Tyus Jones, Tony Bradley, Zach Collins and Malachi Richardson are just a few of the more recent freshman stars to use the NCAA Tournament as a surprise springboard to the NBA Draft. Who could emerge in this year’s tournament and surprise their respective programs by taking a hard look at the professional ranks?
JONTAY PORTER, MISSOURI
The talk entering the season surrounded Michael Porter, the top-ranked player in the 2017 class, and while his stock has remained steady despite his nearly season-long injury, it has been the play of his younger brother, Jontay Porter, that has caught the eye of NBA personnel.
The freshman is a fundamentally sound big man that can pass, shoot and rebound. He is not the high-flying, bouncy athlete that his lottery pick brother is, but he is someone that can knock down shots (38 percent 3-point FG), defend his basket (top 10 in SEC in blocks), and rebound (second in SEC in rebounding percentage).
There have been questions pertaining to his shaky athleticism as he has struggled to produce against long and more explosive frontlines, but like he showed in the loss last week to Georgia, Porter is no pushover and with a solid few games this month, could be the youngest prospect in the 2018 NBA Draft.
LONNIE WALKER, MIAMI
Lonnie Walker has gone through ups and downs during his first year at Miami. The former five-star prospect and explosive scoring guard struggled some in getting his feet underneath him before being shelved a few games due to injury. Working back into the Hurricanes’ rotation, Walker’s game took off after the season-ending injury to star guard Bruce Brown. Walker took on a greater volume of shots and usage, and because of it, he was able to showcase just how talented and potent of a scorer that he really is.
A 6-foot-5 off-guard with a 6-foot-10 wingspan, Walker already sports the physical tangibles of a starting NBA guard. He had a string of games in January where he averaged 19 points off 45-percent shooting from 3-point range. Slated to compete against Loyola and potentially Tennessee in the second round, the opportunity to impress is there.
DEANDRE HUNTER - VIRGINIA
When Virginia comes to mind, one immediately thinks about the dominant defense and culture of discipline that coach Tony Bennett has instilled. This is true, but the Wahoos have also become an underrated factory for NBA prospects and DeAndre Hunter might be the next to hear his name called.
A 6-foot-8 forward with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Hunter can guard three positions already. Thanks to the use of a redshirt year last season, he was able to add 15 pounds while remaining just as explosive. While Virginia is more reliant on all of its parts compared to just one or two stars, Hunter has had his games of over 20 points while displaying the upside that has made him a legitimate NBA prospect. A Final Four run could bolster Hunter’s quick ascension and a matchup against a frontline from Arizona or Kentucky could solidify the freshman’s case as a long-term look for the NBA.
DANIEL GAFFORD - ARKANSAS
A top-35 prospect in the 2017 class, Daniel Gafford has already made his mark in the college game where his jump to the NBA after this year wouldn’t be as much of a surprise compared to others. A 6-foot-11 center with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, Gafford has to do a better job of remaining out of foul trouble as he averages over three fouls in less than 23 minutes of action, but it is his rim-running abilities, shot-blocking skills and interior production that have already caught NBA scouts’ eyes.
Gafford is more of a piece than a go-to guy within Arkansas’ offense this season as the Hogs have relied on the outstanding perimeter play of Darryl Macon and Jaylen Barford. However, a few days in March against Butler and a potential second round matchup with Purdue could give Gafford a chance to explode in NBA lottery territory due to his high-motor, rebounding and shot-blocking skills.
JARRED VANDERBILT - KENTUCKY
Kentucky has picked up momentum of late and while Jarred Vanderbilt was sidelined during its run throughout the SEC Tournament, the Wildcats would not have been in the position that they were if it was not for the freshman.
Missing the first 17 games of the season due to a foot injury, plus other medical red flags, have kept him out of discussion as a high draft pick. However, Vanderbilt’s value is difficult to deny and while he does have to be more of an outside shooting threat (he has just one three-point attempt this season), Vanderbilt’s nose for the ball, ability to guard four positions and create early offense sits among the elite.
In his last seven games, Vanderbilt has averaged more than seven points and nine rebounds in just 21 minutes of action. If he's healthy enough to play, he can really help himself.
KRIS WILKES - UCLA
Kris Wilkes is the type of talent that could take his game to the next level in March, leading UCLA to a surprise run in the NCAA Tournament. A 6-foot-7 wing-forward with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Wilkes has teamed with Aaron Holliday to boost the Bruins down the stretch.
Wilkes, while he has gone through his peaks and valleys during his initial campaign in Westwood, will never be slighted for a lack of talent. He has scored in double figures in 18 of his past 21 contests and sports the ability to be used at three positions. He can knock down the perimeter jumper to a clip of 36 percent, but strength, toughness and explosiveness remain in question.
If the Bruins can get past the play-in game in Dayton and beat a free-flowing Florida Gators’ unit, Wilkes will likely be a primary reason why.
ZHAIRE SMITH - TEXAS TECH
A 6-foot-5 wing with a 6-foot-9 wingspan, Smith isn’t great at anything yet, but the versatility that he exhibits is promising. He has the size and strength to guard three positions, along with the instincts that make him a standout on both ends. The Red Raiders’ standout is top-10 in the Big 12 in block percentage, efficiency, win shares, true shooting percentage and offensive rating.
Smith may not be where he needs to be for an NBA franchise to fall in love with him, but with a potential second-round affair against a slew of other NBA prospects that UCLA or Florida features, Smith could use the platform to better his chances of a high draft selection.