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Who to Watch in the First Round of the NCAA Tournament

The players and teams Spurs fans should be watching in the Round of 64.

NCAA Basketball: ACC Championship Duke vs Virginia Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

March Madness is officially upon us. Championship Week brought some competitive games in the Big-12 tournament, dominance in the SEC from the Brandon Miller led Crimson Tide, and a major upset with Memphis defeating Jarace Walker’s Houston Cougars. It also had draft implications, as Adrian Wojnarowski told an ESPN panel that NBA executives are starting to view Alabama’s Miller as the consensus #2 pick over the G-League’s Scoot Henderson.

With the first round starting this weekend, it’s time for more prospects to make the jump. Scouts will be descending upon venues across the country to see how potential pros perform on the biggest stage. Guys can help their draft stock with elite performances in March. Remember when De’Aron Fox completely dominated Lonzo Ball in the Sweet 16? It solidified him as a top-5 pick. What about when Stephen Curry took the world by storm for Davidson in 2008? These are the moments that can launch players into superstardom.

The Spurs will likely be looking at players in the top-10, and some late-first-rounders who could become early-second-rounders. There aren’t many elite college guys left in terms of draft prospects. Miller comes to mind, but will be facing a 16-seed this week, which shouldn’t necessarily tell us a lot about him as a player. The players on this list will be a combination of prospects in the Spurs range, that are also playing in games that should be competitive. Without further ado, here are the players to watch in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Jordan Hawkins, 6-5 Guard, UCONN

Hawkins is likely a mid-to-late first-round-pick at this stage in the draft process, but it’s easier to see him climbing into the lottery, than falling into the second round. The sophomore guard is the key cog that makes UCONN’s offense run, and against Rick Pitino’s Iona squad, they are going to need everything they can get from him.

Hawkins is perhaps the most talented shooter in all of college basketball. He can get his shot up in a variety of ways, and requires elite on-ball defense to chase him off of screens and handoffs. If he’s left open for a catch and shoot opportunity, forget about it, that’s 3 points. The most inspiring part of his game is his relentless motion. He reminds me of prime Duncan Robinson in this respect. He is always cutting and running off of screens and handoffs. The off-ball movement does not stop until he gets open, or draws a help defender that leaves a slipping screener open for a lay-up.

In his second season for the Huskies, Hawkins is averaging 16 points on 40% shooting from the field. He’s taking nearly 8 three pointers a game (that is a LOT for a college player) and hitting them at a 37% clip. Iona is holding their opponents to 29% from three point range this season, which means this will not be an easy matchup for Hawkins. He will likely see a lot of NBA defenses play him tight as a 3-pt specialist, so this is a great chance to see how he handles increased pressure.

For a Spurs team that will desperately need to find perimeter shooting as their rebuild goes on, it would be an all-time steal if they could nab him in the early-second, and worth exploring a trade into the late-first to pick him up.

The Duke Blue Devils (+ Max Abmas)

You can either view this as a cheat or as bonus content, the choice is yours! Duke is one of the hottest teams in college basketball right now, and is looking like a team that could make a deep tournament run. They have a number of guys that could go late in the first, or even fall to the second round, ripe for the Spurs taking.

Kyle Filipowski is the main draw here. The 7-foot freshman has been Duke’s best player all season, averaging 15 and 9 while bringing toughness and floor spacing to the young squad. He led the Blue Devils with 20 and 10 in their ACC Championship win over Virginia. His skillset will likely transfer well to the pros, profiling as an inside-out forward with great feel for the game, and a high motor.

Dereck Lively II and Dariq Whitehead were highly touted recruits out of high school, but struggled early on in their careers. The former came on strong late in the season, and was the star of their first matchup with ACC rival North Carolina. Lively II won’t wow you on the offensive end, but his rim protection (2 blocks a game!!) and defensive versatility will find him a role in the NBA. It’s not hard to imagine Lively as a rim-running starter, or key contributor off of the bench for a contender. Whitehead is a scoring guard/forward who can light it up from deep when he’s hot. He shot 41% from 3-pt range in his freshman year.

One wrinkle with these Duke guys is that the 2024 NBA Draft is not supposed to be a great one. If Lively II or Whitehead don’t get a favorable assessment from league officials, they could potentially head back to Duke for one-more season, and make a run at the lottery next year.

Don’t sleep on Oral Robert’s senior guard Max Abmas in this game either. ORU is one of the popular cinderella picks this year, and most of it rides on Abmas’s scoring ability. He can get it off from NBA range, hit pull up-jumpers, and is lethal in the pick and roll as a playmaker. He averaged 22 points and 4 assists in the Summit League this season. If Duke goes down, it will likely be because of Abmas.

The Spurs will likely prefer Filipowski out of this group, but Abmas has that it-factor that would make a lot of sense for a flier on an elite college scorer in the second-round.

Kobe Brown, 6-7 Forward, Missouri

Firmly a second round guy right now, Brown has a chance to make some noise in the tournament and work his way into the first round. The senior forward was the engine that made the overachieving Missouri squad run this season. He’s the type of versatile forward that makes NBA Draft nerds salivate, and the type of smart pick that forward thinking front offices make.

Brown is in the Draymond Green archetype as a collegiate player. He’s nowhere near the defender or floor general that Green is, but he’s a tweener go-to post scorer who also features as a floor spacer. He’s a great rebounder for his size, and has the ability to defend on the perimeter while being a strong presence inside. He’s not a superb athlete, but he makes up for it with creative finishes around the rim, and being as strong as an ox.

The biggest thing with Brown is that in four seasons at Mizzou, he got better each and every year. Brown went from averaging 6 points a game as a freshman to 16 as a senior in which he was awarded first-team all-SEC honors. In his senior year he also averaged 6 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 steals a game. His shooting splits are eye-popping, going 55% from the field on 10 attempts, 44% from deep on 3 attempts and 80% from the free throw line on 4 attempts. That’s crazy efficiency for a number one option in a power-5 conference. Imagine that kind work ethic in the Spurs development system.

The Tigers face the Utah State Aggies in what should be a high scoring affair. These are two of the best offenses in the tournament, and both love to push the pace. If the Tigers want to advance for the first time since 2009, they will rely on Brown to be as dominant as he was during the regular season.

For San Antonio, this wouldn’t be a sexy pick, but could be an important one. Brown is never going to be an NBA All-Star, but he will be a 3-D wing with some extra sauce – the type of player that can make a difference in a playoff series. The Spurs are no stranger to the unsung hero, just look at Boris Diaw, Thiago Splitter or Bruce Bowen. Brown could be the next in a long line of elite role players for the Silver and Black.