Georgia Tech v Syracuse

The Extra Pass: Seven NBA Draft prospects to watch Thursday in NCAA Tournament


For NBA scouts and general managers, they have pretty strong opinions formed about players long before the NCAA Tournament tips off. A monster tournament is still just a handful of games and is not going to move the needle much. If it does that team’s decision makers are doing it wrong (*cough* Michael Jordan *cough*).

But for us fans, this is a rare chance to see all these future NBA players really get tested against top talent. This is when we make our big impressions.

With the help of Ed Isaacson of Rotoworld and (check out his regional previews of the East, South, Midwest and West) we give you seven guys to keep an eye on this Thursday as the NCAA Tournament tips off (we will have another group for Friday, so check back… also check out the PBT Podcast coming soon with Isaacson talking guys to watch).

• Tyler Ennis, point guard, Syracuse. We are drawn to guards with poise and this guy has it — he took over for Michael Carter-Williams and the Syracuse offense didn’t miss a beat. More than that, late in games Ennis makes big plays. A lot of teams have come around to him and he is likely to go in the teens — Isaacson isn’t as sold as most, however. “He’s everything you want in a backup point guard.” Is he a playmaker really worthy of a lottery pick? Like all Syracuse players it’s hard to read how good he is on defense, he gets to play center field in their zone and jump passing lanes. Where he can really make a mark is not Thursday (vs. Western Michigan) but Saturday when they likely face Ohio State and Aaron Craft. Look good in that game and Ennis can win over some detractors.

• Nik Stauskas, guard, Michigan. You remember him going bombs away last tournament, saving or blowing up your bracket with threes. He’s back and he’s more than that now.

Here is Isaacson on Stauskas: “This year with Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway, Jr. in the NBA, he has stepped up his offensive game, showing a much more versatile player. Still a deadly shooter from 3 (45% on 183 attempts), but has also shown that he can attack the basket and is a pretty good playmaker as the ballhandler in high screen situations. He has good size (6’6) at the 2, but his defense is still a work-in-progress.

• T.J. Warren, Forward, North Carolina State. Nobody doubts he can flat out score the rock — he was the reason NC State beat Xavier the other night. He can score in transition, he works well off the ball, plus he hustles on defense. What worries teams is that he doesn’t create his own shot all that well and he gets a large chunk of his buckets from the midrange, shooting just 27 percent from three this past season. NBA teams are not looking for guys to shoot from the midrange much (unless you hit 50 percent or better) so he needs to extend his range as a shooter. Still, a good tournament can help his stock a little.

• Patric Young, center, Florida. He caught scouts’ eyes early because he entered college with a man’s body, an NBA body. What he’s done with that body has been less impressive — good but not dominant — and he is now considered a second round pick.

From Isaacson: “Young has spent 4 years as the post player in an offense that is perimeter-oriented. He has one or two go-to moves in the post, but his offensive game is all about being physical, creating lanes and crashing the boards. He has an NBA body and strength, and 4 years under Billy Donovan has turned him into a good defender in the post and on the perimeter.”

• Adreian Payne, power forward, Michigan State. If you want to bet on one thing draft night, it is that someone on the broadcast will say, “Payne has a great motor.” Fans love guys like that and scouts have come around to him.

Isaacson: “A great combination of size, athleticism and skill, Payne finally put all of those together to have a great final season. He is a skilled enough post player to play with his back to the basket, but also has the ability to face up and knock down jumpers or drive by his man to the basket. Payne has the shooting ability to used in pick-and-pop situations. No one would call him a great defender, but he has worked hard over the past 4 seasons to be a good one.”

• Gary Harris, Michigan State. This is the guy everybody has been watching for the Spartans — he is the leader of the team the President picked to win it all (no pressure). In an injury riddled season for the Spartans he has been the one guy who was solid and there for them nightly. He’s athletic but doesn’t always use that to his best advantage. The guy can shoot the rock and he’s a strong defender. But there are questions about how he will do against the longer, better athletes of the NBA. Still, you watch him and know there is a place for him in the NBA (he is projected to be drafted in the middle of the first round.

