The 2019 NCAA Tournament gets underway Tuesday night, with the first of two First Four doubleheaders kicking things off in Dayton, Ohio. While the focus of many tends to be on how their brackets look, there are many others who watch the games with an eye towards draft season. Over the years players have parlayed a hot run in the NCAA tournament into a better position on draft boards, while others have seen their stock slip after struggling.
Over the next two days we’ll take a look at ten players from each region, with this column focusing on the West. Gonzaga boasts two expected first round picks, and both Texas Tech and Murray State have guards who are expected to be lottery picks.
Other regions: East | Midwest | South
Rui Hachimura, PF, Gonzaga: A consensus All-American and the WCC Player of the Year, Hachimura has come a long way in his three seasons in Spokane. The 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward is averaging 20.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists and 1.0 steals per game this season, with shooting percentages of 60.9% from the field and 74.1% from the foul line. Hachimura is shooting 46.9% from three, but it’s important to note that he’s only attempted 32 shots from beyond the arc. That is a significant improvement on his production as a sophomore (5-of-26 3-pointers), and that combined with the free throw shooting leads one to believe that Hachimura is capable to extending his range with more work (a la Thomas Welsh during his time at UCLA).
Draft projections have Hachimura going anywhere from late-lottery to shortly after those picks, should he decide to forego his final season of eligibility, and with his combination of skill set and athletic ability it’s easy to see why this is the case.
Brandon Clarke, PF, Gonzaga: At the beginning of the season, while the expectation was that Clarke would be an impact addition there weren’t many who envisioned him being a first-round draft prospect. The fact that he began his collegiate career in relative obscurity at San Jose State is likely the reason for this, but Clarke is essentially a household name at this point. The 6-foot-8, 215-pound forward is one of college basketball’s best defenders, as he possesses the ability to slow down opponents both on the perimeter and in the post. In addition to his averages of 16.5 points and 8.4 rebounds per game, Clarke also averages 3.1 blocks and 1.2 steals per. He isn’t much of a perimeter shooter, but Clarke is shooting 69.3% from the field overall and 69.1% from the foul line. The redshirt junior is a capable ball-handler, and if he can develop a perimeter shot there’s the potential to be one of the best prospects in this class as time progresses (should he forego his remaining eligibility).
Charles Matthews, SG, Michigan: The 6-foot-6, 205-pound senior guard is one of the reasons why the Wolverines have been elite defensively, thanks to his athleticism and ability to guard both off-guards and wings. Matthews is averaging 12.0 points, 4.8 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.1 steals per game this season, shooting 42.6% from the field, 31.5% from three and 63.6% from the foul line. There’s some work to be done with his shot if Matthews is to be an effective player at the NBA level, with this being the reason why he’s projected to go in the latter portion of the second round rather than higher up the board. Michigan has the potential to play deep into the NCAA tournament, and that combined with improved shooting number would definitely help Matthews’ draft prospects.
Jarrett Culver, SG, Texas Tech: Last March it as Zhaire Smith who rocketed up draft boards, as he was ultimately selected with the 16th overall pick in the NBA draft. This time around Texas Tech has another first-round prospect, but there is a noteworthy difference between sophomore guard Jarrett Culver and his former teammate. The 6-foot-5, 195-pound Culver leads the Red Raiders in points (18.5 ppg), rebounds (6.3 rpg) and assists (3.7 apg), and he’s doing so while shooting 48.5% from the field, 32.3% from three and 70.4% from the foul line.
Culver isn’t the best perimeter shooter from a percentage standpoint but he’s a capable shot-maker; as a freshman he shot 38.2% from three on an average of 3.9 attempts per game. And that was on a team that had a ball-dominant guard in then-senior Keenan Evans. The sophomore has the ball in his hands a lot more this season, and the combination of individual and team success is what won him Big 12 Player of the Year. Culver is projected to be a mid-lottery pick should he decide to forego his remaining eligibility at season’s end.
Markus Howard, PG/SG, Marquette: Howard, the Big East Player of the Year, is one half of one of the best individual matchups of the tournament as he’ll face Murray State’s Ja Morant. The junior guard has been a bit banged up recently, as he played in the Big East tournament with a left (non-shooting) wrist injury. The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Howard leads the Golden Eagles in scoring (25.0 ppg) and assists (4.0 apg) while also accounting for 4.0 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 3.5 made three-pointers per game, and he’s doing this with shooting splits of 42.4/40.8/89.2.
Howard will be used both on and off the ball, with Marquette running the junior guard off of pin-downs and staggered screens in an attempt to get him cleaner looks. If there’s an issue for Howard it would be the turnovers, as he has 131 on the season (131 assists). Running a team and making significant strides as a defender are the keys to Howard’s NBA future, and it will likely take another season on campus to get this done.
Cody Martin, SF, Nevada: Cody and twin brother Caleb are two of three seniors on the Nevada roster with good chance of at the very least landing on a summer league roster, with versatile forward Jordan Caroline being the other. Cody Martin isn’t the scorer that his brother Caleb (19.2 ppg), but his all-around game may make him the better draft prospect. In addition to 11.7 points, Cody is averaging 5.1 assists, 4.5 rebounds and 1.3 steals per game with shooting splits of 49.8% from the field, 35.6% from three (1.0 made per game) and 75.0% from the foul line. After spending the first two seasons of his career at NC State, Martin earned Mountain West Defensive Player of the Year honors last season and earned all-conference honors in each of his two seasons at Nevada (second-team in 2018, third-team this season).
