There are many reasons to watch the NCAA Division I men’s basketball tournament.
If you’re a college hoops fan there’s nothing better in the world, if you’re in a pool you’ll at least want to see how some of your picks are faring, and if you’re a sports fan who loves rooting for the underdog that’s what this event’s all about.
The madness affects us all in different ways.
For NBA-heads, however, there’s one specific bug they’ll usually catch when tuning in: prospect fever.
The tournament has always been fertile ground for NBA draft junkies to find who’s next, and after a couple years of relative disappointment — e.g. the projected No. 1 picks not competing in the big dance — we got a tournament chock-full of bursting NBA potential.
Here’s a quick glance at the 10 most intriguing NBA prospects to keep your eye on as you take in the games.
Deandre Ayton – No. 4 Arizona
The projected No. 1-overall pick, Ayton has been hailed as the generational big man for the modern game. Standing seven-feet tall, but with a silky stroke from outside and the raw athleticism needed to defend the pick-and-roll, he has all the tools needed to excel at the next level.
The concern with Ayton, outside of allegations he took bribes from Arizona amid an FBI investigation of the school’s recruiting practices, is his motor.
Entering his senior year of high school he was the No. 1 prospect but saw his status drop as complacency of his status set in, allowing other players on this list to take his spot. He’s been so productive this season (his 20.3 points and 11.1 rebounds per game earned him Pac-12 Player of the Year honours) that it hasn’t mattered much, but his occasional lapses in intensity can be seen on the defensive end where he can be great but often chooses not to be.
Regardless, as the projected No. 1 pick in this June’s draft, Ayton will be appointment viewing.
Marvin Bagley III – No. 2 Duke
Bagley reclassified a year earlier to get himself into the 2017 class, becoming the top recruit this season. He didn’t disappoint, earning ACC Player of the Year honours with a real shot at being named the national player of the year.
In 29 games played with Duke this season, Bagley averaged 21.1 points and 11.5 rebounds on 60.5 per cent shooting. Like many of the top NBA prospects this year, Bagley is a new-age power forward with athleticism, lateral quickness and shooting ability.
Given Duke’s seed, there’s a good chance the Blue Devils go on a deep run. If that happens, and Bagley performs the way he has all season, there’s a chance he could take a run at Ayton’s No. 1-overall draft spot.
Mohamed Bamba – No. 10 Texas
Whereas a lot of the big men on this list would prefer to be listed at the four, Bamba is a centre, pure and simple.
Although his offensive game is still developing, Bamba is an absolute game-changer defensively. Capable of anchoring a defence as the rare natural shot-blocker who knows when and how to jump up and challenge a shot without fouling — he was second in the nation with 3.7 blocks per game while only committing 2.4 fouls per contest. Compound this with remarkable natural size (seven-feet tall with a seven-foot-10 wingspan) and incredibly agile feet and you have yourself the recipe for a potentially lethal wrecking ball-type defender at the next level.
Mikal Bridges – No. 1 Villanova
The only player on this list who isn’t a freshman, Bridges and fellow junior-year backcourt mate (and favourite for national player of the year) Jalen Brunson make up the best guard duo in the country for a team that’s expected to make the Final Four — as Villanova’s No. 1 seed denotes.
Bridges has transformed himself from just an uber-athletic defensive specialist into a prototypical three-and-D NBA wing prospect, raising his three-point percentage from 29.9 and 39.3 per cent in his freshman and sophomore years respectively, to a scorching 43.3 per cent on 12.1 attempts per game.
At six-foot-seven he has excellent size for his position and his athleticism makes him a threat as a slasher as well.
Wendell Carter Jr. – No. 2 Duke
Bagley grabs all the headlines, but his fellow frontcourt super-frosh partner in crime has been no less important.
Carter’s less well-rounded than Bagley but checks off all the boxes you want in big man. He rebounds effectively, is a competent shot-blocker, is a good interior scorer with strong post skills and has just enough of a shooting stroke to keep defences honest.
