March is the time of year when the NCAA’s best players burst onto the national scene. While dedicated college hoops fans have watched Ballislife videos of the players since their high school days and followed them through the recruiting process, the casual fan gets familiar with the big names during the NCAA Tournament.
Last year, a handful of top freshmen—including UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, and Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen—helped their teams make tourney runs, and in the process solidified their status as prized NBA prospects. Less than three months later, they walked to the podium to shake Adam Silver’s hand.
Though only freshmen were selected in the top 11 of the 2017 draft, it’s not always first-year players who make a big leap in March. In 2016, Oklahoma senior Buddy Hield cemented his status as a top pick with a strong tournament that ended in the Final Four. In 2015, Kentucky junior Willie Cauley-Stein did the same while holding down the post during the Wildcats’ Final Four run.
Some of the NCAA’s best players have been mainstays in the national media this year. It’s not like you’re about to hear about Trae Young or DeAndre Ayton for the first time. But, real talk: how much do you know about Khyri Thomas?
Though Thomas is a projected top-20 pick, he remains a relative unknown because he plays ball at Creighton. There are plenty of others like him: future NBA players just waiting for their opportunity to show the world they can hang with the big names like Young and Ayton. It’s time for these players to show the world what they’ve got.
Even if your bracket goes to shit in the first round, you can still have some fun; here are 25 future NBA stars to watch in the NCAA Tournament.
25. Grayson Allen, G, Duke
24. Keita Bates-Diop, F, Ohio State
St. Bonaventure hasn’t gotten much pub this year because the Bonnies play in the Atlantic 10, but Bona has quietly pieced together one of its best teams in decades. Much of that is thanks to Adams, the senior leader. The 6-foot-1 guard is an explosive scorer—he puts up over 20 a night—and a lights-out shooter. He’s hitting an astounding 47.7 percent of his threes, with a Player Efficiency Rating of 24.3. Adams, co-Atlantic 10 Player of the Year, may fall to the second round, but I think he’d be a steal.
The 7-foot center from Turkey has come a long way in his second season in Raleigh. His role in the Wildcats’ rotation has increased, and he’s shooting nearly twice as frequently. Yurtseven is a defensive force down low; he’s averaging 1.8 blocks in addition to 13.6 points and 6.8 boards per game. Yurtseven is a versatile offensive weapon who can knock it down in the mid-range. Some have compared him to former pro Raef LaFrentz.
Brunson has had a decorated college career—he won a national title in 2016, was first-team All-Big East in 2017, and is a Wooden Award candidate in 2018. Scouts, however, aren’t sure of the lefty’s NBA potential. Brunson, 6-foot-2, has a powerful frame, and he plays with physicality. He isn’t a great athlete, and he doesn’t have world-class quickness, but Brunson has the “it” factor. He’s reminiscent of former UConn guard Shabazz Napier, who has found himself in his fourth season in the NBA and is a nice rotation guy off the bench for Portland.
20. Mortiz Wagner, F, Michigan
19. Landry Shamet, G, Wichita State
Duval is a freshman guard who has started the whole season for Coach K. He’s getting nearly 30 minutes per game, and though he has been outshined by his fellow blue-chip Blue Devils freshmen, Duval has been an impactful player at the one. He’s putting up 10.5 points and 5.3 assists per game. He was the top-ranked point guard in the 2017 class but has since slipped behind Trae Young and Collin Sexton. He isn’t a natural scorer, but Duval is a reliable floor general and good distributor who is still blossoming and will go in the first round of the draft.
A 6-foot-5 freshman two guard at Kentucky, Diallo is a natural talent. He’s an explosive guard with tons of scoring ability—the type of two NBA teams are looking for these days. He’s not exactly the second coming of Devin Booker; though he can create good looks, he has struggled at times with his jumper. Diallo, however, plays with great energy and attacks the rim, and quickness fuels his strong defense. He’s averaging 10.7 points and 3.7 rebounds a game for the star-studded Wildcats.
A 6-foot-4 freshman, Walker is averaging 11.6 points per game with a 17.2 PER. He was inserted into the starting lineup midway through the season and shortly thereafter hung 25 and 23 on Louisville and Florida State, respectively. Walker was the 16th-ranked prospect in the 2017 class. He has a strong frame, a good first step, and excellent physical tools. He also made the 2018 All-ACC Academic Team. Oh, and as far as candidates most likely to make a clutch shot at the end of a tourney game? Walker’s up there on the list.
Thomas is expected to go in the mid-late first round. A 6-foot-3, 210-pound guard for Creighton, he has led Greg McDermott’s squad to a strong season in the Big East. Thomas is putting up 15.2 points and 4.0 rebounds per game; he has gradually improved his game and increased his production throughout his three years with the Bluejays. Thomas can shoot both inside and outside of the arc. His speed and scoring ability are reminiscent of Jawun Evans, who filled it up last season at Oklahoma State and is having a solid rookie year with the Clippers.
Trent has tremendous size, at 6-foot-6, for a guard. He’s played in every game this season and averaged 14.3 points and 4.1 rebounds per game. Though he has been in a slight slump lately, Trent is a knockdown shooter; he’s hoisting six threes a game and hitting 43 percent of them. The Minnesota native, son of former NBA player Gary Trent, has a powerful, 215-pound frame. He has good instincts and can score the ball with efficiency.
Williams, a 6-foot-9 sophomore at Texas A&M, flirted with the NBA in 2017. He has seen his minutes and scoring average dip slightly in his second go-round. The 240-pound Louisiana native is a powerful post presence. He’s snagging 9.2 boards to go with his 10.6 points per game. Williams shoots it well from the mid-range and timing is perhaps his greatest asset. He’s swatting 2.4 shots per game.
