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March is when careers are launched and dreams are realized, as this is a time for players to draw more attention to their budding careers.
Who are the best future pros taking center stage in the NCAA tournament? And who are the best we won’t be seeing, thanks to struggling teams that won’t qualify for the tourney?
Glad you asked.
Grayson Allen, Duke
The Blue Devils junior never lacks for attention, but this March could provide another outlet for Allen to make headlines. As one of the go-to guys on a Duke team that, if healthy, has a realistic shot at winning the national title this season, Allen will likely carry a bigger load than he has in the past, especially in close situations.
Allen’s numbers are down across the board from his standout sophomore campaign, but he can restore faith with a strong showing over several games in the tournament, as he can now do for Frank Jackson and Jayson Tatum what Quinn Cook did for rookies like him during the 2015 national title campaign.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA
You have probably heard a thing or two about this guy. And you might not have seen him play all that much, given the late-night tips on the West Coast. But the Bruins point guard has lived up to the hype of his five-star billing by leading the nation in assists (7.8) and being the straw that stirs the drink for UCLA’s No. 2-ranked offense (per KenPom).
The Bruins play a fun brand of ball that is easy on the eyes, but they will be playing with the nation’s target on their backs as they take their show on the road. That could be good or bad, as Ball’s father’s outspoken support of his son will only up the ante for Ball to deliver on the big stage. And if the sharpshooter does that, well, who else would you want your favorite NBA team to draft this June?
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
The Big Ten’s freshman of the year is the highest-scoring rookie (16.6) that coach Tom Izzo has ever had with the Spartans, answering the bell despite a midseason ankle injury that cost him six games. The 6-foot-7 former McDonald’s All-American is a force in the paint (8.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg) and from the perimeter (40.8 percent from 3), while showing tremendous passing ability.
It’s been an uneven year for normally March-reliable Sparty, which, despite currently sitting on the right side of the bubble, may still have some work to do. So how much longer MSU stays alive is anyone’s guess. But if the past few months are any indication, this will be the last call for Bridges to impress NBA teams before he is likely a lottery pick.
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
The freshman point guard has led the Wildcats to yet another SEC regular-season title, leading the team in assists while averaging 15.5 ppg. The shifty southpaw earned comparisons to NBA point guard and fellow lefty Brandon Jennings and he has shown a unique ability to get things done in traffic.
Fox can improve his outside shooting (21.1 percent from 3), but there is plenty to like about him, even in a guard-heavy draft.
Jonathan Isaac, Florida State
Isaac’s numbers have been solid (12.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg) for a Seminoles team that finished a remarkable second in the rugged ACC, and he is only going to get better. Yes, those ever-present draft buzzwords — “raw,” “upside” — are thrown around plenty when discussing Isaac, but how could they not be for a guy who stands 6-foot-10 and weighs just 210 pounds?
The five-star freshman is as versatile as it gets, displaying a soft touch from outside (36.7 percent from 3) and a consistent-enough presence down low (1.5 blocks). Once he fills out that frame, though, he could be a matchup nightmare at the next level — something FSU hopes bears true these next few weeks on the national stage. (He nearly declared for the draft out of prep school last year.)
Josh Jackson, Kansas
Jackson, who will miss Kansas’ Big 12 conference tournament opener because of a one-game suspension, has the chance to both lead the No. 1 Jayhawks to the national title and then be the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft, much like former Jayhawk Danny Manning did in 1988. The reason both could happen is because the 6-foot-8, 207-pound Jackson is the ideal two-way player, chasing down shots (1.1 bpg) while harassing ball-handlers (1.6 spg).
Jackson was Rivals’ top-ranked prep player in 2016, and while he entered Lawrence with some questions about his shooting, his 51.1 percent clip (and 37.7 percent from 3) have minimized those concerns, at least for now. And with Kansas holding steady as one of the national title favorites, Jackson will have the chance to elevate his stock even more, at least for unfamiliar viewers.
Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Jackson won ACC player of the year honors this season, upping his scoring average from 12.2 ppg to 18.3 ppg. And while that can partly be attributed to the much bigger load he had to take on for the Tar Heels, there is no overlooking the fact that Jackson is a much better outside shooter now than he was before.
The 6-foot-8, 210-pounder nearly entered the draft last season after his sophomore year, but in returning to UNC he saw his 3-point shooting rise from 29.2 percent to 38.5 percent, all while attempting more than twice as many 3s per game this season. He passes and defends well, and the nation should see plenty of him as the No. 6 Heels look to make another deep tourney run.
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
What’s not to love about a 7-footer who shoots 42.8 percent from deep? Markkanen has been everything he was made out to be with the Wildcats, as the freshman has poured in 15.2 points and 7.5 rebounds a night. The son of former Kansas player Pekka Markkanen, Lauri has over many years developed the reputation of a gym rat. Defending players at the NBA level will be the next challenge for Markkanen, but he is certainly ready to take the next step after a standout rookie campaign at Arizona.
Malik Monk, Kentucky
It wouldn’t be a list of NBA prospects without multiple Kentucky players on it, and Monk may be the cream of the crop this year. He leads the Wildcats in scoring (15.4 ppg) and is capable of ridiculous shooting outbursts. (See: Monk’s 47-point game in a win over UNC). Monk is just 6-foot-3, 200 pounds, but with the way the NBA game is played today, there’s no reason to think he can’t fit in as a natural shooting guard and contribute immediately wherever he ends up.
Jayson Tatum, Duke
There’s little to pick apart about Tatum’s game, as the freshman has adjusted extremely well to a loaded Blue Devils team after missing some time early with a foot injury. He’s 6-foot-8, 205 pounds and scores from anywhere, with a mid-range game that will flow nicely to the next level. Tatum knows how to use his size, and his 16 ppg and 7.3 rpg aren’t too shabby, either.
Three NBA prospects we won’t see in the tournament
Markelle Fultz, Washington
While it’s difficult to reach a consensus, Fultz’s name is the one that appears the most atop mock draft boards, so it’s a shame a national audience won’t get to see him on the big stage this spring. The 6-foot-4, 195-pound point guard checks all the boxes statistically: 23.3 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 6.0 apg, 1.6 spg, 1.2 bpg and 50.2 percent shooting. He’s young (won’t be 19 till late May) and has a ridiculous wingspan (reportedly 6-10). Alas, the Huskies went 2-16 in Pac-12 play this season.
Frank Ntilikina, Strasbourg (International)
In a draft that is loaded with point guards, Ntilikina might be a lottery pick. He is widely projected as the first international player off the board despite minimal reported production this season in France (4.9 ppg in 15.2 minutes). Still, he’s 6-foot-5 and 170 pounds, has a reportedly large wingspan and can defend either position. Let’s not forget he’s playing with grown men right now, too. His teammates include former collegiate standouts Matt Howard, Erik Murphy and Erving Walker.
Dennis Smith Jr., NC State
The freshman point guard made the most of what was a lost season for the Wolfpack, who fired coach Mark Gottfried and went 4-14 in ACC play before bowing out of the first round of the league tournament Tuesday. Tasked with a heavy workload, Smith has posted 18.5 ppg and 6.3 apg, doing his best to answer shooting questions by firing at a 46.1 percent clip (and 36.9 percent from 3). He’ll have a much better opportunity to showcase his talents at the next level.
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