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March Madness 2018: NBA Prospect Watch, Week 1

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100 days separate us from the 2018 NBA Draft, and with the star-studded tournament set to kick off, let’s review the top prospects and their first week match-ups.

USC v Arizona Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

100 days separate us from the 2018 NBA Draft, and whether you’re a die hard armchair scout or a fan just getting caught up, there’s no better opportunity to see the top prospects than this year’s March Madness. If you’re just here to watch the potential draftees, a whopping 13 of my top 15 players are in the tournament—and if you’re just here for the good basketball, this year seems as open for spoilers and Cinderellas as ever.

The best news for Sacramento; whether you subscribe to BPA or fit drafting, this potential class offers both a lottery full of players who be strong fits for the Kings, but also—in this humble armchair scout’s opinion—a gang of top-tier talent 7 to 8 players deep.

Players are listed in order of my current draft rankings; all stats come from Synergy Sports, sports-reference.com or hoop-math.com. Long live March!

1. Luka Dončić, Wing, Real Madrid

Sir Not-Appearing-in-This-Tourney has been busy averaging per-40 numbers of 25 points, 8.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.6 steals, and 46.7% shooting across his 44 games in Euroleague this season. He’s playing in the second toughest league in the world, and draws the full attention of the other 9 players on the court at all times. And where most of the highly-scouted just-turned-19-year-old Euro prospects don’t get much usage in the veteran loving league (Kristaps Porzingis averaged 6.9 points and 2.8 rebounds at that age), Dončić’s 17.0 points per game average is tied for second highest in Euroleague.

What Dončić has accomplished this year is both historic and... seemingly, expectedly mundane in today’s draft ethos. If you’re going to read any other draft-related content this month (besides, you know, my other articles), make it Rob Scott’s piece on Dončić; it gives great context to his season, his usage, and the fact that one of the biggest franchises in the league is suddenly in the hands of an 19 year old.

We’ve got three months to discuss Dončić, his insane basketball IQ, his athleticism, and his foibles. But March Madness is about the collegiate athletes. For now, Dončić is top on my board; lets see if that changes over the next month.

2. DeAndre Ayton, Big, Arizona

Next Game: Thursday vs. No. 13 Buffalo, 6:40 p.m. PST, CBS

In his last 6 games, which includes a Pac-12 Championship, DeAndre Ayton has averaged 22.4 points, 13.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.6 blocks on 64% shooting... all despite facing opposing double/triple teams and having to mentally shoulder the ESPN confirmed/ unconfirmed/ maybe totally wrong Sean Miller scandal. The brute force that Ayton can throw around is unmatched at this level of play, and while it’s fair to wonder just how immediate or easy his NBA transition will be, his combination of low-post success and physical tools make him arguably the best prospect in the class.

There’s still a hesitancy to some of Ayton’s game. He gets boxed out a tad too easily against physically tough yet physically smaller players. But the best part about Ayton is he’s flashing skills that weren’t as evident early in the season. He’s improved his rim protection—2.3 blocks per conference game, compared to 1.2 from his early non-conference schedule—and is becoming a more willing and capable post defender. He’s also showing a strong playmaking eye in both a moving offense AND when he draws double and triple teams. Check out his highlight pass from the Championship win against USC:

As Bleacher Report’s Jonathan Wasserman pointed out, Ayton generates 1.304 PPP against hard double-teams in the post; he’s in the 99th percentile on scoring attempts, and 92nd percentile in pass outs.

Miller pairs Ayton with 7 foot senior Dusan Ristic. Ristic is an strong low-post scorer and one of Arizona’s best players, but he’s got limited mobility for his size; this forces Miller to shift Ayton to guard fours on defense and rotate Ristic/Ayton across the high/low post on offense (although recently Ayton has been the low post option more than earlier in the season). While this all fits into Ayton’s skillset—he runs the floor like a guard, is currently a better perimeter defender than post defender, and is shooting 43.8% on 2-point jumpers—it’s almost certainly NOT how he’ll be primarily utilized in the NBA.

