The Celtics are currently in position to hold eight of the 60 picks in June’s NBA Draft, a bountiful haul that is surely the envy of front offices around the league. Some of those choices will likely be traded, but for now Boston must proceed as if it will use each one.
Celtics executives generally do not travel to early-round NCAA Tournament sites, preferring to assemble in a bunker in their training facility, where they can watch several games at once. But they are always watching.
Around the NBA, there is some disagreement over how much value should be placed on one player catching fire in the tournament or a highly-touted prospect stumbling.
In 2014, for example, Andrew Wiggins went 1 for 6 as Kansas was upset in the first round by Stanford. Three months later, he was selected with the first overall pick. But then there is Steph Curry, whose stirring performance as he guided Davidson to the Elite Eight in 2008 showed he could dominate competition from power conferences.
But for every Curry, there are hundreds of players who are most certainly not him, and that is why it can be wise for scouts to approach the NCAA Tournament with caution, despite its enchantments.
“You see it every year,” said one NBA executive. “If you haven’t prepared prior to the tournament, you spend too much time analyzing the tournament, and you can get tricked.”
Generally, the tourney is best used as one more opportunity to gather intelligence. But it still has value. So with that in mind, here are some likely first-round picks who might have helped themselves, hurt themselves, or gained some intrigue as the Sweet 16 games arrive this weekend.
Brandon Ingram, 6-9 freshman guard/forward, Duke: Ingram, who has emerged as a popular choice to become the No. 1 overall pick, averaged 22.5 points and 7 rebounds in wins over UNC Wilmington and Yale.
“He’s good, but I mean, if anyone wasn’t already aware that Brandon Ingram is an awfully good player, I don’t know,” said the executive. “He’s really young. He’s not perfect. There are certainly some holes in his game, but he’s really good.”
The executive said the fact that last weekend’s games came against inferior competition must be factored in, also making Duke’s game against No. 1-seeded Oregon on Thursday more interesting.
Domantas Sabonis, 6-11 sophomore forward, Gonzaga: Sabonis averaged 20 points, 13 rebounds, and 3.5 assists in the 11th-seeded Bulldogs’ wins over Seton Hall and Utah. Gonzaga faces Syracuse Friday.
“I think maybe some people who didn’t follow him as closely this year are probably impressed,” the executive said. “He’s made a lot of progress with his game and he plays with terrific effort. He has very good size and good knowledge and has performed very well.”
Jonathan Givony, publisher of DraftExpress.com, said Sabonis’s game against Utah was important because he shined against another future first-rounder, center Jakob Poeltl.
“Playing in the [West Coast Conference], he doesn’t always get a chance to go up against a guy like that,” Givony said. “I think he played a very good game, and the fact that he was able to step outside and make those jumpers . . . I think that helps him.’ ”
Buddy Hield, 6-4 senior guard, Oklahoma: Hield, a national Player of the Year candidate, averaged 31.5 points and 6 rebounds in the Sooners’ wins over Cal-Bakersfield and Virginia Commonwealth. The Sooners face Texas A&M Thursday.
“It was a pretty good weekend for Buddy,” the executive said. “He had a couple stretches that weren’t great, but he’s had a great season overall. He shot the ball terrific all season and was one of the dominant players in college basketball, and this weekend was no different.”
Givony said players like Hield who come from power conferences have already been so extensively evaluated that it is difficult to glean much new information.
“But it was great to see him really stepping up when his team needed him,” he said. “That showed something about his toughness. He doesn’t back down from pressure. But he’s being guarded by 6-2 guards. But he came into this tournament in my eyes as a top-10 pick and I don’t think he’s going to sway from that.”
Demetrius Jackson, 6-1 junior guard, Notre Dame: Jackson averaged 14.5 points and 4 rebounds in the Fighting Irish’s wins over Michigan and Stephen F. Austin. Notre Dame faces Wisconsin Friday.
“Demetrius had kind of an up-and-down year,” the executive said. “He had an injury that slowed him down in the middle of the season for a while, and you could tell when he was playing, he didn’t totally have it.
“But I think he’s shown he’s a terrific athlete and he had a couple of highlight plays last weekend. I think people are probably hoping he can show a little more dominance.”
Skal Labissiere, 6-11 freshman forward, Kentucky: Labissiere, once considered a possible No. 1 overall pick, had an opening weekend that was a perfect illustration of his mercurial season. After tallying 12 points and 6 blocks in a win over Stony Brook, he was mostly silenced in a loss to Indiana, finishing with 4 points and 5 rebounds.
“His whole season hurt him quite a bit,” the executive said. “I think what he did the last couple days was pretty much par for the course for him. I think he had an underwhelming season with a couple good moments mixed in, and it was more of the same in the postseason.”
“He’s just very raw,” Givony said. “He wasn’t ready physically to come in at this level. He came into the season at about 216 pounds, and he’s going up against guys that are much stronger than him. But I think he’s got the kind of frame that’s going to improve, and he’s only been playing organized basketball for about three years.”
Jakob Poeltl, 7-0 sophomore center, Utah: Poeltl had 16 points and 18 rebounds in a first-round win over Fresno State, but was slowed by Sabonis in Utah’s second-round loss, tallying just 5 points and 4 rebounds.
“If you weren’t really a Poeltl fan before, this probably wasn’t what you wanted to see,” Givony said. “At the same time, you don’t want to take too much from one game.
“Something was going on there. It was weird. He looked tired the entire game. And sometimes these guys just wear themselves out before the games starts, don’t sleep or whatever, and their routine is messed up.”
Diamonds in the rough: Surefire first-round picks can move up or down a few spots in the draft based on tourney performances, but sometimes a tournament run can be most valuable for less-heralded players.
The NBA executive said Saint Joseph’s junior forward DeAndre’ Bembry was impressive.
“He’s a versatile player. He can guard multiple positions and he can dribble and pass. He had a great all-around impact in that Cincinnati game.”
The executive was also impressed by Wisconsin freshman forward Ethan Happ.
“I’m not necessarily advocating for him as an NBA prospect,” said the executive, “but he played two pretty good games and did a nice job. The guy can rebound, he can pass; he’s a classic Wisconsin player.”
The executive said Yale guard Makai Mason, who declared for the NBA Draft Monday, opened some eyes as well.
Givony said he is looking forward to seeing how Indiana’s young frontcourt players Thomas Bryant and OG Anunoby fare against top-seeded North Carolina this weekend.
But with the NBA combine and countless individual draft workouts still looming, there will be plenty of time for all the prospects to add to their portfolios.