While there are plenty of true-blue, die-hard NCAA basketball fans, many NBA devotees look to college hoops merely to get a glimpse at future pro talent and perhaps for the entertainment that comes with March Madness.
In fact, there are plenty of people who don’t really care about those burgeoning NBA prospects until spring rolls around, but that’s only because March is when all the heavy-duty press about these young stars makes the rounds.
Now – while the NCAA men’s basketball season is young – would be a great time to take a look at some of the most exciting names in the college game, if only to keep an eye on which kids might be the next Karl-Anthony Towns or Jahlil Okafor in the next draft.
Here’s a quick look at six of the most promising stars in college basketball this season:
Ben Simmons, LSU, Freshman – Already enjoying glowing reviews from even the largest of media outlets just a few games into his college basketball career, Simmons was a player earmarked for huge success on this level from the moment he made the decision to move to the U.S. from Australia. Over the course of his first five games for LSU, Simmons has shown a diverse skill set that’s going to work extremely well on the NBA level. At 6’10 he has the body of a stretch-four, but a lot of times he plays like a point guard. Defensively he’s extremely versatile, while on the offensive end he only is beginning to show his potential as a dangerous threat to defenders.
He’s averaging 16.2 points, 14.4 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.2 steals and 1.4 blocks, all while shooting 53.4 percent from the floor and playing a whopping 34.4 minutes per night. He’s a generally subdued and mild-mannered dude in person, which so far has shown up in his unselfishness on the offensive side of the ball. If he ever figures out how to be more aggressive on that end and improves his jump shot, he’s going to be the best player of his draft class no matter what year he decides to come out. Right now, he looks like the No. 1 overall pick, and if he keeps up this pace all season that won’t change. For more on Simmons, check out our recent breakdown of his game.
Skal Labissiere, Kentucky, Freshman – Considering that 19-year-old Haitian immigrant Skal Labissiere has only been playing basketball for just over five years, it’s pretty incredible that he is already considered one of the top prospects in college basketball. This Kentucky big man is so good that he’s already garnering comparisons to fellow UK bigs Anthony Davis (which John Calipari has poo-pooed) and Karl-Anthony Towns (which Calipari has admitted is a much closer match).
Either way, he’s a huge prospect at 6’11 with enough raw talent to leave him plenty of room to grow in the coming years. And since he’s already so good (averaging 14.7 points, 4.7 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in 24.3 minutes per game), it’s easy to see why NBA scouts are drooling over him. The thing about Kentucky kids is that there is so much talent on the roster that no individual player ever gets to show his full potential. That, coupled with Labissiere’s developing understanding of the game itself, is enough to make him highly intriguing as a draft prospect. If anybody is going to challenge Simmons for the top overall pick in June’s draft, early signs point to Labissiere being the guy.
Jaylen Brown, California, Freshman – As the kid who wears the flattop and the John Stockton shorts with biker spandex beneath them, there really isn’t any question which future draftee will show up to shake hands with Commissioner Adam Silver in the flashiest tuxedo. But the good news for Brown (and his draft stock) is that his stylistic flash spills over onto the court as well. He has already put up one of the filthiest dunks of the young college basketball season and is averaging 16.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in just over 24 minutes a night.
At 6’7 and 225 pounds, he’s the perfect size to play a swing position in the NBA, and his 7’0 wingspan means he should show plenty of defensive potential this season in California. He’s a strong scorer with a good first step and impressive athleticism. Not to mention, he has the sort of confidence and charisma that lends itself to the big stage of the NBA. If everything goes as it should for him this season, he looks like he’ll be a top-five pick in the draft this summer.
Brandon Ingram, Duke, Freshman – While it should be pretty clear at this point that the freshmen are going to be the most prized prospects of the 2016 NBA Draft, Ingram is an especially intriguing case because he’s so much younger than the rest of the freshman on this list. Having just turned 18 years old in September, Ingram is 10 months younger than Simmons and more than a year younger than Labissiere.
