The Sweet 16 has arrived and despite the fact that multiple blue-chip NBA draft prospects have bowed out of the Big Dance — Deandre Ayton, Mo Bamba, Michael Porter Jr., Keita Bates-Diop, Trae Young, Collin Sexton, Miles Bridges and Jaren Jackson Jr. all come to mind — an assortment of quality prospects remain in the field.
Now that your bracket is completely ruined, here are the key prospects and matchups worth watching during this week’s regional play.
F Marvin Bagley III, Fr., Duke
One veteran executive told Yahoo Sports that Bagley was essentially a carbon copy of Chris Bosh, except — and here’s the surprising part for some — he already shoots better than Bosh did when he left Georgia Tech. When we highlighted Bagley earlier this season, one of our concerns was his shooting, not merely from 3-point territory but also from the free-throw line. While he has yet to show improvement from the stripe (62 percent), the gifted freshman forward has upped his long-range accuracy from 34 to 39 percent.
When I saw Bagley in person during the ACC tournament, what struck me the most wasn’t his shooting or quickness, but rather his second-jump ability. Time and time again, Bagley elevated over a North Carolina player — or players — with his second jump, an observation that an NBA GM also agreed with. This is significant, because as much as we talk about vertical leap, it’s actually that second quick jump that makes the difference in the pros. It’s why Bagley collects 3.9 offensive rebounds per game. Shawn Marion made a career out of his elite second-jump ability, and Bagley has a much broader tool box than “The Matrix.”
SG Jarrett Culver, Fr., Texas Tech
Culver, a Lubbock, Texas native, isn’t a finished product like Carter, but few guards in the country possess his raw upside. “He has NBA size, NBA athleticism and NBA stroke,” one Big 12 head coach told Yahoo Sports. At 6-foot-5, Culver averages nearly 11.5 points and is a terrific guard rebounder, hauling in 4.9 boards per game. If he continues to shoot well (40 percent from three), he will only help his skyrocketing draft stock.
PG Devonte’ Graham, Sr., Kansas
Graham has struggled shooting the ball in the tournament, going 10-of-31 from the floor and just 3-of-12 from distance. But Graham is a knockdown shooter, so it’s only a matter of time. “I didn’t think he could be as good as [former Jayhawk and current Sacramento Kings point guard] Frank Mason. I think he’s better than Frank. The reason is he shoots it better. … Graham doesn’t have to get the calls because he shoots the ball so well from deep,” the Big 12 coach told Yahoo Sports. It would be a huge boost if Graham were to rediscover his jump shot and lead KU to the Final Four. Small guards must be prolific from 3-point range at the NBA level, and while he attempts a healthy 5.3 free-throws per game, Graham is slight at 6-2, 185 pounds.
PG Jevon Carter, Sr., West Virginia vs. PG Jalen Brunson, Jr., Villanova
Carter doesn’t merely control dribble penetration, he shuts it down entirely. “He’s a grown man. He’s just physically mature,” the Big 12 coach told Yahoo Sports of Carter. “He’s really intelligent when it comes to knowing the team’s scouting report, he’s a coach out there. He’s Tom Brady back there. He’s got a mind. It’s hard to trick him.”
Pay attention to how Carter uses his lower-body strength and anticipation skills — not just his quickness — to thwart driving lanes and dictate where he wants his man to go, not the other way around. “I just love how he picks up full court,” a former Division I coach said. “He’s so tough.” Of course, the senior point guard can score as well. Carter — who is averaging 24.5 points per game in the tournament — averages a team-best 17.4 points, 6.6 assists, 4.7 rebounds and a video-game like three steals per game (second in the country), while converting nearly 40 percent of his threes. In fact, Carter became the first player in tournament history to record at least 20 points, five assists and five steals in multiple games.
We have a dream Sweet 16 matchup as Carter takes on Brunson, Villanova’s sensational first-team All-American and the anchor of coach Jay Wright’s team. What makes Brunson, the Big East Player of the Year, so special is that he plays at his own slithery pace. At 6-foot-3, 190 pounds, he isn’t especially quick or long or even explosive. But he is extremely intelligent, crafty and always seems to get to his spot. He’s also a winner, guiding his Illinois high school to a state championship, the first Lake County title in the tournament’s 108-year history. Brunson averages 19.1 points on a hyper-efficient 42 percent from three and 53.5 percent from the floor. Watch him against Carter closely, especially at the beginning of the game. If Brunson can play the pick-and-roll game and maximize his ball skills and footwork (and I believe he will), then Brunson will get the best of the matchup.
PF Robert Williams, Soph., and C Tyler Davis, C, Texas A&M vs. F Moe Wagner, Jr., Michigan
At 6-11, 245 pounds, Wagner can do a lot of things, including shoot the ball. The junior from Germany makes over 40 percent of his threes, but isn’t afraid to bang down low, either, using his superior hands and dexterity against slower bigs — hence the 10.4 rebounds per 40 minutes. The Aggies’ tandem of Williams (nine rebounds, 2.6 blocks per game) and Davis (nine rebounds, 1.4 blocks) however, presents a bevy of challenges. Both can score, rebound and defend the rim. Where Wagner has the advantage is his quickness and ability to step away from the paint, something neither Williams nor Davis are comfortable doing offensively or defensively. Wagner is the best pro prospect in the matchup, and he should be able to control the A&M bigs and get them in foul trouble.
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Jordan Schultz is an NFL, NBA and NCAAB insider/analyst for Yahoo Sports.
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