One of the great things about there being so many ACC teams in the Sweet 16 this year is that casual college basketball fans will have the opportunity to watch a ton of potential first-round NBA draft picks play deep into the tournament. The teams remaining in the NCAA Tournament offer quite a few players with NBA talent. In fact, it wouldn’t be entirely shocking if over a third of the players selected in the first round of the 2016 NBA Draft are players from these final 16 teams.
Knowing all that, here’s a semi-comprehensive list of players worth watching closely over the course of the next few weeks as March Madness winds down:
Brandon Ingram, SF, Duke – The fact that Ingram is still playing and top prospect Ben Simmons didn’t even make it into the field of 68 has generated a lot of momentum for Ingram. He now has the chance to further increase his draft stock, and Ingram is receiving serious top overall pick consideration. There’s something to be said about a deep tournament run putting an exclamation point on a strong season, and Ingram has certainly had one of those. As tall and long as he is, Ingram offers the sort of intangibles that others frankly cannot. Watch him create on offense as Duke takes on top-seeded Oregon in the next round and you’ll see why so many NBA scouts are drooling over the kid. He has great vision and leadership for a kid his age, and even though he doesn’t take a ton of three-pointers, he can knock them down with solid accuracy. Topping Simmons will be hard to do, but an upset over Oregon and a Final Four appearance certainly wouldn’t hurt Ingram’s chances at becoming the top overall pick.
Buddy Hield, SG, Oklahoma – There simply aren’t many players in college basketball as electrifying as Hield. And the amount of interest he’s garnering as an NBA prospect is rather special considering how little attention seniors typically get from scouts because of their perceived lack of potential. Hield, though, is arguably college basketball’s most entertaining scorer. He has averaged 25 points per game on the season, and that 36-point gem he put up in the second round to help Oklahoma advance to the Sweet 16 is exactly why fans should plan on watching No. 24 for as long as the Sooners stay in the bracket. When Hield gets hot, there’s not much opposing teams can do. Against VCU, he dropped 29 of his 36 points in the second half – and he scored 21 of Oklahoma’s final 26 points to seal the win for the Sooners. Hield’s performances have become must-see TV.
Demetrius Jackson, PG, Notre Dame – There weren’t a ton of people who had Notre Dame pegged as a team to advance this deep into the tournament, but the 6’1 Jackson’s leadership and explosiveness offensively have been instrumental in making them one of the bracket’s biggest surprises through two rounds. In the second round against Stephen F. Austin, Jackson led all scorers with 18 points in the Irish’s one-point win, but it was how he earned those points – attacking the basket pretty much at will – that makes him such a thrilling NBA prospect. He’s not a big guy, but he’s probably a lottery pick all the same, which absolutely makes the Notre Dame/Wisconsin game worth watching. Even better is that the Badgers are beatable, which means there’s a good chance we could get at least two more games of watching the explosive Jackson in action.
Brice Johnson, PF, North Carolina – Through the first two games of the tournament, Johnson is averaging 19.5 points, 8.5 rebounds and 5 blocks, which should be enough to show exactly why NBA teams are falling in love with the athletic, emotional Tar Heel forward. His monstrous block against Providence got him trending on social media pretty quickly, but his defense only tells part of the story. As a senior, he’s physically stronger than almost any other player on the floor on any given night, and the Heels are at their best when they’re running things through him. So far they’ve been pretty good about adhering to that game plan, but as for fans, the more Johnson touches the ball, the more we’re able to envision him wearing an NBA uniform by fall.
Domantas Sabonis, C, Gonzaga – Son of former NBA and international legend Arvydas Sabonis, Domantas is an absolute gift for fans simply because he’s just as fun to watch as his father was when he played. He destroyed projected lottery pick Jakob Poeltl of Utah in the second round, a matchup that showed the young man’s grit and hustle (which he’ll need to continue using to compensate for his lack of length and athleticism at the next level). Despite his physical shortcomings, Sabonis is a grinder who looks like he’ll have a long NBA career, even if he may not be All-Star material. His skill set and hustle make him an intriguing mid-first-round flier and more than worthy of watching closely for as long as Gonzaga stays in the tourney.
Diamond Stone, C, Maryland – Aside from having the sweetest basketball name since God Shammgod, Stone is a massive presence on the court and a huge reason why Maryland is back in the Sweet 16 for the first time since 2003. He’s too big to stop offensively and too strong to keep off the boards. However, unlike some of the other players on this list, he’s not necessarily a focal point on offense so viewers may need to pay some special attention to see him at his best. Melo Trimble is the star of the show for the Terrapins, but Stone complements him well enough (and he has enough potential) that he’s receiving consideration as a potential lottery pick. When motivated, he’s an absolute monster and extremely fun to watch, and making it this deep into the tournament obviously has kept him pretty motivated.
