The South region of the NCAA Tournament could be one of the most interesting over the next few weeks, with a lot of diverse styles and plenty of talent. Duke leads the region as the one seed, with the high-scoring offenses of Gonzaga and Iowa State right behind them. Even the lower portion of the region has some very good teams with San Diego State, Davidson, Stephen F. Austin and a UCLA team which somehow made the field.
Here is a short breakdown of the best NBA prospects in the South region, with the players listed in the order of their team’s seed. Click here for the West Region. Click here for the Midwest Region. Click here for the East Region.
Jahlil Okafor, Freshman, Duke, C – One of the favorites to be the number one pick in the 2015 NBA Draft, Okafor’s freshman season has been a huge success, with a realistic possibility of being named the National Player of the Year. Okafor is as skilled a post player that I’ve seen in college since Tim Duncan, and he has an offensive skill set which should transfer quickly and easily to the NBA. At 6’11 and 270 pounds, he has the body to establish position well in the post, can make moves off either shoulder and can finish with either hand around the basket, plus remarkable footwork for his size. While Okafor isn’t the most athletic big man, he moves well around the basket and can be a menace on the offensive boards. He is developing into a very good post passer, but outside of the post, his game is very limited. Any type of mid-range game is non-existent right now, and he is just above a 50 percent free-throw shooter from the line. Most of the concerns you hear about Okafor are on the defensive end, and some of it is really warranted. The advanced footwork he shows on offense is missing on the defensive end, and hedging out to defend on high screens is an adventure. Still, he will improve over time, even if he doesn’t have the athleticism of many of today’s NBA rim protectors. Whether Okafor is the number one pick or not, he will make an immediate impact at the NBA level.
Justise Winslow, Freshman, Duke, G/F –After a strong start to the season, Winslow went through a rough patch in January before finishing the season fairly well. An athletic wing with an NBA body, Winslow is a versatile offensive player, with the ability to attack the basket off the dribble or knock down spot-up jumpers behind the arc. Though his perimeter shooting seems to be a weakness, he has hit 39 percent of his three-point attempts this season, but he is at his best when looking to get to the basket. Like his fellow Blue Devil freshman Okafor, Winslow is an awful free-throw shooter, though he doesn’t get there often enough for it to be a major problem yet. Where Winslow makes his mark though is on defense and in transition. He is a fundamentally sound defender with the ability to guard multiple positions, and the strength to help on the defensive glass. In transition, Winslow is scary to see as he gathers a head of steam heading towards the basket, and you get the feeling he would tear down the rim if he could. He may not be spectacular at the next level, but he does enough things well that he can be a valuable player for many teams.
Przemek Karnowski, Junior, Gonzaga, C – A 7’1, 290 pound native of Poland, Karnowski’s massive size in the post has given the Zags a strong advantage in the West Coast Conference the past few seasons. Karnowski isn’t just a big body though, as he is a highly skilled offensive player, with good footwork for his size, and nice touch around the basket. While his size is an advantage, he is very slow, and his advantage can often be negated by strong double teams. His slowness becomes more of an issue on the defensive end, where he is susceptible to getting beat by a quicker, athletic post player, even if quite a bit smaller. Also, conditioning has been a factor over his college career, especially playing for a team that likes to get out and push the ball for quick scoring chances. Karnowski doesn’t move well enough to be a very effective rebounder for his size, and though his size may be a deterrent around the rim, he isn’t exactly going to wow people as a rim protector. Still, as they say, you can’t teach size, and Karnowski has plenty of it, and if given a chance with an NBA team that will invest in working on his conditioning, he could still have a bright future at the NBA level.
Domantas Sabonis, Freshman, Gonzaga, F – Sabonis, the son of basketball legend Arvydas, had already played pro ball in Spain at its highest level before deciding to play collegiately in the United States. Sabonis is a skilled forward who plays with toughness rarely seen in American freshmen. His minutes were somewhat limited this season coming off the bench, but he still has shot almost 68 percent from the floor, while averaging 9.5 points and 7 rebounds in just 21 minutes per game. He has had some adjustment issues dealing with the differences, including speed, of the collegiate game, but he has a lot of his father’s old traits when it comes to getting the ball around the basket. Defensively, he still has some work to do in almost all areas, and he picks up a large number of fouls in his short stints on the floor. He may not be ready to come out after this season, but he is worth watching now, especially if you have fond memories of watching his father play.
Georges Niang, Junior, Iowa State, Forward – Niang has been an integral part for Iowa State since he was a freshman, his skill and versatility on offense a perfect fit for Fred Hoiberg’s system. Niang has average size for a college power forward, and he isn’t very athletic, but he has a skill set that many players would be envious of. He can play with his back-to-the basket, using good footwork and a great use of angles to score, can step out and knock down college threes, and since improving his conditioning, he can even score off the dribble if he has a favorable match-up. Also, Niang sees the floor exceptionally well, and can be a good passer, though he does have a tendency to overestimate what kinds of passes he can really make. Niang’s weakness comes on the defensive side, where he doesn’t have the speed to guard effectively on the perimeter, nor the strength to battle in the post or rebound well against bigger opponents. Every year there seems to be a player like Niang who poses some questions when we debate their NBA value. The skill is there, the athleticism is not. A good coach would find ways to use him, though his role would likely be limited.
