NBA scouts and executives will tell you post-season tournament play is a small factor in their overall evaluation of a prospect.
Still, NBA talent evaluators are just like the rest of us. They fill out NCAA tournament brackets and enter in pools with their friends. But the one big distinction, they watch the games from a different perspective, with a much more critical eye on the play of the top players on each team.
So, as we get ready to enjoy this weekend's Final 4 in San Antonio, which players have helped their draft stock most with their play in the tournament?
Let's start with Kansas guards Devonte' Graham and Malik Newman. Neither was considered much of a pro prospect during the regular season, but both have shined under the spotlight of the NCAA tournament. Newman, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, scored 32 points in the Jayhawks' regional final win over Duke on Sunday and 28 points in a second round victory over Seton Hall.
Meanwhile, Graham poured in 29 points in an opening round win over Penn and is averaging over six assists per game during the tournament. The 6-foot-2 senior has been nominated for national player of the year honors, but because he's already 23 years old, hasn't drawn much attention from pro scouts. Graham is still projected as a second round pick in mock drafts.
You probably had never heard of Texas Tech's Zhaire Smith before the tournament began, but the high-flying 6-foot-5 freshman jumped off the TV screen in leading the Red Raiders to the East regional final. Smith came close to posting a triple double in a second round win over Florida, finishing with 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. His game is very similar to the Bulls' Zach LaVine, although Smith needs to become a more consistent outside shooter. Thanks to his strong tournament showing, Smith is now being mentioned as a likely first round pick in mock drafts.
Similar story with Kentucky point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. NBA scouts were already impressed with his quickness and penetrating ability as a 6-foot-6 point guard, but the Wildcats' freshman showed an improved outside shooting touch during the SEC and NCAA tournaments, likely making him a late lottery pick in June. Gilgeous-Alexander made 10 of 16 shots from the field and scored 29 points in a win over Tennessee in the SEC championship game and followed that up with a 10-12, 27-point performance against Buffalo in the second round of the NCAA tournament.
Another player who could crack the late lottery is Texas A&M big man Robert Williams. Williams was projected as a lottery pick last year, but decided to return for his sophomore season at College Station. That looked like a mistake during the regular season as he was overshadowed by frontcourt partner Tyler Davis and showed little to no range on his shot, including a miserable 47 percent success rate from the free throw line. Fortunately for Williams, he looked much more explosive during conference tournament and NCAA play and projects as a high energy rebounder and shot blocker in the mold of Warriors' rookie Jordan Bell.
Back to our original point, NBA talent evaluators aren't going to throw out all their work on the top prospects based on a few good (or bad) performances in the NCAA tournament. Arizona center Deandre Ayton will still go No. 1 overall, even though he was a non-factor in Arizona's stunning first round loss to Buffalo, and Duke's Marvin Bagley will still go in the top 3, even though he threw up an air ball from close range with a chance to get his team to the Final 4 against Kansas last Sunday.
Missouri's Michael Porter Jr. and Michigan State's Jaren Jackson Jr. could drop a spot or two after early exits from the tournament, but scouts are more concerned about Porter's medical report than a couple of poor shooting performances, and they're still confident Jackson projects as an ideal modern center despite uneven playing time during his freshman season.
NBA teams will get to know all the top players better during the annual scouting combine in Chicago May 16-20 and that will be followed by individual team workouts. By the time we get to draft night on June 21, how any of the prospects fared in the NCAA tournament will be long forgotten.
AROUND THE ASSOCIATION
Injuries figure to play a key role in which team will be celebrating a championship in mid-June. The defending champion Warriors have been running out a lineup in recent games that doesn't include any of their four All-Stars, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Durant is expected to return from a rib cartilage injury Thursday night against Milwaukee, while Green has been dealing with short-term strains and bruises, and should be good to go come playoff time.
The status of the "Splash Brothers" is a little more concerning. Thompson will return soon from a fractured right thumb, but considering he will have missed over four weeks and the injury is to his shooting hand, it could take a while for him to work off the rust.
Curry's situation is even more troublesome. He's expected to miss the opening round of the playoffs because of a Grade 2 sprain of his left MCL suffered last Friday, and it's hard to regain rhythm during the more physical, high pressure atmosphere in postseason games. If you remember what happened to the Warriors in 2016, they blew a 3-1 lead over Cleveland in the Finals in part because Curry was less than 100 percent after a late season injury.
It's possible all four Warriors' All-Stars will be healthy and playing well by the time the conference finals roll around in late May. But given the fact Houston is on an incredible roll right now, winning 28 of their last 29 games, anything less than a fully functioning Golden State team might not get the chance to defend their title in June.
Injuries are also the story in the East, where Kyrie Irving might not be ready for the start of the playoffs after going through a procedure to reduce irritation in his surgically-repaired left knee. The Celtics will also enter the postseason without valuable reserve guard Marcus Smart (thumb surgery) and Jaylen Brown just returned from concussion protocol.
Boston is probably still a year away from being a serious championship contender. They'll get Gordon Hayward back from a serious ankle injury and the young forward duo of Brown and Jayson Tatum will have another year of experience, but you never want to write off the season at hand. Brad Stevens has done a remarkable job in leading the shorthanded Celtics to seven wins in their last 10 games, but facing a likely second round series against Cleveland, Stevens will need a healthy Irving to have a serious chance of advancing to the conference finals.
And then there's the leaders in NBA drama, the Cavaliers, facing multiple issues of their own. Just after a nice stretch of winning basketball following the return of Kevin Love from a broken hand, Love goes back to the inactive list after suffering a concussion when he was elbowed in the mouth by Miami's Jordan Mickey Tuesday night.
Love had given the Cavs a reliable second scoring option behind James, allowing newcomers Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson to settle into supporting roles. With James serving as the primary ball-handler for the new-look Cavs, spot-up shooters are critical to the team's playoff hopes, and Love is one of the best shooting big men in the league.
If the Cavs are going to make it to a fourth straight Finals (eighth straight for LeBron), they'll need Tristan Thompson's return to form as a terror on the glass, and shooters like Love, Hood, George Hill, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver to be more consistent contributors in the playoffs.
With all the speculation about the Lakers going after both LeBron James and Paul George in free agency this summer, it's interesting to hear the positive comments out of L.A. regarding free agent to be Isaiah Thomas. The 29-year-old point guard will have a surgical procedure done on his injured hip Thursday in New York and faces another long rehab period.
Still, after talking his way out of Cleveland with pointed criticism of the Cavs' play, Thomas is viewed as a positive veteran influence by the young Lakers, with head coach Luke Walton praising Thomas for his unselfishness in coming off the bench for the good of the team. Thomas only started one of the 17 games he played in L.A., averaging 15.6 points on 38 percent shooting from the field and 33 percent from the 3-point line.
If Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka fail in their pursuit of James and George this summer, they could turn to Thomas with a big money one year offer to hold open their cap space for a 2019 class that could include Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler. Thomas is unlikely to get a lucrative, long-term contract this summer given his recent injury history and the fact so few teams have significant cap space.
So, don't rule out a return to the Lakers, remember they paid Kentavious Caldwell-Pope almost $18 million this season just for the chance to use that money in their 2018 free agent gambit.