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It's March Madness, baby! It's the big stage for some of college basketball's best players to show off their games. NBA scouts and general managers will be out in force over the next few weeks scouting everyone in the Big Dance.
A great March can really help a player's stock. Last year, Syracuse's Carmelo Anthony, Marquette's Dwyane Wade and Central Michigan's Chris Kaman rode strong tournament performances into the lottery. In 2002, Maryland's Chris Wilcox and Indiana's Jared Jeffries used the tournament to catapult themselves into the lottery. In previous years, Arizona's Richard Jefferson, Florida's Mike Miller, Miami-Ohio's Wally Szczerbiak and Connecticut's Richard Hamilton used strong March performances as springboards into the lottery.
This year, with such an open draft field, a number of players could take advantage of the national stage to supercharge their draft stock.
Who will it be this year? ESPN Insider talked to multiple NBA scouts and GMs to give you a look at the Top 5 NBA prospects they'll be watching in each NCAA region.
Today, Insider will take a look at the South bracket. Tuesday, we'll tackle the East.
For the inside scoop on every team in the tournament, check out Insider's in-depth Tournament Guide.
East Region NBA Prospects
1. Sean Banks, F, Memphis
The Skinny: 6-foot-8, 215 lbs, Freshman. 18.4 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 45 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: The prototypical NBA small forward. Banks is a big time athlete who's also a fluid, aggressive scorer. He's a scoring threat anywhere on the floor. He can score off the dribble or stick the mid-range jumper. He's also got the skills to be a long range threat. He's a nightmare to defend. He takes bigger players off the dribble or out on the perimeter. He takes smaller, quicker defenders into the paint and posts them up.
The Bad: Strength is a big issue for him. He needs another 15 to 20 pounds of muscle to compete in the pros. He's a little one dimensional right now. He's just an average rebounder, so-so defender and passer for someone of his abilities. He gets so caught up in his offensive game that he often forgets his teammates. He had some off the court issues in high school that scouts are a little wary about, but he's kept his nose clean at Memphis.
The Ugly: He's peaking at the right time. Banks is averaging 24.2 ppg over his last seven games. If he can lead Memphis on a Cinderella run through the tournament, the Carmelo Anthony comparisons will start running out of control. Scouts believe Banks would be better off with another year of school to add strength but concede that a strong tournament would push his stock high enough to get him into the lottery.
2. Devin Harris, PG, Wisconsin
The Skinny: 6-foot-3, 180 lbs, Junior. 19.4 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 4.4 apg, 45 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: Harris appears to be the complete package. He has the size, speed, quickness, explosiveness and sweet shooting stroke that scouts love. He plays the game at a frantic pace. Right now he's more of a scoring point guard, but scouts claim that he has the floor vision to be a point guard at the next level. He shows remarkable control with the ball, averaging just 1.9 turnovers per game. His long arms, lateral quickness and big time hops allow him to guard just about anyone in the back court.
The Bad: Is he really a point guard? Every guard that leads his team in scoring and assists has to go through this inquiry. Scouts concede that Harris has to carry most of the burden on his back every game. He sometimes overdoes it, but that's probably just a byproduct of the teams he's on. Strength is also an issue. He could stand to gain another 10 to 15 pounds of muscle.
The Ugly: No point guard has gained more ground this year than Harris. He really wasn't on most scouts' radar screens at the start of the season, but now some of them believe he's the best point guard in college basketball. A strong tournament performance could seal the deal for him. Right now he's a mid-first-round pick right, but he's climbing. Don't be surprised if he passes every point guard on the draft board before the draft hits.
3. Chris Paul, PG, Wake Forest
The Skinny: 6-foot-0, 170 lbs, Freshman. 14.2 ppg, 5.8 apg, 49 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: Scouts absolutely love him. He is T. J. Ford with a jumper. He's lightening quick, has unbelievable court vision, is a superb decision maker and shoots the lights out from the field and the three point line. He pushes the ball relentlessly on offense and is already one of the be penetrators in the game. His defense is top notch as well, averaging 2.8 steals per game.
The Bad: There isn't much there. Teams wish Paul was stronger, but given his age they believe that will come. He could use another year of seasoning in college.
The Ugly: Scouts concede that he's the best point guard prospect in the country -- college, high school or international. They all think he should wait one more year and Paul has given indications that he'll do just that. Still, if he gets Wake on a roll in the tournament, the temptation will be there to declare. If he does, he's a lock for the lottery.
