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2017 NBA draft prospect watch: De'Aaron Fox, Lonzo Ball exit NCAA Tournament

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: De'Aaron Fox, Lonzo Ball exit NCAA Tournament

The college basketball season has just three games and very few top NBA prospects left. With that fact, this will be the final prospect watch for the season as the remaining top-10 prospects saw their teams lose in a hectic second weekend of the NCAA Tournament. Fittingly, this series began and now ends with an epic Kentucky-UNC game. 

But before we get to De'Aaron Fox, Malik Monk and Co., let's take a peek at the point guard their Wildcats eliminated Friday night.

Lonzo Ball, guard, UCLA (6-6/190)
If you didn't watch Kentucky-UCLA on Friday night, you missed out. While Kentucky won handily at the end, it was a showcase of NBA-style playmaking that is sorely missing from most NCAA Tournament games. Unsurprisingly, the player that has been compared favorably (by his dad) to Stephen Curry was at the center of the action. Lonzo Ball saved some of his best for his last college game as he declared for the draft directly after the game.

Ball seemed calm, cool and collected while dishing out highlight assists throughout the first half. When the pace of the game picked up in the early second half, the Bruins' freshman was at home in the fire of a back-and-forth affair as well. He finished with 10 points and eight assists, although he made just one of six from three. Kentucky forced him to commit four turnovers, in large part because of this next prospect. 

De'Aaron Fox, guard, Kentucky (6-4/171)
Wow, Fox has surely shot right up draft boards in recent weeks. After playing second fiddle to Monk at times this year, Fox took the lead down the stretch and has vaulted himself into top-5 pick consideration. The 6-foot-4 freshman plays with a whirling speed and rushes past opponents heading to the basket or uses his solid handles to leave defenders on the ground before pulling up in the mid-range. 

Friday night was Fox's top showcase. He shot 13 for 20 en route to 39 points, a record for a freshman in the NCAA Tournament. If that wasn't enough, he dished four assists, made 13 of 15 free throws and limited Ball by staying on him all night. It was a dazzling display.

Unfortunately, on Sunday, Fox was limited by foul trouble. He picked up two quick fouls and spent most of the second half on the bench. UNC limited him to 13 points on 14 shots, although he still picked up two steals and had three assists. His biggest play came with Kentucky down seven late when he hit a corner three to inch the Wildcats closer. They would tie it thanks to Fox's backcourt mate.

Malik Monk, guard, Kentucky (6-4/185)
For a while this weekend, Monk was a willing Robin to Fox's Batman. So be it. The sharp-shooting Arkansas native was more than willing to take a slight back seat and lay the dagger into opponents this year, using his next-level shot-making to close teams out. He added 21 points against UCLA, making 4 of 9 from deep, and proved himself adept defensively. He had a few turns at guarding Ball and used his speed to stay on him.

And it was more of the same Sunday vs. Justin Jackson. Jackson, the ACC Player of the Year, nearly matched Monk shot for shot in December, but Monk was able to stay on top of the taller opponent, forcing him to pass the rock or take shots with a hand in his face. Monk was also limited by foul trouble and struggled to score with just 12 points in the contest.

However, the best players, even when in a slump, come through when needed most. Monk proved worthy of his prospect status with two clutch threes to tie up UNC. It was not enough with Carolina burying a jumper to end Kentucky's season, but anyone who watched will not soon forget Monk's shot-making prowess.

Josh Jackson, forward, Kansas (6-8/203)
Kansas' top freshman ended his stay in Lawrence with two solid efforts, although the Jayhawks' season came to a close with an upset defeat to Oregon. On Thursday night, Jackson was, well, himself, taking apart Purdue on both ends. He pumped in 15 points, drained two threes and had 12 rebounds against a Boilermakers squad that can rebound the ball. His four steals and adept transition game were on display as well.

In Saturday's loss, Jackson saw little time in the opening stanza due to foul trouble (see a trend?). With the Jayhawks down 11 at the break, Jackson kicked it into another gear to try and bring his team back, finishing with 10 points, 12 rebounds and five assists, including an assist on Kansas' final basket of the game. If you want to watch highlights of Jackson before June's draft, check out his game vs. Michigan St. last week, even if he wasn't half-bad this weekend.

Lauri Markkanen, forward, Arizona (7-0/225)
Like Ball, Markkanen saw action in just one game this weekend with his Wildcats' falling to No. 11 Xavier. It's a shame: Arizona was just two games from a Final Four on a homecourt. Markkanen, the Finnish frosh, brought his best to the NCAA Tournament … last week. He was solid in the second round, but Xavier essentially made him disappear in the Sweet 16.

The Musketeers' zone took Markkanen out of the game for the most part, even though he played all 40 minutes. He had just nine points on 3 of 9 shooting (1 for 6 from three) while reeling in eight boards. He didn't attempt a shot in the last 11 minutes of game time with Allonzo Trier taking the offensive burden. Markkanen won't see too much zone at the next level and should excel with more spacing as a stretch-four in the NBA.

Quick Hits
North Carolina forward Justin Jackson has earned lottery consideration with his play this season. He put up 43 points in wins over Butler and Kentucky even with his three-point shot missing in action (3 for 13 from range). He also had 10 boards and nine assists in the two games.

