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March Madness 2016: NBA Prospect Watch, Final Four

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With the NCAA Tournament entering its final games, we take a look at how the top remaining prospects fared.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-South Regional-Kentucky vs UCLA Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

A great weekend of high profile draftee v. high profile draftee matchups made for great March madness, but left most of the talent on the outside looking in. UNC’s Justin Jackson is the best NBA prospect left standing, but between UNC, Oregon, Gonzaga, and even South Carolina (hello, Sindarius Thornwell!), there’s plenty of drama and NBA talent still fighting for the championship. Let’s breakdown how the top prospects fared this week and take a look at some later 1st-2nd round talent.

Tim covered the UCLA/Kentucky matchup, which I missed due to a late-notice family need. Big thanks to Tim - his thoughts are highlighted below, along with his personal rankings.

No. 2. Josh Jackson, SF, Kansas

The Josh Jackson tournament explosion fizzled out against the Ducks - after three straight tournament games where he dominated the competition with a significant size, athleticism, and skill advantage, he was stymied against Oregon by ball calls, fantastic defense by the lengthy, athletic Ducks front line, and bad calls. He didn’t hit his first shot until mid-way through the second, and even though he got on a bit of a run, it was clear throughout the game he never got in a rhythm offensively or defensively. The game doesn’t say much about his NBA future, other than (A.) he will struggle to find rhythm if bothered by foul trouble, and (B.) he’s not quite used to playing against guys with culpable length and quickness. A disappointing end for the classes best forward.

No. 5. Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA

Babygiraffe (No. 4 on my Kings-centric big board): Lonzo Ball is the best passer in college basketball and has the highest ceiling of any of the draft prospects when it comes to dishing the rock. His court vision is impressive and fact that he has the skills to make those near-impossible passes makes him a constant threat as a distributor. Tonight, he recorded a better than average eight assists, and that number could have easily been in double digits had his teammates not missed open shots or fumbled passes away.

Although his skills as a pass-first point guard clearly demonstrated themselves tonight, Ball also struggled mightily against the defensive prowess of De’Aaron Fox. He scored 10 points on 10 shots and only made one of six three point attempts. Kentucky’s defense hounded the talented freshman every time he got the ball and his impact was minimal throughout much of the game.

His lack of defensive commitment was also evident as De’Aaron Fox went off for 39 points on just 20 shots. Many collegiate stars (and NBA for that matter) don’t take the defensive end of the court as seriously as the offensive end and I believe Ball falls into that category. He’s a 6’4” point guard with a 6’7” wingspan, so the physical tools are there, but he often falls a step behind his man or gets caught ball-watching instead of keeping track of ball and man. UCLA’s lack of focus on the defensive side of things may also contribute to the lack of impact.

Lonzo Ball is still an incredible NBA prospect and Kings fans should be delighted if he ends up in a Sacramento uniform, but tonight was one of the worst nights of the young guard’s career.

No. 6. Malik Monk, SG, Kentucky

Babygiraffe (No. 9 on my Kings-centric big board): Against UCLA, Monk perfectly demonstrated both his appeal and the fear regarding his potential. The Ying to Fox’s Yang disappeared for much of the night, but carried the Kentucky offense at a couple of key moments. Early in the second half, Monk went absolutely nova as he scored 10 points in just over two minutes.

Overall, the freshman combo guard put up 21 points on 8/17 FG and 4/9 from deep, but he was mostly invisible when he didn’t have the ball in his hands. Aside from his scoring, he also recorded 3 rebounds, 1 assist, 1 steal, 2 blocks, and 1 turnover.

Teams looking for a pure scorer should absolutely go after Malik Monk. Although I don’t see any world in which Monk is a starting point guard in today’s NBA; he can shoot from WAY outside and clearly has a killer instinct. A team like Philadelphia could pair him perfectly with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as he wouldn’t be the primary ball-handler in most situations.

Bswest5: Aside from a pair of late-game threes, Monk never found rhythm against UNC. He was certainly more bothered by Justin Jackson’s length than he was earlier in the year, but the biggest issue that separated Monk’s performance tonight vs. his 47-point outing against UNC a few months back was the lack of early rhythm. The UNC defenders stayed tight against him, and Monk didn’t flash the ball-handling skills or off-the-ball movement to get the decent shots he needed. Add in some disastrous defense (he got destroyed off the dribble by Stilman White, a fifth-year deep bench reserve) and a bad late-game turnover, and it was a rocky end to a rocky tournament by Monk.

I know there are many out there who think Monk can be a stealthy PG selection this offseason, but his run through the tournament convinced me of two things; (1) if he’s my secondary ball-handler, I’m really happy, but (2) if he’s my primary handler, I can’t be confident given what we’ve seen so far that he’ll develop the handles, court vision, and control necessary to play PG at the NBA level. It’s absolutely true that Coach Calipari limits his players overall talents to focus on their strengths that fit his gameplans, and Monk’s role was to shoot... but in a class of so many talented point guards, with a Sacramento franchise that desperately needs a passer and offensive controller, the Kings shouldn’t take Monk with the hopes of making him a #1 ball handler. Take Monk for what he is; a star shooter with great scoring potential. That in itself makes him worth a top 10 pick.

