Posted Apr 5 2011 10:23AM
Kemba Walker got his validation Monday night in Houston. UConn's national championship win over the Butler Bulldogs was Walker's stamp of approval, the moment that capped his 2010-11 of clutch shots and supreme leadership, all special and all his own.
NBA talent evaluators love that kind of star turn. Some use the NCAA tournament as an important talent read -- how a small-school product handles the increased competition, how Connecticut's Walker and Kentucky's Brandon Knight fare in the semifinals to break a close race for the No. 2 point guard in the draft behind Kyrie Irving of Duke -- and others allow March and April fractional input after the months of charting that came before them. All want to see how prospects react to the postseason cauldron.
That made Walker one of the Draft winners of the tournament, beyond being one of winners, period. Knight too, and maybe even Knight more. Walker already had an impressive body of work as a junior and he wouldn't drop much unless he really panicked in the madness. He also couldn't climb the board much unless he grew a couple inches between weekends.
But Knight was a freshman, on the big stage for the first time, with a lot of money at stake if he comes out.
He got a big win.
In the opener against Princeton in Tampa, Fla., he missed his first seven shots and was scoreless with Kentucky's tournament hopes in the balance in a 4-13 matchup. But when Knight got the ball in a 57-57 game, he did not hesitate. He confronted a miserable day by nailing a driving layup with two seconds remaining that delivered victory.
Two games later, in the Sweet 16 against top-seeded Ohio State in the East regional at Newark, N.J., Knight had missed seven of nine field goals. He had four assists against six turnovers. It was miserable, again. And then he wanted the moment again, knocking down a jumper with six seconds left for a 62-60 win.
"It was totally obvious," one general manager said of Knight not merely stepping up but thriving in the pressure. "I don't know if he wanted it or [coach John] Calipari gave it to him. Regardless, even if Calipari gave it to him, he took it on with great confidence."
It doesn't answer the pressing NBA question about how far away a volume shooter (who is also a freshman) is from being able to run an offense. But Knight is about three inches and 10 pounds bigger than Walker, depending on how phony the college measurements turn out to be after the pre-Draft measurements are taken, and Knight has established himself as wanting the moment. Both he and Walker project to be picked somewhere between No. 5 and No. 10.
Other Draft implications from the tournament:
• Kawhi Leonard of San Diego State cost himself money, or at least raised questions no prospect wants heading to the Draft. While talent evaluators like his athleticism and a versatility to play both forward spots, his disappearing act in the Aztecs' double-overtime victory against Temple in the Round of 32 -- followed by an average showing the next game against UConn -- was impossible to miss. The NBA people want to see a potential lottery pick assert himself on the big stage, but Leonard shot 2-for-6 in the second half against Temple (despite facing a lot of single coverage) and was 2-for-4 in the two OTs. He followed that up with a 5-for-12 night with 12 points and nine rebounds in the Sweet 16 loss to the Huskies.
Except that there is this important reality check: It's not hard to find teams that don't have him in the top 14, contrary to hype.
"I never had him in the lottery, so it didn't shock me," one GM said. "I think he's obviously a first-rounder, but probably closer to the bottom of the first half now."
Said another veteran executive: "I never thought he was better than a 20-to-25 guy. If there's one thing he can't do, it's score. That's not what he does. He's more of an energy guy who gets buckets on second-chance opportunities.... [The tournament] didn't hurt my opinion of him that much because I didn't have him that high to begin with."
• There is no indication Ohio State's Jared Sullinger is wavering from the staying in school, a surprising choice by someone tracking to be a top-five pick. As his father detailed to the New York Times, the reasons are partly lifestyle (he's having fun) and partly basketball (Jared wants to win a national title and should play more power forward, his projected NBA position, next season). But he can only boost his Draft stock so much. Sullinger's primary areas of need for the NBA are to get taller or more athletic, and there's a good chance neither happens.
• Everyone is officially back in love with Harrison Barnes. The top recruit in the country last year as an Iowa prep star headed to North Carolina, he was one of several players in the mix for No. 1 on the draft board at the start of 2010-11. He had a bad opening half to his college career, then turned in a reminder of a second half. By the end of the tournament, executives were again mentioning the smooth small forward with a high basketball IQ as a candidate for the first pick, depending on workouts and who gets that spot in the May 17 lottery.
"He fell," a personnel boss said. "I don't know how far he fell, but if you would have held the Draft in December, he would have been out of the lottery. By the end of January, it was back to 'OK, this is more what we expected.' You go through the tournament now, he's solidly in the lottery."
• The questions keep coming, from the regular season and the tournament, about the questionable focus of Jordan Hamilton. One scout rates the Texas small forward a risky pick despite obvious offensive skills, while an executive from another team said, "You don't know where his head is all the time." An athlete who can score like Hamilton and has range on his jumper would usually be a lock for the lottery, especially in a weak Draft, but he continues to give the NBA reasons for concern. He needs to play with great intensity at workouts.
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