He doesn’t have explosive athleticism, and his footspeed leaves much to be desired, but that doesn’t mean Carter can’t play.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – No. 5 Kentucky
The only Canadian of significant stature participating this year, Gilgeous-Alexander is a Hamilton, Ont., native projected to go in the first round of the 2018 NBA Draft.
Of the Kentucky NBA prospects, freshman combo forward Kevin Knox is probably more talented, but at six-foot-six with strong defensive acumen and ball-handling and passing skills, Gilgeous-Alexander offers teams more versatility on the floor.
Jaren Jackson Jr. – No. 3 Michigan State
While Ayton’s No. 1 ranking is really his to lose, the player who could end up as potentially the most impactful NBA player of this bunch is Jackson.
Standing six-foot-11, 240 pounds, with a seven-foot-four wingspan, Jackson is a physical monster blessed with athletic gifts that make him the perfect fit for the modern NBA.
Offensively, he’s strong in both pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll situations, capable of finishing strong on the roll while being able to use his dangerous three-point stroke (39.6 per cent shooter from deep) when he pops out. Defensively, the freshman’s 3.2 blocks per game led the Big Ten, while his athleticism and lateral quickness allow him to hedge out point guards and recover with little difficulty.
Jackson isn’t the best player on a stacked Spartans team, but he might be the most talented.
Michael Porter Jr. – No. 8 Missouri
Porter was the No. 1 recruit of the 2017 class before Bagley reclassified, but regardless of his ranking it was a big deal for the Tigers when they recruited him.
Unfortunately, a spinal injury he suffered after just two minutes of play in his season opener against Iowa State robbed Porter of all but one game this season — Missouri’s 62-60 loss to Georgia in the SEC Tournament.
Coming into the college season Porter, a six-foot-10 combo forward prospect, was thought of to compete for a top-three spot in the draft, but his injury has seen his stock plummet meaning he’ll have some serious ground to make up during the tournament.
Collin Sexton – No. 9 Alabama
A football school traditionally, Alabama isn’t known for its basketball prowess, but Sexton changed all that this season.
One of the most dynamic players in college basketball, Sexton’s season has been a roller-coaster ride of ups and downs. And while the inconsistency is frustrating from a talent-evaluation standpoint, the flashes of talent he’s shown when he’s on is undeniable — just ask Minnesota and Arizona, schools he hung 40 and 30 against this season.
At six-foot-two without natural vision and a work-in-progress jumper it may be tough for Sexton to find a fit at the next level as a point guard, but he’s got Eric Bledsoe-level athleticism, physicality and drive, so a good NBA player is definitely in there.
Trae Young – No. 10 Oklahoma
Young was the most talked about player in college basketball this season for good reason.
Dropping 27.4 points per game, the freshman phenom led the nation in scoring and the combination of ball-handling, passing, shooting ability and fearless — borderline audacious — shot selection have people anointing him as “Steph Curry 2.0.”
Young has a long way before he’s a two-time NBA MVP, but the comparisons aren’t without merit. Like Curry, Young is a natural shooter with microwave tendencies that allow him to erupt for massive scoring nights. This season he’s had nine 30-plus-point nights, including four contests where he eclipsed the 40-point barrier.
Additionally, also similar to Curry, Young uses the fear of his shooting stroke to help setup his teammates to the tune of 8.8 per game — also an NCAA best this season.
Young’s flaw is also what makes him great. His abundant confidence sees him take many questionable shots which hurt his efficiency — he shot 42 per cent from the field this season. And although he hears the Curry comparisons, he doesn’t have range quite like Curry had, even when the Golden State Warriors superstar was making his name at Davidson.
With that said, there’s no bigger attraction and no one prospect more intriguing than Young. Any time you have a kid with potential to go for 50 in an NCAA game you have to tune in.