Author: Kurt Helin

Northeastern v Notre Dame

NBA Draft prospect matchups to watch in NCAA Tourament this weekend


What are NBA GMs and scouts looking for come the NCAA Tournament? What are they going to learn they didn’t in the other 30-60 (or more) college games they have watched of these prospects?

How guys do against better competition. And how they do under the pressure of a one-and-done situation.

With that in mind, there are some very interesting matchups this Thursday and Friday in the NCAA Tournament that will peak scouts’ interest. Below are six to follow.

We reached out for some expert opinions from Ed Isaacson of Rotoworld and NBADraftBlog, as well as Rob Dauster of our NBC sister site CollegeBasketballTalk.

Wichita State vs. Notre Dame (Thursday, 7:15 pm ET)

What to watch for: Notre Dame’s Jerian Grant vs. Tekele Cotton/Wichita State perimeter defense. Grant is a borderline lottery pick and one of the top two seniors in this NBA draft. He knows how to score, he sets guys up, but we get a chance to see how he will deal with real pressure.

From Rob Dauster: Cotton is one of the best perimeter defenders in college hoops, and I expect him to get matched up against Grant, who was arguably the most dynamic guard in the country this year.

From Ed Isaacson: While Grant can hit form long-range, he’s at his best when he get into the defense and either get to the rim or kick it out to the perimeter shooters. Wichita State’s defense, led by Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, does a very good job containing on the perimeter. Restricting Grant’s movement can slow down Notre Dame’s offense as a whole, but if Grant can get into the defense consistently, the Irish perimeter shooters should have a very good day. Also, worth watching is any one-on-one match between VanVleet and ND’s Demetrius Jackson. Two very smart point guards that just know how to make the right plays.

Kentucky vs. West Virginia (Thursday, 9:45 pm ET)

What to watch for: Andrew Harrison/Kentucky’s back court vs. West Virginia’s press. Kentucky is loaded with talent and shooting guard Devin Booker is a borderline lottery pick if he comes out this year. But on guard is not enough against the Mountaineers and Wildcat sophomore Andrew Harrison is on the bubble of getting drafted period (he likely returns) — how he deals with West Virginia’s aggressive defense will be interesting.

From Rob Dauster: Harrison has had a nice NCAA tournament thus far, to the point that some think he may have a shot of getting picked late in the first round. West Virginia plays an all-out, trapping press that will challenge Kentucky’s ball-handlers. Will Andrew be up to the test?

From Ed Isaacson: West Virginia probably has one real hope in this game, and that’s with their full court pressure. Freshman Tyler Ulis should end up with a lot more minutes for Kentucky, as he’s their best, and smartest, ballhandler, by far. Still, it usually takes two good ballhandlers to beat West Virginia’s pressure and that’s where Kentucky can have problems. Andrew Harrison has always been sloppy against pressure, and I expect West Virginia to target him. Kentucky will need to get the ball up the floor quickly to avoid the pressure, so expect guys like Devin Booker and Aaron Harrison to be a lot more involved in ballhandling. West Virginia doesn’t have the interior size to compete with Kentucky, but they are tough, and expect Karl Towns, Willie Cauley-Stein, etc., to have some frustrating moments.

Xavier v. Arizona (Thursday, 10:17 pm ET)

What to watch for: Arizona’s has a lottery pick Stanley Johnson, how does he fare against another strong defense?

From Ed Isaacson: Johnson is coming off a bad performance against Ohio State, shooting just 1-of-12 from the field, and Xavier has the defenders to make him have to work just as hard to get good shot attempts. Arizona’s biggest advantage should come on the boards, both attacking the offensive glass and keeping Xavier from the same,and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (a potential first round pick) will be Arizona’s most important player in this regard. Xavier will need to be very conscious of him when shots go up. Luckily, they don’t have to worry much about him as an offensive weapon away from that.

North Carolina v. Wisconsin (Thursday 7:47 pm ET)

What to watch for: The Badgers’ big man Frank Kaminsky is a lottery pick, but he can help his standing with a big game against a high profile program.

