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March Madness 2017: NBA Prospect Watch, Week 1

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One of the most exciting draft classes in recent memory brings even more Maddness to this March. With the tournament set to kick off, let’s review the top prospects and their matchups.

NCAA Basketball: Florida State at Duke Mark Dolejs-USA TODAY Sports

March is unequivocally the best month of the year.

With all the nonsense of February behind us, I welcome the madness of March. A draft class that the Kings might have missed out on suddenly means a whole lot more, and luckily for them—and for us basketball junkies—this is a high potential class, both in talent and entertainment value.

This potential class has gotten a ton of hype over the past year thanks to a great number of very visible stars. On one of my regular draft podcasts, the question was brought up – “How many prospects in this draft class would have gone third overall in last year’s draft?” Off the top of my head, seven players. Markelle Fultz would have likely gone first overall in 2016 (PG-centric league and all), while no one else beats out Ben Simmons or Brandon Ingram. But third overall, beating out Jaylen Brown (or for me, Kris Dunn, my #3 last year)? Josh Jackson, Dennis Smith, Lonzo Ball, and Jonathan Isaac for sure, with Malik Monk, Jayson Tatum, and Frank Ntilikina in serious consideration. You have to get to De’Aaron Fox, Miles Bridges, and and Lauri Markkanen before I’m for sure taking Brown or Dunn (and I STILL love Dunn, and Brown looks great!) This class is crazy deep with four-star NBA prospects.

What this class has, far more than the past few draft classes, is two things; high-end star potential, and significant risk. Looking at every player in the top 10, it’s easy to see a scenario where they become an All-star/excellent starter, and easily see a scenario where they become a serious disappointment (outside of Fultz, who is so well-rounded and pretty much safe). These guys all have a flaw in their game which could utterly hamper their NBA future, and betting on the wrong guy (or two!) could lead to another Kawhi Leonard/Klay Thompson/Damian Lillard level “what if” hanging over the fanbase for the next decade.

Now I can already read the comments – “Bryant, every draft is a crapshoot! Every lottery pick has flaws they need to address, so why complain this year when the talent is better?” Totally a fair point. The talent this year could be explosive, and in a few years I could look like a fool for writing this, but every non-Fultz one of the top 10-12 is extremely volatile. If I’m a GM whose job is on the line to correctly pick the superstar out of the 2-10 range, I’m scared of this class. Thrilled at the potential… but scared.

I’m going to try out a new style of March Madness breakdowns this year; longer thoughts on fewer prospects. If I haven’t covered someone in-depth yet, it just means I’ll get to them over the next few weeks. Viva la Madness!

(Stats all from Synergy Sports, hoop-math.com, or Sports-Reference.com).

1. Markelle Fultz, PG, Washington
Next game: N/A (Due to terrible, terrible team)

The lock for the top spot and the most highly touted point guard prospect since… Kyrie Irving in 2012? It’s been a while since a point guard was the cream of the draft crop, but Fultz deserves the top spot. Dynamic threat to score on all three levels, great point-of-attack player, and a good floor general with a 34.5% assist rate (and his 13.4% turnover rate is pretty damn acceptable considering his massive usage).

The biggest criticism – his defensive effort was subpar at best, and Washington had no talent around him to keep the Huskies competitive (they didn’t even get out of the first round of the Pac 12 tournament). Fultz was given free-reigns of a sinking ship, which made watching him quite a slog this season. But hey, we get to do it all over again next year when Washington gets Michael Porter Jr.! I love that star talent is going somewhere that isn’t Kentucky/Duke/Kansas, but…

2. Josh Jackson, SF, Kansas
Next game: Friday vs. #16 UC Davis, 3:50 PST, TNT

Josh Jackson has the potential to become a role-playing star—a second/third option on a great team who helps spread the ball with his passing, attacks the glass against bigger opponents, and defends 2-4s with great strength, length, and speed. In a league that values versatility above nearly anything else, Jackson will be highly coveted… even if his high-point hitched shot makes scouts wince. If that shot does become consistent though (and it’s trending there... 20/45 from three for 43.5% in conference play), he’s got as high a ceiling as any in the class. If that shot falters, though, he’ll still be a solid player, but someone drafted behind him will make this pick a disappointment.

