Seven players for NBA fans to watch closely in NCAA Tournament

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This year’s NCAA tournament is a relative scouting dream.

Last year, three players taken in the top 10 were not in the tournament (Jalen Green and Jonathan Kuminga from the G-League Ignite, and Josh Giddey from Australia). The year before that, the Big Dance also lacked three of the top-10 players, including LaMelo Ball.

This year, the entire top 10 is taking part in the tournament (to be fair, Dyson Daniels of the G-League Ignite could crack the top 10, but it’s close). Here are seven players NBA fans should watch — and not just the top handful on the draft board, but a few guys farther down the first round as well who have come on later in the season.

1) Chet Holmgren (Gonzaga)

Gonzaga vs. Georgia State, 4:15 p.m. ET, Thursday, TNT

The term “unicorn” gets thrown around too loosely in the NBA today, any big who can shoot (and most of them can now) is suddenly a unicorn. What makes Holmgren fascinating — and why this potential No. 1 pick is divisive among scouts — is that he genuinely is one. As Jonathan Givony and Mike Schmitz recently wrote so eloquently at ESPN, Holmgren doesn’t fit any NBA archetypes, leaving questions about his fit and how his game will work at the NBA level.

Holmgren measured 7-foot without shoes on, has a 7’5″ wingspan, and has averaged 14.2 points, 9.6 rebounds and 3.6 blocks per game for one of the top teams in the nation (albeit one that plays a softer schedule). He has been a defensive force, but because of the depth and talent at Gonzaga he hasn’t been asked to be a primary shot creator every night. Still, he has shown he can do it when asked, and he competes hard.

A player that doesn’t fit a mold makes GMs uncomfortable, and in the interest of keeping their jobs they lean toward safer, more traditional picks sometimes. Holmgren also weighs less than 200 pounds at 7-foot, which leads to durability questions. But the true unicorns help teams win rings. Watch Holmgren for yourself and decide what he is.

2) Jabari Smith (Auburn)

Auburn vs. Jacksonville State, Friday, 12:40 p.m. ET, truTV

He fits the mold of a modern NBA big man that every team seeks: Big (6’10’), athletic, and can score inside or shoot the 3 (43% this season from beyond the arc). He’s averaging 17.1 points and 7 rebounds per game, plus showing great switchability and versatility on defense. He’s a good tough shot maker. Can he continue to do that as the competition gets more challenging later in the tournament for the No. 2 seed Tigers? A lot of scouts will be watching to see.

3) Jaden Ivey (Purdue)

Purdue vs. Yale, Friday, 2:00 p.m. ET, TBS

Ivey, the explosive 6’4″ point guard, will be the first backcourt player taken in this draft. He may be the best athlete in this draft, he’s got smooth handles, and he uses that to relentlessly attack defenses and the rim. His jumper is consistently improving. NBA fans will want to tune in to see one of the most entertaining players in the NCAA Tournament and a top-five pick, but watch his playmaking and passing to see if they can catch up to his physical gifts. If they do, he will be a special player at the next level, and the Tournament is where we might start to see it first.

4) Paolo Banchero (Duke)

Duke vs. Cal State Fullerton 7:10 p.m. ET, Friday, CBS

He is the most hyped player in this class and he has largely lived up to the billing, scoring 17 points and grabbing 7.8 rebounds a game. He’s got an NBA body at 6’10” and 250, and comes with guard-like ball-handling skills that allow him to get to the rim and finish.

The comp is a young Blake Griffin — the fearsome athlete but without a jump shot to speak of. Griffin developed a jumper and as a playmaker, Banchero has a long way to go down that road. He also grows disinterested on defense and has disappeared at points in Duke games. GM are cautious of players like that. NBA fans should watch to see a top-five pick, and to see which Banchero shows up.

5) AJ Griffin (Duke)

Duke vs. Cal State Fullerton 7:10 p.m. ET, Friday, CBS

Everyone is tuning in to see Banchero but, in a draft that may not have an NBA superstar at the top, watch Griffin and you will see a guy with the tools to be the best player in this class. He has an NBA wing build, at 6’6″ with a 7-foot wingspan. He may be the best pure shooter in the draft, hitting 47% of his 3-pointers and being particularly good on catch-and-shoot opportunities. He struggled to start the season, the game seemed to move too fast for the freshman, but things have slowed down. Tune in to see if he has playmaking to go with his shooting — if he can consistently create for himself and others, watch out. He has the tools, he’s young, can he live up to that potential.

6) Jeremy Sochan (Baylor)

Baylor vs. Norfolk State 2:00 p.m. ET, Thursday, TBS

He is a 6’9″ four who can grab the rebound, bring the ball up the court, and then initiate the offense — his play has helped ignite Baylor the second half of the season. He’s physical and can bang inside and score as well, and that versatility intrigues teams. Scouts will be watching to see how his style of play and game hold up as Baylor gets deeper in the tournament (Norfolk State doesn’t have the athletes to test Sochan). He’s a switchable defender who plays hard on that end. The catch is he’s not polished at all this yet — scouts are tantalized by his potential and what he could be, what he has shown flashes of, not what is right now. NBA fans should tune in to see what scouts are seeing.

7) Malaki Branham (Ohio State)

Ohio State vs. Loyola Chicago, 12:15 p.m. ET, Friday, CBS

E.J. Liddell will be the first Buckeye off the board in this draft, but combo guard Malaki Branham has come on the second half of the season and scouts — and NBA fans — should see what he can do on this bigger stage. He’s 6’5″ with good size and can score at all three levels, work off the ball, and handle some shot creation. At the next level he’s a secondary shot creator at the guard spot, but does he have the handles and decision making to really impact play at the next level? If he comes out, Branham is later in the first round, but teams are interested and watching.