EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
Warts show for top NBA Draft prospects in 2nd round of tourney
Maybe the first week of the NCAA Tournament didn’t fulfill your Cinderella story expectations. It certainly didn’t have the buzzer-beating blitzes of past years.
But in terms of NBA prospect-watching, it held up quite well. The Phoenix Suns (17-57) currently hold 14-percent odds of landing the No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft Lottery and with the second-worst record in the league can fall as far as sixth.
Many of the top prospects expected to declare for the draft are taking part in the Big Dance, and the second round provided more insight into each.
Here is how the players in the cream of the crop played in their respective second round games, plus a few notes on potential risers who could be drafted in the back half of the lottery.
Rankings from Nos. 1-6 are based on this Empire of the Suns writer’s big board, which is not the same big board of the writer who took us through the first round. And like Kellan Olson’s first-round review, rankings do not consider the Suns’ needs.
1. Zion Williamson, Duke
It helped that UCF played Duke well to a 77-76 loss and threw in a zone defense throughout a near-win against the No. 1 seed.
Williamson scored 32 points, went 12-of-24 for the field and added 11 boards plus four assists. We’ll get to how he did all that in a minute before highlighting the one reason why this guy carries so much value in the “winner” category of evaluation.
This play below is absolutely why stats and cool dunks don’t explain the full Zion experience.
A finish for the ages. 😱#MarchMADNESS | @DukeMBB pic.twitter.com/nxpMH3G2Bz
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) March 24, 2019
Williamson took a guard off the bounce, remained in control without drawing a charge, then exploded over a 7-foot-6 Tacko Fall for an and-one that with a free throw would have tied the game. OK, so he missed that free throw — he’s just 65 percent from the line this year — but after R.J. Barrett scored on a putback made a key box-out on the other end to seal Duke’s one-point win.
The last 30 seconds were what scouts love about Williamson. Before that, he piled up the stats by stretching the floor, hitting three threes, and making great decisions passing out of the nail against that aforementioned zone defense.
Williamson’s handling, maneuvering and creativity while working in the paint with little space, especially for a 280-pound player, was on full display throughout.
Next up for Duke on Friday: A Virginia Tech squad that beat the Blue Devils sans Williamson, 77-72, in their only prior meeting.
2. Ja Morant, Murray State
Reality struck Morant over the weekend after he toyed with Marquette in the first round and ended up with a triple-double.
The Murray State point guard knew he had to score and came out bombing from three against Florida State on Saturday before the game got away from the Racers. Credit FSU for much of it in a 90-62 blowout win.
Ja Morant ain't done yet!
Starting 3/3 from deep in this one. pic.twitter.com/fnluhfdbkG
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 23, 2019
The Seminoles, whose starting lineup ranges from 6-foot-4 to 7-foot-4 in height, used their athleticism to force Morant into an 8-for-21 shooting night.
Morant struggled around the rim and only recorded four assists as FSU got in passing lanes and prevented Murray State from backcutting their way to the hoop. As a team, the Racers shot just 33 percent.
But hey, Morant scored 28 points and got to the foul stripe nine times. A lot of his inefficiency issues were to be expected, but perhaps the most troubling was his lackadaisical defense, especially in transition when things didn’t go his way.
It’s positive he picks his spots to attack on offense, conserving energy. It’s less so when he’s choosing when to hustle back on defense and when not to.
3. Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
Like Morant, Culver experienced a poor shooting game. His jumper wasn’t on, he turned it over five times and he missed a few shots at the rim as well to finish 6-of-17.
That said, he did stuff like this:
Jarrett Culver with the smooth ACROBATIC finish through traffic. pic.twitter.com/Fj7q713POJ
— CBS Sports (@CBSSports) March 22, 2019
What makes Culver’s game so enticing is what he does when the scoring isn’t there. Culver grabbed 10 rebounds and added five assists, three blocks and two steals.
Jarrett Culver showing why he's one of the best prospects in this class.
Shows his on-ball defense and nice hands to get the steal. Then he gets out in transition. He uses a nice hesitation/change of pace before using his body on a spin move to get to the basket pic.twitter.com/HJbROUkZRY
— Zach Milner (@ZachMilner13) March 25, 2019
This pass from Jarrett Culver is beautiful pic.twitter.com/KjaIEbeEm9
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) March 25, 2019
The end result was a 78-58 blowout of a very good Buffalo squad. The Red Raiders face No. 2 seed Michigan on Thursday, where Culver will need to be on target to keep up with the wing-happy Wolverines.
4. R.J. Barrett, Duke
Barrett went 6-of-15 for 16 points, eight rebounds and four assists against UCF. He’ll need to get his chucking straight if he wants to be a good NBA player, but we already knew that coming in. He’s going to score a lot and is a malleable prospect who’s not falling past No. 4.
Against Virginia Tech, Barrett might be needed to slow down potential lottery pick Nickeil Alexander-Walker (more on him in a bit) if coach Mike Kzyzewski doesn’t feel great about point guard Tre Jones handling the slithery shooting guard.
5. Cam Reddish, Duke
It was another solid, albeit quiet tournament game for Reddish, who went 5-of-8 with only one missed three-pointer in four tries.
