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2019 NCAA Tournament Midwest: Top Players

by Raphielle Johnson

The 2019 NCAA Tournament got 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, with this column focusing on the Midwest. North Carolina and Kentucky both boast multiple players that can be lottery picks, and Iowa State also has a freshman with that kind of potential. 

Coby White, PG, North Carolina: Before the season began, the general consensus was that wing Nassir Little was the freshman on the North Carolina roster most likely to be taken in the lottery. But while Little can certainly still be taken that high, in the eyes of many he’s been passed by point guard Coby White in this regard. The 6-foot-5, 185-pound freshman has good size for a point guard, and he’s likely the fastest lead guard in college basketball with the ball in his hands. White’s averaging 16.3 points, 4.2 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game while shooting 43.0% from the field, 36.2% from three and 81.4% from the foul line. 

On occasion there’s a shot selection issue to work through, which isn’t a surprise given the fact that he’s a freshman, but rarely is he flat-out reckless in that regard. Due to his size White can also be used off the ball on occasion if needed. The North Carolina native is projected to be a mid-lottery selection if he turns pro, which makes sense given the physical attributes and the fact that there are teams likely to land in that part of the draft that need to address the point guard position. 

Nassir Little, SF, North Carolina: This season has been an interesting one for Little, who hasn’t been able to crack the starting lineup due to the presence of seniors Kenny Williams and Cam Johnson on the wings. The 6-foot-6, 220-pound freshman is playing just over 18 minutes per game, and he enters the tournament with averages of 9.4 points and 4.6 rebounds per game while shooting 46.3% from the field. Little has the physical tools and athleticism that players projected to hover around the lottery tend to have, but he hasn’t been able to fully adjust when it comes to the offensive skill set and work on the defensive end of the floor. 

While it probably isn’t fair to compare him to Marvin Williams, who was taken second overall in the 2005 draft despite being the sixth man on Roy Williams’ first title team at North Carolina, due to the difference in skill sets, but Little can certainly be a player who goes from being a reserve to hearing his name called in the first round. Should he leave school Little is projected to be selected just after the lottery picks, and he can potentially improve that standing by raising his production over the next couple weeks. 

Cameron Johnson, SF/PF, North Carolina: Transferring has certainly worked out for Johnson, who’s gone from being a bit player at Pitt to being a redshirt senior with both national title and first-round ambitions at North Carolina. The 6-foot-9, 210-pound senior enters the tournament with averages of 16.9 points, 5.8 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game, and he’s doing this while shooting 50.9% from the field, 46.5% from three on 5.7 attempts per game and 80.4% from the foul line. The size and perimeter shooting ability make Johnson a good fit at the next level, but his projections are a bit inconsistently. While some currently see him as a mid-first option, there are others who have him landing just outside of the first round. Johnson isn’t elite defensively but he isn’t a liability either; he has the potential to make a good living for himself in the NBA after he completes his North Carolina career. 

PJ Washington, PF, Kentucky: Washington considered the possibility of leaving Kentucky for the NBA after his freshman season, but a run through the pre-draft process led to his deciding to return to Lexington. Playing just over 29 minutes per game, the 6-foot-8, 228-pound sophomore currently leads the Wildcats in scoring (14.8 ppg) and rebounding (7.5 rpg) while also accounting for 1.9 assists and 1.2 blocks per game. Washington’s field goal percentage has remained about the same from last season to this, as he’s making 51.5% of his shots, but the perimeter shooting is where he’s made significant strides. 

After shooting 5-of-21 from three as a freshman, Washington’s shooting 41.9% from three with an average of 2.2 attempts per game. He’s also improved at the foul line, raising his percentage from 60.6% as a freshman to 67.5% in 2018-19. Returning to school after going through the pre-draft process doesn’t guarantee that a player will get better from one season to the next; in fact, it’s just as likely that the prospect is further exposed as scouts and decision-makers have even more data/tape that they can evaluate before making a decision. Washington has managed to improve however, and as a result he’s projected to be a mid-first round pick. 

Keldon Johnson, SG, Kentucky:  The 6-foot-6, 211-pound freshman arrived on campus with the reputation of being a quality offensive player, and he’s done little to dispel that notion. Johnson is averaging 13.4 points, 5.8 rebounds and 1.6 assists per game on the season, shooting 46.3% from the field, 38.8% from three on 3.1 attempts per game and 70.5% from the foul line. Johnson is a capable perimeter shooter, but he’s just as adept at playing through contact and creating scoring opportunities off of the dribble. Also a solid defender, the freshman wing has the competitiveness that teams look for. He’s projected to be selected in the latter portion of the lottery, if not shortly thereafter, so Johnson will have a decision to make whenever Kentucky’s season comes to an end.  

