It is that special time once again in the world of college basketball: The March Madness NCAA Tournament. Three weeks of high-level collegiate basketball as 68 of the best programs in the nation face off against one another on the Road to the Final Four. A postseason filled with major upsets, bizarre buzzer-beaters and unsung heroes looking to play their way into immortalizing themselves through a moment or a run that will go down in NCAA history forever.
This season we have a lot of special teams that could make a strong run at the championship. But we also get to see a lot of potential NBA talent on display all with the chips on the line, which is something that does not happen often. Of course, for the casual fan you may be aware of guys like Cade Cunningham for Oklahoma State, Evan Mobley at USC and Jalen Suggs who is part of the juggernaut that is the Gonzaga Bulldogs.
But there is even more potential NBA talent playing in this tourney that has been chomping at the bit just waiting to have this opportunity on the big stage to show NBA scouts what they are really made of. These are what I like to call “Sneaky Prospects.” These are guys that are not floating at the top of draft boards much but could see their draft stock drastically rise with a few outstanding performances in the tourney.
Here are just some of the many other potential NBA prospects who are worth keeping your eye out on in the opening rounds as Road to the Final Four is officially underway!
(You can discuss this on the BSL Board here.)
Jason Preston, Ohio Bobcats
Preston is a Junior guard out of Orlando, Florida standing at 6-foot-4 and 187 pounds. He has a really great feel for the game at the point guard spot as a guy who can do it all, but mainly comes up big on the offensive end as an elite three-level scorer.
This season he is averaging 16.6 points, 6.8 rebounds, 7.2 assists and 1.6 steals while shooting 53% from the field and 40.8% shooting from three on about four attempts a game. One of the weird things worth pointing out is that after shooting 70%+ from the free throw line in his first two seasons at Ohio, he is only shooting 58.5% from the line this year. This is a bit of an anomaly and not worth putting too much stock into considering his three-point shooting splits are what they are, but it is still an interesting tidbit, nonetheless.
Preston is definitely a high-volume scorer as this season heh has scored 15 or more points in 10 of the 18 games he has played in and he had 20 or more points in six of those games. The game that stands out the most came in the third game of the season against now No. 1 seed Illinois where the Bobcats only lost 77-75. In the game Preston scored 31 points along with six rebounds and eight assists. He did this without committing a single turnover, was 3-of-4 from three and went 13-of-23 overall from the field in a game that Illinois had won with three clutch free throws from Ayo Dosunmu and Trent Frazier in the final two seconds of the game.
Then there is the ability to facilitate at a high level which is one of the bigger indications of his feel for the game. This season he has had at least five assists in all but two games (Win over Buffalo on 01/29 and Win over Kent State on 03/11 in the MAC Conference tournament semifinals).
Preston is a solid plug and play guard that should translate as a respectable second unit point guard at the next level who can give you a quick ten points off the bench while being able to keep an offense steady. With a good run in the NCAA tournament, Preston could play himself into a Top-40 prospect this season in a very deep guard class. Preston’s tournament journey will begin on Saturday at 7:15 P.M. against Trey Murphy III and the Virginia Cavaliers as Ohio looks to pull off the 13 seed over 4 seed upset in the West Region.
Chris Duarte, Oregon Ducks
Speaking of the West Region, another potential sneaky NBA Prospect in this region is Pac-12 Player of the Year runner-up Chris Duarte out of Oregon. Duarte is a Senior guard out of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic standing at 6-foot-6 and 190 pounds. Although some may disagree, a legitimate case can be made that he deserved to be named the Pac-12 Player of the Year over potential NBA Lottery Pick Evan Mobley out of USC. Here are just a few reasons why.
Leading the Oregon Ducks to a 20-8 record, which was the best in the Pac-12, Duarte averaged 16.7 points 4.7 rebounds, 2.3 assists and early two steals a game as a legitimate two-way player who can guard the one through three positions. His shooting splits on the season are 52.4% from the field and 43% shooting from three on nearly six attempts a game.
Similar to Preston, Duarte can really stuff the stat sheet in the scoring department as he had 13 games in which he scored 15 points or more. This includes a season-high 27 points in a 79-72 loss to Colorado midway through the season. His ability to score at a high clip and then go on the other end guard at a high-level is exactly why he was named to All-American Third team alongside the likes of other potential NBA prospects like Baylor’s Davion Mitchell and Herb Jones for Alabama.
