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.”

Warriors eliminate Spurs, advance to face Pelicans

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Kevin Durant drained a pull-up 3-pointer reminiscent of his signature NBA Finals shot in the final minute of the third quarter. The Spurs ended the quarter with a flurry and kept coming.

Durant made consecutive mid-range jumpers over Kyle Anderson midway through the fourth quarter. The Spurs called timeout, subbed  Rudy Gay for Anderson and kept coming.

Durant drove past Gay and dunked. The Spurs called another timeout and kept coming.

Each of those Durant shots seemed as if they could be the backbreaker. Credit San Antonio for continuing to play hard.

But without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs were just overmatched against the superstar small forward in the Warriors’ 4-1 first-round victory – which ended with Golden State’s 99-91 Game 5 win Tuesday.

The Warriors’ next opponent – the Pelicans, who open their second-round series Saturday – could soon learn the feeling.

New Orleans relies on E'Twaun Moore, Darius Miller and Solomon Hill at small forward – not the slate of stoppers that seems ready for Durant. Even on an off night (1-for-8 on 3-pointers, five turnovers), Durant scored 25 in Game 5. He’s a tough cover. But those three Pelicans – Moore (size), Miller (fundamentals) and Hill (speed) – each have major defensive liabilities Durant can exploit.

And Durant will have plenty of help.

Klay Thompson (24 points) appears headed back on track after a clunker in Game 4. Draymond Green (17 points, 19 rebounds and seven assists) looks locked in.

And, of course, Stephen Curry is poised to return sometime against the Pelicans.

The Warriors weren’t very impressive in the San Antonio series. Nor did they need to be. The Spurs were just overmatched, unable to summon nearly enough offense.

But Golden State showed enough focus and reminders of its talent to retain favored status even against better opponents – like New Orleans, which swept the Trail Blazers. Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday lead a surging team.

The Spurs want to get back on that level, and that stars with solving the Leonard dilemma this summer.

Will they offer him a super-max extension? Would he take it? Will they trade him? Will he request a trade?

With questions like that facing San Antonio, by comparison, the Pelicans are stable at small forward.

How do you like “The Process” now? Sixers eliminate Heat, advance to second round

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It felt inevitable.

Not “The Process” from the start. There were some severe downs before the ups.

Not this first playoff series against Miami from the start, because it felt even… until Game 3 when Joel Embiid returned in his mask and tipped the scales.

No, it was Game 5’s result felt inevitable as it unfolded. Not because Philadelphia won the previous game in Miami and could close it out at home. Not because the Sixers have the two biggest talents in the series in Ben Simmons and Embiid.

Rather, Game 5 felt inevitable because the Sixers got better looks all night long. They got them with ball movement, with player movement that created mismatches or clean jumpers. It was tied 46-46 at the half because Philadelphia just missing its good looks while the Heat were struggling with hands in their face all night. Philadelphia shot 38.1 percent in the first half overall and were 2-of-12 from three.

In the third quarter, it all changed.

Philadelphia went on an early 9-0 run, shot 50 percent as a team for the quarter, all while continuing to play defense and get stops. The Sixers won the third 34-20 and held on through Miami rallies in the fourth to take the game comfortably, 104-91.

With the win, Philadelphia wins the series 4-1 and advances to the second round, where they will face either Boston or Milwaukee (Boston leads the series 3-2).

They did it behind 27 from J.J. Redick, who knocked down five threes. Embiid had 19 points and 12 rebounds, Simmons had 14 points, 10 rebounds, and six assists. However, it was the defense that held the Miami to 38.6 percent shooting overall and 16-of-31 from three within eight feet of the basket that won the game for Philly.

This young Sixers team learned lessons in this first round, and maybe the biggest was how to adapt the physicality of the playoffs, and keeping your cool while things don’t go your way.

“I thought we withstood the physicality of the Heat,” Sixers coach Brett Brown said. “They’re a great organization. They came to mean it, we knew they wouldn’t go away easily, and we had to have that physical element to match.”

They matched that physicality, but what they had was talent that could step up.