Melo Trimble, PG, Maryland – Trimble, meanwhile, dropped 24 points and hauled in eight rebounds in that second-round win over Hawaii, showing just how dominant a scorer he could be at the next level. Actually, Trimble could have come out of school a year ago and been drafted by some team, but instead opted to stay another year. Now, he seems poised to be a first-round selection, and an even deeper run by the Terps would only solidify that and help his draft stock even more.
Grayson Allen, SG, Duke – Maybe he’s the Matthew Dellavedova of college basketball with all his questionable dirty scuffles, but one thing we have learned about Grayson Allen this year is that he has the grit and talent to make an impact in the NBA. He dropped 22 points in the second round against Yale and he absolutely has the ability to go on an offensive run that will drive a stake through an opponent’s heart. Love him or hate him, he’s headed for the NBA and there aren’t many more entertaining players to watch in college hoops right now.
Malcolm Brogdon, SG, Virginia – Brogdon has been Virginia’s best defensive player this tournament, most notably shutting down Butler stud Andrew Chrabascz to advance to the Sweet 16. However, he was also named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year this past season, showing that his tournament play is no fluke and he’s consistently this dominant and intense on the defensive end. That’s going to be Brogdon’s best attribute in the NBA, and for those fans who love watching an elite defender shut down the opposition’s best scorer in the game’s most meaningful moments, Brogdon and his top-seeded Virginia Cavaliers are a must-see for you from here on out.
Nigel Hayes, F, Wisconsin – It’s hard to make the argument that Hayes is entertaining to watch right now, as he’s been absolutely atrocious from the field (5-27) in the first two rounds of the tournament. But he’s a bubble first-rounder who really could benefit from at least one good game before the seven-seeded Badgers get bounced from the tourney. He’s drawing a lot of attention defensively, which is helping his teammates pull out tough wins, but despite his bad showings he’s a legitimate NBA prospect who typically is much better than his tournament performances would indicate. If he’s just a little bit better, Wisconsin’s surprising postseason run could easily continue beyond their next game against Notre Dame.
Cheick Diallo, PF, Kansas – There was a time not that long ago when Diallo was seen as a potential lottery pick and, at the very least, a sure-fire first-rounder. But due to a crowded frontcourt situation in Kansas, he really hasn’t gotten the minutes to consistently showcase what he can do on the floor. He’s only played seven minutes through two tournament games so far, so enjoy whatever flashes of him you may get in the Sweet 16. He would benefit tremendously from another year in school, but if he does come out early, a team would draft him based on his exciting potential rather than his track record.
Wayne Selden, G, Kansas – Unlike Diallo, Selden has received plenty of playing time for the Jayhawks and has really made the most of the opportunities granted to him. His athletic dunks have helped his popularity in the last couple weeks, but he’s a tremendous talent with skills that should translate quite well to the NBA level. He and Perry Ellis are likely second-round picks this June, but Selden in particular could jump into the first-round if things bounce the right way for him. Some more strong showings and a national championship would help him tremendously.
There are, of course, several other players left in the Sweet 16 who could realistically be drafted, but these are the top individuals of the bunch and probably the players with the best shot at eventually being selected among the draft’s first 30 picks. The NBA Combine in May and pre-draft workouts obviously matter too, but the tournament is a lot of these players’ last chance to show what they can do in a five-on-five setting and against real competition. Let’s hope they all make the most of it, which would help them as they prepare to make the jump to the NBA and also give us an even more exciting conclusion to the NCAA Tournament.
NBA Daily: Trail Blazers Come Up Short and Now Search For Answers
The Portland Trail Blazers were swept in the first round of the Playoffs and now face tough questions, writes James Blancarte.
The playoffs have been a wild ride so far. On Sunday, all three Eastern Conference playoff games were exciting matches that featured star players stepping up in the clutch. As a result, each series is tied up, two games each. The other game of the day featured the San Antonio Spurs, who stayed in control and never once allowed the Golden State Warriors to take the lead. The Spurs managed to get a win against the defending champs despite missing their best player and now their head coach indefinitely.