Youth, obviously, isn’t the only thing that matters when scouting NBA talent, or else LeBron James, Jr. would be atop every team’s draft lists. What makes Ingram so interesting beyond his youth is his body. At almost 6’10 with a 7’3 wingspan, he would play small forward at the NBA, and since he’s likely to get plenty of run at the four in college, he could be a nice stretch-four type for whatever pro team drafts him. That, or he’ll be a massive mismatch at the three every night.
A Vine has circulated with Ingram showing off Earl-Manigault-type hops, and that athleticism will take him a long way at the NBA level. His numbers so far have been solid if not staggering (11.3 PPG, 3.3 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 1.0 BPG), but he’s a work in progress that is going to appeal to a lot of NBA teams.
Kris Dunn, Providence, Junior – A veritable senior citizen compared to most of the other top draft prospects this year, the 21-year-old Dunn was seen as a sure-thing first-round pick in last year’s draft before he chose to play another year of college ball. As a redshirt sophomore at Providence, Dunn averaged 15.6 points, 7.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds and 2.7 steals, which was more than enough to warrant him high praise and put him in the conversation as a potential lottery pick in the 2015 NBA Draft.
This season he has been even better, averaging 18.7 points, 6.7 assists, 6.3 rebounds and an insane 4.3 steals through five games, and he’s doing it playing fewer minutes. In his team’s matchup against the New Jersey Institute of Technology early in the season, Dunn put up 22 points, 10 boards, nine assists and seven steals, proving his all-around value as a potential NBA player. He’s a well-liked, coachable kid with experience, which actually could play to his advantage in a lottery full of green prospects. He has looked like a star in the making for two straight seasons.
Jakob Poeltl, Utah, Sophomore – Had Poeltl stayed in the draft pool this past summer, he almost certainly would have been selected – most likely in the first round. But as a 7’0 “stiff” with only flashes of brilliance on his resume, he felt there was still more to prove before solidifying his draft stock, so he came back to Utah for another year of college ball.
So far, that has looked like the correct decision. Through six games, Poeltl is scoring 20.5 points per game on 66.7 percent shooting from the field, while also pulling down 10 rebounds per game and swatting away 2.3 shots a night. He has yet to score fewer than 15 points in a game and even has a 32-point outing to his name this early in this season, which is why there are some people calling him the most polished big in the NCAA at the moment. That’s a huge step up from the raw prospect he was a year ago, and it’s done wonders for his draft stock. Should his strong play continue, it should almost certainly place him among the top 10 players selected next June.
There are, of course, many other talented college players worth watching this season, but at the moment these look like the most promising NBA Draft prospects. One or two surprise breakouts almost certainly are coming, but in the meantime the new crop of top freshmen and a couple of college returnees are dominating the draft conversation. Barring injury, these six should remain at the top of most scouting boards all season long.
NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble
The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.
We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.
While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.
Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.
Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.
That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.
After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.
Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.
|Offensive Rating||106.4 – No. 23||106.8 – No. 21|
|Defensive Rating||111.7 – No. 23||113.5 – No. 27|
Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.
Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.
|Offensive Rating||111.9 – No. 15||115.1 – No. 4|
|Defensive Rating||109.3 – No. 11||110.3 – No. 13|
Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.
In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.
If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.
If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southwest Division
David Yapkowitz finishes Basketball Insiders’ Stretch Run series with an overview of the Southwest Division.
We’ve hit that point in the NBA season approaching the final stretch of games before the playoffs roll around in April. The trade deadline has come and gone, the buyout market is wearing thin and most teams have loaded up and made their final roster moves in anticipation of the postseason.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking a look at each team — division by division– at what they need to do to get ready for the playoffs, or lack thereof. Looking at the Southwest Division, this was a division that used to be one of the toughest in the league.
It still is for the most part. The Texas triangle of the Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets and San Antonio Spurs was no joke and hell for opposing teams on a road trip. Those are still a couple of formidable teams, but with the exception of the Rockets, it’s not quite near the level of yesteryear.
The Memphis Grizzlies and New Orleans Pelicans are a pair of young, up-and-coming teams that will give you 100 percent every night. While Memphis sits firmly in the eighth spot in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on the outside looking in. Here’s a look at how each team might fare in the stretch run.
