The NCAA tournament is the time of the year where the entire world squarely focuses on college basketball. People who have spent zero time watching college hoops are glued to their couch and completely enthralled watching 19-22 year old guys play ball. While this attention can lead to intense pressure and scrutiny, it also affords players an opportunity to skyrocket up draft boards. Every year there is at least one player that uses a great tournament performance push their draft stock higher. In the 2015 tournament, Sam Dekker went from a borderline first round pick to a top 20 selection after shining brightest on the biggest stage. On the flipside, struggling in the tournament can crater a player’s draft grade.
Nigel Hayes experienced this phenomenon following his performance in the 2016 NCAA tournament. He had been the best player on the team all season, but there is no sugar-coating how poorly he performed in the Badgers’ three tournament games. There was speculation that he would leave for the greener pastures of the NBA following a first team All-Big Ten season, but he opted to come back for his senior year. There is no way to determine all the factors that led him to come back, but not wanting to end his Wisconsin career on a sour note had to be among them.
This year, after an enigmatic regular season, Hayes found his best form during the Badgers’ tournament run. It was not just that he put up great numbers, but he was playing in a way that translates to modern NBA basketball. Hayes is a tweener forward, but his bullying post game combined with soft touch around the rim was on full display in the tournament. In the matchup with Florida, Hayes found his outside shot, keeping the Badgers afloat while the Gators’ KeVaughn Allen was in complete heat-check mode.
Entering the tournament, the draft sentiment on Hayes was that he was a borderline draft-able player. His struggles at the free throw line are well documented and he had not scored the same way he had in previous seasons. He made not have launched himself into the first round, but he is certainly an NBA-caliber player. As the NBA transitions more to position-less basketball, players who would have been tweeners in the past are now afforded opportunities to stick around in the league. Hayes is listed in multiple drafts (here’s Draft Express) as a solid second rounder, and it’s because he has a stellar all-around game. Hayes is a solid defender who is capable of switching and defending smaller players, a skill that will certainly benefit him going forward. If his outside shot becomes more consistent, there is no reason he cannot become a rotation player. He was on team’s radar at the beginning of the year, and after his tournament performance he has made himself a draft-able player.