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March Madness 2017: NBA Prospect Watch, Sweet 16

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An excellent week 1 of madness gave us some highlight match-ups but sent many of the top 15 prospects home, so we delve deeper into the potential draft class and take a look at the week 2 matchups.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round-Kansas vs Michigan State Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

This year’s first weekend of Madness didn’t have quite the same number of upsets as previous years, but there were still some surprises and some thrillers. Hotly debated prospects Jonathan Isaac and Jayson Tatum—the two contenders for best SF prospect after Josh Jackson—were knocked out in upsets. Luckily, five of my top 15 players are still competing for the championship, and there will never be a lack of prospects to talk about anyways. Draft fans were treated with a fantastic Josh Jackson v. Miles Bridges matchup on Sunday, and will get a Lonzo Ball v. De’Aaron Fox/Malik Monk contest on Friday. The Madness is just beginning - viva la March!

2nd Ranked. Josh Jackson, SF, Kansas

Next game: Thursday vs. #4 Purdue, 6:39 PST, CBS

Jackson is who we knew he was last week; a highlight maker, hyper twitch athlete who cannot be handled physically at this level. UC Davis had no shot of stopping him (sorry to all the Aggie fans out there not named Bradley), and even his frienemy and fellow lottomate Miles Bridges couldn’t contain him for long. His shot isn’t standard but his efficiency continued to climb, and he made some excellent on-the-move shots against Bridges, including a step-back fading three. Jackson is as talented as any freshman player in recent memory; he’s a mismatch for any defense to figure out, even with his low shooting stroke.

The story about Jackson threatening to beat a woman and causing damage to her car is a serious concern. Before that, previous reports were easier to dismiss, but this full affidavit is not. I don’t know how it’ll effect teams thinking on Jackson, but too much speculation is unfair for all parties until the court works this out.

4th Ranked. Jonathan Isaac, SF, Florida State

The concerns about Isaac are legitimate. He doesn’t look to create for himself often enough, disappears on offense, and gets busted by on defense one to many times. This weekend was a perfect summary of Isaac’s game; he got looks, never got going, and slipped back into the foreground.

But at the same time… in his two games, Isaac combined for 27 points/14 boards/8 assists/5 steals on 10/16 from the field and 4/7 from three. In only 45 combined minutes. And while Isaac’s concerns shouldn’t be underhyped, the Florida State offense is infuriating. They rely on their size and length to get get them high-percentage shots, and Isaac would almost be redundant in their offense… If he wasn’t their best floor stretching forward. Every player around Isaac needs the ball to be effective, and he had to be wide open—and wide open for ages—before he got some looks.

One wonders how different Isaac and his creation ability would look if he wasn’t on such a messy offense.

5th Ranked. Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA

Next game: Friday vs. #2 Kentucky, 6:39 PST, CBS

After a decent Ball-like first half was interrupted by a tough fall, Ball backed off against Kent State. He wasn’t needed—the UCLA offense stalled just enough to keep it interesting but never were in danger—but Ball didn’t show much.

Against Cincinnati, a tough gritty defensive team (8th in the nation in opponent PPG), Lonzo Ball was electric; 18 points, 9 assists, and 7 rebounds on 7-10 shooting and 4-7 from three. It wasn’t anything new—Ball has had these games and has showcased these talents all season—but given the stage, it was a new level of impressive, especially considering most of his stats (including all 9 assists) came in the second half.

Cincy sold out their defense to stop Ball in the first half, and UCLA responded by running through Bryce Alford more than normal in the second... and it worked for Ball, because he capitalized every time he got the rock. No matter what you think of Ball’s NBA prospects, that second half against the Bearcats is much-watch - he was posed, made high-NBA-level passes, took advantage of his step-back space move when he got some room, and played as effective defense as I’ve seen from him. Again, nothing new—he’s been this talent all year long—but watching a game like this, on this stage, it’s impossible not to see why scouts love his potential.

