Your Guide to the Top NBA Prospects in the 2022 NCAA Tournament

Your Guide to the Top NBA Prospects in the 2022 NCAA Tournament

This article is part of our NBA Draft series.

The NCAA Tournament technically got underway Tuesday night with a pair of First Four games in Dayton, but the real action begins Thursday morning with the Round of 64. 

Not only does the Tournament mark the start of a three-week marathon of triumph, heartbreak, celebrification of elderly women, and unlikely heroics, it also represents the final opportunity for NBA scouts to get an in-game look at many of the top prospects for the 2022 NBA Draft.

Unlike a year ago, when four of the eventual top seven selections in the 2021 NBA Draft – including the No. 1 and No. 2 overall picks – did not play in the NCAA Tournament, the vast majority of current projected lottery picks will be on display this March. While the G League looms as an appealing alternative, and international talent continues to stream into the NBA, the 2022 class currently projects to be heavily tilted in favor of prospects with college experience.

The names at the top of most mock drafts are plenty familiar to most college basketball fans, but Jabari Smith, Chet Holmgren and Paolo Banchero are far from the only elite talents eying a run all the way to New Orleans. For Banchero, he's one of several players on his own team looking to improve his draft stock. Entering the weekend as a 2-seed in Coach K's last ride, Duke could send as many as five players to the NBA – and at least four could hear their names called in the first round.

Overall, the jury is still out on where, exactly, the 2022 class stands in comparison to recent years. Coming into the Tournament, opinions are decidedly split on which prospect deserves the top spot, and that debate will only heat up in the months leading up to the NBA Draft on June 23. What we do know is that quality, projectable players will be available throughout the lottery, and for many of those players, the Tournament will be their final audition on a national stage.

Breaking things down by region, let's take a look at all of the names to know heading into one of the best, if not the best, weekends in the sports calendar:

EAST REGION

Jaden Ivey, Purdue

Sophomore | Guard

Arguably the most exciting guard in the country, Ivey is the type of player who doesn't come through a school like Purdue very often. The son of Notre Dame women's head coach Niele Ivey, Jaden was a good-not-great prospect coming out of high school who took a major leap once he arrived in West Lafayette. Opting to return to school for his sophomore season turned out to be the right call, as Ivey currently projects as the first guard off the board and a likely top-five pick.

Burst and athleticism are Ivey's calling cards, and while he's clearly an elite athlete, there's some question as to how much he'll be able to rely on his physical traits at the next level. On the whole, though, there's a lot to like. Ivey has good size at 6-4 and should be able to hold up defensively against most NBA guards, although he will need to add some bulk.

After shooting only 25.8 percent from three as a freshman, Ivey has improved to 35.6 percent from deep this season. He enters the Tournament in the midst of a brutal slump, however, hitting just 23.5 percent of his attempts over his final 12 Big Ten contests.

Kendall Brown, Baylor

Freshman | Forward

One of two Baylor freshmen who could end up going in the lottery, Brown is an elite athlete with prototypical size and even better length. Often operating as a role player in the Bears' offense, Brown's numbers aren't overwhelming (10.0 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 1.9 APG, 1.0 SPG), but he does virtually everything well. His jumpshot is still in development, but Brown shot nearly 40 percent from three on limited attempts (1.1 3PA/G) this season. With the NBA trending more and more toward versatile wings with size, Brown could be a top-10 pick.

Jeremy Sochan, Baylor

Freshman | Forward

Like Brown, Sochan is another freshman who's gradually generated more and more NBA buzz throughout the season. A similarly long wing with more bulk than Brown, Sochan has thrived as Baylor's small-ball center during Big 12 play. He's plenty comfortable grabbing-and-going in transition, and while the three-point numbers aren't great (29.2% 3Pt, 2.6 3PA/G), Sochan is a confident shooter who won't hesitate to fire when open. Again, like Brown, much of Sochan's appeal lies in his defensive versatility.

