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March Madness 2018: NBA Prospect Watch, Sweet 16

It was a great Week 1 if you enjoy exciting basketball, and a massive downer if you like watching draft prospects. Let’s take a look at how the biggest prospects handled their match-ups.

Bucknell v Michigan State Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

An historic Week 1 of the 2018 NCAA Tournament brought us giant killers, buzzer beaters, and incredible upsets, but also knocked six of the nine top collegiate prospects from Championship contention—a great run if you enjoy exciting basketball, and a massive downer if you’re watching with a Draft eye. Let’s take a look at how the biggest prospects handled their match-ups, and look ahead to a few Sweet 16 contents.

Players are listed in order of my pre-tournament draft rankings; all stats come from Synergy Sports, or Long live March!

2. DeAndre Ayton, Big, Arizona

Arizona’s loss against No. 14 Buffalo was an embarrassment that encapsulated their season; their collection of mismatched players couldn’t thrive with no real offense and sloppy, uninspired defense. Ayton’s numbers alone—14 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 of 13 shooting—don’t paint the picture of how ugly the contest was for the beast from the Bahamas. He had a few solid moments in the post, but against a small Bulls lineup that shouldn’t have been able to handle him, he missed too many bunnies that NBA bigs are expected to make. Many of his makes came on single-coverage post-ups against smaller Buffalo players who, for some reason, continued to front him... but, more inexcusably, Arizona failed to get Ayton the ball on many of those Buffalo fronts. An ugly game on all counts for the Wildcats.

There’s a lot about Ayton’s defense at this level that is inexcusable; while he (usually) dominated on offense when expected to, he was not that consistent powerhouse on defense. Buffalo guard Jeremy Harris blew past him time and time again on baseline drives—a player with Ayton’s speed and wingspan (7’4) should not get beaten off the dribble so easily and offer nothing as a recovery shot blocker. He’s got the toolset, and I’m bullish that a youngster with Ayton’s motor will figure out how to become an average defender at worst... but he’s got to bring the effort and energy he plays with on offense to the defensive side, and he’s got to end up in a situation with a coach who’ll challenge and teach him on defense.

Ayton had plenty of supreme moments throughout the season (go look at his Pac12 tournament run), and one look at his truly rare athleticism and size combination makes it clear why he’s such a highly ranked prospect. But Arizona got blown out of the water by a more confident, more composed, and more polished Bulls team—and Ayton sure didn’t do much to impress in the loss.

3. Michael Porter Jr., Forward, Missouri

Porter Jr.’s collegiate career ended against Florida State in the first round on Friday. He had 16 points, 10 rebounds, and 3 steals on 4-12 shooting. His shot selection was still slightly nauseating, but Missouri was down early and had an ineffective game throughout (32% shooting as a team).

I applaud Porter Jr.’s decision to come back after his four month injury recover and try and help the injured/suspension-hampered Tigers’ team he’d originally signed up to lead. Or, I applaud Porter Jr.’s decision to come back and try to bump up his draft stock. Either way, applause for Porter Jr., even if it didn’t end up going the way he’d have liked.

He’s not in game shape, and his chemistry with his teammates and on-court decision making weren’t at the level they’d need to be to effectively play on an NCAA tournament team. It’s clear he’s a shell of himself right now, and NBA teams know this. How much they base their evaluations off his 53 minutes of collegiate action this season is a big question going forward.

4. Jaren Jackson Jr., Big, Michigan State

Limited by foul trouble, disrupted by multiple defenders in his high-post spot, and hampered by his own Coach’s lineup choices, Jackson Jr. was invisible through the weekend. He finished with just 8 points, 12 rebounds, 2 blocks, and 2 of 7 shooting with just 33 minutes played in the two games.

Tom Izzo locked Jackson into a stretch-five role on offense all season and stuck him in the high-post. Playing with Nick Ward and Miles Bridges has its lineup price. Only 45% of Jackson’s shots on the season came at the rim, according to… and most of those were off transition or cut plays. He took a grand total of 30 shots off post-ups this season, per Synergy. 30! That’s tremendously rigid coaching right there. He averaged 1.28 PPP on those attempts, which is 98th percentile in the league... but when a prized 7’0 big man with Gumby arms had less than half as many post-up attempts as he had spot-up attempts (74), that’s probably a sign that skills could be hidden at the collegiate level.

In the final minutes of the Michigan State loss to Syracuse, with the offense at a complete standstill, Izzo kept reserve big Ben Carter (7.7 minutes a game this season) in the game instead of Jackson. When the Spartans were down by three with under a minute left, Izzo finally substituted Jackson in... and pulled him the very next stoppage of play. When asked after the game why his prized defensive prospect hadn’t played more...

A player who, per Synergy, allowed opponents to shoot just 27.5% from the field against him all year, was out of the game because “of defense.”

Izzo’s plan to beat the Syracuse zone was apparently to have the Spartans swing the ball around the outside until someone got daylight to jack up a three. The Spartans took a school-record 37 threes in the game—again, you think a big man who’d shot 40% from three on the season and made more threes than he’d taken post-up attempts would get more than 15 minutes in that game plan.

