The East Region of the NCAA Tournament is stacked this year, featuring some of the top programs in college basketball, including North Carolina, Kentucky, Indiana, Notre Dame, Wisconsin and Michigan, along with recent strong programs, Xavier and Providence. With so many big teams, you can expect a lot of NBA prospects to go with it, including many in this group who can hear their name picked in the top ten of this year’s draft.
Here is a short breakdown of the best NBA prospects in the East region, with the players listed in the order of their team’s seed. Click here for the South Region. Click here for the West Region. Click here for the Midwest Region.
Brice Johnson, Senior, North Carolina, F – Johnson has been an important part of the Tar Heels’ backcourt for the past few years, but he took a big step as a senior, becoming one of the team’s go-to offensive options. A wiry, athletic forward, the 6’9” Johnson has made great strides on the offensive end since getting to Chapel Hill, has shown much of the same low post and baseline offense that made John Henson and Ed Davis so effective in their careers there. His offense isn’t very versatile, mostly short hooks and jumpers, along with dunks, but he has improved his touch, and he shows potential to eventually move his game out to the mid-range area. Johnson is a great leaper and is quick off the ground, allowing him to be a problem on the offensive boards. Defensively, he is average at best, as he tends to lose his way if dragged out to the perimeter, and he lacks the strength to defend the low post effectively. Johnson is still very good on the defensive boards, and he has shown some effectiveness as a rim protector, so it’s not all bad on the defensive end. As for this year’s draft, Johnson’s athleticism and still untapped potential could see him going as high as the late first round.
Isaiah Hicks, Junior, North Carolina, F – Another important member of the North Carolina frontcourt, Hicks has shown great improvement over the last two seasons, giving the Tar Heels solid play on both ends of the floor, even in limited minutes. At 6’9” and 235 pounds, Hicks uses his big body well to establish position in the low post, and he shows a soft touch around the rim. Like the rest of the North Carolina forwards, Hicks is tough to keep off the offensive glass, and his ability to score around the rim with either hand leads to some easy second chances. He hasn’t been a focal point in the offense, but he takes advantage of his opportunities when he has them. Defensively, Hicks may be the best of the Tar Heels’ forwards, showing the ability to hold his own in the post, and get out on the pick-and-roll effectively. Hicks may not be looking to enter the draft this season, especially since he will take Johnson’s spot when he leaves, but he is worth watching for next year.
Edmond Sumner, Freshman, Xavier, G - Sumner took over the point guard position for Xavier as a redshirt freshman and helped lead them to a top-10 ranking. At 6’6”, Sumner has great size for the point guard position, but can also move over to the shooting guard spot, and he has the speed and athletic ability to take on any defender. He is very good as a pick-and-roll ballhandler, and while his shooting numbers won’t jump out at you, the potential is there for him to make a lot of improvement. His size can cause problems on the defensive end, and he shows a basketball IQ far beyond his years. Of any player, Sumner’s selection is more about his long-term potential, where I can see him finding himself as a first round pick in the coming years.
Jamal Murray, Freshman, Kentucky, G – After an up-and-down start to the season, Murray flourished in the second half of the season once Coach John Calipari altered the offense to run him off of screens to get open for shots instead of letting him try and create. Murray is a great spot-shooter, with NBA range, but he is much worse off the dribble, knocking down just 33 percent of his dribble jumpers. While not exactly the point guard he was touted to be, he is a decent ballhandler, though Murray has a tendency to over-dribble hoping to create something. If he can get into the lane, he can be a creative finisher, with an array of short jumpers and floaters, but he doesn’t always have the speed burst to beat defenders off the dribble, so he relies on screens to get open. Murray can also be frustrating with his passing; he has shown good vision and passing ability, but his decision making is not very good. It’s not often you see someone touted as a point guard have a negative assist-to-turnover ratio. On defense, Murray is not very good, and needs works on a lot of the basic concepts, such as positioning. Murray has shown that he can knock down spot-up jumpers, but at just 6’4”, and as a poor defender, it may take a while for him to gain traction at the NBA level. Still, some team will value the shooting and he could go in the late lottery, possibly even a bit higher if he tests well at the NBA combine.
Tyler Ulis, Sophomore, Kentucky, G - When discussing Murray’s emergence above, much of the credit needs to go to Ulis, the Wildcats’ point guard, for his ability to get Murray the ball at the right time and in the right spots. Ulis, the SEC Player of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year, was the spark that kept the Kentucky offense going, and along with his leadership, Ulis showed a penchant for hitting big shots when the team needed them. Small, 5’9”, and quick, Ulis is a tremendous ballhandler with great control. He is a threat in the pick-and-roll where he can disappear behind a screen, and he has the space to knock down the jumper or try to get into the defense. He has very good vision, and while not a flashy passer, he is a smart one, and he knows where to get teammates the ball in spots where they can score quickly. Ulis has knocked down some big jumpers this year, but his long-range shooting still isn’t great, just 34 percent, and because of his size, he needs time and space to get his shot off. He has improved his ability to score around the basket, using his size and speed to an advantage to create space for a short or mid-range jumper. Defensively, Ulis is a pest, and he can create chaos with his ability to seal off the perimeter. As for the NBA Draft, Ulis doesn’t have the strength or athleticism of say an Isaiah Thomas, so the NBA will be a major adjustment, but he is smart and could be a decent back-up at the next level. He would make a solid second round pick.
