For many pro basketball fans, last week’s opening rounds of the NCAA tournament might have been their first chance to get an extended look at some of the players projected to be lottery picks in the upcoming NBA Draft.
Of course, just about everyone who loves basketball is aware of Zion Williamson. The Duke freshman forward was a YouTube sensation in high school, and his highlights this season have been seen on every video platform known to man.
Zion didn’t disappoint in his first NCAA tournament games, going for 57 points and 14 rebounds in Duke’s two victories. He opened up against North Dakota St. by scoring 25 points on 12 of 16 shooting, and followed that up with 32 points and 11 rebounds in the Blue Devils’ thrilling one-point win over Central Florida.
Williamson showed his competitive fire in that nail-biter against UCF, bringing Duke back from a four-point deficit in the final two minutes. The 6-foot-7 285-pound freshman wanted the ball on the closing possessions, and even though he missed a pair of 3-point attempts late, he finally barged to the basket with his team down three for a basket and a foul. Williamson missed the free throw, but teammate RJ Barrett was able to grab the rebound and score on the putback to keep Duke’s national title hopes alive.
Zion’s skill and athleticism were on full display for the nation to enjoy, and whichever team is fortunate enough to win the lottery on May 14 will land a franchise-changing talent who also will be a huge plus for the marketing department.
Similar story with Murray State point guard Ja Morant. Because so few of his games in the Ohio Valley Conference were nationally televised, most fans only knew about him through highlight clips. So, when Morant put together a dominant 17 point, 16 assist, 11 rebound game in the tournament opener against Marquette, the national reaction was interesting to watch. Suddenly, everyone wanted the 6-foot-3, 180-pound Morant running the offense for their favorite NBA team, comparing him to Derrick Rose and Russell Westbrook.
Morant’s tournament run came to an end in a blowout loss to Florida State last Saturday, but he still impressed by scoring 28 points, including five 3-pointers. He figures to go second in the June draft, unless a team with a young point guard already in place like the Cavs, Knicks or Hawks winds up with that selection. In that case, interested teams like the Bulls could explore trade scenarios to move up.
As for some of the other potential lottery picks, the Duke duo of Barrett and Cam Reddish had their moments in the opening two rounds. Barrett scored 26 points in Duke’s blowout win on Friday and followed that up with the clutch rebound basket on Sunday. Reddish combined for 25 points in the two games, and he fits in the modern NBA as a 3-and-D player that just about every team is seeking.
Texas Tech shooting guard Jarrett Culver could be cementing his status as a top-five pick with a strong showing in the tournament. Culver combined for 45 points, 18 rebounds and 12 assists in the Red Raiders’ two wins, reminding scouts of DeMar DeRozan with his smooth mid-range game.
North Carolina mystery man Nassir Little also improved his stock by scoring 39 points in the Tar Heels’ two wins. Little has been coming off the bench all season, similar to the strategy Roy Williams employed with talented freshman Marvin Williams during North Carolina’s run to the 2005 NCAA title. Williams still wound up being the second overall pick.
Little probably won’t crack the top five, but scouts are intrigued by his potential as an explosive 6-foot-8 athlete with a defensive mindset, similar to Kawhi Leonard during his college career at San Diego State.
Probably the biggest move came from Gonzaga’s high-jumping forward Brandon Clarke, who exploded for 36 points, 8 rebounds and 5 blocked shots in a win over Baylor on Saturday. Clarke has worked his way up from a second round pick to a late lottery consideration, but he’ll have to prove to NBA scouts he can make outside shots during the combine and individual team workouts.
Around the Association
We’re heading down the stretch of the regular season with a close two-way battle for the MVP award between Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden. Harden put up a 61-point game on Friday and he’s almost singlehandedly led the Rockets on a late season charge for homecourt advantage in the opening round of the Western Conference playoffs.
Meanwhile, the Bucks have all but wrapped up the best record in the NBA, thanks to Giannis’ all-around brilliance. Antetokounmpo is averaging 27.4 points, 12.6 rebounds and 6 assists per game while shooting 58.2 percent from the field.
It’s hard to predict which way voters will go in making this tough choice, but my guess is Giannis will come out on top, based on the Bucks’ record and the fact Harden won the award last season.
One of the interesting free agents to watch this summer will be Charlotte point guard Kemba Walker. The 6-foot-1 three-time all-star is having another great season statistically, but the Hornets are about to miss the playoffs again.
Walker expressed his frustration to the front office earlier in the season, and was assured the team will make the changes necessary to build a competitive team around him. But with Walker turning 29 before next season, will the Hornets be willing to make a five-year, $220 million supermax offer to their franchise player? And, will Walker be confident enough to entrust the rest of his career with a middling, small market team?
You can expect the Knicks, Nets and Clippers to explore the Kemba market this summer, but the Bulls are most likely out of the running after giving up their ability to offer a max contract with the Otto Porter Jr. trade.
Long term, the Bulls would be better off by landing a young point guard like Morant, but Walker’s explosive scoring ability will make him an attractive target in free agency.
Former Bulls’ all star Jimmy Butler could be on the move again this summer. First year 76ers GM Elton Brand is on the record saying the team will make every effort to re-sign Butler and Tobias Harris in free agency this summer, but it’s become increasingly apparent Harris is their No. 1 priority.
Harris is four years younger than Butler and is enjoying his best season as a pro. He’s also become a go-to option in Brett Brown’s half-court sets. The 76ers are expected to move quickly to get Harris to commit to a long-term contract once the bell rings at midnight on July 1.
Meanwhile, Butler’s age (he’ll turn 30 before the start of next season) and high usage rate might make the 76ers reluctant to commit to a five-year max deal. Now, this all could change based on how well Philly does in the upcoming playoffs, but it looks like Butler will be exploring interest from other teams this summer, including both New York and both Los Angeles franchises.
Butler could wind up being the backup choice for the Clippers, who are expected to go hard for Kawhi Leonard, and also the second choice for the Knicks if they can’t sign Kevin Durant. It’s hard to imagine Jimmy agreeing to be LeBron’s supporting actor with the Lakers, but as we’ve seen in the past, free agency can lead to some unexpected alliances.
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