An NBA Fan's Guide to Watching the NCAA Tournament

Jonathan Wasserman@@NBADraftWassNBA Lead WriterMarch 19, 2019

An NBA Fan's Guide to Watching the NCAA Tournament

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    The NCAA tournament is for NBA fans and scouts, just as much as it for college basketball lovers. This year's March Madness will feature plenty of future pros who'll be selected in the first and second rounds of June's draft, and not just on the top-seeded teams.  

    We pinpointed the hottest NBA prospects to scout over the next three weeks for NBA fans curious to project the next LeBron James or Steph Curry. We included projected draft ranges and added comparisons for the upper-tier names.

    We'll start with the biggest names in the tournament and work our way to players hoping to prove their worth as first-round picks.

Zion Williamson (Duke, PF/C, Freshman)

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 22.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.2 steals, 1.8 blocks

    Projected Draft Range: No. 1 overall

    Best Potential NBA Fit: Phoenix Suns

    NBA Comparison: Larry Johnson

    College basketball's biggest star is roughly three months from becoming the face of an NBA franchise. 

    For Zion Williamson, the NCAA tournament comes first, however. And this Blue Devils squad was given the top seed for a reason. Scouts should expect to see Williamson at least three more times before the draft, though he'll be the No. 1 pick regardless of how far Duke advances. 

    With an unprecedented mix of power, explosiveness and skill, Williamson leads the country in player efficiency rating at 18 years old, per RealGM. He's dominant around the basket but also a threat away from it thanks to his ball-handling moves and agility on the move.

    His defense should be equally appealing for NBA teams, given the amount of ground and airspace he covers, plus his ability to make plays and switch onto wings or guards. 

    No opponent this season has had any answer for Williamson, who's shooting a ridiculous 69.3 percent.

Jarrett Culver (Texas Tech, SG, Sohpomore)

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    Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 18.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.3 3PTM, 1.3 steals 

    Projected Draft Range: Lottery

    Best Potential NBA Fit: Atlanta Hawks

    NBA Comparison: Caris LeVert

    Just a role player as a freshman, Jarrett Culver has evolved into a lead scorer for No. 3 seed Texas Tech.

    He's turned heads around the NBA in the process. A 6'6" 2-guard, Culver has become far more threatening off the dribble with his change of speed and long strides. And he's been an effective finisher in the lane, converting 58.8 percent of his shots around the basket.

    His shooting has fallen off this season, but he passes the eye test with his 97 career three-point makes and high-arcing shot. 

    Culver shouldn't need to carry Texas Tech deep into the tournament to secure an invite to the 2019 draft's green room. He's become one of the country's most complete two-way players and a potential top-five pick this upcoming June.

RJ Barrett (Duke, SG/SF, Freshman)

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 22.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 1.9 three-pointers

    Projected Draft Range: Top three 

    Best Potential NBA Fit: New York Knicks

    NBA Comparison: DeMar DeRozan

    An 18-year-old scoring machine, RJ Barrett hasn't let up since opening the season with 33 points against Kentucky. 

    He's developed an alpha dog mentality that tanking NBA teams should crave. And it's bound to come to life at some point for Duke during this NCAA tournament, given Barrett's winning history in high school and international settings during FIBA and the Nike Hoop Summit. 

    Barrett invents new ways to make shots each game by improvising with unteachable instincts. And though not known as a shooter or distributor, his 1.9 threes and 4.1 assists per game reflect underrated shot-making and passing skills.

    The biggest questions with Barrett focus on his shot selection and ability to create easy shots for himself once the game slows down. According to Synergy Sports, Barrett only ranks in the 53rd percentile in half-court offense. 

    Still, NBA tools, production and competitiveness should keep Barrett locked in as a top-five pick.

Ja Morant (Murray State, PG, Sophomore)

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    Timothy D. Easley/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 24.6 points, 5.5 rebounds, 10.0 assists, 1.6 three-pointers

    Projected Draft Range: Top three 

    Best Potential NBA Fit: Dallas Mavericks

    NBA Comparison: De'Aaron Fox

    The nation's most captivating breakout star, Ja Morant will be an enormous draw in the NCAA tournament, both for fans who've only seen highlights and NBA scouts hoping to confirm the regular-season hype as legitimate. 