For an opinion on Ball from a more detailed perspective, Kevin O’Connor did an amazingly detailed piece on Ball’s shot (major props to the entire Draft coverage at the Ringer). It’s a must-read for any armchair scout and properly discusses the most complicated and hotly-contested thing in this draft class; Ball’s ability to create his own offense and how that’ll translate into the NBA. My favorite part of the piece was a scout’s call out to Kevin Martin being the only “cross-ball, low-release shooter that got decent results in the NBA”.

Taking Ball is a gamble on a unique offensive game transitioning into the pros, a young prodigy of the game showing he can develop his shot creation ability past what NBA defenses can work against. And for a good-not-great athlete in a league with serious athletes (and an improving number that can match Ball’s length as the PG position gets bigger), he doesn’t have the physical benefits to fall back on. Ball is a gifted player who should be lauded for his incredible effectiveness and awesomely fun style of play, but he’s not without risk.

Also, let’s all agree just to stop talking about his dad. Seriously, let’s do it. Sports fans and sports media in general have created the troll we now rail against, and there is zero reason to distract from his kid’s unique game or the awesome Kentucky/UCLA matchup. And don’t for a moment buy into his dad’s nonsense affecting his draft stock - his father cannot be a determining factor for any front office worth their stones.

6th Ranked. Malik Monk, SG, Kentucky

Next game: Friday vs. #3 UCLA, 6:39 PST, CBS

Monk was blanketed throughout the Whicita State matchup as the Shockers decided if someone was going to beat them, it wouldn’t be Monk. The 6’3 combo guard still made an impact, with 14 points and four assists on 3/10 shooting. A rough first half turned into a stronger second, as Monk finally got extended burn and the pace sped up. He hit a big three and made a key defensive stop to close out the game. When he gets going, he’s as fun as anyone to watch in this class.

We’ve seen crafty shooters flame out in the league before, and Monk doesn’t have a size advantage to fall back on; he’s a gifted athlete with insane elevation, but no one is going to dread facing him as an on-the-ball attacking threat...yet. If he changes that and continues to develop his court vision, he’s as promising as anyone in the second tier of prospects.

7th Ranked. Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke

Duke’s lack of ball handlers and their messy offensive execution finally collapsed their season against South Carolina. After a month of excellent, efficient play, Tatum’s tournament run was impressively varied (an 18 point, 12 board, 4 block, 4 steal game against Troy) but collapsed with the rest of the Blue Devils against the Gamecocks (15 points, three boards, five fouls and five turnovers, albeit with a late three that kept Duke breathing). I’ll always wonder how Tatum would have looked on a team with a legitimate point guard that afforded him less ball-pounding time and a more free-roaming role.

9th Ranked. De’Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky

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

After an efficient performance against Northern Kentucky, Fox had a solid contest against Wichita State. The Shockers sold out to stop Monk, but they played a strong game against Fox as well; their defense against him captures the entirety of his shot-creation ability.

Fox loves to drive, and there’s every reason to hope an elite, actually NBA-elite level athlete can be a danger on the attack. But Wichita did a great job of having walls ready to meet Fox on the pick-and-dive, and he continued to be disrupted by any level of contact. Even with NBA spacing, that drive is not going to be a weapon in the NBA until his strength or handles, or preferably both, improve. He did have a good number of smooth shots (missed his only three), which is the biggest thing holding him back.

I’m too hard on Fox. Elite speed and length can make one hell of a player, and Fox isn’t just physical—he’s developing as a half-court passer and is already a great one in the fast break. In any other class in the past 4-5 years, he’d be a top 5 pick – if you truly believe his shooting isn’t as bad as the stats say, that’s a certainly a fair belief to have for a youngster with plenty of time to improve. But his impact will not be immediate, and given the talent around him, his scoring potential lowers him on my draft board.

10th Ranked. Lauri Markkanen, PF, Arizona

Next game: Thursday vs. #11 Xavier, 7:09 PST, TBS

Against Saint Mary’s, Markanen was a 7’2 invisibility and didn’t help the “he’s just a shooter” narrative for most of the game. He ended with a solid box score line of 16 points and 11 boards, but the stats don’t show how much he was held in check by the Gaels lineup. Jock Landale is a rare sight; a player with less verticality than Markkanen, and Landale still dominated him on offense. Markkanen’s two blocks only came due to Landale’s lack of burst; 95% of NBA opponents Markkanen will have to face are much better athletes who will have no problem outmoving Lauri.

