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Future Bulls? Top NBA prospects to watch in the 2019 NCAA Tournament

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USA TODAY

Future Bulls? Top NBA prospects to watch in the 2019 NCAA Tournament

The Bulls will have a top 10 pick for the third consecutive season and it’s likely that the next piece of their rebuild is playing in the NCAA Tournament this weekend.

A handful of our Bulls analysts – Mark Schanowski, Mark Strotman, Michael Walton and Joaquin Carrig – have picked out 12 of the top prospects in this year’s class who you can watch during March Madness.

The list is done in order of when each player’s team tips off, so don’t be concerned that Zion Williamson isn’t leading things off. All times listed are Central Time. TV channels are listed in parentheses.

Thursday Games

Ja Morant, PG, Murray State – 3:30 p.m. vs. Marquette (TBS)

Stats: 24.6 points, 10.0 assists, 1.8 steals, 50.3% FG

Scouting Report: This could be the most entertaining opening round game on the schedule, featuring the top-rated point guard (Morant) against Marquette’s explosive scoring guard Markus Howard (25.0 points per game). Howard has been slowed lately by a left wrist injury but told reporters he should be fine physically for the tournament opener.

Morant averaged 24.6 points and led the nation with 10.0 assists per game during his sophomore season at Murray State, but questions persist about whether he can put up those kinds of numbers against elite competition. Marquette will present a tougher challenge defensively than any team Morant faced in the Ohio Valley Conference, especially with shot blocker Theo John waiting to protect the rim on Morant’s drives to the basket.

You can look for 6-foot-5 junior Sacar Anim to get the primary responsibility for guarding Morant on the perimeter, but keeping the lightning-quick guard from getting into the paint and drawing fouls will be a total team effort.

Marquette slumped badly late in the season, losing 5 of its last 6 games, but the Golden Eagles are used to playing against high caliber competition in the Big East Conference. NBA scouts will be watching closely to see how Morant performs under the high-pressure atmosphere of the NCAA Tournament. – Schanowski

Keldon Johnson, SF, Kentucky – 6:10 p.m. vs. Abilene Christian (CBS)

Stats: 13.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, 38.8% 3FG

Scouting Report: A consensus five-star recruit, Johnson has disappointed for those who expected gaudy numbers. But when it comes to being quietly efficient and productive, Johnson is your guy.

He does most of his work attacking closeouts, coming off of pin-down screens and on simple catch-and-shoot opportunities. Johnson is averaging 17.6 points per 40 minutes and shooting 38.8 percent from 3-point range. His 44.9 percent free throw rate is a testament to how good he is at using his 6-foot 6, 211-pound frame to draw contact on drives. Johnson isn’t the fastest or most explosive athlete, but he makes up for it with a herky-jerky dribble-drive game and an awesome floater.

Any team that falls outside of the top-7 will have to take a hard look at Johnson. He can fit in any system, and has untapped potential as a shot-creator and defender. – Walton

P.J. Washington, PF, Kentucky – 6:10 p.m. vs. Abilene Christian (CBS)

Stats: 14.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 51.5% FG

Scouting Report: PJ Washington is without a doubt the best player on this year’s Kentucky team. Washington came back to Lexington for his sophomore year and has improved across the board.

He is averaging 20.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and 2.6 assists per 40 minutes. Washington’s excellent passing ability and newfound 3-point stroke--41.9 percent through 33 games--make him a great fit for NBA offenses. Although he is still a work in progress on the defensive end, his 7-foot-3 wingspan leaves plenty of room for defensive improvement. The closest comparison at the moment would be where Chris Bosh was as an NBA prospect at Georgia Tech.

A hard worker and physical force on the floor, Washington is sure to be a steal in the 2019 NBA Draft. – Walton

Rui Hachimura, PF, Gonzaga – 6:27 p.m. vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (truTV)

Stats: 20.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 60.9% FG

Scouting Report: For some reason, the 6-foot-8 Hachimura hasn’t generated a lot of excitement among draft analysts, falling out of the lottery in many mock drafts. 

