Ten future NBA players to watch in NCAA Tournament on Thursday

Associated Press
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There is talent in this draft beyond Zion Williamson.

Not “franchise cornerstone” talent, probably not even the level of talent usually seen in slots two through six in most drafts, but there are quality future NBA players out there who will spend this weekend — and they hope the next couple of weekends — playing in the NCAA Tournament. Players that NBA fans may want to get a glimpse of now as they dream about the draft.

Here are 10 future NBA players to watch on Thursday, all expected to be part of this year’s NBA Draft (if they come out).

Ja Morant, 6’3” point guard, Murray State. You’ve seen the highlights, now it’s time to watch what he can do for a whole game. And he knows this is a showcase, that there are questions with him coming out of a small conference about what he might be able to do against better talent. Morant should be motivated might go off for 50 on Marquette.

He’s an explosive athlete, has a tremendous handle, impressive court vision and he knows how to make every pass you can think of. However, mostly he is a scorer who can get to the rim. The jumper is going to need work at the NBA level (as we can say about most guys coming out of college), it has to improve or he runs the risk of being another athletic guard everyone goes under the pick against. But he might have the second highest ceiling of anyone in this draft.

Brandon Clarke, 6’8” forward, Gonzaga. At this point, we know who Brandon Clarke is as a player, but what he brings is what a lot of teams need — a forward who can defend the three and the four, can switch onto guards, blocks shots, and plays with a high motor. He’s scoring 17 points a game in a crazy efficient way, which has turned heads this season, although his handle and jumper still need work to be NBA ready. While Clarke will get drafted behind teammate Hachimura, Clarke may be the better long-term prospect to fit in the modern NBA.

Rui Hachimura, 6’8” forward, Gonzaga. He’s averaged 20.1 points a game on 62.1 percent shooting, and he’s the guy a title contender in Gonzaga runs everything through. Hachimura has impressive athleticism and at the college level that’s enough, he just overpowers players and shows off his spin move. At the NBA level he will need more than that. There are teams that don’t have him in the lottery on their boards, he’s controversial. He doesn’t shoot the three with any confidence (he takes just one a game), his handles need work, as does his defense. He can help his cause — and maybe get a team to fall in love with him — with a strong tournament.

Bruno Fernando, 6’10” center, Maryland. Watch Maryland against Belmont and you will see an NBA-style center at work — a big man who can sprint the floor and rim run, who sets good picks, can roll to the basket, and defensively is a big body in the paint who can block a few shots and alter more. In the modern NBA, there is a role for this kind of center, but it’s shrinking, he needs a midrange jumper at the least to stay on the court and have real value at the next level. However, against Belmont in the first game of the NCAA Tournament, he should have his way in the paint.

P.J. Washington, 6’8” forward, Kentucky. UPDATE: He will not play in the opening game due to a sprained foot.

NBC’s own Rob Dauster said on the PBT Podcast last week he thought Washington would be the best pro out of this Kentucky class. He’s not the guy that blows you away with elite athleticism (despite a 43-inch vertical), but has a 7’3” wingspan, is physical in the paint and getting space, and plays a high IQ game that opposing coaches have said make him tough to go against. Why scouts like him is you can see a stretch four in his game, Washington shot 41.9 percent from three. He may not have a monster NCAA tournament game, but he will do things that help the Wildcats win.

Keldon Johnson, 6’6” wing, Kentucky. If Kentucky can get Abilene Christian out and running on Thursday (and Kentucky should be able to do whatever it wants in this first-round matchup), Johnson will put up some highlights. He’s fantastic in transition, or anytime he is playing downhill because he is a classic slasher. He also has a solid jump shot. What NBA scouts will want to see from him is improved defense and, as the tournament moves on, how he matches up against other top wings.

• Naz Reid, 6’10” center, LSU. There are questions about whether he should come out (he’s a second round pick right now), but with LSU getting caught up in the FBI recruiting scandal he may decide not to return. If so, he needs a big tournament to convince teams to take a shot with him. He needs to find a team that will fall in love with his potential — and he has that. He can put the ball on the floor, shot better than 35 percent from three, has a good touch, and is the kind of big who could grab the board and bring the ball up himself. The challenge is he has seemed disinterested in defense (and occasionally offense) this season. Does he love basketball? Will he put in the work to reach that potential? If not he will not stick, just okay centers are a dime a dozen in the NBA right now.

Eric Paschall, 6’7” forward, Villanova. NBA scouts look at Paschall and see a potential NBA role player: He’s athletic, has good elevation on a jump shot that has come together, he’s a switchable defender who can guard twos through fours, and he comes out of the Villanova system so coaches trust he’s learned how to play the right way. A good tournament, followed by strong workouts for teams, could see him climb up in the draft higher than the early-to-mid 20s range he’s at now.

