It is that time of the year, for one of the most fun and exciting events in all of sports: the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, aka March Madness. Of course for fans of the Los Angeles Lakers, this means the chance to check out some of the top prospects in college basketball, who could find themselves on the roster next season.
The team already has a group of players who are well-versed in the NCAA Tournament, including Josh Hart who won a championship with Villanova in 2016. Moritz Wagner played for a title with Michigan just last year, and Alex Caruso was part of one of the most memorable comebacks in March Madness history with Texas A&M in 2016.
But this is about the future and here are some players to keep an eye on during Friday’s contests:
Zion Williamson, PF; RJ Barrett, SG; Cam Reddish, SF; Duke (vs. 16-seed North Dakota State (4:10 pm PT)
You could probably make this entire section strictly on Blue Devil prospects so instead of doing that, we’ll just group the main ones together since all three are top 10 and possibly top-five selections.
Williamson and Barrett are viewed by many as the two top players in the Draft. Zion already has an outstanding following because of his unreal athleticism and highlight-reel plays, but he’s also extremely skilled as a ballhandler and passer and his passion on the court is contagious. There are still some questions about his shooting and how he’ll translate to the NBA, but he is worth the price of admission.
Barrett has just about everything scouts look for in a wing in today’s NBA as far as measurables, he’s also one of the best scorers in the country who can play on or off the ball and he carries himself like a star. But his streaky shooting worries some and his efficiency can dip as he goes too far into iso-mode.
Reddish has looked like the best player of all three at times this season, but at others can simply disappear behind Barrett and Williamson. If he can show consistent effort and shooting in the tournament, he can jump himself firmly in the top five of this draft.
Duke is a heavy favorite to win the tournament so all eyes will be will be on them, as well as fellow freshman point guard Tre Jones who could also raise his stock as the Blue Devils make what should be a deep tournament run.
Jarrett Culver, SG; Texas Tech (vs. 14-seed Northern Kentucky 10:30 am PT)
Much like Ja Morant, Culver is a sophomore who has shown massive growth over his two years in college. Culver is a do-it-all guard with a ton of potential to grow into a menace at the next level.
Culver has improved greatly as a ballhandler, being able to create shots and scoring over smaller guards due to his height and strength. He’s a solid athlete who should be able to defend three positions in the NBA, and gives maximum effort at both ends.
There are some concerns about his jumper translating to the next level. He is also still relatively basic with his ballhandling moves which could lead to turnovers, but those are things that can improve with work. Culver has the opportunity to rise up boards in a big way if he can lead the Red Raiders to a huge run.
De’Andre Hunter, SF/PF; Virginia (vs. 16-seed Gardner-Webb, 12:10 pm PT)
Hunter has made a huge leap already at Virginia, from a role player coming off the bench to the team’s primary offensive option. He now looks like a near-lock to be picked in the top-5 and can solidify that with a deep run in the tournament.
Things for Hunter, like any Virginia player, start on the defensive end as he has the strength, length and quickness to guard players in the post while also switching out on wings. Offensively
he has improved as a shot creator for himself and others while improving his three-point percentage despite the increased role.
The concern with Hunter is a perceived lack of upside as he is an older prospect, but the conservative, slow-down system at Virginia could be hiding potential we haven’t seen yet. At worst, he’s a high-level 3-and-D product, but the potential for so much more is there.
Coby White, PG/SG; Cameron Johnson, SF; Nassir Little, SF/PF; North Carolina (vs. 16-seed Iona 6:20 pm PT)
Many are hoping to finally see a UNC-Duke national championship meeting and if the Tar Heels are going to get there they’ll need big contributions from these three potential first-rounders.
White is the highest ranked of the three with his outstanding shooting and ability to potentially play both guard positions. He is still much better as a spot-up player off-ball at this stage than a true playmaker and has struggled against top competition at times. Flourishing on the big stage could lock him into the top-10.
Little is viewed by most as having the highest upside with his perfect physical profile for an NBA forward and outstanding athleticism. He could likely defend four positions at the next level but lacks a consistent jumper and overall feel for the game. His lack of improvement so far this season has undoubtedly caused his stock to take a hit.
On the opposite end of the spectrum is Johnson who, at 23 years old, lacks the upside of Little, but could likely be an immediate contributor thanks to his obvious skill set of three-point shooting. He shot 46.5 percent from deep this year and with teams constantly looking for shooters, he could move himself up into the mid-first round with a great showing.
Grant Williams, PF; Tennessee (vs. 15-seed Colgate, 11:45 am PT)
An undersized power forward at just 6’7 with average athleticism and decent length, Williams makes up for it by being an extremely smart defender and tough rebounder who has improved his game in all facets.
Williams has begun stepping out and knocking down threes with confidence and has tripled his assists over his three years with the Volunteers. He may not have the highest ceiling, but tough, smart bigs who can defend multiple positions, create for others, and hit the three will have a place in the league.
Nickeil Alexander-Walker, SG; Virginia Tech (vs. 13-seed Saint Louis 6:57 pm PT)
Alexander-Walker is viewed as one of the safer players in the draft with a higher floor, but possibly lower upside. He will undoubtedly be able to shoot at the NBA level and can potentially guard the one through three as well with a great frame for a wing and good length to make up for just average athleticism.
Where he has grown greatly is as a creator for himself and others, as he was mainly just a spot-up shooter as a freshman. Continuing to show that growth on offense while playing great defense for a coach in Buzz Williams who had a history of pushing up great wings to the league while at Marquette could push Alexander-Walker firmly into the top 10.
Matisse Thybulle, SF; Washington (vs. 8-seed Utah State, 3:50 pm PT)
A potential defensive-stopper at the next level, Thybulle averaged 3.4 steals and 2.3 blocks in his senior year at Washington. Replicating those kinds of numbers is obviously unlikely at the NBA level, but he has all of the skills to defend the perimeter.
The question for Thybulle is whether he can convince scouts that he can consistently knock down jumpers. He hit just 31 percent from deep this year, but his 85.1 percent free throw shooting offers hope that he can improve. As long as he can give teams something on offense he could have a long career because of his defensive work.
Talen Horton-Tucker, SF; Iowa State (vs. 11-seed Ohio State, 6:50 pm PT)
Horton-Tucker is one of the most interesting prospects in the draft. He stands at only around 6’5 but is nearly 240 pounds. Despite that he still possesses solid athleticism and quickness and is a high IQ player capable of initiating the offense.
He is a good ballhandler and his jumper is improving, but still has much room for growth. Questions about what position he will play and defend at the next level will stick with him, but he’s also the youngest prospect in the draft. He will have to show scouts that his talent outweighs the measurements.