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’ reportedly showing no urgency to trade D’Angelo Russell

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It’s been the same story since Golden State did a sign-and-trade with Brooklyn last summer that brought them back D'Angelo Russell on a new max contract.

Around the league, executives with other teams expect the Warriors to trade Russell, questioning how he fits long-term with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Golden State itself, however, has pushed back on the idea it just got Russell to trade him and they want to see if a three-guard rotation can work.

Come Dec. 15, Russell — and most players signed this summer — become eligible to be traded. The Warriors still appear to be in no rush, reports Sean Deveney of Heavy.com.

“If it is something that they’re going to do quickly, like before the end of this month, I wouldn’t say they’re pushing for it,” one general manager said. “Maybe they have a deal in mind, maybe they’re sitting on something and laying low. But I’d be surprised. That’s not how they’d approach it, I’d think. You want to create a market if you are going to trade a player like him, you want to pit teams against each other, drive up the price. You don’t want to lock into one deal. But the market thing, that’s not really happening yet. They’re not pushing the market for him.”

What is the motivation for Golden State to move Russell now, or at the February trade deadline, as opposed to next June around the draft? Or next July? There isn’t, unless some team approaches them with a Godfather offer. This season is a lost cause for the Warriors, and next season they are going to be looking for veterans to help them win now more than rookies to develop.

Russell has averaged 22.3 points a game and played well when healthy, but he has missed half of the Warriors games so far this season due to injury. That’s not exactly boosting Russell’s trade value, another reason to be patient.

Maybe the Russell trade drama ramps up after the season ends, but for now the Warriors continue to play it cool.

People with power within Knicks reportedly “obsessed” with Masai Ujiri

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In the latest sign of dysfunction in New York, Knicks president Steve Mills and GM Scott Perry didn’t show their face and talk to the media Saturday about the firing of coach David Fizdale. Instead, they sent interim head coach Mike Miller to a podium, by himself, to talk about the situation. It was awkward. It’s also not how well-run organizations handle things.

Mills and Perry are on the hot seat — and they should be. This 4-19 Knicks season is more on them and how this roster was built than Fizdale (who was not blameless in all this).

There have been rumors owner James Dolan may go after Raptors president Masai Ujiri to take over Knicks, and that is growing into an “obsession” with influential people, reports Ian Begley of SNY.tv.

Will the Knicks have a shot at landing Ujiri? That’s unclear. But once the Knicks started struggling last month, multiple Madison Square Garden people in positions of influence have been ‘obsessed’ with – and ‘enamored’ by – the Raptors executive, per SNY sources.

In order to land Ujiri, it will probably take significant money and full autonomy.

There is no evidence that Ujiri, the man who built Toronto into a champion, would seriously consider leaving the Raptors for the Knicks.

The real key to luring Ujiri to Madison Square Garden is “full autonomy.” No Knicks president has had it. Phil Jackson was told he had it, but he wasn’t able to bring in his people who pushed out some of the entrenched staff. Sources told me that other people considered for team president have asked for the power to clean out the front office and bring in their own guys, only to learn Mills and others would remain in positions of power.

Owner James Dolan has stepped back from involving himself in basketball decisions in recent years, will he take the next step and let someone else fully run his basketball operations side without any pushback or interference internally?

One thing to watch with the Knicks going forward: Do they make any trade deadline deals? (That market really opens up soon, on Dec. 15 players signed this summer can be traded.) If New York does make a trade, is it a short-term boost kind of move designed to get wins now and maybe help save certain executive’s jobs, or are they trades focused on the long-term building of a winner? Since Jackson was in charge, the Knicks have done a good job not trading away their first-round picks, this would be a poor time to change that trend.

 

Myles Turner block, Julius Randle missed free throw with 0.1 left gives Pacers one-point win

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For the Knicks, under interim coach Mike Miller, this was a step forward. New York had been blown out by 37+ points their last two games, and that helped cost David Fizdale his job, but here they were with a chance to send the game to overtime late.

For the Pacers, this is just a win.

But that win came down to the final play — a blocked shot by Myles Turner then a missed Julius Randle free throw with 0.1 on the clock gave Indiana the 104-103 win.

“You get in those games, you’ve got to make another play and we just didn’t make another play,” Miller said, via the Associated Press. “Loved the effort. That was fun.”

A Jeremy Lamb and-1  had the Pacers up by six, 104-98, with 5:17 left. The Pacers would not score again.

What kept the Pacers alive was their defense — the Knicks shot 2-of-15 in the final 5:05 of the game, then with everything on the line Myles Turner came up with the game-saving block on Michell Robinson.

Julius Randle got the offensive rebound and was fouled when he went back up. That sent Randle — the Knicks biggest offseason signing — to the free throw line with 0.1 on the clock and the chance to force overtime. Randle hit the first, but…

There are no moral victories in the NBA, but this feels like one for New York.

For the Pacers, they will just take the win, thank you very much.

 

Russell Westbrook’s third-straight triple-double powers Rockets past Suns

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HOUSTON (AP) — On a night where James Harden‘s shots weren’t falling for three quarters, the Houston Rockets got big performances from those in supporting roles until the star stepped up late to close out the victory.

Harden scored 18 of his 34 points in the fourth quarter and Ben McLemore added 27 points to help the Rockets outlast the Phoenix Suns 115-109 on Saturday night.

Harden had a tough shooting night through three quarters and was 5 of 19 overall and 1 of 10 on 3s with 16 points before getting going in the fourth. The game was tied with about 7 minutes left, and he scored all of Houston’s points in a 13-6 run that made it 102-95.

“That’s how deep we are,” Harden said. “We have a really good team and guys that can make plays and knock down shots. More importantly we were focused on our defense.”

Russell Westbrook had 24 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists for his third straight triple-double and sixth this season. Harden finished 8 of 27, 3 of 17 on 3s and made 15 of 18 free throws.

Devin Booker led the Suns with 35 points after scoring a season-high 44 in an overtime victory at New Orleans on Thursday night.

Phoenix coach Monty Williams was proud of his team for staying in it until the very end.

“We have a mentality that we just don’t give in,” Williams said. “We’re playing young guys that are learning how to play against physical NBA men and that’s part of developing.”

The Suns cut the lead to five twice in the last 90 seconds, but both times Westbrook made a layup to extend the advantage. And the second time he was fouled on the shot and made the free throw to make it 114-106.

The Suns scored seven straight points, capped by a dunk from Kelly Oubre, to tie it at 85 with about 9 minutes left. After a timeout, Harden scored Houston’s first points in about three minutes on a layup to put Houston back on top.

It was tied again before Harden scored five points to give the Rockets a 94-89 lead. He stole the ball from Ty Jerome after that and was fouled by Booker on a drive, with Harden aggressively continuing forward and pushing Booker off the court. Harden later shoved Booker, and they both received technical fouls to the bewilderment of the Suns.

Harden made both free throws to make it seven points in a row and was fouled again after he stole the ball from Mikal Bridges. Harden made one of those free throws to make it 97-89.

“He finds a way to win the game,” Houston coach Mike D’Antoni said. “A lot of guys contributed. A lot of guys played well.”