4. Jameer Nelson, PG, St. Joseph's
The Skinny: 5-foot-11, 190 lbs, Senior. 20 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 5.4 apg 48 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: Nelson is a big time scorer who uses his strength and speed to relentlessly attack the basket. He has an NBA body, strength and is a proven defender averaging an impressive 3 steals per game. His jump shot has improved this season, especially in the mid range game. He's also proven to scouts that he has what it takes to be a real point guard. He's shown a knack for finding his teammates in traffic and is a creative passer. The fact that several scouts are now comparing him to Tim Hardaway certainly doesn't hurt his cause.
The Bad: Size matters in the NBA and unfortunately for Nelson, he comes up just a bit short. If he were three or four inches taller, he'd be a lock for the lottery. Instead scouts worry that he doesn't have the athleticism or lateral quickness to make up for his small stature. The fact that he averages three turnovers per game also doesn't help his cause much. Several teams that had him in for individual workouts last spring claim they weren't overwhelmingly impressed and hadn't seen anything this year that's changed their opinion. Scouts who are less high on Nelson compare him to Damon Stoudamire.
The Ugly: All of the euphoria from an unbelievable season at St. Joseph's has really helped Nelson's stock. Last season he was a borderline first-rounder. Without changing his game at all, he's now planted himself firmly in the first round. How high can it go? It's doubtful a good or bad tournament will do much to change anyone's opinion at this point. He's been scouted heavily that past two years and folks seem to have a good handle on him. Nelson's draft range is really in the eye of the beholder, but expect him to fall anywhere between 12 and 24 on draft night.
5. Delonte West, G, St. Joseph's
The Skinny: 6-foot-4, 180 lbs, Junior. 18.8 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 4.7 apg, 51 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: West is a gritty scorer and defender who hasn't gotten his due. He can take his man off the dribble when he needs to, but prefers to kill you with his outstanding jumper. He'll even post up smaller defenders in the paint. His mid range jumper is top notch, but his three point shot has proven to be just as good this season. He's shooting a stellar 43 percent from behind the arc. He's a great rebounder for his size and he's a proven passer averaging an impressive 4.7 assists per game despite spending almost all of his time at the two.
The Bad: Once again, the issue is size with West. Scouts feel that he's closer to 6-foot-3 and just aren't fond of smallish two guards. He also needs to put on some muscle. He's much to thin to play in the league right now.
The Ugly: He's played in the shadow of Nelson his entire career. The plan right now is for him to test the NBA draft waters this year and attempt to convince NBA scouts that he's really a point guard. His excellent floor vision suggests that, like Gilbert Arenas, he's a prime candidate to make the move. If he convinces the scouts, he'll move way up the board. If he doesn't? Another year at school running the point without Nelson will only improve his stock.
Sleeper: Chris Taft, PF, Pittsburgh
The Skinny: 6-foot-10, 250 lbs, Freshman. 11.2 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 57 percent shooting from the field.
The Good: Taft has the rare combination of size, athleticism, strength and power that NBA scouts covet in a good power forward. And unlike many players who posses those abilities, Taft prefers to score with his back to the basket. His footwork is sound and he's patient in the paint always working for a good shot.
The Bad: He's young. It always takes big men longer to learn the game and Taft still has a few holes in his. Despite his superior strength and athleticism, he's just an average rebounder and shot blocker. His 54 percent free throw shooting is also a black mark.
The Ugly: Over the weekend several scouts told Insider that Taft was mulling a jump to the league this season. It's probably a mistake right now. He's got tremendous upside and another year or two of seasoning would land him the lottery. As it stands right now, he'd be in the mid to late first round. However, if he blows up in the tournament (and he's capable) that could change a lot of things. This isn't a great draft for quality big men with size and strength. Taft would be appealing to a lot of teams.
Others to watch: Tony Allen, SG, Oklahoma; Andre Emmett, SG, Texas Tech; Antonio Burks, PG, Memphis; Anthony Roberson, PG, Florida; David Lee, PF, Florida; Matt Walsh, SG, Florida; Luis Flores, G, Manhattan
Around the League
The College Hoops Drought: Every year Insider breaks down the best college basketball has to offer to the NBA at the start of the NCAA tournament as a kick-off to our more detailed coverage of the NBA Draft.
