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Seven games/prospects for NBA fans to watch in NCAA Tournament

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For fans of a lot of the NBA’s tanking class teams, the NCAA Tournament is serious scouting time. Fortunately for those fans, their teams have been way ahead of them — scouts and GMs will be in arenas from San Diego to Pittsburgh looking to get an eye on the top college prospects one last time, but they have largely formed their opinions on the players. Or they should have. If you’re moving players way up or down your board based on the NCAA Tournament, you’re doing it wrong.

Who should you watch? What games should you catch as an NBA fan with an eye on the up-and-coming prospects? First, you should go listen to the podcast I did with NBC’s Rob Dauster where we get into way more detail on NBA prospects. But since you’re here, check out this list of seven players/teams/games to tune in for during the opening weekend.

1) Want to see the most high-level prospects in one game this weekend? Watch the (potential) second-round matchup between Kentucky and Arizona Saturday. We have to get to this one first — Davidson and its tough-to-defend offensive style have a shot against Kentucky. But if the first round games follow form, St. Patrick’s Day is going to have the best game of the first round — a classic matchup of inside vs. outside.

Arizona is led by the likely No. 1 pick in June, Deandre Ayton — an incredibly skilled and athletic 7-footer who can score inside, crashes the boards hard, and can step out and drain threes. He has the potential to be a top-five force in the NBA, and when he’s focused he can dominate a college game like no other (which makes it odd Arizona tends to go away from him for stretches).

On the other side, Kentucky is loaded with lottery-level picks on the perimeter — Kevin Knox on the wing, the very smooth Shai Gilgeous-Alexander at the point, and while Hamidou Diallo at the other guard spot is not lottery bound he is likely getting an NBA look. Gilgeous-Alexander is one of the fastest risers on draft boards this year, he wasn’t even supposed to be Kentucky’s star rookie point guard coming into this season but he has impressed. He will be tested by Arizona point guard Rawle Alkins, who could well an NBA player in his own right (though more a second round guy who will have to earn his way in).

2) Just how good is Trae Young? Make sure you watch this Thursday early because Oklahoma may not last longer. If there is a fan favorite in college hoops this season, it’s Trae Young of Oklahoma — he gets the “he plays like Stephen Curry” comps from fans because of Young will fearlessly take and make 30 footers or throw playground-style passes. Scouts are not quite as high on him — he might be the third PG taken (if you count Real Madrid’s 6’8” ball handler Luka Doncic as a point) – but he’s still top 10. Young is 6’2” and is not an explosive athlete (which leads to some trouble finishing around the rim, and on defense). Still, he can do this.

Thursday, in one of the first games of the Tournament, he and Oklahoma goes up against a feisty Rhode Island team that has some real guard depth, too. That should be interesting.

3) If Young and Oklahoma can beat Rhode Island, their reward is a loaded Duke team on Saturday. To borrow (and modify) a Ben Simmons line, rooting Duke to win it all is like rooting for the house to win at blackjack. Yet, a lot of us have Duke going all the way because this team is LOADED with talent — three likely first-rounders come June, a ton of depth, and oh, and Mike Krzyzewski coaching them.

If you’re a fan of one of the teams in the tankapaloza going on at the bottom of the NBA standings, you need to catch some Blue Devils this first weekend (and likely subsequent weekends) because they have a couple of lottery picks. Marvin Bagley is going to go in the first five come June, a freak athlete who knows how to score and is a beast on the boards. Next to him along the front line is Wendell Carter Jr., a slightly more polished player than Bagley who can take over a game in his own right and been the best Blue Devil in key games this year (Carter likely goes in the 5-10 range in June). That’s not even getting into Grayson Allen, Trevon Duval and… frankly, we don’t have time to get into all the Duke players who could be in the NBA in a few years. Just watch.

4) I’ll admit it, I have a man crush on Collin Sexton’s game — if he leads Alabama to a first-round win, he gets to show off against a loaded Villanova squad. I get it, Sexton was inconsistent during his freshman season in Alabama, and that should give teams pause. But his highs are so high — most recently in the SEC tournament — that it’s going to be hard not to take a chance on him somewhere around 10 in the draft. If you want to see him, you may need to tune in Thursday night, when Alabama takes on Virginia Tech in an even contest.