For the Portland Trail Blazers, there was no such Game 4 turnaround. In fact, with the Spurs win, the Trail Blazers have the lamentable distinction of being the only team to be swept in the first round of the playoffs. This is just one way to describe how disappointing and surprising this playoff series loss to the New Orleans Pelicans was for Portland. Many NBA observers and Pelicans fans were quick to point out that every ESPN NBA personality chose the Trail Blazers to win the series, as did select writers of the Basketball Insiders team.
The Trail Blazers’ players and front office also made it clear how surprised they were at the result. Forward Evan Turner shared his surprise.
“Obviously finishing so quickly wasn’t definitely the plan and to a certain extent it was shocking,” Turner said.
General Manager Neil Olshey chimed in as well.
“Nobody expected [the playoff sweep] to happen. It did. We had our chances in Game 1, we had our chances in Game 2. Clearly Game 3 was a setback,” Olshey stated when describing his surprise at how the series ended. “Stunned, I think disappointed.”
Credit should be given to the Pelicans and their ability to fully harness their talent and impose their will in the series. Turner was effusive in praising the talent and ability of the Pelicans.
“Unlocked Jrue is pretty dangerous and we all see how Rondo plays. He’s a homerun hitter but he is always solid. He can mess around. He’ll get two or three triple doubles. Anthony Davis is a problem,” Turner said.
When asked how he felt about the playoff exit, starting center Jusuf Nurkic stated that he is beyond disappointed.
“I mean, the way I finish the season, I feel shame. The way we have a season, like a team and group, and being in position to be third in the West, and finish like this, is not good,” Nurkic stated. “It’s not something you should be proud of, because all you do through the year, fight for playoff and to be in position to have a good postseason.”
Despite the early exit, many within the organization were quick to highlight that they continue to see the regular season in a positive light, including Head Coach Terry Stotts.
“I thought we had a very good regular season, I thought we had a very disappointing end of the season,” Stotts stated.
Damian Lillard shared a similar sentiment when reflecting on the season as a whole.
“I think I’ll always remember the way [the season] ended. But I won’t forget the kind of season we had. You can’t ignore the fact we won a division title in a division where there was some great teams,” Lillard stated. “We came out on top.”
Still, the success of the regular season makes the playoff result that much harder to grasp and deal with for some. Nurkic again didn’t hold back when comparing the success of the regular season with the team’s playoff failure.
“Very surprised,” Nurkic stated. “You definitely didn’t see the team who we are in the playoffs.”
Explaining why the Trail Blazers came up short against the Pelicans is no easy task. Clearly Portland’s attempt to feature its two premiere guards failed as the Pelicans were able to clamp down on Lillard and McCollum effectively in each game. Complicating matters further was the inability of the Trail Blazers to effectively utilize Nurkic on both ends of the court. However, there was at least some praise to be heaped on the backup bigs, Zach Collins and Ed Davis.
“I think Zach played really well for us,” Olshey stated. “He had an impact defensively.”
Also, Al-Farouq Aminu was able to do his part as an acceptable defensive option against Davis while spreading the floor with his outside shooting
Regardless, Turner shared his assessment that the team failed to have an adequate game plan for a scenario where their two best players are neutralized.
“One thing that may help, it’s no jabs or anything, but building the identity outside of our two strong scorers,” Turned stated. “[W]e sometimes go downhill when a team fully focuses on a lot of attention on our stars […] But I think we might need certain plays, certain structures that kind of prepare just in case that occurs.”
With their postseason concluded, the Trail Blazers are suddenly left trying to answer questions with no easy answers. Who, if anyone, is to blame for what happened? So far, many head coaches have been let go and unsurprisingly some speculation has turned toward Coach Stotts. Stotts, when asked, focused on the team and deflected any analysis of his performance.
“I’m not going to evaluate the job I did,” Stotts said.
Lillard, on the other hand, was effusive in his praise of his coach.
“Coach Stotts has done a great job from day one. We’ve been in the playoffs five years straight,” Lillard said.
For now, there does not appear to be strong rumblings about Stotts. With the offseason just beginning for the team there is still time to reflect and assess what went wrong. Additionally, the team has to resolve what to do regarding its own free agents. No name looms larger than Nurkic, who despite his poor showing, represents one of the team’s top talents and expressed his guarded optimism regarding a return.
“I want to be here, it’s no secret,” Nurkic stated when asked if he wants an extension in Portland. “Yes, definitely.”
Nurkic ended the thought by stating, a bit ominously, that he did his part and a deal may or may not get worked out.
“My agent and people here are going to figure out the rest, or not,” Nurkic said.