TyTy Washington, Kentucky

Freshman | Guard

Arriving in Lexington as the 15th-ranked recruit in the 2021 class, Washington wasn't viewed as a one-and-done lock. But after averaging 12.8 points, 4.0 assists, 3.5 rebounds, 1.3 steals and shooting 45.9 percent from the field (34.7% 3PT), Washington has steadily climbed up draft boards. One of the key pieces of Kentucky's run to a No. 2 seed in the East, Washington is among the players with the most to gain in the Tournament. A deep run could solidify his place as a top-10 prospect and one of the three best guards in the class.

Justin Lewis, Marquette

Sophomore | Forward

Ranked outside of the top-100 in the 2020 class by 247, Lewis made only one start as a freshman before truly breaking out as a sophomore. Behind 17.1 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, Lewis earned First Team All-Big East honors, as well as the conference's Most Improved Player award. At 6-7, 235 pounds, Lewis is a rugged wing with long arms (7-0 wingspan) who's made major strides as a shooter (35.2% 3PT on 5.1 3PA/G). He probably won't be able to move all the way up to the lottery, but Lewis is on track to hear his name called in the back-half of Round 1.

Oscar Tshiebwe | Kentucky

Junior | Center

At 6-9 with a nearly 7-5 wingspan, few players can match Tshiebwe's combination of strength, length, physicality and general relentlessness. Widely considered the favorite to take home the Naismith Award, Tshiebwe could join Anthony Davis as the only Kentucky Wildcats to be named the National Player of the Year.

The West Virginia transfer and native of the Congo has thrived at his second home, leading the country in rebounding at a jaw-dropping 15.2 boards per game to go with 17.0 points, 1.8 steals and 1.6 blocks. Tshiebwe needs only eight more rebounds to tie Kenneth Fariedthe Kenneth Faried – for the most in a single season in modern NCAA history (since 1985-86).

In terms of Tshiebwe's NBA future, teams seem to be keeping things in perspective. Ultimately, Tshiebwe is a super-role-player, at best, but his rebounding and motor alone should be enough for him to find a role and stick. Offensively, Tshiebwe mostly feasts on putbacks and point-blank looks, but no NBA team drafting him in the second round should be expecting anything more. For a player with his physical profile, Tshiebwe does have decent touch at the free throw line (69.3% FT). 

Jaime Jaquez, UCLA

Junior | Forward 

Johnny Juzang may have emerged as the face of UCLA's run to the Final Four a year ago, but Jaquez is the straw that stirs the drink. A unique player with undeniable intangibles, Jaquez has decent size at 6-7 and is equally comfortable leading the fastbreak as he is doing the dirty work. Questions surrounding his jumpshot (29.0% 3PT) will likely lock him into the second round – if he decides to come out.

Zach Edey, Purdue

Sophomore | Center

If it was 1998, First Take would be bringing in Mad Dog Russo to debate Stephen A. on Edey vs. Kofi Cockburn for the No. 1 overall pick. But the NBA has changed considerably in the last 25 years, and players with Edey's size and skill are no longer premium assets.

The 7-4 Canadian moves around fairly well and has decent touch around the rim and at the free throw line (career 67.2% FT), but he's an understandably poor leaper with poor shot-blocking instincts for a player of his size. Edey is considerably more agile than other notable behemoths like Tacko Fall and Kenny George, but he's unlikely to have much upside in the NBA.

Other names to watch: Armando Bacot, North Carolina; Trayce Jackson-Davis, Indiana; Peyton Watson, UCLA; Johnny Juzang, UCLA; Trevion Williams, Purdue; Matthew Mayer, Baylor

Note: Kentucky's Shaedon Sharpe is a potential top-10 pick in the 2022 NBA Draft after reclassifying and joining the Wildcats' roster midseason. Widely considered one of the top players in the high school class of 2022 before reclassifying, Sharpe has not played for Kentucky this season and will not play in the NCAA Tournament. At this stage, it's unclear if he'll declare for the 2022 Draft or return to Kentucky with his eye on the 2023 Draft.

