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.