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Which NBA prospects benefited most from NCAA Tournament?

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USA TODAY

Which NBA prospects benefited most from NCAA Tournament?

NBA scouts and executives will tell you post-season tournament play is a small factor in their overall evaluation of a prospect. 

Still, NBA talent evaluators are just like the rest of us. They fill out NCAA tournament brackets and enter in pools with their friends. But the one big distinction, they watch the games from a different perspective, with a much more critical eye on the play of the top players on each team. 

So, as we get ready to enjoy this weekend's Final 4 in San Antonio, which players have helped their draft stock most with their play in the tournament?

Let's start with Kansas guards Devonte' Graham and Malik Newman. Neither was considered much of a pro prospect during the regular season, but both have shined under the spotlight of the NCAA tournament. Newman, a 6-foot-3 sophomore, scored 32 points in the Jayhawks' regional final win over Duke on Sunday and 28 points in a second round victory over Seton Hall.

Meanwhile, Graham poured in 29 points in an opening round win over Penn and is averaging over six assists per game during the tournament. The 6-foot-2 senior has been nominated for national player of the year honors, but because he's already 23 years old, hasn't drawn much attention from pro scouts. Graham is still projected as a second round pick in mock drafts.

You probably had never heard of Texas Tech's Zhaire Smith before the tournament began, but the high-flying 6-foot-5 freshman jumped off the TV screen in leading the Red Raiders to the East regional final. Smith came close to posting a triple double in a second round win over Florida, finishing with 18 points, nine rebounds and seven assists. His game is very similar to the Bulls' Zach LaVine, although Smith needs to become a more consistent outside shooter. Thanks to his strong tournament showing, Smith is now being mentioned as a likely first round pick in mock drafts.

Similar story with Kentucky point guard Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. NBA scouts were already impressed with his quickness and penetrating ability as a 6-foot-6 point guard, but the Wildcats' freshman showed an improved outside shooting touch during the SEC and NCAA tournaments, likely making him a late lottery pick in June. Gilgeous-Alexander made 10 of 16 shots from the field and scored 29 points in a win over Tennessee in the SEC championship game and followed that up with a 10-12, 27-point performance against Buffalo in the second round of the NCAA tournament.

Another player who could crack the late lottery is Texas A&M big man Robert Williams. Williams was projected as a lottery pick last year, but decided to return for his sophomore season at College Station. That looked like a mistake during the regular season as he was overshadowed by frontcourt partner Tyler Davis and showed little to no range on his shot, including a miserable 47 percent success rate from the free throw line. Fortunately for Williams, he looked much more explosive during conference tournament and NCAA play and projects as a high energy rebounder and shot blocker in the mold of Warriors' rookie Jordan Bell.

Back to our original point, NBA talent evaluators aren't going to throw out all their work on the top prospects based on a few good (or bad) performances in the NCAA tournament. Arizona center Deandre Ayton will still go No. 1 overall, even though he was a non-factor in Arizona's stunning first round loss to Buffalo, and Duke's Marvin Bagley will still go in the top 3, even though he threw up an air ball from close range with a chance to get his team to the Final 4 against Kansas last Sunday.

Missouri's Michael Porter Jr. and Michigan State's Jaren Jackson Jr. could drop a spot or two after early exits from the tournament, but scouts are more concerned about Porter's medical report than a couple of poor shooting performances, and they're still confident Jackson projects as an ideal modern center despite uneven playing time during his freshman season. 

NBA teams will get to know all the top players better during the annual scouting combine in Chicago May 16-20 and that will be followed by individual team workouts. By the time we get to draft night on June 21, how any of the prospects fared in the NCAA tournament will be long forgotten.

AROUND THE ASSOCIATION

Injuries figure to play a key role in which team will be celebrating a championship in mid-June. The defending champion Warriors have been running out a lineup in recent games that doesn't include any of their four All-Stars, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. Durant is expected to return from a rib cartilage injury Thursday night against Milwaukee, while Green has been dealing with short-term strains and bruises, and should be good to go come playoff time.

The status of the "Splash Brothers" is a little more concerning. Thompson will return soon from a fractured right thumb, but considering he will have missed over four weeks and the injury is to his shooting hand, it could take a while for him to work off the rust. 

Curry's situation is even more troublesome. He's expected to miss the opening round of the playoffs because of a Grade 2 sprain of his left MCL suffered last Friday, and it's hard to regain rhythm during the more physical, high pressure atmosphere in postseason games. If you remember what happened to the Warriors in 2016, they blew a 3-1 lead over Cleveland in the Finals in part because Curry was less than 100 percent after a late season injury. 

