ACC Basketball Tournament - Duke v Virginia

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

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NBA scouts and front office personnel already have strong opinions about guys they want (or don’t want) to draft come June, although a good tournament run can move a guy up a few slots.

For us fans, the NCAA Tournament is when we watch 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 NBADraftBlog.com and Rotoworld (check out Ed’s regional previews of the EastSouthMidwest and West) as we give you seven guys to keep an eye on this first Friday of the NCAA Tournament — and Friday is loaded with future NBA talent.

• Jabari Parker, forward, Duke. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up as the Rookie of the Year next year — he is more ready than any other guy in this draft to walk in and start scoring in the NBA next season. He has an NBA ready body with good length, more important he is an incredibly versatile scorer — he can score with the jumper, with his back to the basket, catch-and-shoot, off the bounce, likes to get out in transition and can finish at the rim. The NBA comps are guys who can fill it up with versatile games like Carmelo Anthony and a young Paul Pierce. That’s good company.

Here is Isaacson on Parker: “A highly skilled scorer for a freshman, Parker is a tough matchup for most college defenders. He is comfortable in the post and on the perimeter, can attack of the dribble, and can the run the floor as well as most guards. As good as he is on offense, his defensive lapses can be that bad. Needs to learn a lot of the defensive basics, but still finds a way to be a good rebounder.”  

• Doug McDermott, forward, Creighton.  One guy on this list I got to see in person (he dropped 21 points in 11 shots on my Long Beach State 49ers). Another guy who just knows how to put points on the board and can do it a variety of ways — he is a threat from the post all the way out to the three point line. He moves very well off the ball and he has a quick catch-and-shoot stroke — things that will transfer well to the NBA. He’s not going to be an NBA All-Star but he is potentially a quality starter/rotation player for many, many years. He’s not athletic by NBA standard and that will limit his ceiling — there are guys that can stick with him at the next level and guys he will not be able to stick with. But he can score and at the end of the day if you can put the leather ball through the round hole you will stick around for a long time.

•  Andrew Wiggins, small forward, Kansas. Just sit back and enjoy the show with him. Everybody’s No. 1 pick coming into the season took some lumps from fans and some media early in the season as he didn’t live up to unrealistic expectations, as he adjusted to Bill Self’s team-first system (Wiggins really bought in) and to the NCAA game. Isaacson noted the same thing happened to Ben McLemore last year. But while some talking heads were down on him NBA scouts really never were — they were seeing growth in his game where they wanted to see improvement. Once he got comfortable (and with Joel Embiid out) he really started to assert himself and look like the No. 1 pick — he is incredibly athletic, can create his own shot, can rebound and defend. His shot needs to be more consistent (35 percent from three) and his handles need to improve, but he has a good work ethic and as those things get better the sky remains the limit for him. If he doesn’t go No. 1 it’s because one GM loves his teammate Embiid more.

• Kyle Anderson, small forward, UCLA. This is the guy NBA scouts can’t agree on. He’s a 6’9” point guard who will not play point guard at the next level but more likely will be a three who can handle the ball and is pass first minded. He’s a playmaker. That versatility intrigues teams. Problem is he’s also not athletic by NBA standards and with that struggles to create his own shot or finish at the rim when he gets there. His jump shot is not consistent. Isaacson compared him to Royce White — put aside the mental illness part of White’s NBA time and focus on his game. Where exactly does White fit in on the court? He’s got skills but has not been able to find his niche on the court and it could be the same for Anderson. Some scouts like him, some want their teams to avoid him like the plague. If UCLA gets to the second round and faces a good defense in VCU that would be a good test that could sway a few minds one way or the other depending on how Anderson plays.

• Julius Randall, power forward Kentucky. He’s the No. 4 pick in this draft on most boards, although if one guy slips a little it could be him (some teams are falling for Dante Exum and he could lead Randall, for example). Still, the guys is big, strong and can score inside. He can rebound, he can defend, he can flat out play at the next level.

Isaacson on Randall: “A bull in the paint. He can use his body to clear space on two defenders at a time, but has a surprisingly soft touch around the basket. Has a great understanding of using angles around the basket, though he has shown that he can also muscle shots up through defenders. For most of the season, almost exclusively used his left hand for everything, but he has started trying to make moves to his right. On defense, he knows how to use his body well to keep players away from the basket and to box out for rebounds, but needs to work on moving his feet.”

• Willie Cauley-Stein, center, Kentucky. You tune in to watch Randall but sometimes you get drawn to Cauley-Stein because he makes athletic plays. Sometimes you don’t even notice he’s on the court. Let’s just say he’s not consistent. You could see either version of him this weekend (or both, one great game and one where he floats through the game). That said NBA teams love bigs with potential and the very raw (especially on offense) Cauley-Stein likely will go in the late lottery area because of that potential.