All he did during the regular season was average 20.1 points and 6.6 rebounds per game while shooting an amazing 61 percent from the field. Hachimura only attempted 32 shots from 3-point range, but he made 15 of them (46.9%). He’s an underrated ball handler for a power forward and has the ability to finish in traffic. Maybe it’s the caliber of competition Hachimura faces in the West Coast Conference that has scouts a little wary at this point, but the talent is obviously there. 

Even if Hachimura doesn’t fit the NBA profile of a “stretch 4,” he could start climbing up draft boards around the league if he is able to string together a number of big games on the way to leading Gonzaga to the Final Four. With the Bulls in need of a back-up power forward, Hachimura could be an option if their pick lands in the 6-8 range. – Schanowski

Brandon Clarke, PF, Gonzaga – 6:27 p.m. vs. Fairleigh Dickinson (truTV)

Stats: 16.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.1 blocks, 1.2 steals, 69.3% FG

Scouting Report: While Rui Hachimura’s stock has been fairly steady throughout the college season, the Zags’ other starting forward has been a steady climber because of his off-the-charts athleticism. When you watch a Gonzaga game, you can’t help but notice the guy wearing No. 15 jumping over the top of everyone for rebounds and put-back dunks. 

Because he does most of his work close to the basket, Clarke is shooting 69 percent from the field, averaging 16.5 points, 8.4 rebounds and a very impressive 3.1 blocks per game. The 6-foot-8 junior has been all over the map on mock drafts, from late lottery to mid-second round. He’ll get a chance to show college basketball fans and NBA scouts if he’s more than just a runner and dunker during the upcoming tournament. 

Never underestimate what a great NCAA Tournament showing can do for an athletic player’s draft stock. Bulls fans won’t forget how Tyrus Thomas came out of nowhere in 2006, leading the front office to pass on LaMarcus Aldridge when they had the second pick in the draft. Clarke won’t crack the top-10 this year, but he’ll probably be featured on a lot of highlight shows over the next three weeks. – Schanowski

Friday Games

Jarrett Culver, SG, Texas Tech – 12:30 p.m. vs. Northern Kentucky (TNT)

Stats: 18.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 48.5% FG

Scouting Report: Culver has consistently been listed as a top 10 prospect in NBA mock drafts with a smooth two-way game that should be even more effective at the pro level.

The 6-foot-6 wing averaged 18.5 points during the regular season, shooting 48 percent from the field and 32 percent from the 3-point line. The Red Raiders earned a share of the Big 12 regular season championship, but then got bounced out of the conference tournament in the quarterfinals. Does Culver have the ability and temperament to raise his game under the NCAA tournament spotlight? Can he create his own shots against elite perimeter defenders?

These are the questions NBA scouts will look to answer while the No. 3 seed Red Raiders try to duplicate last season’s run to the Elite 8. Culver could wind up being a top-5 pick by showing an ability to score consistently against defenses designed to stop him. He wears No. 23 and has a body type similar to former Bulls’ All-Star Jimmy Butler. Could Culver eventually be as good as Butler? That’s what NBA decision makers are still trying to figure out. – Schanowski

De’Andre Hunter, SF, Virginia – 2:10 p.m. vs. Gardner-Webb (truTV)

Stats: 15.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 53.0% FG, 45.7% 3FG

Scouting Report: If there's a power rankings for tired draft cliches, "3 and D" has been on a steady rise the last few seasons. So pardon us for fanning the flames, but it's exactly what De'Andre Hunter brings to the table. He has an excellent frame at 6-foot-7, 222 pounds, and plays a physical brand of basketball on both ends of the floor.

