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2023 NCAA Tournament Sweet 16/Elite 8 Top Storylines and Final Four Preview
Our own Nathan Grubel takes a look at the biggest NBA Draft storylines that emerged from this past weekend while looking ahead to the 2023 NCAA Tournament's Final Four.
What a weekend it was in college basketball!
The Sweet 16 and Elite Eight have passed us, meaning that it’s time to gear up for the 2023 NCAA Tournament Final Four in the land of men’s hoops.
A number of intriguing storylines have emerged not just in terms of the Big Dance, but in relation to the NBA Draft.
That’s not to say I’m going to sweep any of the major upsets under the rug. Florida Atlantic deserves one heck of a shoutout for knocking off Kansas State and tournament darling Markquis Nowell. Johnell Davis is a legitimate guard to watch for in future drafts, as he did anything and everything to help his team win.
And kudos to San Diego State for being amongst the last four teams standing in the tournament, behind craft and veteran leadership.
But we’re here at No Ceilings to talk about the NBA Draft, meaning examining the weekend’s results through a prospect lens to better determine what we’ve been able to learn in the month of March.
Spoiler alert: we’ve actually been able to observe and gather quite a bit of information. While the tournament shouldn’t be the main pillar of a player’s evaluation, as scouting requires the study of a full season’s body of work, it still provides an unmatched stage for both opportunity and scrutiny.
So which players have really helped themselves during March Madness? Let’s start with a prospect who has had us at No Ceilings debating back and forth all year long.
Jordan Hawkins: Potential Lottery Pick?
There has been plenty of debate in terms of who the best pure shooter is in the 2023 NBA Draft class.
Is the answer Gradey Dick, the 6’8” freshman wing who can seemingly shoot over the top of anyone who closes out on him? Is it Brandon Miller, the 6’9” projected lottery pick who has maintained a 40% mark from three on over seven attempts per game while laying consensus claim as college basketball’s best overall prospect?
For my money (and some others), the answer is Jordan Hawkins. And after helping UConn get to yet another Final Four, that answer is as clear as it’s ever been.
Hawkins, standing at 6’5” and listed at 185 pounds, has steadily moved up my board all year long to the point where if you’re a regular Morning Dunk reader you’ve likely seen words on him in multiple “Top Risers” pieces of mine on a Monday morning.
His stock has seemingly soared across a number of media outlets because of what he CAN do on the floor, which is shooting the hell out of the ball in a number of different situations.
With a player like Dick, he’s much more comfortable as a spot-up threat or getting to his spot off one dribble for a quick shot. His body doesn’t allow him to run as quickly as Hawkins off multiple actions, or get to his looks in the same ways.
Hawkins is the next movement shooter who can actually say he’s a MOVEMENT shooter. Run Hawkins off multiple screens, work him in hand-off situations, or play give-and-go: Hawkins squares his body and sets his feet off a full-speed sprint better than anyone else in this class.
And in this tournament run, he’s gone plenty deep into his shot-making bag, stroking it from deep or even creating his own pull-up jumpers around the free throw line area.
Throw in how he’s been awesome turning the corner and aggressively getting downhill to either finish the drive or get to the line, and there are few questions I have about Hawkins in terms of generating points in a hurry.
In UConn’s last two matchups against Arkansas and Gonzaga, the Huskies blew the doors off both opponents while Hawkins has gone on to score 24 and 20 points respectively. The rate at which he can heat up is impressive, and he’s come through and gotten his team big buckets when they’ve needed him to do so.
No, he doesn’t have the type of handle that will send multiple defenders on their rear ends because of some crazy in-and-out combo he pulled off. But because he’s so quick with a step to turn the corner, he can throw defenders off balance as they try and flip their hips to get in front of him. Or better yet, he does have a nice hesitation move he can go to in those situations once in a while to change directions and either pull up or get all the way to the rim.
On the year, he’s maintained a 16.3 PPG average while attempting nearly eight threes a night and still holding a 58 true shooting mark despite his struggles finishing at the basket in traffic.
I’m not nearly as concerned about the rim finishing after watching him work off screeners in the tournament. Wherever he goes in the NBA, he’ll have a strong body in the middle like his guys Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan to catch defenders up top. If he went to a team like the Toronto Raptors or Orlando Magic for example, they play multiple bigger forwards/wings that can also set hard screens to free Hawkins for easy looks.
I do wish he were a bit better passer or cutter, but at this point, I’m starting to really nitpick. He’s a great athlete, lethal shooter, and a capable team defender. And given how he’s begun to improve working out of pick-and-rolls and dribble handoffs, there could still be more upside for him to unlock.
A comparison I’ve thrown around for Hawkins throughout the season was Isaiah Joe in terms of shooting equity off movement. In reality, he may be the closest guy we’ve seen to JJ Redick in a long time. Even someone like Gary Trent Jr., who I was really high on in the 2018 draft and had him as a lottery talent on my board, didn’t quite have a season like Hawkins coming out of college.
