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March Madness 2018: 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.

Duke v Kansas Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The 2018 NCAA Tournament continued it’s run of entertaining match-ups (Duke v. Kansas!) and Cinderella stories (Loyola Chicago, and their rotation of seven players no one remembers because SISTER JEAN!) through the second weekend. But following the recent trend from the past few years, the Tourney has also taken away the premier talent before the final games; Villanova’s Mikal Bridges and Jalen Brunson are the only players left in my Top 30.

Let’s breakdown how the top prospects fared this week and take a look at some later 1st round talent.

5. Marvin Bagley III, Big, Duke

Against Syracuse in the Sweet 16, Duke found ways to utilize Bagley against the Oranges’ zone defense. He forced his way behind the zone, worked in a handful of put-backs, hit jumpers in the mid-post, and generally dominated the paint. He finished with 22 points and 7 rebounds on 8 of 12 shooting.

It was a different story against Kansas. Plenty has been made about Kansas eviscerating both Duke’s standard 2-3 zone and the 1-3-1 zone they tried in the second half. But Bagley’s usage on offense against the Jayhawks was as big a blunder by Mike Krzyzewski as their defensive sets.

Kansas stuck 6’8, 200 pound swingman Svi Mykhailiuk on Bagley in the low post, which would have never worked until Duke let it. Certainly, the Jayhawks were quick to rotate inward and try to double Bagley when he got the ball, but there were also plenty of times in the game where the Duke offense was so well spread that a guy with Bagley’s speed in the post shouldn’t have had any problem getting a shot off before the double came. But Bagley was ignored, time and time again, so that Duke’s guards could take contested three point shots. Talking about double coverage only excuses so much when Trevon Duval, who shot 29% from three on the year, had six three point attempts to Bagley’s nine shot attempts. Bagley finished the game with 16 points and 10 boards on 5 of 9 shooting—those 9 attempts were the lowest of the Devil’s starters.

This poor offensive game plan by Duke doesn’t absolve Bagley of all responsibility, because when he did get the ball, he was fairly predictable with it. He greatly prefers to move to his left, and tried the same half-hook on the move a few times. But I find it impossible to believe that a Coach with Krzyzewski’s wisdom and a player with Bagley’s athleticism couldn’t have found ways to beat up a Kansas team playing REALLY small against him.

Bagley is a special athlete. Hyperbole exists only to be used by basketball writers, but Bagley is a generational athlete with his combination of leaping ability (both in the distance he can travel AND in the speed he can get off the ground), fluidity in the open court (he runs like a 6’11 wing, and we all know how valuable those bigs can be) and determination to use these tools to beat over-matched opponents. This classes’ elite big men are physically special players, but you can match Bagley’s tools up with any of them.

At the NBA level, this physical advantage will still exist, but he’s more of a small-ball advantage center on offense; stick him in the low post where he can use his quickness and explosiveness to get high-percentage shots (he was 76.9% on shots at the rim this year) and crash the offensive glass (13.1 boards per 40 minutes, with a 13.8% offensive rebounding rate) and he’ll produce. His shot improved as the season went on—he was shooting 35% from three and 40% on spot-up shots in early Feburary, but finished the year at 39% from three and 44.8% on spot-ups. Still, he front-rims a lot of deep shots, and the extra three feet from the NBA’s line might not be kind to his efficiency if you’re projecting threes are where he’ll add consistent offensive value.

The major complication is his defense. Bagley has been the typical “freshman who suddenly finds himself on a whole new end of the court he didn’t know existed” routine. His quick offensive instincts haven’t translated to defense, and he’ll likely be a full step behind many NBA wings or bigs until he improves that anticipation. He and the entire Duke squad improved defensively when they swapped from man-to-man to zone, but that in itself is a negative on his NBA evaluation—when he transitions into the NBA and suddenly has to play the hardest defensive position in the sport in a man-to-man game in the pace-and-space offensive era, it isn’t going to be pretty. The prime concern is his 3.1% block rate... while he was asked to play some perimeter players, that’s still an abysmal rate and is the lowest of any lottery-drafted big man of the last decade.

I think it’ll be more difficult to optimize a Bagley-lead team, especially if his rim protection instincts don’t drastically improve in the NBA, but with his athleticism, determination in the post, athleticism, rebounding, and athleticism, I can’t let him sink too far because of fit concerns. His defensive questions, as massive as they are, are technical and not motivational. A smart team will figure out how turn Bagley’s motor and skill set into a low-post beast… key there being ‘a smart team’.

6. Mikal Bridges, Wing, Villanova

Next Game: Saturday vs. No. 1 Kansas, 5:49 p.m.

It was a quiet week for Mikal. He was solid enough against West Virginia, snagging 16 points and 6 rebounds in a game that stayed competitive for 30-odd minutes, but a fading three by Bridges with just under 10 minutes to go gave Nova a 63-60 lead they would never reliquish. He rotated between guarding Mountaineers star Jevon Carter and their wing players, and was his usual strong defensive self against all of them.

Texas Tech presented an amazing match-up on paper, a chance for Bridges to guard emerging Red Raiders star Zhaire Smith... but Mikal got in foul trouble early, never found a rhythm, and wasn’t really needed. Despite both teams shooting 33% from the field, Villanova dismantled Texas Tech thanks to a 51 to 33 rebounding advantage. Bridges finished with 12 points and 5 boards on 3 of 10 shooting, including 0 of 5 from three.

If you’re of the opinion that Bridges is a system player, this week probably reinforced your beliefs. But I continue to believe that he’s one of the safer players in the class with a role that is immensely valuable at the NBA level, and he doesn’t look like his growth curve is slowing. We’ll see how he handles Kansas, a methodical, deep offense—will Jay Wright instill him as DeVonte Graham’s shadow? Whoever he gets assigned to on defense, he needs to be more involved offensively, or the Wildcats will likely be headed home.

