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Tournament could be NBA launching pad for some players


POSTED: Mar 19, 2014 1:23 PM ET

By Chris Dortch

BY Chris Dortch

NBA.com

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Tennessee's Jordan McRae is a two-guard with length and a scorer's mentality.

The NCAA tournament cranks up this week, and for some NBA prospects, it represents a final opportunity for scouts to evaluate them under the microscope of competition.

Scouts are quick to point out that the NCAAs are just one evaluation tool. But certain heralded one-and-done freshmen can benefit from more scrutiny. Seniors who have plied their trade for four years can demonstrate that the time spent in college helped them improve their games. And mid-major players can prove they can hold their own against increasingly better competition.

Here are a few examples:

Scottie Wilbekin, 6-3 SR, Florida -- It's interesting that the overall No. 1 seed in the tournament doesn't have a sure-fire NBA prospect among its starting five. But the Gators do have a veteran point guard whose play has been a key factor in their amazing run. They haven't lost since Dec. 2 and have prevailed in several down-to-the-wire, single-digit games, most recently against Kentucky in the Southeastern Conference tournament championship game.

Wilbekin is tough, competitive and controls Florida's offense with precision and calm, and the latter trait has become infectious. It wasn't surprising that SEC coaches voted him the league's player of the year.

Wilbekin has also elevated his offensive game. Once known primarily has a defensive stopper -- another skill that should attract NBA attention -- he's now become an accurate and willing 3-point shooter.

Jordan McRae, 6-6 SR, Tennessee -- NBA scouts can check off a lot of boxes with this guy. He's a big time scorer, has two-guard height and length (including a 7-foot wingspan) and has a flair for the dramatic. Check out this dunk against undefeated Wichita State for proof of that.

McRae has a solid work ethic, as evidenced by the steady improvement in his 3-point percentage, and he's improved his defense.

If there's a question mark, it's McRae's spindly frame. But he didn't get pushed off course too much in the SEC, which is inhabited by a future NBA player or two.

Cameron Bairstow, 6-9 SR, New Mexico -- The big Australian put together his best season as a senior (20.4 points, 7.3 rebounds a game), and though he lost out on Mountain West player of the year honors to Xavier Thames of San Diego State, he bagged something more important when he helped the Lobos win the conference tournament and the automatic NCAA bid that goes with it.

In the process, Bairstow put on a show for several NBA scouts, surpassing his season-long numbers by averaging 20.3 points, 9.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocked shots in wins over Fresno State, Boise State and San Diego State.

Bairstow doesn't do his job with explosive athleticism, but he's got a crafty low-post arsenal.

"Bairstow is the real deal," New Mexico coach Craig Neal said after the MWC title game. "I've told a lot of people that, and I've talked to a lot of people in the last few months."

Andrew Harrison, 6-6 FR, Kentucky -- Say what you want about his body language -- and he's been criticized from all corners about wearing his emotions on his sleeve -- Harrison is a winner. What scouts want to know is whether he can channel that will to win for the common good and become a true lead guard at his size.

Harrison gave a glimpse of his point guard skills in the SEC tournament, when he passed for eight assists in a quarterfinal game, nine in the semifinals and a couple more against Florida in the finals. In that final game, he was also 8-of-8 from the free-throw line as he nearly helped engineer a Kentucky upset.

Why did it take so long for Harrison to consistently take control of his team?

"We have a bunch of freshmen," Kentucky coach John Calipari said. "I was trying to figure out how they needed to play."

Harrison needs to be on the attack, offensively and defensively. He'll get a chance to show how aggressive he can be in the tournament. The Wildcats drew a tough Kansas State team in the second round, and if they win, they should get a shot at No. 1 seed Wichita State.

Rodney Hood, 6-8 SO, Duke -- This guy has been special ever since his freshman season at Mississippi State, when, playing for a team that was imploding because of clashes of wills and egos, he was a calming force.

Hood has the entire package. He can put the ball on the floor or shoot with range, and he's a willing passer. Best of all, he's a great teammate.

Some see Hood, who has been a solid partner for Duke freshman Jabari Parker, as a mid first-round pick. Others seem him moving up to the lottery. He'll get a chance to state his case this week.

Patric Young, 6-9 SR, Florida -- It was more a problem with the system that rated him than any shortcoming of Young's when the former five-star freshman didn't -- or couldn't -- bolt for the NBA after one season with the Gators. Young wasn't ready then, nor was he ready after his sophomore or junior season.

Young's not a guy that's ever going to be a team's No. 1 scoring option, or even its second or third. But the man is a walking hustle play, he's strong and big enough -- check out those guns -- to defend the post in the NBA. And he's smart.

My favorite Young play this season was this save in a game at Tennessee.

NBA scouts have begun to notice, but it may take Florida winning the national championship for Young's handiwork to truly be appreciated by the masses outside of Gainesville, Fla.

Chris Dortch is the editor of the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Yearbook.

You can email him here, follow him on Twitter and listen to the Blue Ribbon College Basketball Hour.

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