This year, we were left with a quandry -- should we even bother? NBA GMs and scouts are claiming that, for the first time ever, players who've never played one minute of college basketball will outnumber college players in this year's first round.
The closest we've ever come to such a phenomenon was last year when eight international players and four high school players went in the first round of the 2003 draft.
This year, if things go according to plan, as many as 10 international players and up to eight high school stars could hear their names called by David Stern in the first round on draft night. With 29 draft spots up for grab, that means that as few as 11 college players might slip into the first round.
If you've been following Insider's draft coverage so far, that shouldn't come as a big surprise. For the past few years the trend has been moving away from college basketball as the NBA's preferred farm system. But the standard has always been that high school players and international prospects supplement the collegiate draft -- not supplant it.
But with one of the weakest college basketball draft classes on record, an influx of 6-10 or taller 18-year-olds from the high school and international ranks, and improved scouting by NBA teams, the standard is on the verge of changing. Trends go away. The young high school and international phenoms just keep coming and coming.
What's interesting is that, to a large extent, the trend seems to really bother people both in and outside the league. Obviously college basketball proponents (along with college basketball analysts who once made a side income from prognosticating about the draft) are outraged. Who can blame them? They suddenly become less relevant in the game of playing gatekeeper for the pros.
But NBA GMs can also be sticks in the mud. Pat Riley and the Hornet's Bob Bass have publicly scoffed at the international trend in recent weeks claiming that they're proud to have the majority of their draft picks wear a "Born in America" button on draft night.
"Where we usually draft [in the mid-first round], taking a foreign player is a big risk," Bass said recently. "If the talent is the same, I'd just as soon draft an American -- you don't have the problems of language and other things. Or maybe I'm just a patriotic guy."
Riley was more blunt. ''There are 70 international players in the NBA, and 20 are impact players,'' he said last week as he slogged his way through Europe. "The best players still come from our country.''
That may be true. But how will that dynamic look three years from now? As more young American kids decide to skip college ball and more international 7-footers think about defecting, the composition of the league is going to continue to change.
Fans aren't happy either. If David Stern polled Insider readers, I think he'd find them running about 70 to 30 for an age limit. There's something about kids skipping college that still makes fans uncomfortable despite the fact that they've embraced so many kids like LeBron and Kevin Garnett who have done just that.
Our readers appear to be even more uncomfortable with the international invasion. After Friday's draft rumors column detailing the flood of young international big men set to declare for the draft, I got a plethora of reader mail protesting the deluge.
Some of it was xenophobic. A little of it was racist. More of it was from the school of, if I didn't see them on T.V. this year they don't (or shouldn't) exist. Others wondered aloud whether Insider was pushing a larger agenda by publicizing so many high school and international players at such a young age.
I'm not sure what I can do about the xenophobia (do we really care whether a great player comes from South Africa or South Bend, Indiana), the racism (why the obsession with the corn rows, tattoos, Escalades, accents or unpronouncable last names? If the kid can play . . .) or the T.V. complaint (so far my pleas to televise a few Euroleague games on ESPN2 has fallen on deaf ears).
The agenda one I can address easily. My draft commentary is based on what I hear from the numerous scouts and GMs I talk to every day. I'm also telling you what I see when we bother to take a trip or two to a high school tournament or to a game overseas.
What I hear are scouts gushing over potential, especially when it comes in the form of an athletic kid taller than 6-foot-10. What I see are a copious consortium of scouts and GMs packed in the bleachers of high schools and foreign gyms taking notes on some pretty talented kids who just so happen to play something other than college ball.
Insider isn't alone. While the influx may be more prominently documented in Insider than anywhere else, I'm not the only one who's noticed. Veteran NBA columnist Mark Heisler from the L.A. Times has been doing an annual mock draft around the start of the NCAA tournament since 1978. Heisler is conservative, careful and as well connected as any NBA writer in the business. He consults six general managers, personnel directors and scouts to put together his list. On Sunday he released this year's top 29. It contained ten international players and five high school players ... and Heisler left out three sure fire first rounders in LaMarcus Aldridge, Marvin Williams and Sasha Vujacic.
The flood gates are open. Kevin Garnett and Dirk Nowitzki may have kick started the trend, but LeBron James and Yao Ming have blown the door off the hinges. Now GMs believe that there are high school kids who can make immediate impacts on their team. They now also believe that great talent (especially big talent) can be found anywhere in the world.
