With the First Pick: 2023 NCAA Tournament Standouts and Disappointments
By Luke Scotchie
What a tournament it has been.
The first four rounds of the 2023 NCAA Tournament have been nothing short of outstanding and unpredictable. Purdue became just the second No. 1 seed to lose to a No. 16 seed in men’s tournament history with their loss to Fairleigh-Dickinson. Florida Atlantic entered the tournament without ever winning a single March Madness game in school history; they’re now set to face San Diego State in the Final Four. Several coaches are receiving huge contracts from schools due to their team’s success in this bracket, such as freshly appointed Notre Dame coach and former Penn State boss Micah Shrewsberry and Texas’ no-longer-interim coach Rodney Terry.
But what about the prospects in this year’s NBA Draft? How have they been doing? Some of them have been making the most out of their March. Some lesser-touted players have been even propelled themselves into the draft conversation for the first time in their lives. But others have struggled enough to see their stock fall. For some of these players, they will have to do everything right if they even have hopes of once again being considered as high picks.
Now that the biggest tournament in basketball is about to conclude, it’s time to recap the performances of several NBA Draft prospects. The good and the bad; the household names to undiscovered talents; the established elite prospects to those who just might have brought themselves there. It’s been an incredibly fun March in terms of draft speculation. Here are the players who have made it that way.
The University of Connecticut has been on an absolute tear during this tournament. They’ve won all of their games by 15 points or more and show no signs of slowing down. Perhaps the biggest factor in UConn’s success is Jordan Hawkins, who spent this past weekend scoring 20 points against Arkansas and 20 against Gonzaga on his way to the Final Four. He’s already proven himself to be a Top 3 shooter in this class, as well as the best movement shooter without a doubt, but he’s shown how well he can create shots for himself too. Hawkins has made an excellent case for teams to select him in the lottery this year, and any team with a need for shooting should look into him. He’s the best prospect still remaining in this tournament, and he has a chance to improve his stock even further.
Andre Jackson and Adama Sanogo have been phenomenal for the Huskies as well. Jackson may not light up the stat sheet, but he continues to make those winning plays on defense and flaunt his immense feel for the game. He’s been within four points, rebounds or assists of a triple-double in every tournament game he’s played in this year, including 10 assists in the Elite Eight. I think Jackson could thrive in the NBA as a role player on the right team, and he’s definitely worth looking at in the second round.
Sanogo is worth a look too, even if it’s just on a two-way deal. His ability as a roll man is one of the best in basketball, which has helped him reach double-digit points in each of his tournament games played, including 28 and 24 in the first two rounds respectively. There’s a place in the NBA for guys like Sanogo, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him on someone’s roster within the next few years.
The Huskies will face the University of Miami (FL) in the Final Four, another team whose players used this tournament to impress scouts. Isaiah Wong has been this team’s best player for the majority of this season, and he kept his consistent excellence through (mostly) stellar defense and scoring outbursts. Wooga Poplar may not be a 2023 guy, but he oozes potential as a wing defender and really impressed as a scorer throughout this tournament. Norchad Omier was essential in their first-round game against Drake, and his hustle and motor is strong enough to attract any team.
But a new top Miami prospect has emerged in this tournament: Jordan Miller. Before March Madness, Miller was seen as an interesting wing defender that did not have a good enough shot to make it in the NBA, let alone any confidence in it. That all changed this year, as he’s lighting up the tournament with several efficient scoring games, including a 27-point bomb on perfect efficiency from the field on Sunday against Texas. If that scoring and confidence carries becomes more consistent, Miller could be a star in the NBA.
Jalen Slawson was the first lower-regarded prospect to turn heads in this tournament. He finished with 19 points and 10 rebounds on 66% shooting from the field, proving himself an important part of Furman University’s first-round upset over the fourth-seeded University of Virginia. Slawson provides amazing defense and moves very well for his size.
His 3-point shooting has taken a massive leap this season, from around 30% to 36%, and his 77% clip from the free throw line suggests those numbers could be sustainable. Slawson could be a very sneaky first-round pick this year, especially if a team like Memphis or Sacramento likes him. I have him in the second round for right now, but a good NBA Draft Combine could absolutely change that.
Anthony Black proved himself to be the best player on Arkansas, a team full of young, talented players. Even though UConn eliminated Arkansas in the Sweet 16, Black went down swinging, finishing with 20 points and five steals, which more than made up for his four-point dud against the University of Kansas the round before.
I’ve talked about Black many times on this column, and this tournament only fortified my opinions on him. I have my concerns about his 3-point shot and his efficiency, but he brings so much to the table as a speedy, big playmaker and point-of-attack defender. If Black could lead this Arkansas team to the Sweet Sixteen, just imagine what he could do with NBA-level spacing. There are plenty of teams picking in the lottery that seem like a tailor-made fit for Black. He will find a home and quickly thrive there.
I wish I could say the same about his teammate, Nick Smith Jr. Smith was one of the top freshmen entering this college basketball season, but injuries delayed his college debut. He was rusty coming out of the gate, but would show flashes of the incredible scoring touch he had in high school, such as the multiple 20-point explosions he had against teams like Kentucky, Alabama and his career-high of 26 against Georgia. But the efficiency was never there, only shooting above 50% from the field once. He needed to be dominant.
And he just wasn’t.
He wasn’t dreadful in his last game, going 4-for-9 from the field and 2-for-3 from beyond the arc to score 11 points. But that doesn’t make up for the zero points he scored against Kansas, or the six points against Illinois on 20% shooting from the field. Smith had an objectively bad tournament. I have him at the back end of my lottery for right now, considering the flashes he’s shown were genuine. But he needs to have a very good pre-draft process for him to rise any higher than that.
Keyonte George was another highly-touted freshman who was inconsistent all season. Like Smith, he’s had some incredible flashes that suggest he could be a star in the league, such as his 32-pointer on 55% shooting from the field against West Virginia. But he’s had just as many moments where he couldn’t get anything to fall. He injured his ankle in late February, but these consistency issues have been a problem even before that. He needed a good tournament.
What did he have? Nine points on 22% shooting from the field in Baylor’s win against UC Santa Barbara, and seven points on 10% shooting from the field in their loss against Creighton. Creighton’s Ryan Nembhard scored nearly twice as many points as George did in those two games… in just one game against Baylor.
I liked him a lot coming out of high school, but that’s starting to fade. It’s not that George isn’t good. He’s proven throughout the course of the season that he is. But there are so many guys who are able to do what George does with much higher efficiency that it’s getting hard to justify keeping him in the lottery over those guys. Hawkins, Ohio State’s Brice Sensabaugh and even Michigan’s Jett Howard have all done more this season with less attention. He will be a first-round pick without a shadow of a doubt. I just don’t know where.
And just like that, only three more games until the 2023 college basketball season comes to a close. Hawkins is the only first-round prospect left in the tournament, so we have a very clear idea of what each of these players could be in the NBA. Scouts have been flocking all across the country to see which players deserve to have their dreams come true. And for Hawkins, Slawson, Miller and so many more players, they have a realistic shot at that come June.