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Separating NCAA Tournament success from NBA futures

11 March 2016: Cal (0) Jaylen Brown dejected as the clock expires in overtime during the men's Pac-12 Basketball Tournament game between the California Golden Bears and the Utah Utes at MGM Grand Garden Arena in Las Vegas, NV. (Photo by Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire)
Chris Williams/Icon Sportswire

With the NCAA Tournament in full swing, you read a different article every day about how a player’s performance on an individual night may be affecting his NBA draft stock. It might be people downgrading Ben Simmons for not getting LSU into the tournament, or Isaiah Whitehead for a terrible performance in Seton Hall’s loss to Gonzaga. Another popular one on Friday was piling on Jaylen Brown for California’s opening-round loss to Hawaii, a hot take on which many draft-niks tried to douse the flames:

As a fun exercise then, I thought we might take a look back at the top players in the league today, as rated by win shares on Basketball-Reference, and look at how they performed in the NCAA Tournament during their final collegiate seasons. You’ll find that the performances varied from the sublime to the easily forgettable.

Stephen Curry - The current best player in the world certainly proved his chops under the bright lights by carrying mid-major Davidson to the Elite Eight as a sophomore. Curry looked poised for even greater things as a junior, when the two-time All-American switched to the nominal point-guard position and averaged 28.6 points and 5.6 assists per game. Unfortunately for March Madness fans that year, the Wildcats lost in the conference tournament semifinals to College of Charleston and Davidson was denied a NCAA tournament bid.

Russell Westbrook - The #1 seed UCLA Bruins were primarily Kevin Love’s team, even with Russell Westbrook in his sophomore season. Westbrook was quiet in the first two rounds of the NCAA tournament that year, not even reaching double figures in either game. As the Bruins rolled on though, the Westbrook experience began to pick up steam. He recorded a double-double with 14 points and 11 rebounds against Western Kentucky in the Sweet 16, followed by 17 points in the Elite Eight against Xavier. Finally, Westbrook exploded for a career-high 22 points in the Final Four loss to Memphis, portending the MVP candidate that was to come.

Kevin Durant - The Wooden Award winner as a freshman, Durant led Texas to a #4 seed in the Big Dance. After the Longhorns topped New Mexico State behind 27 points from KD, Texas was bounced by #5 USC in the second round. You certainly couldn’t blame Durant, who finished with 30 points and nine rebounds in the loss. The yearly postseason struggles of former Texas coach Rick Barnes were further enhanced by, “You had Kevin Durant, and still couldn’t make it out of the second round.”

Kawhi Leonard - As a sophomore, Leonard carried San Diego State to what most consider the best season in program history. The silent one was the prominent figure in the Aztecs’ first-ever NCAA tournament win against Northern Colorado. They followed that win up with a double-overtime thriller against Temple, before losing to eventual champion UConn in the Sweet 16. Leonard averaged over 16 points and nine rebounds across the three games. Add a little Spurs shooting magic and you have one of the best players in the game today.

Kyle Lowry - As a sophomore for #1 Villanova, Lowry was more of a role player as part of the Wildcats’ unconventional four-guard starting lineup. Jay Wright’s squad that year rolled past Monmouth, Arizona and Boston College, before losing to Florida in the Elite Eight. Lowry was largely a non-factor in the tournament, having a high game of just nine points, and ending his college career on a sour note with just three points and a 1-9 shooting night in the loss to Florida.

LeBron James - As you know, well before he took his talents to South Beach, and then came home again, LeBron jumped directly from high school to the NBA. Fans will forever wonder what King James would’ve looked like storming down the court in the NCAA Tournament.

Chris Paul - The First Team All-American led Wake Forest to a #2 seed in the tournament as a sophomore. The Demon Deacons stormed past Chattanooga, but then was upset by #7 West Virginia in the second round in double-overtime. CP3 certainly did everything he could, finishing that contest with 22 points, six rebounds and nine assists.

James Harden - A First Team All-American as a sophomore at Arizona State, Harden became the poster boy for why you should ignore tournament performance when evaluating draft prospects. The #6 Sun Devils performed to seed in the tournament, beating Temple before losing to #3 Syracuse. However, Harden was atrocious in those two games, scoring nine points on 1-8 shooting against Temple, and 10 on 2-10 shooting against the Orange. If you went off those games alone, there would’ve been no signs of the future MVP runner-up.

DeAndre Jordan - The last two guys on this list are different in that they were second-round picks, so there were obviously different sets of expectations for them in tournament play. As a freshman at Texas A&M, Jordan came off the bench and wasn’t more than a bit player on the roster. As a #9 seed, Texas A&M beat BYU before losing to #1 UCLA and that Kevin Love/Russell Westbrook/Darren Collison group. Jordan played 20 minutes and recorded six points and five rebounds total across the two games. Any NBA scouts were certainly looking to draft him purely as the player he might become, not the player he was.

Draymond Green - In addition to being one of two second-round picks, Green is different as the only senior in this group. He led #1 Michigan State, and showed off what’s now becomes his dominantly versatile skill set across the Spartans’ three tournament games. Green had a triple-double with 24 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists in a first-round victory over LIU. Then, he kept if up with a 16-point, 13-rebound, six-assist line against Saint Louis. Sparty’s run would end though in a loss to #4 Louisville. Green’s shot didn’t fall as he went 5-16 from the field and 1-7 from three, but he still managed 13 points and 16 rebounds on the game.

As you can see, future NBA stars can certainly vary in the degree of impact they have in the NCAA tournament. Many like Durant and Paul will shine on that brightest stage, while others like Harden and Lowry might not have their best outings. In those instances, evaluators should just acknowledge them for what they are, a couple bad games. While it’s fun to imagine a dominant performance over these next couple weeks, or someone laying an egg, is going to impact things come June, it’s not really the case. So just enjoy the NCAA Tournament for what is: one of the greatest sources of entertainment known to man.

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