It's possible all four Warriors' All-Stars will be healthy and playing well by the time the conference finals roll around in late May. But given the fact Houston is on an incredible roll right now, winning 28 of their last 29 games, anything less than a fully functioning Golden State team might not get the chance to defend their title in June.

INJURIES

Injuries are also the story in the East, where Kyrie Irving might not be ready for the start of the playoffs after going through a procedure to reduce irritation in his surgically-repaired left knee. The Celtics will also enter the postseason without valuable reserve guard Marcus Smart (thumb surgery) and Jaylen Brown just returned from concussion protocol. 

Boston is probably still a year away from being a serious championship contender. They'll get Gordon Hayward back from a serious ankle injury and the young forward duo of Brown and Jayson Tatum will have another year of experience, but you never want to write off the season at hand. Brad Stevens has done a remarkable job in leading the shorthanded Celtics to seven wins in their last 10 games, but facing a likely second round series against Cleveland, Stevens will need a healthy Irving to have a serious chance of advancing to the conference finals.

NBA DRAMA?

And then there's the leaders in NBA drama, the Cavaliers, facing multiple issues of their own. Just after a nice stretch of winning basketball following the return of Kevin Love from a broken hand, Love goes back to the inactive list after suffering a concussion when he was elbowed in the mouth by Miami's Jordan Mickey Tuesday night. 

Love had given the Cavs a reliable second scoring option behind James, allowing newcomers Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood and Jordan Clarkson to settle into supporting roles. With James serving as the primary ball-handler for the new-look Cavs, spot-up shooters are critical to the team's playoff hopes, and Love is one of the best shooting big men in the league.

If the Cavs are going to make it to a fourth straight Finals (eighth straight for LeBron), they'll need Tristan Thompson's return to form as a terror on the glass, and shooters like Love, Hood, George Hill, J.R. Smith and Kyle Korver to be more consistent contributors in the playoffs.

LAKERS FUTURE

With all the speculation about the Lakers going after both LeBron James and Paul George in free agency this summer, it's interesting to hear the positive comments out of L.A. regarding free agent to be Isaiah Thomas. The 29-year-old point guard will have a surgical procedure done on his injured hip Thursday in New York and faces another long rehab period. 

Still, after talking his way out of Cleveland with pointed criticism of the Cavs' play, Thomas is viewed as a positive veteran influence by the young Lakers, with head coach Luke Walton praising Thomas for his unselfishness in coming off the bench for the good of the team. Thomas only started one of the 17 games he played in L.A., averaging 15.6 points on 38 percent shooting from the field and 33 percent from the 3-point line.

If Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka fail in their pursuit of James and George this summer, they could turn to Thomas with a big money one year offer to hold open their cap space for a 2019 class that could include Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson and Jimmy Butler. Thomas is unlikely to get a lucrative, long-term contract this summer given his recent injury history and the fact so few teams have significant cap space. 

So, don't rule out a return to the Lakers, remember they paid Kentavious Caldwell-Pope almost $18 million this season just for the chance to use that money in their 2018 free agent gambit.

Which Bull owns the highest upside? Ask fans and media, the answer is clear

Which Bull owns the highest upside? Ask fans and media, the answer is clear

On March 10, Coby White turned back time.

“From North Carolina...” boomed throughout the United Center during starting lineup introductions. The rookie’s first NBA start raised memories of happier times, when those words preceded Michael Jordan’s introduction and thunderous applause followed. 

White’s 20 points, five rebounds and five assists brought plenty of applause during the Bulls’ home victory over the Cavaliers. His nine turnovers underscored the development the 20-year-old still needs. But, oh, the potential and promise.

The next night, the NBA shut down. 

Thanks to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, nobody knows when the league, and society, will try to achieve normalcy again. Whenever that begins, the Bulls’ roster will remain filled with players long on potential and promise, and short on impacting winning basketball.

That’s why we polled media members and fans for which Bull owns the highest upside on a roster that hasn’t exited the crawling stages of a full rebuild. Earning 57 percent of the vote in each, White proved the big winner, which seemed fitting since his record as a starter is 1-0.

At 26 percent, Zach LaVine finished second among the nearly 3,000 votes from fans. Lauri Markkanen registered at 10 percent and Wendell Carter Jr. at 7 percent.

Flip Markkanen for LaVine in regard to media voting. Amazingly, White and Carter drew the same percentage from a poll of nearly 30 reporters. But local and national reporters cited Markkanen for second place at 25 percent and LaVine for third place at 11 percent.

 

Here’s what Warriors Insider Monte Poole from NBC Sports Bay Area said when choosing White: “Two attributes. One, hunger. Two, fearlessness. He’s cut from ambitious cloth.” 