    His explosiveness screams upside, but the nation's assist leader deserves the most praise for his court vision and passing. He's an outstanding setup man, able to break down defenses, create shots for teammates and throw them darts with either hand. 

    He's scoring in volume as well, with more points in transition than any player in the country. An uptempo playmaker, Morant puts heavy pressure on defenses and finds crafty ways to finish, both above and below the rim.

    Scouts will be looking closely at his jump shot during their final evaluations. Shooting remains his biggest question mark that could hold him back in the NBA. He's at 33.6 percent from three, though his 1.6 threes per game are a notable improvement from last year's 0.8.

Coby White (North Carolina, PG/SG, Freshman)

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 16.3 points, 4.2 assists, 2.4 three-pointers

    Projected Draft Range: Lottery 

    Best Potential NBA Fit: Memphis Grizzlies

    NBA Comparison: Ty Lawson

    A gradual riser throughout the season, Coby White could be North Carolina's highest-drafted freshman since Brandon Wright (No. 8 overall) in 2007.

    He'll have the chance to continue strengthening his stock in the NCAA tournament as the No. 1 seed Tar Heels' lead guard. White plays with tempo and confidence, which shows on his jump shots, drives and passes. And though not an explosive athlete, he's 6'5" with strong legs, speed and the ability to change direction on a dime. 

    He's also capable of catching fire and taking over games, having hit the 30-point mark three times this season. 

    His shooting has been erratic, particularly this month. And he's had trouble efficiently scoring out of pick-and-rolls, averaging just 0.735 points on each of those possessions. 

    The long-term scouting scope still sees a future NBA guard based on White's tools, production and skill for playing on or off the ball. 

De'Andre Hunter (Virginia, SF/PF, Sophomore)

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    Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 15.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.2 three-pointers

    Projected Draft Range: Lottery 

    Best Potential NBA Fit: Washington Wizards

    NBA Comparison: Al-Farouq Aminu

    De'Andre Hunter returned to Virginia this season on breakout watch, and he's followed through, excelling as a featured scorer and repeat-impact defender.

    With the NBA seemingly valuing versatility more than ever, every lottery team is bound to show some degree of interest. At 6'7", 225 pounds, Hunter plays inside and out, shooting 56.3 percent on post-ups, 61.1 percent at the rim and 45.7 percent from three.

    His defensive potential is also a major draw, as he's able to guard bigs and wings. Along with his switchability, he demonstrates impressive instincts reading plays.

    The concerns with Hunter stem from his lack of wiggle off the dribble and a relatively basic offense game in terms of creating his own shot. He may be viewed as more of a high-end role player in the NBA. But that should still be enough to warrant consideration from teams drafting in the Nos. 5-10 range this June. 

    Guiding Virginia to the Final Four wouldn't hurt his chances of being taken closer to No. 5 than No. 10.

Cam Reddish (Duke, SG/SF, Freshman)

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    Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

    Season Stats: 13.7 points, 2.5 three-pointers, 1.6 steals 

    Projected Draft Range: Lottery 

    Best Potential NBA Fit: Chicago Bulls

    NBA Comparison: Nicolas Batum

    Cam Reddish could have a lot of future money riding on his NCAA tournament performance. Scouts have been patient with the talented 6'8" wing, hoping he relocates his confidence and validates the hype he generated throughout high school. 

    He's earned a pass from many scouts who still buy into his positional tools, ball-handling and shot-making long term. Reddish has had to adjust to an unfamiliar role behind star scorers RJ Barrett and Zion Williamson. And in that role, he's struggled to pick his spots as a creator, and his lack of explosion and touch around the basket have been exposed.

    However, Reddish is still drilling 2.5 threes per game, looking capable of converting from anywhere on the floor. And though we've only seen glimpses, he's flashed the ability to slash through defenses.