WEST REGION

Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga

Freshman | Forward/Center

Drew Timme may still be the face of the operation, but Holmgren is the best NBA prospect Gonzaga has ever produced. A true one-of-one prospect whose combination of size, wingspan and fluidity is nearly incomparable, Holmgren has lived up to the hype as the top recruit in the 2021 class.

A Second Team All-American, Holmgren averaged 14.2 points, 9.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 3.6 blocks and shot 61.0 percent from the field en route to WCC Defensive Player of the Year honors. Scouts rave about Holmgren's relentless motor, nimble footwork and excellent shot-blocking anticipation, but what truly sets him apart as a prospect is his knockdown shooting (41.2% 3Pt, 3.3 3PA/G), which has only improved as the season wears on.

Physically, there are very few NBA players – past or present – who measure up to Holmgren, but Kristaps Porzingis, Bol Bol or even a young, red-and-green-uniform-era Giannis Antetokounmpo come to mind. Like those players, by far the biggest concern for Holmgren at the next level is his frame, which is almost impossibly slight. Even for his size, he still packs a reasonable amount of functional strength – his competitiveness helps in that regard – but he'll clearly need to fill out in order to reach his full potential. In the short term, Holmgren projects as a hybrid forward/center with the skill set to develop into one of the more unique stars in recent memory.

Paolo Banchero, Duke

Freshman | Forward

Home to Kentucky, Duke and Memphis, the West Region could produce four of the top eight picks in the draft. Since arriving in Durham, Banchero has been at the forefront of the No. 1 overall pick debate. With some big performances early on, Banchero was the clubhouse leader around Christmas, but Holmgren and Jabari Smith have closed the gap to the point that Banchero may now be closer to the consensus third guy among that trio. 

That's not to say Banchero hasn't had a fantastic freshman season, because by all accounts he's lived up to the hype. But prospects are scrutinized more now than ever, and Banchero has some major questions to answer before he's anointed the next superstar NBA wing. For one, is Banchero even a wing? Some teams may view him as more of a tweener who could better thrive as a small-ball big.

More than anything, Banchero needs to prove he can shoot the three more consistently after he hit just 31.5 percent of his attempts in ACC play. A strong run through the Tournament could propel Banchero back to the top of draft boards, but no matter what he's unlikely to fall lower than third or fourth overall. 

A.J. Griffin, Duke

Freshman | Forward

Banchero is the marquee name for Duke, but Griffin has come on strong of late and worked his way into the top-5 discussion. Over his last 15 games, Griffin averaged 13.2 points and 4.7 rebounds while shooting 49.7 percent from the field and a red-hot 47.4 percent from deep. A big-bodied wing with a chiseled frame at age 19, Griffin is one of only a handful of players outside of the consensus elite prospects who truly has two-way NBA star potential.

Jalen Duren, Memphis

Freshman | Center

A top prospect in the class of 2022, Duren made the high-profile decision to reclassify and join the Tigers a year early. A top-tier athlete for his size, Duren already has an NBA body as an 18-year-old (he won't turn 19 until November), and his 7-5 wingspan only adds to the notion that he can be a high-level defender and lob-finisher at the next level. After a sluggish start to conference play, Duren closed the season averaging 14.2 points (63.6% FG), 9.0 rebounds, 1.3 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.0 steals over his final 12 games. 

Mark Williams, Duke

Sophomore | Center

Williams is listed at 7-0, 234, but he looks even bigger when you watch him play. After an up-and-down freshman season in which he was barely a part of the rotation early on, Williams has taken a major step forward as a sophomore, blocking 2.8 shots per game en route to ACC Defensive Player of the Year honors.

Offensively, Williams doesn't offer anything outside of the paint, but he knows his role and is one of the nation's most ferocious finishers at the rim. Williams won't be a star at the next level, but his size and rim-protection make him perhaps the second-best true center behind Duren in a shallow big-man draft.

