The NCAA tournament gives NBA talent evaluators an important glimpse into a prospect's ability. While college basketball players have been battling since the fall, the spring puts them on center stage for NBA scouts as the draft nears.
Washington's Markelle Fultz, the consensus favorite to be the No. 1 pick, has already declared for the NBA draft after missing out on the tournament. With the top pick out of the way, we can zoom in on the rest of the lottery hopefuls as they aim to improve their stock before their college careers come to an end.
The NBA draft is all about potential, so we decided to ask our basketball experts which NBA prospect has the highest ceiling in the NCAA tournament (insert MJ joke here). Here's what they had to say.
Jeremy Woo: Jayson Tatum, Duke
This answer wasn't so clear early in the season when Tatum was returning from an injury to find a role in Duke's talented, crowded rotation. He looks the part of an NBA wing, and though he isn’t the best of high-end athletes, he’s strong, moves well and has been able to create separation from defenders. Tatum needs to improve his consistency from three, but as a guy who can score at all three levels he’s got serious upside as a scorer in the league. He’s maybe the smoothest player in the class. The big questions are what he does for you when he isn’t scoring, and whether his game is a little too post-up reliant to fully translate. But he’s got the ability to be a solid defender and is remarkably far along in terms of offensive skills. He’s got a strong case to go No. 2, and it’ll only get louder if Duke goes deep into the tournament.
Jake Fischer: Justin Patton, Creighton
When I think of “ceiling” in terms of draft prospects, I associate the word with two-way potential. And to me, the player in this draft with the greatest two-way potential is Justin Patton. The 6’11" center has tremendous length and athleticism, protects the rim, can attack the rim hard out of pick-and-rolls and has shown dexterity in post-ups on both blocks. The outside shooting touch is what can really make Patton a superstar player. He’s flashed smooth mechanics from 17-feet out and has looked comfortable launching from three. As Patton-bandwagon-leader Jeremy Woo recently pointed out on this week’s Open Floor, we’re just a greater sample size of jumpers and nifty passes away from Patton joining the “Unicorn” conversation. But he can fit right into that group if he maximizes his potential.
Matt Dollinger: Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Don't mind me, I'm just going to grab this low–hanging fruit that looks so, so delicious. Look, Lonzo Ball's dad might in fact be "Basketball Trump" but there's no denying his kid has all the makings of a superstar. Evaluating talent in the NBA draft is an impossible algorithm to crack, but sometimes we talk ourselves out of the most obvious answers. The last time we saw someone like Lonzo Ball in college basketball was Steph Curry in 2009, hitting shots from ridiculous places and powering underdog Davidson in the NCAA tournament. It didn't matter what Curry did or how many points he scored though, his critics were convinced his game wouldn't translate at the next level. He didn't have enough upside. That's why Hasheem Thabeet, Tyreke Evans, Ricky Rubio and Jonny Flynn (oh god) went ahead of Curry in the 2009 draft. I'm not saying Lonzo Ball is the next Steph Curry, but I am saying it's pretty obvious from what he's done at UCLA that he has the highest ceiling of any NBA player. If he can re-create bring his magic from Westwood to the NBA, he'll be the biggest thing to come out of the 2017 draft. As nice and rare as two–way bigs are in the NBA, there's no replacement for a guy who can hit shots from 30 feet and make passes most players wouldn't dare attempt. I'm taking Lonzo. Just don't show this to LaVar.
Chris Johnson: De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky
It’s hard to remember a time when there were more good point guards in the NBA than right now. Jrue Holiday, for instance, rates 15th among nominal PGs in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus this season and has a troubling injury history, yet he might command a max contract this summer. Here’s some advice for teams considering shelling out a king’s ransom for a point guard: Draft Fox instead. In a class loaded with elite floor generals, Fox stands out for his athleticism, defensive intensity and playmaking. He doesn’t possess Fultz’s scoring arsenal, Dennis Smith Jr.’s off-the-dribble game or Lonzo Ball’s preternatural feel, but the Kentucky product guards extremely well in the halfcourt and is a force of nature with the ball in his hands. There’s just one problem: Fox can’t shoot. He’s hit less than a quarter of his 62 three-point attempts this season, a troublingly low percentage in an age where perimeter marksmanship is viewed as a prerequisite for starters at his position. That said, other elite PGs have struggled with their jumper in college before. Kemba Walker, for example, sank only 27% of his treys as a freshman at UConn, and now he’s an All-Star who connects at a 40% clip. NBA front office types will convince themselves that Fox’s shot can be ironed out, and that may be true, but even if Fox doesn’t turn into a knock-down deep shooter, his ball-handling ability and defensive impact ensure a high floor. The potential for Fox to completely bust is low, and the possibility for him to grow into an A-List stud is very real. He’s worth the risk.
DeAntae Prince: Jayson Tatum, Duke
I recently watched Jayson Tatum catch the ball on the block, back down a defender and hit a fadeaway toward the baseline in a smooth motion, looking well beyond his 19 years. This may sound blasphemous, but I envisioned him becoming a mini–Paul George in that moment. This year's NBA draft is teeming with talent, but no player gives me the same vibe Tatum does. His flashes of brilliance look like something I've seen in the NBA, and as I mentioned on Give and Go this week, he's possessed that look since his U–19 days with Team USA.
It wasn't always easy for Tatum this season. He fought through injuries to start the season, struggling to adjust when he returned and pressing a little bit when he didn't dominant from the bat. But that's all behind him now, as Tatum picked the best possible moment to get hot and flash his talent for the scouts and casual fans alike. On a team of high-profile players, he stands out as a special talent that could have a long, lucrative NBA career.