The Houston Rockets have been the best team in the Southwest all season long, and all that remains for them is playoff positioning. They currently sit in fourth place in the West, giving them home-court advantage in the first round, but they could just as easily slip a bit with the Utah Jazz essentially tied with them record-wise in the standings and the Oklahoma City Thunder a mere two games back.
The Dallas Mavericks have taken a huge leap this season behind Luka Doncic, who is rapidly becoming one of the best players in the league. They currently sit in seventh place in the West and a return to the postseason is in the cards for the Mavericks.
The rest of the teams in the Southwest is where things get a little interesting. The Grizzlies have been one of the surprises of the season, as they’ve defied expectations and are firmly entrenched in the playoff race out West. They have a three-game lead on the Portland Trail Blazers and a four-game lead on the San Antonio Spurs.
Out of the Grizzlies’ final 26 games, 15 of them come against teams over .500, more than either the Blazers or the Spurs. 14 of those final 26 are also on the road, again, more than the Blazers or the Spurs. They also play both the Spurs and Blazers one more time this season. If the Grizzlies end up making the playoffs, it will be very well earned.
The Spurs are knocking on the door, and they have one more game against the Grizzlies which could prove to be very meaningful. This is a team that has been one of the standard-bearers in the league for success over the past decade. Their streak of playoff appearances is in serious jeopardy.
They’ve won two of their last three games, however, and out of their final 26 games, 15 of those are at home, where they are 14-12. Based on how the Grizzlies are playing though, a close to .500 record at home probably isn’t going to cut it. They’re going to need to pick it up a bit over the next month if they want to keep their playoff streak intact. A lot can happen between now and then, and the Grizzlies do have a tough remaining schedule, but it looks as if San Antonio will miss the playoffs for the first time in 22 years.
The final team in the Southwest is the Pelicans, boosted by the return of prized rookie and No.1 draft pick Zion Williamson. Prior to the start of the season, the Pelicans were looked at as a team that could possibly contend for the eighth seed in the West. Then Williamson got hurt and things changed.
But the team managed to stay afloat in his absence, and as it stands, they’re only three-and-a-half games back of the Grizzlies with 26 games left to play. Out of the bottom three teams in the division, it’s the Pelicans who have the easiest schedule.
Out of those 25 games, only seven of them come against teams over .500. They are, however, just about split with home and away games. New Orleans is 8-2 over their past 10 games, better than the Grizzlies and Spurs. If Memphis falters down the stretch due to its tough schedule, and the Pelicans start gaining a little bit of steam, things could get interesting in the final few weeks.
In all likelihood, the Pelicans probably won’t make the playoffs as not only do they have to catch up to the Grizzlies, but the Spurs and Blazers as well. But it certainly will be fun to watch them try.
There are some big storylines in the Southwest Division worth following as we begin the final run to the postseason. Can the young Grizzlies defy expectations and make a surprise return to the playoffs? Will the Spurs get their playoff streak snapped and finally look to hit the reset button after nearly two decades of excellence? Can the Pelicans, buoyed by Williamson’s return, make a strong final push?
Tune in to what should be fun final stretch in the Southwest.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run — Southeast Division
With the All-Star Break behind us, the final stretch of NBA games has commenced. Quinn Davis takes a look at a few teams in the Southeast Division that have a chance at making the dance.
Well, that was fast.
With the NBA All-Star break in the rearview, there are now fewer than 30 games to play for all 30 NBA teams. In other words, time is running out for certain teams to improve their seeding in the conference.
Here at Basketball Insiders, we will be looking at a certain subset of teams that are right on the border of making or missing the playoffs. In this edition, the focus will be on the Southeast Division.
The Southeast features three teams — the Charlotte Hornets, Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards — operating in the lower-middle-class of the NBA. These three will be slugging it out over the next month-and-a-half for the right to meet the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round of the playoffs.
