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Empire of the Suns NBA Draft Big Board: Pre-NCAA Tournament edition

FILE - In this Jan. 21, 2017, file photo, UCLA guard Lonzo Ball, center, shoots as Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen, left, and center Chance Comanche defend during an NCAA college basketball game in Los Angeles. The 2016-17 college basketball season has been led by freshmen, from the cast of future NBA players at Kentucky to Ball and Markelle Fultz out west. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill, File)

Empire of the Suns will be bringing you their updated big board of the top NBA Draft prospects leading to the NBA Draft. From the NCAA Tournament to the week of the draft, our board will shift all the way up to June 22. First up, here’s a lottery projection before the NCAA Tournament.

The two biggest overhauls of big board rankings you’ll see during the NBA Draft process come before the start of conference play and after the NCAA Tournament.

It sounds ridiculous, but some prospects can move 10-20 spots up or down a big board after the tournament.

Last year, Utah center Jakob Poeltl, a top 5-10 prospect, was dominated by Gonzaga power forward Domantas Sabonis, who was ranked in the late first round, killing any hope of Poeltl going in the top five and firmly placing Sabonis in the first round. Sabonis rose all the way into the lottery, going No. 11 to the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The same sort of jumps could happen in this year’s class, where a top-heavy and talented group of 8-12 high-level prospects reign supreme. After that, it’s all over the board for various experts, putting a lot of money on the line for mid-first-round players all the way into the second round.

Duke’s Luke Kennard and Harry Giles, Baylor’s Johnathan Motley, Louisville’s Donovan Mitchell and SMU’s Semi Ojeleye are just a few of the prospects who could cement a spot in the middle of the first round, potentially flirting with a selection in the lottery like Sabonis did a year prior.

(Ages reflect how old a player will be on draft night. A * indicates a prospect not playing in the NCAA Tournament.)

1. Markelle Fultz*, PG, Washington, 19 years old

Fultz is the type of draft prospect you hope is there when your team has gone through the type of season to get one of the top picks in the draft. He’s a terrific prospect with elite ability as a slasher and a shot creator. He’s long, his athleticism is above average for today’s NBA point guard and his underrated vision is going to be a commodity from day one. Defensively, his effort has been on and off for a terrible Washington team, but the potential is there, and as as a reminder for a draft class with so many freshmen, he’s only 18.

2. Josh Jackson, SF, Kansas, 20 years old

The best defensive prospect on the perimeter since Michael Kidd-Gilchrist has a lot more offensive potential than the Charlotte Hornets forward. A combination of an unusual knack for playmaking and elite agility and hops for his size makes him a somewhat polarizing point forward down the road. I’m less sold on his jump shot with a shaky motion being improved like the numbers suggest, but Jackson could be a secondary playmaker and shot-blocker while effectively guarding the other team’s best perimeter scorer. That’s very rare.

3. Frank Ntilikina*, PG, France, 18 years old

Ntilikina obliterated the competition at the 2016 FIBA U18 European Championships in December, averaging 15.2 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.2 steals, 1.2 blocks on 50 percent shooting from the field and 59 percent shooting from three. With this generation of ball-handling 2s and 3s, Ntilikina is a mouthwatering point guard prospect. His defensive potential is staggering. At 6-foot-5, he moves very well on both sides of the floor and being armed with reportedly a nearly 7-foot wingspan, he could lock up three positions depending on the size at small forward. His growth as a shooter and understanding with the ball while being limited handling it makes him a perfect fit next to someone like Devin Booker or Ben Simmons.

4. Jonathan Isaac, PF/SF, Florida State, 19 years old

Isaac compares very well to Dragan Bender. He has versatility on both ends. He handles the ball, shoots it, moves well defensively and blocks shots. Where he’s better than Bender is inside, where a better skill for rebounding and more strength means he won’t be a negative played as a big. Like the Suns’ Croatian, the chances of Isaac turning into an All-Star are very low, but he should be a good player regardless of how he pans out and has the potential to be an extremely unique and useful weapon on both ends.

