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2019 NCAA Tournament East Region: Top Players

by Raphielle Johnson

The 2019 NCAA Tournament gets underway Tuesday night, with the first of two First Four doubleheaders kicking things off in Dayton, Ohio. While the focus of many tends to be on how their brackets look, there are many others who watch the games with an eye towards draft season. Over the years players have parlayed a hot run in the NCAA tournament into a better position on draft boards, while others have seen their stock slip after struggling. 

Over the next two days we’ll take a look at ten players from each region, beginning with the East. Top overall seed Duke leads the way, and the Blue Devils have two elite talents that sit at the top of many draft boards heading into the Big Dance. 

Other regions: West | Midwest | South

Zion Williamson, PF, Duke: Williamson arrived on campus with a great deal of hype, and it would be fair to say that he’s more than lived up to it. Listed at 6-foot-7, 285 pounds, the South Carolina native is an explosive athlete who has little trouble getting to his preferred spots on the floor. Williamson’s averaging 22.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.8 blocks per game, doing so while shooting 69.1% from the field, 31.5% from three and 65.4% from the foul line. He isn’t the best perimeter shooter, but unlike other players who will continue to fire away from deep Williamson generally passes up those shots unless left wide open (1.9 three-point attempts per game).

And he isn’t a “bull in the china shop” kind of athlete either, possessing good body control on his drives to the basket. In addition to the physical tools Williamson has the intangibles that NBA types look for; he’s a good teammate who also has that “dog” in him. The ACC Rookie and Player of the Year, Williamson is a big reason why the Blue Devils are the betting favorites to win it all. 

RJ Barrett, SF, Duke: It is Barrett, rated the second-best draft-eligible prospect by many scouts, who leads the Blue Devils in scoring with an average of 22.9 points to go along with 7.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game. A first team All-ACC selection, the 6-foot-7, 202-pound freshman was also runner-up to Williamson in ACC Rookie of the Year voting. Barrett’s shooting 45.7% from the field, 30.4% from three and 66.2% from the foul line, with his average of 18.7 field goal attempts per game being the highest on his team.

Efficiency has been an issue on occasion, as the freshman wing can have a “one track mind” when it comes to getting his shot. But that tends to be more about the fact that he has the upper hand in most individual matchups, as opposed to an attitude of “I’m going to get mine and who cares about my teammates.” Like Williamson, Barrett will need to improve his perimeter shooting at the next level, but the spacing at the NBA level will help him offensively. 

Cam Reddish, SF, Duke: Like Williamson and Barrett, Reddish is considered to be a lottery prospect with many projecting him to go in the top half of those 14 picks. However he isn’t viewed as the “lock” that those two are, due to his lack of consistency. For example, after scoring 23 points in Duke’s regular season finale at North Carolina, Reddish scored a total of 13 points in the Blue Devils’ first two ACC tournament games. The 6-foot-8, 218-pound freshman is averaging 13.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.6 steals per game with shooting splits of 35.4% from the field, 32.7% from three and 75.9% from the foul line. 

Reddish can certainly shoot the basketball; it was one of his calling cards at the high school level. But this season has been a bit of a struggle, which is understandable to a certain extent when taking into consideration the fact that he’s playing alongside a ball-dominant wing in Barrett and a virtually unstoppable force in Williamson. While in theory that can open up lanes for a supplementary player, it can also limit the number of quality opportunities to “go to work” on their own. Reddish can certainly improve his draft positioning with a good NCAA tournament, but he’s going to be in good shape even with a mediocre showing. 

Cassius Winston, PG, Michigan State: Winston may not be viewed along the lines of Duke’s talented freshmen when it comes to his NBA draft prospects, but there’s no denying the fact that he’s an elite college point guard. The Big Ten Player of the Year, Winston is averaging 18.9 points, 7.6 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.0 steals per game with shooting percentages of 47.2% from the field, 40.4% from three and 84.0% from the foul line.

With the departures of Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. at the end of last season, and the plethora of injuries that Michigan State has been forced to deal with this season, the 6-foot, 185-pound Detroit native has been asked to do more from a scoring standpoint. And he’s done just that, raising his scoring average by more than six points from a season ago (12.6 ppg) while also dishing out nearly one more assist per game (6.9 apg in 2017-18). Michigan State received a tough draw by being paired with Duke, but in Winston the Spartans have a point guard who can lead his team a long way. 

Nick Ward, PF/C, Michigan State: A third team All-Big Ten selection, Ward missed five games last month due to a hairline fracture in his left (non-shooting) hand. The 6-foot-8, 245-pound junior is averaging 14.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game while shooting 59.9% from the field and 61.5% from the foul line. Ward is a back to the basket player, and he isn’t going to do too much beyond 15 feet when it comes to his shot selection. According to hoop-math, 56.7% of Ward’s shot attempts have come around the rim and he’s making just over 72% of those attempts. Given the way most NBA teams use their big men these days, and Ward not being much of an influence outside of his area when it comes to rebounding or blocking shots, he isn’t rated all too high on draft boards. 