No. 9. De’Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky

Babygiraffe (No. 6 on my Kings-centric big board): WHAT. A. GAME.

If you had told the masses that someone in the UCLA-Kentucky mega-matchup would go for 39 points on 20 shots, a vast majority of folks would have assumed it was the more-hyped point guard prospect, Lonzo Ball. Instead, De’Aaron Fox absolutely eviscerated the porous Bruins defense, playing the game of his life.

The Wildcats young guard scored early and often in the first half through a myriad of floaters, runners, and mid-range jump shots. His scoring carried his squad as fellow top-10 prospect, Malik Monk, struggled to get going early on. He scored the first eight points for John Calipari and walked into the locker room with 15 points on 7/12 FG.

The final two quarters were even more impressive as De’Aaron poured in an additional 24 points on 6/8 FG. His constant attacks on the rim also led to 15 free throw attempts, of which he made 13. Fox also added 4 assists, 3 rebounds, 2 steals, and only 1 turnover to his packed stat line.

Beyond the box score, the freshman also showed some strengths and weaknesses that we’ve seen all season long. His outside shooting has shown improvement throughout the year and although he missed his only three point attempt, he shot 3/6 outside of the key. Understandably, Fox much prefers to attack the rim rather than shoot long jumpers, but he’ll have to improve both his accuracy, volume, and confidence to get NBA defenses to give him a bit more respect.

Fox also constantly makes the smart, simple, fundamental pass. This can be both a positive and a problem as you rarely see him thread the needle or try something a little bit more difficult.

His lack of desire to shoot from beyond the arc and his more basic playmaking could be challenging at the next level. If I were an opposing coach, I would simply build a wall at the rim and simply dare Fox to shoot a 15 footer.

A final word - no player has helped his draft stock in the entire tournament than De’Aaron Fox did tonight.

Bswest5: The matchup with UNC was a good-not-great contest for Fox that affirmed by biggest opinion on him; I’m not sure how anyone can have a locked-in opinion on his NBA future, both good or bad.

Sure, you can say this about any of the players, but it’s certainly as true about Fox as it is for any player in this class. To his credit, he’s showing potential of correcting his biggest flaw; his jumper showed solid consistency over the past month, and he was significantly less hurky-jerky release on threes, especially the short corner ones. But even the things we love about him worry me;

  • He’s an elite athlete with insane speed and great body control going to the rim, but collegiate teams (including UNC in the Elite Eight) learned they could negate this by collapsing after screens in in the high post. Fox’s instinct on the pick-and-roll attack is still to get to the rim at all costs, and he met wall-after-wall on defense. The first step in the evolution of his game will come when he trusts his jumper enough to consistantly do something other than run into traffic off the screen.
  • Tim was right above - as a distributor, Fox has gifted court vision, and makes the smart, fundamental passes. His assist numbers aren’t up to Ball or Dennis Smith levels, but Fox also had to deal with Kalipari’s belief that Isaiah Briscoe should get heavy control the ball (plus, Monk!). Still, too often the Kentucky offense stalled for large chunks of gametime, and Fox would vanish when he couldn’t make the impact as a distributor.
  • As a defender, none of the guards in the lottery attack their opponents as relentlessly as Fox, and his foot speed and length will be serious weapons. He’s a smart player who knows his physical gifts, and as the year went on he went from being a gifted-athletic defender to a smarter-gifted-athletic defender. But still, even when he gets serious NBA-weight-room time, he’s 150 pounds. I can’t see him making an immediate defensive impact for a year or so.

As I said last week, in any other class in the past 4-5 years, he’d be a top 5 (probably top 3!) lock – if you truly believe his shooting isn’t as bad as the stats say, that’s certainly a fair belief to have for a youngster with plenty of time to improve. But I don’t know how anyone is exceptionally confident about what impact he’ll make on the NBA given the season he had.

No. 10. Lauri Markkanen, PF, Arizona

No draft prospect had a more disappointing tournament than Markkanen; aside from a 20 point outing against mismatched South Dakota, he never showed the ability to create the space for his jumper consistently, and he continued the narrative that “all he can do is shoot”. Against Xavier, who stymied him completely despite having only one player over 6’10, he didn’t take a single shot in the final 10 minutes of the contest and showed limited reason to be on the court otherwise.

It’s easy to dismiss Markkanen, but some smart NBA team is going to love selecting a 7’2 mismatch who can break defensive spacing. His rebounding, playmaking, and defensive instincts all need to improve, but he’s still a lottery level talent. Disastrous tournament aside, his shooting ability and range cannot be undersold in the modern NBA.

