- Who should NBA fans be studying as March Madness tips off? We highlight the eight most intriguing prospects in the NCAA tournament.
The NCAA tournament is here and the NBA draft is coming. The current draft class has been hyped and scrutinized for a solid 24 months, but we're hitting the home stretch now. Crunch time. The best players from a loaded draft are about to be tested on the biggest stage in college basketball.
So, who should NBA fans be watching? Glad you asked.
Here are eight players to keep an eye on as the madness unfolds this weekend and beyond.
1. Jayson Tatum, Duke
If someone asks "Which player has the most gain from the NCAA tournament?" the answer is clearly Tatum. He's been a consensus top-10 pick all year, but over the next few weeks he's got a chance to solidify himself in the top three.
He's been mentioned near the top of this class for several years now, and maybe that's why some of the buzz started to fade halfway through the year. While he and Duke struggled to find a rhythm, there were relative late-bloomers like Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz winning over new believers, and everyone looked at Tatum as more of a known quantity: NBA–size at 6'8", decent-but-not-great athleticism, polished offensive game, and a promising jumper. It was very difficult to imagine a future where he's not starting 10 years in the NBA, but that wasn't always used as a compliment.
It's the last few weeks where it's become easier to imagine him as a superstar. He was the best player on the floor in every game Duke played in during the ACC Tournament, and he helped seal the win at the end against Notre Dame. He's always been talented, but now he's taking over games. His ceiling seems higher. So how real is that progress? How much damage can he do as the tourney progresses? If Fultz is the best player in the class, could Tatum be second? These are questions to keep in mind as Duke makes its run.
2. Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Michigan State's been inconsistent all year, but when Bridges has been healthy, he's been very solid. He's shooting 38% from three on five attempts per game, 48% overall, to go along with eight boards and 1.6 blocks per game. He's got similar size to Draymond Green, but without Draymond's 7'1" wingspan to give him an edge down low. Bridges will need to be even more comfortable on the perimeter to succeed at the next level. That's why he started the year projected as a late first rounder.
Nevertheless, the longer his shooting's held up and the more he's produced offensively, the harder it's become to keep him out of the lottery. So why stop at the lottery? Assuming he'll look phenomenal in workouts, how high can Bridges go by June?
The tournament could help the bandwagon pick up speed. Michigan State opens with Miami—Canes sophomore guard Bruce Brown is another intriguing prospect to watch—and has a chance to face Kansas in the second. If Bridges can get to the second round, it would set up a 40-minute battle with Kansas and Josh Jackson that all draft-lovers will have to inject directly into their heart.
Speaking of which...
3. Josh Jackson, Kansas
This year's Kansas team could lose this weekend or make a run to the title game and neither would be all that surprising. If it's the latter, Jackson can go a long way toward guaranteeing a spot in the top five.
His jumper is still a huge question mark, but when he's throwing himself all over the floor and torturing overmatched college kids, it gets harder to obsess over what he doesn't do. His most realistic outcome is probably a bigger version of Justise Winslow—a player who will help good teams his entire career, and could be a superstar if the jumper comes along. Reasonable minds can disagree about whether that's worth a top–five pick.
For now, don't even bother worrying about the next level. Just remember the Winslow comparison, and remember that watching Justise Winslow tear through the NCAA tournament was one of the most entertaining rampages college hoops has seen over the last decade. It was a force of nature that even the snobbiest NBA fans could appreciate. If there's even a chance that Jackson could pull off a sequel, everyone should pay attention.
4. Donovan Mitchell, Louisville
Mitchell has been less of a fixture in draft conversations all year, but he plays on one of the best teams in the country, so he'll be front-and-center over the next few weeks. NBA fans should evaluate him as a potentially tremendous pest that a smart team could steal in the 20s. He's one of the best athletes in the entire country, and he's averaging 2.5 steals per 40 minutes to go with 16 points per game, and 36% three-point shooting.
He doesn't have the upside of the other point guards in this class, but he could be valuable in the same way that Norm Powell and Malcolm Brogdon have taken off in Toronto and Milwaukee. Mitchell's only a sophomore and still only a fringe first-rounder, so there's no guarantee he'd even leave school after this tournament. But if Louisville makes a run and his stock rises, he could turn into a fun sleeper come June.
5. Malik Monk, Kentucky
In college basketball, even the best guards can only dominate so much. There is a longer shot clock, all kinds of zone defenses, and the ability to micro–manage the game as a coach or official—all factors working against the best players.
Malik Monk is one player who can turn it all into a video game regardless. Monk falls into the Josh Jackson category, where NBA fans should watch him without even worrying about the draft.
When he gets rolling, he's as much fun as anyone at any level. As for the draft, he's floated somewhere between 5 and 10 on most mock drafts over the past few months, and regardless of the tournament, that's probably going to be his range in June. Can he shoot his way into the top five? Maybe not, but it'll be fun to watch him try.
6. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Jackson doesn't fit into the traditional buckets we use to explain lottery picks. He's a) not crazy athletic, b) not a knockdown shooter, and c) older than everyone else on this list. But think of him as the next Otto Porter.
He can do a little bit of everything, and as he's gotten more confident as a shooter, it's become a quietly dominant package. What he lacks in athleticism he makes up for with lanky size—6'8" with a 6'11" wingspan—and the ability to score in all kinds of nifty ways around the rim. The length should also allow him to keep pace with more explosive players on defense. The obvious key for Jackson will be mixing in the threes that have Porter on the verge of a max deal this summer. Jackson's not an elite shooter yet, but his progress so far—from sub-30% his first two years to 37% this season—is encouraging.
Can the shooting continue in the tournament? Can he be a starting small forward in the NBA? How much should his age matter? Right now he's creeping up draft boards—Draft Express had him as a late-lottery pick in their most recent mock—and a solid few weeks for Carolina could help solidify his rise.
7. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
There are a plenty of big men who can shoot in theory—7–footers who can nail a jumper if they are set and left wide-open—but there aren't many who can actually shoot. Markkanen is in the second category. If anything, he's been slightly under-hyped as the season's unfolded. He is Malik Monk from three, but with center height. This should be a bigger deal.
He needs to get stronger on the boards and his defense will be a work in progress, but he's already a killer shooter off pick-and-pops—a weapon that college teams can't really answer. If he can learn to hang with NBA big men on defense, he could open the floor up for an entire team. For now, watch him torture UCLA this past weekend:
Next to Tatum and Fultz, Markkanen has one of the highest floors in the draft. Wherever he goes, he can definitely help a rotation. But the more fluid he looks as a scorer—hitting contested jumpers, putting it on the floor, chipping in on the offensive glass—the more you might see him as a potential star. That's what will be worth tracking over the next few weeks. Arizona is a decent bet to make a deep tourney run, and if Markkanen turns into a consistent weapon down the stretch, it'll be harder and harder to ignore him at the top of the draft.
8. Lonzo Ball, UCLA
He's either the next Jason Kidd or the most over-hyped prospect in the country. His dad is either Basketball Trump or a man who understands marketing and leverage better than any of his critics realize. UCLA is either a Final Four contender with the best offense in America, or they're an upset waiting to happen in the first weekend.
As far as the draft's concerned, Lonzo Ball is either a once-in-a-generation prospect with preternatural basketball IQ and size to mitigate any weaknesses, or... he's playing in a perfect system against B-list athletes, and he's destined to be exposed in a halfcourt setting with NBA athletes. I'm still not sure where I fall in any of the various Lonzo arguments.
I do know this: There's no way I'm a missing a UCLA game in this NCAA tournament.