The Madness is upon us, and it’s the most wonderful time of the year to be a college basketball fan. Meanwhile, the apotheosis of the “amateur” season coincides with a relative lull in the NBA regular season. With about 70 games in the books for each squad, we know who the playoff teams are (at least the ones of any consequence), and the only remaining drama there is how the seeds will shake out. For most everyone else, tanking season is entering full bloom, and teams are engaging in more “load management” than an adult film star.
This league-wide holding pattern gives us an opportunity to look ahead to the playoffs, but also to the NBA Draft. The league’s increasingly archaic talent dispersal event may not be for another three months, but March Madness — even with every small sample size caveat you could possibly think of being applied — does give us a chance to further evaluate prospects in high-leverage situations against elite competition. Today, we’ll take a look at six potential first-rounders from highly-ranked programs looking to make an impact in the Big Dance, starting with a guy of whom you may have heard.
THE CHOSEN ONE
Zion Williamson, Destroyer of Worlds, Duke: Look, I get it. A TON of digital ink has already been spilled over this guy, and we all know he’s going to be the no. 1 pick, so I won’t spend too much time on him. Williamson is generally considered to be the best prospect to hit the draft since Anthony Davis, and my only addition to the conversation is that I think the consensus still undersells his likely impact on the league. Barring injury, I have almost no doubt Zion is going to end up being an all-time great player. There simply are not players who combine his power, speed, length, footwork, anticipation, vision, and competitiveness, and certainly not ones who do it in the frame of an NFL defensive end. Combined with the right complementary star(s) and spacing around him, he is going to be absolutely devastating at the NBA level. It’s difficult to even project what he’ll be in five years as his outside shot and comfort as a primary playmaker improve. Are averages of 28/ 12/ 7/ 2/ 2 on 60% shooting in play? I don’t know, but I am so here for it.
In one of those dumb, hypothetical “Who would you pick if you were starting a franchise today?” scenarios, I would choose Giannis first, and if I had the second pick, my front office and I would need to have a meeting about whether we were taking Luka Doncic or Zion. Everyone is high on Zion; I’m like mid-90’s Snoop Dogg-level high. He is going to be one of THE defining players of the post-LeBron era. It’s an undeniable treat to witness a not-yet-commoditized superhero learning to harness his powers, so enjoy watching him maraud through overwhelmed college defenses before the universe does its damnedest to beat him down and turn him into a villain.
It would be fun to see him go to Atlanta in June. Even after semi-foolishly passing on Luka, adding Zion to the core of Trae Young/John Collins/Kevin Huerter would give the Hawks a sort of vague, proto-Warriors outline, minus all the annoying righteous indignation from fans and media. Pairing Zion with Doncic in Dallas is also a distinct possibility — particularly after the Mavs’ tank-tastic free fall down the standings since the All-Star Break has put them in decent position to retain the top-5 protected pick they owe to Atlanta from the Luka trade — but putting those two together almost feels too good to be true. The basketball gods do not permit us mere mortals to fly so close to the sun. The conspiracy theorists will shake their pitchforks if Zion ends up in certain LeBron-adjacent and/or big market destinations (Knicks, Lakers, Pelicans, Cavs), but he is going to be appointment viewing in any case. Buckle up.
THEY MIGHT BE GIANTS
De’Andre Hunter, Forward, Virginia: A guy who will probably end up in the top-5 when it’s all said and done, especially if UVA avenges its, ahem, brief tournament run from last year. Hunter is not always flashy, but he is a prototype NBA small forward: 6’7″, 225 lbs with a 7’2″ wingspan and high-end athleticism. His numbers don’t pop off the screen (15.1/ 5.0/ 2.1 in 31 minutes a game), but his counting stats are suppressed to a degree by Virginia’s glacial pace, and his shooting splits (53/ 46/ 78) bode well for his adjustment to the wing at the pro level.
The comps to Kawhi Leonard are perhaps a bit premature, but the physical profile is strikingly similar, and it’s not hard to envision a scenario where his career arc plays out along the same lines, with Hunter starting out as an off-ball, 3-and-D specialist before growing into a more primary role. Hopefully, Hunter will skip over Kahwi’s “hold the organization that helped sculpt him into a Finals MVP hostage for an entire year under the pretense of a mysterious injury in order to force a trade” phase. [It’s a topic for another time, but have we ever figured out why everyone just seems to ignore the fact Kawhi pulled such an unconscionable act of bullshit? It only took place a year ago, it was total nonsense, and we all pretend it never happened. Oh well, moving on.]
Whereas the college game can’t do much to tamp down Zion’s greatness, it feels a bit like Hunter is being held back by the system in which he plays and the more cramped geometry of the college floor. Hunter’s all-around game and athleticism should flourish with additional pace and space, and he is big and strong enough to adjust to NBA physicality from Day One. It is certainly fair to question how high his ceiling is, but it would be hard to find a player with a higher floor. Short of a catastrophic injury, there is no bust potential with Hunter. The team who drafts him gets an All-NBA caliber defender — he was just named DPOY in the ACC, the best conference in America — with a decent chance of developing into a Kahwi/Paul George-type primary wing option on offense. Only one team will get Zion, but I suspect Hunter will turn out to be a pretty damn good consolation prize.
[Bonus UVA draft tidbit: Point guard Ty Jerome — definitely the new captain of Bill Simmons’ “Reggie Cleveland All-Stars,” BTW — is one of those dudes who will almost certainly get drafted in the early- to mid-30’s, and then everyone will be surprised when he sticks in the league and plays for a decade because he’s big and knows what the hell he’s doing. Just remember we had this talk.]
