The NCAA Tournament dramatically shrinks from the Sweet Sixteen down to the Final Four this weekend, so it’s the final chance this year for many fans to see the good college players on good college teams play against good competition. We’re already intimately familiar with the games of big-name players like Kentucky’s Anthony Davis (defensive natural disaster), Kansas’ Thomas Robinson (hustle and muscle interior power), Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger (100% banger), and North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes (multi-dimensional scorer). This is a look at some of the lesser-known guys NBA fans may not be so familiar with now but who will have a place in the league some day.
SF/PF, Marquette, Senior
Crowder is the least heralded, least known Big East Player of the Year in decades. Any NBA fans who accidentally caught either of Marquette’s first two games (9-point win over Murray State, 20-point win over BYU) probably wondered “Who is that guy whose hair and effort remind me of Kenneth Faried?” That should be your first tip-off, that a ripped 6-feet-6 “big man” is playing like his long hair is on fire, resulting in stats and team success that far outweigh his obvious height limitations as a PF. Not only is he averaging 21 ppg (16/33 FG) and 14.5 rpg (4 offensive/gm) in the tourney like you’d expect from a big man, but he’s also knocked down 4 triples, stolen the ball 7 times, and he’s dished out 6 assists to only 2 turnovers. None of these stats are out-of-line with what he’s done all season, so you would be correct that he’s basically a power-SF with an intelligent game that avoids bad shots and passes. And what if I then mentioned that DraftExpress says his defense “finds a way to make an impact on each and every possession” and reminds them of Shane Battier? I bet now you’re interested in what he can bring to your team. So watch him embarrass Florida’s Patric Young, who is inexplicably considered a much better prospect (top-10 in 2013, Crowder is a likely 2nd-rounder this year), and then possibly move on to have the opportunity to slow down Michigan State’s Draymond Green, whose triple-double and near triple-double have made him the tournament’s top player so far. Crowder’s all-out defense has a chance to turn Green mortal and move the Golden Eagles into the Final Four, which may be what it takes to get NBA fans to realize how valuable Crowder can be.
PG, Ohio State, Sophomore
Craft is starting to get noticed by fans, but no one is saying “Holy crap he’d make a nice pro.” Well I’m here to tell you he would. People aren’t super excited about him in the NBA someday because he’s not a scorer (9 ppg) and he doesn’t knock your socks off with highlights. Well last I checked, that may not be the best way to determine if a PG will turn your club into a winner (John Wall, Monta Ellis, Brandon Jennings). What Craft does provide on offense is extreme efficiency and intelligence; his Assist/Turnover rate has ranked among the nation’s 10 best during both of his season’s at OSU (4.7/2.1 this year). He shoots 52% from the field—amazing for a PG—and 35% on his threes. Obviously he doesn’t shoot terribly much, but what exactly do you expect on a team with Jared Sullinger, Deshaun Thomas, and William Bufford. He runs the offense perfectly, sets up everyone else in all the right spots, and only takes smart shots. Sounds kind of like Kendall Marshall Lite, so not too bad. And then we get to Craft’s strongest attribute, his man-to-man defense. He has the above-average strength, unbelievable lateral foot speed, and Tony Allen-esque determination to take any opposing guard out of their game. It’s impossible to watch a couple possessions of the Buckeyes on defense and not think that Craft is singularly responsible for making the other team’s offense worse. Impossible. He’s right in his man’s grill every second, keeps his hands active (2.4 steals/gm), can’t seem to be stopped by screens, and generally forces opposing PG’s to go to their Plan B on offense since they’re being pestered way too aggressively to do whatever it is they wanted to do. Yeah, I just described someone you’d like your team to pick up whenever he goes pro (either 2013 or 2014).
PG/SG, Syracuse, Freshman
There’s a chance Carter-Williams won’t even play tonight against Wisconsin (and then possibly Cincinnati or Ohio State on Saturday), but he’s worth keeping an eye on if he does. The freshman guard has been buried on the Syracuse bench and hasn’t seen much action at all this year, a very trying one for the 2011 McDonald’s All-American, but he’s shown a lot of good things when he has gotten on the floor. Carter-Williams is shooting a ho-hum 45% inside the arc on the season, but he’s also knocked down 39% from behind it. He plays a crafty, change-of-pace-and-direction game that is tough to defend since it’s much smarter and more subtle than someone who predictably stays in top gear all the time; this style of play allows Carter-Williams to get into good positions with the ball, which helps with more than just his scoring. He’s an incredibly intuitive passer who has 54 assists to only 16 turnovers on the season, a skill that’s been present from the beginning of the year (13 assists to 6 turnovers in his first four games as a collegian) and throughout (8 to 0 in 18 minutes against GW in December, 10 to 2 in his last 40 minutes of play). His size and length (6-feet-5) allow Carter-Williams to be a great rebounder out of the backcourt, and it’s helped him become an extremely efficient ball thief (3 steals in 15 minutes in his second game ever, 3 steals in 14 minutes two weeks later, 2 steals in 11 minutes in his first Big East game against Seton Hall in December, 3 steals in his last 19 minutes of play). Because of his ball hawking skills and increased role in 2012-13 after Scoop Jardine graduates, some Cuse fans are already anticipating next year’s club to be even better at takeaways, pretty amazing considering this year’s team ranked 3rd nationally. For those keeping score at home, I basically just described a player who’s following the Evan Turner timeline, not too bad for someone most fans don’t know at all. Hopefully we’ll have a chance to catch a few minutes of the future first-rounder (2013 or 2014) this weekend, not just so we can say we saw him before he was famous, but also because Syracuse is playing in Boston, which is only 30 minutes from where he grew up.