Sorry UC Davis, but Kansas is my predicted champion, so I’m pretty confident in Jackson’s ability to command the draft conversation for the next month. More on him later, and keep your fingers crossed for a Jackson/Miles Bridges matchup in the second round (although Kansas/Miami would give us Frank Mason vs. Bruce Brown…)

3. Dennis Smith, PG, N.C. State
Next game: N/A (due to terrible team).

Smith offers a total package of skills you look for in a franchise point guard – ability to score on all three levels, top-10 in the country assist numbers (6.2 per game), and explosive athleticism. His 17.3% turnover ratio is pretty ugly, but in the context of NC State’s offense (which relied heavily on him pounding the ball and making decisions), it’s understandable.

The biggest concern for Smith is the lack of consistency in both his play and in his effort levels. On one hand, it’s hard to blame him for being frustrated – NC State doesn’t have the talent around Smith for a meaningful tournament run – but Smith tuned-out of too many games for it to be forgettable. He’s coming off an ACL injury that caused him to miss his senior season of high school, so he might also have held back when needed to protect himself and his NBA-interests. But the lack of effort is especially present on the defensive end; he’s had full games, normally consisting of blowouts, where his effort and intensity on defense was non-existent. Again, you would hope that changes in the NBA when he’ll have talent around him to compete on most nights, but you don’t love seeing that in a top 5 pick. Of course, that’s not gonna stop Markelle Fultz from the top draft spot, so it won’t destroy Smith’s stock either.

4. Jonathan Isaac, SF, Florida State
Next game: Thursday v. #14 Florida Gulf Coast, 6:50 PST, TNT

And here we get to our first powder keg. Both Fultz and Jackson have holes in their game, but have relatively safer floors. Isaac, meanwhile? Plenty of promise in a capably skilled youngster with 6’11 size, a pterodactyl wind span, and solid quickness...but tons of concerns with his inconsistent and often hesitant offensive game.

The name Brandon Ingram gets thrown around too much – the measurements and movement skills are similar, but Ingram was an exceptionally consistent and highly efficient shooter who carried Duke. Isaac, while promising as a shooter, hasn’t come close to showing a consistent ability to create his own shot. He’s third on his team in shot attempts, and doesn’t seem to realize that he’s the best player on the floor most of the time.

Isaac absolutely works on the defensive end, pounds the glass (24.2% defensive rebounding rate), and sits in the 93 percentile in cuts to the hoop. When Isaac gets moving with the ball, unless he gets stripped, he’s hard to stop. A player with that size, length, and floor stretching ability will make an impact in the league.

Concerns aside, since creation ability is the hardest developing skill to predict and Isaac is only just realizing everything he can do, you have to strongly consider him in the 3-7 range… especially since Skal Labissiere showed less creation ability and the same hesitancy on offense, and look how that’s changed since last March.

Assuming Florida State can get to the Sweet 16 (and I’ve got them way too high in my bracket to bust earlier than that), an awesome Isaac/Lauri Markkanen match-up awaits (assuming Arizona gets by my beloved SMC Gaels…)

5. Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA
Next game: Friday vs. #14 Kent State, 6:57 PST, TruTV (AND live in Sacramento!)

Lonzo epitomizes this draft class. In the span of a two minute stretch, Ball can convince me he’s the best non-Fultz player in the class AND that he’s nothing more than a crafty bench player. Superstar passer with the genuine ability to make the home run plays, and at the same time a certainly flawed offensive player. It’s maddening, because Ball is so fun to watch; no collegiate player has his floor vision, creative passing ability, and the onions to chuck up Steph Curry threes… and make them! But his highlight plays and UCLA’s revamped offense has blown his hype way too high considering his weaknesses.