Jarrett Culver, Guard, Texas Tech: Like Hunter, Culver is a do-everything wing who has made major strides during his sophomore campaign, leading a mostly unheralded Texas Tech team to a share of the Big 12 title and a no. 3 seed in the NCAA Tournament. He’s a lean 6’6″, but has a long wingspan and displays above-average strength and athleticism attacking the basket. He projects as an elite defender, showing good anticipation both around the hoop and in passing lanes.
On offense, he reads the floor well and is a solid finisher in the paint, but he has several areas upon which to improve. He tends to be a straight-line driver, so he’ll need to be a bit more creative and improve his handle to get to his spots at the next level. His shooting stroke is mechanically sound, but the results will need to improve for him to reach his ceiling. He has shot only 33% from deep and 70% from the line this season, and teams considering burning a top-7 pick on him in June will want to see progress on that front during pre-draft workouts. His defense, basketball IQ, and ability to attack close-outs will be his calling cards early on in his career, but if his shooting improves as his body fills out, the potential is there for Culver to be a top-tier wing in a few years.
Coby White, Guard, UNC: White was a McDonald’s All-American and North Carolina’s Mr. Basketball last year, so it’s not as if he came out of nowhere, but he was not considered to be on the same level as some of his fellow Tobacco Road recruits, including teammate Nassir Little. However, once the games began, White showed that his scoring prowess in high school — he is North Carolina’s all-time leading prep scorer — was no fluke, as he shot up draft boards and led UNC to a somewhat unexpected no. 1 seed in the tourney. He’s averaged a tidy 16.3/ 3.4/ 4.2 on 43/ 36/ 81 shooting splits in 28 minutes a night, in the process breaking UNC’s freshman scoring record, previously held by a guy you might be familiar with, one Michael Jordan.
White has all the qualities you could want in a modern NBA lead guard. He’s a strong 6’4″ and can get buckets from every level of the floor. He has elite lateral quickness and speed to create separation and get to the cup, and displays the full bag of tricks to finish once he’s in the paint. He should have no issue translating his shot to the deeper 3-point line, and he is certainly not lacking in confidence. He can play on- or off-ball, and has the size to potentially defend either backcourt position. His motor runs hot at all times, and he navigates screens and jockeys for position with bigger players at a higher level than one would expect for a young pup.
He is not the most natural playmaker for others, which can sometimes be a difficult skill to improve. Circumstances will play a role in this facet of his development; if he lands on a team where he can flank an established guard, he may be able to ease himself in as a scorer/secondary playmaker and then gradually take on more of a primary role as a creator. [Think Bradley Beal.] At the end of the day, athletic bucket-getters always transfix NBA GMs and tend to rise up draft boards, and I imagine White will be no exception.
[Just a quick aside: don’t take this as a dig at White — I’ve always enjoyed the Sideshow Bob look on ballplayers — but I suspect if he cuts his hair short during the pre-draft process, his stock will actually rise by a few spots. Yes, it’s super-dumb, but that descriptor fits many NBA GMs whose teams frequently draft in the top-10. I also like White’s UNC teammate Cameron Johnson as a draft sleeper. Sweet-shooting, athletic 6’8″ guys with room to grow aren’t usually easy to come by in the late 1st/early 2nd round, even if he is a 23-year-old senior. Much like Jerome, Johnson is one of those dudes who, by March of next year, we’ll be asking ourselves, “Wait, why wasn’t he drafted earlier?”]
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Guard, Virginia Tech: I’ve had the good fortune to see this guy a lot this year, including a few times in person, and can tell you without reservation that he is going to be a quality NBA role player for many years to come, with the potential to be more as his body fills out. NAW is a versatile 6’5″ wing with arms for days, and much like Hunter and Culver, graduated from an overqualified role player as a freshman to a primary offensive hub as a sophomore, particularly after Tech’s starting point guard, Justin Robinson, went down with a midseason injury.
Alexander-Walker’s jumper features a solid base and a picture-perfect release, and his percentages bode well for translating to the pro level. He is a strong and creative finisher around the hoop. His playmaking has grown by leaps and bounds as a sophomore, with his assist rate more than doubling from his freshman year. He sees passing angles as they develop and delivers the ball accurately with either hand. NAW displays solid defensive awareness and sports quick hands, which should help him carve out an early role in the NBA, though he could struggle with physicality.
He isn’t going to wow scouts in any one area, but he is a smooth, smart, well-rounded player who takes very little off the table. Whoever scoops him up in the middle of the first round will be very happy they did.
Tre Jones, Point Guard, Duke: Is anyone else spooked by how eerily similar Tre Jones is, in every conceivable way — appearance, game, career trajectory — to his older brother, Tyus? Chances are if Duke goes all the way this year, Tre won’t match his brother’s accomplishment of being named the tournament’s Most Outstanding Player because, umm, have you SEEN Zion? [Meanwhile, in 2015 Tyus was busy dishing to the likes of Jahlil Okafor and Justise Winslow, so let’s just say their respective ecosystems were a bit apples and oranges.]
Outside of the 285-lb elephant in the room, it’s hard not to see the similarities. They are both relatively small by NBA standards — which hurt Tyus’ draft stock and will invariably do the same to Tre — and while Tyus shot better than Tre has at Duke, Jones the Younger has been one of the nation’s very best defensive players at any size. He is a tenacious on-ball defender, with the rare gift of being able to mirror the ballhandler’s movements in real time.
Jones will no doubt need to markedly improve his shot-making, but his All-NBA defensive potential coupled with his experience in picking his spots in support of elite offensive teammates could end up making him a more NBA-ready prospect than his brother. A team in need of a backup point guard late in the first round could do a lot worse.
Top Photo Credit: https://twitter.com/DukeMBB