Win and we get to see Sexton in a real contest against Villanova on Saturday. The top seed is led by lottery pick Mikal Bridges, who will go in the lottery because he is a long, athletic defender who can step into the NBA and play on that side of the ball, plus he can knock down threes. Sexton against Bridges would be an entertaining back-and-forth.

5) Watch Michael Porter Jr. now, because you haven’t had the chance all season. At the start of the season, Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. was seen as one of the top picks in the entire draft. However, spinal surgery for a 6’10” guy that kept him out almost all season — he’s played just 25 minutes — has dropped him down to the 6-8 range in the draft (he could fall further depending on how his medical reports look and how he does in interviews with teams, where there are questions). Porter and Missouri play Friday against Florida State, win that and Sunday they probably against Ohio State.

6) Michigan State isn’t getting tested this weekend, but if your team is tanking you should watch them anyway. Much like Duke, if you are a fan of a team racing toward the bottom of the standings, you should probably tune in to watch Michigan State play — they are loaded with talent that will be playing in the NBA in a couple of years.

Jaren Jackson is a prototypical modern NBA big man who will go in the top five this June, maybe top three. He can do it all — offensively score inside or hit the three ball, defensively protect the rim or switch onto guys on the perimeter. He is going to be an impact NBA player. Miles Bridges is an athletic two-way wing who can knock down jumpers, but is even more impressive is his length and work on defense.

7) Lonnie Walker IV of Miami may put on a dazzling display of athleticism. Or not. You never know, but it’s worth watching to see. Lonnie Walker IV has the skills to be an impressive NBA player, which is why he likely gets drafted in the late lottery, but he’s also the model of inconsistency. Miami will need his shot creation — he can catch and shoot, knock down threes off the bounce, and he’s a force in transition — to advance very far in this tournament. Who knows if which Walker shows up here, or in Summer League. That said, if he puts it together, he will be special.

Report: Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer no longer considering Suns job

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There’s been a lot of talk as the coaching carousel ramps up, long before the NBA season is even over. Now, we know one coach won’t be heading to the Phoenix Suns: Atlanta Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer.

Budenholzer was reportedly among one of the candidates for the Suns job, but according to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowksi the Hawks coach has decided not to pursue the position after being given the opportunity to do so.

The Suns coaching search still includes current interim coach Jay Triano and former Memphis Grizzlies head man David Fizdale.

Via ESPN:

Budenholzer met with Suns general manager Ryan McDonough and owner Robert Sarver early this week, but there was never traction on reaching a contract agreement as the week wore on, league sources said.

As the Suns kept interviewing candidates — including David Fizdale and interim coach Jay Triano — Budenholzer informed the Suns on Thursday that he would no longer be a candidate for the job, sources said.

Phoenix fired Earl Watson just three games into the season. Budenholzer had a hefty resume to consider — he won 60 games in Atlanta in 2014-15, heading to the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Suns need someone to guide their young star in Devin Booker. Who they choose will influence the direction of their franchise for longer than the next coach may even be around.

Warriors beat Spurs in glum Game 3

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The Spurs were playing with heavy hearts following the death of Gregg Popovich’s wife, Erin. Kevin Durant and Shaun Livingston appeared to injure their left ankles on back-to-back plays late.

Everyone seemed ready for the Warriors’ 110-97 Game 3 win Thursday to end well before it did.

Soon enough, the first-round series will. Golden State is up 3-0, and all 127 teams to win the first three games of a best-of-seven series won it – most of them via sweep. Game 4 is Saturday in San Antonio.

There’s hope neither Durant’s nor Livingston’s injury is serious. Durant walked off on his own, though gingerly. Livingston shot his free throws before exiting.

Durant (26 points) and Klay Thompson (19 points) have carried the Warriors’ offense with Stephen Curry sidelined by his own injury. If Durant isn’t at full strength for Game 4, Golden State could really struggle to score.

But it still might not matter, as the Spurs are overmatched against the Warriors’ dialed-in defense. Draymond Green (10 points, seven assists, six rebounds, four blocks and two steals) led tonight’s effort.

After two losses in Oakland to start the series, returning to San Antonio didn’t do much for the Spurs, who were 33-8 at home and 14-27 on the road this season – the NBA’s largest home-road disparity in a half decade. It’s just had to see San Antonio – whether Popovich returns or Ettore Messina remains acting coach – finding enough sources of offense.