• Montrezl Harrell, power forward, Louisville. I’m picking Louisville to win it all this year so you know I am counting on him to have a big tournament. He’s got plenty of physical tools and he plays hard on both ends (he can switch picks onto guards because he is fast and mobile). He’s going to have a couple big dunks in the tournament — very possibly in transition as he loves to run — and do it through contact (he’s a finisher). He’s still a bit raw but if he goes to a team that can develop players in a few years they may have a guy they like a lot in their rotation.

Byron Scott: Kobe Bryant “at peace” with decision to retire after season

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LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant was never going to go quietly into that good night. He would rage, rage against the dying of the light — and torn Achilles, knee ligaments, shoulders, and everything else holding him back.

But now, the end is near, and Kobe will face the final curtain at the end of this season. And he is at peace with it, if you ask his coach.

“It was so matter of fact, and he was so at peace with (the decision),” Lakers’ coach Byron Scott said of when Kobe told him this season would be it. “After I thought about it, I felt better about that. It wasn’t like he was agonizing over it or anything, it was like ‘I’m announcing I’m retiring’ and just kind of went on from there.”

Bryant told Scott before anyone else in the Lakers’ organization, and told him sometime Saturday (when the Lakers played and lost in Portland).

“I said, ‘what?’ He just told me at a very awkward time; we started laughing about it,” Scott said. “He said ‘you looked like you were saying ‘what they hell are you talking about’ but it just caught me off guard.”

It’s been an ugly season for Kobe, his body can no longer do what he expects of it — he can’t get the separation, the lift needed for his shoots. He was shooting 31.1 percent on the season going into Sunday’s game against Indiana, and he started 1-of-11 from the floor Sunday night. Yet he kept gunning.

“I gave up hoping he would change his approach 15, 18 years ago,” Lakers GM Mitch Kupchak said. “He is what he is. And I’m thankful for it.”

Kupchak added hoped this decision would ease the pressure on Bryant.

“I would hope that he has more fun, and appears less frustrated, and also gets more appreciation,” Kupchak said. “He’ll get it at home, but on the road too, because people will have to recognize this is his last year and they are watching one of the all-time greats.”

Kobe got plenty of appreciation from Lakers’ fans on Sunday night with a massive ovation when he was introduced. Kobe had wanted to avoid a Derek Jeter style farewell tour, but with that announcement and the Lakers playing 13-of-17 on the road in December you can bet there will be some of that.

“One of the best ever to play the game,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said pregame. “I don’t know if there’s any one moment, just throughout the course of his career you didn’t want him to have the ball in his hands with the game on the line, period. Because you knew he was going to beat you.”

No doubt Kobe goes down as one of the game’s all-time greats — five-time NBA champion, MVP, two Finals MVP’s, 17 All-Star Games, and that’s just the tip of the iceberg — but what Scott ultimately wants is Bryant to leave the game on his terms.

“What I want from Kobe is basically his last game to be able to walk off the court, wave to the fans, and be able to go into the locker room standing up,” Scott said.


Here is Kobe Bryant’s letter given to every fan at Lakers’ game Sunday

Los Angeles Lakers v Portland Trail Blazers

LOS ANGELES — In a classy move — and one done in a very Kobe Bryant tone — every fan coming into Staples Center Sunday night to see the Lakers take on the Pacers received a letter from No. 24.

Inside a sealed black envelope, on quality, embossed paper, was this letter from Bryant (photo below):

When we first met I was just a kid.

Some of you took me in. Some of you didn’t.

But all of you helped e become the player and man in front of you today.

You gave me confidence to put my anger to good use.

Your doubt gave me determination to prove you wrong.

You witnessed my fears morph into strength.

Your rejection taught me courage.