Yes, there’s a two-year difference in order to make that type of comparison, but purely breaking down their games, Hawkins is legitimately a better version of Trent and his projection is trending that way once he gets up to the league.
Developing a floater game, improving the vision, and filling out physically could cement Hawkins’ return value inside the top 10 players in this class.
So at this point, what’s holding me up from slotting him past where I had Trent on my board that year (14)?
Nothing. Hawkins is firmly in the lottery conversation for me, and depending on the team I wouldn’t be shocked to see him taken Top 10 on draft night.
UCLA Prospects Rising?
Adem Bona aside considering he wasn’t a full participant in all tournament games for UCLA (although I would currently rate him as a first-round prospect), the Bruins have had two guys in particular keeping the draft world buzzing.
The first isn’t a surprise to a number of my colleagues at No Ceilings, as Jaime Jaquez Jr. has gotten first round grades from a few scouts on our staff dating back to last draft cycle.
But Jaquez now has performed his best on the biggest of stages, and he certainly was not the reason UCLA lost in the Sweet 16 to Gonzaga.
Jaquez, who scored 29 points and grabbed 11 rebounds, just has an incredibly high feel for how to play the game. His positioning, footwork, timing, and understanding of how to attack different defenses put any coach in a bind to try and stop him.
Cut him off from going to the basket, and he’ll whip a pass back out to the perimeter before you can even blink. Give him a lane in transition or off a screen-and-roll action (with him either as the ball handler or screener), and he’ll take full advantage, using his feet, body, and craft to get the deuce. And when he’s knocking down spot-up threes, forget about defending him.
One of the lines I said earlier is the main selling point for Jaquez in regards to driving and dishing. Jaquez rarely attacks without a plan. His spatial awareness in terms of where his teammates are in relation to him is powerful, as he can bend defenses with back-breaking passes to the opposite side of the floor for open looks.
Jaquez is far from selfish as a player, yet he doesn’t always pile up assist totals leaving some scouts asking questions regarding his playmaking if they aren’t watching the tape close enough.
Take his games in the tournament for example, especially against the Bulldogs. Jaquez may only have had a few assists in the game, but the way he keeps the ball moving and the offense flowing really puts his team in position to win each night out.
I still have questions about how the defense translates in the NBA, and he’s not nearly as intriguing if he isn’t shooting at a high level. But his track record suggests the jumper will end up being a weapon for him in the league, which ties every other part of his offensive game together neatly given how he sees and processes at all times.
Given how there may be a large number of prospects returning to school to solidify a first-round draft position in 2024, why couldn’t Jaquez challenge to get drafted near the end of the first? A 6’6” guard who can do what he can offensively should have some suitors, and I firmly believe he’s earned at a bare minimum a Top 40 grade when all is said and done.
Then there’s Amari Bailey, who came into this season as a prized recruit for coach Mick Cronin and the Bruins.
A 6’5” guard prospect who has a smooth scoring game and playmaking ability, Bailey didn’t have the greatest transition to college early on.
But his play of late in the Pac-12 and now in the NCAA Tournament has scouts excited that he may be on the verge of declaring for the 2023 draft as opposed to firmly in the camp of coming back to school for his sophomore season.
In UCLA’s last 11 games, Bailey has scored in double figures in seven of them, and he has shot the ball well from all three levels. His pace of play, improved spot-up shooting, and willingness to do the little things on both ends have all pointed to a guard who has the priorities in place of someone who wants to do whatever it takes to succeed in the NBA.
What’s really shined through in particular in the tournament is his play within ball screen offense. Bailey is as confident as ever in his pull-up jumper after accepting the screen, and it’s leading to a great deal of looks either in the mid-range, or if the defense bites on his pull-up game a clean look all the way to the basket.
Even though he isn’t the quickest guard on the floor, Bailey is good at using his body to bully his way inside, and getting defenders to fall for his fakes while using keen footwork to get to his spots and knock down shots.
If Bailey were to have taken better advantage in pick-and-roll opportunities all year long (38th percentile scoring as the ball handler, 20th percentile in pick-and-rolls including passes), then we may have been having a different conversation about Bailey’s draft stock being much closer to his RSCI ranking than where it currently sits (potential second-round pick).
I’m buying Bailey’s talent long-term, but do want to see him prove that the flashes over the last 11 games are what we’re more likely to see in the NBA than the former. That being said, he’s a guy who has really helped himself of late and should at least test the waters and get feedback before returning for his sophomore year.
Julian Strawther: Underrated Wing
I get that Julian Strawther doesn’t have the flashiest game as a prospect for the NBA Draft, but I’m always surprised to see the lack of intrigue around his game.
Simply put, Strawther sure has a lot of different skills on the floor for someone projected to fit into an off-ball role in the league.
