NBA prospects in NCAA Tournament: Seven guys to watch Friday/Sunday

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The NCAA Tournament, with its orgy of games the first weekend, is a hoops junkie’s dream. It is also when a lot of fans of an NBA team fall in love with a particular player they hope their team can draft come June. NBA scouts and GMs already have far more formulated opinions on players by this point; they want to see how players so against better competition, and under the pressure of a lose-and-go-home situation.

Here seven NBA prospects to keep an eye on from the Thursday/Saturday games. 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.

We have to start with the likely No. 1 pick.

1) Jahlil Okafor, Duke. He’s as skilled a post player and scorer as you’ll ever find at age 19 — he is going to put up points as a rookie in the NBA. Where he’s improved as this season has worn on is his recognition and passing out of double teams. Where he continues to struggle is the defensive end of the floor.

From Ed Isaacson:  “We may have to go all the way back to Tim Duncan to see someone with such a pure, back-to-the-basket post game that Okafor has. He’s ready. Whoever ends up picking him he’ll come in and he’ll do well right away, at least as a scorer. What Okafor is really missing is that mean streak. It comes out once in a while, but on defense he really needs to learn to be a battler.”

2) Montrezl Harrell, Louisville. He’s a bit undersized at the four in the NBA, he doesn’t have a steady jump shot, his post game lacks polish, yet this is a guy that fans will gravitate toward — he plays hard every possession. Energy is a skill and Harrell has that, and it will help him at the next level.

From Rob Dauster: “No one in college basketball plays as hard or with as much emotion as Harrell. He’s an aggressive rebounder and a more mobile defender than he gets credit for, but at this point he doesn’t seem to be much more than an undersized four with a mediocre jumper and a limited post game. I think he has a future in the league in a Kenneth Faried kind of role.”

3) Justin Anderson, Virginia. He’s a junior swingman and a highly-regarded prospect who never seemed to put the entire package together at Virginia. He’s athletic and and can defend, he also can finish at the rim. His jumper has been up and down over the years, but it’s something he seemed to work on this season.

From Rob Dauster: “I don’t know if Anderson is going to be a first round pick, but I think he has quite a future in a 3-and-D role at the next level. He’s a terrific athlete that has played his college ball in a system that teaches you how to defend, before fracturing the pinky on his left (shooting) hand, Anderson was hitting 48.5 percent from three, a drastic improvement for the career 30 percent shooter. If that’s a permanent thing or just a fluky year remains to be seen.”

4) Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin. He is one of the leading candidates for national player of the year, a rock solid big man who helped lead the Badgers to a No. 1 seed. He is comfortable playing on the block or out on the perimeter, which makes him a challenging matchup.

From Ed Isaacson:  “He’s a skilled seven-footer with the ability to score in the post or from the perimeter, Kaminsky posted career highs of 55 percent from the field, and 40 percent from three-point range this past season. Though not particularly strong or quick, Kaminsky uses strong footwork and nice shooting touch to create scoring chances in the post, and his ability to shoot from the perimeter makes him a great option in pick-and-pop situations. Defensively, Kaminsky is average.… As with many seniors, there may not be a lot of upside with Kaminsky, but he is the kind of player who could contribute quickly in many different NBA offenses.”

5) Kris Dunn, Providence. He is one of the most entertaining players in the nation — he will grab a rebound and push hard from coast-to-coast, putting a lot of pressure on the defense. He can make the spectacular play, but with that comes some misques and turnovers. Finally healthy, he averaged 15.8 points, 7.6 assists and 5.6 rebounds a game this season.

From Ed Isaacson:  “I think Chris Dunn would be a fantastic backup point guard at the NBA level, or the third guard in a three guard rotation…. He’s a good ballhandler with excellent vision, Dunn can be a spectacular passer, though his decisions can often leave a lot to be desired. He thrives when Providence pushes the tempo, doing a great job getting the ball up the floor quickly and finding open teammates for easy scores. He’s not as good in the half court.”

6) Kelly Oubre, Kansas. Oubre is a bit of a project as a 6’6” wing player. He is a freak athlete (as good as anyone in this class) who is long and has potential as a jump shooter. His ceiling is insanely high. However, his handles need work, he needs time on the court to get a better feel for the game. There’s a lot of work to be done here, is he willing to put in the effort? (And how patient will the team be that drafts him?)

