By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
The home stretch of the 2020-21 fantasy basketball season is just around the corner, but it’s college basketball that will take center stage for the next few weeks. After a one-year hiatus, the NCAA Tournament returns this week, with the First Four games kicking off the action Thursday night.
For many, the tournament is a nearly month-long holiday, but for fantasy basketball managers, it’s also the best opportunity to begin scouting the nation’s top NBA prospects. While a few of the big names in the 2021 class — Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga — opted to spend their would-be freshman seasons in the G League, most of the top prospects, including Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham, will be on display this weekend.
It’s important not to make sweeping judgements from just a one- or two-game sample, but the tournament is where many prospects will have their final chance to leave an impression on a national audience.
Before the games tip off, here are the names to know for NBA draft purposes, with some notes on how they might fit into the fantasy basketball landscape in 2021-22:
Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State
If it’s been a rough year and you’re already looking ahead to drafting your 2021-22 fantasy teams, then Cunningham is the primary name to monitor. The leading candidate to go No. 1 overall in the draft has been as good as advertised, leading Oklahoma State to a 20-8 record and the four seed in the Midwest Region.
At 6-8 with a rangy wingspan, a big part of the appeal with Cunningham is how well he handles the ball and play-makes for his size. Oklahoma State’s entire offense flows through Cunningham, who functions as the de facto point guard but is just as comfortable spotting up on the wing or taking advantage of a mismatch down low. He may not have the athleticism of a Green or Kuminga, but Cunningham is easily the most well-rounded prospect in the class and the safest bet to be a fantasy star.
Recent draftees like LaMelo Ball, Luka Doncic and Trae Young have set the bar high, but if you’re looking for the rookie who could be a top-50 fantasy player right away, Cunningham is the guy.
Evan Mobley, USC
The Pac-12 Player of the Year, Freshman of the Year and Defensive Player of the Year is easily the best big-man prospect in a class that is buoyed at the top by high-upside guards and wings. Mobley was a big-time recruit out of high school, but his adjustment to the next level has been even smoother than expected.
Mobley has continually improved as the season goes on, and he saved some of his best moments for the Pac-12 Tournament, where he averaged 26.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 2.5 assists and 5.0 blocks in two games. An athletic, aggressive defender with great instincts, Mobley profiles as an impact shot-blocker, scorer and rebounder right away. He’s also a decent passer for a big man (2.2 APG) and has the foundation and body fluidity to develop a diverse offensive game. Bottom line: Mobley is the caliber of prospect who would start — and be fantasy-relevant — right away for most teams picking in the high-lottery.
Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga
Suggs was a top-10 recruit in the 2020 class, but he wasn’t necessarily viewed as a one-and-done lock coming into the season. That quickly changed, as Suggs has asserted himself as the premier traditional point guard in America at age 19. In 24 games, Suggs is averaging 14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals, offering a glimpse of the all-around production he projects to provide at the next level.
As the Zags continue to pile up wins, it’s becoming more and more difficult to poke holes in Suggs’ game, but if there’s one concern it’s that his jumpshot tends to come and go. Fantasy-wise, the number to monitor is his free throw percentage, which sits at 73.9 percent entering the NCAA Tournament. Even if Suggs never grows to become an elite shooter, he’s good enough everywhere else — including on the defensive end — to still be on a trajectory toward NBA stardom.
Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois
A 21-year-old junior, Dosunmu flirted with the NBA draft each of the last two years, but his decision to return to Illinois for a third collegiate season has paid off. The First Team All-American is one of the faces of college basketball, averaging 20.7 points, 6.3 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 1.1 steals for the one-seed Illini. Dosunmu is a highly efficient scorer for a guard (48.8% FG), and he raised his three-point efficiency from 29.6 percent last season all the way up to 38.8 percent in 2020-21.
Due to his age and still-questionable outside shot, Dosounmu will likely be a mid-first-round pick, but he could change that with a strong tournament run. At the next level, Dosunmu profiles as a slashing guard in the mold of a Victor Oladipo-lite.
Scottie Barnes, Florida State
The 6-9 freshman does a little bit of everything, averaging 11.0 points, 4.3 rebounds, 4.2 assists and 1.5 steals in 21 games. He hasn’t started a game since December and is shooting under 30 percent from three, but Barnes’ intelligence, passing and defensive versatility are what will likely make him a mid-lottery pick. Barnes closed the ACC Tournament with a season-high 21 points on 8-of-10 shooting (2-2 3Pt) in 29 minutes.