UCLA will be in this thing for a while; their offensive juggernaut could be derailed by a gritty defensive team that forces them into a 40-minute physical brawl, but that matchup won’t be found in the first two rounds. Every collegiate basketball fan should catch a UCLA game – even after all my doubts about the kid, I can’t wait to see what Ball does in the tournament. If you have a chance to go watch him live at Golden 1 Center, do so.

6. Malik Monk, SG, Kentucky
Next game: Friday v. #15 Northern Kentucky , 6:40 PST, CBS

The Kings own half the NBA’s shooting guard reserve at this point, and Monk isn’t a point guard. Next prospect, right? NOPE. Teams like the Kings can’t afford to ignore superior talent hoping for better fit, and Malik Monk can make the argument for best talent against any of these tier two guys.

Monk has an explosive offensive game unrivaled by any aside from Ball, a 40% three point stroke with a green light to let it fly, and a 89th percentile efficiency on spot-jump shots. And sure, not a ton else stands out; he’s undersized (6’4 in shoes) for the 2-guard spot, he’s not an impactful defender (not from lack of effort, though), and limit ability or desire to attack the basket (2.3% of his makes in the half court were on cuts, and only 20% of his total offense came at the rim… insane for a high-volume scorer in a Kentucky pace). But go watch the North Carolina game, the Georgia game, the UCLA game, and tell me a player with his firepower isn’t going to seriously impact the NBA in the modern era.

Monk isn’t a point guard, and shouldn’t be expected to play as one. In the few games when Fox was out, Monk torched as a scorer (including 37 points against Georgia), but had a 2-1 turnover to assist ration. This shouldn’t be taken as much of a criticism; he’s still a capable distributor, and has a higher assist rate (13.6%) than Jamal Murray did for Kentucky last year (12.5%)… and he’s playing next to De’Aaron Fox! Passers at every position are invaluable in today’s NBA, especially one with Monk’s floor spacing ability.

7. Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke
Next game: Friday v. Troy, 4:20 PST, TBS

Tatum’s play over the past three weeks has made me seriously reevaluate him. He’s suffered from Duke’s lack of a real point guard, and too much time with the ball in his hands early and nothing but instincts to go off led to inefficient numbers and concerns about his ball-stopping tendencies. But over the past eight games, his assist numbers AND field goal success has climbed (although never together in the same game). He was the Blue Devil’s best player in their great conference tournament run, averaging 22 points and 7.5 rebounds on 68% shooting.

Nothing greatly intrigues on Duke’s side of the bracket until a possible Sweet 16 matchup with #6 seed SMU or #3 seed Baylor. Both teams (especially SMU) have the positional talent to match up with Tatum.

8. Frank Ntilikina, PG, France
Next game: Friday vs. Antibes in the LNA Pro. B league (that’s in France.)

The class’ most intriguing foreign prospect carries just as much risk and intriguing potential as the rest of his lotterymates.

I’ve bought in completely on Ntilikina, so let me make my best effort to sell you as well; he’s getting inconsistent minutes, doesn’t get good usage, and is primarily used as a second-ballhandler and spot-up shooter. There isn’t enough in-game evidence to prove his three-point stroke is a real skill (he’s only taken 69 of them this year), his 6’5 frame won’t mean anything on NBA defense when he weighs 170 lbs, and in a league of elite athleticism at the point guard position, he sits squarely in the “solid” camp.

Sold yet?

The real reason to be hyped about Ntilikina is the U18 European Championship. It’s the best case we have for Ntilikina’s NBA potential; given full control of the offense for the first time in such a professional setting, Ntilikina went to the hospital with the flu… and then came back to lead France to the title, won the tournament’s MVP award, and averaged 15.2 points and 4.5 assists on 31/62 from the field and 17/29 from three. In the final two games, he had 23 points and 9 assists followed up by 31 points on 11/16 shooting. And then he went right back to averaging 19-25 minutes per game with Strasbourg.