Now heading into the tournament, he has not played up to the standard he set throughout the season as he only had six points in the Pac-12 tournament opener against Arizona State and followed that up with 14 points on 5-of-15 shooting from the floor in the semifinal round as Oregon State eliminated the Ducks with a 75-64 victory.
Unfortunately for Duarte, he already has the stigma that comes with being a 23-year-old senior prospect hanging over his head. So, for him a strong tournament run for Oregon could be the difference between him being picked in the late 20s of the first round and possibly slipping to the middle of the second round in this year’s NBA Draft. Duarte and the Ducks kick off the tourney with a matchup against sophomore guard Nah’Shon Hyland and the VCU Rams on Saturday at 9:57 P.M. as the Ducks look to handle business as the higher seed in this matchup.
Cameron Thomas, LSU Tigers
Moving over to the East Region is Cameron Thomas of the No. 8 seed LSU Tigers out of the South East Conference (SEC). Thomas out of Chesapeake, Virginia stands at 6-foot-4, 210 pounds and may easily be one of the most dynamic scorers in this year’s draft class.
As only a freshman he has burst onto the scene averaging 22.6 points a game, making him the leading scorer in the entire SEC over a handful of other topflight prospects such as Moses Moody of Arkansas (17.4 points), Jaden Springer for Tennessee (12.5 points) and Tre Mann (16.0 points) over in Florida just to name a few. Thomas is easily the best scorer out of the five guys being discussed on this list and it is not even close. Thomas scored 15 points or more in all but one game this season (0 points in only four minutes played against Ole Miss on 01/09). He scored 20 points or more in 20 games including a career-high 32 points in his first matchup against SEC competition as the Tigers beat in blowout fashion Texas A&M 77-54.
Despite having prolific scoring ability one of the biggest things that is hurting Thomas’ stock is shooting splits. This season he shot 40.5% from the floor on a very high volume 17 shots a game while also taking just over seven threes a game and only hitting 32% of those. This inefficiency from behind the arc and his need to get up a ton of shots to be effective makes him look like nothing less than a microwave scorer off the bench like a Lou Williams (LA Clippers) or a Malik Monk (Charlotte Hornets) type.
Not that these are bad guys to be compared to, but Williams has not been a very effective scorer come Playoff time (no team he has been on has advanced past the 2nd Round) and Malik Monk is still trying to prove to people that was worth being taken 11th in the 2017 NBA Draft over guys like Donovan Mitchell, Bam Adebayo and John Collins.
But even with that all being said, Thomas also has the least to lose out of all these guys as Tankathon and NBA Draft Net both have him slated as a late first round pick so the worst he could really do now is play himself out of the first round.
But on the flipside, some big-time performances and clutch shots against quality opponents in the tournament could lead draft evaluators to come around on Thomas as a guy who can finish games in the closing lineup. Maybe even start next to another high-volume guard as CJ McCollum type who has the ultimate green light offensively at the next level. Thomas and the LSU Tigers open up the tournament with a tough matchup against No. 9 St. Bonaventure and their backcourt mob of Kyle Lofton, Jaren Holmes, Jalen Adaway and Dominick Welch on Saturday at 1:45 P.M.
E.J. Liddell, Ohio State Buckeyes
Next up is the South Region and the guy to watch is E.J. Liddell for the Ohio State Buckeyes. Liddell is a really interesting Sophomore Forward prospect standing at 6-foot-7 and 240 pounds that has played anywhere between Small Forward and Center for this Buckeyes ball club.
Along with being extremely versatile and switchable defensively, the most impressive thing about Liddell this season is probably the drastic jump he has taken from his Freshman season last year to this season. As a Freshman he averaged 6.7 points, 3.8 rebounds and not even an assist a game on 46.4% shooting from the floor and 19.2% from three which is really bad especially when considering that “Stretch-Fours” have become very abundant at the NBA level which makes shooting a must.
This season he skyrocketed up to 15.9 points, 6.4 rebounds, 1.7 assists and 1.1 blocks on 46.5% shooting from the floor and 33.8% from three which still is not great but shows signs that he may be able to shoot it at the next level. Liddell is really the driving force for Ohio State especially offensively where on film you can see that they run a lot of their off ball and screen game actions to help guys like senior guard CJ Walker and Junior guard Duane Washington Jr. get free looks or find driving lanes.
