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.”

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.