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2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jayson Tatum, Duke lose as Josh Jackson thrives

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jayson Tatum, Duke lose as Josh Jackson thrives

The first week of the NCAA Tournament has come to a close and so have some college careers for the top players in this June's NBA draft. However, the best players were able to lead their teams to the Sweet 16 and potential glory lies ahead for those select few.

Here's a recap of a few of both, albeit a focus on the winners from this weekend who will be high up on draft boards and could be Sixers in just a few months.

Josh Jackson, forward, Kansas (6-8/203)
Do you remember the beginning of the season when Jackson's jump shot looked crooked? It seems very long ago now. Jackson led all scorers on Sunday with 23 points in Kansas' 90-70 win over No. 9 Michigan State. The likely top five pick did just about everything in the Round of 32 win. He pulled up for jumpers and swished them, grabbed a few boards, played strong defense inside and even had a few blocks.

The Spartans' one hope was that fellow freshman Miles Bridges would be able to outplay Jackson, but Bridges played with little control at times and was simply outplayed, even though he had 22 points of his own. Jackson hit a few big jumpers in his face and was a force throughout whenever MSU cut into the Jayhawks' lead. Jackson may have some big things lying ahead for him in the Midwest Region and beyond. 

Jayson Tatum, forward, Duke (6-8/204)
While Jackson led his team to glory Sunday, Tatum was not able to do the same later in the evening. In Duke's first round game, Tatum was able to run roughshod through No. 15 Troy's defense, scoring 18 points. He added 12 rebounds and four blocks and was simply the best player on the floor. The Trojans had no one who could stay in front of him, as so few teams in the NCAA do. 

But in what was essentially a road game against No. 7 South Carolina, Tatum was held in check in part by the Gamecocks' potent zone. He was also limited by foul trouble. He still had 15 points and made a few nice moves inside as well as some key rebounds. But he didn't rise to the moment like he did in the ACC Tournament. Again, a zone like South Carolina's eliminates his innate advantage against any one defender and the Gamecocks were able to prevent a dominant effort, upsetting Duke, 88-81.

Lonzo Ball, guard, UCLA (6-6/190)
In UCLA's first game, Ball didn't quite look like himself. He played through a bruised hip and was clearly not his same explosive self. This came after he nursed a thumb injury during the Bruins' Pac 12 Tournament loss to Arizona. Despite any limitations, he still made 6 of 7 shots for 15 points, made two threes and dished out three assists in UCLA's 97-80 win over No. 14 Kent State. Not bad for someone who is supposed to be injured, right?

His first half against No. 6 Cincinnati wasn't remarkable by any means. But as he's done many times this season, he came alive with a thunderous stretch to key a UCLA win. The Bruins trailed 47-46 in the early second half when Ball shed his defender for a step-back three. Next possession, he ran into a trey in transition. A few minutes later, he dished out some pretty assists and put in a layup himself to give UCLA a double-digit lead. Many of his assists during the second half were of his other-worldly self, finding guys for alley-oops with beautiful feeds.

Ball finished with a near triple-double. He led both teams with 18 points (7 of 10 shooting, 4 of 7 from three) and nine assists. He also had seven rebounds and two steals in the Bruin victory.

De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, guards, Kentucky
Kentucky's freshman combo struggled Friday in an easy 79-70 win over No. 15 Northern Kentucky. Fox had 19 points and dished out three assists, although he had an unseemly six turnovers. Monk was off from the field, going 3 of 11 for 12 points. He missed all six of his threes. 

And for most of Sunday, they had similar struggles. Fox's jump shot, which isn't anywhere close to Monk's, was off. Monk was limited by a stout Wichita State defense. With that backcourt in a rut, the Shockers were poised to, well, shock. But as the best players do in March, Fox and Monk made winning plays. Monk made a key three with 2:10 left. Fox drove for a dunk on the next possession. And with the Wildcats up just one with 12 seconds left, Monk came up with a key block and hit two free throws.

Overall, Fox and Monk had 14 points each on 13 and 10 shots, respectively. That's not a very pretty line. But each was essential to the Wildcats' win, combining to score Kentucky's last 10 points and leading the team to see another day in the NCAA Tournament.

Quick hits
Florida St. forward Jonathan Isaac played what are likely the final games of his collegiate career. The freshman was efficient, making 9 of 15 shots for 25 points. While he had double-digit rebounds in both games, his Seminoles were blown out by Xavier on Saturday evening.

Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen may be the best player left in the West Region. In games against North Dakota and St. Mary's, Markkanen scored 36 points on just 18 shots, getting to the free throw line for 14 attempts. He also reeled in 17 rebounds and led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16.

South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell began the weekend with a thorough domination of No. 10 Marquette with 29 points, 11 rebounds, two assist, two blocks and three steals. The senior followed that up with 22 points, six rebounds and five assists while leading the high-profile upset of No. 2 Duke.

What Sixers need more and less of in second half

What Sixers need more and less of in second half

Now that the dust has settled on the NBA's All-Star festivities, the Sixers will reconvene this week and turn their attention back to the playoff push.

With 27 games remaining in the regular season over a 49-day stretch, it will be a sprint to the finish.

So how can the Sixers capture their first postseason berth in six seasons? Let's take a look at what the team needs more and less of down the stretch.