Tyler Herro, SG, Kentucky: Another Kentucky guard who will have some options to consider this spring is Herro, whose offensive skill set is more diverse that some assumed it to be before the season began. The 6-foot-5, 195-pound freshman, who de-committed from Wisconsin before picking Kentucky, is averaging 14.2 points, 4.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.1 steals per game with shooting splits of 46.9% from the field, 37.3% from three on 4.6 attempts per game and 94.0% from the foul line. Herro is an effective scorer on all three levels, and he’s effective either with the ball in his hands or coming off of screens. Like Johnson he’s also highly competitive, and is viewed as a first-round prospect heading into the tournament. 

Dedric Lawson, PF, Kansas:  After playing two seasons at Memphis, Lawson transferred to Kansas and his first season in Lawrence has been a productive one. The 6-foot-9, 235-pound redshirt junior leads the Jayhawks in both points (19.1 ppg) and rebounds (10.3 rpg), and he’s also averaging 1.7 assists, 1.3 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. Attempting 14 shots per night, Lawson is shooting 48.8% from the field, 37.0% from three on 2.4 attempts per game and 80.4% from the foul line. Kansas losing both Silvio De Sousa (NCAA suspension) and Udoka Azubuike (injury) throughout the course of this season has put even more on Lawson’s plate, but he still managed to earn first team All-Big 12 honors and can be found on multiple All-America teams as well. 

“Upside” tends to be the code word during draft season, which is why Lawson is projected to be a mid-second round choice behind players that he’s been far more productive than at the collegiate level. But to ignore the work that the redshirt junior has done to this point in his career would be a mistake. It would not come as a surprise if Lawson were to make teams pay for passing on him down the line if he does end up being a second-rounder this summer or in 2020. 

Talen Horton-Tucker, SG, Iowa State: On a team with four double-figure scorers, the freshman out of Chicago is just one reason why the Cyclones were able to turn things round and win the Big 12 tournament title after losing five of their last six regular season games. The 6-foot-4, 238-pound freshman currently averages 12.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists and 1.3 steals in 27.6 minutes per game, shooting 41.0% from the field, 31.4% from three and 62.5% from the foul line. The shooting percentages aren’t great, but with his physical build (including a 7-foot-1 wingspan) and basketball IQ have made Horton-Tucker an intriguing talent that some have given a first-round projection. A good, consistent run in the tournament could very well solidify Horton-Tucker’s status should he decide to make a run at the NBA.

Fletcher Magee, SG, Wofford (Portsmouth Invitational invitee): Magee, a 6-foot-4, 200-pound senior guard, is one of the best shooters in college basketball. After averaging 22.1 points per game as a junior, the SoCon Player of the Year currently accounts for 20.5 points per while shooting 44.4% from the field, 42.8% from three on 10.7 attempts per game and 90.7% from the foul line. Magee attempts an average of just 3.9 two-pointers per game, and within Wofford’s offense a lot of his work is done by running off of screens and catch-and-shoot situations. Using a high number of dribbles to get off a shot is not something that Magee will do all that often. 

The Terriers’ first round matchup with Seton Hall is an interesting one, not only because the Pirates have a high-level perimeter scorer of their own in Myles Powell, but they also have multiple perimeter defenders with the ability to run with Magee throughout the course fo the game. The elite shooting ability will likely be enough to get Magee’s name in draft conversations, but he isn’t held in the same regard as a Dylan Windler (Belmont) or Miye Oni (Yale) when it comes to prospects who didn’t play in power conferences. 

Mathysse Thybulle, SG, Washington: Two of college basketball’s best defenders ply their trade in the state of Washington, with Gonzaga’s Brandon Clarke and Washington’s Mathysse Thybulle being those players. Thybulle, a 6-foot-5, 195-pound senior, does his work at the top of the Huskies’ 2-3 zone, with his combination of length, athleticism and defensive instincts factoring into his ability to affect games in multiple ways. Not only can the senior disrupt passing lanes, but he’s also an effective shot blocker on the perimeter either directly on the ball or when closing out on a shooter. Thybulle, who last week passed Gary Payton to become the Pac-12’s all-time steals leader, is averaging 3.4 steals and 2.3 blocked shots per game. 

The offensive end of the floor is where Thybulle will need to make strides when it comes to the next level. Averaging 9.3 points per game, the senior is shooting 42.3% from the field, 31.0% from three on 4.2 attempts per game and 85.1% from the foul line. That can be improved with more work in the gym, and the current combination of defensive ability and athleticism is enough to get him in the late-first round conversation. 

Others to watch: Luke Maye, PF, North Carolina; Tyler Herro, SG, Kentucky; Ashton Hagans, PG, Kentucky; Reid Travis, PF, Kentucky; Corey Davis Jr., PG/SG, Houston; Chuma Okeke, SF/PF, Auburn; Jared Harper, PG, Auburn; Lindell Wigginton, PG/SG, Iowa State; Sam Merrill, SG, Utah State; Jaylen Nowell, SG, Washington; Myles Powell, SG, Seton Hall; D’Marcus Simonds, SG, Georgia State. 

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.