The big question for Liddell at the next level is where he will fit positionally. At 6-foot-7 he would essentially be a wing-forward, but that will not really be an ideal fit until he proves that he can be a reliable knockdown shooter from the outside floating around 37% from behind the arc. But he also could project as a small-ball four as part of a speed lineup and a high energy rebounder. The only issue with this is again that he is not much of a shooter right now, so in a small-ball lineup he may be the only non-shooter on the floor which could nullify him as a real threat in half court sets.
So, the case and point is that three-point shooting will be the swing skill that could really determine whether he is a draftable prospect or if he should go back to school for another year. It would not be a terrible idea for him to return to Ohio State for his Junior season to continue battling against top Big Ten competition while hopefully growing his offensive arsenal even more. For Liddell and the Buckeyes, they are on upset alert as they take on the leading scorer in the entire NCAA in Max Abrams and the Oral Roberts Golden Eagles today at 3:00 P.M.
Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois Fighting Illini
Last is the Midwest Region and the man with the plan is Ayo Dosunmu. Now I know what you are probably thinking: How can he be considered as a sneaky NBA Draft Prospect to watch when he is on the third best team in the country? The answer to that question is simple: Because he is not even a Top-3 NBA Prospect in his own region.
The most anticipated guys in the Midwest Region starts with Cade Cunningham for the Oklahoma State Cowboys who has been regarded as the consensus No.1 pick in this year’s draft for pretty much the whole season. Then there is the guard tandem of Keon Johnson and Jaden Springer for the Tennessee Volunteers who are both projected to go in the Lottery or at least Top-20.
On the other hand, Dosunmu is extremely polarizing as a prospect as sites like NBADraft.net have him going as high as 14 at the end of the Lottery. While sites Tankathon has him going as low as the early 30s in the second round. Dosunmu has arguably been one of the best players in college basketball this season yet, his projection to the next level is still up for debate and that is kind of hard to understand. Dosunmu is 6-foot-5, 200 pounds as a native guy homegrown out of Chicago, Illinois and has put the Fighting Illini back on the map.
This season he is averaging 20.7 points, 6.3 rebounds and 5.3 assists on 48.8% shooting from the floor and 38.7% from three. This is all while leading to the Big Ten title game and was named to the All-American First Team alongside guys like Gonzaga’s Corey Kispert and Jalen Suggs, Cade Cunningham and Luka Garza who will more than likely be named the Naismith Men’s College Player of the Year. Dosunmu was an offensive machine for Illinois as he had four 30+ point games including his season-high 36 points in a close loss to Missouri 81-78 early in the season.
He was easily the heartbeat of this team as his sole purpose of returning for his Junior season was to get Illinois back to the Big Dance for the first time since 2013. Mission accomplished. As a Jimmy Butler-like player I could easily see Dosunmu being a guy like Butler who was drafted 30th out of Marquette and had to cut his teeth as a rotational guy who gradually got better over time and is now regarded as one of the best two-way players in the game. Dosunmu will more than likely make his name on the offensive end as opposed to Butler who grew his stripes on defense. But Dosunmu has the chance to be a real diamond in the ruff as a Lottery level talent who could fall out of the first round simply due to teams swinging on the potential of younger, less proven prospects like BJ Boston out of Kentucky or Zaire Williams for Stanford whose seasons are both done.
You heard it here first, Ayo Dosunmu is a Top-10 talent and his best shot to prove it is in the toughest region of the entire bracket. Dosunmu and Illini will start their Road to the Final Four with a matchup against No. 16 seed as they look to avoid the upset.
Hi there! My name is Jalon Dixon, but most people just call me Jay. As an aspiring, young sports writer and podcaster, I enjoy discussing sports (mainly basketball and football) and sharing my knowledge with others. Growing up right in the middle of Towson University, Morgan State, Goucher College and others, I have gotten the chance to learn so much about a handful of the different athletic teams that thrive here in Baltimore. I want to be the voice of local fans and teams that may not get the same spotlight as others, but still play a big part in our everyday lives. My motto is “Always Embrace Conversation,” so if you ever want to give me feedback on a piece or even just have a friendly sports debate, feel free to email me! Hope you enjoy my work and maybe even learn something along the way.