The first weekend of the NCAA tournament has come and gone, and soon the Sweet 16 will be upon us. But that comes Thursday. Today is Tuesday. Let’s talk the NBA draft.
Here are some notes on a few of the guys who will be joining the NBA in June — five players who lost last weekend, plus a group of 10 to watch this weekend.
Good-bye for Now
D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State
Last Thursday, he gave us the most impressive performance of the tournament thus far. He had 28 points on 10-of-20 shooting to carry Ohio State against VCU. He was weaving through the defense on the way to the rim and draining shots from the outside. Even the shots he missed were legendary:
(My favorite reaction to that Vine. How will the children ever learn that making shots is important?)
Sport-ruining crossovers aside, for anyone who hadn’t seen Russell, that game against VCU was a nice crash course in everything that makes him so great. It’s not just that he puts up numbers — he also finds teammates in the right spots, and he plays under control at all times. He’s got a better feel for the game than any guard in the country. “Feel for the game” is obviously a pretty intangible compliment, but with Russell, it basically means he’s got a knack for keeping the defense off balance. He uses defenders’ momentum against them, he finds passing lanes that shouldn’t exist, and he makes elaborate moves look like second nature.
He is James Harden without all the bullshit. We’ve talked about this. He’s the most entertaining offensive player in college basketball. Every D’Angelo Russell highlight deserves Wesley Snipes ad-libs.
Athleticism is the only question. And for anyone who doubts Russell’s ability to dominate at the next level, the Arizona game certainly helped their case. Maybe he’ll be too slow to tie NBA defenses in knots. He went 3-for-19 against Arizona, and while he did add six assists and seven rebounds, the Arizona D was definitely never off balance. Part of this is a credit to Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (we’ll get to him), but honestly, it’s also the entire Ohio State team.
The Buckeyes didn’t have the talent to stop Arizona’s offense, and as the game got out of hand, Russell was forced to try to get the offense going with bad shots. That’s how 3-for-19 happens. Russell should be fine. I can’t wait to watch his sorcery at the next level.
Justin Anderson, Virginia
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He’s only a junior, and Virginia is the Pleasantville of basketball programs, so there’s a decent chance he could go back to school. In case he leaves: Anderson was the best player on a top-five Cavaliers team until a hand injury sidelined him for the stretch run of the regular season. Then an emergency appendectomy complicated his return at the ACC tournament. Basically, he became the Murphy’s Law of All-Americans over the final six weeks. Still, he can do everything well as a guard, and he’s got good size (6-foot-6). This is exactly the kind of player who turns into a steal in the second half of the first round.
His 3-point shooting improved this year (from 29 percent to 45 percent), though there’s some debate among scouts about whether that’s an aberration or a full transformation. We’ll see. Virginia went down to Michigan State on Sunday — Anderson, still recovering from the injury, was limited to 2-for-7 for eight points — so the tournament won’t give us much insight.
That early tournament exit probably hurts his draft stock. Maybe that’ll push him back to school. On the other hand, falling off the radar makes him a tremendous sleeper option if he leaves.
Bobby Portis, Arkansas
At 6-foot-11 and 242 pounds, he’s got the size of a lottery pick, and he averaged close to a double-double all year. His shooting wasn’t great in either game Arkansas played the first week of the tournament (Wofford, North Carolina), but he had double-doubles in both contests. He’s good at everything but not quite great at anything. Earlier in the year, I read this scouting breakdown from Sam Vecenie at CBS Sports and came away convinced that Portis will look great if he goes to a good team like the Bulls or Pacers. If he goes somewhere like the Nuggets or Hornets, he’ll quietly disappear. Watching him against North Carolina made me only more certain that I have no idea how this will go.
Kelly Oubre Jr., Kansas
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Every time I watched Kansas this year, I left feeling a little more confused that Oubre was listed as a top-10 pick in every mock draft. He’s tall and athletic, and it looks like he can shoot, even though his jumpers don’t actually fall that often. I guess that’s it?