Knox, a freshman, is leading Kentucky in scoring with 15.8 points per game. He has started every game this season and is getting 32.4 minutes per game. A 6-foot-9 forward, he has a decent jumper, but athleticism is his calling card. He has a 7-foot wingspan and moves fluidly. Knox, 215 pounds, isn’t the strongest guy on the court, but he makes up for it with impressive leaping ability and court sense.
Shai is one of my favorite prospects on this list. He has the tangibles, to be sure—at 6-foot-6 with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, he has freaky length for a point guard. He has the physical tools and natural ability teams look for. But what I love about Gilgeous-Alexander is his intangibles; he has high work ethic and basketball IQ and his fellow Kentucky Wildcats respond to his leadership. He may get moved to the wing in the NBA, but I believe he’ll shine at the next level.
Bridges has been one of college basketball’s best players in his two years at Michigan State. He’s another guy who flirted with declaring for the draft, but elected to come back for his sophomore year. The decision has not really hurt or helped his draft stock. He’s had a great year and is a Wooden Award candidate. Bridges has helped Michigan State compete with the best in the nation and has put up 16.8 points and 6.9 boards per game. He plays both forward spots and showed he has plenty of ability during a tantalizing head-to-head with Lauri Markkanen, who’s been excellent for the Bulls this season, when they were freshmen.
A 6-foot-7 swingman, the lanky Bridges has come a long way since his freshman year at Villanova in 2015. Now a junior, Bridges has developed his offensive game and become a legitimate superstar. His athleticism, length (he has a 7-foot wingspan), and defense have always been the biggest strengths in his game, and they remain valuable assets. Bridges, who was not a highly touted recruit, had never cracked a double-figure average before, but he’s scoring 17.4 points per game this year.
Earlier this season, I investigated the question: Is Trae Young really the next Steph Curry? The conclusion: he’s reminiscent of Curry, but he’s more like a remix. He also takes pieces of his game from Steve Nash, Kyrie Irving, and Tony Parker. Young has been a true sensation as a freshman at Oklahoma. His propensity for launching from 30 feet is fun to watch. He is the favorite to win the Wooden Award, but he has struggled at times as he’s played with a less-than-impressive supporting cast. Young is a prolific scorer; he’s getting 28 and hitting four threes a night. He hasn’t been himself of late. It’ll be interesting to see if he can get back to form on the big stage.
Sexton has jockeyed with Oklahoma’s Trae Young for freshman point guard supremacy all season. Many scouts have Sexton higher on their big boards. He has been excellent for Avery Johnson’s Alabama squad, which could just squeak into the tournament. Sexton is a pitbull type point guard in the mold of Russell Westbrook; he attacks the rim with power. He’s an outstanding athlete and has put up 18.1 points per game. Sexton hit an incredible game-winning finger roll in the SEC tournament, which for all intents and purposes put his team in the NCAA tourney.
Bamba was the No. 4 recruit in the 2017 class. Shaka Smart and Texas were thrilled to land the 7-footer from Harlem. His length and athleticism are his biggest assets. Bamba has a crazy, 7-foot-9 wingspan. In addition to his 13 points, he’s grabbing 10.6 boards and blocking 3.8 shots per night. He’s light on his feet and he can get up, which makes him a premiere lob target. Bamba is thin, but he has incredible upside.
In Missouri’s first game of the season, Porter got a bucket and played 2 minutes before suffering a back injury. The No. 2 recruit consequently had surgery and his recovery kept him sidelined nearly the entire season. He returned in the SEC tournament and scored 12 points in his lone appearance to date. It’s still not clear whether he’s fully healed. At 6-foot-10 and with an elite perimeter game, Porter has received comparisons to Kevin Durant.
Duke’s crop of outstanding freshmen includes two dominant post presences: Carter and Marvin Bagley. Carter has started all 30 games this season and is scoring 14.3 points, grabbing 9.5 rebounds, and blocking 2.2 shots per game. The No. 5 recruit in the class of 2017, Carter, an Atlanta native, is crafty around the basket. He can score it with both hands. He’s not overly emotional on the court, but he’s polished and his jumper has shown potential.
Jackson barely cracked the top 10 of his recruiting class, but his stock has soared during his freshman year at Michigan State. The 6-foot-11 Indianapolis native is getting only 22.3 minutes per game, but he has posted a stat line of 11.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.3 blocks per game. He swats shots and knocks it down from deep. With a 7-foot-4 winsgpan, Jackson is thin but has a good frame that will fill out when he reaches the league. Jackson looks smooth running the floor. He’s vocal on the court and well-spoken off of it.
Bagley was the top player in his class, and he was a well-known prospect since his early high school years. Bagley has absolutely lived up to expectations in Durham. His game is simultaneously explosive and polished; the lefty looks like a young Chris Bosh. Bagley is a Wooden Award candidate, and he’s averaging 20.7 points and 11.1 rebounds per game. He is perhaps the most “sure thing” in this draft class.
It recently came to light that Arizona coach Sean Miller may have helped Ayton receive $100,000 for committing to the Wildcats. As the investigation continues, Ayton’s status as the top draft prospect appears to be a lock. A 7-foot freshman center from the Bahamas, Ayton has drawn comparisons to the great David Robinson. He’s scoring 20 points, grabbing 11.2 boards, and rejecting 2.0 shots per game. Ayton runs the floor well and is a good free-throw shooter. He has a nice touch and exceptional athleticism. It would be a shock if anyone were selected ahead of him in June’s NBA Draft. Arizona, a four seed, is a favorite to make a tournament run—largely because of the talented big man.