Buffalo’s strength is not in their big men (though their backcourt duo of Jeremy Harris and C.J. Massinburg might give the Wildcats trouble), so Ayton seems primed for a strong outing in game one. A second round match-up with Kentucky would be just a taaaaddd more interesting; Ayton would easily beat up Nick Richards, but a swarming lineup of PJ Washington, Kevin Knox, and maybe Jarred Vanderbilt (if healthy) trying to contain Ayton and Ristic would be hyper entertaining.

3. Michael Porter Jr., Forward, Missouri

Next Game: Friday vs. No. 9 Florida State, 6:45 p.m. PST, TBS

Porter’s return from a back injury that had kept him out of all but TWO MINUTES of the season added kerosene to this bonfire of a tournament. A year ago, Porter was considered one of if not THE best player in this draft class, so above all else, it’s just great to see him playing basketball again.

His return in the SEC Tournament against Georgia was fine. He was clearly rusty (12 points and 8 rebounds on 5-17 shooting), and athletically limited compared to what he showed off in High School, but that really should have been expected, regardless of how many (including I) hyped the game up. The major concern was his shot selection—he had some bad shots in really bad spots in the first half against the Bulldogs. To be fair, his Tigers teammates were all ice cold at that point, so he can be somewhat forgiven for trying to force the buckets as the team’s expected scoring leader... but his shot selection will be a huge thing to monitor in the NCAA Tournament.

I’m not an NBA doctor, and I wouldn’t play one in this article. Teams will have to access his medicals following his back surgery last November, and I can’t say how that will sway his ‘draft stock’. But we’ve got a recent NBA case for comparison: Dwight Howard had the same surgery in the April of his last year with the Magic, and was playing for the Lakers on opening night six months later.

NBA teams know who Michael Porter Jr. is. It would have been great to see him play the whole season mainly to see he’d handle physicality on both ends… but he’s been in this process a long time. He’s played hundreds of minutes in front of NBA scouts. Teams know he’s a top level prospect with his size (6’10) and excellent creation ability. Any NBA front office worth their salt should have had a solid opinion on Porter’s potential before this season, and I don’t expect a rough NCAA tournament will really change his draft stock. He’s a top tier player who should hear his name very quickly come June 21st.

4. Jaren Jackson Jr., Big, Michigan State

Next Game: Friday vs. No. 14 Bucknell, 4:10 p.m. PST, CBS

Jaren Jackson personifies the old unicorn label; deep shooter + shot blocker = unicorn. Jackson is shooting 39.6% on 96 three-point attempts, and averages 5.7 blocks per 40 minutes. Ayton, Bagley, and Bamba are all hypothetical shooters OR rim protectors to one degree or another.. those aren’t hypothetical with Jackson.

He’s a defensive titan and one of the rare players who is as good a defender as he is a shot blocker. He allows just .635 points per defensive possession and 25.7% shooting, 16th best in the COUNTRY for players with over 150 possessions played. None of the bigs, even Bamba, come close to his level of defensive awareness and success.

Bucknell’s best player is Zach Thomas, a rangy 6’7 forward averaging 20.3 points, 9.2 rebounds, and 46% shooting. While Jackson’s foul troubles are often the limiting factor in his defense (5.8 fouls per 40), Tom Izzo should absolutely start Jackson against Thomas... which means he’ll probably play Nick Ward instead.

Michigan State is in the crazy deep Midwest region, with Kansas, Duke, Clemson, Auburn, and even Trae Young. The Spartans might be the best of that bunch, but they’re going to be facing a wide variety of high-end scoring talents if they want to get to the Final Four. Let’s see if Jackson can keep himself out of foul trouble and is ready to meet that challenge... and basketball gods, please give us the JJJ/Marvin Bagley match-up you robbed from us on opening night.