And indeed, White’s ability to produce huge scoring flurries — some, even on off nights until then — stood out as his biggest strength until his consistent late-season tear. Consider: White produced eight 20-point games, including three over 30 points, in his final nine games after registering seven in his first 56.

In that nine-game stretch, White averaged 26.1 points, 4.4 assists and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 48.3 percent, including 43.2 percent from 3-point range (nine attempts per game). 

“His age, potential as a scorer in this league and versatility — he’s 6-foot-4 and plays both guard positions and some small ball — give him a chance to be a really good player,” wrote NBC Sports Boston's Celtics Insider A. Sherrod Blakely.

Steve Popper, who covers the Knicks and the NBA for Newsday, covered the game in Chicago when White became the first rookie (and Bulls player) in league history to sink seven 3-pointers in a quarter. That White did so in the fourth quarter of a victory made it all the more memorable. 

“It was just 11 games into his NBA career when he torched the Knicks for 27 points, hitting seven 3-point field goals. Did I mention that all seven 3-pointers were in the fourth quarter, spurring a 22-0 Bulls run?” Popper wrote. “After that game and when he scored 22 against them later in the season, players and coaches talked about how hard he was to stop — and that he's 19 years old.” 

White turned 20 in February. But his future seems bright. 

Despite an injury-riddled and underwhelming third season, Markkanen finished second in media voting. 

“I’m still a believer,” wrote Fred Katz, who covers the Wizards for The Athletic. “Yes, he was ice cold to start the year and bounced in and out of his comfort zone throughout. But he was still a highly efficient scorer from December on. A 22-year-old with that size who can score in a multitude of ways is going to top my list.” 

That’s the thing: Markkanen remains a 7-foot matchup nightmare at his best. Unfortunately, between injuries and usage, Markkanen didn’t reach his best as often in his third season as he did in his second. 

Getting Markkanen back on track is essential to the Bulls’ rebuild getting off the ground. When the league shut down, Markkanen owned career-low scoring (14.7 points) and rebounding (6.3) averages, and was shooting a career-low 42.5 percent.

“Maybe I'm a sucker for ‘potential,’ which has burdened a lot of young players, and cost plenty of coaches and general managers their jobs. But through his first two seasons, Markkanen seemed to be on his way to a 20-10 player perfect for the modern NBA, based on his skills and being tougher than he looks,” wrote NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner, a longtime league observer. “Often, a player’s third season in the league is when he takes a big step up — or not — to tell us what he is. But in Markkanen’s case, his and the Bulls’ dysfunction conspired against him. I’m cutting him slack on 2019-20 and anticipating his breakthrough in 2020-21 (or whenever next season gets played).”

LaVine fared better among fan voting than media voting, but those who did vote for the Bulls’ leading scorer did so forcefully. 

“There’s no player in the NBA I’d rather see on a winning team,” wrote NBC Sports Bay Area’s Kerith Burke. “Environment is everything.” 

This point actually strikes to the crux of the LaVine debate. Is he miscast as a No. option? Is he an improving player who deserves better and would fit in on any winning team? Or is he an empty-stats stuffer whose advanced metrics don’t impact winning? 

“He was an All-Star in my mind this year,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher, another longtime league observer. “He's an electric inside-outside scorer and he's improving as a defender. He wants the ball with the game on the line. Considering he has played for five coaches in his six seasons, and still has grown as a player and developed into a quiet leader is remarkable.” 

Bucher cited Carter as his runner-up. But ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell placed the young big man first. 

“He can become a force defensively and he still has the ability to grow into a nice offensive player,” Friedell wrote. “He just has to be confident enough to shoot consistently again. The coaching staff — whomever that may be to start next season — has to help instill that confidence inside of him." 

The wide range of responses points to perhaps the biggest issue regarding the rebuild, as Los Angeles Times NBA writer Dan Woike elucidated.

“This is a fascinating question because, to me, it underscores the Bulls’ biggest problem. Of the young players they've amassed, there isn't a clear favorite to break out,” he wrote. “I think what we saw from Coby White in his last nine games puts him to the top of the list for me. He's dynamic, aggressive, and so far, durable. His speed is a difference-making quality, and while I still think Lauri has a chance to be really good, I'm just not sure what he does that makes him different.”

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Bulls questions: What happened to Lauri Markkanen? Can he re-find his form?

Bulls questions: What happened to Lauri Markkanen? Can he re-find his form?

Two times per week, we'll be breaking down a pertinent Bulls question for you all to chew in during the NBA's hiatus.

Past installments: What is Zach LaVine's ceiling? | Should Bulls lock in Kris Dunn long-term after career-reviving year? | Evaluating last offseason's additions, how they fit long-term

If the NBA never resolves its regular season, that will be just fine with a large swath of the Bulls’ fanbase. With a 22-43 record through 65 games, and just two of those wins coming against teams above-.500, this team’s fate was all but sealed before the COVID-19 pandemic ground the NBA's schedule to a halt.