Pelicans move one game away from sweep after bashing Blazers in Game 3

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But for a moment, the Portland Trail Blazers felt as though they could turn the series. For half a quarter, the Blazers had hope. Then, Nikola Mirotic dropped a career-high 30 points, Anthony Davis added a double-double of 28 points and 11 rebounds, and the New Orleans Pelicans moved one game away from completing a sweep of the third seed after a big win on Thursday night, 119-102.

Under the guidance of Mirotic, the Pelicans unleashed a barrage of 3-pointers starting midway through the first quarter. The game was close to being a contest, but Jrue Holiday and Mirotic started to pour it in after being uncorked, with New Orleans taking a 16-point lead going into the second period.

Running up and down the court in a panic, Portland looked nervous in the spotlight. The Blazers racked up 12 turnovers by halftime, all while rattling 3-pointers off the back iron. Portland rushed its offense in the face of unlikely success by the Pelicans, who continued to rain down from deep. New Orleans hit four big shots in the final 1:47 of the half, including three from beyond-the-arc.

Never one to back down, Blazers star Damian Lillard tried to force the issue. He would finish with 20 points on 5-of-14 shooting, but most evidentiary of his night was Lillard lobbing up a wild 28-footer with 24 seconds left in the half as he tried to answer a gutshot 3-pointer from E'Twaun Moore from a moment before. It didn’t work, and the Pelicans took commanding 64-45 lead to start the third quarter.

So went the story of the rest of the game, as Portland couldn’t fully tamp down the New Orleans offensive attack for longer than a few minutes at a time. Even after one 10-0 run for the Blazers in the third, the Pelicans ended it in the most deflating way possible — a wide open dunk for Mirotic on a cut after Portland’s defense fell asleep.

It was an electric atmosphere at Smoothie King, and the sellout crowd that gave us a glimpse of what kind of homecourt advantage the Pelicans could have in the second round. The New Orleans fans were in a back-and-forth with the players, with Smoothie King working to such a fever pitch it felt as though every shot hoisted by the team in red and gold was destined for the nylon.

Demoralized, Portland battled — flailed, really — but the Blazers couldn’t make up any ground as the momentum continued for New Orleans. Finally Blazers coach Terry Stotts relented and waived the white flag for Portland with 7:55 left in the fourth quarter as he subbed in his bench.

Even with a 49-win season under its belt, the questions surrounding the Blazers become more serious. The team that had a 13-game win streak this season now will face rumblings about whether Stotts will remain with the team. An exit for Stotts would be unwise for Portland — he did wonders with a team that didn’t play up to its potential most of the year — but it’s not out of the ordinary for a team looking to break through to look elsewhere, especially after Lillard’s meeting with owner Paul Allen.

Although their work isn’t done yet, New Orleans looks as though it’s a team to be feared in the playoffs. What it needs to do is concentrate on sweeping the Blazers, not only to give themselves confidence heading into the second round but to show their second-round opponent (likely the Warriors) that they aren’t to be taken lightly.

How Porltand can counter in the deciding Game 4 isn’t clear. The Pelicans have looked like the better team for nearly every quarter of the series, and the Blazers clearly don’t have an answer for them on either side of the ball.

Happy New Orleans fans will pack Smoothie King on Saturday for Game 4 at 2:00 PM PST in Louisiana. Davis will look to win his first playoff series, and Portland will try to avoid their most embarrassing sweep since they lost to the San Antonio Spurs in the 1999 Western Conference Finals.

Steve Kerr, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili celebrate the life of Erin Popovich (VIDEO)

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The NBA community has been effuse in their thoughts and condolences to San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich over the past 24 hours. Erin Popovich, 67, passed away on April 18, leaving behind her husband, Gregg.

Many were taken aback at the news, including players like LeBron James and Kevin Durant, both of whom were emotional when they first heard the news of Erin’s passing.

Gregg Popovich was not with the team to coach them in their Thursday night matchup against the Golden State Warriors, as Ettore Messina took the reins for Game 3.

Meanwhile, those close to the Popoviches spoke about Erin, her influence on Gregg, and how much both mean to them. Steve Kerr, who played for Popovich in San Antonio for four seasons, told reporters that Erin was, “The sort of balance that Pop needed.”

Current Spurs Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker also voiced their support for the Popovich family.

Via Twitter:

Here’s hoping Popovich finds some solace in the support he’s received over the past day.