Associated Press

Ten future NBA players to watch in NCAA Tournament on Thursday

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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.

Referee bumps into waitress, tray of drinks spilled on court during Blazers game

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Katy Stevens has been a courtside server at Trail Blazers games for more than a decade — but this year has been unlike any other.

Back in December, LeBron James knocked her over, then helped her back up.

Then on Friday night, veteran referee Tony Brown backed into her and spilled an entire tray of drinks onto the court.

Let me say, as a guy who waited tables/bartended through college and a little while after — that job is hard. Katy is earning her money, and I felt terrible for her. I was not alone, as NBC Sports Northwest noted.

It was a rough night all the way around in the Moda Center. Portland, without Damian Lillard due to a groin injury, fell to the Pelicans 128-115 in a contest between two teams trying to catch Memphis for the final seed in the West (and the Grizzlies lost to the Lakers Friday).

Watch LeBron James score 32; Anthony Davis’ big second half lift Lakers past Grizzlies

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — LeBron James scored 32 points, Anthony Davis recovered from an early injury scare to get 28 points and 13 rebounds, and the Los Angeles Lakers returned from the All-Star break with a 117-105 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday night.

Avery Bradley added 14 points for the Western Conference-leading Lakers, who finished strong after blowing most of their 25-point lead accumulated in a superb first half. Davis had 14 points and seven rebounds in the fourth quarter as Los Angeles improved to 42-12 with its fourth straight win since Feb. 6.

Josh Jackson scored a season-high 20 points for the Grizzlies, who have lost back-to-back games in California after heading into the All-Star break with eight wins in 10. Ja Morant added 17 points as Memphis dropped to 0-2 on its four-game West Coast trip, which matches its longest road stretch of the season.

Davis departed less than two minutes after the opening tip when he bruised his right calf on an opponent’s knee. The All-Star went to the locker room and missed the rest of the first quarter, but returned early in the second before scoring 24 points in the second half.

Although James, Davis and Dwight Howard were busy in Chicago over the break, the Lakers returned with impressive defensive focus across the roster. Los Angeles held Memphis to 15-for-38 shooting and forced 11 turnovers in the first half to jump to a 19-point lead.

The Grizzlies trimmed the lead to four points early in the fourth quarter with a prolonged surge. The Lakers hung on with a series of big plays, including a jaw-dropping rebound dunk by Alex Caruso off a missed free throw by Davis with 6:16 to play.

James clinched it with a driving layup followed by a gorgeous fadeaway jumper with 1:12 left. Davis then hit his second 3-pointer in the final minute.

The Lakers improved to 3-0 against the Grizzlies this season. They meet again in Memphis on Feb. 29.

 

Pilot in Kobe Bryant helicopter crash had FAA reprimand for flying in reduced visibility

Image courtesy Kurt Helin
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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The pilot of a helicopter that crashed into a Southern California hillside, killing Kobe Bryant and eight others, was reprimanded five years ago for flying without permission into airspace while he had reduced visibility, according to a Federal Aviation Administration enforcement record.

Ara Zobayan was counseled by an FAA investigator after he violated FAA rules by crossing into busy airspace near Los Angeles International Airport on May 11, 2015, according to the record, which was first reported Friday by the Los Angeles Times.

The record doesn’t indicate whether Zobayan was carrying any passengers at the time.

Zobayan, 50, died Jan. 26 when his helicopter plunged at high speed into a hillside in Calabasas, northwest of Los Angeles. Zobayan had been trying to climb above a cloud layer when the aircraft banked left and plunged 1,200 feet (366 meters) at high speed. There has been speculation that the pilot became disoriented in the foggy weather. The crash remains under investigation.

The crash also killed Bryant and his 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, along with six others. The victims will be honored at a Feb. 24 public memorial at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

At the time, Zaboyan was chief pilot for the charter service Island Express Helicopters Inc.

He was flying for the same company during the 2015 incident.

According to the FAA report, Zobayan’s helicopter was near the Hawthorne, California, airport and heading north when he asked the LAX tower for permission to cross LAX airspace. Zobayan was told that weather conditions didn’t meet the minimum for pilots using visual flight rules — that is, flying by sight.

Zaboyan was asked whether he could maintain “VFR conditions.”

Zaboyan replied that he could “maintain special VFR” — meaning he sought permission to fly by sight in less-than-optimal visibility.

