NBA Comparisons for the Top Players in the Sweet 16
Basketball is a team game, but it's hard not to focus on individual players who have been most responsible for getting their squads this far in the NCAA tournament. That's how NBA scouts will think as they set their sights on the Sweet 16, paying close attention to how the best remaining pro prospects perform as the games get more intense.
Almost every team left in the field has at least one player who should garner some NBA interest, if not this spring then in the next few years. We're focusing on the ones most likely to depart for the pros in the near future, forgoing their remaining college eligibility for a shot at the next level.
Scouts will closely watch these youngsters, and in the course of doing so, they'll undoubtedly compare them to current (or recently retired) NBA players. We've done the same, identifying pro comparisons for the top 10 prospects from Sweet 16 teams based on DraftExpress' most recent 2017 mock NBA draft.
Bam Adebayo, PF, Kentucky
Height, weight: 6'10", 260 lbs
NBA comparison: Dwight Howard, Atlanta Hawks
Even though he doesn't see it, it's understandable why so many scouts look at Bam Adebayo and think he's got a lot of what made Howard so coveted when he joined the NBA in 2004. They've got roughly the same build and length and the same penchant for slamming it home whenever possible—not to mention an improving shot on pick-and-roll plays.
The freshman averages 13.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.5 blocks per game while shooting 60.9 percent from the field, numbers that aren't that far off what Howard did as a rookie with the Orlando Magic. Neither gets labeled as a stretch 4 because each lacks a perimeter shot, but from 15 feet and in, they're both spot-on.
Adebayo has been particularly strong in the NCAA tourney, averaging 14 points and 14 rebounds with 18 boards in the first-round win over Northern Kentucky. That was the most by a Wildcat in the postseason since the 1950s.
Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA
Height, weight: 6'6", 190 lbs
NBA comparison: Jason Kidd (retired)
Lonzo Ball entered college getting a lot of comparisons to Russell Westbrook, mostly because of the UCLA connection. But with each electric performance he's put up in a Bruins uniform, the tide has turned toward a former NBA star who once shined in college against the freshman's current team.
Kidd, who averaged 12.6 points, 6.3 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game in 19 NBA seasons, was equally dominant in his two years at California in the early 1990s. He went 3-1 against UCLA and got the Golden Bears into the NCAA tournament in both seasons, including a Sweet 16 appearance in 1993.
Ball has the Bruins back in the Sweet 16 after they were 15-17 last year, with his all-around game making a huge difference. He leads the nation in assists per game at 7.6 and contributes 14.7 points and 6.1 assists per game. The freshman usually focuses on finding the best teammate to get the ball to, but he can score in bunches when needed, netting 20 or more six times.
"He can dominate a game without scoring," former NBA standout Grant Hill said on The Dan Patrick Show (h/t Jamie Cooper of Uproxx).
Where could Ball end up surpassing Kidd in the pros? His ability to shoot, as Kidd was a career 40 percent shooter overall and was 34.9 percent from three, while Ball—despite an odd stroke—is shooting 55.6 percent overall and 42 percent from deep.
De'Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky
Height, weight: 6'3", 187 lbs
NBA comparison: Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans
Running the offense is De'Aaron Fox's main job with Kentucky since the Wildcats have plenty of capable scorers for him to defer to. But an NBA team might be just as interested in how he can flip the switch over to a more aggressive style that has him call his own number and get to the hole, making him an intriguing combo prospect.
Fox averages 16.1 points and 4.6 assists per game, but in the SEC and NCAA tournaments, his scoring numbers are on the rise. He averaged 22 points on 21-of-34 shooting in the SEC tourney and 16.5 points in the two NCAA games, helping to make up for struggles from streaky freshman teammate Malik Monk.
There's also the defensive element to Fox's game, something that's become more present of late, as he's notched eight steals in the past five contests. Being able to contribute on that can help make up for the fact he's still trying to develop a three-point shot, as he's making only 23.4 percent of his attempts this year.
All of these things also describe Holiday when he entered the NBA out of UCLA in 2009. As his pro career has progressed, he's maintained a willingness to take it to the hole while also making sure to dish it out when needed, and over time his perimeter shot has improved with practice.