Keon Johnson, Tennessee
Johnson is another prospect who wasn’t a guaranteed one-and-done coming into the year, but he’s played himself into top-10 consideration over the last two months. The 6-5 guard averaged 12.7 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.8 assists over his final 15 games after entering the starting lineup full-time. His jumpshot (27.6% 3PT) is very much a question mark, but Johnson is an overwhelming athlete whose game could be better suited for the more space-friendly NBA. Johnson has loads of long-term upside, but he may struggle to be fantasy-relevant as a rookie.
James Bouknight, UConn
One of the best pure bucket-getters in the tournament, Bouknight is averaging 19.0 points per game for the seventh-seeded Huskies, adding 5.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists and 1.2 steals. On his best nights, Bouknight is impossible to slow down one-on-one, as evidenced by a 40-point (13-24 FG, 5-12 3Pt, 9-12 FT) eruption against Creighton back in December. His frame is a little slight and he’s not a great playmaker, but the sophomore will be in the lottery discussion and could be an instant-impact scorer at the next level. Bouknight has some Malik Monk and Lou Williams to his game, but at 6-5, 190, he has better size than the latter.
Moses Moody, Arkansas
It’s been far too long since the NBA has had a relevant “Moses,” but that will likely change this summer. The freshman guard has been a key catalyst for the Razorbacks, averaging 17.4 points and shooting 37.9 percent from three through 28 games. While the overall percentage isn’t other-worldly, Moody’s outside shot is his primary asset, and at 6-6, 205, he projects as a prototypical three-and-D wing at the NBA level. His upside isn’t quite as high as some of the names above him, but Moody’s skills are transferable enough that he could be a top-100 fantasy player next season if he lands in the right spot.
Corey Kispert, Gonzaga
Anyone around the Zags program will tell you Kispert is the heart and soul of the top overall seed in the tournament. The First Team All-American is having a monster senior season, posting 19.2 points per game with a ridiculous 54-44-90 shooting line. Kispert is deadly from three-point range, but he’s underrated as a finisher, hitting nearly 65 percent of his two-point attempts this season.
In general, older players have been devalued over the last decade-plus when it comes to the NBA draft, but Kispert is enough of a sure thing that he’ll likely hear his name called somewhere in the late-lottery. The 22-year-old projects as an immediate-impact player who steps right in as one of the league’s deadliest three-point shooters. Think Joe Harris or peak Carlos Delfino.
Jaden Springer, Tennessee
Come draft night, the Vols could very well have two freshmen come off the board in the lottery. Springer is generally viewed as a slightly inferior prospect to Johnson, but he’s had similarly impressive peaks this season. Over his final 10 games entering the tournament, Springer topped 20 points five times, including a 30-point effort in a win over Georgia on Feb. 10. The 6-4 guard is most comfortable attacking the basket, but he’s shooting an impressive 44.4 percent from three — albeit on limited attempts (20-45 3Pt). Fantasy-wise, Springer projects as more of a dynasty consideration heading into next season.
Other names to watch
Franz Wagner, Michigan: Mo’s younger brother isn’t as flashy as most names mentioned in the lottery, but scouts love his all-around game (12.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.9 APG, 1.4 SPG, 1.1 BPG), defensive instincts, and three-point shooting at his size (6-9, 220).
Greg Brown, Texas: Maybe the best athlete in the class, Brown’s highs are very high, but he’s woefully inconsistent and played just 19 total minutes in the Longhorns’ two Big 12 Tournament games.
Jared Butler, Baylor: The classic rock-solid college point guard, Butler does everything well but will have to earn his way into the back-end of the first round. If you’re looking for the next Malcolm Brogdon or Fred VanVleet, Butler could be the guy.
Cam Thomas, LSU: One of the leading scorers in the country (22.6 PPG), Thomas can pile up points, but he doesn’t really offer anything else.
Kai Jones, Texas: The sophomore is a work in progress but has enough upside as a floor-stretching big that he’ll challenge for a spot in the lottery.
Davion Mitchell, Baylor: Like Butler, Mitchell, a 22-year-old junior, will be docked for his upperclassman status, but he’s perhaps the best on-ball defender in the nation. He also shot the three at a scorching 46.2 percent clip (5.0 3PA/G) after hitting at only 32.4 percent last season.
Day’Ron Sharpe, UNC: The freshman big man’s per-minute numbers are outstanding, and his high-level passing should lock him into the back-half of the first round.