Prospects Rockets Fans Should Watch in March Madness 2021

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistMarch 18, 2021

Prospects Rockets Fans Should Watch in March Madness 2021

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    The Houston Rockets should trade their team buses for tanks because it's bound to get ugly as this organization goes into draft pick-protection mode.

    Houston is in the infancy stage of a top-to-bottom rebuild. Championship hopes went out the door with James Harden, and now it's all about the 2021 first-round pick that could be given to the Oklahoma City Thunder unless it lands among the first four selections. The Rockets are working to improve their odds and agreed to trade P.J. Tucker to the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, per ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski.

    Losing this pick for a lesser one would be crushing because there are a handful of legitimate difference-makers at the top of this draft. Three of them are getting set for March Madness, where Rockets fans should want to monitor the progress of potentially their next centerpiece.

Cade Cunningham, PG, Oklahoma State

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    Brody Schmidt/Associated Press

    The clearest line of demarcation with this draft class exists just after the top five, as each member of that quintet has franchise-player potential. But even within this elite group, there are two tiers. One has Cade Cunningham. The other has everyone else.

    Oklahoma State's 6'8" lead guard has the top rung on every big board you'll find. He looks like he was designed in a hoops factory for the modern NBA. He can be a full-fledged point guard—not merely a jumbo playmaker—but Houston could slot him anywhere between the 1 and 4 spots. It's impossible to overstate the importance of that kind of flexibility for an organization that's rebuilding its roster.

    Shooting was supposed to be his swing skill. He's splashing 41.2 percent of his long-range looks and hitting 85.4 percent of his free throws. There really are no worries with his game. Some might point to his assists (3.6) and turnovers (4.2), but he'll boost the former once he has NBA-level help around him and trim the latter when he's given more room to operate.

    Cunningham's fourth-seeded Cowboys start tournament play Friday against 13th-seeded Liberty (6:25 p.m. ET on TBS).

Evan Mobley, C, USC

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Size still matters in today's NBA, it just needs to come along with a high level of skill. Evan Mobley brings enough of both that he could be the top pick in most years.

    He won't get that distinction this year, but he won't wait long to hear his name called, either. He looks like both a defensive anchor and an offensive focal point. He blocked 15 shots over his past four outings, and he has the mobility to handle perimeter switches. He could be a future Defensive Player of the Year, but he can thank his offensive growth for his prominent placement in this draft class.

    "He's looked even better than initially advertised offensively, particularly with his ball skill and comfort level away from the basket," B/R's Jonathan Wasserman wrote. "Near it, he'll continue to serve as a high-percentage finisher. But Mobley's potential to be special stems from his ability to handle in the open floor, face up and score on the move and knock down jumpers."

    There's enough versatility for Mobley and Christian Wood to fit the same frontcourt, but even if there weren't, Houston is too early into this overhaul to factor in positional needs if it felt Mobley was the top prospect on the board.

    His sixth-seeded Trojans will get the winner of Wichita State-Drake on Saturday (4:30 p.m. ET on TNT).

Jalen Suggs, PG/SG, Gonzaga

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    David Becker/Associated Press

    Gonzaga has the best roster in men's college basketball, and it has hidden just how good Jalen Suggs is as a pro prospect.

    The Bulldogs don't need him to do much heavy lifting, so his stat sheet gets relatively held in check (14.3 points, 5.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists and 2.0 steals). But his ability to elevate when he's needed most—like his 24-point, eight-assist takedown of Kansas or the 27 points and seven threes he put on Iowa—suggests there could be so much more to his game than his current numbers show.

    "He's the full package—an athletic, 6'4" ball-handler who thrives downhill, has high-level passing skills, shoots well off the dribble, and impacts games with his defensive tools and instincts," Wasserman wrote. "And aside from obvious talent and sharp skills, scouts rave about the mental makeup and competitiveness that could set him apart."

    Suggs looks like the type of top-shelf talent any team would want to build around. He would be perfect in Space City.

    Rockets fans can catch Suggs and top-seeded Gonzaga in action Saturday against the Norfolk State-Appalachian State winner (9:20 p.m. ET on TBS).