Xaiver doesn’t have the bigs Saint Mary’s had, but they’ll push Arizona with a faster offense. Don’t be surprised if Markkanen breaks out, at least offensively; Arizona doesn’t have such an advantage at the guards, so they need Markkanen to heat up.

11th Ranked. Miles Bridges, SF/PF, Michigan State

Miles Bridges had great effort against Kansas; 22 points and eight rebounds and good, physical defense against Josh Jackson in a thriller where Michigan St. kept it close until the final minutes. Bridges is an enigma, a player out of position in the NBA (6’7 forward who’d love to play the four) but plenty of potential and reason to expect he’ll figure it how to be a very capable, versatile starter. I get why so many fans are putting hopes on him for the Pelicans pick, even if I think he’s a clear tier down from Isaac and Tatum.

Jackson’s length and quickness certain bothered Bridges; multiple times Jackson and Bridges started at the same spot on a Kansas break, but Jackson always had a full-body lead by the end of the play. Bridges is an intense defender and will never give up on the play, but he’ll need to learn how to play against wings who will be faster than him.

13th Ranked. Luke Kennard, PG/SG, Duke

Duke’s heart, soul, and normally only-consistent-player had a messy and inconsistent tournament. He averaged 9.5 points and 2 assists on a combined 4-16 shooting against Troy and South Carolina, along with one furious primal scream when he fouled out against the Gamecocks. Kennard is a very well rounded, capable player who will make a great mid-teens pick for a squad who doesn’t need a star, just an exceptionally competent role player.

14th Ranked. Justin Jackson, SF, North Carolina

Next game: Friday v. Butler, 7:09 PST, CBS

Justin Jackson made a gigantic leap in his junior year and showed consistent improvement in every part of his offense. He showed off his full range of skills in a solid-if-unspectacular 15 points (5-14 shooting) with eight rebounds and five assists in a tough win against Arkansas. His long-ball percentage, once a weakness, has risen to 38.5% on 95 makes. He’s improved his ball handling, learned how to better move with and without the ball, and gives solid effort on defense. He’ll struggle with the NBA’s most physical game, but his shooting talent and ability to impact an offense will translate into a solid bench role.

16th Ranked. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Louisville

Next game: Friday v. Troy, 4:20 PST, TBS

It wasn’t a great tournament for Mitchell; he was held mostly in check by Michigan, besides a highlight dunk and some late layups. He’s an elite athlete who made great strides as a shooter (77 threes on 35% deep shooting), distributor (15.6% assist rate and a 1.5/1 assist to turnover rating), and focused defender. He’s undersized for an NBA two at 6’3, but he makes up for it with length and quickness. If that shot develops, he could be the post lottery steal of the class.

17th Ranked. OG Anunoby, SF, Indiana

Next game: Friday v. Troy, 4:20 PST, TBS

Anunoby was headed for a solid lottery spot before an ugly knee injury in January. He hadn’t taken the massive leap many had predicted, and while he was hailed as a potential 3-and-D guy, and 3 part of that never materialized (31% on 14 of 45 from three). The defense part is there, though, and he’s got an NBA body with enough muscle to make an immediate impact on that end of the floor in the NBA.

The full-extent of Anunoby’s knee injury is being kept quiet (as it should be), but teams will obviously get a chance to evaluate him. At some point, the shot of his possibly-lottery-level talent will be worth it for some squad.

Outside looking in: 1. Markelle Fultz, PG, Washington; 3. Dennis Smith, PG, N.C. State; 8. Frank Ntilikina, PG, France; 12. Justin Patton, C, Creighton; 15. Harry Giles, PF, Duke; 18. Semi Ojeleye, SF, SMU; 19. Ivan Rabb, PF, California

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

Staying in School: Robert Williams, PF, Texas A&M (was No. 12 on my board)