Isaacson on Cauley-Stein: “Long and athletic, and has shown some nice improvement from last season when he was forced into major minutes after Noel’s knee injury. Great rim protector with uncanny timing on his block attempts, and he has also turned into a good defender in pick-and-roll situations. He is still very raw on the offensive end, though a lot better than he was last year. Has added a go-to post move, but his best offense comes from running the floor in transition. He was very inconsistent the last 4 or 5 weeks of this season, to the point of being benched.”

Aaron Gordon, forward, Arizona. He is arguably the best athlete in this draft (which is saying something), but he also plays a pretty smart game. He is a potential lock down defender. The problem is he’s got a long way to go on his shot — for example, he hit 43.5 percent from the free throw line this season. That’s worse than DeAndre Jordan.

Isaacson talks Gordon: “High-level athlete with ridiculous leaping ability and great energy. Uses those things well to be a force on the boards. Gordon is a very strong defender, especially out on the perimeter, for a freshman forward. Offense, other than catching lobs, is still a work in progress. He thinks he is a better ballhandler than he actually is and this leads him to force plays he probably shouldn’t. Jumper is inconsistent and his free throws are as bad. Still, he has a great feel for the game, is a good passer for his size, and is capable of making plays out of nowhere.”

Report: Andrew Wiggins vexes Timberwolves by skipping weightlift sessions

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Andrew Wiggins, right, shoots as Los Angeles Lakers center Tarik Black defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game, Tuesday, Feb. 2, 2016, in Los Angeles. The Lakers won 119-115. (AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)
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The Timberwolves suffered through a miserable 16-win season last year with a teenage shooting guard running point for them.

Their reward?

The teen, Zach LaVine, picked up valuable ball-handling and distributing experience that should serve him well. Andrew Wiggins, who won Rookie of the Year, spent significant time at shooting guard without having to battle more physically developed forwards. And – best of all – Minnesota lost enough to land the No. 1 pick in the draft, Karl-Anthony Towns.

This team looks primed for a bright future with LaVine at shooting guard, Wiggins at small forward and Towns at center. The Timberwolves must still determine whether they want to ride with Ricky Rubio at point guard and find a power forward, but they’re well on their way.

There is a hitch in the plan, though

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

One of the keys to Minnesota’s future success is for Wiggins, 20, to be strong enough to be a full-time small forward and open up the shooting-guard position for LaVine, also 20. Team insiders, though, lament how many weightlifting sessions Wiggins skips, and the supposedly slim-fit, sleeved jerseys the Wolves love to wear show the ample room to grow in his arms.

I think this assessment underrates Wiggins strength. He certainly has more room to fill out, but it’s not as if he’s some weakling out there.

Wiggins even uses his strength to his advantage in clear ways. He ranks in the 96th percentile when defending a post-up that ends a play. His 7.2 free-attempts per game rank eighth in the NBA.

That’s not because he’s a crafty veteran with a bag of tricks. It’s because he’s reasonably strong.

That said, the Timberwolves aren’t necessarily wrong for being dismayed with Wiggins. If he’s skipping weightlifting sessions – especially in Minnesota emphasized them to increase his viability with LaVine – that’s problematic. LaVine, who’s coming off the bench, should be especially perturbed.

These are the types of issues that come up with young teams trying to make the next step. Some figure it out. Some just move past the noise.

I don’t know how the Timberwolves will handle this, but – with Wiggins, LaVine and Towns – they have potential to be special if they figure it out.

Report: Pistons retiring Richard Hamilton’s number

AUBURN HILLS, MI - JUNE 16:  Richard Hamilton #32 celebrates after Linsey Hunter #10 of the Detroit Pistons scored in the fourth quarter against the San Antonio Spurs in Game four of the 2005 NBA Finals at The Palace of Auburn Hills on June 16, 2005 in Auburn Hills, Michigan. The Pistons defeated the Spurs 102-71.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Brian Bahr/Getty Images)
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The Pistons retired Ben Wallace’s number last month and Chauncey Billups’ this week.

They’ll soon be joined in the Palace rafters by another from the 2004 championship team – Richard Hamilton’s No. 32.

Vince Ellis of the Detroit Free Press:

No date has been set but Richard Hamilton will be the next Piston from the 2004 NBA championship team to have his jersey retired, No. 32, according to a person with firsthand knowledge of the organization’s thinking.

I would’ve retired Ben’s and Billups’ number and left it at that from the 2004 team. Despite the myth of a perfectly balanced starting unit, those two were a cut above the rest – Hamilton, Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace.

Perhaps unfairly, Ben and Billups also get credit for exiting Detroit on better terms. They were the first starters to go, so fans don’t associate them with the team’s decline. Plus, both returned to finish their careers with the Pistons.