10. Wendell Carter, Big, Duke

Carter was ineffective against Kansas and limited by foul trouble, and a deeply questionable charge call in the final minutes sent him to the bench for good with 10 points and 2 boards in 22 minutes. He had some solid defensive moments against Udoka Azubuike, but his offensive role in the high-post and outside the three-point line didn’t lead to efficient shots (especially when he’s trying to pump-fake threes).

While Bagley is fully lost in multiple defensive roles, Carter is already a solid post-defender and a capable enough rim protector (2.1 blocks per game, 7.6% rate). He’s a smart player who can body up bigs and wall them off in the post, and hopefully in an NBA weight room he can find the right balance of strength and weight control to give him more burst for better rim protection. But Duke’s decision to switch to zone defense wasn’t just because of Bagley’s issues—Carter also struggled against pick-and-rolls and speedy rim runners.

Jonathan Tjarks wrote a great piece on the Ringer about how Duke’s zone defense saved their season by covering up for their struggling bigs, and what it means for their NBA futures. As he points out in the piece, a big with Carter’s physical profile has a distinct disadvantage in the smaller, faster NBA. Carter is a high IQ player, so it’s fair to think he’ll find ways to become a solid defensive player, but without the tools that Bagley, DeAndre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., or Mohamed Bamba have, he’s got less room for error.

14. Kevin Knox, Forward, Kentucky

Knox is a conundrum; he’s one of the youngest players in the class, and he’s playing for John “I box players into roles because I care” Calipari, which could certainly hide some abilities that’ll be unlocked at the NBA level. Knox is known for his shooting ability, and averaged 19.3 points on 44% from the field. But he’s not a dynamic shooter—his 34% three point percentage isn’t great, given his role and 4.5 attempts per contest—and aside from scoring, he didn’t provide much else. He seemed to be a hard-worker on the glass, but that was never backed up in the stats (6.7 per 40 minutes, 14.5% defensive rate). He wasn’t really a black-hole on offense, but his 8.7% assist rate to 24.7% usage rate isn’t great. And while he was one of the more determined defenders on the team, that determination didn’t ever transfer into consistent success.

He also has absolute comfort shooting spots on the court, and has a tendency to drift into those areas. He loves mid-range shots from below the free-throw line extended. Check out his three shot charts from his tournament games, which are from the ESPN box scores.

ESPN.com Box Charts

He offered a solid kick-out option for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, but those mid-range spots aren’t necessarily spots you want a high-volume shooter to be taking a high-volume number of shots from.

Again, he’s a young player, and young scorers on Kentucky teams often have hidden skills that emerge at the next level. But for every Devin Booker or Jamal Murray, there’s a Terrance Jones or Archie Goodwin.

17. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Guard, Kentucky

After his recent firestorm, Gilgeous-Alexander went cold against Kansas State, who stymied Kentucky’s floor general with their swarming top 50 defense. Gilgeous-Alexander finished with 15 points, mostly thanks to his ability to get to the line (11 of 12 FT), as he was a paltry 2 of 10 from the field. He also finished with five turnovers, including a late one in crunch time.

In a class lacking great guard depth (more on that later), Gilgeous-Alexander might have played his way into the lottery with his late season heroics. He’s not in the Trae Young tier for me, but he’s closed in on Collin Sexton. He’s certainly the most well rounded talent of the three.

19. Robert Williams, Big, Texas A&M

A year ago, Robert Williams was quick to announce he’d be staying for a sophomore season at Texas A&M after their SEC tournament loss and subsequent lack of a NCAA tournament bid. But after their loss in the Sweet 16 to Michigan on Thursday, he was quick to announce that he wouldn’t be staying for a junior year.

The Sweet 16 birth probably colored the Aggies’ (and thus, Williams’) season a bit brighter shade of optimism than it really was. The roster was 9-9 in the messy SEC, but never reached what I’d consider their potential simply because their lineups were so damn weird. The team was big dominant to say the least, with three of their four best scorers—Tyler Davis, DJ Hogg, and Williams—standing above 6’9. Williams is a low-post heavy scorer, with his explosive athleticism and 84.3% success at the rim (mostly on dunks), but because Davis (6’0, 260 lbs) was their best scorer (14.9 PPG), it could often force Williams to the perimeter, or even the SMALL forward spot.

He’ll work better in the NBA, a supersized version of Jordan Bell. His 2.5 block per game average (10% rate) and amazing rebounding ability (26.8% defensive rate, 14.4 per 40 minutes) is all the more impressive considering the Aggie’s lineup. He’s also a great and physical athlete who loves to throw down this specific dunk. But his numbers across the board are similar or lower than his sophomore year, and he clearly didn’t have the same fire over the whole season. Maybe this changes at the next level.

26. Zhaire Smith, Guard, Texas Tech

Smith has earned more and more attention throughout the season thanks to his insane athleticism, defensive intensity, offensive efficiency, and insane athleticism.

How insane is insane? It’s not hyperbole with Zhaire.

Over the last two months of the season, he averaged 13 points and 5.5 rebounds on 55% shooting from the field and 59% from three (on 22 attempts). It’s fair to question if that efficiency would fall with volume—he only had a 18% usage on the season—but he’s also continually showed solid court awareness and an ability to guard the point of attack with ferocity. He fits the profile of a draft riser—a blue-chip kid on a title contender who provides a two-way impact with minimal red flags beyond the usage questions. And did I mention his insane athleticism?