23 pts, 6-9 FG, 4-7 3PT, 7-8 FT, 3 reb, 4 pf

This weekend was really a tale of two games for Harris. In the Spartans’ first game against Valpo, Harris faded into the background on offense. His teammate, Keith Appling, had a big game, and Harris seemed content to sit on the weak side and be passive. When he did get the ball, Harris didn’t shy away from shooting, but his shot wasn’t quite clicking. In the second game against Josh Pastner’s Memphis Tigers, Harris caught fire and sparked Michigan State to big runs in both halves that determined the outcome of the game. Harris would have had 30 points against the Tigers if not for some foul trouble.

Harris’ jump shot is a thing of beauty, especially when he’s shooting from beyond the arc. He’s equally comfortable as a spot up shooter or coming off screens. He attacks the hoop willingly and has some serious hops. He is a bit undersized for an NBA shooting guard however, and he may not finish at the rim in the pros. Defensively, he’s the most active defender on this list other than Oladipo. He was engaged on each and every position. If he made a mistake, he had the speed to recover. Whether or not he’ll be this tenacious of a defender when Tom Izzo isn’t yelling at him remains to be seen, but at least he’s got the ability. Harris is very young and still has a lot of growing and maturing to do, but he seems like he has the foundation to be a very solid player.

Please let us know in the comments what you thought of these performances and which player you think the Suns should pick in June.

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