Complicating the desire to retain Nurkic is the team’s financial situation as the team is currently over the cap and under obligation to center Meyers Leonard, who has struggled to stay in the rotation and is earning roughly $21.8 million over the next two years.
“It’s our job to be measured and not to overreact. [Because] when you overreact is when you make mistakes,” Olshey stated.
Lillard was quick to emphatically shut down the notion of splitting up him and McCollum when asked if that would be a good idea.
“I mean, I don’t agree with it. I think it’s that simple,” Lillard declared.
When asked what the team plans to do going forward, Olshey expressed optimism but tried again to pay credit to the season’s effort overall.
“We’re going to do everything we can to upgrade the roster as we always do but we also aren’t going to lose sight of the success throughout the course of the season,” Olshey said.
“I don’t have all the answers for you today,” Olshey surmised. “A lot of times you don’t know where your help is coming from.”
The Problem With ‘Championship Or Bust’
Should an NBA Title be the only measuring stick when we’re talking about a team’s success?
In this day and age, there’s a constant need for instant gratification. It goes for everything, really, but especially for sports.
Before the 2017-18 NBA season kicked off, the general outlook on the league was that the regular season would be a waste of time. People dubbed the Golden State Warriors as clear-cut repeat champions. Other then that franchise, there were maybe one or two others that could put up a fight with such a juggernaut.
While that story has yet to play out, others are developing quickly.
The all-of-a-sudden dangerous New Orleans Pelicans are the only ball club to have advanced to the second round of the playoffs as the sixth seed in the Western Conference. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are deadlocked in a tied series with an Indiana Pacers team that everybody seemed to believe was lottery-bound before the year began.
After falling nine games under .500 in late January, the Utah Jazz have caught fire and are up two games to one against the league’s reigning league MVP and a re-constructed Oklahoma City Thunder roster. We’d be remiss to leave out the sensational play of Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid as the Philadelphia 76ers continue to show how dominant they’ve been in a hard-hitting affair with a gritty Miami Heat bunch.
The start to this postseason trumps last season’s already. There is a competitive fire within the majority of these encounters. It’s all on the line to prove who will be the best of the best.
And having said that, there can only be one that takes home the Larry O’Brien trophy.
One. That’s it. In the last 18 years, there have been a total of eight different organizations that have earned the right to call themselves champions. All things considered, it’s not that many.
But there’s a giant misconception about parity in the NBA that needs to be thwarted.
This league is filled with talent, top to bottom. Just like in any sport, you have the basement dwellers still trying to right the ship. Whether it be coaching, injuries, or inexperience—they’re attempting to find their way. That’s why those players are sitting at home in late April.
Then there are those who are not merely spectators, but are involved in the remaining field of 15 teams (sorry, Portland Trail Blazers). Of course, in their minds, there is a common goal of winning a title, as it should be.
However, is it fair to quantify the success of every one of these franchises simply based on whether they accomplish that goal or not? Heck no.
Are we supposed to just forget about the progress made from end-to-end? What if — hear this out — both teams have talent and one just beat the other?
Building championship basketball takes patience. There has to be some semblance of playoff experience involved. Continuity is a must have. You might not want to hear it, but the postseason is where the seeds are planted, where the understanding of the stage really starts.
There can be a collection of young players who have been teammates for years, but have never taken part in the playoffs before. Sometimes there can be a team that’s full of veterans that have been there, but they may not have played together as a collective unit. Each one of them has a different background in a different setting.
It’s a whole different beast at this point. Some are so naive to see how elevated and intense the environment really is, so they assume a team that loses a few games isn’t championship material. Newsflash: Not one team in the history of the NBA has gone 16-0 in the playoffs.
And then, the ones who fall—whether it be in The Finals, conference finals, or in first two rounds—those organizations didn’t accomplish anything. Wrong, wrong, wrong.
So in this basketball world we live in where everything has to be a 20-point victory with zero losses and it’s “championship or bust” as the measuring stick, take a step back and appreciate the work it took to even get to the postseason.
Win or lose, many of these teams are building towards bigger things in the future. These experiences will make that clear in the years to come.
NBA DAILY: Who’s the Next Donovan Mitchell?
Donovan Mitchell provided elite value at the back end of the lottery. Who might that player be this summer?
The entire reason that so many non-playoff teams worked so diligently to blow their seasons was to get the best odds possible for the first overall selection in the 2018 NBA Draft. Watching LeBron James (a former first overall draft pick) do what he’s done to the league for the last 15 years, the desire to land a top pick is understandable. Ben Simmons, the heir apparent and likely Rookie of the Year, also was a first overall draft pick a couple of seasons ago.