They also savored the moment. Midway through the fourth, up comfortably and still knocking down shots, the young Sixers were reveling in the deafening crowd in the Wells Fargo Center. Philadelphia was reveling in success after years of struggling through the process — the players and fans wanted to start that party midway through the fourth.

However, Heat have no chill and no quit in them, they went on a 10-0 in the fourth quarter, not-so-coincidentally after Sixers fans started chanting, “We want Boston!”

But when it mattered the Heat couldn’t get stops — the Sixers talent showed through. Redick hit threes. Embiid owned the paint. Simmons did a little bit of everything.

It was a moment of revelry in Philadelphia. One years in the making — and maybe the first in many years of future celebrations on that court.

Sixers players douse Brett Brown, present him with bell after closing Heat (VIDEO)

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The Philadelphia 76ers are moving on. Let’s just try to process that for a moment.

After beating the Miami Heat on Tuesday night, 104-91, this iteration of the Sixers experienced their first playoff series win together. It was also the first series win for coach Brett Brown as the man in charge of an NBA team.

As such, players gathered in the locker room after the win to hear Brown speak about the win, and about how the team had more to give and to learn as they moved forward together in the playoffs.

When Brown concluded his speech, he tried to hand off the victory bell to JJ Redick. As soon as Redick received it, he bestowed the honor of the bell right back upon Brown.

That’s when teammates showered Brown with whatever they had nearby, and Brown rung the bell.

Man, what a moment.

Marcus Smart returns, helps Celtics win Game 5 over Bucks

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Marcus Smart returned to the Boston Celtics after suffering a thumb injury earlier in the year, and boy was it just in time.

The Celtics guard came off the bench, doing what he does best: attacking opposing guards, grabbing rebounds, and making hustle plays for his squad. Smart thoroughly annoyed the Milwaukee Bucks, and as Giannis Antetokounmpo failed to make a push in the second half (and as Khris Middleton‘s shooting slowly deteriorated) it was Boston who came out with a win in Game 5, 92-87.

Milwaukee’s offense failed to show up early. According to NBA TV, it was the second-lowest halftime total for the Bucks this season, and the away team scored just 37 points at the break. Milwaukee struggled mightily as a team, shooting just 21 percent from 3-point range. Despite the issues, both Antetokounmpo and Middleton had 11 points by half.

Boston’s attack was balanced, with nine players scoring in the first half but none reaching double figures. Smart was effective off the bench, playing 12 minutes in the first half. Smart’s presence was felt elsewhere on the floor as well; in those minutes he racked up two blocks, two rebounds, and two assists.

The Celtics stalled to start the third quarter, at times going several minutes between baskets. The intensity level was still high, particularly during one tussle with 9:33 left in the third. Eric Bledsoe and Terry Rozier got into a bumping match on the baseline away from the ball, resulting in one player getting pushed into an official. Bledsoe earned a Flagrant 1 for his efforts, and Rozier was assessed a technical.

Milwaukee began to battle back on surprising baskets by Shabazz Muhammad. The former Minnesota Timberwolves wing dropped two 3-pointers to help the Bucks make a run at the Celtics all the way into the fourth quarter.

The critical play of the game came with 80 seconds left. With the shot clock winding down, Al Horford was allowed by officials to shoot a long jumper. The refereeing crew didn’t blow the whistle, and Boston took a second possession after a backtip.

Then, with 28 seconds left as the Bucks were trying to steal or foul the Celtics, came the play Boston fans had been waiting for from Smart. At first it appeared Milwaukee had shot at a turnover as they hustled Smart to the floor on a trap. Thinking quickly, Smart leapt on the lost ball, flipped over, and sent a pass to a wide open Horford for the basket, all but sealing the game.

Milwaukee tried to play the foul game in the final minute or so, but weren’t able to come up with a win. Antetokounmpo finished with just 16 points and Middleton with 23. Horford led the Celtics with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and three assists.

Boston now leads the series, 3-2, as they head back to Milwaukee for Game 6 on Thursday.