From Ed Isaacson: With Kennedy Meeks likely out for UNC, Frank Kaminsky could have a really big game against back-ups Joel James and Isaiah Hicks. The Tar Heels may try to put Brice Johnson and his length against Kaminsky, but that could open opportunities for Sam Dekker to get to the basket if Kaminsky brings his man out to the perimeter. Johnson’s athleticism could be a problem for whoever Wisconsin has guard him, plus Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson are both capable of scoring points quickly, and UNC can be relentless attacking the offensive boards. This should be the best game on Thursday night.

Gonzaga vs. UCLA (Friday, 7:15 pm ET)

What to watch for: UCLA’s Kevon Looney vs. Gonzaga’s Kyle Wiltjer — does the Zags’ power forward have the defensive chops to keep up with a first rounder.

From Rob Dauster: We know how good Wiltjer is scoring the ball, but his issue is on the defensive end of the floor. Looney is long, lanky and athletic with the ability to do damage around the rim and from the three-point line. It will be a good test for Wiltjer, who is trying to prove that he, like Looney, is worthy of a first round pick.

Duke vs. Utah (Friday 9:45 pm ET)

What to watch for: Jakob Poeltl vs. Jahlil Okafor, a battle of two bigs who will be drafted in the lottery.

From Rob Dauster: This one works both ways. Poeltl has a high-upside, but he’s been bullied at times in the paint this season. What happens against the nation’s best low-post scorer? And for Okafor, the biggest issue he has is on the defensive end of the floor, and one thing Poeltl does really well is work with Delon Wright in ball-screen actions. Has Okafor gotten better defending the pick-and-roll from the disasters he had in January?

Five Things We Learned in NBA Wednesday: Kevin Love seems to be fitting in just fine suddenly

Kevin Love, Zach Randolph

If you watch closely every night in the NBA you can learn a little something. We know you are busy and can’t keep up with every game, so we’re here to help with those lessons from another night in the Association. Here’s what you missed while getting Waffle House food delivered to your door

1) Kevin Love looks like he fits just fine; Cleveland routs another team from the West. Tell me again how Kevin Love isn’t going to fit in with the Cavaliers. He fit like a perfect puzzle piece on Wednesday night — 22 points on 10-of-13 shooting, plus grabbing 10 rebounds. Oh, and he did a quality job defensively on Marc Gasol, which was key to Cleveland picking up maybe their most impressive win of the season, easily handling the Memphis Grizzlies 111-89. You don’t want to read too much into one regular season game, but the Cavaliers looked like contenders and Love looked like a guy finding his spots in the offense. Love’s versatility was on full display as he scored inside, hit threes from the left side of the court and caused trouble wherever he was on the court.

2) George Hill hits game winner against questionable Wizards defense. Indiana was down 10 points midway through the fourth quarter against the Wizards and came back to force overtime. In OT, the Pacers had the ball and the chance to win, they isolated George Hill and…

Wow, that was easy. Too easy. Remember the Warriors Mo Speights said they knew the Wizards would quit if they got punched in the mouth, this seems video evidence of that. It was a complete breakdown defensively — after the game coach Randy Whittman said the Wizards were supposed to trap the ball right when Hill first caught it. They didn’t. Nene got burned off that pseudo pick. But Whittman didn’t have Marcin Gortat in the game for that final play to protect the rim. Why? It’s all just very Wizards.

3) DeAndre Jordan was dunking all over the Knicks. The Clippers big man didn’t get to compete in the Dunk Contest when the All-Star Game came to New York this February. So Wednesday night he decided to put on a dunking exhibition all of the Knicks to show fans what they missed. (Yes, I know the Dunk Contest took place at the Barclays Center, work with me here.)

4) Dwight Howard is back, that didn’t slow James Harden one bit. Dwight Howard was back on the court for the Rockets Wednesday, something they will need come the playoffs. But he was being eased back in, playing four-minute spurts at the start of each quarter, finishing with four points and grabbing seven boards. He was not changing the game. That was left to James Harden, who had another impressive game of 25 points and 10 boards as the Rockets hung on for a 95-93 win over the Pelicans. (New Orleans closed the game on a 12-3 and made it interesting, Anthony Davis finished with 24 and 14). Houston just keeps on winning.