Any assessment of Jackson Jr. going forward has to begin with the roles Izzo cemented him into, and how an NBA team will use him differently. And it’s a damn shame that such a talented player didn’t get a better shot in the Madness.

5. Marvin Bagley III, Big, Duke

Next Game: Friday vs. No. 11 Syracuse, 6:37 p.m. PST, CBS

Bagley dominated in the games he was supposed to dominate in; he combined for 44 points and 16 rebounds on 18 of 24 shooting, including 17 of 21 in the paint. The biggest opponent he found himself matched against was Iona’s 6’8 forward TK Edogi, so this was expected... but you can’t harp on a player for blowing up the stats when he is expected to.

That changes this week, when Michigan State collides with Duke in the Bagley/Jackson Jr. match-up we were teased with in the first game of the season, before Bagley got poked in the eye and missed the majority of the contest (Duke won 88-81). As an armchair scout, there may not be a better game to watch in the tournament than...

Oh, wait. We get Bagley against Paschal Chukwu instead.

6. Mikal Bridges, Wing, Villanova

Next Game: Friday vs. No. 5 West Virginia, 4:27 p.m. PST, TBS

It was the worst off halves, it was the best of halves for Mikal against Alabama.

Bridges had a bad first, aside from his usual strong on-ball defense. He made some poor help defense miscues on switches, and was invisible on offense when he wasn’t missing transition lay-ins.

With Villanova clinging to a 32-27 lead to start the second half, Bridges went nova—he scored 19 of the Wildcats’ next 21 points in in five and a half minute stretch (including 4 straight threes), and finished with 23 points, 4 rebounds, and 2 blocks on 7-16 shooting and 5-8 from deep.

Bridges doesn’t have the clear scoring ceiling that the guys above him on my board do—if you’re looking for star equity, he’s probably not your selection. But what he projects to be in the NBA is so valuable to the modern game that ANY additional growth as an individual creator in the half-court could send his value skyrocketing.

He’s already a great defender. He guards the opposition’s best guard, wing, or forward and can handle nearly any switch at this level—Synergy stats him giving up just .66 points per possession on 28 percent shooting.

He’s already a great shooter. He’s shooting 40% from three with 4 attempts per game over his last two seasons, and he’s a dynamic spot-up shooter. Per Synergy, he’s in the 99th percentile for spot-up shots, scoring 1.39 points per possession on 49.7% shooting. Most of those are on no-dribble jumpers, and he’s got a strong ability to get shots over defenders straight off the catch with his long reach and quick feet.

Strong 3-and-D wings are as valuable a role as you’ll find in the modern NBA blueprint, so Bridges’ floor is already really high. And it’s not like there isn’t reason to believe that he can add to his offensive package. He’s taking and making more shots off of motion (watch these back-to-back threes against Xaiver). He’s shown a significantly improved handle, a real concern from him last year. And he’s been hitting more shots while moving off of screens, rather than just spot ups—check out Cole Zwicker’s piece on Mikal and wing shot diversity from last month.

Mikal’s growth rate isn’t slowing down. And while he’s not the projectable scorer Doncic, Ayton, Bagley, Porter Jr., or even Trae Young are, hard-capping his ceiling—given the work ethic and leadership he’s shown for the best team in the country—doesn’t make sense. High floor, underrated ceiling.

7. Trae Young, Point, Oklahoma

Young’s season ended with a 83-78 loss to Rhode Island on Thursday. After going 4 for 4 in the first half for 10 points, the Rams’ defense began double teaming him on every move, and Young went dormant until a late game flurry. He hit a Trae-Young ranged 30-foot three, followed by a pair of game-tying free throws that sent the game to overtime. But in OT, he wasn’t as poised, and a pair of awful three point attempts (both misses) as the Sooners offense collapsed will unfortunately be the last images of his historic freshman season.

For all his faults, his slumps, and the legitimate questions about how a guard with his usage rate and physical size will transition into the NBA, it’s key to point out the context for Young’s season. If you just read what I said above, you’d think Young had a bad game, but he finished with 28 points, 7 assists, and 5 rebounds on 9-18 shooting. Oklahoma’s best three non-Young players—Christian James, Brady Manek, and Kameron McGusty—were 8 of 26 for 18 points. Without Young, and without the green light Lon Kruger gave him, this team isn’t close to an NCAA Tournament team. In 20 years, this season will be remembered as the Trae Young year, for better or worse... whatever you think of his draft stock, he was one hell of a fun college basketball player to watch.

8. Mohamed Bamba, Big, Texas

A great snapshot of Bamba’s NBA potential came early in Texas’ loss to Nevada; the 6’11 giant with his unprecedented wingspan and great help-defense timing turned what would have been a clean lay-up in any other college game into a tremendous rejection. He then rushed down the other end of the court, got the ball on the block, drilled Nevada’s Caleb Martin into the floor with a spin move, and threw down an almost lazy dunk. (Check out the first highlight in the video below).