Jameel McKay, Junior, Iowa State, Forward – McKay is a junior college transfer who originally enrolled at Marquette before transferring to Iowa State. He had to sit out the first half of this season, but he has been a game changer for the Cyclones since becoming eligible, giving them a real defensive presence and rim protector. Long and athletic, with explosive leaping ability, McKay, who is 6’9, can alter and block shots as well as anyone in college, and though not very strong, he is so quick after missed shots that it’s tough to keep him off the boards. McKay’s offensive game is nowhere near as strong as his defensive game, and is mostly limited to offensive rebound put backs, transition scores and finishing lobs off of guard penetration. He has some work to do before thinking about the pro level, but he can make an impact down the road in the right system and role.
Joshua Smith, Senior, Georgetown, Center – Smith’s college career has been an adventure, from McDonald’s All-American at UCLA to his past few seasons at Georgetown. At 6’10 and over 350 pounds, Smith is a tremendous presence in the paint, but he is also very skilled. He has excellent footwork for his size, and a really nice touch out to 10 feet. Smith is a good offensive rebounder, and very quick and efficient on second-chance opportunities. Conditioning has always been an issue, and it still hampers him now, especially on the defensive end. He uses his big body well to defend on the low blocks, but he is slow to move his feet, and when put in situations where he needs to help, he rarely gets there on time, often leading to needless fouls. The Hoyas would love to have Smith on the floor more, but he has a hard time staying out there for long stretches. While an NBA future is likely a longshot, his size and skill may be worth a team taking a chance on to see if they can make something of him.
Delon Wright, Senior, Utah, G – Wright, a junior college transfer and brother of NBA player Dorrell, Wright has emerged as one of the best point guards in the country over the past two seasons. At 6’5, he has good size at the point guard position, and he has the vision and passing ability to handle the position well. Wright is very good at making reads off the pick-and-roll, and he doesn’t make many major mistakes with the ball in his hands. While he has improved as a long-range shooter, his offense mostly consists of looking to get to the rim, or shooting the mid-range jumper off the dribble. Wright is a very good ballhandler, and his ability to change speeds quickly often leads to drawing fouls even when he is out on the perimeter. Defensively, Wright is average at best on the ball, but off the ball he is a menace, using his long arms to disrupt passing lanes, and having good instincts as a help defender. Wright also rebounds well for his position, and even average a blocked shot per game. There is a lot to like about Wright’s game for the next level, and he would be a valuable addition to many guard rotations.
Jakob Poeltl, Freshman, Utah, C – Poeltl, a 7-foot Austrian freshman, looked good early on this season, both in offensive pick-and-roll situations, and defensively as a shot blocker. As the season went on, it became easier to pick out deficiencies in his game, and he really had a tough time except for a few games. Though he doesn’t have good strength or speed in the post, he is fundamentally sound, and is very efficient around the basket. As I mentioned, he plays well in the pick-and-roll, opening up well to the ball while moving to the rim. Poeltl works hard on the offensive glass, and if you don’t look to put a body on him, he can make you pay with an easy put back. Defensively, he is a good help defender around the basket, and he shows very good extension and timing as a shot blocker, but his body isn’t ready yet to truly battle in the post. Poeltl somehow became a “hot” draft name early on, but it became increasingly clear that he is nowhere near ready to play at the NBA level. Hopefully, he will make a strong showing in the NCAA Tournament and use it as a building point for a strong sophomore season.
Kevon Looney, Freshman, UCLA, F – Looney made his mark early on in his freshman season, tallying seven triple-doubles in his first ten games. Looney’s wingspan separates him from a lot of players, and he uses it well to hit the glass on both ends of the floor. Though not a very skilled offensive player, Looney will surprise at times, with a nice move off the dribble, or a smooth-looking three-point shot. He did hit 46 percent from beyond the arc this season, though it was on only 48 attempts, but clearly the potential is there. Defensively, Looney’s length can be a problem, but other than that he isn’t a very good player yet, other than his rebounding ability. I mentioned potential earlier, and Looney has a lot of it. The issue is whether he’ll be put in a situation at the next level where he’ll be brought along slowly, which he will likely need.
Others to Watch – Tyus Jones, Duke; Monte Morris, Iowa State; Nic Moore, SMU; Yanick Moreira, SMU; Marcus Kennedy, SMU; Aaron White, Iowa; Malik Pope, San Diego State; Sir’Dominic Pointer, St. John’s; Tyler Kalinoski, Davidson; Jack Gibbs, Davidson; Thomas Walkup, Stephen F. Austin; Tyler Harvey, Eastern Washington; Venky Jois, Eastern Washington