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Monday, March 23, 2009
Who's hot, who's not in NCAA tourney

By Chad Ford
ESPN.com

Blake Griffin
Blake Griffin has helped Oklahoma power its way into the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tourney.

NBA scouts and executives were out in force this weekend, trying to get a look at a number of top prospects in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

While most executives say performance in the tournament is just one of many factors that go into their draft analysis, the truth is somewhat murkier. Most of the older-school GMs think the tournament is important because it shows how players perform under intense pressure, on neutral courts and at the highest level college hoops has to offer.

While it's clear that other factors come into play before draft night, NCAA tournament performances can have a lasting effect on how decision-makers feel emotionally about a given player.

Here's a look at which NBA prospects helped or hurt their draft stocks during the first four days of the tournament.

Who's Hot

Blake Griffin, PF, So., Oklahoma
Griffin has been the most dominant college player in the country this season and he seems to have turned it up another notch in the tournament -- he was awesome in first- and second-round games versus Morgan State and Michigan.

He dropped 28 points and 13 rebounds on Morgan State and followed that up with a 33-point, 17-rebound performance against Michigan. Throwing in some serious highlight-reel dunks, he is shooting a sizzling 78 percent from the field in the tournament.

One NBA executive on the East Coast commented to me Monday that he believes Griffin is an even better prospect than Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley were last year. That's pretty good news for what otherwise looks like a weak draft.


DeJuan Blair, PF, So., Pittsburgh
Sam Young, SF, Sr., Pittsburgh

Blair dominated East Tennessee State in the opening round, scoring 27 points and grabbing 16 rebounds. He is one of the best offensive rebounders in the country, and his emerging offensive game has NBA teams now looking at him as a potential lottery pick.

In the second round, Blair was often triple-teamed on the offensive end, opening things up for Young, who stepped up and delivered 32 points and eight boards against Oklahoma State.

I'm not sure if there's a better one-two punch in the tournament than Blair and Young. And if they can carry Pittsburgh to an NCAA title, their draft stocks should improve.


Cole Aldrich, C, So., Kansas
In a draft bereft of big men, Aldrich needed a breakout performance to move his stock firmly into the lottery -- possibly into the top 10. So far, Aldrich has delivered in a big way. He had 23 points and 13 boards against North Dakota State, and then came up huge versus Dayton, scoring 13 points, grabbing a whopping 20 boards and blocking a career-high 10 shots. It was only the sixth triple-double in NCAA tournament history.

Aldrich has been solid all season, but lately he has shown signs of being a dominant big man -- there isn't another center in the country putting up better numbers right now. He is not an ideal athlete and still needs to improve on the offensive end, but a team looking for a solid big man who can contribute on both ends of the floor may be safer with Aldrich than UConn's Hasheem Thabeet.


Evan Turner, SG, So., Ohio State
Turner's team may have been ousted in the first round, but it wasn't his fault. He had a spectacular game for the Buckeyes, scoring 28 points, grabbing 9 boards and dishing out 8 assists. The performance confirmed the opinion of a number of trusted scouts who feel Turner is the most underrated player in the draft.

"He's so solid in so many areas of the game," one veteran scout said. "He needs to improve his perimeter shot, but the rest of the package is there."

Turner is currently projected to go somewhere between the late lottery and the middle of the first round. However, after the Buckeyes lost, he said he's returning to Ohio State for his junior season. But we'll see if that holds true. In the past, players often say similar things when their team is ousted from the tournament, only to reverse course after exploring their draft options more fully.


DeMar DeRozan , G/F, Fr., USC
DeRozan struggled for much of the season, but he really started coming on in March at a critical time for USC. Averaging 19 ppg in March, he looked like a legit lottery pick during the Pac-10 tournament and the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament.

DeRozan had 18 points and nine rebounds versus Boston College on Friday and 18 points and five boards versus Michigan State on Sunday. He has become much more aggressive on the offensive end and is starting to regain confidence in his jump shot.

He still needs to work on his jumper, but when you factor in his elite athleticism, NBA body and unselfishness, he projects as a lottery pick, even after a subpar season. Another year at USC would be ideal but, if he declares, don't be shocked if he lands in the top 10 in June.


Eric Maynor, PG, Sr., VCU
Maynor is another guy who came up big in a losing effort. His play against one of the best perimeter defenders in the country, UCLA's Darren Collison, showed that he can play on a bigger stage. He was one 17-footer away from leading VCU to a big first-round upset.

It will be interesting to see what happens to Maynor's stock now. A number of NBA executives are very high on him and the UCLA game confirmed their opinions. With strong workouts, he could work his way into the lottery.


Terrence Williams, G/F, Sr., Louisville
Williams has been one of the biggest enigmas in college hoops. He has all the physical tools to be a lottery pick, but his game has rarely matched his talent. Poor shooting percentages, high turnover rates and some off-putting on-the-court behavior have given many scouts pause. But his play in the tournament so far has been hard to ignore.