5. Marvin Bagley III, Big, Duke

Next Game: Thursday vs. No. 15 Iona Gaels, 11:45 a.m. PST, CBS

Bagley and Duke are as must-watch as it gets this season (outside of Number 7 on this list), both because of their potential to take this tournament by storm or completely fizzle out in a hard-fought Round-of-32 matchup against Rhode Island. Bagley is a tremendous athlete and a dynamic low-post scorer (.97 PPP on post-up attempts, 90th percentile per Synergy), and he shows off a motor that any team would want in their lottery selection. His weaknesses on defense, large as they are, are technical and not motivational.

Over the past three games, Bagley has averaged 24 points and 15 rebounds on 62% shooting and 50% from three. This run included Duke’s home win against North Carolina, where Bagley had 18/8 in the second half—the most impressive run I’ve seen from a non-Trae Young player this season.

Iona could play giant killer with their high-pace play and their three-point heavy attack (319 made 3s, 29th most in the NCAA), but they also have no one who can come close to matching up with Bagley. A second round contest against mid-major darling Rhode Island or Oklahoma and Trae Young would be must watch either way. And there’s a possibility for a Duke/Michigan State match-up in the Sweet 16...

6. Mikal Bridges, Wing, Villanova

Next Game: Thursday vs. No. 16 LIU Brooklyn OR Radford, 3:50 p.m. PST, TNT

I’m here for the Mikal March Madness breakout. Bridges is an ideal NBA modern role player, a high-efficiency shooter and switchable defender... but I also think he’s got a much higher ceiling than the role-player label implies (more on that later—my Bracket predicts PLENTY of time left to discuss Bridges).

Make sure to check out Mikal this month, especially if he gets a match-up with Alabama and Collin Sexton in the second round. Mikal is the reason the TANK instincts in my Kings fandom psyche stay quiet on nights when they win, because he’ll almost certainly be there whenever Sacramento picks. He’s a two way stud who gets lost among all these freshman.

7. Trae Young, Point, Oklahoma

Next Game: Thursday vs. No. 7 Rhode Island, 9:15 a.m. PST, CBS

You might have heard about this kid. He’s really damn good. If you haven’t seen him yet, go watch his highlights against Wichita State. Or Oregon. Or Oklahoma State. Or Northwestern. Or Northwestern State. Any of them are fine. He scored at least 27 points and dished at least 7 assists in every one of those games.

You may also have heard about Young’s slump. In his past 10 games spanning back to the begging of February, his numbers have sunk to 21.2 points and 7.1 assists on 35% shooting. Now, those might seem like gosh darn good numbers for a freshman in the hardest conference in basketball. But there’s no denying that Young’s production—at least, as a shooter—is no longer keeping up with his usage. In those 10 games, he’s shot 25% from three on 98 total attempts.

Rhode Island is a rock solid defensive team that has given up the 5th fewest threes on the season, and with the secret now out that Young struggles against pressing, physical defenders, it’ll be interesting to see how the Rams’ senior duo of Jared Terrell and E.C. Matthews play against him. Even when Young is struggling, he’s still as must-watch as you’re going to find at this level. Here’s hoping Young gets a chance to try carving up Duke’s zone defense in the Round of 32... but I’m not betting on that matchup happening.

8. Mo Bamba, Big, Texas

Next Game: Friday vs. No. 7 Nevada, 1:30 p.m. PST, TBS

Bamba’s value is clear; he’s got top-of-the-2K-slider length with great timing on the block. He’s as promising a rim-protector as the NBA could hope to find (4.8 blocks per 40, 12.9% block rate), and also swallows up rebounds at strong levels (13.8 per 40, 27.9% defensive rebounding rate). He changes the gravity of the court defensively, both by being a dynamic help defender AND by just scaring the living hell out of any opponent who even dreams of venturing into his post lair.

Offensively, though, he’s more of a project than his hype might otherwise indicate.