He's the best perimeter defender in this year's class and - here comes another cliche - will defend multiple spots on the floor. He has the instincts, the toughness and the quickness to become an elite defender at the NBA level. Oh, and he's shooting nearly 46 percent from beyond the arc this season. He doesn't create much for himself - then again, he hasn't had to in Virginia's offense - but is physical enough around the rim that he won't be a one-trick pony at the next level. Remember, too, that his raw numbers take a hit in the Cavaliers' slow-paced offense. Every NBA contender needs a player with Hunter's skill set. – Strotman

Zion Williamson, PF, Duke – 6:10 p.m. vs. NDSU (CBS)

Stats: 22.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 1.8 blocks, 69.3% FG

Scouting Report: He does everything. If you're not familiar with the best NBA prospect since LeBron James, the previous sentence is all you need to know. Williamson is as unique a prospect as we've ever seen, with a 6-foot-7, 285-pound frame and the ability to jump out of the gym, blow by defenders with a lightning-quick first step and defend at an incredibly high level.

You've seen Zion highlights of him ferociously dunking in transition, but the reality is he's so much more than that. He's an outstanding passer, has great footwork once he gets into the paint and might even be better defensively than he is on offense; it gets overlooked but Williamson led the ACC in steals per game and was fourth in blocks per game. Question whether his jump shot will be an issue at the next level (he made just 17 of 54 attempts). You're in the minority. Williamson is a can't-miss prospect who is going to change an NBA franchise in three months. – Strotman

R.J. Barrett, SF, Duke – 6:10 p.m. vs. NDSU (CBS)

Stats: 22.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 45.7% FG

Scouting Report: He's been entirely overshadowed by Williamson, but let's not forget that it was Barrett who led the ACC in scoring. He's a natural with the ball in his hands and does an excellent job getting to the basket, averaging nearly 6 free throw attempts per game and scoring in a variety of ways. He also proved to be a plus passer, with much of Duke's offense running through him. He averaged 4.1 assists, including seven game with seven or more helpers (and the fourth triple-double in Duke history). His decision making needs some improvement but that can be chalked up to being 18 years old. There's always room for a scorer and ball handler in an NBA offense.

How he'll play off the ball in the NBA remains a question mark, as he shot just 30.4 percent from deep and was a totally different player without the ball in his hands. He's far from a finished product but there's still plenty to like about his game. He'll be a top-3 pick in June and has the ability in March to go off for 30 points at a moment's notice. – Strotman

Cam Reddish, SG, Duke – 6:10 p.m. vs. NDSU (CBS)

Stats: 13.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.6 steals, 32.7% FG

Scouting Report: The talk all summer and early in the fall was that Duke could become the first program to have players selected first, second and third overall in an NBA Draft. Then Cam Reddish's freshman season began and that talk disappeared. While Zion Williamson was becoming the future of the NBA, and R.J. Barrett was leading the ACC in scoring, Reddish struggled to find any success in his first year at Duke. Touted as a sharpshooter with excellent length, Reddish shot less than 33 percent from beyond the arc and outside of his game-winner against Florida State never really had any impact moments.

That being said, Reddish is still a perfect NBA fit. Despite his struggles he's still an excellent shooter and one that comes standing 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-1 wingspan. There's plenty of reason to believe the NBA's spacing and pace will open up shots for him, and once he fills out more (he's listed at 218 pounds) should be a plus defender at the NBA level. He's had his struggles but it wouldn't surprise anyone if he caught fire for a few games in March, reminding everyone why he was a potential top pick just a few short months ago. – Strotman

Nassir Little, SF, North Carolina – 8:20 p.m. vs. Iona (TNT)

Stats: 9.4 points, 4.6 rebounds, 46.4% FG

Scouting Report: Expectations were high for freshman forward Nassir Little, a five-star recruit out of Florida, when he signed his letter of intent to be a Carolina Tar Heel.

However, Little’s freshman campaign has not gone as anticipated. Despite his raw athleticism and star potential, Little has never cracked Roy Williams’ starting lineup, struggling to fit cohesively into UNC’s offensive system.

With that being said, Little is an important reserve, averaging 9.4 points and 4.6 rebounds in 18.3 minutes per game on one of the premier college basketball teams in the nation. That combined with the NBA currently favoring his combo-forward style of play, means Little is still projected to be drafted mid-to-late first round in most mock drafts.