While it’s safe to say there will be more tape on the rest of the players around his draft range, Ntilikina isn’t going to be a secret come June. The Basketball Champions League puts whole games up on Youtube, so while he doesn’t get a ton of minutes, there’s stuff to go off. And even with inconsistent minutes and his secondary-ball handler role, you can easily see his impact. His basketball IQ is great for a 19-year-old, and he consistently makes the right decision when he gets the ball. He’s capable at attacking, has improve in creating the offense as the year went on, and is a capable and willing passer (21.8% assist rate in BCL play, which, as a secondary ball-handler, is great.)

Get on the hype-train now, folks. In a legendary point guard class, Ntilikina deserves to be in the discussion for second-best point guard prospect behind Markelle Fultz. There’s way less to go on than Ball, Smith, Monk, and Fox have shown us, but what’s there is strong evidence for a multi-talented, all-around capable floor general with an improving shot, passing instincts, and excellent defensive intensity. He’s going to be the big-name riser in a few months time. And all it’ll take is some team that really values draft workouts seeing him light one up, and he’s a top 7 pick. Hmm, do we know any GMs that really value workouts?

9. Lauri Markkanen, PF, Arizona
Next game: Thursday vs. #15 North Dakota, 6:50 PST, March 16

It’s not hard to see Markkanen’s NBA appeal; a true stretch four with plenty of stretch… both with his 43% three point success, and in his 7’0 height. He’s the best shooter in the class, and few players in college, let alone 19-year-old freshman, have his consistent shooting motion and quick release. His size and release point keeps his shot out of reach of any collegiate defenders and most NBA bigs, but even when he’s challenged he’s got great body control on his shot.

Sean Miller has really done a great job of scheming the Wildcat offense around Markkanen. Arizona is near the bottom in pace, but playing in the halfcourt is much more Markkanen’s strength; he’s in the mid-60s percentile for transition success, but he’s currently in the 97th percentile for points-per-shot in the halfcourt (47.9% shooting).

The biggest question for Markkanen is his continued development outside of his shot. If all he ever becomes in the NBA is a great floor-spacing big, he’s worth a decent investment, but in a class as talented as this, teams won’t take him in the top of the lottery unless they know he can add additional versatility. And aside from great shooting, there’s not much defined in his game – he’s not a playmaker (averaging a paltry 1.2 assists per 40 minutes with a 6.2% assist rate), he’s not going to be an immediate post thread (just 22.7% of his shots were at the rim, and although he was effective, he struggled against NBA-sized defenders), and he lacks the muscles or verticality to battle for the boards.

The Dirk Nowitzki comparisons are just as lazy as they were with Kristaps Porzingis and Dragan Bender. Markkanen will need to show much more consistency in his offensive ability (he’s had just as many 10 points or less games than he had 20 points or more games) and that he can take over an offense when needed; there were games (UCLA, Gonzaga, Butler) where the Wildcats needed Markkanen to show an alpha-dog mentality that didn’t emerge.

I’m looking forward to HOPEFULLY watching Markkanen face my alma-mater Saint Mary’s, assuming they both win their first games. SMC has the second best defense in the country in points per game, and has capable big defenders who can do a decent job on the perimeter. Jock Landale will give him all he can handle on defense, and it’ll be interesting to see how Markkanen handles the big tournament lights.

10. De’Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky
Next game: Friday v. #15 Northern Kentucky , 6:40 PST, CBS

De’Aaron Fox is a player I want to like. I’m on the record for supporting Kris Dunn, Emmanuel Mudiay, Elfrid Payton, Michael Carter-Williams, AND both Tyreke Evans and Ricky Rubio in their drafts (John Wall too, but he was out of reach). Point guards with MEHdiocre shoots? LOVE EM. I expected each one of them to fix their shot, none of them did, but some day, someone in this draft camp will!

The problem with Fox – that jumpshot isn’t mediocre, it’s bad.

  • 24th percentile for shot-up success, snagging just 0.7 points per shot.
  • 52.9% true shooting percentage, among the worst for the draftable guards.
  • 74% free throw rate is promising, but his other set-shot – a catch, no dribble, shoot – is his most used shot, and it’s in the 5th percentile.
  • When he’s forced to play in the halfcourt, his points-per-jumpshot sink to 0.48 – 6th percentile.