No. 14. Justin Jackson, SF, North Carolina

Next game: Saturday v. Oregon, 7:09 PST, CBS

Luke Maye was the hero on Sunday, but Justin Jackson is the best remaining NBA prospect in the tournament. He finished with 17 points, four assists, and five boards against the Wildcats and played great defense against the much smaller Malik Monk, who never got comfortable against Jackson’s length (despite a significant advantage for Monk in footspeed).

The good for Jackson; he’s continued to showcase his great jumper and solid NBA range (38% from three), both of which he completely lacked two seasons ago. He’s crafty with the ball and makes up for a lack of great burst or footspeed with solid handles and a very aware sense of what he can and can’t do with the ball. He’s completely bought in to being UNC’s best player and is willing to handle the ball in the big moments, but he’s also got a 1.7/1 assist to turnover ratio with a 15.9% assist rate. He deserves to be in the late lottery conversation thanks to the significant, visible improvements he’s made in each of the past three seasons.

The bad; even as he’s learned to play within his physical abilities, he’s not the athlete the rest of the lotto-level small forwards are. His ability to create his own offense with the ball in his hands hasn’t reached the level of his jumper yet, and he looks to me like a great fourth option, a 3-and-space player on a good team; a ceiling certainly eclipsed by the potentials of Jonathan Isaac, Jayson Tatum, and Miles Bridges. While he’s become a much better defender over his UNC career, he lacks the sheer size, footspeed, or explosiveness that point to high-defensive potential. He’s a clear tier (or two) down for me from the rest of the forwards.

Saturday’s contest against Oregon offers a chance to watch Jackson play against a variety of lengthy, athletic swingmen - it’ll be interesting to see how he handles that.

Caleb Swanigan, PF, Purdue

Swanigan’s improvement this season has been incredible; he’s become a hyper-efficient scorer, shooting near 80% at the rim, 40% on two-point shots, and 43% from three. He doesn’t have great physical tools (6’9 without great explosiveness or footspeed), and he’ll prefer to play small-ball center rather than match-up with the athletes at the NBA 40... but he’s a determined rebounder (30.5% defensive rebounding rate, and 15.5 boards per 40 minutes!) who worked to box out both faster fours and bigger fives. Add in his solid court vision (3.7 assists per 40), and you’ve got a capable bench big man with the ability to impact multiple ways on offense.

Bam Adebayo, PF/C, Kentucky

All it will take to get Bam Adebayo drafted in the early-20s is one team who thinks they can make him a Bismack Biyombo-level rim protector out of him... without realizing he’s really not a rim protector (at least, not yet). I’m not really a massive fan of Adebayo; he’s a capable all-around collegiate big man, but he’s got limited skills as a scorer (relying on the space Kentucky creates or attention Fox draws) and limited instincts on defense. I wouldn’t take Adebayo if Caleb Swanigan was still on the board.

Frank Mason Jr., PG, Kansas

Frank Mason is going to make some NBA team really happy in the mid-to-late second round. No, he’s not the next Isaiah Thomas, but Frank Mason will likely be underdrafted due to his size (5’11), age (23) and less-than-stellar defense. Projecting him as a future starter is a bit rich, but his shooting instincts and tough, always-engaged play style will make him a fan favorite.

His efficiency as a scorer has been incredible this season, able to create his own shot in a variety of ways; he’s in the 80th percentile in points-per-shot in transition, on the pick-and-roll, in iso, and on the spot-up. The one concern with his offense is his lack of ability at the rim; he’s far less reliant when he gets into the paint, and is shooting 54% at the rim...much lower than normal for a high-usage guard (Ball shoots 79%, Monk 69%, and Fox 64%).

While he’ll never be a pass-first point, he’s capable and willing; he averages 5.2 assists per game, and has made SIGNIFICANT improvements in his ball-handling and control over his four-year career on Kansas (a near 2.2/1 assist to turnover ratio).

I don’t think Mason has the slashing skills or the full-game impact to be a real 2nd-round steal, but he’ll carve a role in the NBA.

Others still playing for the title: Dylan Brooks, SF, Oregon (early 2nd); Jordan Bell, PF, Oregon (mid 2nd); Tyler Dorsey, SG, Oregon (late 2nd); Sindarius Thornwell, SG, South Carolina (mid 2nd); P.J. Dozier, SG, South Carolina (late 2nd, 1st tier undrafted); Nigel Williams-Goss, SG, Gonzaga (mid 2nd); Zach Collins, PF, Gonzaga (mid 2nd, getting very overhyped in my view); Tony Bradley, PF/C, North Carolina (mid 2nd)

Outside looking in: 1. Markelle Fultz, PG, Washington; 3. Dennis Smith, PG, N.C. State; 4. Jonathan Isaac, SF, Florida State; 7. Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke; 8. Frank Ntilikina, PG, France; No. 11 Miles Bridges, SF/PF, Michigan State; 12. Justin Patton, C, Creighton; No. 13. Luke Kennard, PG/SG, Duke; 15. Harry Giles, PF, Duke; 16. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Louisville; 17. OG Anunoby, SF, Indiana; 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; Josh Hart, SG, Villanova;

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