Trevor Keels, Duke

Freshman | Guard

Keels looked like a potential star when he broke out with 25 points, three assists and three steals in Duke's opener against Kentucky, but since then it's been an up-and-down ride. The Blue Devils' third-leading scorer, Keels is a willing shooter who paced the team in three-point attempts at 5.0 per game. He made only 32.1 percent of those looks, but Keels is a streaky scorer who can fill it up in a hurry when he's locked in. Another big-bodied player who could pass for an ACC tight end, Keels has plenty of potential to grow into a plus defender at the NBA level.

J.D. Davison, Alabama

Freshman | Guard

Among the most electrifying players in the 2021 class, Davison came to Alabama as one of the highest-ranked recruits in program history. As the numbers imply – 8.5 PPG, 29.3% FG, 4.8 RPG, 4.3 APG – Davison hasn't quite lived up to the hype, but he's offered up enough glimpses of his ultra-elite burst and athleticism to still warrant first-round consideration.

Ultimately, it'll come down to how much teams penalize him for being dropped into a difficult situation as essentially the fourth option behind Jaden Shackelford, Jahvon Quinerly and Keon Ellis on a veteran-laden Alabama team.

Other names to watch: Wendell Moore, Duke; Blake Wesley, Notre Dame; Drew Timme, Gonzaga; Max Christie, Michigan State; Andrew Nembhard, Gonzaga; Hunter Sallis, Gonzaga; Keon Ellis, Alabama; Hyunjung Lee, Davidson; Julian Strawther, Gonzaga

MIDWEST REGION

Jabari Smith, Auburn

Freshman | Forward

Of the Smith, Holmgren, Banchero trinity, Smith is viewed as perhaps the safest option to develop into a very good NBA player. A long, smooth athlete at 6-10, 220 pounds, Smith has prototypical size for an NBA power forward who can switch the pick-and-roll, stay in front of smaller opponents and contest shots at the rim.

While he's not a high-level creator at this stage, Smith is able to utilize his superior size and athleticism to create space and shoot over defenders. A 42.8 percent three-point shooter on the year, Smith is an excellent catch-and-shoot threat who closed the season hitting 3.4 threes per game over his final seven appearances (51.1% 3PT).

Ochai Agbaji, Kansas

Senior | Guard

Projected as a likely second-rounder in 2021, Agbaji made the wise decision to return to Kansas for his senior season. After making a notable leap from his sophomore to his junior year, Agbaji made an even bigger leap this season, averaging 19.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 2.8 threes and shooting 47.7 percent from the field on his way to First Team All-America honors. Agbaji will almost certainly be the oldest player selected in the first round, but his development into a knockdown shooter (40.5% 3Pt) could propel him into the late-lottery.

Johnny Davis, Wisconsin

Sophomore | Guard

The other guard spot on the First Team All-America list went to Davis, who's turned into one of the country's premier scoring threats. A relentless attacker with a smooth mid-range game and improved passing, the 6-5 sophomore closed Big Ten play averaging 19.9 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 steals. Davis' three-point shot tends to run hot and cold (31.9% 3PT in conference games), but that's really the only sticking point. Simply put: Davis isn't the type of player you often see at a program like Wisconsin – and that's a major compliment. 

Keegan Murray, Iowa

Sophomore | Forward

Davis beat out Murray for Big Ten Player of the Year honors, but there's a case to be made that no one is playing better basketball than Murray heading into the NCAA Tournament. Following back-to-back losses to Purdue and Penn State in late-January, Murray went on a 15-game tear to end the season, averaging 25.4 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.9 blocks, 1.1 steals and 2.4 threes per game while shooting 49.3 percent from deep on nearly five attempts per game. That run culminated in Iowa avenging the loss to Purdue to win the Big Ten Tournament. In the semifinal against Indiana, Murray went for 32 points with eight three-pointers, nine rebounds, two steals and two blocks.

Iowa has fielded plenty of good teams over the years, but Murray is a unique individual talent who has a chance to be the best NBA player the school has ever produced. Teams are still sorting out just how high his ceiling could be – Murray was the 334th-ranked recruit in the 2020 class, per 247 – but at the very least he's a lock to be the school's first first-round pick since Ricky Davis all the way back in 1998. 

