This year has been relatively mum when it comes to hyping the upcoming NBA draft. Compared to last season, when Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid and company were touted as best the group of incoming draftees since 2003, there has been very little talk of potential superstars in the 2015 class.
That's not to say those players aren't there. Karl-Anthony Towns looks to be an absolute defensive terror with a developing scoring touch. Jahlil Okafor has been hampered by a bum ankle in recent weeks but boasts an incredibly smooth offensive game. And D'Angelo Russell showed off his combination of explosive scoring and outrageously good passing in Ohio State's tournament games over the weekend.
Combine those three projected studs with the almost-forgotten Emmanuel Mudiay, the shot blocking monster that is Willie Cauley-Stein and the untapped potential of 18-year-olds Stanley Johnson and Justise Winslow, and there's a chance this year's draft class could in fact be superior to the injury-laden collection of 2014 rookies.
At 42-30, the Toronto Raptors won't have a chance of drafting any of those tantalizing prospects (here's hoping next year's Knicks/Nuggets pick changes that for 2016). Assuming the Raptors will be drafting somewhere in the 19-23 range, there should be some useful rotation players to be had - many of whom had their talents on full display on the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament - and will back in action in the Sweet Sixteen starting Thursday.
Here are some of the stars of March who could be available to the Raptors on June 25th:
PF Trey Lyles, 6'10 - Kentucky (Draft Express Ranking: 18)
Next Tournament Game: Vs. West Virginia; Thursday @ 9:45PM
With the exception of the very elite, most draft prospects come with some degree of uncertainty in regards to whether or not they can succeed at the NBA level. Due to Kentucky's absurdly talented roster, and the fact that he has often played small forward next to Towns and Cauley-Stein, Lyles is a particularly tricky player to project.
He is probably a better rebounder than his freshman season's numbers (13.6% Rebound Rate; 9.4 REB/40 mins) suggest. Playing alongside the hulking Towns (18.9%; 13.0/40) and Cauley-Stein (14.7%; 10.1/40) will have that effect. And while he's not the shot-blocking menace that those two sure-fire lottery picks are, he has done a more than adequate job of defending opposing threes in John Calipari's defense.
Lyles does a lot of things well. He defends, hits more than 70 percent of free-throws, shoots 54.5 percent on his two point attempts, and can hit shots from mid-range. However, Lyles' three-point stroke is non-existent right now. He's shot just 13.8 percent from outside on about one attempt per game this year. And for someone who doesn't fit the profile of a low-post banger, that has to improve. With a reliable outside shot to go with his demonstrated defensive versatility, he could start to look a lot like fellow Kentucky alum and current Raptor Patrick Patterson, so he might not be an ideal fit with Toronto.
But hey, he's Canadian.
PF Montrezl Harrell, 6'8 - Louisville (Draft Express Ranking: 20)
Next Tournament Game: Vs. NC State; Friday @ 7:37PM
Charles Oakley would love this guy.
The former Knicks and Raptors tough guy hasn't be shy in his criticism of the current style of play - and player - in today's NBA. Harrell might make him reconsider his words though.
A former National Champion with Rick Pitino's Cardinals, Harrell has been regarded as one of the most intense and tough players in the college game today. So intense, that he decided it was best to remove himself as a team captain this year in order to spare the psyches of Louisville's younger players, as detailed in a story by Jeff Greer of The Courier-Journal:
"I've had a problem with Montrezl getting all over our guys in practice, especially the young freshman. I've called him on several occasions and said, 'Listen, as a captain, you cannot get on these guys the way you're doing. You're killing their confidence.'
"His response was, 'These guys don't work hard enough. They don't listen well enough. And unless they develop, we're not going to be a great team at the end of the year.' I said, 'That may be true, but you've got to let me be the bad guy.
I'm not sure I've ever smiled more while reading a quotation. Harrell's fury might not fly at the college level, but you have to assume he will instantly become a coach and fan favourite with that attitude in the NBA.
He's got some game too. While he probably isn't going to be a prolific scorer in the pros, he could be an excellent garbage man around the bucket with his 60.0 percent average on two pointers.
He also ranked eighth in the nation in Defensive Win Shares, and at 240 pounds with a 7'4 wingspan, his 6'8 frame doesn't seem so undersized. He is currently being mocked to the Raptors by CBSSports.com's Sam Vecenie, who points out that Harrell could evolve into a perfect replacement for Amir Johnson should he leave this summer.
SF Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, 6'7 - Arizona (Draft Express Ranking: 24)
Next Tournament Game: Vs. Xavier; Thursday @ 10:17PM
Hollis-Jefferson is the player I'd most like to see the defensively-challenged Raptors select this summer. In his two seasons under Sean Miller, Hollis-Jefferson has served as one of the anchors on teams that have ranked third and fifth in defensive efficiency respectively.
This season he was particularly ferocious on the stopping end, ranking 12th in the nation in Defensive Win Shares and 14th in Defensive Rating (teammates Stanley Johnson and TJ McConnell ranked slightly ahead of him in those categories).
He's also an explosive athlete; something he proved when he dunked over everyone's favourite 7'6 Anteater, Mamadou Ndiaye in November:
Hollis-Jefferson's high field-goal percentage (50.6%) / poor three-point shooting (21.4%) / great defense profile draws similarities to a current Raptor - James Johnson. He could be the perfect, cost-effective replacement for Johnson when his contract expires after next year. Of course, if Dwane Casey remains the coach until then, Hollis-Jefferson could find himself mystifyingly glued to the bench as well.
Keep an eye on ...
PF Kevon Looney, 6'9 - UCLA (Rank: 19)
Next game: Vs. Gonzaga; Friday @ 7:15PM
Pegged as a lottery pick for most of the season, a drop-off in Looney's production in recent games has seen him slide out of the lottery in Draft Express's mock draft and draw ire from onlookers:
Kevon Looney as a lottery pick makes me think this is a shallow draft.— Tom Ziller (@teamziller) March 21, 2015
He's an excellent rebounder (12.0/40 minutes; 18th in total rebounds in the country), and has flashed an ability to shoot from outside (22-51; 43.1 percent). If he falls far enough down the board he might be a great, high-upside option for Toronto.
SG Caris LeVert, 6'6 - Michigan (Rank: 22)
LeVert's Michigan squad failed to make the Tournament this year, thanks in part to the season-ending foot injury he suffered in January. Before he went down though, he was posting an impressive 14.9 PTS / 4.9 REB / 3.7 AST line on 40.5 percent shooting from three. He is also currently being mocked to the Raptors by both Draft Express and CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish.
What do you think? How do you think the names mentioned here would fit on the Raptors - or is there another college prospect you have your eye on?
(All Stats via Sports Reference/College Basketball)