Unless Little quickly materializes into a top-five pick, the Bulls interest in the forward remains low. Especially considering Chicago filled their glaring void at small forward with the acquisition of Otto Porter Jr. earlier this year. – Carrig

Coby White, PG, North Carolina – 8:20 p.m. vs. Iona (TNT)

Stats: 16.3 points, 4.2 assists, 3.4 rebounds

Scouting Report: While Little’s stock has fallen, Coby White’s has never been higher. The 5-star recruit has gone from likely returning to the Tar Heels for a second season to becoming a potential lottery pick.

White started all 33 games at the point for UNC, averaging 16.3 points and 4.2 assists per game. His 76 three-point makes are a Tar Heel freshman record.

As a result, White made the ACC All-Freshman team and only received second team All-ACC honors because of the absurd amount of talent in the conference this season.

White is the engine that led this UNC team to win a share of the regular season ACC title and if the Tar Heels go deep into March, he will be a main reason why. As a result, most mock drafts are projecting the young guard to go in the 5-10 range.

If the Bulls don’t land a top-3 pick, which likely means missing out on Murray State’s Ja Morant, White could be a very realistic alternative to address their weakness at the point guard position. – Carrig

NBA Big Board Check In 3.0: De'Andre Hunter racks up season-high 26 PTS in win over Louisville

NBA Big Board Check In 3.0: De'Andre Hunter racks up season-high 26 PTS in win over Louisville

Mark Schanowski's Big Board 6.0 had some movement, particularly around the bottom half of the top 10. We take the time to go over some of the top performances from throughout the week, including a certain Duke freshman setting an ACC freshman record.

De'Andre Hunter, Virginia (vs Louisville): 26 PTS (9/11 FG), 4 REB, 4 AST, 2 STL, 1 BLK

Hunter came in at No. 9 on Mark Schanowski's last NBA Draft Big Board and looks like he could be a fixture in the top 10 for the rest of the season. In the No. 3 Virginia Cavaliers win over No. 18 ranked Louisville Cardinals, Hunter racked up a season-high 26 points on 11 field goal attempts.

He continues to be a very proficient 3-point shooter, and is up to an awesome 45.5 percent from the 3-point line. And he has also increased his volume from outside as well, taking 2.2 attemprs from 3-point range per game. 

He imposed his will on the Cardinals on Saturday. Hunter went 2/2 from the 3-point line and shot a remarkable 81.8 percent from the field in the win. Hunter is very rigid on offense, similar to Kawhi Leonard in the sense that he is a fundemental, no-frills player.

In the Cavaliers win over the Cardinals, Hunter had one play that specifically showcased what makes him such a great prospect, but also one of his clear weaknesses, which is the absence of above average ball-handling skills.

Around the 14 second mark in the clip below, Hunter gets a steal without even looking at the ball. This is something he will be capable at doing at the NBA level. Virginia head coach Tony Bennett has tutored Hunter well in staying attached to his man, and keeping his long arms in passing lanes to generate deflections.

In the clip below, after he gets the steal and promptly fumbles the ball on the breakaway, he's able to gather himself and finish through contact. 

Hunter will immediately help whatever NBA team that drafts him.

He is an excellent and physical defender—capable of guarding wings, guards and bigs—but if he starts to increase his steal rate and generate more offense in transition at Virginia, he is sure to shoot even higher up NBA draft boards.

RJ Barrett, Duke (vs Syracuse): 30 PTS (2/5 3PT), 5 REB, 7 AST 

With Zion Williamson out against Syracuse, RJ Barrett was expected to step into a larger role on offense. However, based off his ghastly 8/30 shooting against the Orange in their previous matchup, no one saw this dominant of a performance coming.

Barrett scored 30 points on 70 percent shooting, easily his most efficent offensive performance against a quality opponent. With Williamson out, Barret was able to occupy the spot in the middle of Syracuse's 2-3 zone on offense. He used his floater—which looks funky at times but is mostly effective—to finish over length, and was able to finish well when postioned along the baseline.

