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.

Joel Embiid ready for home playoff debut, says Sixers' 'time is now'

USA Today Images

Joel Embiid ready for home playoff debut, says Sixers' 'time is now'

CAMDEN, N.J. — Joel Embiid received a text message from across the NBA following the Sixers’ 27-point win over the Heat in Game 1. 

It was from Draymond Green, sending his championship-winning insight. 

“Draymond texted me after the first game when we blew Miami out,” Embiid recalled Monday. “He basically told me that it’s not going to be the same in Game 2. They came back and they won that game.” 

Green was right. Each contest has been a match of adjustments, including Embiid’s return from a 10-game layoff. Wearing a required mask with goggles, Embiid played in the Sixers’ Game 3 and Game 4 victories. 

Now he’s poised to make his postseason home debut Tuesday at the Wells Fargo Center, where he’s been eager to compete in a playoff game his entire career. 

“The atmosphere was amazing, it was insane,” Embiid said of the home crowd in Games 1 and 2. “After going to Miami, I felt like nothing compared to it. … We’ve been almost perfect [at home] since the beginning of the year. It just shows you how much we need them. Especially myself, I play better in that type of environment. I need the fans to get into it and push me. That makes me elevate my game.” 

Embiid’s offensive game has been impacted since coming back from a concussion and left orbital fracture suffered on March 28. He scored 23 points (5 for 11 FG) with seven rebounds, four assists, three blocks and three turnovers in Game 3. The following game, he posted 14 points (2 for 11 FG, 0 for 4 from three), 12 rebounds, five blocks and eight turnovers. Embiid is shooting 31.8 percent from the field and 71.4 percent from the line in the series. 

“The main thing, especially when it (the offense) doesn’t go my way, is just be a beast defensively,” he said. 

Embiid cannot play without the protective mask, though, which he has described as “annoying” and “weird.” Markelle Fultz and Amir Johnson tried on the goggles after practice Monday to get a glimpse into his line of vision. 

“They kind of saw my pain when I have to wear them,” Embiid said. “But that can’t be an excuse. I have to get used to it.” 

Embiid’s mindset going into Game 5 is to close out the Heat series and get some extra time before the second round (see story). The Celtics and Bucks series is tied 2-2. He sees the first round as just the starting point for the Sixers’ postseason. 

“A lot of people say that we have a bright future, but I think our time is now,” Embiid said. “We have a pretty good chance. We have a special team, a lot of great guys. I don’t think we need anybody else. We’ve just got to work with what we have, and we have a special team. I feel like we have a pretty good chance to go far. 

"So it’s just about us taking care of the little things, like not turning the ball over, just playing together, like we've been doing, sharing the ball, not be selfish, and everything is going to take care of itself." 

Embiid will take the court for his first postseason game in Philadelphia when the Sixers tip off against the Heat at 8 p.m. Tuesday on NBCSP.

"The playoffs, that’s kind of like you play in front of the whole world," Embiid said. "I feel like I thrive in that type of situation because I feel like I was made for this." 

Sixers know what must be done to knock out Heat

Sixers know what must be done to knock out Heat

CAMDEN, N.J. — The Sixers have pushed the Heat to the brink of elimination and now they are hunkering down for yet another battle in this hard-fought first-round matchup. 

The Sixers do not anticipate closing out the series Tuesday night at home to be any easier than the first four grind-it-out games. 

“You don’t have to be a wise man to know what is about to happen, what style of play they’re going to try to play,” Brett Brown said before practice Monday. “Especially when they’re going to go home if they’re not able to find a win. We understand that.”

The Sixers are returning to the Wells Fargo Center up 3-1 after completing the challenging task of taking two straight games on the road. As they prepare for what could be a deciding game, they are focused on fixing their mistakes from the previous ones. The Sixers overcame giving up 30 points on 27 turnovers, shooting 7 for 31 from three, and trailing by 12 in Game 4. 

“I said it after the game and I’ll say it again now: we were very fortunate to win that game,” Brown said. “The discipline that we did not show offensively and defensively in the first three periods, especially as I go back and watch it, can’t happen.” 

Regardless of the final score, the Heat have proven to be a feisty squad each night. The tussle between Robert Covington, James Johnson and Ben Simmons exemplified the spirit of the series. The teams were whistled for a combined 10 technical fouls in Games 3 and 4. 

Goran Dragic said the Heat are not going to show up at the Wells Fargo Center to surrender. The Sixers don’t anticipate them to, either. 

“A team like Miami, their culture, their organization, their group of guys, they have fighters, they have warriors on their team,” JJ Redick said. “Every game in this series has been tough. There’s no expectations that Game 5 will be any different.”

The Sixers have not advanced out of the first round since 2012, the last time they were in the playoffs. With a 3-1 lead, their objective Tuesday is clear. 

“Our mindset is to close it out,” Joel Embiid said.