From Rob Dauster: “I’ve soured a bit on Oubre as a prospect as the season has gone along, but I still think that he’s worthy of being a lottery pick. His height, length, explosiveness and shooting ability are all terrific for a wing, but he’s still learning how to play. He gets lost defensively at times, his handle is suspect and at this point, he’s essentially a spot-up shooter and straight-line driver. His ceiling is higher than, say, Devin Booker, but he has longer to go to get there than I thought when I saw him in high school.”

7) Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga. He is the son of Lithuania/Soviet legend Arvydas Sabonis. He is skilled and has polished footwork, he can work out of the post or hit shots out to the arc. He’s not athletic by NBA standards, and he needs to get stronger.

From Rob Dauster: “I love Domas as a college player. He’s tough, he’s athletic, he’s aggressive on the glass, he’s really good at scoring over his right shoulder (left hand). He’s a bit of a long term prospect, but he plays extremely hard and he’s not one to back down from anyone, which are two skills that are quite valuable to have.”

Report: There is mutual interest between the Knicks, Julius Randle

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The Knicks priority this summer is big game hunting: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, maybe Kyrie Irving (if one of those first two come). They have the cap space (or can get to it easily) and the lures of New York and Madison Square Garden. They want to be players.

Whether they land a superstar or not — and right now “not” seems the more likely outcome, reading the tea leaves around the league — they will need to round out the roster with good players to fit next to rookie R.J. Barret and young prospects such as Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson.

Enter Julius Randle.

From Marc Spears of ESPN’s The Undefeated:

Other free agents on the Knicks’ radar include their own free-agent center DeAndre Jordan, Warriors center DeMarcus Cousins and twins Markieff and Marcus Morris. New Orleans Pelicans forward Julius Randle and the Knicks also have mutual interest, according to sources.

“We are going to have the opportunity to meet with the guys we want to meet with,” [Knicks president Steve] Mills said without offering details or confirming names.

Randle, just 24, has seen his stock go up in recent years and averaged 21.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game for the Pelicans last season. His game is a throwback, he uses his strength and athleticism to bully his way to buckets. He also shot 34.4 percent from three, forcing teams to respect him from the arc.

Randle could fit well with the Knicks. The question, as always, is at what price.

As for the others mentioned in the report, DeAndre Jordan may well land wherever Kevin Durant signs (they are good friends). Cousins and the Morris twins are second-tier players, meaning once the stars make their picks teams will be looking to round out rosters and those guys will start getting more and more calls. (The Warriors can only offer Cousins a little more than $6 million to return, another team will likely come in higher, but what worries teams more is the years, he very well may not get more than two.)

Drew Brees sent Zion Williamson a signed jersey that said “Passing the torch to you”

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New Orleans is a football town.

The Pelicans are trying to carve out their space in that market — and landing Zion Williamson with the No. 1 pick in the draft has helped generate the kind of excitement they need — but the Big Easy is all about the Saints. Quarterback Drew Brees is treated like a deity in that town.

Brees welcomed Williamson to town Tuesday by giving him an autographed jersey, one that read, “Passing the torch to you.” It also came with a card that said, “Zion, welcome to the family. Let’s dance.”

The best part of this is Williamson’s reaction — he is genuinely in awe. Much like when he teared up on the night of the draft (when we all knew he was going to be taken No. 1 for months), Williamson just seems humble and taken aback by everything through this process.

Masai Ujiri ‘confident’ Kawhi Leonard will return to Toronto Raptors

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TORONTO (AP) Still absorbing the magnitude of his team’s accomplishment, Raptors President Masai Ujiri is confident Kawhi Leonard and the rest of Toronto’s core will reunite next season in a bid for another title.

“We’re on to the next issue, which for us is coming back and being champions again,” Ujiri said Tuesday in his first news conference since Toronto won its first title nearly two weeks ago. “We want to experience this moment here again and again and again.”

Retaining Leonard is the most pressing issue. The two-time finals MVP is expected to opt out of the final year of his contract and become a free agent. Toronto can offer a five-year deal worth about $190 million – one year and some $50 million more than any other team.

“I know what we’ve built here,” Ujiri said. “I’m confident, and you see how these things go.”

Ujiri stressed the main selling points of his pitch to Leonard: health, trust, success.

“I said we have to be ourselves, and we were ourselves for the whole year,” Ujiri said. “I think he saw that. I think we built a trust there.

