EMPIRE OF THE SUNS
NBA Draft prospects Culver, Hunter still standing in Final Four
Doesn’t this feel fresh? With the exception of Michigan State, the NCAA Tournament Final Four field features new faces. For our purposes, that means putting the microscope on a few NBA Draft prospects who aren’t named Zion.
Among potential top-10 draftees, only Texas Tech swingman Jarrett Culver and Virginia forward De’Andre Hunter remain.
Culver will face a Michigan State squad with a veteran point guard and a bit of size, as usual. Hunter and the Cavaliers face an athletic Auburn team led by their dynamic point guard, Jared Harper, but the Tigers are down their starting power forward, Chuma Okeke.
Here’s a look at how Culver and Hunter got to this point, and how other NBA prospects played in the Sweet 16 and Elite Eight before their seasons wrapped.
First up, a look at Duke’s three top draft prospects.
Cam Reddish missed a Friday win over Virginia Tech with a leg injury before playing 37 minutes off the bench in the Blue Devils’ 68-67 loss to Michigan State. He remains the most mysterious of the top prospects heading into draft day.
Zion Williamson is the least mysterious. He went 11-of-14 against Virginia Tech for 23 points in a 75-73 win before facing a tad bit of resistance in the first half against a Spartan team … then he still finished with 24 points, three blocks, three steals and 14 rebounds in a loss.
Don’t bother putting money on anyone else going No. 1 overall.
But the most fascinating story for Duke’s trio of freshmen is R.J. Barrett.
Eighteen points and 11 assists against the Hokies? Great! Twenty-one more and six dimes against MSU? Superb. All good, until you mention the volatile combo guard-slash-wing turned it over 12 times and went 3-for-13 from deep.
Easily, the 6-foot-7, 202-pound Canadian is deserving of the most hot takes in his class.
Sometimes he looks like a blind squirrel, getting tunnel vision and not seeing three defenders waiting for him at the rim. Other times, Barrett will forgo the open lane and make a pass to somebody who’s covered. He is selfless, but his decision-making often doesn’t include important things … like bothering to read what a defense is doing. Still, a blind squirrel around a high volume of nuts is going to find quite a few.
Just look at Twitter, and you’ll see the full spectrum of the R.J. Barrett Experience.
If RJ Barrett makes the simple read and passes it to a cutting Zion Williamson, Duke is still playing right now. pic.twitter.com/LfEhlRFshh
— Evan Sidery (@esidery) March 31, 2019
RJ Barrett (*yes, is my godson) is a next level playmaker at his age, 18, and size. Makes every read/pass. This is one skill that is easier in many respects due to the rules at the nba level but so damn valuable. Blown away at the reads and deliveries he made repetatively.
— Steve Nash (@SteveNash) April 1, 2019
RJ Barrett’s shot chart against Michigan State is why some people are a bit concerned about him. pic.twitter.com/LMCc6ZiYsg
— Chris Stone (@cstonehoops) April 1, 2019
Duke lost three games with Zion Williamson in the lineup this year.
RJ Barrett went ***0-for-9*** in the final minute of those three games. The rest of the team had three total shots. Zion had one.
— Rodger Sherman (@rodger) March 31, 2019
I hope RJ Barrett eventually learns that playmaking can become his best skill. It's not like he can't pass. He often willingly facilitates and accurately delivers tough passes. But then he activates Hero Mode and forces frustrating shots. It's like RJ chooses to wear blinders.
— Kevin O'Connor (@KevinOConnorNBA) March 31, 2019
Sneak preview of my own R.J. Barrett hot take. Give me all the stock you're selling. Full report (along with 25 other guys we evaluated in detail in the NCAA Tournament this weekend) coming in our stock watch article tomorrow morning on ESPN. pic.twitter.com/RSCFYu7g6Z
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) April 1, 2019
Nobody can agree about R.J. Barrett, but he’s a fascinating prospect and a guy who will make picking second through fourth a complete crap-shoot.
