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.

Khris Middleton reportedly set to return to Bucks Friday vs. Lakers

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The Milwaukee Bucks are about to get better. Likely a lot better.

Which should worry the rest of the league because the Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season: A 15-5 record with the best defense in the NBA and an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Now they are about to get Khris Middleton back.

Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers, reports Adrian Wojnarowski at ESPN. Middleton had been recovering from wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly in Milwaukee, Middleton is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense — he is the ball handler in the pick-and-roll at the end of games, asked to create for himself and others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Without him so far this season, the Bucks’ halfcourt offense has struggled, ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession (via Cleaning the Glass). Overall the Bucks have a middle-of-the-pack offense because of it.

That is about to change.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, having Middleton back makes the Bucks much more dangerous. Which is bad news for the rest of the NBA.

Three things to know: It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

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Three Things is NBC’s five-days-a-week wrap-up of the night before in the NBA. Check out NBCSports.com every weekday morning to catch up on what you missed the night before plus the rumors, drama, and dunks that make the NBA must-watch.

1) It’s Killian Hayes, not Doncic, who comes up with big shots in OT

The Detroit Pistons had a two-part plan down the stretch and in overtime against Luka Doncic and the Dallas Mavericks.

First, aggressively trap Doncic out high on every pick-and-roll, make him give up the ball and dare any other Maverick to beat you.

Second, put the ball in Killian Hayes’ hands and turn him loose.

The result was Hayes hitting two clutch 3-pointers in the final 1:15 of overtime to lift the Pistons to a big 131-125 win at home over the Mavericks.

“They were switching me into a one-on-one matchup, so I knew I could get a shot off,” Hayes said via the Associated Press. “The first one felt good and the second one felt even better.”

Bojan Bogdanovic scored 30 to lead Detroit.

A frustrated Jason Kidd after the game rightfully questioned his team’s defense — Detroit, without Cade Cunningham, put up a 126 offensive rating for the night.

However, this loss speaks to the larger issue with the Mavericks.

Luka Doncic finished the night with 35 points on 50% shooting with 10 assists, but he had just seven points and two assists in the fourth quarter and overtime as the Pistons focused on getting the ball out of his hands (Doncic had the same number of points in the fourth and OT as the Pistons’ Marvin Bailey III). Nobody else on the Mavs consistently made the Pistons pay. The lack of secondary shot creation is a real issue, and while it’s nice to see Kemba Walker back in the league it’s a big ask for him to change that dynamic. The Mavericks beat the Warriors the other night, but it took a 41-point triple-double from Doncic, and that’s what it will take a lot of nights.

Doncic is playing at an MVP level this season, and against Detroit he consistently made the right basketball play in the face of double teams. But the load the Mavericks are asking of him is going to wear Doncic down over the course of the season, and it will cost the team games. The man needs some help (and it may not come until next season).

2) Bucks Khris Middleton expected to make return Friday night vs. Lakers

The Milwaukee Bucks have looked like one of the two best teams in the Association this season, compiling a 15-5 record with the best defense in the league behind an MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Giannis Antetokounmpo.

And now they are about to get a lot better.

Khris Middleton — the Bucks Olympian and All-Star forward — is set to make his season debut Friday night against the Lakers. He has missed training camp and the start of the season following wrist surgery.

Middleton averaged 20.1 points and 5.4 rebounds and assists per game last season. More importantly, he is the hub of the Bucks’ halfcourt offense, the guy with the ball in his hands to create for others in the clutch (with Antetokounmpo working off the ball and sometimes setting picks). Milwaukee’s halfcourt offense has struggled without him, they are ranked 21st in the NBA this season in points per possession in the halfcourt (via Cleaning the Glass). It has held the Bucks’ overall offense back this season.

While Mike Budenholzer will ease him back into the rotation as he gets his wind back, just having Middleton back makes the Bucks that much better. Which is bad news for the rest of the league.

3) Celtics extend Al Horford for two seasons beyond this one

Al Horford, age 36, is going to stick around in the NBA for a couple more seasons.

Horford and the Celtics reached a deal on a two-year, $20 million extension (which kicks in next season).

This is a pay cut for Horford — who will make $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia — but it’s a fair deal for both sides. This puts Horford closer to league-average money, which lines up with his value on the court at this point. Horford gets a couple more guaranteed years in the league, Boston gets a quality rotation player locked up, but at a low enough figure that if Father Time starts to win the race they will be okay.

Horford has had to play a more prominent role to start the season in Boston with Robert Williams still out following knee surgery. He is averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Eventually, Joe Mazzulla needs to get the old man a little rest, but until the Celtics starting center returns he has little choice but to lean into Horford.

Celtics lock-up Al Horford with two-year, $20 million extension

Washington Wizards v Boston Celtics
Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images
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Brad Stevens has locked up the core of this Celtics team — the one that reached the Finals last season and has the best record in the NBA to start this one — through the summer of 2025.

They did that with a two-year, $20 million extension (that kicks in next season). The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN and later confirmed by the Celtics.

Horford, 36, is making $26.5 million this season, the final year of a four-year, $109 million deal he signed in Philadelphia. While he never fit well as a stretch four next to Joel Embiid, he has worked well as a role player in Boston’s front line. The Celtics have locked him up at a deal closer to the league average and about his value now, at an average of $10 million a season (both years are fully guaranteed). It’s a fair deal for both sides, and a low enough number that if Father Time starts to win the race it doesn’t hurt Boston much.

With Robert Williams still out following knee surgery, Horford has seen his minutes increase to start this season but he has handled it well, averaging  10.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game, shooting 55.5% overall and 48.8% from 3-point range. Joe Mazzulla will likely try to get Horford some rest down the line when he can, but for now he’s leaning on the veteran.

And the team has rewarded him.

Donovan says Lonzo Ball’s recovery has ‘been really slow’

Milwaukee Bucks v Chicago Bulls
Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images
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Watching the finger-pointing and heated moments between Bulls’ defenders on Wednesday night as Devin Booker carved them up to the tune of 51 points, one thought was how much they miss Lonzo Ball‘s defense at the point of attack.

Ball had a second surgery on his knee back in September and the team said he would be out at “least a few months.” It’s coming up on a few months, so Donovan gave an update on Ball and his recovery, and the news was not good for Bulls’ fans. Via Rob Schaefer at NBC Sports Chicago:

“It’s been really slow,” Donovan said when asked about Ball’s rehab. “I’m just being honest.”

Donovan added Ball has not necessarily suffered a setback. The Bulls knew this would be an arduous process. But he also noted that Ball is “not even close” to being cleared for contact or on-court work.

Ball had his first knee surgery in January and the expectation was he would be back and 100% by the playoffs. However, Ball’s knee didn’t respond well, and he was eventually ruled out for the season. Things didn’t improve over the summer, which led to the second surgery. How much do they miss him? The Bulls were 22-13 with him last season, and he averaged 13.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 5.1 assists, a game. However, it was his defense that was most crucial.

There is no timeline for his return. Which is not good news for Chicago.