    His defensive quickness and length are encouraging as well. But with Reddish shooting just 35.4 percent, he could use a March Madness hot streak to win back lost support.

Talen Horton-Tucker (Iowa State, SG/SF, Freshman)

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    David K Purdy/Getty Images

    Season Stats: 12.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.4 three-pointers, 1.3 steals

    Projected Draft Range: Lottery 

    Best Potential NBA Fit: Minnesota Timberwolves

    NBA Comparison: Eric Gordon

    Off draft boards entering the season, Talen Horton-Tucker has shaken the radar with his unique physical profile and skill set.

    At 6'4", 233 pounds, he weighs more than many bigs with the same level of quickness and ball-handling ability as guards. He projects as an NBA shooting guard, but he's more of a positionless weapon able to create, pass, make threes and defend multiple spots.

    Skeptics will point to Horton-Tucker's lack of explosiveness and occasional over-confidence that leads to bad decisions. Believers should emphasize the fact that he won't turn 19 years old until Thanksgiving, which could make him the youngest prospect in the draft.

    Iowa State has the firepower to make a run in the NCAA tournament. The streaky Horton-Tucker has the chance to become a more recognized name and prospect over the next week or two. 

Brandon Clarke (Gonzaga, PF/C, Junior)

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    William Mancebo/Getty Images

    Season Stats: 16.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.0 blocks, 1.2 steals

    Projected Draft Range: First round

    Best Potential NBA Fit: Los Angeles Lakers

    NBA Comparison: Kenyon Martin

    Life must feel different these days for Brandon Clarke, who transferred from San Jose State and is now a potential lottery pick with No. 1 seed Gonzaga.

    His activity and efficiency have been tremendous all year, but Clarke pops under the NBA scouting lens for his explosiveness and fearless style of play.

    His 4.3 blocks per 40 minutes are fueled by bouncy leaping ability, quickness and an aggressive defensive mentality. He's also shooting 74.3 percent around the basket, often off transition, cuts, offensive rebounds, rolls and straight-line drives. 

    Otherwise, Clarke is a limited creator and scorer. NBA teams won't be drawing up any plays that call for him to create or shoot. He's also turning 23 years old in September, so his perceived window to keep improving isn't overly large. 

    Still, scouts should envision Clarke excelling in the NBA playing the same off-ball role he occupies at Gonzaga.

PJ Washington (Kentucky, PF/C, Sophomore)

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    James Crisp/Associated Press

    Season Stats: 14.8 points, 7.6 rebounds, 1.2 blocks, 0.9 three-pointers

    Projected Draft Range: Top 20

    Best Potential NBA Fit: Boston Celtics (via Sacramento Kings)

    NBA Comparison: Markieff Morris 

    PJ Washington turned the corner about midway through the season, lifting Kentucky to a No. 2 seed and his draft stock considerably. 

    With his length and improved footwork, he's turned into a tougher player to guard out of the post. Scouts should ultimately be most pleased with his improved shooting, as Washington has made 31 threes after converting just five last season.

    His 15.3 rebounding percentage is also notably higher than the 11.6 percent rate he registered as a freshman.

    A better-conditioned athlete, Washington has been taken more seriously this year by scouts after he attended last year's combine and failed to secure a first-round guarantee. He'll have one this year and possibly by a lottery team depending on how he closes out the season in the NCAA tournament. 

Potential First-Round Prospects Hoping to Make a Splash

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    Ben Margot/Associated Press

    Nickeil Alexander-Walker (Virginia Tech, SG, Sophomore)

    Projected draft range: Nos. 10-25

    Leaving scouts wanting more after a fine freshman season, Alexander-Walker clearly returned to Virginia Tech a more complete player. He's expanded his versatility by improving as a playmaker while still shooting threes at a promising clip (38.1 percent). Lacking strength and athleticism, Alexander-Walker has trailed off over the last month against conference opponents. He'll want to show scouts he can finish through contact, and that opportunity could be waiting in a possible Sweet 16 matchup with Duke. 