Bamba added some additional dunk, lay-in, and rebound highlights throughout the night, including a huge put-back with 1:30 left in the game. He also had a huge block in the final seconds of regulation with Texas clinging to a 68-67 lead, but a very questionable call on a Jordan Caroline follow-up attempt earned Bamba his fifth foul and ended his night. The game went into overtime, and Texas eventually fell to the Wolfpack 87-83.

It wasn’t all great for Bamba. Smaller opponents still were able to move him around the post. Nevada players snagged rebounds that should have been swallowed up by his 7’9 wingpan. And his effort, while great when he was hot, fluctuated throughout the night. Bamba’s motor is a riddle, wrapped in an offensive-ceiling mystery, inside a insane physical-toolkit enigma; but perhaps, in the right NBA situation, there is a key to unlocking the rest of his potential.

9. Miles Bridges, Forward, Michigan State

Bridges dominated against the undersized Bucknell squad, showcasing his three-level scoring ability with a collection of pull-ups, off-the-bounce, jab-steps, post-ups, on and on and on. He finished the game with 29 points, nine rebounds, and four assists, and shot 12 of 22 from the field and 3 of 7 from deep. I said a few months ago that I didn’t expect Bridges wouldn’t show us much more about his game until he made it to the NBA, but that was a stupid take; look at the full collection of moves he threw at Bucknell. His creation skills are exploding as he gets more and more comfortable shooting in a variety of ways.

The only thing that vanished quicker than Bridges’ efficiency in the loss to Syracuse was Izzo’s willingness to accept blame for it. The Spartan’s zone attack involved running Bridges into the corners for short threes, and that absolutely threw Bridges’ rhythm out of balance. He was 1 of 7 (1 of 6 from three) at halftime, and was 4 of 18 (3 of 12 from three) by the end of the game, where he finished with 11 points and 6 rebounds. If you’re relegating Bridges to a pure spot-up role, you’re going to have a bad time.

Bridges’s sophomore season didn’t end like he’d expected when he opted to come back rather than enter the draft last season, but he’s clearly still a lottery player. A player with his physicality, three-way scoring ability, and TNT-boosted leaping ability will present a smart team with a versatile talent who can impact the game on both ends. And if he’s the mid-/late-lottery prospect that keeps you sane when the Kings youngsters refuse to tank, I can’t fault that. He’d be a lot of fun to watch running with De’Aaron Fox, Bogi, and whoever else is part of the team next year.

10. Wendell Carter, Big, Duke

Next Game: Friday vs. No. 11 Syracuse, 6:37 p.m. PST, CBS

Carter combined for 22 points, 14 rebounds, 5 assists, and 2 blocks on 10-15 shooting in Duke’s two wins in Week 1. While they may not match-up perfectly on an NBA court together, Wendell Carter is the perfect partner for Bagley in one respect; his methodical, high-awareness game gives Duke some constant stability down low and lets Bagley run wild. Where Bagley will crush you with his athleticism and motor, Carter’s beats guys by making the right decision on both ends consistently. He makes good passes off of drives/doubles, knows when to rotate on defense, and never takes a bad shot. Jackson Jr. has the best defensive awareness of the bigs, but Carter has the best full-court awareness... he’s the smartest big in the lottery.

11. Collin Sexton, Point, Alabama

The full Collin Sexton experience was on display against Villanova—electric drives to the basket, tenacious defense on a range of Wildcats (including some solid on-ball defense against Mikal Bridges), some nice passes on lobs and kickouts (3 assists), and some head scratching turnovers (4).

But as Villanova went scorched earth in the second half, neither Sexton nor Alabama could keep pace. He went 3-6 in the half, but added no more assists to his statline. The entirety of the Tide’s offense ground to a halt in a frenzy of missed threes and contested layups in the paint. And while Sexton continued to show an ability to get into the paint, he also showed that the touch doesn’t quite match the hangtime... yet.

A mid-lottery team could certain fall in love with Sexton’s moxie on both ends of the court (he got a technical late when he cursed at Bridges after a strong lay-in), and gamble that his shooting will make a big step forward. He’s certainly got the fire to be a strong NBA player, and it’s a shame that his starpower had to come up against Villanova’s so early in the tournament.

17. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Guard, Kentucky

Next game: Thursday vs. No. 9 Kansas State, 6:37 p.m. PST, CBS

In his six games since the start of March, Gilgeous-Alexander has averaged 21 points, 6.1 assists, 5.1 rebounds, and 2 steals on 55% shooting and 7 of 14 from three. He’s been the engine that has kept Kentucky’s offense running throughout the season, and has a serious argument to be the Wildcats’ best prospect.

He’s not an explosive athlete, but he’s quick, smooth, and LONG—6’6 tall with a 6’10 wingspan. He primarily thrives in the pick-and-role, both as a scorer (52.9% shooting, his most used scoring type) and as a passer (teammates shoot 46.9% off his passes). His length and ability to get into the paint opens up the floor so much for Kentucky’s deep shooters, and he’s a pinpoint passer who can get them the ball even in crowds. He won’t be this low the next time I update my rankings.

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)