5) Lionel Messi, rest of Argentinian national soccer team, show up to support Luis Scola. The most famous athlete in the world — sorry LeBron, that’s Lionel Messi — was in attendance in Washington to watch the Pacers take on the Wizards. Why? Luis Scola, why else? Either way he got to see an entertaining finish.

Kevin Hart’s Saturday Night Live audition included an Avery Johnson impression (VIDEO)

New Orleans Hornets v Dallas Mavericks, Game 4

This is brilliant. Admittedly, the audience for it may be a bit small, still it is fantastic.

Comedy superstar — and four-time NBA All-Star weekend celebrity game MVP — Kevin Hart once auditioned to be part of the Saturday Night Live cast. He missed out. Which in hindsight seems a huge miss, but Hart said he understood why he missed out.

Because he did an imitation of Avery Johnson during the audition. The little general. Former NBA player and Spurs coach. While Avery Johnson’s voice is actually pretty funny, you are aiming at a pretty narrow demographic. And Lorne Michaels isn’t in it.

Still, pretty good impression.

Hat tip to Dan Devine at Ball Don’t Lie.

It’s official: Dwight Howard will return to Rockets’ lineup Wednesday

Dwight Howard

We knew it was coming; now it is official.

Howard has played just 32 games for the Rockets this season; it has taken all of James Harden’s will — and ability to draw fouls — to keep the team in the top three. Howard’s return should help the Rockets up front, especially with Terrence Jones out with a partially collapsed lung. Howard’s rim protection is needed as the Rockets head to the playoffs.

This stat may be the real key: Houston is 9.8 points per 48 minutes better when Harden and Howard are on the court together. That is what they need come the postseason.

Howard and Harden had a long talk in Denver — with Jason Terry in attendance — where Howard told Harden not to let up when he returns. Keep attacking. It’s on Howard to adjust to what is working, not Harden to change that. If Howard is true to his word, the Rockets just became a much tougher out

Dwyane Wade on MVP race: “I would say James Harden”

Houston Rockets v Miami Heat

This is the most fun the MVP race has been in years. You can make a legitimate case for five guys at least — Stephen Curry, James Harden, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, and Anthony Davis. And that leaves off guys who should get mentions and votes like Chris Paul.

Everyone has an opinion. Mine keeps changing every 48 hours it seems as I study it more.

Former NBA Finals MVP Dwyane Wade has an opinion — he likes the guy who goes to the rim knowing how to draw contact and put pressure on the opposing defense. From friend of this blog Shandel Richardson of the Sun-Sentinel.

“Right now, I would say James Harden,” Wade said before Tuesday’s game against the Milwaukee Bucks. “It’s tough. Any one of those top guys could be MVP. I would say James Harden from everything he’s done for the full season, the entire season. With the injury to Dwight Howard and carrying that team in the tough Western Conference and being right up there. That’s pretty impressive and he’s done it all season long.”

Watching Harden draw fouls can be reminiscent of Wade circa 2006. No wonder he likes him.

For the record, Kevin Love would vote Westbrook, while Andrew Bogut would vote Curry. Well, if they had a vote (they don’t).

Harden’s case rests on the fact that he has played more minutes and scored far more points (257) than anyone else in the NBA — the Rockets are the three seed in the West because he has carried them all season long. Houston is lost without him stepping his game up to a new level. (And if you are going to argue “he doesn’t play defense” I suggest you watch some Rockets games — he’s improved on that end. He’s not a stopper, but he’s improved.)

But again, you can make a very good case for other guys, too. Stephen Curry is more than the best player on the best team; the Warriors are 18 points per 100 possessions worse when he is off the court (a higher number than Westbrook or Harden). Westbrook has been a triple-double collecting force of nature who will carry the Thunder into the playoffs on the strength of his play. LeBron remains the best player on the planet and has played like it at both ends since he came back from those couple weeks off. Davis has been the best player in the NBA over the course of the season and done it efficiently — his PER of 31.4 so far this season would rank in the top 10 all time, putting him in Michael Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain territory.

Wade and other players don’t have a vote on MVP (much to the dismay of Kevin Durant) but they wouldn’t have an easier time than the media this year. There is no clear-cut leader.