Skal Labissiere, Freshman, Kentucky, F - Other than Ben Simmons, no freshman faced the scrutiny that Labissiere did, and except for a few bright spots late in the season, his play did nothing to dispel the negatives about his game. 6’11”, with a 7’2” wingspan, Labissiere is long and lanky, but he does possess a nice shooting touch out to 20 feet. Around the basket, his touch can be evident, but his moves are slow to develop and he shows little aggression or determination to get to the basket. Labissiere is awkward in the pick-and-roll, though his shooting ability allows him to be a good “pop” option. His size and length should give him some advantages on the offensive glass, but he has been too timid this year and gets pushed around easily. On defense, Labissiere has a lot of potential, but he is nowhere close to realizing it yet. A lot of the same problems plague him when defending in the post; he gets moved too easily and doesn’t fight back. Labissiere has shown ability as a shot blocker, but it doesn’t make up for his poor defense, otherwise. It was expected that Labissiere was going to be very raw coming into college, and even with it being worse than expected, NBA teams will still be intrigued by his raw talent, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him go in the lottery nevertheless.
Thomas Bryant, Freshman, Indiana, F/C - Bryant made a name for himself in high school with his great size and constant motor, but as his freshman season went on, he also showed that he is developing the skills needed to be a dominant big man into the future. Bryant is solidly built at 6’10” and 245 pounds, and he runs the floor much better than similar-sized big men. In the low post, Bryant has improved both his footwork and touch, and has added some quality moves to his repertoire. He has also stepped out a few times this year from behind the arc and knocked down threes, almost 42 percent. Pick-and-rolls and basket cuts are two other areas where he scores at a very efficient level. As mentioned, he never seems to stop working on the floor, and it shows in his ability on the offensive glass. Defensively, Bryant is still a work-in-progress, but his size and activity are still enough to hold his own. One area where he does need work is as a help defender/rim protector; the effort is there, but not the technique. Bryant could probably use another year of college work, but if he were to come out, it’s hard to see a team passing up on him in the mid-first round.
Demetrius Jackson, Junior, Notre Dame, G - Jackson shared the backcourt a year ago with Knick first-rounder Jerian Grant, but he took over the sole point guard duties this season, and the results have been almost as good as expected. At 6’1”, Jackson doesn’t have great speed, but he has a solid build, and he uses his quickness and body well to attack the basket. He does a very good job running the Irish offense, and he is an excellent distributor in the pick-and-roll offense. Jackson’s shooting has been inconsistent this year, but in prior years, he did show the consistent ability to knock down the long-range shot as well as the mid-range jumper off the dribble. His decision making still needs some work, including in transition, but he has the playmaker gene. Defensively, Jackson has some lapses on the ball, but he has improved each season, and larger point guards don’t cause a significant problem for him. Jackson could be a great value pick in the late first round this season, if he decides to enter the draft.
Kris Dunn, Junior, Providence, G - Dunn emerged as one of the top point guards in the nation as a junior, and even with a good chance he could have gone in the first round last season, he came back to school for another year, winning Big East Player of the Year for the second consecutive year. Due to injuries, Dunn is a redshirt junior. There were two main areas people wanted to see Dunn address this year, shooting and decision-making, but neither changed very much. He is still a very good ballhandler with excellent vision, and he can be a spectacular passer, but his decisions can still be mindboggling. He thrives when Providence pushes the tempo, doing a great job getting the ball up the floor quickly and finding open teammates for easy scores. He did show improvement in the half court, and he can be very tough to keep out of the lane. Getting to the rim and scoring is a different issue; Dunn can have a lot of problems finishing around length at the basket, but if he has just a little space, he can finish in a spectacular way. Dunn’s perimeter shooting issues are still there, even though looking at his shot, there don’t seem to be any major fixes needed; still, he’s at just 34 percent on 103 attempts. On defense, Dunn is much better as a help defender or off the ball, rather than an on-ball defender, but in certain match-ups, he can be a problem on the ball. His steal numbers are still high, and he is very good at jumping passing lanes, but he seems to have a green light from his coach to wander around looking to make plays on defense, where he won’t have that luxury in the NBA. He rebounds well for his position, looking to get to the ball quickly and getting the Friars going in transition. Dunn is expected to enter this year’s draft, and it will be a surprise if he isn’t the first point guard taken, somewhere in the top 10.
Jameel Warney, Senior, Stony Brook, F – Warney just won his third straight America East Player of the Year award, and he has been as impressive as any forward in the country during that time. An undersized five, Warney has an array of post moves to complement his soft touch around the basket. At 6’8” and 260 pounds, he gets position pretty much wherever he wants, but he also has great footwork for his size. Warney has great instincts on the offensive boards, and even facing double-teams consistently, he is a force in the paint. Away from the lane, he doesn’t offer much offense, though he is a great screener and pick-and-roll option. Perimeter shooting is an area that needs work, as does free throw shooting, especially with the rate with which he can get to the line. Defensively, Warney plays much bigger than his size, and his awareness around the basket is as good as anyone around college basketball. While not a great leaper, he is an excellent shot blocker, relying on timing and technique. Warney is a solid post defender, but if brought out to the perimeter, he can have some problems. As on the offensive end, he is also a very good defensive rebounder, using his wide body to seal off opponents and going after the ball strong. Warney will be an interesting case for the draft. The production is there, but with NBA teams looking more shooting, he will need to show that he can step out to the perimeter. His rebounding is a plus, and there’s a chance a team uses a mid-to-late second round pick on him.
Others to Watch: Marcus Paige, North Carolina; Kennedy Meeks, North Carolina; Justin Jackson, North Carolina; Justin Reynolds, Xavier; Jonathan Holton, West Virginia; Jaysean Paige, West Virginia; Alex Poythress, Kentucky; Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky; Yogi Ferrell, Indiana; Troy Williams, Indiana; Zach Auguste, Notre Dame; Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin; Bennie Boatright, USC; Julian Jacobs, USC; Chimezie Metu, USC; Ben Bentil, Providence; Joel Bolomboy, Weber State