Josh Jackson, SF, Kansas
Height, weight: 6'8", 207 lbs
NBA comparison: Andrew Wiggins, Minnesota Timberwolves
Kansas has had its fair share of freshmen whom the NBA salivated over in recent years, and while many have either not panned out or have dealt with injuries, there's one guy who stands out from the pack. And Josh Jackson looks like he'll join Wiggins in that area if the way he's excelled with the Jayhawks is any indication.
Jackson has had the luxury of being part of a more experienced team, led by veteran guards Devonte' Graham and Frank Mason III, which kept him from having to dominate from the outset. That's allowed him to settle into his game and turn it up down the stretch, averaging 16.6 points and 7.1 rebounds for the season with 40 points (on 17-of-28 shooting) in the NCAA tourney.
Wiggins didn't have that luxury, as in 2013-14 Kansas' top four scorers were all freshmen or sophomores. That team earned a No. 2 seed but lost 10 games, falling to Stanford in the second round.
Jackson can solidify his place in Kansas history if he can lead it to its first Final Four since 2012 and, in doing so, can make his own history instead of being compared to what Wiggins did in college. Then he can return to being compared to Wiggins as a peer in the NBA, no doubt after being one of the first players taken in the 2017 draft.
Justin Jackson, SF, North Carolina
Height, weight: 6'8", 210 lbs
NBA comparison: Matt Barnes, Golden State Warriors
Of the top 10 players in the 2014 recruiting class, only Justin Jackson is still in college. Everyone else entered the NBA draft after one or two seasons or headed overseas to play pro ball rather than be part of the NCAA. Jackson's development at the collegiate level has been gradual, but in his junior year, he's made enough strides for DraftExpress to peg him as the No. 13 pick in the 2017 draft, the highest of non-freshmen or international players.
This year Jackson is scoring 18.1 points per game, up from 12.2 as a sophomore, and his three-point efficiency has jumped from 29.2 to 38.7 percent despite taking 133 more triples than in 2015-16. His 650 points are the second-most for a North Carolina player in the last eight seasons, just 28 behind what Brice Johnson had as a senior last year but in four fewer games.
DraftExpress' Mike Schmitz wrote:
Jackson has already made 19 more threes this year than he did in his first two years combined, and his efficiency numbers, especially off the catch, have skyrocketed. His shot preparation, balance, speed of his release and wrist action have all improved considerably in spot up situations, and his confidence is at an all-time high because of it.
Jackson has also become more active on the boards, averaging 4.7 per game and 6.0 per 40 minutes on a team that's loaded with glass-cleaners. He may never develop into a top-tier pro, but his skill set is such that he could carve out a solid role-player career like Barnes, who has started 356 games in 14 seasons for nine different teams.
TJ Leaf, PF, UCLA
Height, weight: 6'10", 225 lbs
NBA comparison: David Lee, San Antonio Spurs
Lonzo Ball isn't the only future NBA player among UCLA's freshmen, as both TJ Leaf and center Ike Anigbogu have major pro potential, too. Anigbogu might be at least a year away from making that jump, while Leaf's play this season has him right in scouts' crosshairs.
An athletic big man who can stretch the floor and hit from outside on occasion, he's best suited to shoot from mid-range and get into the paint. His 16.2 points per game lead the Bruins, and his 8.2 rebounds sit second on the team. He often benefits from Ball's ability to draw defenders before kicking out or by getting fed from him in transition.
Leaf has 11 double-doubles and 10 games with at least 20 points, contributing 17 points and 13 boards when UCLA won at Kentucky in December (the Bruins face the Wildcats in the Sweet 16 on Friday) and scoring 21 against another Sweet 16 team (Michigan) a week later.
Added strength is necessary for Leaf to be able to handle the more physical nature of the NBA, but for now the rest of his attributes are close to those of Lee during his prime. He averaged a double-double four times in his first eight seasons.
