EMPIRE OF THE SUNS

Top 10 NBA Draft prospects in NCAA tourney review: First round

Mar 22, 2019, 8:38 PM | Updated: 8:47 pm
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA - MARCH 22:  Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after scori...
COLUMBIA, SOUTH CAROLINA - MARCH 22: Zion Williamson #1 of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after scoring a basket and drawing a foul against the North Dakota State Bison in the second half during the first round of the 2019 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Colonial Life Arena on March 22, 2019 in Columbia, South Carolina. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
(Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

The NCAA Tournament represents the best time to get a look at NBA Draft prospects on the biggest stage in matchups they wouldn’t normally see otherwise.

The second round kicked off on Thursday, and Empire of the Suns will be taking a look at the top-10 remaining draft prospects at the conclusion of each round to assess how they performed.

You know who’s at the top.

The following rankings are based on the writer’s personal rankings and do not take the Phoenix Suns’ needs into consideration.

1. Zion Williamson, ?, Duke (18 years old)

Not much to chat about here.

Williamson had 25 points in the Duke win over No. 16 seed North Dakota State.

As usual, he was using his absurd combination of talent and athleticism to overwhelm the opposition.

Everyone with a certain interest level in the upcoming NBA Draft has to be a Duke fan for the tournament to see as much of Williamson and his two other potential top-5 pick teammates as possible.

The Blue Devils will face the winner of VCU and UCF on Sunday.

2. Jarrett Culver, F/G, Texas Tech (20 years old)

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

Culver was masterful against Northern Kentucky on Friday, dropping 29 points, eight rebounds and seven assists while committing only one turnover.

His work off the dribble and, in particular, around the rim continues to show more elements and impress as a legitimate part of his outlook.

Add on his passing with those seven dimes while not trying to do too much and you’ve got a guy who can potentially be a true secondary ball-handler from the wing.

Culver gets No. 6 seed Buffalo on Sunday, a team that has some gaps defensively but will execute and make the Red Raiders keep up on offense. With how much Texas Tech relies on Culver to provide scoring, it could be another huge game for him.

3. RJ Barrett, G/F, Duke (18 years old)

Some of my “like him more than most” appeal with Barrett is reflected through his 14 rebounds against the Bison.

He’s that type of athlete as a two-guard to do that every now and then.

He added his usual 26 points and three assists, which was nice to see on 50 percent shooting and only one turnover.

Barrett is the dude to watch for every game Duke gets further in. Can he consistently play at a high level through all of these games?

4. Ja Morant, PG, Murray State (19 years old)

(Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

No one did more for their draft stock or overall profile than Morant.

He posted the tournament’s first triple-double since 2012 in a win over Marquette, but the fashion in which he did it was the most promising.

While he still had his hectic stretches of play and seven turnovers, Morant had 16 assists to go along with his 17 points and 11 rebounds.

He only attempted nine shots and looked crisp making the simple, correct reads.

Add in his usual moments of explosive show-stopping playmaking, such as a poster dunk and a step-back 3-pointer, and it was a perfect outing.

For those that had never seen Morant, they were blown away. And for those who had seen him throughout the year, it was a step up from past performances.

Saturday’s matchup with fourth-seeded Florida State is the most enticing draft matchup of the year for any prospect. The Seminoles bring true NBA-level length and athleticism at several positions.

Can Morant contain his volatile style while still dominating the game impact-wise like he did on Thursday?

5. Cam Reddish, G/F, Duke (19 years old)

Friday was your typical Reddish game. A ho-hum 12 points, four rebounds, three assists, two steals and a block.

He made some dumb plays while also showcasing his ceiling, executing a share of “NBA-looking” moves.

Reddish really needs a big game in the tourney to jolt some life into his draft stock back into a potential top-3 pick.

6. De’Andre Hunter, F, Virginia (21 years old)

Hunter made his first NCAA Tournament worth it.

After breaking his wrist in the conference tournament last season and missing out on the tourney, he scored 23 points and grabbed six rebounds in a Virginia 71-56 win over No. 16 seed Gardner-Webb.

In a game that Gardner-Webb led by double digits at one point late in the first half, Hunter did what the best players on the team are supposed to do and took over in the second half.

He dropped 17 of his 23 points in the last 20 minutes.

The Cavaliers have quite the easy-looking road to the Elite Eight. They play No. 9 seed Oklahoma on Sunday and will face off with the winner of 12th-seeded Oregon and No. 13 seed UC Irvine next week.

7. Coby White, G, North Carolina (19 years old)

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

White is in the Collin Sexton zone of being a “point guard” but scoring combo guard is more of his position.

It’s all about his quickness, handle and the overall jumper both in pull-ups plus catch-and-shoot situations. Guys like Jamal Crawford and Lou Williams check those boxes to an extreme degree and he qualifies.

As is the case on a team as good as No. 1 North Carolina, the Tar Heels didn’t need White much with their seniors Cameron Johnson and Luke Maye carrying the load in a win over 16th-seeded Iona. He struggled with efficiency, something to be expected with young guards of his mold.

White had 10 points on 14 shots to go along with six rebounds, four assists and two steals.

He’s a dynamic offensive player to watch for in the future rounds, capable of 30-plus any night.

8. Brandon Clarke, F, Gonzaga (22 years old)

Clarke is the nation’s best shot-blocker and one of the best impact players in the draft.

He had 12 points, eight rebounds, two assists, a steal and three blocks in No. 1 seed Gonzaga’s dominant 87-49 victory against Fairleigh Dickinson.

Clarke consistently makes freakish plays with his athleticism.

He’s a limited offensive player and is probably a Jordan Bell-type in the NBA as a small-ball center, but he’s always everywhere.

On Saturday, the Bulldogs take on No. 9 seed Baylor.

9. Matisse Thybulle, F/G, Washington (22 years old)

(Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images)

There are not many basketball players at any level you can call a defensive playmaker.

Thybulle is the rare exception. As a senior, he has averaged a ludicrous and rarely-ever-seen 3.4 steals and 2.3 blocks per GAME. Yes, not per 40 minutes. PER GAME.

In the Huskies’ win over Utah State Friday, he was impacting the game at all angles.

As one could imagine for a player with those insane numbers, Thybulle has tremendous instincts to make those plays.

His offensive game, while nicely developed in some ways as it should for a 22-year-old, is constrained but the defensive potential makes him an NBA guy.

He finished with 10 points, three rebounds, two assists, five steals and three blocks.

With North Carolina’s win, Thybulle gets to lead that ninth-seeded Washington zone defense against potential lottery picks White and Nassir Little. It’s an excellent stage for him, seen as a potential first-round pick, to lock up that status and threaten for the top-20.

10. Rui Hachimura, F, Gonzaga (21 years old)

Hachimura is on the divide of having the athletic profile of a lottery pick while the feel is certainly not that of a top-14 selection.

He has that appealing combo forward size with the requisite speed and strength combination.

Hachimura popped against Fairleigh Dickinson, scoring a game-high 21 points with eight rebounds. That’s what you should expect given how much bigger, stronger and faster he is than that type of talent.

While his basketball intelligence develops — remember that he’s 21 already — the question is if his great touch from the mid-range area and further in is enough to be an impact player. There’s such a drastic difference in his instincts compared to the likes of Clarke and Thybulle.

It’s all potential at this point for Hachimura and wondering if he unlocks the skill-set of a switchy, two-way modern power forward. A couple of good games in the tourney could provide more hope and lock up his lottery pick status.

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