Rating out incredibly well on spot-ups, pick-and-roll opportunities, transition scoring, cutting, and jump shooting overall, Strawther has a clean-cut role at the next level as a 6’7” wing who can read the game offensively in terms of where he needs to be. Not to mention his rebounding has been consistent all year long and stayed true in the tournament (8.8 RPG through 4 NCAA Tournament games this year).
Soft touch on both his jump shot as well as his floater when he gets two feet in the paint, movement scoring upside, and positional size to boot? Why isn’t he getting more love as a potential first-round pick?
Nowadays, there’s a tendency to expect “too much” from prospects even those being looked at in a 25-45 range. If a player can’t consistently break down defenses off the dribble, make multiple passing reads, and defend at a high level on the ball, there’s a chance that player is overlooked for what they can’t do, EVEN if they shoot the ball at a 40-plus percent mark from deep on healthy volume.
I’m not here to definitively argue about taking Strawther over someone who may very well have a higher upside as an on-ball creator with some of those aforementioned traits. But drafting a player who has a more theoretical path to reaching that type of ceiling-level outcome over a guy like Strawther who presents real rotational value on a team looking to win games sooner rather than later could be one of those regrets a few years later.
Bottom line, Strawther has proven he can generate a significant number of points even in the role he has now, not to mention hit clutch shots, like he did against UCLA in the Sweet 16. No, he’s not the type of player you’re giving the ball to on an island and saying go make a play in the NBA. But offenses are much more friendly towards players of Strawther’s ilk nowadays with the constant ball/player movement that emphasizes getting a high-quality look from the perimeter.
I’m very close to moving Strawther into a first-round range on my personal big board, as he’s certainly someone who’s worth having a conversation about as we inch closer to June’s draft.
2023 Men’s Final Four Preview
5 San Diego State vs. 9 Florida Atlantic
This matchup of sleeping giants in the field should be a grueling, physical matchup from start to finish.
Both of these teams have made it as far as they have because they’ve stuck to their game plans even when the game has been as close as it can be.
But both squads DO NOT back down from a fight, which makes this all the more interesting as a Final Four lead matchup.
Johnell Davis from FAU has gotten some NBA Draft buzz as the best player for the Owls. A 6’4” guard who finds every way to fill up the stat sheet inside the arc, Davis has come up huge in the second half of games for his team in the tournament. Good finishing around the basket, a pull-up game, and some craft at being able to draw contact at the right times: he’s the type of one-man wrecking crew who can change the outcome of a game when it counts.
And don’t sleep on Vladislav Goldin to impact this game down low. He made some big plays down the stretch against Kansas State, and has manned the interior on both ends all tournament long.
As for San Diego State, it’s been by committee in terms of who has stepped up in the biggest of moments. Matt Bradley has had his share of success in the Sweet 16, and in this team’s toughest game yet against Creighton, Darrion Trammell, and Lamont Butler scored 30 of 57 to pull off the upset over the Blue Jays.
A talented unit of scoring ball handlers who can put pressure on the defense and find each other for the right play, the Aztecs are deep and determined to win a championship. While I may not be evaluating any one player in particular for the draft, sometimes we should just appreciate one of the best stories in college basketball for what it is.
I think the Aztecs are primed to move on to the NCAA Championship, so give me San Diego State in as close of a game as we’ve had leading up to this point.
4 UConn vs. 5 Miami
This right here is the main event, as both of these teams have won their fair share of impressive games to end up as potential finalists on this side of the bracket.
In the case of UConn, however, the Huskies have been DOMINANT in back-to-back games over Arkansas and Gonzaga to reach the Final Four.
As noted above, Jordan Hawkins is as good of a guard as any in the country, but he’s far from the only talented player who can help this team secure a title. Adama Sanogo and Donovan Clingan are bruisers down low in different ways, and Tristen Newton provides experienced firepower next to Hawkins on the perimeter. Don’t forget about the game wrecker Andre Jackson Jr. as our own Tyler Rucker calls him.
Jackson could be the difference maker in swinging this game one way or the other. Capable of guarding any of Miami’s hot hands, Jackson’s defensive versatility, along with his rebounding and transition playmaking, keep the Huskies playing fast and loose, while the team’s two-man game of Hawkins and Sanogo can deliver buckets when the game slows down in the halfcourt.
No player in this field could be as big of a wild card as Poplar, who on his best days has the shooting touch and speed/athleticism combo to make anyone pay in the backcourt. If he can play disciplined defensively while keeping the turnovers low as he did against Texas in a barn burner of an Elite Eight game, then he has the talent to match even a guard like Hawkins shot-for-shot. And if Miller gets the ball in the spots where he’s prone to operate, then he can rack up free throw attempts and put defenders in a tough position from a foul standpoint.
Overall, I’m taking UConn to win a closer game than its last two times out. Miami has been a fascinating story of togetherness and development all year long, but the Huskies are too deep and talented to lose now, and they stand as my current pick of this field to cut down the nets in Houston.