More: Healthy Embiid
What injury? Joel Embiid shook off right ankle soreness to participate in three events during All-Star weekend as a shining representation of the up-and-coming Sixers.

"There was never really a thought about missing out on any of these events," Embiid said Friday after the Mtn Dew Kickstart Rising Stars game. "It's my first time, so I'm going to have fun."

The big man is always about having fun, but now it's time to get down to business. Even though the Sixers' competition appears to lighten up after the break, the schedule does not (27 games with six back-to-back sets).

The Sixers are 27-17 when Embiid plays and just 3-8 when he doesn't suit up. They need the center healthy and on the court.

Less: Turnovers
Way less, actually. 

As you know by now, the Sixers have a bit of an issue holding onto the basketball. They simply don't respect each possession enough, evidenced by their 17.5 turnovers per game. That's good enough for dead last in the NBA and it's a full 1.5 turnovers more than the closest team (Los Angeles Lakers).

And it's not just the miscues. Teams are capitalizing, too — the Sixers also rank 30th in opponents' points off turnovers (19.4).

Of the "Four Factors" statistic on the offensive end, which breaks down weighted factors that help a team win a game — shooting (40 percent), turnovers (25 percent), rebounding (20 percent) and free throws (15 percent) — the only category that the Sixers rank outside of the NBA's top 10 in is turnovers.

If they can cut down on the giveaways just a little, it will go a long way toward their goal.

More: Early execution
However, not all of those possessions end up with the Sixers running back on defense after a turnover.

With more legit scoring options on the roster this season than any previous time during Brett Brown's tenure, they have shown the ability to execute a play to perfection for a bucket.

It's a stark contrast to the days when they couldn't even get the ball in on an inbounds play.

That level of scoring punch has been particularly evident at the start of games. The Sixers are tied with the Cleveland Cavaliers for fourth in the league in first-quarter points per game (28.7) and are even with the L.A. Clippers for seventh in first-half points a night (55.2).

The Sixers must continue to apply that pressure on teams at the outset of games, especially if their woes finishing off opponents is going to persist.

Less: Bad Covington
Ah, the curious case of Robert Covington.

Has any player in NBA history ever looked like they could make a push for an All-Star spot for two months only to appear as if they belong in the G League the next few months?

Covington has always been a streaky shooter, but this season has been extreme. He shot 44.7 percent from the field and 43.1 percent from three-point range in October and November to help secure his multiyear extension. 

Since that point, the swingman has connected on just 37.6 percent from the field and 32.4 percent from long distance.

Whether it's the weight of the big contract or the nasty spill he took against the Cavs in December, Covington hasn't looked the same on the floor in several months. The team needs him to get it together and the sooner the better.

More: Killer D's
While Embiid's presence on both ends and Ben Simmons' wizardry at the point have put the Sixers in position to snag a playoff bid, the team didn't really hit its stride until a certain pairing found its footing: Dario Saric and defense.

Much like his rookie season, Saric struggled to find his role at the start. But that's long in the rearview mirror now. The second-year forward has increased his production each month and has been rolling so far in February (18.6 points, 51.7 percent field goals, 46.3 percent threes, 6.9 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game).

That surge has coincided with the Sixers' tightened grip on defense. In seven games this month, they've allowed 96.1 points per game on 41.4 percent shooting.

The type of balance Saric offers offensively and the overall lockdown defense won't only make the Sixers a postseason team, it will also make them a tough out. 

Less: Fultz speculation
This is a big deal that the Sixers could make very small with a clear decision on the No. 1 pick's immediate future.

Markelle Fultz reportedly continues to ramp up his rehab workouts for his ailing shoulder, even after team president Bryan Colangelo said earlier this month that the guard could return soon or be shut down for the season.

The franchise should obviously give Fultz every chance to come back and contribute, but that ruling should be made at the first opportunity.

It's after the All-Star break and having that type of deliberation hovering over the team isn't exactly fair to the other players. Not to mention, for a guy that has apparently dealt with questions regarding his confidence, possibly dropping him into the thick of a playoff race doesn't really do him any favors either.

Our NBA All-Star challenge — describe Embiid in one word

Our NBA All-Star challenge — describe Embiid in one word

LOS ANGELES —  From trash talking on the court to expressing himself on social media, Joel Embiid is a player of many (many) words. So if his fellow All-Stars had to describe him in just one, what would it be? 

Draymond Green: "'Funny.' He's hilarious. The stuff he says, he goes on TV talking about (Kevin Durant's) burner account, he's talking how he's a savage. His Instagram locations, pretty funny. He's a good guy." 

Andre Drummond: "I’d probably say 'charismatic,' 'funny,' 'savage.' He don’t care, he just does what he wants to.”

Paul George: “Personality,' in all caps."

(Why all caps?)

“Because he’s a big dude.”

John Wall: "He's just 'himself.' He's very confident."

Anthony Davis: “'Savage.' Cool dude, he lives by his own rules. He’s just enjoying life and having fun.”

Jimmy Butler: "'Remarkable' in the fact that his game on the court is insane. Then the way he's always saying something to somebody on social media is really 'remarkable.'"

Bradley Beal: “'Wild.' He has no filter, he doesn’t care. That’s my boy, but he just has no remorse, doesn’t care."

LaMarcus Aldridge: “'Entertaining,' because he’s always on TV expressing how he feels. So, entertaining.”