When scouts can't stop talking about drafting 5-11 high school point guards in the lottery (see Sebastian Telfair) and drafting 16 year-olds from Serbia and China in the top three picks in the draft (see Nemanja Aleksandrov and Yi Jianlian) the old days are gone -- totally gone.
The LA Times Mark Heisler article that Ford references:
Old-School Thinking On The Way Out
In what used to be my annual salute to the NCAA tournament, here's a mock draft of the top 29 prospects.
I did my first one in Philadelphia in 1978, when the late, great Jack McMahon gave me thumbnail descriptions of about eight players. Since I always liked knowing what the pros thought of college players in other sports, I revived it here.
However, college players are now only one source of prospects and this spring, for the first time, one general manager predicts they'll become a minority in the first round, with an assortment of high school stars and young international big men coming on line.
According to the NBA perspective, this draft tilts heavily toward size and potential. Thus, such fine players as Arizona State's Ike Diogu and North Carolina's Sean May, who play inside and look as if they're really 6-7, don't even get a call.
You can safely take an inch off everyone's listed height. Also, just because someone is a Scottie Pippen "type" doesn't mean he's Scottie Pippen.
Thanks, as usual, to the six general managers, personnel directors and scouts who helped me.
1. Dwight Howard, 6 feet 11, 225 pounds, Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy Big, athletic, skilled and, most important, appears to have his head screwed on right.
2. Emeka Okafor, 6-9, 252, junior, Connecticut May go first because he's ready. Great shot blocker but probably an NBA power forward. Back troubles will scare pros.
3. Yi Jianlian, 7-0, 230, Guangdong Tigers (China) Yao Ming isn't the only Chinese player who's turning heads. Yi won't be 17 until October and won't be in this draft but has already popped up on all the radar screens. Says a scout, "He's the best pro prospect I saw this year."
4. Nemanja Aleksandrov, 6-11, 210, Partizan Belgrade (Serbia and Montenegro) Serbian version of Yi. He's 17 in April and also won't be in this draft but is Europe's best prospect.
5. Martynas Andriuskevicius, 7-3, 220, Zalgiris Kaunas (Lithuania) Huge but reedy. Let's hope he changes his name.
6. Andris Biedrins, 6-11, 240, Skonto Riga (Latvia) Big power forward, good athlete. "Lots of chatter about him," says a scout.
7. Josh Smith, 6-9, 220, Mouth of Wilson (Va.) Oak Hill Academy Exciting athlete. Indiana signee but the Hoosiers had better not hold their breath.
8. Pavel Podkolzine, 7-5, 303, Varese (Italy) A Russian giant who was slated to go in the top 10 last spring. Scouts say he's more a project than a Yao.
9. Luol Deng, 6-8, 220, freshman, Duke Already the best Blue Devil on a roster full of McDonald's All-Americans. Mike Krzyzewski started him from the get-go, which means a lot. Not expected to come out.
10. Kosta Perovic, 7-3, 240, Partizan Belgarde (Serbia and Montenegro) The biggest, most physical and oldest of Partizan's blue-chippers, having just turned 19.
11. Shaun Livingston, 6-7, 175, Peoria (Ill.) Central High Gifted but frail point guard who can't shoot. Signed with Duke and insists he's going.
12. Sebastian Telfair, 6-0, 170, Brooklyn (N.Y.) Lincoln High He's been hyped since he was a sophomore. Not quite the second coming of LeBron James but still a dynamic point guard. Signed with Louisville but thought to be NBA-bound.
13. Rudy Fernandez, 6-5 190, Joventut Badalona (Spain) At 18, he's supposed to be the Spanish Manu Ginobili.
14. Predrag Samardziski, 7-0, 240, Partizan Belgrade (Serbia and Montenegro) Second youngest of their big guys with second-best upside. Is eligible for the draft but isn't considered ready.
15. Ben Gordon, 6-2, 195, junior, Connecticut Big-time sharpshooter who pros think can play the point.
16. Devin Harris, 6-3, 185, junior, Wisconsin Athletic shooting guard who pros think can play the point.
17. Hakim Warrick, 6-8, 205, junior, Syracuse. Fine athlete with super length who plays inside. Pros think he can do things he doesn't do here, such as handle the ball and shoot from range.
18. Kris Humphries, 6-9, 240, freshman, Minnesota He averages 22 points, 10 rebounds and 35% on three-pointers, big numbers for a freshman. Lifeguard body and small-forward skills.