  • He’s kind of a shooter, but not consistently; he’s shooting 29.2% on jump shots in the half-court.
  • He’s kind of a solid post-mover, but the touch isn’t there consistently; he’s shooting 38.8% on post-up plays.
  • His size begs a strong pick-and-roll game, but it’s REALLY not consistent; he’s shooting 31.4% as the roller.
  • And his 225 pound frame gets disrupted by collegiate defenders—consistently.

Aside from a strong ability to cut and catch the ball right at the rim (93rd percentile on cuts, 82% shooting), and great effort off the offensive rebound, Bamba’s offense is raw. He’s a major threat to give you ally-oop highlights, but those won’t be as easy against NBA bigs. And while Jaren Jackson Jr., Marvin Bagley, and DeAndre Ayton are all flashing playmaking eyes mid-season, Bamba has 14 total assists on the year. I’m less confident about his offense developing than I am the rest of the players in my top 10.

Nevada doesn’t have close to the size to match-up with Bamba, which will make the contest one of the more interesting of the first week games. Bamba SHOULD physically dominate this game, but where Bagley and Ayton (and to a lesser extent, Jaren Jackson Jr.) have dominated games they SHOULD dominate, that hasn’t happened as much with Bamba. March is the perfect platform for that to change.

9. Miles Bridges, Forward, Michigan State

Next Game: Friday vs. No. 14 Bucknell, 4:10 p.m. PST, CBS

While I’ve been beating the Mikal “Better Bridges” drum for a while now, it’s hard not to love Miles Bridges. As I discussed a few weeks back, his transition from the power to small forward (so that Tom Izzo can justify playing Nick Ward alongside Bridges and Jackson) has jumbled up his offensive role from last year. His attempts at the rim, according to hoop-math.com, have decreased from 37% of his shot total last year to 28% this year. This means more threes, more jumpshots, and a drop in rebounds. I wrote that I wasn’t expecting much new from Bridges this season, and that we won’t really glimpse his ceiling until he’s asked to create AND effectively defend against NBA forwards.

That said, his improvement on his three pointers over the past month has been impressive. If you ignore a garbage 0-7 from deep outing against Wisconsin, since the start of February, he’s 16/35 from three, including a game winner against Purdue. When his shot is hitting at that level, it’s easy to see how Bridges, a 6’7 wrecking ball with both-ends versatility, would be a smart pick in the modern NBA. And while I just wrote 300 words on his collegiate positioning, if an NBA team starts overthinking the situation and tries hammering Bridges into one position or another, they’re missing the point of having such a versatile, switchable player.

Bridges said after the game winner that shots like the Purdue winner are “why I came back”. He’s got a great opportunity to keep showing why he came back—starting with Bucknell on Thursday.

10. Wendell Carter, Big, Duke

Next Game: Thursday vs. No. 15 Iona Gaels, 11:45 a.m. PST, CBS

In any normal draft class, Carter would be higher than this. He doesn’t have the same athletic toolset as the bigs in front of him, which may limit his creation upside, but he’s a tough, physical player with a wide skill set and no enormous weaknesses. He’s got solid footwork and post-moves, and gives strong effort on the glass (14 boards per 40 minutes, 18.9% total rebounding rate). He’s a developing three level scorer, shooting 70% at the rim, nearly 40% on 2-point jumpers, and 48% from three (on 35 total attempts).

Carter suffers from the same skill-masking positional battle as Bagley does, and even when Bagley was out for three games, Carter shared the front court with another center in Marques Boldin. Whether his skills will can translate to a starters role in the NBA next to a different front-court mate remains to be seen, but he’s posed for a strong game against the undersized Gaels.

11. Collin Sexton, Point, Alabama

Next Game: Thursday v. No. 8 Virginia Tech, 6:20 p.m., TNT

Collin Sexton is a tough, fiery combo guard who can power his way to the basket with flash and finish with skill. In the toughest conference at the college level, with defenses focused mostly on him, he’s showing solid creation moves off the bounce and at the rim. He’s also a hardworking and solidly effective defender, and has the athleticism and bulldog approach—if not the sheer size or length (6’3, 190 lbs)—to play at the next level.