Hamilton, on the other hand, became whiny as a contract extension locked him into a team that didn’t win as much as he wanted (but paid him more than he was worth). It got so ugly, Detroit bought him out, eating a substantial portion of his salary.

The good far outweighed the bad, though. Hamilton led the Pistons in scoring every season between 2003 and 2010. He provided a seemingly endless supply of energy, running around screen after screen away from the ball. His scoring with then-Ron Artest guarding him during the 2004 Eastern Conference finals – a defensive slugfest at its best – was instrumental in putting Detroit over the top.

This probably opens the door for Rasheed and Prince getting their numbers retired, too.

As someone who grew up in Michigan and cheered those Pistons, I’m not at all upset with this decision. Hamilton is a reasonable choice for number retirement, as are Sheed and Prince.

I just wouldn’t done it if I were in charge.

Dwight Howard says he hasn’t asked Rockets for trade: ‘I’m not running’

HOUSTON, TX - DECEMBER 25:  Members of the Houston Rockets huddle on the court during their game against the San Antonio Spurs at the Toyota Center on December 25, 2015 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this Photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
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The Rockets are reportedly working with Dwight Howard‘s agent on trading the center.

Spin from the other side…

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Dan Fegan, agent for Dwight Howard, issues statement to ESPN: “I’m not privy to what the Rockets are doing or not doing with respect to Dwight Howard. What I can say, with 100 percent certainty, is that Dwight has not and has never asked the Rockets for a trade. And neither have I.”

Rockets center Dwight Howard, reached Thursday by ESPN, says in reference to earlier statement from his agent Dan Fegan: “Dan’s statement is true. I have not asked the Rockets to trade me. Nor have I talked about right trades. I want to win. I want this situation to work. I chose this team. And I’m not running because we have been faced with some adversity.”

I could believe Howard hasn’t asked for a trade. I could also believe he has. Newsflash: Sometimes players and agents lie to the media.

Howard hurt his reputation with his mangled exit from the Magic and alienated many by bolting from the Lakers. It seems he doesn’t want to diminish his reputation further, which could be accomplished by not requesting a trade – or saying he’s not requesting a trade.

But the distinction matters only so much here, because the ball is in Houston’s court.

With Howard set to become a free agent, the Rockets might want to trade him before having to give him a big long-term contract. And if the Rockets want to deal him, it makes sense for both sides to work together.

Houston can get more return for Howard if he quietly pledges to re-sign with the team dealing for him. He can determine which teams he’d make that promise for and get a larger contract by getting traded and then re-signing rather than just leaving Houston to sign in the summer.

As far as Fegan saying he’s not privy to what the Rockets are doing with Howard, that’s deliberately misleading – maybe he doesn’t know their specific, exact plans – at best or negligent at worst. Who’d want an agent who didn’t know the team’s plans for the client?

Raptors’ DeMar DeRozan becomes bona fide star just in time for Toronto All-Star Game

Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan (10) celebrates scoring during his team's 101-81 win over Miami Heat during an NBA basketball game in Toronto on Friday, Jan. 22, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)
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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. – DeMar DeRozan admits he’s a terrible planner.

“Don’t ask me, are we going to go to dinner next week and what time?” the Raptors wing said. “Because I don’t know. You’ve got to ask me an hour before. … A hour before I’m hungry, I decide.”

That blind spot makes it easier for DeRozan to focus on the task at hand, especially with so much – Sunday’s All-Star game in Toronto, an opportunity for playoff redemption and a max contract in free agency – ahead of him.

DeRozan, already an All-Star and two-time 20-point-per-game scorer, is having his best season by a decent margin. His Raptors are 35-17 and looking increasingly capable of challenging the Cavaliers for the Eastern Conference title many already handed Cleveland.

And it’s because DeRozan never got too comfortable with what he already accomplished nor too caught up in what he could accomplish. Calling himself the “most mellowest person,” DeRozan just tries to stay in the moment.

Toronto coach Dwane Casey credited DeRozan for working on one aspect of his game each offseason, including “just handling the ball in the post and not throwing it in the fourth row” when they first worked together. But saying DeRozan polished only one skill since last year would be selling him far too short.

DeRozan has transformed his offensive game, becoming more effective than ever.

Start with his ability to get to the basket. That had long been a strength, but DeRozan has taken it to another level this year. He ranks seconds in the NBA in drives per game (11.6):

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And third in free-throw attempts per game(8.3):

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How does someone so mellow find the aggression to play a style that generates so much contact?

“I grew up different from a lot of people,” said DeRozan, a Compton native. “I grew up in an aggressive area. I had an aggressive lifetime for a long time. I just felt like, I’ve seen a lot of stuff and did a lot of stuff at a young age that make you mellow now, but once you grow up in that aggressive nature, it’s just always going to stick with you.”