So without any consistency on his jumpshot, Fox will need to greatly impact the rest of the game to be worth the lottery selection… and that’s where the real concerns with Fox start. When he doesn’t have the ball in his hands, it’s really hard to see how he can make that impact in the NBA.

He’s a smart, willing passer who pushes the tempo and knows how to run the offense to keep all of Kentucky’s weapons involved… but his near 2/1 assist-to-turnover ratio isn’t great, and he was pulled by Calipari in a few close games/moments because the offense was stalling.

He’s fearless at attacking the rim, and few NBA guards, let alone college guards, can keep up with him in a footrace… but he wasn’t always great around the rim, and he’ll be pushed around easily in the NBA paint.

And he’s a tough defender, willing to establish himself against stronger opponents and bother them with his great length... but speed and length only mean so much when you’re 150 pounds.

Value wise, Fox is a risky pick who doesn’t offer much immediate impact beyond great court vision and passing skills – and those skills alone don’t make him as valuable a prospect as Smith Jr., Ball, or Ntilikina as a floor general.

I wrote this all before Fox’s beautiful 3-game SEC tournament run of 22 points per game on 62% shooting and 3-5 from three. If that shot proves consistent, it’ll be hard not to start becoming optimistic in his long term potential, but… let’s see Fox lead Kentucky to a UCLA rematch in the Sweet 16 before we get too crazy.

11. Miles Bridges, SF/PF, Michigan State
Next game: Friday v. #8 Miami, 6:20 PST, TNT

I want believe a 6’7 workhorse like Bridges will have a real impact in the NBA. He’s got outstanding athleticism, plenty of bulk for his age, and had success both in the paint and on threes. Having a player snag 10.4 rebounds while also averaging 2.5 threes and 2.0 blocks per 40 minutes is fantastic, versatile production. He’s got great all-around offensive production, and he’s in the 75 percentile or higher for spot-up, transition, and iso offensive success. So what’s not to love? He’s a tier down from both Isaac (for physical gifts) and Tatum (for obvious offensive impact), but I wouldn’t be shocked if a titanic clash between Josh Jackson and Bridges in Round 2 leads to Bridges becoming a fan favorite option for that Pelicans pick.

12. Robert Williams, PF, Texas A&M
Next game: N/A (not even in the NIT…)

Robert Williams is one of the most fun players in the class and has the ability to make highlight plays on both ends. He’s a tad undersized for an NBA four (6’9), but he combines great reach, decent quickness, and TNT-infused explosiveness. His favorite thing to do in the offense is to divebomb for the rim and wait for the alley-oop. He’s in the 96th percentile for transition buckets, but also has some decent post skills and footwork in the half-court.

Williams is the classes’ best rim protector and a highlight blocker; 3.9 blocks per 40 minutes with a 10.8% block rate. His success as a rim protector is even more impressive considering Texas A&M plays him in a three-big set, and he’s often tasked with guarding shooters that keep him away from the basket. His ability to catch up to the ball in help defense is excellent. He needs to become more patient on defense, as he’s easily baited into fakes, but he’s a high motor big man in a class without a ton of post muscle.

He’s also a determined rebounder who will compete at the NBA level on the glass. 21.2% defensive rebounding rate (and 12.7 total rebounds per 40 minutes) is solid, and it’s again key to point out his defensive assignments weren’t always in the paint.

In the end, Williams probably has a higher floor than Justin Patton, and will offer a capable if shorter-than-optimal rim protector who can thrive in a faster offense/small-ball lineup. The physical tools are there for a very capable player, but he’ll need to become much more aware on both ends of the court and figure out how he can consistently score in the pros. Any optimism on his jumpshot isn’t based on his play; he’s currently 7 of 31 on spot-ups, and 2-18 from three. But if that shot begins to fall, he’d be a dangerous player in a pick-and-roll heavy offense as both a pull-up threat and a force at the attack.