“I believe winning a championship, him seeing who we are, working with his medical staff combined with our medical staff and getting him to where he wanted to be,” Ujiri added.

Injured for all but nine games in his final season with San Antonio, Leonard played 60 games this season and another 24 in the playoffs. After averaging career bests of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the regular season, Leonard raised his averages to 30.5 and 9.1 in the playoffs.

Ujiri says he and Leonard have had multiple talks the past several days, discussions he called “positive.”

The Raptors will stay in touch and meet formally once free agency begins Sunday. After that, Ujiri is not worried about how long Leonard takes to decide.

“I texted Kawhi last night, I talked to his uncle this morning,” Ujiri said. “For us, there’s that trust regardless of wherever it goes, and there’ll be constant communication.”

Center Marc Gasol also has a player option for next season, and guard Danny Green is a free agent.

“I think they know what the effect of Kawhi’s decision is, but we’re really approaching it like we want to bring everybody back on this team,” Ujiri said. “That’s a priority for us.”

Less urgent is a potential extension for forward Pascal Siakam, a runaway winner of the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. The parties plan to meet during the summer league.

“Pascal has gotten to a place where he’s definitely a priority for us and it’s definitely going to be a conversation that we’ll have,” Ujiri said.

Ujiri said little about his confrontation with a deputy following the Game 6 clincher. The deputy’s lawyer, David Mastagni, says his client is on medical leave with a concussion and jaw injury and is considering a lawsuit.

Ujiri says his lawyers are updating him about the investigation.

“I am confident about who I am as a person, my character and as a human being,” Ujiri said. “For now, I’ll just respect their process there and wait for the next steps.”

Asked to address reports linking him to NBA job offers, Ujiri stresses that his family loves Toronto.

“My kids are Canadians,” he said. “For me, the blessing is being wanted here and finding a place that makes you happy and finding challenges that really make you grow as a person.”

As for celebrating the NBA title with political leaders, Ujiri says the team has yet to decide on a White House visit if invited. He adds that seeing Canada’s prime minister would be a “priority.”

Ujiri did have one regret Tuesday – not bringing the Larry O’Brien Trophy with him. But minutes before the news conference ended, the golden trophy arrived and was placed on the table next to him. Ujiri carried it out as he left.

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

PJ Tucker says Chris Paul-James Harden rift is ‘fake news’

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There have been reports out of the Houston Rockets organization that both James Harden and Chris Paul are upset with each other. The situation has reportedly become untenable, with Harden as the franchise cornerstone apparently hoping that general manager Daryl Morey will be able to ship Paul off somewhere else.

It was already expected that Morey would be trying to move Paul’s contract this summer. Paul has fallen off, and the rift between the two players was noticable. Still, it’s a tall task to move CP3’s deal — it’s enormous, and his skills are clearly in decline.

But at least one player things that all of this talk is just… talk.

According to Rockets swingman PJ Tucker, there aren’t big issues between Paul and Harden. In fact, speaking to The Athletic Sam Amick this week, Tucker called the supposed conflict “fake news” and that the tension after the team’s Game 6 loss to the Golden State Warriors wasn’t anything out of the ordinary given the circumstances.

Via The Athletic:

“I’m sick of the fake news man. It’s fake. Everybody – I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue.

“It was what it was. Everybody’s mad. Everybody’s pissed. You can’t – I’m sick of all the highlight of whoever this person is trying to come up with all this crap, like I argue with Chris and James more than Chris and James argue with each other. Like, I’m the center, focal (point) of the argument because I’m always yelling at somebody and they’re yelling at me. So for me, it’s like ‘If you’re not arguing…’ You don’t think Kobe and Shaq argued?”

The problem here is that reports have said that Harden is sick of Paul trying to coach the team. Meanwhile, Paul has found that Harden’s ability to generate offense for himself isn’t necessarily what he thinks is best for the squad. It’s an impasse.

And of course, Kobe and Shaq hated each other so much they broke up a dynasty. Paul and Harden don’t compare to that tandem in their prime right now, and Tucker’s example is ignoring the fact that Shaq got shipped off to the Miami Heat.

It’s possible that Tucker is giving out the information he knows to be true. It’s also possible that he’s simply being a good teammate for the Rockets. And, begrudgingly, I will admit it’s also possible that the discourse between Paul and Harden is par for the course for stars of their stature and competitive nature.

Still, I won’t hold my breath for things to get smoothed over in Houston.