The defining moment from Sunday’s loss to Wichita State was a loose ball that bounced right past Oubre. Even with two full steps on the closest Wichita State player, he still got beaten to the ball. One day, Oubre is going to make a lot of money playing on 30-win Sacramento Kings teams.
More optimistic forecast: This whole year was a downer for Kansas, so maybe Oubre got sucked into the black hole with the rest of the Jayhawks. Either way, his stock is high enough to put him somewhere in the top 10.
Cliff Alexander, Kansas
I’d like to claim my seat on the Cliff Alexander Redemption Bandwagon. He was considered one of the best freshmen in America five months ago, and it’s still unclear what went wrong at Kansas, but this year has been a disaster. He struggled early, he was benched by Bill Self, there were eligibility questions … and then he was just gone. If this were the NFL, where future superstars routinely slip through the cracks because of disciplinary and academic issues, Alexander would be my favorite player in the draft. In the NBA, he’s at least worth a gamble as a 6-foot-8 power forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan. He’s definitely not going back to Kansas!
As for the Sweet 16 …
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See You This Weekend
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona
Listen, Hollis-Jefferson was my favorite prospect on Arizona last year. At 6-foot-7, he is Aaron Gordon or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, without any illusions of ever being more. In other words, he’s MKG, but you can get him without giving away a top-five pick and paying him like a superstar. You know how Danny Chau turned Dante Exum into a deity before last year’s draft? Hollis-Jefferson is that player for me. All I want from this draft is Hollis-Jefferson on a good team, so he can be the new Tony Allen for the next 10 years.
Stanley Johnson, Arizona
He’s definitely good, but it’s hard to tell whether he will be great. Wing players take longer to grow into their bodies and dominate. That’s why my Oubre assessment is possibly unfair, and it’s why Johnson will get the benefit of the doubt. His frame alone (6-foot-7, 245 pounds) makes him a top-10 prospect, and depending on how he plays in the next few weeks, he could lock up a spot in the top five. He also wins the Elfrid Payton award for best hair of any NBA prospect.
In an ESPN Insider back-and-forth earlier this year, Chad Ford described Johnson as Ron Artest without the personality issues, while Kevin Pelton offered a range of comparisons from Luol Deng to Thaddeus Young to Marvin Williams. Which of those four names will he be? I change my mind almost every time he plays. But then, the hair always makes me want to dream big.
Devin Booker and Trey Lyles, Kentucky
The case for Kentucky’s big men is obvious at this point. Every new opponent is just another victim.
Booker and Lyles are more interesting. Booker is a guard who looks doughy and maybe a step slow, but he never really plays that way. He is 6-foot-6 in shoes, and that, coupled with his shooting, makes him a decent option for any team that needs scoring on the perimeter. Lyles is a 6-foot-10 power forward who hasn’t quite found a rhythm at Kentucky. He’s shown flashes of being a skilled shooter who can space the floor, but the offense is generally so clogged with giants that it’s tough for him to showcase those skills.
I’m not going to lie: I spend most Kentucky games hallucinating about the future of Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein, and rooting for more Tyler Ulis. Having said that, Booker and Lyles could both play themselves into the top 15 sometime in the next two weeks.
Kevon Looney, UCLA
Looney is a good example of someone who could probably be much better after another year in college. He’s a 6-foot-9 power forward, projected somewhere in the mid–first round, averaging close to a double-double on the year. But he’s been quiet for the first two tournament games. Watch UCLA and he’ll disappear for long stretches at a time.
Then again, you’re more likely to watch UCLA and say, “Holy shit, is Bryce Alford a real person or some perfect college basketball villain created in a lab? First of all, his name is Bryce. He’s also a coach’s son. He’s a relentless gunner. He’s … he’s so obnoxious that it’s actually kinda great. Of course he shot that air ball and a horrible goaltending call turned it into a game winner against SMU. He’s Bryce Alford, and you’re not.”
But again, at no point will you watch UCLA and come away raving about Looney. If he stays another year, maybe that will change.
Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
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He really did get better staying in school. Grant was suspended for the second half of last season, and he probably would have struggled to make an NBA roster if he’d left last year. Now he’s a senior who’s vaulted himself into the draft’s top 20. He doesn’t take over games, but he does everything well, and he’s a phenomenal athlete. (You may remember him from this dunk against Georgia Tech in January.) Imagine Jeremy Lamb, but without all the sedatives coursing through his veins.
This weekend, Grant sealed a Sweet 16 trip with an overtime jumper against Butler (16 points, five assists, five boards), and last Thursday, against Northeastern, he had 17 points (on 7-of-12 shooting) and five assists. Notre Dame is stuck in the same region as Kentucky, so the Final Four is a long shot, but he’s got at least this weekend to impress scouts a little bit more. Also, he’s Harvey Grant’s son. Still plenty of time for him to bring back the goggles.
Frank Kaminsky and Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
As a 6-foot-9 small forward, Dekker seems more like Kyle Singler than Mike Dunleavy. That’s not a bad thing. Singler 2.0 would make a lot of sense being taken in the 20s.
Kaminsky as a lottery pick seems like maybe we’re taking things too far. It’s one thing to say he can contribute in the NBA; it’s another to put him in the first half of the first round. DraftExpress has him going no. 10 to the Pacers right now.
Remember when the Bobcats took Sean May in the lottery? Remember when the Celtics took Kelly Olynyk over Giannis Antetokounmpo and Dennis Schroder? Olynyk’s not even bad! But … the Celtics would like to have that decision back.
Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, Wichita State
If I owned an NBA team, I would make my GM take Baker in the second round. Find a way. No excuses. Just see what happens. Same goes for Freddie VanVleet.
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Justise Winslow, Duke
The best thing I can say about Winslow is that every time he plays basketball, I’m worried he’s going to hurt someone. He careers up and down the court, and he explodes into plays out of nowhere. It’s a public safety hazard. Imagine Jimmy Butler’s frame crossed with Russell Westbrook’s disregard for human limits. That is Justise Winslow.
He can’t totally dribble yet, he can’t shoot, and it doesn’t matter. He had 13 points, 12 rebounds, and five assists against San Diego State on Sunday. Watching Winslow makes me wish Jahlil Okafor weren’t so dominant, so we could all enjoy even more Winslow adventures to the rim.
Sure, for now you would also throw Kidd-Gilchrist’s offense into that conversation, but that part can change. Either way, it’s worth a top-10 pick. The worst-case scenario for Winslow is a bigger, stronger version of K.J. McDaniels. If his offense can improve, his ceiling gets a lot higher, and all of this becomes a lot more fun.
Also, he’s named Justise Winslow. He’s destined to be a star one way or another. Don’t overthink this.
Jahlil Okafor, Duke
The original idea for this roundup was to exclude Okafor and Towns — the guys we know about — but I need to clarify something. Okafor is really good. He’s been unseated by Towns as the top NBA prospect in college basketball, but it seems like loving Towns has distracted us from just how good Okafor’s been.
Okafor has the same feel for the game as Russell, except he’s six inches taller. He’s masterful at leaning one way on a helpless defender and then spinning right around him the other way. His footwork is flawless, and his post moves are endless. He can even attack people off the dribble. Even the questions about his defense — which have become the popular criticism over the past month — are exaggerated. Okafor will never be great on D, but in the tournament, he hasn’t looked as bad as the skeptics make him sound. And Sunday against San Diego State, his 26 points (on 12-of-16 shooting) were the closest thing you will see to a big man doing one long suplex on an entire basketball team.
I just want to see him play someone his own size. That’s all I ask. If he was dominating people who could reasonably be expected to guard him, it would all be twice as impressive.
Jakob Poeltl, Utah
He is a 7-foot, 235-pound freshman from Austria. He has been a sleeper lottery prospect all year. He has a last name that is impossible for Americans to pronounce. He’s got 30 points through two games in the tournament. Delon Wright will definitely give the Utes a chance versus Duke. But we need an answer to the real question: CAN POELTL STOP OKAFOR?