• Ignas Brazdeikis, 6’7” power forward, Michigan. He needs to show scouts he has the athleticism to stick in the NBA. He has the shooting touch to play at the next level — he can hit threes, he can score inside and finish with either hand, plus he’s got a good midrange game. There is potential as a stretch four. But the lack of athleticism leads to serious questions about his defense and who he would guard at the next level. Brazdeikis is a freshman and a likely second-round pick if he comes out, which would mean no guaranteed contract. He may want to stay in Ann Arbor another year or two.

• Jordan Poole, 6’5″ combo guard, Michigan. While there are teams that like him, Poole needs a good tournament to convince at least one team he should go in the first round (if not he may well return to Michigan). He’s a good shooter coming out of John Beilein’s system where he was asked to take and make a lot of threes. He can do that, and he can keep the ball moving on offense. He feels like a microwave scorer teams could bring off the bench to get a flurry of points. That said he needs to drive a little more, be a more consistent playmaker, and remember that every shot is not a good shot.

Jimmy Butler returns, hits clutch shots to lift Heat past Celtics

Miami Heat v Boston Celtics
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BOSTON (AP) — Bam Adebayo scored 28 points, Tyler Herro had 26 and the Miami Heat completed a split of two games in Boston, beating the Celtics 120-116 on Friday night after Jaylen Brown banked in a long 3-pointer to force overtime.

Heat leading scorer Jimmy Butler returned to the lineup and had 25 points in 36 minutes after missing the previous seven games with a sore right knee. He added 15 rebounds.

“Obviously having JB back is big time for us,” Herro said. “He helps us in so many different ways.”

Kyle Lowry chipped in with 20 points before fouling out in OT for the Heat, who sent Boston to just its second loss in 16 games.

“My team welcomed me back and let me do what I do,” Butler said. “It was a big `W’ for the team.”

Brown sent the game to overtime by banking in his long 3 with 1.7 seconds to play in regulation. He finished with 37 points.

“It felt good coming off my hand,” Brown said. “I know we wanted to get a shot up off the rim as fast as possible, just in case we missed we could get a rebound, a tip out.”

The Celtics had won 10 straight at TD Garden.

Boston star Jayson Tatum scored just 14 points on a cold shooting night, going 5 of 18 from the floor, including 0 of 7 on 3-point attempts. He had 49 points in the Celtics’ 134-121 victory on Wednesday night.

“That’s the biggest thing about the league; you’re not going to stop anybody from just scoring,” Adebayo said. “I feel like (we’re) making him take tough shots every time we play him and living with the result.”

Butler hit a clutch jumper over Al Horford, making it 110-107 with 5.1 seconds left in regulation before Brown took a pass near midcourt, dribbled to his right and nailed his shot.

In OT, the teams were tied twice before Butler nailed a foul-line jumper over Horford with 1:45 left, but Brown hit two free throws to tie it.

Adebayo nailed two free throws and, after Tatum misfired on a 3, Butler hit a jumper to seal it.

“Jimmy made two tough, tough baskets,” Brown said. “That’s just a credit to his work and his skill and his development. He gets going in games like this; on the road in a hostile environment. … Tonight, two shots that in our defensive scheme we could live with, but Jimmy a big-time player made both of them.”

Unlike Wednesday, when shots were open more and both teams were making them effectively (each shot over 50%), defense was tighter and it resembled more of the postseason matchup last season between the pair that went seven games before Boston captured the Eastern Conference title.

Anthony Davis scores 44, outduels Antetokounmpo (40) leading Lakers past Bucks

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MILWAUKEE (AP) — Anthony Davis and LeBron James tore apart the NBA’s top-rated defense and gave Los Angeles Lakers coach Darvin Ham a triumphant return to Milwaukee.

Davis scored a season-high 44 points and James passed Magic Johnson on the NBA’s career assists list Friday night in the Lakers’ thrilling 133-129 victory over the Bucks.

It marked Ham’s first game in Milwaukee since taking over as Lakers coach after working as an assistant on Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer’s staff from 2018-22.

Ham and Budenholzer shared a big hug before the game.

“It was a beautiful night,” said Ham, who also played for the Bucks from 1999-2002.

It also was quite a night for Davis, a Green Bay Packers fan who delivered his big performance with Aaron Rodgers in the stands. Davis spoke with the Packers’ four-time MVP quarterback before and after the game.

“I saw him before the game and he said, `I need 30 tonight,”‘ Davis said. “I just saw him and he said, `I only said 30, not 40.’ It’s always good for him to come out and watch the Lakers play.”

James made a tiebreaking 3-pointer with 3:22 left and finished with 28 points, 11 assists and eight rebounds. He upped his career assist total to 10,144 and moved into sixth place, ahead of Johnson’s 10,133.