Tari Eason, LSU

Sophomore | Forward

A transfer from Cincinnati, Eason has worked his way onto the NBA radar throughout the season and now finds himself in the borderline-lottery discussion. Despite playing only 25.7 minutes per game off the bench, Eason posted averages of 18.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, 2.5 steals and 1.1 blocks over his final 16 games. His athleticism and defensive potential are the most appealing tools at this stage.

Walker Kessler, Auburn

Sophomore | Center

Kessler took some heat for leaving North Carolina after just one season, but he's found a new home at Auburn and is living up to his potential as a top-20 player in the 2020 recruiting cycle. Edwards ranks first or second in the nation in total blocks, blocks per game and block percentage, all while converting 62.5 percent of his looks at the other end. Given his limited offensive game and iffy athleticism, there's some skepticism about his NBA potential – the Cole Aldrich vibes are real – but Kessler has at least demonstrated a willingness to develop an outside shot (10-49 3PT for the season). 

Other names to watch: Christian Braun, Kansas; Isaiah Mobley, USC; Kris Murray, Iowa; Baylor Scheierman, South Dakota State; Darius Days, LSU

SOUTH REGION

Bennedict Mathurin, Arizona

Sophomore | Guard

If there's one player who has a chance to jump from mid-lottery to potential-top-five pick with a big Tournament run, it's Mathurin. The Pac 12 Player of the Year and Second Team All-American had seven games with at least 25 points, including a masterful 27-point, seven-assist, four-rebound effort in the Pac 12 Tournament Final against UCLA. A confident, efficient shooter with prototypical size at 6-6, Mathurin shot 46.0 percent from the field and 37.6 percent from three in leading Arizona to a 1-seed.

Kennedy Chandler, Tennessee

Freshman | Guard

The highest-ranked recruit to arrive in Knoxville since Tobias Harris, Chandler is a bit undersized (listed at 6-0, 170lbs), but he's a major reason why Tennessee was able to run through the SEC Tournament on its way to earning a 3-seed. The point guard enters the Tournament having scored in double figures in nine straight games, capped off by14 points, seven assists and four rebounds in the SEC Tournament Championship Game victory over Texas A&M. During that run, he's averaging 15.4 points, 4.0 assists, 3.2 rebounds, 1.6 steals and shooting 48.7 percent from three (4.3 3PA/G). 

E.J. Liddell, Ohio State

Junior | Forward

In many ways, Liddell is the kind of classic, veteran college player that NBA teams have begun to turn away from in recent years. He's only a junior, but Liddell will turn 22 in December. Even so, his production has been too good for NBA teams not to take notice. The First Team All-Big Ten selection enters Ohio State's 7-10 matchup with Loyola-Chicago posting 19.6 points, 7.9 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 2.6 blocks per game. Liddell is currently tracking as a late-first-round pick.

Malaki Branham, Ohio State

Freshman | Guard/Forward

The 38th-ranked prospect in the 2021 cycle by 247, Branham was not viewed as a one-and-done player as recently as a couple months ago. But after a strong close to the regular season, Branham is firmly in the first-round discussion. The 6-5 wing averaged 20.6 points, 3.6 rebounds, 2.3 assists and shot 56.3 percent from the field over the Buckeyes' final eight games. Ohio State went just 3-5 in that span, but Branham scored 31, 27 and 22 points, respectively, in the three victories.


Other names to watch: Christian Koloko, Arizona; David Roddy, Colorado State; Caleb Houstan, Michigan; Moussa Diabate, Michigan

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Nick Whalen
Now in his 10th year with the company, Nick is RotoWire's Senior Media Analyst, a position he took on after several years as the Head of Basketball Content. A two-time FSWA award winner, Nick co-hosts RotoWire's flagship show on Sirius XM alongside Jeff Erickson. He also co-hosts RotoWire's Football and Basketball podcasts. You can catch Nick's NBA and NFL analysis on VSiN and DraftKings, as well as RotoWire's various social and video channels. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram @wha1en.
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