Nazreon Reid, PF/C, LSU: The 6-foot-10, 240-pound freshman is considered to be LSU’s best draft-eligible prospect. In 31 games he’s averaging 13.7 points and 7.2 rebounds per game with shooting percentages of 47.6% from the field, 37.0% from three and 73.7% from the foul line. Reid has the ability to step out onto the perimeter and be effective, especially in the two-man game. An effective screener, he can also move well in situations in which LSU will call on its big man to slip the screen to keep the ball-handler from being doubled.

That was the case late in the Tigers’ SEC tournament loss to Florida, as Reid slipped the screen and then knocked down the game-tying three after receiving the pass from point guard Tremont Waters. At this point Reid is viewed as a second-round pick, but with his mobility the freshman could improve his standing with a productive run in the NCAA tournament. 

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, SG, Virginia Tech: Virginia Tech went more than a month without its most important player, as senior point guard Justin Robinson suffered a foot injury in late-January. His absence meant that the Hokies had to change some things offensively, with sophomore guard Nickeil Alexander-Walker having the ball in his hands as the primary playmaker more often than he did with Robinson on the floor. And it can be argued that this has improved the Canadian’s draft prospects, as the 6-foot-5, 205-pound sophomore is viewed as a first-round prospect heading into the NCAA tournament.

Alexander-Walker leads the Hokies in scoring (16.6 ppg) while also accounting for 4.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.9 steals per game. And he’s an effective shooter at all three levels, making 44.9% of his shots from the field overall (39.2% from three) while also shooting 73.0% from the foul line. Alexander-Walker is going to have an interesting decision to make whenever his season comes to an end, and his name is one to know before draft season kicks into full gear. 

Bruno Fernando, PF/C, Maryland: After averaging 10.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game as a freshman, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound big man has increased his production noticeably as a sophomore. Fernando is averaging 13.7 points, 10.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.9 blocked shots per game while shooting 61.8% from the field and 76.8% from the foul line. While he can be effective in a face-up role he’s more comfortable playing with his back to the basket.

Fernando is averaging 2.8 turnovers per game, but he has made strides as a passer especially when it comes to dealing with double-teams. Fernando will have a decision to make at season’s end, as he’s considered to be a late-first to early-second round draft pick. That projection was a bit of a gray area in the past, but with more teams being willing to give second-round picks guaranteed years it isn’t as much of a surprise when a player with a second-round grade decides to move on to the NBA.  

Dylan Windler, SG/SF, Belmont: The Ohio Valley has two teams in this year’s field, and the conference can boast two surefire NBA talents as well. The 6-foot-8, 200-pound Windler currently leads the Bruins in points and rebounds, as he’s averaging 21.4 points and 10.7 rebounds per game. The senior, who averaged just 9.2 points per game last season, also accounts for 2.6 assists and 1.4 steals per game and he’s shooting 54.8% from the field, 4.30% from three and 84.6% from the foul line. Player development has been a strength of Rick Byrd’s program at Belmont, and it explains both why the Bruins are a perennial threat to reach the NCAA tournament and why this program usually has the right answers when faced with the task of accounting for key personnel losses. 

Windler, who played well at the OVC tournament with a host of NBA scouts/decision-makers in attendance (Murray State’s Ja Morant also plies his trade in the OVC), is considered a second-round prospect but he’s jumped from a mid-second to an early-second round option in the eyes of some. A good showing in the NCAA tournament could improve his profile even more given the level of competition that he’s going to face. 

Miye Oni, SG, Yale: One reason why the Bulldogs are a trendy upset pick heading into the NCAA tournament is the presence of Oni, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound junior guard who’s averaging 17.6 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.3 blocked shots per game. He’s started 27 of the 28 games he’s appeared in, shooting 45.5% from the field, 39.0% from three and 79.3% from the foul line. Oni has the athleticism needed to match up with LSU without much issue, and his overall skill set makes him a tough cover due to his ability to score on multiple levels and make plays off the bounce. Should Oni decide to forego his final season of eligibility, he’s projected to be a second round pick this summer. 

Others to Watch: Tre Jones, PG, Duke; Tremont Waters, PG, LSU; Kerry Blackshear, PF, Virginia Tech; Quinndary Weatherspoon, SG, Mississippi State; Aric Holman, PF, Mississippi State; Anthony Cowan Jr., PG, Maryland; Jalen Smith, PF, Maryland; Marcos Santos-Silva, PF, VCU; Tacko Fall, C, UCF; Amir Coffey, SG, Minnesota; Jordan Murphy, PF, Minnesota; Shizz Alston Jr., SG, Temple; 

Raphielle Johnson
Raphielle has been writing about college sports for more than a decade for multiple outlets, including NBC Sports. Focuses have included game recaps, columns, features and recruiting stories. A native of the Northeast, he now calls Pac-12 country home. Raphielle can be followed on Twitter @raphiellej.