Who To Watch in the Elite Eight of the NCAA Tournament
Is anyone else’s bracket busted? With the final #1 seeds, Houston and Alabama, going down in the Sweet Sixteen to Miami and San Diego State, most of the favorites to win the tournament have been eliminated. This is the first time in the history of the tournament that not a single first seeded squad will be advancing to the Elite Eight. The NCAA Championship seems like anyone could grab it at this point.
With a lot of the higher-seeded teams falling, that also means a lot of early-to-mid first round picks are no longer playing. Alabama’s Brandon Miller, Houston’s Jarace Walker, Arkansas’s Nick Smith and Xavier’s Colby Jones were all eliminated this weekend. However, there are still a number of late-first to second round prospects playing for a championship.
San Antonio fans know how important players in this range can be to the franchise. Notable Spurs selected later in drafts include Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tre Jones and Thiago Splitter. Sometimes you can discover gems in the late picks of the draft. Watch for these players to be potential contributors on the NBA club, despite being selected outside of the lottery.
Julian Strawther, 6-7 Guard/Forward, Gonzaga
One of the heroes of March is also one of the draft prospects that fans should be watching as Gonzaga continues it’s championship run. Strawther hit a deep go ahead three on the old Villanova pitch back play to win Gonzaga’s Sweet Sixteen matchup over UCLA.
Strawther has been great outside of this moment, too. He’s averaged 18 points and 10 rebounds in the tournament, shooting 38% from three point range. The junior swingman has been impactful scoring the ball for the number one offense in college basketball, providing them with great spacing, and strong work on the offensive glass.
In his third season at Gonzaga, Strawther averaged 15.4 ppg, 6.3 rpg and 1.3 apg, shooting 48% from the field, 42% from deep and 77% from the line. He is a pure shooter who excels in scoring off of the catch. He’s also flashed some ability to score creatively around the rim, despite his lack of athleticism. A combination of floaters and physical drives make him a crafty finisher who can convert inside if he’s chased off of the line.
Strawther has great size for an NBA wing-shooter. His 6-7, bulky frame allows him to play physically on both ends. While not the quickest player, he has the build and fluidity to get to his spots off of screens and score off the catch. Defensively his numbers won’t blow you away, but he’s a sound positional defender. He doesn’t project to be an elite defensive stopper at the next level, but Strawther has the physical and mental tools to compete on that end of the floor.
A lot of draft experts have the Gonzaga swingman with a late-first round grade at the moment, and given his tournament success, he very well may stay there or rise higher. If he did manage to slip into the early second round, the Spurs could use a wing shooter who has a little bit of extra skill to compliment their primary playmakers. I see Strawther in the current Doug McDermott role. Someone who can come off of the bench and give your offense a spark with 3-pt scoring.
Drew Timme, 6-10 Center, Gonzaga
For Spurs fans who want to select a future all-star in the 30s and 40s of the draft… this is not your guy. However, Timme’s collegiate success is undeniable, and he knows how to win. For an NBA team that has a history of winning, getting culture guys like this late isn’t such a bad thing.
Timme was a second team AP All-American, the third time he’s received All-American honors in his 4 collegiate seasons. Timme has never missed an NCAA Tournament, and has helped lead the Bulldogs to a championship game, two Elite Eights and a Sweet Sixteen appearance. He’s on the Mount Rushmore of Gonzaga players, and possibly a top-15 college basketball player of all time. In his senior season he averaged a career-high 21 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1 block a game.
The problem here is that the NBA has moved far past the college game. Big men like Timme just aren’t as valuable as they were even 15 years ago. He doesn’t space the floor out to the three point line, never attempting more than 30 shots from that range in a season. He can’t switch out onto smaller, quicker players, and he’s not a high flyer at the rim. He’s a throwback big man – an elite post scorer with supreme footwork. His improved passing (3.2 assists per game) and rim protection will help him at the next level, but it may be hard for him to overcome his shortcomings in the modern game.
The Spurs need depth at center. Late in the season, injuries to Charles Bassey and Zach Collins have shown just how thin they are up front. Need a big man who can contribute next year for cheap? Snagging Timme in the 40s or 50s might just be a good way to do that. He also knows how to win, and has played a lot of basketball. When Gregg Popovich talks about the 19 and 20-year-old players he’s coaching now, he always explains that they need the reps, without much hoops experience. If the Spurs want someone who’s been around the block, Timme could be their guy.
Keyontae Johnson, 6-7 Forward, Kansas State
Jerome Tang’s Kansas State squad has been one of the best stories in college basketball this year for a number of reasons. They were underrated in the preseason and blew expectations out of the water, putting the Wildcats back on the map in the Big-12. But the best story of this teams season has been the return of Keyontae Johnson.
If it weren’t for being diagnosed with a rare heart disease called myocarditis in 2020, Johnson would likely already be in the NBA. He was on pace to become a first-round pick with stellar play at Florida in his sophomore and junior seasons before he suddenly collapsed on the court in 2020 due to his condition. Two years later, Johnson has found a new home in Manhattan, Kansas, and is back in the draft conversation.
Johnson proved all he could this season. He averaged 17.7 points per game, 6.9 rebound per game, 1 steal per game, and shot 40% from three. Oh, and he played 35 games, averaging 34 minutes, leading the ‘Cats to the Elite 8. That is a triumphant story if I’ve ever heard one.
Johnson has an NBA ready body. He’s an absolute bruiser who can punish teams inside with his size, and score from deep. He’s particularly strong on the defensive end, great at guarding big wings and guards on the perimeter, with the ability to bang inside and grab contested rebounds. He’s likely not going to be the focal point of an offense, but he’s a 3-D wing who has the potential to be a very high level role player.
Johnson is obviously older than most NBA prospects, and would come into the league as a 23-year-old. And unfortunately his medical question marks are going to linger over him throughout the draft process. Those question marks extend to the court too. He’s not a great creator, averaging 3 turnovers to 2 assists in his senior season.
The Spurs wouldn’t need Johnson to be a high-level scorer and decision maker, though. His defensive versatility and shooting would fit in well with a group that struggles to both defend and score. Again, this isn’t a swing for the fences pick, but rather a high floor selection that could fill some needs for this current group.