We're now going full throttle into conference play and a number of top prospects are starting to get a good feel for what real college play is about. Defenses are better prepared, the atmosphere is tense and the stakes are high.
Scouts have been out in force the past few weeks to get a close look. Here's a look at some players who've hurt or helped themselves the past few weeks. (And here's a reminder that we've updated our Top 100 list, as we do every Tuesday.)
Evan Turner, G, Ohio State
When Turner went down with two fractured vertebrae in mid-December, the talk was that he'd miss a couple of months before returning to Buckeyes. Four weeks later Turner was back on the court, claiming to be about 70 percent. His first outing against Indiana was so-so. He got into foul trouble, played about 20 minutes and ended with 8 points, 4 rebounds and 5 assists -- not bad for a guy coming back four weeks early from a broken back.
But it was in his second game back, against Minnesota, where Turner really showed he was back to his old self. That stat line was typical Turner -- 19 points, 8 rebounds, 7 assists, 4 steals, 4 turnovers. But the numbers don't tell the whole story. Turner was moving well, diving on the floor for loose balls and taking over in the second half. Yes, he still looks a little stiff and not quite as explosive as he did before the injury -- but we're quibbling. For someone who suffered a serious injury just a few weeks ago, he looked great.
More tests are on the way for Turner. He plays Purdue on ESPN on Tuesday. He plays a tough Wisconsin team this weekend and then has a big matchup with West Virginia on the 23rd. If he excels in those games, he has the chance to move back up into the top 3 on our Big Board. As it stands right now, we've moved Turner back up to the No. 5 position on our Top 100.
However, one GM told me he's still being cautious. "I love him, but I loved DeJuan Blair too," he said. "I'm going to want my medical staff to see those MRIs before I'm sold on him as a top-five pick."
Ekpe Udoh, PF/C, Baylor
When we first wrote about Udoh in early December, he was an unknown prospect having a breakout year. At the time it looked like he had a great chance of being a first-round pick.
Udoh continues his slow ascent up our Big Board and, this week, cracked the lottery for the first time. More and more scouts have been making it out to Baylor games and most have come away impressed with Udoh's unorthodox combination of size, athleticism and shot-blocking skills.
There are a number of other players, including VCU's Larry Sanders and Mississippi State's Jarvis Varnado, who came in with stronger preseason resumes, but it's been Udoh who has continually outperformed them on the court.
"You just look at the energy, the shot-blocking and then you see him doing some stuff, taking guys off the dribble, and it's hard to see how that guy can't be successful in the NBA," one GM told Insider. "If he was a little more explosive athletically, I think he'd be a top-five pick."
Terrico White, SG, Mississippi
About this time of year I begin casting a pretty wide net with NBA teams to get a feel for how they are ranking the lottery (just about anything past the lottery is a crapshoot at this point). I'll keep that process going for the next few weeks trying to find some sort of consensus. Most rankings are in close alignment with ours. However, one name, Terrico White, popped up with a couple of teams. One team I spoke with had him in their top 10. Another had him ranked at No. 13. Interestingly, both teams had White ranked ahead of Oklahoma's Willie Warren.
White has had an interesting season. Toward the end of last year a number of scouts thought White had point guard skills after he took over the position from an injured Chris Warren. This year, White has played primarily at the 2 and hasn't had more than three assists in a game. But he has shown a lot of promise at the 2. He's an NBA athlete all the way, has improved his accuracy from the 3-point line and is doing a much better job of putting the ball on the floor and getting to the foul line.
With the exception of a 25-point night against Kansas State and a 29-point outburst recently against Jacksonville, White hasn't put up huge numbers this season. But he looks the part and based on where I'm beginning to hear his name, we've moved him up a number of spots on our Big Board into the mid-first round. If I continue to find that more teams have him ranked in the lottery, we'll move him there.
Gani Lawal, F, Georgia Tech
Lawal, on paper, is a late-lottery to mid-first-round prospect. But his struggles in conference play last season combined with a few poor games against top opponents early this season raised questions.
Lawal did his best to answer his critics on Saturday in a huge matchup against Duke. A plethora of NBA scouts were in the gym to watch top prospect Derrick Favors. The freshman forward had a forgettable outing, but Lawal stole the show, scoring 21 points on 8-for-9 shooting. His energy, toughness and rebounding made him, not Favors, look like the lottery prospect. It's the third straight big performance for Lawal. He had a 29-point, 10-rebound performance against Charlotte and a 21-point, 6-board performance against Georgia. If Lawal continues this trend throughout the ACC play, he could put himself back into contention for being a mid-first-round selection.