5. Dennis Smith Jr.*, PG, North Carolina State, 19 years old

Smith is a prototypical offensive point guard prospect. He’s dynamic with somewhat reliable range on his jumper and creation skills for both himself and his teammates. His bounce, toughness and swagger attacking the basket is undeniable. If you thought Ben Simmons didn’t try on defense in college, however, you should see Smith. He’s the first flawed prospect we hit on the list. At 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-3 wingspan, he’s streaky from deep and can get a bit wild with his shot selection. There’s also a good chance he’s an All-Star with the way he plays offensively.

6. Lauri Markkanen, PF, Arizona, 20 years old

How much do you value shooting? Markkanen is the best shooting 7-foot freshman in the history of college basketball. There’s enough variety in his scoring to show long-term potential as a dynamic force offensively beyond hitting open jumpers. He’s a liability defensively, but marksmen of his size and age come around once or twice a decade.

7. Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA, 19 years old

Ball is flawed, but there’s no doubt he’s special. His passing and shooting make him a top-10 talent no matter what’s wrong with him. With that said, I have major concerns about his offensive skill in half-court situations. Play his style of ball and relentlessly push the tempo, though, and you might have the best player in this class by a substantial margin.

8. Jayson Tatum, SF/PF, Duke, 19 years old

My favorite thing said or written about Tatum is that he’s an NFL quarterback prospect who can “make all the throws.” He has the potential for a complete individual offensive game while having the passion and intelligence for defense. His efficiency in all three offensive ranges (rim, midrange, three) and passing are a worry, though, and how much you are concerned about that is where you rank him. Some teams reportedly have him No. 1 and many think he’s a lock for the top five.

9. Miles Bridges, SF/PF, Michigan State, 19 years old

Bridges is a tweener that’s difficult to peg somewhere, but shooting 39 percent from deep on five attempts a game saves his troubling 6-foot-6 frame. He’s explosive, strong and has point-forward aspects of his game handling the ball. It’s a big ole’ shrug as to what he is defensively and he is going to live or die by his jumper staying consistent, but you can’t help but be allured by his talent.

10. Malik Monk, SG/PG, Kentucky, 19 years old

If Monk is three inches taller, he’s five spots higher on this list. At 6-foot-4 with a small wingspan, he can only guard point guards and I’m pretty sure he won’t be able to do it well at the NBA level. There are also concerns about him creating space against NBA defenders and defenses. He’s a prolific shooter — 40 percent on seven attempts a game is ludicrous — and one-dimensional bucket machine. There’s been little to none showed by him this season to suggest he’s anything else, but his electric offensive game is worth being in the lottery.

11. OG Anunoby*, SF/SG, Indiana, 19 years old

Anunoby was unable to flash his offensive potential this season after knee surgery ended his season. His ability defensively is tremendous, and whatever his offensive game turns into is a bonus. If a team is patient with his development, he’s a steal.

12. Robert Williams*, PF/C, Texas A&M, 19 years old

Williams is a souped-up version of your typical raw, undersized, explosive big man prospect. His massive 7-foot-4 wingspan will keep him in the lottery, aiding his bread and butter of finishing around the rim, catching lobs and blocking shots. He’s an energy big with humongous upside.

13. De’Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky, 19 years old

I have one player each year for whom I fail to fall under a spell, and this year, it’s Fox. He’s the type of player that’s faster with the ball in his hands and has good playmaking skills. A nasty crossover and peskiness around the rim makes him skilled offensively. But, he can’t shoot. At all. 24 percent from three this year. Seriously. I also think he’s more bark than bite on defense despite the potential. There’s a strong chance he proves me wrong, but I’m out on him in the top-10.

14. Josh Hart, SG, Villanova, 22 years old

Even in a very good draft like this, it’s always a mistake to first get mesmerized by a young player’s potential instead of evaluating how an older player who is wonderful in college translates. Everyone above Hart in the draft has the chance to be one of the best in the league at something, but they are unlikely to have his balance. He’s great on offense, shooting at an elite level from deep. He works really hard on defense and most importantly, what he’s good at fits with what NBA teams want. Do not let him fall past 15.

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