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2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen win on big stages

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen win on big stages

With conference tournaments taking over the college sports landscape, a few of the top players in the nation carved out top headlines while others saw their teams fall with a whimper. Who rose to the occasion and who fell silent this weekend? Let's take a look.

Jayson Tatum, forward, Duke (6-8/204)
It's hard to argue that anyone had a better weekend than Jayson Tatum. The Duke freshman was the catalyst for the Blue Devils, who became the first team to win four games in four days to win the ACC Tournament. Tatum played at least 36 minutes in every game and scored 19 points or more in each, including a 25-point effort against Louisville on Thursday. 

Perhaps his best quality was his efficiency. He's been more of a volume shooter at times this season, but he was able to convert consistently for the Blue Devils ... and they needed it. Duke had to make three second-half comebacks against three ranked teams this weekend and he was huge in all of them. His best sequence was a clutch block against Notre Dame, which he followed with a coast-to-coast drive that helped put away the Fighting Irish.

Remember when Duke was ranked No. 1 to start the year? Tatum's potential was a lot of the reason why and he's living up to it right now. He's peaking at the exact right time, proving to be unstoppable on many drives to the hole while showing high basketball IQ in big moments. Sure, he's athletic, but even better are some of his great passes. He had the assist on a Matt Jones three that helped seal Saturday's win over Notre Dame that showed he's isn't all out for himself. 

Lauri Markkanen, forward, Arizona (7-0/225)
Markkanen took only four shots in the Pac 12 Tournament final Saturday night and made all four. Believe it or not, it wasn't his best effort of the weekend. Sure, his 11 points were pretty large in the Wildcats' win over top-seeded Oregon Ducks, but his evening against UCLA on Friday night loomed much larger.

The Finnish frosh had been in a prolonged slump going into the tournament but found his shot in an easy win against Colorado on Thursday (20 points on just nine shots). For the first time in a while, he was called upon as the focal point of the offense, taking 22 shots against the Bruins on Friday. And he made 10 of them, including four threes, and his 29 points helped sink UCLA. It's a quality sign for the stretch four going into the last run of his season.

Lonzo Ball, guard, UCLA (6-6/190)
There's no doubt Lonzo Ball is the top-ranked freshman still going (Markelle Fultz's Washington team bowed out quickly in the Pac 12 Tournament and he's already announced he's going pro). However, for as good as Ball has been at times this year, he slightly subdued expectations with a bit of a down weekend. He had a solid 12-point, 7-assist effort vs. USC, but Arizona stifled him on Friday. 

It's key to note that Ball appeared to suffer a hand injury in the late first half against the Wildcats, and it seemed to affect his play afterward. Still, regardless of the reason for his play, he was off. He was just 2 of 7 from the field (1 of 6 from three) and turned the ball over four times. He did dish out six assists, though. But his efforts weren't enough in an 86-75 loss.

De'Aaron Fox, guard, Kentucky (6-4/171)
Fox has often been overshadowed by fellow Kentucky first-year Malik Monk. However, this weekend and the SEC Tournament belonged to Fox going into Sunday's final. During Friday's quarterfinal and Saturday's semifinal, Fox could hardly be stopped. He made 15 of 24 attempts en route to 48 total points. 

With his recent play, Fox has made an argument to be included among the top point guards in the upcoming draft. Draft Express has him fifth overall in the draft, third among point guards, behind just Ball and Fultz. A solid NCAA Tournament could go a long way to keeping him that high or moving him higher. 

Josh Hart, guard, Villanova (6-6/204)
In his final Big East Tournament, Hart made himself heard loud and clear. After all, he's no stranger to March. His 29 points were an essential part of 'Nova's win over Creighton in the final, but he shined even brighter on Friday. The Wildcats faced a deficit against Seton Hall on Friday night, but Hart led the charge back with 19 points. His three-point play off an offensive rebound with 10 seconds to go was the difference in the victory. 

Hart, a senior, is hardly a top prospect. However, he's at least a second-round selection, if not a late first rounder. As Villanova's leading scorer, he's proven himself a capable wing and will receive the chance to cement himself in an NBA rotation in the near future. 

Quick hits
Florida State forward Jonathan Isaac struggled offensively this weekend (6 for 20 from the field), but the freshman sensation gobbled up 27 rebounds and had four blocks over two games.

Kansas forward Josh Jackson was suspended for Kansas' Thursday conference tourney opener and the Jayhawks paid for it dearly. Without their prized freshmen, the Jayhawks were upset by TCU in the first round of the Big 12 Tournament.

Duke guard Luke Kennard, the one sophomore in this post, scored 80 points in four games for the Blue Devils in the ACC Tournament. Particularly impressive was his 10 for 10 performance at the free throw line in Duke's upset of North Carolina on Friday night.