The two remaining teams are the Miami HEAT and Atlanta Hawks. As this is being written, the former is comfortably in the playoffs at 35-20, while the latter is comfortably gathering more ping pong balls at 16-41.
In this space, the focus will be on the three bubble teams. The Magic are currently frontrunners for the eighth seed, but the Wizards and Hornets are within striking distance if things were to go awry.
Led by head coach Steve Clifford, the Magic have ground their way to the eighth seed behind an eighth-ranked defense. Lanky wing Aaron Gordon is the standout, helping the Magic execute their scheme of walling off the paint. The Magic only allow 31.3 percent of opponent shots to come at the rim, putting them in 89th percentile in the league, per Cleaning The Glass.
Following a post-break loss to Dallas Mavericks, the Magic sit at 24-32 and three games up on the ninth-seeded Wizards. While a three-game margin doesn’t sound like much, that is a sizable cushion with only 26 games to play. Basketball-Reference gives the Magic a 97.4 percent chance to make the playoffs.
The Magic have the third-easiest remaining schedule out of Eastern Conference teams. They have very winnable games coming against the Bulls, Hornets, Cavaliers, Knicks and Pistons. They also have multiple games coming against the Brooklyn Nets, the team they trail by only 1.5 games for the seventh seed.
The Magic are prone, however, to dropping games against the league’s bottom-feeders. It can be difficult to string together wins with an offense this sluggish. The Markelle Fultz experiment has added some spark in that department, but his lack of an outside shot still leaves the floor cramped.
After a quick analysis of the schedule, the most likely scenario appears to be a 12-14 record over the last 26 games, putting the Magic at 36-46 come season’s end. A record like that should not be allowed anywhere near playoff basketball, but it would probably be enough to meet the Bucks in round one.
If the Magic go 12-14, that would leave the Wizards, fresh off a loss to J.B. Bickerstaff and the Cleveland Cavaliers, needing to go 17-11 over their last 28 games. They will need to finish one game ahead as the Magic hold the head-to-head tiebreaker.
The Wizards finishing that strong becomes even more farfetched when you consider their remaining schedule. They have the second-toughest slate from here on out, per Basketball-Reference.
The Wizards do have a trump card in Bradley Beal, who is the best player among the bubble teams in the East. He has now scored 25 points or more in 13 straight games and has been the driving force behind the Wizards staying in the race.
He has also picked up his defense a bit following his All-Star snub in an effort to silence his critics. The increased focus on that end is nice, but it would’ve been a little nicer if it had been a part of his game earlier in this season when the Wizards were by far the worst defense in the league.
Even if Beal goes bonkers, it is hard to see a path for this Wizards team to sneak in outside of a monumental collapse in Orlando. Looking at their schedule, it would take some big upsets to even get to 10 wins over their last 28. Their most likely record to finish the season is 8-20 if all games go to the likely favorites.
The Wizards’ offense has been impressive all season, but injuries and a porous defense have been too much to overcome.
The Hornets, meanwhile, trail the Wizards by 1.5 games and the Magic by 4.5 games. They have won their last three in a row to put themselves back in this race, but they still have an uphill climb.
The Hornets also may have raised the proverbial white flag by waiving two veterans in Marvin Williams and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The goal coming into this season was never to make the playoffs, so they are likely more interested in developing young talent over these last 27 games.
If the Magic do play up to their usual levels and go 12-14, it would require the Hornets to go 18-9 to finish the season against the sixth-toughest remaining schedule in the East.
Devonte’ Graham and his three-point shooting have been a bright spot for the Hornets, but it would take some otherworldly performances from him and Terry Rozier down the stretch to put together a record like that. Basketball-Reference gives this a 0.02 percent chance of happening (cue the Jim Carrey GIF).
Barring a miracle, the eight playoff teams in the Eastern Conference are locked in place. The only questions remaining are how seeds 2-6 will play out, and whether the Magic can catch the Nets for the seventh spot.
The Wizards will fight to the end, but it is unlikely they make up any ground given the level of opponents they will see over the next six weeks. The Hornets, meanwhile, are more likely to fight for lottery odds.
At least the playoffs should be exciting.