He was solid in the opening round versus Morehead State, putting up 13 points, nine boards and three assists. And he was spectacular versus Siena, tallying 24 points, 13 boards and four assists.

His athleticism, rebounding and passing ability make him a very attractive draft prospect. But he'll have to continue to dominate in the tournament to change the feeling that many NBA executives have about his seriousness to the game.


JaJuan Johnson, PF, So., Purdue
Johnson wasn't getting a lot of love from scouts early in the season. Everyone knew he was long and athletic, but his lack of strength and offensive game put him into the "project" category. But ever since his huge game versus Ohio State in early February, Johnson has been getting a closer look.

His 22-point performance against Washington proved that he can be a game-changer. He had two game-saving blocks in the last minute of the game that allowed Purdue to escape with the win. If he continues to play well, he's going to get some looks in the first round. Ideally, he'll return to Purdue for his junior season, add strength and work on his offensive game. But it could be hard for teams to pass on his potential.


Wayne Ellington, SG, Jr., North Carolina
Tyler Hansbrough and Ty Lawson get all the press, but over the course of the past 10 games or so, Ellington has been UNC's best player. Lately, Ellington has been more than just a prolific 3-point shooter -- he's been working harder at putting the ball on the floor and taking it to the basket.

He's averaging 24 points per game in the tournament and shooting better than 50 percent from the 3-point line. With Lawson hobbling, Ellington has really picked up the slack for the Tar Heels and has re-emerged as a potential first-round pick after a poor showing at the NBA pre-draft camp last summer.

Marcus Thornton, SG, Sr., LSU
Thornton continues to make a name for himself with his dominant offensive performances in the tournament. He averaged 27.5 ppg in LSU's two games versus Butler and North Carolina, shooting 8-for-15 from 3 and keeping his turnovers to a minimum.

He's undersized to play the 2 in the pros, but when you look at the terrific season he had, it's hard not to see him as a legitimate NBA prospect. Right now he's probably still a second-rounder, but workouts could change the equation. NBA executives aren't as familiar with Thornton as they are with other prospects, so watching more tape and seeing him up close in a workout could swing things in his direction.


Who's Not


James Harden, SG, So., Arizona State
Harden has been far and away the biggest disappointment in the tournament. Known as one of the best and most reliable scorers in college basketball, he delivered two huge duds for ASU. He scored just nine points on 1-for-8 shooting versus Temple and followed that up with 10 points on 2-for-10 shooting against Syracuse. It's too early to tell how this will affect Harden's stock, but we'll be watching closely.

He was also inconsistent in Pac-10 play this season and some scouts are concerned that he lacks the explosive athleticism to create his own shot in the pros. Harden has usually overcome his physical limitations with craftiness, but it seems like more defenses are figuring out how to stop him.


Jeff Teague, PG, So., Wake Forest
Teague has been in a pretty big shooting slump over the past month -- his 3-point shot hasn't been falling. He has also been forcing the ball more and more and his seven turnovers versus Cleveland State really hurt Wake in the opening round of the tournament. It was clear from watching the game that Teague still needs a lot of work before he's ready for the NBA.

His coach is imploring him to come back for his junior year to work on his ballhandling and playmaking abilities. He'll get no argument from NBA executives.

Teague's stock has cooled over the past few weeks and everyone I've spoken with thinks he really needs another year at school. The same could also be said about Al-Farouq Aminu and James Johnson -- though both are in better shape with their draft stocks at the moment.


Hasheem Thabeet, C, Jr., UConn
Once again, Thabeet is proving that just because you're 7-foot-3 and taller than anyone else in college basketball doesn't mean you'll be making a huge impact on the floor. UConn largely ignored him on offense during its rout of Texas A&M on Saturday.

Against Texas A&M's strong front line, Thabeet took two shots in the game, grabbed six boards and watched Jeff Adrien do all the work down low. That's not the type of performance you really want to see in the tournament from a possible top-10 pick.

Luke Nevill, C, Sr., Utah
I get five to 10 e-mails a week from Utes fans screaming for me to put Nevill in the Top 100. He is big and had a strong senior season. And on the surface, he looks like he could be a serviceable big man in the pros. But watching what Arizona did to him in the first round of the tournament puts his draft potential into clear perspective.

Nevill had a chance to prove his detractors wrong by dominating Arizona's athletic front line. Instead, he floundered, lacking the quickness or explosiveness to compete. I think Europe or the Australian league is a more likely long-term destination.


Jarvis Varnado, PF, Jr., Mississippi State
Varnado may be the best shot-blocker in the country, but he did little else to help Mississippi State avoid a blowout in the first round of the tournament. He will most likely declare for the draft (but not hire an agent) since he's a junior, but his performance in the tournament suggests he could still use another year at school. He's been on the first-round bubble all season.

Chad Ford covers the NBA for ESPN Insider.