13. Justin Patton, C, Creighton
Next game: Friday v. #11 Rhode Island, 1:30 PST, TBS

Creighton could have been a great squad to watch in the tournament… Patton is a promising stretch five with potential across the board, and the Jays were a stellar 18-1 a month ago, but since the injury to stud point guard Maurice Williams, they’ve got 7-8. I’m hoping they face off against Oregon’s swarming defense in the second round, as that’ll be a great test for the 6’11 Patton.

14. Luke Kennard, PG/SG, Duke
Next game: Friday v. Troy, 4:20 PST, TBS

Wait, wait, hear me out on this one. I know this is incredibly high for a 6’5 guard with below-average NBA athleticism, a lack of great length, and less-than-idea strength. Kennard would be run over by 99% of NBA point guards on defense, and he’s not gonna stand pat against most shooting guards either.

What he lacks in the strength, size, or twitch-quick athleticism, he makes up for in basketball IQ. And this isn’t Nik Stauskas, “hey he was a pretty decent 2nd ball-handler, he could take most college players off the dribble” level-IQ; this is total offensive-package awareness. Kennard consistently made the right offensive decisions, understood his limitations at the point of attack against higher-level opponents (and still made some great moves, like this one), and saved Duke’s season – repeatedly.

Duke was considered a title-favorite to start the season, but major injuries, Grayson Allen’s nonsense, Mike Krzyzewski’s back surgery, and Grayson Allen’s nonsense supremely hampered the Blue Devil’s start to the season. The biggest problem though was the lack of a real, ready-to-lead passer. Krzyzewski had obviously hoped Allen and freshman Frank Jackson could handle that, but that’s not who Allen is as a player, and Jackson wasn’t ready for primetime. The rest of the team—Tatum, Amile Jefferson, Matt Jones, the injured Harry Giles—all need the ball to be effective.

Kennard was the catalyst that drew Duke’s talent together. He isn’t a pass-first player, but he’s the best they had, and he was as feisty as he was effective. He gave Duke a complete offensive threat who could score at all three levels, play consistent every night to weather Allen and Tatum’s lack-of-consistency, and who could stay productive without the ball. He let Allen run the team just enough to keep the peace (and let him run it too much on multiple occasions; Duke lost to Kansas, NC State, and Syracuse because Allen stalled the offense near the end of the game) while continually reminding the world that, yeah, he was the best player on the court for Duke.

What’s that mean for his NBA future? He’s going to be an solid third guard who can effect just about every part of the offense. He’ll provide great shooting (44.3% on 85 threes this year) and a solid driving ability and a willingness to play with and without the ball. Whoever drafts him will love him if they have the talent around him to A. let him be the secondary ball handler or run the bench offense, and B. have the defensive players around him for off-ball help. His effort and intensity will make him a fan favorite in a few years.

*Reads the last five paragraphs*

Ah hell, he’s going to the Spurs, isn’t he?

Others of Note: No. 15 Justin Jackson, SF, North Carolina (Friday vs #16 Texas Southern, 1:00 PST, TNT); No. 16 Harry Giles, PF, Duke (Friday v. Troy, 4:20 PST, TBS); No. 17 Donovan Mitchell, SG, Louisville (Friday v. #15 Jacksonville State, 11:45 PST, CBS); No. 18 OG Anunoby, SF, Indiana (N/A, injured/outside the tournament); No. 19 Semi Ojeleye, SF, SMU (Friday v. winner of Providence/USC, 12:10 PST, Tru TV); No. 19 Ivan Rabb, PF, California (N/A, NIT)

Even More Others of Note: Bruce Brown, PG, Miami; Thomas Bryant, C, Indiana; Johnathan Motley, PF, Baylor; John Collins, PF, Wake Forest; T.J. Leaf, PF, UCLA; Tyler Lydon, SF/PF, Syracuse; Dylan Brooks, SF, Oregon; Josh Hart, SG, Villanova; Bam Adebayo, PF/C, Kentucky; Frank Mason Jr., PG, Kansas

Foreign Prospects Soon to be Researched:

Isaiah Hartenstein, PF, Lithuania; Terrance Ferguson, SG, Australia; Rodions Kurucs, SF, Barcelona