He’s also exploding at the best time possible. In three SEC tournament games, he averaged 26 points on 25 of 46 shooting (54%) and 10 of 17 from 3 (58%), and hit an end-to-end game-winning finger roll to beat Texas A&M. That tournament firestorm aside, the big question mark with Sexton is his shooting ability; for a high-volume scorer, shooting 26.4% from three in conference play, and 41% overall in the half-court, isn’t great.

And while he has some flashes of court vision that hint that solid playmaking is in his range of skill outcomes… a 1/1.3 assist/turnover ratio and a 26% assist rate to 32% usage rate doesn’t paint the picture of an standard primary distributor. And that might be ok—he could conceivably thrive as a secondary handler who benefits from greater NBA space.

Sexton seems primed for a strong March, and his first round match-up against a deep and guard heavy Virginia Tech team should provide plenty of chances for fireworks. A second round potential meeting with Villanova and Mikal Bridges/Jalen Brunson would give us one of the more fun contests of the first weekend.

12. Daniel Gafford, Big, Arkansas

Next Game: vs. No. 10 Butler, 12:10 p.m., truTv

Gafford is an athletic wonder, a 6’11 freshman titan who can do this. Look at how fast he gets up the court!

While his production has fluctuated over the season, Gafford offers clear value as a rim protector (3.8 blocks per 40 minutes at an 11.3% rate) and rebounder (11 per 40). He’s also showcasing a handful of solid low-post and back-to-the-basket moves. He’s a raw offensive player, and his shooting touch is certainly an issue at this stage—he’s shooting 52% from the free throw line, and just 27.6% on 2-point jumpers—but he plays with an infectious effort on both ends of the court that leads one to hope he’s just getting started.

Bryant’s 2018 Big Board (Updated 3/14)

Rank Name Position School Next Game (PST)
Rank Name Position School Next Game (PST)
1 Luka Doncic Wing Real Madrid N/A
2 DeAndre Ayton Big Arizona N/A
3 Michael Porter Jr. Forward Missouri N/A
4 Jaren Jackson Jr. Big Michigan State N/A
5 Marvin Bagley III Big Duke Fri. vs. Syracuse (6:37 p.m., CBS)
6 Mikal Bridges Wing Villanova Fri. vs. West Virginia (4:27 p.m., TBS)
7 Trae Young Point Oklahoma N/A
8 Mo Bamba Big Texas N/A
9 Miles Bridges Forward Michigan State N/A
10 Wendell Carter Big Duke Fri. vs. Syracuse (6:37 p.m., CBS)
11 Collin Sexton Point Alabama N/A
12 Daniel Gafford Big Arkansas N/A
13 Lonnie Walker Guard Miami N/A
14 Kevin Knox Forward Kentucky Thurs. vs. Kansas State (6:37 p.m., CBS)
15 Troy Brown Wing Oregon N/A
16 Chandler Hutchison Wing Boise State N/A
17 Mitchell Robinson Big N/A N/A
18 Shai Gilgeous-Alexander Guard/Wing Kentucky Thurs. vs. Kansas State (6:37 p.m., CBS)
19 Robert Williams Big Texas A&M Thurs. vs. Michigan (4:37 p.m., TBS)
20 Jontay Porter Forward/Big Missouri N/A
21 Keita Bates-Diop Wing/Forward Ohio State N/A
22 De'Anthony Melton Guard/Wing USC (Left team) N/A
23 Jalen Brunson Point Villanova Fri. vs. West Virginia (4:27 p.m., TBS)
24 Shake Milton Point SMU N/A
25 Khyri Thomas Guard Creighton N/A
26 Zhaire Smith Guard Texas Tech Fri. vs. Purdue (6:57 p.m., TBS)
27 Bruce Brown Guard Miami N/A
28 Landry Shammet Point Wichita State N/A
29 De'Andre Hunter Forward/Big Virginia N/A
30 Rui Hachimura Forward Gonzaga Thurs. vs. Florida State (7:07 p.m., TBS)