Whether you view me as a hero or a villain, please know I poured every emotion, every bit of passion and my entire self into being a Laker.

What you’ve done for me is far greater than anything I’ve done for you.

I knew that each minute of each game I wore purple and gold.

I honor it as I play today and for the rest of this season.

My love for this city, this team and for each of you will never fade.

Thank you for this incredible journey.

It speaks to Kobe’s mindset over the years that he talked about the fuel from the rejection of Lakers’ fans motivating him. As a Los Angeles native (and former Laker blogger), let me tell you there was precious little rejection of Kobe from this fan base. There were questions and doubters early on, but even when Shaquille O’Neal was seen as the driving force of the team Kobe was beloved in Los Angeles. Something that continued through his trial in Colorado — Lakers fans have almost always had his back.

But Kobe finds fuel everywhere. Which is why he is a future Hall of Famer.


Jahlil Okafor tweets apology for recent off-court behavior

Jahlil Okafor

The off-court incidents have been piling up for Jahlil Okafor over the past month: first, an incident captured on video that showed Okafor getting into a fight with a heckler early Thanksgiving morning; then, a report that Okafor had a gun pulled on him in a previous incident; and finally, this morning’s report that the Sixers’ No. 3 overall pick in this June’s draft had been pulled over in recent weeks for driving 108 miles per hour in Philadelphia. Together, they aren’t a good look for the rookie.

On Sunday afternoon, Okafor apologized for his recent behavior in a series of tweets:

The recent incidents involving Okafor are surprising—going into the draft, he never had any red flags for maturity or off-the-court issues. He’s certainly saying the right things after the fact, and he’s only 19, so hopefully this is nothing more than a small rough patch where he’s made some bad decisions, and not an indicator of things to come.

Kobe Bryant announces this is his final season


LOS ANGELES — It has seemed like this has been coming for a while. Kobe Bryant has been frustrated; he hasn’t been able to produce like he expects — his play has been hard to watch — and the Lakers are a train wreck. All that surrounded him was talk of his play and speculation about the future he didn’t want.

Kobe made it official Sunday via the Players’ Tribune — this is his final season. He did it via a letter called “Dear Basketball.”

You gave a six-year-old boy his Laker dream
And I’ll always love you for it.
But I can’t love you obsessively for much longer.
This season is all I have left to give.
My heart can take the pounding
My mind can handle the grind
But my body knows it’s time to say goodbye.

And that’s OK.
I’m ready to let you go.
I want you to know now
So we both can savor every moment we have left together.
The good and the bad.
We have given each other
All that we have.

It’s not coincidental this was announced a couple days before the Lakers travel to Kobe’s hometown of Philadelphia to face the Sixers. Also remember Kobe is an investor in The Players’ Tribune.

NBA Commissioner Adam Silver quickly released this statement:

“With 17 NBA All-Star selections, an NBA MVP, five NBA championships with the Lakers, two Olympic gold medals and a relentless work ethic, Kobe Bryant is one of the greatest players in the history of our game.  Whether competing in the Finals or hoisting jump shots after midnight in an empty gym, Kobe has an unconditional love for the game.

“I join Kobe’s millions of fans around the world in congratulating him on an outstanding NBA career and thank him for so many thrilling memories.”

Kobe will go down as one of the game’s all-time greats. Few can come close to his resume: Five NBA titles, two NBA Finals MVPs, 15 time All-NBA teams, one MVP, 17 times an All-Star (and the All-Star Game MVP four times). And we could go on and on.

Good on Kobe for doing this now. After 55,000 NBA minutes his body has quit on him, and where his mind is still willing the flesh is clearly weak right now. He has not been able to adapt his game to the changing realities of what he can do.

Kobe has said he doesn’t want a “Derek Jeter Farewell Tour” but that will be the feel from here on out. Expect some special recognition at the All-Star Game in Toronto.

Ad we’ll all be watching for those flashes of vintage Bryant we have hoped to see more of this season.