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Three players who helped their NBA draft stock with strong NCAA Tournaments

Illinois v Connecticut

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - MARCH 30: Donovan Clingan #32 of the Connecticut Huskies reacts against the Illinois Fighting Illini during the second half in the Elite 8 round of the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament at TD Garden on March 30, 2024 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

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In most years, the NCAA Tournament doesn’t move the NBA Draft needle for players, at least not with teams who did their homework (or whose owners don’t fall in love with a player and put their finger on the scale). Scouts have watched these guys for years, they know who they are and what they can do before any of us have even filled out a bracket.

This year is a little different. In a down draft where teams are searching for a diamond in the rough to select, a strong NCAA Tournament can change a player’s fortunes. Prove what you can do under the pressure and bright lights of the tournament, and your stock goes up.

Here are three players who helped their stock the most in the tournament.

Donovan Clingan, UConn

Nobody has shot up draft boards during the NCAA Tournament like Clingan, the 7'2" center for the UConn Huskies, and he could be a top-five pick now. He’s a player who likely would have gone in the lottery a year ago but went back to college for another year and it’s helped his draft stock — not the regular season, where he was injured for most of it, but in the NCAA Tournament. His eight blocks against Northwestern were hard to ignore, especially this one near the top of the backboard.

Clingan has shown improved mobility, particularly on the pick-and-roll and in transition defense. He has absolutely owned the paint, he’s shown off an ability to read the double-team and make the right pass, and he has a soft touch and can finish around the rim. He had maybe his best game against Illinois to help UConn reach the final four, with ESPN’s tracking data saying Illini players shot 0-of-19 when he guarded them.

All those skills translate to the next level, which is why Clingan’s stock is up — in an uncertain draft, pick him and a team knows it’s getting a solid big who can be part of their rotation. Maybe more important to teams than Clingan’s high ceiling as rim-running, paint-protecting big, it’s his high floor that has him moving up draft boards. This is also not a great draft for centers, and while French international Alex Sarr (playing for Perth in the Australian league this season) will be the first center off the board, Clingan will follow soon after for a team looking for size in the paint.

Stephon Castle, UConn

While Clingan deserves the love coming his way, when I watch UConn it is Castle who jumps out as an NBA prospect — and I am not alone. Castle, a 6'6" freshman point guard, was considered a potential lottery pick before the tournament and may now have played his way into the top 10.

What stands out is Castle reads the game well and makes intelligent decisions, particularly in transition (watch that clip above of the Clingan block again, Castle’s smart pass sets up the bucket on the other end). Castle’s size and quick feet have made him a top-flight defensive prospect, and we should get more of that in the Final Four when he gets asked to slow down Alabama’s hot shooting guard Mark Sears (that’s the matchup NBC Sports was told scouts want to see this coming weekend in Phoenix). Castle has the highest ceiling of any UConn player, but he’s got to develop a more steady jump shot to reach it. That shot is what makes teams a little cautious with Castle. However, a shot can be fixed, Castle comes with all the other skills that can’t be taught.

Zach Edey, Purdue

How did the most recognized and decorated current player in the NCAA men’s game help his draft case with just a few games? By proving under the bright lights what he has shown all season was real — he has improved his footwork and mobility, and he can be a defensive force in the paint.

Coming into this season, Edey was viewed by many in NBA front offices as a bit of a dinosaur — a big but slow-footed center who cannot space the floor on offense, the kind of big man being phased out of a space-and-pace NBA. This season Edey has shown he is more than that, his footwork and mobility are better, he has fantastic hands and can catch-and-finish as a roll man, and he can own the paint defensively if allowed to play a drop style (or in the middle of a zone). In the NCAA Tournament (particularly against Tennessee) the referees swallowed their whistles and Edey handled the physicality well.

Edey has solidified in the tournament what was on display all season — he is a lottery pick who has a role in the NBA. It may be coming off the bench for 15-20 a night (especially at first), but he can play at the NBA level and help the right team.