NBA scouts will have a close eye on Boise this week with the talent on display as the NCAA Tournament comes to Taco Bell Arena.
Arizona forward Deandre Ayton, this summer’s projected No. 1 overall pick, will draw the majority of the buzz. But six more could have their names called in June’s NBA Draft, according to the latest projections.
Here are the top players to watch from all eight teams playing in Boise this week.
DEANDRE AYTON, ARIZONA
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The 7-foot-1, 250-pound freshman center stands atop the latest mock drafts from ESPN, Sports Illustrated, USA Today and NBADraft.net. And CBS has him going No. 2.
His size, athleticism and production (20.3 ppg, 11.5 rebounds) all have NBA scouts drooling over the Bahamas native.
“From a physical standpoint, Ayton is an extremely rare prospect, as strong and agile as any 7-footer in recent memory,” Sports Illustrated wrote. “One scout I spoke with this week likened his athleticism to Patrick Ewing at this same stage. With his burgeoning offensive skill level, he can be as dominant as he wants to be.”
Ayton’s recruitment to Arizona has caused a stir. ESPN reported in February that Arizona coach Sean Miller was caught on an FBI wiretap discussing a $100,000 payment for Ayton to come to Arizona. Miller and Ayton both deny any payment took place.
Sports Illustrated also has teammate Rawle Alkins going No. 24 in the first round.
KEVIN KNOX, KENTUCKY
Projected as the No. 9 pick in the NBA Draft by Sports Illustrated, CBS and USA Today, the 6-9 freshman is renowned for his versatility and pure scoring ability. He’s pouring in 15.6 points per game while adding 5.4 rebounds for the Wildcats.
“Knox is one of the more versatile players in this draft, a do-it-all type of player with good size and length and a very nice shot from deep,” CBS wrote. “... He has a ton of polish to his game for such a young player.”
But like Ayton, Knox is also caught up in a season full of recruiting scandals. Yahoo Sports reported Knox was among a list of players who met with or had meals with an agent facing federal charges. Kentucky investigated and cleared Knox of any NCAA violations.
Sports Illustrated also has teammates Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Hamidou Diallo being selected 18th and 28th, respectively.
KEITA BATES-DIOP, OHIO STATE
The 6-7 forward is a redshirt junior, but he participated in the Buckeyes’ senior night festivities and is widely expected to declare for the NBA Draft after the season. ESPN projects him as a late first-round pick.
Bates-Diop won Big Ten Player of the Year honors this season, averaging 19.4 points and 8.8 rebounds for Ohio State.
“Bates-Diop is a midrange monster,” ESPN’s Bill Doherty wrote. “Put a small forward on him, and he’ll shoot over him. Elect to go with a beefier defender, and Bates-Diop will beat him off the bounce. Bates-Diop is a double-double threat every time he steps on the court.”
KILLIAN TILLIE, GONZAGA
A French import, the 6-10 sophomore has been lights out in recent weeks, averaging 18 points in the Zags’ last seven games, and he went off in the WCC tournament. In the team’s three games in Las Vegas, Tillie had 72 points and 16 rebounds, shooting 77.8 percent from the field, including 13-of-14 on 3-pointers.
“That was hopefully the plan we had when he was coming in, and he’s playing great right now,” coach Mark Few said. “That’s what you want for any of your players.”
Gonzaga has six players averaging between 9.5 and 13.5 ppg, with Tillie the second-leading scorer at 13.4 ppg.
MIKE DAUM, SOUTH DAKOTA STATE
Few nicknames are better than “The Dauminator,” and few can score better. The 6-9 forward from tiny Kimball, Neb., is No. 6 in the nation in scoring (23.8 ppg), second-best among players in the NCAA Tournament.
Daum, whose parents played basketball and football at Wyoming, has 12 games with 30 or more points this season. A 42.1-percent 3-point shooter who also averages 10.4 rebounds per game, he is on the NBA radar.
“In the NBA today, everybody plays with stretch-fours,” coach T.J. Otzelberger said to CBS Sports. “Mike fits that bill. He could play for anybody in the country. He’s a real talent. He would fit in on any team, and with any coach, in the country.”
KELLAN GRADY, DAVIDSON
Even though he grew up in Boston, Grady was a bit of a fan of Davidson, a school with an enrollment of about 2,000 in North Carolina. Grady read stories about a prolific scorer there named Steph Curry, and followed the Warriors’ great closely into the NBA.
“Ever since, he’s been a role model for me,” Grady told the Charlotte Observer.
Like Curry, Grady has been a prolific scorer as a freshman, averaging 18.0 points, second on the team. The 6-5 guard is shooting an impressive 50.8 percent from the field, including 37.7 percent from 3-point range.
CJ MASSINBURG, BUFFALO
The Bulls feature a balanced lineup with four players averaging 14 or more points per game. But the 6-3 junior guard leads the way with 16.9 points and 7.4 rebounds per game, shooting 46.9 percent from the field and 39.3 percent from 3.
Massinburg is also one of the Bulls’ most experienced playmakers, serving as the sixth man on the school’s 2016 tournament team.
“He’s a tough kid who gets stuff done,” Buffalo coach Nate Oats told the Buffalo News.
FRANCIS ALONSO, UNC GREENSBORO
A 6-foot-3 guard from Spain, Alonso is one of the top long-distance shooters in the country, ranked No. 16 in the nation with 3.24 made 3-pointers per game, and the junior has hit 297 in his career. Alonso is the team’s leading scorer, averaging 15.6 ppg.
“Francis is such a gifted shooter that (his release) can be as slow or as quick as it needs to be,” UNCG coach Wes Miller said to the Greensboro News & Record. “I haven’t been around many guys who are like that. ... He has the ability to speed it up or slow it down depending on the defense.”
NCAA schedule in Boise
▪ 11 a.m. UNC Greensboro, 11:45 a.m. South Dakota State, 12:30 p.m. Gonzaga, 1:15 p.m. Ohio State, 3:25 p.m. Kentucky, 4:10 p.m. Arizona, 4:55 p.m. Davidson, 5:40 p.m. Buffalo. Practices at Taco Bell Arena are open to the public and free.
▪ No. 4 Gonzaga vs. No. 13 UNC Greensboro in the West Region, 11:30 a.m. (TNT)
▪ No. 5 Ohio State vs. No. 12 South Dakota State in the West Region, approximately 2 p.m. (TNT)
▪ No. 5 seed Kentucky vs. No. 12 Davidson in the South Region, 5:10 p.m. (CBS)
▪ No. 4 Arizona vs. No. 13 Buffalo in the South Region, approximately 7:40 p.m. (CBS)