Ten future NBA players to watch Friday in NCAA Tournament

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Zion Williamson is something special.

However, there is talent is this upcoming NBA Draft class beyond him. Not “franchise cornerstone” talent, maybe not even the kind of talent usually seen in slots two through six in most drafts, but there are quality future NBA players who will spend this weekend — and they hope the next couple of weekends — playing in the NCAA Tournament. Players NBA fans may want to get a glimpse of now.

Here are 10 future NBA players to watch on Friday, starting with the big three from Duke (because you’re going to watch them anyway).

• Zion Williamson, 6’7” forward, Duke. Multiple NBA front office people have told me he is their highest rated prospect since Anthony Davis (some put Karl-Anthony Towns in there, too).

Williamson is an insane athlete, strong (lots of Larry Johnson build comparisons), can leap out of the building, but also shows a point guard’s feel for the game and he defends very well. His shot is improved but needs to get to an NBA level, however, with his work ethic it should come along. What some scouts like best: He plays hard, he doesn’t just coast on all that natural talent.

Cam Reddish, 6’8” wing, Duke. His stock has slipped a little lately, but he’s still a top-five selection. When Williamson was out a lot of watchers expected Reddish to thrive, instead he was inconsistent. He shows flashes that has coaching thinking “if he just…” because he’s an explosive but fluid athlete, he can space the floor as a shooter, he’s long and can defend, and he can create a little off the dribble (although his handle needs work). There are backers that think he’ll be better in an NBA system where there is better floor spacing, and once he gets stronger.

R.J. Barrett, 6’7” wing, Duke. With all the talent on this roster, Barrett is the guy Coach K runs the offense through, which should tell you a lot. He was incredibly efficient this season: He averaged better than 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists in a game, and as Sam Vecenie of the Athletic said, the last guy with those numbers in college was Penny Hardaway. How his game fits in the NBA, where he will play more of a role, will be the test. Barrett likely goes No. 2 or 3 in this draft, but as NBC’s own Rob Dauster said if he was in last year’s draft he might be 7 or 8. How will he handle those raised expectations?

• De’Andre Hunter, 6’8” wing, Virginia. He has been shooting up draft boards all season long because he is one of the best defensive players in this draft, he’s got good athleticism, he’s physical and long at 6’8” with a 7’2” wingspan. He’s not going to be a future superstar, but what he can be is a quality starter/rotation player who is a defensive stopper and can knock down threes (better than 45 percent from deep this season) and score some as needed on the offensive end. He is a willing role player, and likely a top 5 pick.

Jarrett Culver, 6’6” wing, Texas Tech. He passes the eye test for an NBA wing, he can shoot from the outside (that has improved), he can put the ball on the floor and get inside, and he plays a high IQ game. You’re not going to find a guy with a better feel for the game in this draft, and he likely shows that off in the tournament. The primary concern is he’s not an explosive, elite athlete and on the wing in the NBA that’s what he’s going to be up against nightly.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, 6’5” guard, Virginia Tech. He’s a guard who over a couple of years has learned to let the game come to him a little, something he needs to do because he’s not an explosive athlete. However, he can shoot the rock (nearly 40 percent from three), is an improved playmaker off the pick-and-roll, gets boards, and is just a steady player. Scouts will be watching his defense during the tournament, it’s been an issue although he has improved. There is an NBA rotation swingman in his game if he keeps working.

Cameron Johnson 6’9” forward, North Carolina. In every draft, one of the best shooters falls farther than they should because teams fall in love with the potential of other players and overlook the guys who can just put the ball in the hole. Johnson also is a senior, often a strike against guys in the draft. But watch him this weekend — he’s a forward who is one of the best pure shooters in the draft (46.5 percent from three) who knows how to get in position and hit shots in big games (23 against Duke in the ACC Tournament). There are questions about his defense, something scouts will be watching as the Tar Heels move through the tournament.

Coby White, 6’5” guard, North Carolina. The more scouts and GMs have watched UNC play this season, the more Nassir Little has fallen down draft boards and White has climbed up them. White is lightning quick and used that and a good jumper to get a lot of points, but as the season has moved along he’s become an improved playmaker (his decision making still needs to improve, but he’s on the right track). He’s impressive in transition and loves to push the ball, but in any setting when he gets playing downhill he’s hard to stop. Can play the one or the two. There’s a lot to like here.

Grant Williams, 6’7” power forward, Tennessee. He’s a physical, nasty player, something that certain NBA franchises are drawn to in prospect. He can hit the three well enough that defenders have to respect it (he hits about a third of his threes, although that percentage needs to go up) but his game is really playing some bully ball around the rim. He is strong and plays smart angles down on the block. How he fits in the NBA game is a question worth asking, but he plays hard and those kinds of guys tend to find a way.

• Matisse Thybulle, 6’5” wing, Washington. He’s a potential defensive stopper, the guy you throw on the best perimeter player of the other team and know the job will get done. The kind of player coaches love. Thybulle gets steals, he blocks shots well for a guard, and he’s not just good on ball he’s a smart help defender. That we know. On offense, he can shoot fairly well but doesn’t really seek out his own shot. It’s the offensive end scouts will be watching, because if he can be good enough you just have to be careful helping off him then Thybulle is an NBA rotation player.

Watch Kawhi Leonard score two clutch buckets, including game-winner, in his return

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Kawhi Leonard looked rusty in his return for the first 47 minutes Monday night: 5-of-13 shooting, 0-3 from beyond the arc.