He was also better in transition in this one, taking a few attempts that looked wild but converting at solid rate. Barrett continued to flash a decent amount of playmaking as well. He collected 7 assists and also utilized great pass-fakes many time throughtout the road win. 

But if an NBA franchise drafts the Mississauga, ON native in the top-3, it will be because of his excellent strength and willingness to play with physicality on offense. Many times in Saturday's win, Barrett would be opposed at the rim by 180-lb Syracuse big man Marek Dolezaj. Though Dolezaj, taller than Barrett at 6-foot-10, he could put up little resistance when the 202-lb Barrett dropped his shoulder in to his chest when barreling to the rim.

Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech (vs Kansas): 

Culver has made improvements to his all-around game this year, but he has been especially impressive when it comes to his improvement as a jump shooter. That improvement was on full display on Saturday night, when he helped the Red Raiders absolutely thrash the Kanasas Jayhawks in a 29-point blowout win.

In the rout, Culver helped Texas Tech hit a whopping 16 3-pointers. He went 3/8 (37.5 percent) from the 3-point line, but also showed off his athleticism, particularly on a one-foot leap to throw down a vicious tomahawk dunk.

He ended the game shooting 47.6 percent from the field, a great number considering the heavy load he carried in the blowout win. Culver attempted 21 shots against the Jayhawks, the next leading shot-take for Texas Tech had 8 field goal attempts. But just to reiterate, Culver isn't a ballhog, he just has a massive 30.8 percent usage rate which reflects how much the Red Raiders' offense needs him.

Regardless of team need, Culver should be a top-7 pick in this draft.

Any team that gets him lower than 7th is likely getting  a steal, as Culver's statistical profile indicates a player who should definitely have success in the NBA.

He is a near 20 PPG scorer who is shooting 49.7 percent from the field, but also able to guard any of the opposing team's top-3 scorers and do a decent job. Culver is yet another propsect who shows just how many intriguing wing players (likely) be in the top-heavy 2019 NBA draft class.

Zion Williamson suffers injury 36 seconds into Duke-UNC

Zion Williamson suffers injury 36 seconds into Duke-UNC

In a game in which you could spot the likes of Bulls General Manager Gar Forman and former President Barack Obama in the crowd, almost everyone came away disappointed. In the opening minute of Wednesday’s Duke-North Carolina game, Blue Devils star Zion Williamson slipped when trying to plant his foot, tearing through his PG 2.5 basketball sneaker and suffering an apparent knee/lower leg injury.

The Williamson injury happened approximately 40 seconds into the game, taking away much of the fanfare from one of the most anticipated college basketball games of the year for both fans and NBA scouts alike.

Postgame, Duke head coach Mike Krzyewski stated that Zion’s injury as of now is being labeled a mild knee sprain.

This initial diagnosis is very good for Williamson, as the injury appeared to be a much more serious knee or lower leg issue in real-time. Without Williamson, Duke had to rely heavily on freshmen RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Tre Jones for offense, and Jone specifically struggled to take on a bigger role. Clearly, Williamson’s prolonged absence had both a mental and physical effect on this young Duke team. They had no rim protection without him and they severely missed his leadership once the game got out of hand.

There was no shortage of love for Zion on the night, with everyone wishing him a quick recovery, including President Obama and Nike.

As of Thursday afternoon, it was announced that Williamson is listed as day-to-day with what is now being called a Grade 1 right knee sprain.

He will almost surely missed Duke’s next game on February 23 against Syracuse. Their last game of the regular season is a rematch against UNC on March 9. After that, the Blue Devils will be getting ready for the ACC Tournament in Charlotte, that starts on March 12.

If Williamson is going to return this season, it would be reasonable to expect it to happen by the ACC Tournament, as it is hard to imagine the idea of Zion playing in the NCAA Tournament without any game reps prior.

And of course, Williamson could shut it down for the rest of the season if he wants to use this recovery period to get ready for the NBA Draft, an idea that Bulls Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen had already floated. Regardless of what Williamson chooses to do, the entire basketball world will be on the edge of their seats.