19. Jameer Nelson, 5-11, 193, senior, Saint Joseph's Try 5-10. A little tank who gets inside and takes over games, whose shooting (39% on threes) is improving. Pros are split on him so the tournament will be important.
20. Josh Childress, 6-8, 205, junior, Stanford The Mayfair High grad is already a good shooter (43% on threes, 81% at the line).
21. Ronny Turiaf, 6-10, 240, junior, Gonzaga Born in Paris, good athlete. Has a chance to move up in the tournament.
22. Al Jefferson, 6-8, 260 Prentiss (Miss.) High Wide body with enough skills to make up for what he lacks in height.
23. Chris Taft, 6-10, 250, freshman, Pittsburgh Coming on as a young guy playing with older teammates on a top team.
24. Andre Iguodala, 6-6, 207, sophomore, Arizona Does it all, except shoot, but unless he improves, he can't be a star at the next level. His 8.8 rebounds are high on the team.
26. Hassan Adams, 6-4, 201, sophomore, Arizona The Westchester High grad is bigger than teammate Salim Stoudamire and his shooting is coming faster than Iguodala's, having gone from 21% on threes as a freshman to 39%. Explosion is no problem. He gets 1.6 blocked shots a game to Channing Frye's 2.0.
27. Wayne Simien, 6-9, 250, junior, Kansas Not as tall as you'd like, but he's a tiger with skills. Not expected to come out and could be a 2005 mid-first-round pick.
28. Charlie Villanueva, 6-11, 230, freshman, Connecticut Compared to Derrick Coleman because he's big, athletic and left-handed.
29. Rashad McCants, 6-4, 207, sophomore, North Carolina Not quite in the line of Michael Jordan, Jerry Stackhouse and Vince Carter, but he's shooting 42% on three-pointers. He had a head-case rep but has blossomed under Roy Williams.
In the Mix
Luke Jackson, 6-7, 215, senior, Oregon Averaged 21 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.6 assists, shooting 45% on three-pointers.
Andrew Bogut, 6-10, 233, freshman, Utah Scouts were bug-eyed when he got triple-doubles in his first two games, but he finished averaging 12 points. Not athletic, but skilled.
Sasha Vujacic, 6-7, 193, Snaidero Udine (Italy) Big Slovenian point guard.
Anderson Varejγo, 6-10, 230, FC Barcelona (Spain) Active young, but raw, Brazilian power forward.
Uros Slokar, 6-10, 230, Benetton Treviso (Italy) A Slovenian who's the best-shooting big man in the draft, but he's skinny and not a great athlete.
Channing Frye, 6-11, 248, junior, Arizona Not huge but keeps improving.
J.J. Redick, 6-4, 195, sophomore, Duke I put him in last season's first round because of his rare shooting ability: 42% on three-pointers, an incredible 97% on free throws. The rest of his game is supposedly better, but he's still just a great spot-up guy.
Rickey Paulding, 6-5, 218, senior, Missouri Reminiscent of former teammate Kareem Rush. Fine athlete who blossomed early, then drifted. Of course, Rush became a bargain pick.
Ivan Chiriaev, 7-1, 235, Oakville (Canada) St. Thomas Aquinas High A Russian who once was on everyone's list. The more scouts saw and heard, however, the further away they thought he was.
LaMarcus Aldridge, 6-11, 225, Dallas Seagoville High Slender but talented.
Paul Davis, 6-11, 255, sophomore, Michigan State He was awful early this season but came around. Not a great athlete but not Frankenstein's monster, either.
Anthony Roberson, 6-1, 180, sophomore, Florida Keeps talking about his pro prospects, although you don't hear as much about him from pros. Still, he makes 40% of his three-pointers.
David Lee, 6-9, 240, junior, Florida Not huge but athletic. Role player as opposed to star.
Matt Walsh, 6-6, 205, sophomore, Florida Not as athletic as you'd like but has a game and can shoot.
Chris Duhon, 6-1, 185, senior, Duke Played better as a senior but still isn't much of a shooter.
Ray Felton, 6-1, 194, sophomore, North Carolina Athletic point guard but a marginal shooter.
David Harrison, 7-0, 250, junior, Colorado Big, athletic and lethargic.
Robert Swift, 7-0, 245, Bakersfield High Pros say he'd be way better off at USC.