DeRozan said he found a difference balance in his life at USC, where he spent only one year, as he hilariously told teammate Kyle Lowry.

DeRozan’s one year in college helped make him the No. 9 pick in the 2009 NBA draft, but he entered the league with one glaring deficiency: outside shooting. DeRozan made just six three pointers at USC – and even fewer, four and five, his first two NBA seasons.

Still not quite to league average, DeRozan has at least become a credible threat beyond the arc this season, shooting a career-high 33.7%:

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These shots at the rim and from beyond the arc are coming at the expense of long 2s. After peaking at 36.5% three years ago and remaining a far-too-high 33.8% last year, DeRozan is taking just 24.4% of his shots between 16 feet and the 3-point arc:

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For someone who declared just last year, “I don’t care about analytics at all. I could give a hell about them,” his game has sure become more analytically friendly.

The previous two years, DeRozan had the second-lowest true shooting percentage among 20-point scorers – ahead of only Kobe Bryant last season and LaMarcus Aldridge the season prior. Now, DeRozan’s true shooting percentage (54.8) is above league average for the first time since his rookie year, which – not coincidentally – was the only time his usage percentage fell below league average.

There’s a tradeoff between volume and efficiency, and DeRozan was on the wrong end of it. He was increasing his scoring by taking more bad shots.

His improved efficiency hasn’t come with shifting the shooting burden to less-capable teammates, either. DeRozan’s usage percentage (29.7) is a career high and ranks above Carmelo Anthony‘s, Kevin Durant‘s and John Wall‘s.

The turnaround is all the more stunning considering how limited DeRozan looked as an inefficient gunner.

A whopping 74.5% of his long 2s were assisted in 2010-11. That number fell 47.5% last season, which look more ridiculous if not for the great height from which it fell. For perspective, Isaiah Thomas – another player on both the drives and free-throw attempts leaderboard – has just 34.2% of his long 2s assisted.

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Essentially, DeRozan was taking too many bad shots – and needed help getting them.

This year, DeRozan looks much more in control with the ball in his hands. Only 26.8% of his long 2s are assisted, not that he’s taking that many shots from that range, anyway.

He’s also using his greater control to dish a career-high 4.7 assists per game. Continuing the trend, it’s a substantive improvement. DeRozan isn’t throwing foolish passes in the hopes of upping his assist numbers. His turnovers remain characteristically low, and his assist-to-turnover ratio is a career best.

DeRozan has looked the part of a star the previous couple years. This season, he has produced like a star, too.

Lowry has watched the process unfold.

“It’s just being comfortable in your own skin,” Lowry said. “He doesn’t worry about what anybody says. He’s going to be comfortable in his own skin at all times.”

Lowry and DeRozan have developed a fun bond in their four seasons together, and it’s special they’ll represent the Raptors together in the Toronto All-Star game.

DeRozan was an All-Star in 2013, when the Raptors became good enough to warrant an All-Star but reserve-voting coaches still seemed bitter at Lowry, a superior player who’d clashed with his coaches when younger. Lowry got his first All-Star appearance last year, fans voting him a starter.

This year, both deserve to be there.

The next step is turning their individual success into team success. Despite holding home-court advantage the last two years, the Raptors were bounced in the first round – by the Nets in 2014 and Wizards in 2015. Toronto hasn’t won a playoff series since 2001, which was also the last time it produced two All-Stars (Vince Carter and Antonio Davis).

With DeRozan playing like a true star, this could be the year the Raptors break the drought.

Individual riches for DeRozan should follow.

He reportedly and logically plans to opt out of a contract that would pay him $10,050,000 next season. The upside? A max deal projected to be worth more than $145 million over five years if he re-signs or $110 million over four years elsewhere.

DeRozan always probably could have pulled at least one max offer in what will be a player-friendly market next summer. But this improvement makes it far more likely he’ll have his pick of max options, and not just from teams as desperate as the Lakers.

Despite not looking ahead often, DeRozan says he has one plan for handling free agency: Calling Lowry.

“I’m putting it on Kyle,” DeRozan said. “I don’t know. I’m going to put in on Kyle when that day comes. So, whatever he says, that’s where I’m going to go.”

So, that means DeRozan will return to the Raptors?

“At the end of the day, I’m his friend first,” said Lowry, who spurned heavy outside interest to re-sign in 2014. “He’s going to make a decision on what’s comfortable for him, and I’m going to support everything he does – just like he did for me.”

That’s very nice, but doesn’t Lowry at least hope that process leads DeRozan back to Toronto?

“At the end of the day, I’m going to support my friend – no matter what it is,” Lowry said.

There was long reason to doubt the relative emptiness of DeRozan’s numbers. But what’s clear: The people around him believe in him.

“He hasn’t reached the ceiling of his game yet,” Casey said, “and that’s the great thing about him, because he is a worker.”