When air traffic control denied the request and told him to stay clear of the area, Zobayan replied that he could “maintain VRF” but during the conversation, the helicopter entered the airspace, according to the record.

Zobayan contacted authorities and his company after the incident and was cooperative. But an FAA investigator faulted him for failing to properly plan and review current weather at LAX, which would have allowed him time to communicate earlier with the tower in order to receive clearance, according to the record.

The report said Zobayan “admitted his error, took responsibility for his action, and was willing to take any other necessary steps toward compliance.”

“There are no indications that this is a repeated incident and there are no signs that this incident is a trend with Mr. Zobayan,” the report said.

Zobayan was counseled “on operating in Class B airspace, special VFR weather minimums, proper planning, reviewing weather, and anticipating required action,” the report said. “He was cooperative and receptive to the counseling.”

Island Express Helicopters Inc, reported that it conducted additional ground and flight training with Zaboyan.

Veteran helicopter pilots were divided over the severity of the FAA violation, the Times reported.

“I don’t know a single pilot out there who hasn’t violated a rule,” Shawn Coyle said. “If that’s the only violation he’s ever had then I would say he’s pretty safe.”

But former Island Express pilot Kurt Deetz said entering LAX airspace without approval can be dangerous because of the possible presence of commercial jets. He also questioned Zaboyan’s communication with air traffic controllers.

“You can’t request special VFR and then they deny you and you say, ‘Oh wait a minute, actually I’m VFR’, ” he told the Times. “That’s not how it works. It shows that perhaps his understanding of special VFR as opposed to VFR was cloudy.”

Watch Zion Williamson score 25, lead Pelicans to crucial win vs. Trail Blazers

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PORTLAND, Ore. (AP) — Zion Williamson had 25 points for his seventh straight game with at least 20 points, and the New Orleans Pelicans beat the short-handed Portland Trail Blazers 128-115 on Friday night.

The No. 1 draft pick was playing in just his 11th game after a right knee injury sidelined him for the first half of the season.

The Pelicans, who led by as many as 22 points, have won four of their last five games.

The Blazers, who have lost three straight, were without Damian Lillard, who is expected to miss three or more games because of a groin injury that occurred in Memphis last week. It kept Lillard out of the All-Star Game and the 3-point contest last weekend.

Lillard is averaging a career-high 29.5 points and 7.8 assists per game. His absence hurts the Blazers, who went into the game 3.5 games back of Memphis for eighth in the Western Conference standings.

And it’s not just Lillard: Portland had only nine players available for the game.

CJ McCollum took over as point guard and finished with 27 points and 10 assists. Hassan Whiteside added 19 points and 12 rebounds.

The Pelicans were among four teams, along with the Blazers, fighting for those last playoff berths with just a third of the season left. Coach Alvin Gentry said he’s treating the last 27 games like a college season.

“We want to play to get into a tournament. We want a high seed. Those are the things that we’ve talked about. Obviously, we have to play good basketball,” Gentry said.

The Pelicans also won the previous three meetings this season with Portland. Earlier this month in New Orleans, Williamson had 31 points and nine rebounds in a 138-117 victory over the Blazers.

Williamson, who played just one season at Duke before going pro, went into the game against the Blazers averaging 22.1 points and 7.5 rebounds.

His streak of games with 20-plus points is the longest among NBA rookies this season. And he was the first player since Michael Jordan to have 20 or more in eight of his first 10 NBA games.

Lonzo Ball’s 3-pointer put the Pelicans up 29-17 in the opening quarter. But the Blazers closed within 40-38 early in the second on Whiteside’s dunk. It was as close as Portland could get, and Williamson’s dunk gave New Orleans a 54-46 lead.

Williamson’s layup pushed the Pelicans’ advantage to 65-50 and New Orleans led 73-63 going into halftime. He led all players with 19 points.

Consecutive jumpers from Carmelo Anthony and Whiteside’s dunk pulled Portland within 80-75 in the third quarter. The Pelicans pulled away with a 12-0 run to head to the fourth with 102-83 lead.

Portland closed the gap a bit in the fourth when back-to-back 3-pointers from Trevor Ariza and McCollum got the Blazers within 114-105. Jrue Holiday‘s 3 and Ball’s layup extended New Orleans’ lead again and fans at the Moda Center headed for the exits.

Holiday finished with 20 points and nine assists.