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.”

LeBron James forcefully shoots down idea he came to Los Angeles for showbiz

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LeBron James is a smart man, one who knows what his empire is built upon:

Basketball.

And him being better than anyone else in the world at it.

While his post-career life is in Los Angeles — his production company has “The Wall” on NBC, is in the early stages of putting together an NBC comedy about the family life of Ben Simmons, is producing “The Shop” on HBO, is making “Space Jam 2” with LeBron as the star, and more — do not suggest to LeBron that might get in the way of basketball.

“I’m a basketball player. I play ball, that’s what I do,” LeBron said earlier in his press conference. “That’s what I live by and when I do it at the level I do it at everything else takes care of itself.

“As far as my business, those things have been taking care of themselves long before I came out here to be part of the Lakers franchise.”

LeBron is right about that. His production company — led by Maverick Carter — has been working on Space Jam for a couple of years now, and if LeBron had decided to stay in Cleveland or sign in Philadephia or anywhere else that project would still be going forward. They’d still be filming next summer in the off-season, regardless of where he played.

LeBron is very good at compartmentalizing his life. The great ones are. Kobe Bryant had side projects, but it never slowed down the effort he put into the game. Same is going on right now with Stephen Curry and James Harden. Michael Jordan did it before them, and Magic Johnson before him. Those guys have brands that are empires of their own now, but they all know what the foundation of that success is.

And they don’t let anything get in the way of basketball. Not like that.

Enes Kanter: ‘When I think about playoffs, my nipples get hard’

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The Knicks season should be about laying a foundation. They’ll remain patient with their best player, Kristaps Porzingis, returning from injury. They said they won’t trade draft picks.

But they’ve also paid enough lip service to competing this season to, um, excite Enes Kanter.

SNY:

We’ll be sure to check in on the softness of Kanter’s nipples when the Knicks miss the playoffs by dozens of games.

Tom Thibodeau says he expect Jimmy Butler to report to Timberwolves if not traded within week

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Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor reportedly ordered team president Tom Thibodeau to trade Jimmy Butler, who is excused from participating in media day and training camp (apparently because of his hand injury).

But Thibodeau isn’t rushing to proclaim Butler will be dealt.

Chris Hine of the StarTribune:

Kent Youngblood of the StarTribune:

If Butler isn’t traded in the next week, this could get incredibly awkward. Would Butler report? If he does, how would Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins each react?

I expect this to be moot. The odds are stacked highly in favor of Minnesota dealing Butler soon.

But, now, there’s a close deadline with even more drama looming on the other side.

LeBron James: Lakers ‘long way’ from Warriors

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The Lakers’ front office insists they’re trying to beat the Warriors.

Los Angeles’ newest star, LeBron James, isn’t there yet.

“We’ve got a long way to go to get to Golden State,” LeBron said. “They can pick up right where they left off.

“We’re picking up from scratch. So, we have a long way to go. … Hopefully, someday, we can put ourselves in a position where we can compete for a championship, as Golden State has done for the last few years.”

How will LeBron – who has won three titles in the last seven years and reached the NBA Finals the last eight years – react if the Lakers aren’t on that level this season?

“I don’t believe the only thing of success in marking a season is winning a championship,” LeBron said. “There’s only one champion. But that doesn’t mean you’re not successful.”

LeBron has made similar arguments before, and I agree with him. Championships are the most important measure of team success, but they’re not the only measure. There are plenty of ways for teams to satisfactorily grow and compete in a season.

But this sure didn’t sound like the same LeBron who said in June of the Cavaliers’ 2016 title, “It made me even more hungry to continue to try to win championships, and I still want to be in championship mode.” A key storyline in Los Angeles will be whether/when LeBron regains that hunger.