But that final minute was special.

First, there was a great hustle play from Paul George — also making his return — that got the ball to Leonard to tie it up.

Then, after a stop, the Clippers got the switch they wanted, cleared out the side and let Leonard go to work on the game-winner.

Los Angeles picked up the 119-117 win on the road. Not exactly pretty, but for a team just starting to get healthy and build some chemistry, they showed resilience and got the win. Leonard finished with 16 points on 7-of-15 shooting, and George looked sharp on his way to 19 points on 8-of-15 from the floor. It was a balanced Clippers attack, which is what Tyronn Lue is trying to build.

Kelly Oubre Jr. scored 28 and P.J. Washington added 26 for the shorthanded Hornets.

James Harden returns to 76ers Monday night, is on minutes restriction

Minnesota Timberwolves v Philadelphia 76ers
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The 76ers were able to keep their heads above water. For 14 games, James Harden was out with a right foot tendon sprain — both Joel Embiid and Tyrese Maxey missed games in that stretch as well (Maxey remains out) — and Philadelphia went 8-6 with a +2.9 net rating and the best defense in the NBA over that stretch.

Monday night in Houston, Harden returns.

This wasn’t a surprise, nor is the fact Doc Rivers confirmed Harden will be on a minutes restriction at first.

Harden averaged 22 points, 10 assists and seven rebounds a game before his injury, and while his 3-point shooting percentage was down (33.3%) he was still efficient and finding his footing as more of a facilitator than scorer.

The 76ers are 12-11 on the season and sit in a three-way tie for fifth in the East (with the Pacers and Raptors). If Harden can spark the Philadephia offense there is plenty of time for them to climb into the top four, host a first-round playoff game and position themselves for a deep playoff run. But it starts with getting their starting guards healthy again.

Harden is ready to take that on.

Trae Young frustrated ‘private conversations get out to the public’ about missed game

Atlanta Hawks v Philadelphia 76ers
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Rumors and chatter of tension in Atlanta — about how Trae Young was adapting to playing with Dejonte Murray, and his pushback on coach Nate McMillan and his efforts to get the ball moving more — have been all over the league since the start of the season. Over the weekend, a little of that leaked out, with reports Young chose not to come to the arena Friday after McMillan gave him a choice of participating in shootaround or missing the game.

Young addressed the report and seemed more concerned that it got out than the report’s content.

“I mean, it was just a situation. I mean, we’re all grown men here and there’s sometimes we don’t always agree. And it’s unfortunate that private situations and private conversations get out to the public, but I guess that’s the world we live in now. Yeah, I’m just gonna just focus on basketball and focus on helping my team win. And that’s what I got to be focusing on…

“Like I said, it’s a private matter, again, made public, which is unfortunate. And if it was to stay private, it probably wouldn’t have been as big of a deal. But like I said, it’s unfortunate in my job, and my goal is to win championships. And that’s what I focus on.”

Young went through shootaround  Monday and is set to play against the Thunder.

Murray has been professional throughout this situation, saying he didn’t see anything at the shootaround Friday and backing Young and McMillan when asked.

Bringing in Murray was supposed to take some pressure off Young and spread the wealth more on offense, ideally allowing Young to be more efficient. Instead, Young’s usage rate is nearly identical to last season, he is shooting just 30.3% from 3 and his true shooting percentage has fallen below league average. The Hawks as a team make the fewest passes per game of any team in the league (stat via NBA.com). The Hawks’ offense is still a lot of Young, but it’s not as efficient as it has been in years past.

Atlanta is still 13-10 on the season, has a top-10 defense and sits fourth in the East — they are not struggling. But neither have they made the leap to become a team that could threaten Boston or Milwaukee atop the conference, and that’s what the Hawks expected.

There could be personnel moves coming in Atlanta — John Collins is available via trade, again — but if the Hawks can’t smooth out their internal, existing concerns (and get Collins and DeAndre Hunter healthy) other roster moves will be just cosmetic.

Nike, Kyrie Irving part ways, making him a sneaker free agent

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
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Here’s the positive spin for Kyrie Irving: He will have the chance to remake his situation into something he’s more comfortable with during 2023. As a player, he will be an unrestricted free agent and can choose where he wants to play in coming seasons (how many teams are interested and for how many years will be interesting to see).

Irving also is a sneaker free agent — Nike has cut ties with him, reports Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Irving is happy with this.

The separation is not a surprise. Nike suspended its relationship with Irving after he Tweeted out support for an antisemitic film, did not apologize (at first), and was suspended by the Nets. Here was the company’s statement at that time:

“At Nike, we believe there is no place for hate speech and we condemn any form of antisemitism. To that end, we’ve made the decision to suspend our relationship with Kyrie Irving effective immediately and will no longer launch the Kyrie 8. We are deeply saddened and disappointed by the situation and its impact on everyone.”

Nike founder Phil Knight said it was likely the end of the company’s relationship with Irving.

That’s not a small thing by Nike, Irving has had a signature shoe line since 2014 and is reported to have a deal with Nike worth more than $10 million a season because his shoes are popular. However, his contract with the shoe giant was set to end in October 2023, and there had been reports Nike did not plan to extend that deal before this current controversy started.

Nike is already looking in a new direction, at Ja Morant.

Irving now has the chance to choose his new direction.