Sixers rearrange schedule because of Eagles fever

Sixers rearrange schedule because of Eagles fever

The Sixers coordinated their flight to Memphis with an important schedule in mind: get there in time Sunday to watch the Eagles' NFC Championship Game.

Once there, they have arranged a room with food to catch the 6:40 p.m. showdown as a team the night before they face the Grizzlies.

“We’re going to enjoy this with the city of Philadelphia,” Brett Brown said. “Stuff like this doesn’t come around very often. So on behalf of our team, we say, like the rest of the city: Go Eagles.”

The Sixers and Eagles have been showing their support for each other all season by attending games. Joel Embiid, in particular, has been a familiar face at Lincoln Financial Field, including this memorable reaction to Jake Elliott’s field goal in September.

Embiid noted the momentum of both the Eagles and Sixers this season and what it means for Philadelphia.

“Every time I go to an Eagles game, they always win,” Embiid said. “I’m going to be pulling for them. I want to say good luck. It would be good for the city … Hopefully, they win and on to the Super Bowl.”

Justin Anderson’s support of the Eagles goes beyond playing in the same city. His friendships with Torrey Smith, Rodney McLeod and Chris Long began before the NBA (see story).

“I talked to them and they were really excited,” Anderson said. “They think they’ve got a really good chance. It’d be huge for the city. Going to the Super Bowl, it’d be good. I’m excited, I’m excited. I hope they pull this one out.”

The Sixers will watch the Eagles fight through the postseason as they hope to be doing in April too. They ultimately have the same goal and have an appreciation for how far the Eagles have come already.

“I hope they win it all,” Ben Simmons said. “I’m an Eagles fan now.” 

Rockets beat Warriors in battle of West's best

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USA Today Images

Rockets beat Warriors in battle of West's best

HOUSTON — Chris Paul scored 33 points and 11 rebounds, James Harden had 22 points and the Houston Rockets held off the Golden State Warriors 116-108 on Saturday night to snap their 14-game road winning streak.

Harden stepped back from Stephen Curry for a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to make it 114-108 with 1:10 left. Harden then blocked Curry's 3-point attempt after a timeout, and Paul made two free throws with 28 seconds left.

Golden State lost away from home for the first time since Nov. 22. The Warriors had won seven straight in Houston.

Kevin Durant led Golden State with 26 points, Draymond Green had 21 and Curry added 19 on a night he went 5 of 15 on 3-point attempts.

The Warriors were wrapping up a five-game road trip and had won the first four games to tie a franchise record for consecutive road wins. But they struggled from the outset Saturday and trailed by double digits for most of the first half (see full recap).

Olynyk's free throw gives Heat win over Hornets
CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Kelly Olynyk scored 14 of his 16 points in the fourth quarter, including a free throw with 0.2 seconds left, to help the Miami Heat erase a five-point deficit in the final 34 seconds and stun the Charlotte Hornets 106-105 on Saturday night.

Wayne Ellington had 26 points on six 3-pointers, Joe Johnson had 22 points and Olynyk was brilliant down the stretch.

Nic Batum scored a season-high 26 points and Kemba Walker had 22 for Charlotte, which had a two-game winning streak snapped.

Charlotte led 105-100 when Johnson got free for a dunk. The Hornets inbounded the ball to Batum, but Josh Richardson ripped it from his hands and passed to Johnson, who knocked down a 3-pointer from the wing to tie (see full recap).

Thunder score 148 points, keep Lebron short of 30,000 for career
CLEVELAND — LeBron James came up just short of 30,000 points.

Oklahoma City nearly got there, too.

Unable to stop Paul George, Russell Westbrook or Carmelo Anthony, the Cavaliers were embarrassed 148-124 on Saturday by the Thunder, who not only rolled to their fourth straight win but kept James shy of a historic milestone.

George scored 36 points, Westbrook had 23 and 20 assists and Anthony dropped a season-high 29 points as the Thunder tied the record for the most points given up by a Cleveland team in a regulation game. Philadelphia scored 148 on the Cavs back in 1972.

"I've never in my basketball life gave up 148 points, not even probably playing video games," James said. "They got everything that they wanted. Inside, outside, they had it moving." (see full recap).

Pelicans' stars all contribute in win over Grizzlies
NEW ORLEANS — Jrue Holiday scored 13 of his 27 points in the fourth quarter, DeMarcus Cousins had 24 points and 10 rebounds, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the Memphis Grizzlies 111-104 on Saturday night.

Anthony Davis had 21 points and 12 rebounds but did not score his first points of the second half until he dunked with 1:15 to go in the game, giving the Pelicans a 108-102 lead.

Darius Miller added 12 points in a reserve role for New Orleans, which never trailed but very nearly blew a 21-point lead.

Trailing by 15 at halftime, Memphis scored the first 13 points of the third quarter, part of a 16-2 run to open the half that trimmed New Orleans' lead to a single point with most of the third quarter remaining (see full recap).