             

    Keldon Johnson (Kentucky, SG, Freshman)

    Projected draft range: Nos. 10-25

    Johnson's impact comes and goes, but NBA scouts still see an NBA athlete, fierce competitor and improving shooter. Even without a great deal of skill, he's been a reliable scorer for Kentucky by slashing and making spot-up jump shots, though Johnson's stock would spike from flashing more dribble creativity and passing in the NCAA tournament.

                

    Rui Hachimura (Gonzaga, PF, Junior)

    Projected draft range: Top 20

    It's looked easy for Hachimura, who's averaging 20.1 points on 62.1 percent shooting. Scouts will now be paying extra attention to his NCAA tournament matchups, particularly if Gonzaga winds up meeting teams with NBA athletes like Syracuse and Florida State in the West Region. His three-ball and defense are still question marks, but Hachimura has developed into a terrific two-point scorer with face-up moves, a post game and touch on short jumpers around the key.

                

    Grant Williams (Tennessee, PF, Junior)

    Projected draft range: Nos. 15-30

    Though considered an out-of-the-box NBA prospect, lacking height (6'7") and athleticism, Williams has scouts' attention for his productivity, basketball IQ, toughness and win-loss record. He's one of the nation's toughest post scorers and smartest passers and defenders. Leading Tennessee on a run past teams with NBA prospects of their own should help him gain more credibility as a surefire first-round pick.

                

    Tyler Herro (Kentucky, SG, Freshman)

    Projected draft range: Nos. 15-30

    Picturesque jump-shot mechanics and a 94.0 percent free-throw mark hint at Herro being a sharper shooter than his 37.3 percent suggests. He's been erratic, but NBA teams should be drawn to his shot-making ability and movement without the ball. Watch out for Herro activating microwave mode at some point during the NCAA tournament.

                   

    Cameron Johnson (North Carolina, SF, Senior)

    Projected draft range: No. 15-35

    It's not often a 23-year-old warrants first-round consideration. Johnson could join a short list after emerging as one of the nation's elite shooters, making 46.5 percent of his threes. At 6'9", he runs off screens and knocks down jumpers like a guard. His lack of youth, athleticism, strength or one-on-one game hint at a lower ceiling compared to other wings in the draft. But his superb shot-making could also lead some teams to believe he's a high-floor role player at the very least. 

             

    Tre Jones (Duke, PG, Freshman)

    Projected draft range: Nos. 15-30

    Jones' impact on winning will have NBA teams willing to overlook his lack of athleticism or scoring ability. Those limitations create a lower theoretical ceiling, but his knack for making the right reads and decisions could be useful in a backup role with a rotation's second unit. A tough defender and high-IQ passer, Jones would help himself in this NCAA tournament if he can make enough open jump shots.

                

    Chuma Okeke (Auburn, PF, Sophomore)

    Projected draft range: Nos. 20-40

    A sleeper prospect in the NCAA tournament, Okeke is a late-bloomer who's gaining steam at the right time. He's coming off an 18-point game with five three-pointers in Auburn's win over Tennessee in the SEC tournament. At 6'8", 230 pounds, his potential to stretch the floor and switch defensively marks the sign of a modern-day NBA big man. He's not a creative offensive player, but more big scoring and shooting performances over the next two weeks could send Okeke soaring up draft boards before the NBA combine.

               

    Matisse Thybulle (Washington, SF, Senior)

    Projected draft range: Nos. 20-50

    Unlike most wing or guard prospects, Thybulle could earn first-round looks for his defense. Though Washington plays zone, it illuminates his spectacular defensive instincts, as he averages 3.4 steals and 2.2 blocks per game. Thybulle offers little as a scorer, but he is making 1.3 threes per contest. And if he can be as effective defensively as he's been through four years in college, a catch-and-shoot three-ball may be all he needs to crack an NBA rotation.

               

    Stats courtesy of Sports Reference and Synergy Sports unless otherwise noted.