But there were reasons to invest in the stretch run — among them, the hope of a small reclamation for Lauri Markkanen, whose third season began with unbridled optimism, but was littered with disappointment.

That initial optimism wasn’t misguided. In Markkanen’s second year, he averaged 18.7 points and nine rebounds per game, bumped his workload on steady efficiency from his rookie campaign and amassed a month of February for the ages, posting averages of 26 points and 12 rebounds on rising-star-level volume (36.3 minutes, 18.1 field goal attempts, 26.9% usage). All of that packed into an agile, sharp-shooting, 7-foot frame, and he looked like a budding face of the franchise.

Then, year three happened, and with it, regression across the board. With 50 games under his belt (he appeared in 52 in 2018-19), Markkanen is averaging career lows in points (14.7), rebounds (6.3) and field goal attempts (11.8), as well as shooting career-worst marks from the field (42.5%) and 3-point range (34.4%). As of this writing, he’s averaging just 0.1 minutes more than his rookie season, and 2 ½ less than his sophomore campaign.

The high-point was 35-point, 17-rebound, 17-for-25 shooting performance in Charlotte on opening night, but after that, Markkanen never eclipsed 19 field goal attempts in a game again (he had 10 such games in 2018-19). His best extended stretch of play came in December, when he averaged 17.6 points on 50.8% shooting (41.6% from deep) in 14 games the Bulls finished 7-7. In his other 36 contests, he averaged 13.6 points on 38.9% shooting (31% from deep).

You get the picture. But none of that changes the fact that the Bulls will (eventually) enter this offseason and the 2021 season reliant on Markkanen to re-discover his second-year form and the potential that leapt off the screen in it. Crucial to that happening is understanding why his third season played out the way it did. 

The answer to that question is a complex one, a perfect storm of adversity. 

Injuries undoubtedly played some part. Rumors of a nagging oblique ailment colored Markkanen’s early-season shooting struggles. A badly sprained ankle hampered him throughout January. He missed nearly six weeks from Jan. 22 to March 4 with an early stress reaction in his right pelvis. In four games returned from that injury, Markkanen averaged 11.8 points and 3.8 boards on ever-increasing minutes restrictions before the novel coronavirus cut that spell short.

Coaching was a factor, too. The Bulls’ freshly-minted offensive system yielded the league’s 29th-rated team offense, but Markkanen’s production was its greatest individual casualty. His catch-and-shoot and spot-up diets increased, his drives and possessions as the roll/pop-man in the pick-and-roll decreased and his efficiency tanked across the board. A player at his best on the move spent too many games at a standstill. Further, uneven usage and playing time resulted in Markkanen’s role in the offense waxing and waning drastically game-to-game (he only posted consecutive 20-point outings once), — sometimes half-to-half

What’s more, late-season comments (e.g. when he said proving that he “can be aggressive and get to do multiple things and not be a spot-up shooter” as a goal for the stretch run after his first game back from the pelvis injury) pointed to friction between Markkanen’s desires and the Bulls’ schemes.

But, of course, a share of the blame falls on Markkanen. Bulls coach Jim Boylen likes to talk about controlling the controllables — for Markkanen, he often cited crashing the glass as a means to assuage his offensive woes. But according to Cleaning the Glass’ metrics, Markkanen’s defensive rebounding rate sank from being in the 83rd percentile for his position in his sophomore season, to 41st in this one. His on-ball defense didn’t take a step forward, he struggled to attack mismatches on the offensive end and, while there is a responsibility for coaches and players to get their stars involved in the flow of the game, Markkanen can and should grab the reins more than he did this year.

Again: A perfect storm. A nicked up, third-year player with a deferential, team-first temperament regresses while attempting to adjust to a new offensive system not directly catered to his strengths. In retrospect, it’s not so unbelievable.

Still, the solution must come quickly, for Markkanen’s sake and the Bulls’. Entering the offseason, this rebuild is as fraught as ever, changes are reportedly coming to the team’s front office and Markkanen is extension-eligible come July (though that date could change in the post-coronavirus cap environment we inhabit). Markkanen’s side will want a big-money, long-term commitment from the Bulls in line with the cornerstone distinction bestowed upon him, but he hasn’t played up to that standard on a consistent basis. From an optics perspective, a staring match benefits no one.

Bottom line: Lauri Markkanen is not the player he was this season. He’s not the player he was in Feb. 2019 either. The true Markkanen lies somewhere in the middle, and whenever the Bulls resume operations, finding his place on that spectrum is perhaps the most important issue facing the team.

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