In fact, of the 38 former first overall picks dating back to 1980, 28 of them would evolve into All-Stars, and it seems like only a matter of time before Simmons is added to that list, too. A higher percentage of top picks have been named All-Stars than any other slot in the draft. Numbers don’t lie. There is no pick more valuable than the very first one.
Donovan Mitchell is good, too. Like, really good. He’s so good that there’s just as strong an argument for him as this season’s Rookie of the Year as there is for Simmons. Mitchell, though, was not a first overall pick. He was picked 13th, at the back end of the lottery.
He isn’t alone in landing elite value for teams picking outside of the lottery’s top half. Devin Booker was picked 13th in 2015. Giannis Antetokounmpo was the 15th selection in 2013. In 2011, Klay Thompson was picked 11th, while Kawhi Leonard was chosen with the 15th pick that same year. Paul George went 10th overall in 2010.
In other words, there are plenty of really good prospects every summer to give late-lottery teams hope. They might not generate the same hype as the guys vying for that top overall selection, but they’re also clearly a lot better than the tiers of players that start coming off the board in the 20s and 30s. All-Stars lurk in the 10-to-15 range of the draft, especially in a loaded class like the one we’re looking at this summer.
That begs the question: who is this year’s Donovan Mitchell?
Here are three possibilities:
Back in November, a series of unfortunate circumstances in a game against Minnesota led to a mass ejection of Alabama players that resulted in just three players being allowed to play the final ten minutes. Sexton was one of those three players and led a Crimson Tide rally despite the lopsided Minnesota power play. ‘Bama outscored the Gophers 30-22 in those final 10 minutes despite being down two players, and Sexton finished the game with 40 points. That’s how good he is.
Of course, he could slip in this draft if only because there are so many flashier names ahead of him. It appears as though seven players (DeAndre Ayton, Luka Doncic, Jaren Jackson, Marin Bagley, Michael Porter, Mo Bamba and Trae Young) likely will be drafted before him, which puts him in a category with guys like Mikal Bridges, Wendell Carter, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Miles Bridges, and Kevin Knox. Sexton probably will fall somewhere in that range, which means he would fall somewhere between the eighth and 13th pick.
He is competitive, charismatic and incredibly driven, so there’s a really good chance he does well in interviews and workouts and shows how elite he is. On the other hand, if he falls to the Sixers or Hornets or Clippers, some non-tanking team could end up with one of the biggest stars of the draft.
Coming into his sophomore season, Bridges was considered one of the top NBA prospects in college basketball, and while that is still true to a certain extent, his stock dropped a bit this past season while several players—including his teammate Jaren Jackson, Jr.—saw their own stocks rise.
Despite a minor loss in momentum, Bridges is one of the most NBA-ready players projected to be selected in the lottery. He’s still young enough to have a high ceiling, but he’s older and more physically mature than a lot of the other players vying to be drafted in his neck of the pecking order. He does nearly everything well, from ball handling to rebounding to shooting, and he can play both ends of the floor. His athleticism is his calling card, and that added to everything else he does well makes him a lock for some measure of NBA success.
He has his flaws, but he’s probably an All-Rookie First Teamer that will be selected after ten players that aren’t. That makes him a potential steal on the back-end of the lottery.
This time last year, Porter was a 17-year-old kid deciding whether or not to reclassify and play at the University of Missouri with his older brother Michael Porter, Jr. and under his father Michael Porter, Sr., who is a member of the coaching staff there. Obviously big bro is a high lottery pick, but the younger sibling was the 11th rated prospect in his high school class (the one with Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett) before reclassifying.
He has declared for this summer’s draft but hasn’t yet hired an agent. If he stays in, he’ll be the youngest player in the draft, and mid-first round is where teams start gambling on the uber-young players with mountains of potential rather than older, more proven college players.
In Porter’s case, that could mean a mid-to-late first-round team ends up with a tremendous bargain, even if it takes him a few years to grow into himself. He’s 6-foot-11 but is incredibly smart and well-rounded on offense. He shoots threes (he hit 110 of them as a freshman at Mizzou), but he’s know for his vision and passing more than anything. That’s a modern-day stretch-four or stretch-five if ever there was one, and getting him a year before his time could be a way for a team to steal a deal in the middle of the first round.
With the playoffs in full swing, most observers are focused in on the battles for conference supremacy. For many of the NBA’s other teams, though, the draft preparation process has begun.
In short order, we’ll see which teams end up snagging the next Donovan Mitchell.