Lauri Markkanen, PF, Arizona
Height, weight: 7'0", 230 lbs
NBA comparison: Kristaps Porzingis, New York Knicks
When Porzingis was announced as the fourth overall pick in the 2015 draft, there were still a lot of NBA fans who had no idea who this 7-footer from Latvia was. Then they saw his tremendously unique game—one that draws constant wows for his mix of ball-handling, perimeter shooting, rebounding and interior defense—and the immediate wonder was if he was a one of a kind.
Hence him often being referred to as a unicorn, the same mythical creature used to describe Lauri Markkanen during his freshman year at Arizona.
A relative unknown when he came over from Finland before the season, Markkanen has been the Wildcats' best overall player all year. Allonzo Trier has taken on more of the go-to offensive role since his return from suspension in late January, but Markkanen still averages 15.8 points and 7.2 rebounds and is his team's leading three-point shooter, rebounder and foul-shooter.
Quite a combination, right? In fact, he's one of only 11 Division I players since 1993-94 to shoot 43 percent from deep, average at least seven rebounds per game and make more than 60 threes.
Porzingis has hit 105 threes this season, one of just two seven-footers in the NBA with more than 100 triples in 2016-17.
Malik Monk, SG, Kentucky
Height, weight: 6'3", 200 lbs
NBA comparison: C.J. McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers
With an amazing amount of athleticism that's evident when he gets a head of steam and drives to the rim, Malik Monk has a tremendously high NBA ceiling. His floor is low, too, because of his tendency to go into prolonged shooting droughts, most notably when not playing in Kentucky's Rupp Arena.
Monk is shooting 39.3 percent from three-point range for the season with 97 triples, but 53 of those have come in the Wildcats' 17 home games, where he's shooting 44.5 percent. He went 17-of-63 (27 percent) on the road, and while he's made 41.5 percent of threes in neutral-site games in the SEC and NCAA tourneys, he's a combined 5-of-22 from outside and 18-of-54 overall.
If he finds a way to become more consistent with that shot or learns when not to settle for jumpers and becomes more interested in getting in the lane, our comparison to McCollum will fit. Since entering the NBA in 2013, he actually has better splits on the road than in Portland.
If he doesn't make those adjustments, Monk might end up more like a Lou Williams or a J.R. Smith—the kind of player who can explode one night but be ice-cold the next.
Johnathan Motley, PF, Baylor
Height, weight: 6'10", 230 lbs
NBA comparison: Dewayne Dedmon, San Antonio Spurs
With a 7'3 ½" wingspan, Johnathan Motley has one of the longest of any NBA prospect (per DraftExpress). That kind of length has made him Baylor's most important player and will get him plenty of looks in the pros.
Averaging 17.3 points and 9.9 rebounds per game on 52.4 percent shooting, the junior has taken on the role of floor leader. He's gotten the Bears into the Sweet 16 with two of his 15 double-doubles while making 16 of 26 shots.
Motley's defensive acumen could also take him far, getting him minutes off the bench during which he can show off his offensive skills. Though he's not as big as the 7-foot, 245-pound Dedmon—an ex-USC player who went undrafted but has found himself a good reserve role in the pros—Motley could start out like that and eventually make more of an impact.
Caleb Swanigan, PF, Purdue
Height, weight: 6'9", 250 lbs
NBA comparison: Zach Randolph, Memphis Grizzlies
Randolph left Michigan State far too early for college fans to appreciate his game, which emphasizes using his size (6'9", 260 lbs) and strength to be a bowling ball on the interior but in a way that isn't out of control. Caleb Swanigan has taken this one step further, using his second season at Purdue to develop into the best double-double man in the country.
Swanigan has 28 double-doubles, most in Division I, while averaging 18.5 points and 12.6 rebounds. He's shooting 52.7 percent overall, up from 46.1 percent as a freshman when he tried to be more of a jump-shooter than someone willing to draw and take contact. He also shoots 43.2 percent from three-point range and dishes out three assists per game, making it so he can't be left alone anywhere on the court but also making it difficult to double-team him.
Randolph was that way to an extent at MSU but has really been that way in the NBA, averaging 16.8 points and 9.3 rebounds per game with just enough assists and made three-pointers to keep opponents honest.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.