NBA tanking can be such a drag. There are empty arenas, dozens of meaningless game sand that queasy feeling of confliction in wanting your team to win but knowing it’s better if they lose.
With the NCAA tournament tipping off this week, it doubles as college basketball’s showcase of whether the next crop of high NBA draft picks has been worth tanking for. This list is for those fans rooting for an ownership change (Knicks), craving another superstar (Cavaliers) or, well, needing an ownership change (Suns).
Here’s a look at the 10 best prospects who’ll be on display in the NCAAs this week. If you are lazy, watch Duke. They have four potential first-round picks, three of whom are on this list. (Sorry, Tre Jones.)
1. Zion Williamson, Duke freshman
He dominated the ACC tournament in historic fashion, shooting 13-for-13 in his opening game and leading Duke to the title and a No. 1 seed. Soak up every remaining game.
The Incredible Hulk.” In the superhero category: pieces of Charles Barkley, Dominique Wilkins and Blake Griffin. (Here’s a deep dive on Zion in the NBA from earlier this season.)
2. Ja Morant, Murray State sophomore
Morant is such a unique player to put in perspective. Since 1985, only nine players have registered more assists than Morant this season (311). That puts him in the most elite point guard categories statistically, trailing only names like Kendall Marshall, Avery Johnson and Mark Jackson. What separates Morant – and why he’s ahead of Barrett on this list – is the offensive polish to score 24.5 points per game to go along with the assists. He can bulk up his 6-foot-3, 175-pound frame and be a consistent NBA All-Star.
NBA comparison: Russell Westbrook, with a pinch less bounce but learned to share in kindergarten.
3. R.J. Barrett, Duke freshman
Perhaps the safest pick. As one NBA scout says, “He’s a winner, he can score and has a strong mentality. He’s tough-minded, he’s going to be successful.” He’s a smooth player who can slash, but occasionally envelop the offense into a black hole of his own selfishness. He has classic NBA size and build at 6-foot-7 and 202 pounds. His father, Rowan Barrett, played at St. John’s and is an executive with Canadian Basketball. He needs to refine his shot, as he’s just 30 percent from 3-point range.
NBA comparison: Think new-school version of Tracy McGrady.
4. De’Andre Hunter, Virginia sophomore
His defensive versatility has NBA front offices intrigued, as he can guard from 1 to 4. “He can defend in the new NBA,” said an executive.
Hunter is 6-foot-7, 225 pounds and wisely returned to UVA to fill in his body and refine his game. (Remember, he was injured and didn’t play against UMBC last year in UVA’s historic loss.) He’s improved to a 45 percent 3-point shooter, up from 38 percent last season.
NBA comparison: Kawhi Leonard on defense, with a ways to catch up on offense.
5. Nassir Little, UNC freshman
Perhaps the most compelling player on the list, he’s a 6-foot-6 energizer bunny. UNC has been a bad fit to showcase his game, as his stock has slipped since winning the MVP of the McDonald’s game. One NBA scout calls him a “tweener” with poor “feel for the game” because “I don’t think he knows how to play.”
He’s yet to start a game for UNC, averages just 18.3 minutes and has yet to snatch scouts’ attention with a string of consistent performances. But UNC’s ball-share system has been a clunky fit to showcase him, scouts say, and NBA teams realize that. Says an executive: “Sometimes it’s hard to translate athletic ability and playmaking ability up from college,” he said. “With guys like him, his natural ability stands out so much. Once he gets NBA spacing and more touches, it’s going to show in his stats.”
NBA comparison: A less-angry Jae Crowder with a higher ceiling. Little needs to improve on his 26.5 percent shooting from 3.
6. Cam Reddish, Duke freshman
He checks all the prototype boxes, as he’s got a sturdy build – 6-foot-8, 218 pounds – and fits the archetype skill set of the modern NBA player. The issue with Reddish is that he’s floated through much of this season, trading moments like his game-winner at Florida State with clunkers like 1-for-7 against Texas Tech and 2-for-8 against FSU in the ACC tournament. In 10 of Duke’s 33 games, Reddish has scored two or less field goals.
NBA comparison: Think Andrew Wiggins, Rudy Gay or your favorite low-motor wing.
7. Coby White, UNC freshman
He was a five-star recruit out of high school who committed so early – summer before his junior year – that he didn’t receive as much attention as other prospects his caliber. White straddles the line between electric and out-of-control, and his evaluations are similarly all over the place. His wingspan is an issue – one executive called it a “negative wingspan” and added: “I don’t see him going in the top 10.” Here are the questions: Can he calm down a bit? Does his dominance at this level translate against equitable athletes at the next level? Do you trust him to play point guard?
NBA comparison: Think Jeremy Lin, mostly for the lack of position and high-end sizzle.
8. Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech sophomore
Classic player that does everything well but nothing elite. That means he either emerges as an excellent player on the next level or just settles into a career role as a bench player. Culver’s length is the opposite of White, as he’s considered lanky at 6-foot-5 and plays bigger. Here’s guessing he ends up underrated, since he comes from a nuanced defensive system and if he was putting up his numbers (18.5 ppg) in Lawrence instead of Lubbock he’d have more attention. He’ll be a rotation player in the NBA for a long time. How high end is the tricky part, as he lacks top-end athleticism and is shooting just 32 percent from 3-point range.
NBA comparison: Think Jeremy Lamb in body type, with a more polished all-around game. Especially on defense.
9. Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga junior
Hachimura is a developmental player who has made distinct leaps in each of his three seasons. In other words, a modern draft unicorn. Hachimura has leapt from 2.6 points per game as a freshman to more than 20 as a junior this season. He’s got a nice frame at 6-foot-8, 230 pounds and is shooting a promising 47 percent from 3-point range on 32 attempts. The WCC doesn’t give the Zags as many showcase games as the power leagues, which means a deep NCAA run could push him up the charts.
NBA comparison: Think Tobias Harris as his ceiling. He’s still on the ground floor compared to Harris though.
10. Naz Reid, LSU freshman
He edges Kentucky’s Keldon Johnson for this spot in part because of how divisive he is. One executive loved him: “With his size and skill, I think that guy is really good. He hasn’t been coached yet. When he gets coached he can go to another level.” But there’s plenty of red flags, as one scout summed him up this way: “He’s so talented, but he’s just so lazy.” Reid is 6-foot-10 and 242 pounds, the type of powerful athlete that makes NBA executives forget his intangible shortcomings. He’s showed a capable touch from 3-point range, hitting 37 percent this season. Fascinating boom-or-bust test case.
NBA comparison: A scout says: “Pick an unreliable NBA big with a low motor.” We’ll go with an underachiever in the Chris Wilcox mold, but without as much success and longevity. (Andrew Bynum gets a nod here, too.)