With his unique size and playmaking, there’s a good chance that the extra spacing in the NBA will allow him to do a lot more at the next level as a scorer and playmaker.
F Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
Culver’s most efficient of his last three outings came ironically in the ugliest game of the college basketball season.
Two of the NCAA’s best defensive squads battled it out in the Sweet 16 before the Red Raiders pulled away from Michigan for good in the second half for a 63-44 win, and Culver’s 9-of-19 shooting performance led to 22 points. He added four assists, three steals and four rebounds before posting 19 points in an Elite Eight on Saturday — but that included a 5-of-19 shooting performance.
A lot of Culver’s misses in both games were from three, and for a team that only had the same three players score in double-figures in each game, his itchy trigger-finger was necessary.
Maybe the warning signs come in his struggles against two more athletic teams in the paint. In the NBA, that’s where creativity will have to make up for the lack of explosiveness for the 6-foot-5 sophomore.
Culver’s measurables at 195 pounds with an unknown wingspan also came into play a few times when Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura successfully posted him up, hitting jumpers over the top of the shorter and smaller Red Raider.
Still, there’s a lot to like for a smart team defender who can also read a defense damn well. Culver’s ability to make the easy pass or see a pass that most don’t — and get the ball right where it needs to go — is the most appealing aspect of his game.
F De’Andre Hunter, Virginia
Virginia coach Tony Bennett is leaning on Hunter a lot, but more minutes in the tournament so far haven’t equated to more numbers. Like his second-round game against Oklahoma, the power forward often fades into the background.
He went 8-of-23 (35 percent) over the weekend against an undersized but athletic Oregon squad and a well-built Purdue team.
Hunter’s jumper (42 percent from three this year) hasn’t been hitting, and he didn’t block a shot and didn’t grab more than five rebounds in either outing. Considering it’s about his defensive potential, well, he didn’t exactly do great against Boilermakers guard Carsen Edwards.
More good stuff from @ESPNStatsInfo:
Carsen Edwards by Defender
De’Andre Hunter<< 16 6-10
Kihei Clark 15 4-11
Kyle Guy 9 3-3
>>16 pts, 6-8 FG vs Hunter in 2nd half
— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) March 31, 2019
Hunter is not hitting from deep of late and also not getting to the line.
Playing bully-ball will only get you so far in the league.
De'Andre Hunter, clutch bucket pic.twitter.com/C92JwpeJYm
— Ben Pfeifer (@Ben_Pfeifer_) March 31, 2019
What is he doing? Playing fine in Bennett’s team-oriented defense. Hunter is unlikely to fall far in this draft, but if he’s a top-six or top-seven pick, it says a lot about this draft class that his production looks so shrug-worthy.
In the Final Four, Hunter won’t be facing Auburn’s Okeke after the Tiger tore his ACL in the Sweet 16. How Hunter’s draft stock fares if he doesn’t put up numbers is a curious storyline, especially if Virginia wins it all.
Hachimura couldn’t have done much better in what’s likely his final weekend as a college player.
The 6-foot-8, 230-pound forward shot 6-of-13 against one of the longest teams in the nation, Florida State, en route to an efficient 17 points. He followed it up against a hot defensive squad in Texas Tech by hitting 8-of-19 from the floor, grabbing six boards. Maybe the only red flag down the stretch was his three-point shooting; he hasn’t connected on a three since a March 11 game against Pepperdine six games ago.
Still, Hachimura finished the year averaging 19.7 points and 6.5 rebounds while shooting 59 percent overall and 42 percent from three.
His teammate, Brandon Clarke, was more hot-and-cold in his last two games. After a 36-point outburst in the first weekend against a zone defense, the undersized center struggled against FSU’s rangy defense. Still, he erased five shots, still scored 15 points and grabbed 12 boards.
Clarke followed that with 18 points, 12 boards and two blocks with three assists against Texas Tech — but six turnovers in that one showed that he’s quite raw as a decision-maker and limited as a scorer with the ball in his hands.