Oregon forward Jordan Bell had the game of his career in the Elite Eight against Kansas. He nearly had a triple-double with 11 points (5 of 6 shooting), 13 rebounds and eight blocks, terrorizing the Jayhawks near the rim while also putting up four assists. With his rim protection and interior game, he's a possible second round pick.

South Carolina guard Sindarious Thornwell is another potential draft pick and has shown up with authority on the national scene in the last two weeks. He put up 50 points in upset wins over Baylor and Florida, punishing both squads inside and out with his physical game. 

Joel Embiid has plenty of reasons to be thankful

uspresswire-sixers-joel-embiid.jpg
USA Today Images

Joel Embiid has plenty of reasons to be thankful

Joel Embiid is very appreciative. He is healthy, signed a mega-contract and has become the face of a franchise on the rise. 

The night before Thanksgiving, following a 20-point win over the Trail Blazers, Embiid reflected on why he is thankful.

“I’m thankful for my family,” Embiid, who grew up in Cameroon, said. “I live by myself, they don’t live here. But my mom is actually here.”

Embiid’s mother took in Wednesday’s action from courtside at the Wells Fargo Center and was all smiles as her son put up 28 points (11 for 19 shooting), 12 rebounds and two blocks in the 101-81 victory (see game recap).

Embiid also recognized the Sixers’ faithful, who have pulled for him during injury after injury and never wavered from their trust in the process.

“I’m thankful for the city of Philadelphia,” Embiid said. “This has become my home and I hope to be here for the rest of my career. I’m just thankful for the fans and just everybody around me, people that have been supporting me.” 

Embiid even gave a shoutout to the media, which doesn’t always happen, especially after a team struggled for so long.

“You guys hype me up so much,” he said. “So thank you.”

And last but not least, the player with 1.02 million followers on Twitter and another 1.4 million on Instagram, Embiid is grateful for every like and retweet. 

“I’m thankful for social media,” he said. 

#Fitting. #Thankful. #HappyThanksgiving 

Sixers use stifling defense to blow out Trail Blazers

Sixers use stifling defense to blow out Trail Blazers

BOX SCORE

The Sixers blew out the Trail Blazers by 20 points and reached the 10-win mark, their 2015-16 total, 17 games into the season (see observations)

Still, when Brett Brown assessed their 101-81 victory, he did so with a non-complacent eye. Not getting wrapped up in a win in November keeps the team even-keeled and focused. 

“I would give us an A on defense and like a C-minus on offense,” Brown said. “We’re happy with [the record], but we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The Sixers held the Trail Blazers scoreless for the first seven minutes of the game (16-0) (see video). They notably restricted C.J. McCollum to only five points, 16 below his average. 

“I think we’re just very consistent on defense,” Ben Simmons said. 

Brown noticed room for improvement on the other end: committing less turnovers (18), finding Joel Embiid (28 points) more often, taking better-advised threes (3 for 11 in the first quarter) and minimizing possessions during which they didn’t get a shot attempt. Expect the team to focus on these areas so it doesn’t get ahead of itself for the next game on Saturday. 

“If you said you could have offense versus bad defense,” Brown said, “I would take the bad offense and have good defense any day of the week.” 

Embiid surpassing Thanksgiving milestone
Brown uses different points in the season as milestones. He eyed Thanksgiving as a checkpoint when it came to Embiid’s fitness level. Well, the holiday is here and Embiid has been averaging 32 minutes in his last five games. 

“He has exceeded my expectations to date kind of all over the place,” Brown said.

Embiid has been playing minute restriction-free. He has sat out only two games after appearing in 31 last season. Embiid is averaging 22.7 points, 11.0 rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.9 blocks and 0.8 steals in 29 minutes per game. He delivered a monster block on Damian Lillard that nearly shot the ball out of the arena. 

“Not to be cocky, but I think I’m the best defensive player in the league right now,” Embiid said.

The big man projected his fitness level is at 81 percent with room to improve. 

“It’s not all the way there but I think it’s getting better,” Embiid said. “I’ve still got to work on a lot of things, but it’s getting there. I can’t wait to be at a hundred percent.”

“We-Want-Ok-A-For” 
With a 20-point lead and the game wrapped up, the Sixers' home crowd broke out into a chant. Only it wasn’t “Trust the Process.” It was “We want Okafor.” Brett Brown didn’t nudge out of consideration to Jahlil Okafor, who has appeared in two games this season. 

“I don’t think it’s fair,” Brown said. “I think you get into a playing rhythm, a playing routine and that’s fair. To just hoist somebody a little tiny window of minutes isn’t something that interests me. I say that out of respect to him. I don’t think that puts him in a position that I want to put him in.”

Okafor is out of the Sixers’ rotation and their future plans since the team declined to exercise his player option. Okafor has made it clear he wants to be traded or bought out so he can find an opportunity to play. 

Embiid heard the chants and would like his close friend to be the court too, but at the same time gets the team’s game plan at this point. 

“I just want what’s best for him,” Embiid said. “I think he’s really good offensively. Defensively I think he’s gotten so much better, even in rebounding. I think he deserves a chance. But it’s hard. It’s business. We’ve been playing so well and I understand the coaches and the front office want to keep the same lineup because we’ve been playing so well.”