Within that very small sample size, we saw all the good stuff that makes him one of the most fluid scorers in college basketball … even if he’s not scoring all that much. Reddish even exerted some “dude” type aggressive with the Blue Devils trailing by four with less than two minutes to go.
CAM. REDDISH. CLUTCH. pic.twitter.com/Y3LmERlYJA
— Chris Montano (@gswchris) March 24, 2019
Toss in the play below and it’s hard to bump Reddish down too much. Along with 13 points, he closed with four boards, two dimes and a block.
A really nice stepback by Cam Reddish. Creates a lot of space and knocks down the shot. Having his size and being able to do things like this is very intriguing but Cam has really struggled at times this year. One of the toughest evals in this draft, in my opinion pic.twitter.com/5nX77E1iaC
— Zach Milner (@ZachMilner13) March 24, 2019
6. De’Andre Hunter, Virginia
A game after Hunter turned it up to push his No. 1 seed Virginia squad through a sluggish start against Gardner-Webb, he put in a quiet day’s work Sunday in a 63-51 win over Oklahoma.
The power forward went 4-of-9 for 10 points and three rebounds as the Cavaliers pulled away from the Sooners in the first half and kept its distance.
Hunter added a steal, a block and hit two threes. If there are any complaints, it’s that such a physical player didn’t get to the foul line once, but that’s the type of player Hunter is — he’s a role player not worried about getting his so long as the squad is winning.
Nassir Little, North Carolina
Once considered a potential top-five pick, Little faded into bench obscurity as the season wore on.
Weighing a bulky 220 pounds and at 6-foot-8, he flashed athleticism and energy throughout this season.
Then came two tournament games that might have people searching frantically for time shares on Nassir Little Island.
With only four games of more than 15 points all year heading into the tournament, Little posted a 19-point game against Iona and a 20-point outing against Washington to being the NCAA Tournament.
#UNC F Nassir Little averaged 19.5 PPG while shooting 70.8% (17/24) on field goals to go with 5.5 RPG in 2 #MarchMadness games against #Iona + #Washington. He entered the tournament averaging 10 PPG on 46.1% shooting along with 4.7 RPG in 33 games off the bench for the #Tarheels pic.twitter.com/IxAA4U6smX
— DraftExpressContent (@DXContent) March 25, 2019
Like a handful of players on this list, he benefited from his teammates unlocking a wonky zone defense. Still, going 8-of-11 with a block and seven boards also came with signs that he’s not just dunking on folks. A lefty scoop shot? A catch-and-shoot three? How about a driving pull-up fadeaway?
Hey! That looks like more intriguing stuff!
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Virginia Tech
Give credit to Liberty’s defense for making the Hokies sweat out a 67-58 win.
The smooth-scoring Alexander-Walker only took one shot outside of the paint, oddly-enough. He went 2-of-8 and only got to the foul line twice, missing several layups as Virginia Tech attempted to pull away midway through the second half. But he made just enough plays.
Walker-Alexander grabbed six rebounds, added three steals and posted six assists, including this absolutely absurd dime with a minute remaining.
Not really sure how Nickeil Alexander-Walker gets this pass through. Very impressive pass with his left-hand (which he seems to be more comfortable with) pic.twitter.com/8FGZS4woTJ
— Zach Milner (@ZachMilner13) March 25, 2019
Brandon Clarke, Gonzaga
Gonzaga forward Rui Hachimura had all the hype as a top-10 pick heading into this season.
Then along came Phoenix high school product and San Jose State transfer Brandon Clarke, who spent the year blocking 3.1 shots per game and playing rim-runner before blowing up against Baylor’s zone defense in an 83-71 win Saturday.
Clarke’s final line: 36 points on 15-of-18 shooting, eight rebounds, three assists, five blocks and two steals.
In #Gonzaga's 83-71 win over #Baylor, Brandon Clarke (36 PTS + 5 BLKS) joined Shaquille O'Neal + David Robinson as the only other players to record 35+ PTS + 5+ BLKS in an #NCAA Tournament game. The 6-8, 210 pound + 22-year-old's fluidity, athleticism + touch were on full display pic.twitter.com/AEg7exdxo0
— DraftExpressContent (@DXContent) March 25, 2019
Dude has some serious Shawn Marion vibes right now.
In a draft class where sure things aren’t common, there’s a good chance the 6-foot-8, 215-pound Clarke can push his way into the top-10 of the draft as a super role player. Yes, that’s without a jump shot.
Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
Another reason Clarke’s draft status is starting to eclipse Hachimura’s: Hachimura isn’t helping himself, either.
The 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward went 2-for-6 against Baylor, probably because Clarke was toasting the Bears at the rim. Still, a three-turnover, five-board performance with just three foul shots puts in question whether Hachimura is more than a fourth-best player on a team.
All that said, he’s still learning how to be an alpha personality on a team that never produces alphas.
Coby White, North Carolina
This writer isn’t as high on White as Kellan Olson — or ESPN’s Jonathan Givony for that matter — but 16 points against a Washington zone led by defensive-extraordinaire Matisse Thybulle is worth mentioning.
White went 4-of-7 from deep but hardly was required to attack the paint. He’s shooting just 43 percent on the year overall and tallied two assists on the day. Is he that great of an over-sized point guard without elite playmaking or athleticism? He’s got the mental stuff, but his skills don’t exactly scream “starting NBA point guard.”