Tyus Battle, SG, Syracuse: The 6-foot-6, 205-pound junior guard is averaging two fewer points per game this season than he did as a sophomore, but he’s been a more efficient offensive option for the Orange. Battle has averages of 17.2 points, 3.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.2 steals per game, and he’s shooting 43.2% from the field, 31.5% from three and 76.2% from the foul line. By comparison he shot 39.9% from the field in 2017-18, and he’s also averaging nearly one full turnover less per game than a season ago (1.7; 2.4 tpg in 2017-18). Syracuse having more capable scoring options than a season ago has helped, especially with ECU transfer Elijah Hughes being a 36.0% shooter from three.
Battle is a player who would benefit from the spacing of the NBA game, but he has to get there first. While some project the Syracuse guard to be a late-second round option, there are others who don’t have him getting picked. That being said, this is a program that had a player go from afterthought to first-round pick after the team’s Final Four run in 2016 (Malachi Richardson).
Luguentz Dort, PG/SG, Arizona State: After being led to the NCAA tournament by a triumvirate of comparatively diminutive guards a season ago, the Sun Devils are back in the Big Dance with a roster that is a big larger. One of the additions is this 6-foot-4, 215-pound freshman from Montreal, who leads Arizona State in scoring (16.1 ppg) and steals (1.6 spg). Dort, who also averages 4.3 rebounds and 2.3 assists per game, is shooting 40.3% from the field, 31.5% from three and 68.7% from the foul line.
There’s some work to do with regards to his perimeter shot and shot selection, but Dort is a high-level competitor who gives his all on both ends of the floor. His ability on the defensive end of the floor will be key in Arizona State’s First Four matchup, as the Sun Devils will face a St. John’s team that doesn’t have much size but does not lack for perimeter players who like to make plays off the dribble. Dort is projected to be a late-first round pick should he enter the 2019 draft, and his NCAA tournament performance will have an impact on those prospects one way or another.
Shamorie Ponds, PG, St. John’s: The 6-foot-1, 175-pound Ponds currently leads the Red Storm with averages of 19.5 points, 5.2 assists and 2.6 steals per game while also accounting for 4.2 rebounds per. And he’s produced a solid assist-to-turnover ratio, as the junior averages just 2.0 turnovers per game despite having a usage percentage of 27.1. That number has dropped a little with the additions of Mustapha Heron and LJ Figueroa to the roster, but for the most part Ponds’ improvement with regards to turnovers can be chalked up to his experience.
With St. John’s having so many perimeter options capable of making plays off the dribble there are times when Ponds works off the ball, either receiving screens off the ball or in catch and shoot situations in which a teammate breaks down the defense with dribble penetration. Ponds, who is shooting 45.6% from the field, 35.5% from three and 84.1% from the foul line, is projected by most scouts to be a mid-second round pick should he forego his final season of eligibility.
Ja Morant, PG, Murray State: Morant is the best draft-eligible prospect in this region; while it’s unlikely that he jumps Duke’s Zion Williamson on draft boards, the combination of skill and athleticism at a vital position on the court make the OVC Player of the Year a key figure in this year’s draft class (should he enter). And with there being multiple teams expected to go high in the lottery (Phoenix especially) having a need to fill at the point, Morant is unlikely to be on the board too long come draft night. The 6-foot-3, 175-pound sophomore leads Murray State in both points (24.6 ppg) and assists (10.0 apg) while also accounting for 5.5 rebounds and 1.8 steals per night.
Morant has the ball in his hands a lot, and despite being the focus of opposing teams’ defensive efforts he’s shooting 50.3% from the field, but the three-point shooting (33.6%) will need some work. Morant’s also averaging 5.2 turnovers per game, not the best number but a higher turnover count tends to be a trade-off for players as involved in their team’s offense as Morant is (33.6% usage). From an assist standpoint Morant gets his teammates good looks more often than not, with a decent percentage of those coming around the basket. Murray State will run Morant through a lot of ball screens in order to put him in spots where he can make decisions going downhill, thus applying pressure to opposing defenses. While Morant still has a decision to make regarding next year, given the projections these may very well be his last games in a Racer uniform.
Others to Watch: Zach Norvell Jr., SG, Gonzaga; Killian Tillie, PF/C, Gonzaga; Jordan Poole, SF, Michigan; Iggy Brazdeikis, PF, Michigan; Mfiondu Kabengele, PF, Florida State; Terence Mann, SG, Florida State; Sam Hauser, SF, Marquette; CJ Massinburg, SG, Buffalo (Portsmouth invitee); Caleb Martin, SF, Nevada; Jordan Caroline, SF/PF, Nevada; Andrew Nembhard, PG, Florida; Jalen Hudson, SG, Florida; Mustapha Heron, SG, St. John’s; Justin Simon, SG/SF, St. John’s; Remy Martin, PG, Arizona State; Zylan Cheatham, SF, Arizona State; Anthony Lamb, PF, Vermont; Drew McDonald, PF, Northern Kentucky.