Kevin Jones, F, West Virginia
While Devin Ebanks is the Mountaineers' best draft prospect on paper, on the court, more and more NBA scouts are pointing toward a different sophomore, Kevin Jones. Jones doesn't have quite the versatility that Ebanks possesses, but he has consistently been the better player on the court over the course of the season.
Scouts like a number of things about Jones. He is a workhorse on both ends of the ball. He's got a terrific motor. Like Ebanks, Jones has an impressive physical profile, highlighted by a 7-foot-4 inch wingspan, which allows him to play bigger than he is. He also has filled out to the point that he can be an effective scoring presence in the paint. Unlike Ebanks, who hasn't been able to buy a jumper this season, Jones is shooting a red-hot 62 percent from the field and 45 percent from 3. But Jones is equally comfortable posting up and scoring in the paint. Finally, Jones has proven to be a terrific offensive rebounder, averaging an impressive four offensive boards per game.
While I'm still waiting on a consensus from NBA teams, enough franchises now have him ranked somewhere in the mid- to late-first round that he's getting close to cracking our top 30.
Tyler Smith, G/F, Tennessee
Smith has watched his draft stock sink ever since it crested at 28th during his first season at Tennessee. This year his stock had dipped down into the 80s on our Big Board before he was arrested by police for possession of marijuana and eventually dismissed from the team. Now?
"No one's going to touch him in the NBA," one GM said. "We do draft players who have had off-the-court issues even worse than Smith's. But they've all had tantalizing talent. Smith is a good basketball player, but he won't be worth the risk." We've dropped Smith from our Top 100 for the first time in his career.
Kyle Singler, F, Duke
After two years of doing a pretty good job of convincing skeptical scouts that he had NBA talent, Singler has been backsliding all season. Duke has moved him to small forward and his confidence and stroke have completely left him.
In two of Singler's higher-profile games this year -- against Connecticut in late November and against Georgia Tech on Saturday -- he shot a combined 4-for-25 from the field and averaged just seven points. Clearly Singler looks uncomfortable in his new role at the 3. But scouts aren't cutting him much slack. Most teams see him as a 3, not a 4, at the next level. If he can't cut it in college, he won't cut it in the pros. Singler made his first appearance ever in our top 30 in mid-November. He's now slid out into the late 40s.
Iman Shumpert, G, Georgia Tech
Early in the season a number of scouts said they felt Shumpert had a chance to be one of the top point guards taken in the draft. A slow start to the season, combined with an injury and a rusty comeback are putting his draft stock in serious jeopardy for this season.
Shumpert wasn't great before his injury, but since returning he's been awful. He shot a combined 2-for-16 with 12 turnovers in his past two games against Georgia and Duke. With the solid play of freshman point guard Mfon Udofia, Shumpert's role as the team's point guard may continue to lessen. It looks like he'll be better off waiting until 2011 to start thinking about the NBA.
The Midrange Game
We continue to keep our eye on a number of freshmen and a few have drawn interest from NBA scouts over the past few weeks.
A number of NBA scouts remain very high on LaSalle big man Aaric Murray. His numbers don't particularly wow you and he's been inconsistent. However, he has good size and has impressed scouts with his ability to step away from the basket and shoot the jumper. In fact, Murray has shown terrific range from the college 3. He missed 8 of 9 3-pointers in a recent game against Xavier, yet is still shooting 41 percent from beyond the arc for the season. On Saturday, his 18-point, 9-rebound performance against UMass was his best of the season. With so few dominant centers in this year's draft, Murray may get some suitors as we approach April. Several scouts say he could be a late-first-round pick if he declares for the draft.
Florida combo guard Kenny Boynton Jr. came into the college game with a fair share of hype, but got off to a slow start for the Gators this year. Things have begun to change lately with Boynton putting up his best game of his career, a 28-point effort in a loss to Vanderbilt. While scouts still aren't sure whether he's a point guard or a 2 (Avery Bradley suffers from the same syndrome) one thing is for sure -- the guy can score.
Teams are also keeping a close eye on Duke freshman big man Mason Plumlee. Plumlee missed the start of the season with a broken wrist. Since he's been back, he's been brought along slowly but has shown some signs of living up to his promise as one of the top prospects from the high school class of 2009. He had an 18-point, 7-rebound performance against Penn and was very impressive -- more impressive than Derrick Favors -- in Duke's loss against Georgia Tech. Plumlee ended the game with 10 points, 6 boards, 3 assists and 2 steals. His athleticism and versatility are pretty interesting. Most likely he stays another year at Duke, but he has the potential to be a high pick down the road.