“It means a lot, obviously,” James said. “The way Magic approached the game, it was very infectious. His teammates loved playing with him because of the joy he played with and the ability to pass the ball and get other guys involved. He was always excited about seeing his teammates be great. I always admired that in him. What’s even more humbling and super duper cool is the fact that I’m doing it in a Laker uniform and knowing how much Magic means to the Laker franchise.”

The Lakers had the highest point total and field-goal percentage (.536) the Bucks had allowed all season. Milwaukee entered Friday with the NBA’s top defensive rating.

“It was too easy, too easy, too easy,” Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo said. “They were living in the paint. That’s not who we are.”

Los Angeles withstood a 40-point performance from Antetokounmpo, who also had seven rebounds and five assists.

The Lakers also spoiled the 2022-23 debut of Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, who had 17 points and seven assists in his return from offseason wrist surgery.

Milwaukee missed two potential tying 3-pointers in the final 20 seconds.

After Davis missed a fadeaway jumper, the Bucks called a timeout with 21.4 seconds left and then found an open Grayson Allen, whose 3-point attempt went off the side of the rim.

The Lakers’ Russell Westbrook missed two free throws with 13.3 seconds remaining, but Jrue Holiday couldn’t connect on a 3-pointer with just over five seconds left. Davis made a clinching free throw with 4.5 seconds left.

“Grayson got a good look,” Budenholzer said. “Good execution. Good screening. We’ll live with that shot all the time. And Jrue, similar. We got the kick ahead, playing against a defense that’s not set. Jrue, kind of a good rhythm shot for him. It was contested, but Jrue was 6 of 12 tonight (from 3-point range). He was feeling it.”

Holiday had 28 points for the Bucks, and Bobby Portis added 15 points and 10 rebounds. Westbrook had 15 points, 11 assists and seven rebounds for the Lakers.

Hawks’ Collins out weeks with sprained ankle, Hunter also at least a week

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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ATLANTA (AP) — The Atlanta Hawks will be without both of their starting forwards for at least the next three games.

John Collins will miss at least the next two weeks with a sprained left ankle and De'Andre Hunter will be sidelined for at least one week with a right hip flexor strain, the Hawks said Thursday.

Both departed with injuries during Wednesday night’s win over Orlando. Hunter played only seven minutes and Collins was hurt after a dunk that didn’t count at the halftime buzzer.

Hunter is third on the Hawks in scoring at 14.9 points per game, and Collins is fourth at 12.3 points.

Hunter, a fourth-year player out of Virginia, has yet to play a full season because of various injuries.

Draymond Green wants to play 4-5 more years, ideally with Warriors, not stressed about contract

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Jordan Poole got a contract extension from the Warriors this summer. So did Andrew Wiggins.

Draymond Green did not — and he punched Poole and was away from the team for a time.

All this has led to speculation about the future of Green in Golden State. He has a $27.6 million player option for next season, but he could become a free agent this summer. With the Warriors’ payroll through the roof — Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are on max extensions, Poole and Wiggins just got paid, and contract extensions for Jonathan Kuminga and the rest of the young players are coming — there are questions about how long Green will be in the Bay Area.

In an open and honest interview with Marc Spears of ESPN’s Andscape, Green talked about everything from his relationship with Poole after the punch to his future. Here are a few highlights:

“I want to play another four or five more years. That would be enough for me.”

“You can look around the NBA right now. There are five guys that’s been on a team for 11 years-plus. We have three of them [along with Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson]. It’s a very rare thing. There’s 470, 480 players in the NBA? There are five guys that’s been with his team for 11 years plus. That’s amazing. So, you don’t just give that away. So, absolutely I’d be interested in that.”

On rumors he wants to play with LeBron James and the Lakers: “I never said that. People can say what they want. I’m also not really one to react much to what one may say. I react to things when I want to react to it. I don’t react to things just because somebody said it.”

Is he worried about his next contract: “No, not at all. I have a great agent [Rich Paul]. The best agent in the business. That’s why you align yourself with an incredible agent, because they handle the business. I play basketball. That’s what I want.”

I don’t doubt there is mutual interest in Green staying with the Warriors, the question is at what price. It’s not a max. As for the threat of him bolting, Green is still an elite defender and secondary playmaker, but it’s fair to wonder what the free agent market would look like for him. Green is not the scoring threat he once was, and his unique skill set is not a plug-and-play fit with every roster and system (does he really fit on the Lakers, for example).

The conventional wisdom around the league right now is that Green will opt into the final year of his contract with the Warriors — especially if they make another deep playoff run — because that level of money is not out there for him. That said, it only takes one owner to fall in love with the idea and send his GM out to get the deal done. The market may be there for him after all, or he may be open to the security of three or four years with another team but at a lower per-year dollar amount.

Green also talks about his relationship with Poole in the Q&A and makes it sound professional and business-like. Which is all it has to be, but it’s not the “playing with joy” model the Warriors are built upon.