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.
Plenty of Lakers have big-time experience in the tournament. Josh Hart won a national championship with Villanova in 2016, while Moritz Wagner was with game Michigan playing for a title just a year ago. Even Alex Caruso was part of one of the wildest comebacks in Tournament history with Texas A&M in 2016.
But this is about the future, and here are some players to keep an eye on who take the floor on Thursday.
Ja Morant, PG; Murray State (vs. 5-seed Marquette, 1:30 p.m. PT)
The first player in college basketball history to average 20 points and 10 assists in a season, Morant is one of the most exciting players in the country and a bonafide top-three prospect. Morant shows a great balance of scoring and passing while also affecting the game on the defensive end as well.
Morant thrives with the ball in his hands, showing the ability to create for himself and others thanks to excellent ballhandling and vision. He also understands how to operate at different speeds and is an excellent athlete capable of throwing around some jaw-dropping dunks.
Turnovers are a concern for Morant and his jumper has been relatively streaky, but he is as much of a must-watch player in this tournament as anyone not named Zion. Making things even better is a first-round showdown with another explosive point guard in Markus Howard, so Morant gets a perfect opportunity to showcase his skills against another one of college basketball’s best at his position.
Lakers president of basketball operations Magic Johnson and general manager reportedly scouted Morant during the Ohio Valley Conference Tournament.
PJ Washington, PF; Keldon Johnson, SF; Tyler Herro, SG; Kentucky (vs. 15-seed Abilene Christian, 4:10 p.m. PT)
There’s no way to talk about draft prospects without bringing up the Wildcats, and while they may not have a top-tier prospect, they have a trio of players who could find themselves in the lottery.
Washington has improved his game greatly in his sophomore season with solid moves in the post while also showing a much better three-ball as well as the ability to attack off the dribble. He has ideal measurements and athleticism for the position, but will also need to improve on the glass and defensively.
Herro is one of the best shooters in this draft class and will have a lot of eyes on him. Even though his percentages aren’t as great as they probably should be, his form is perfect and he does an excellent job of moving without the ball to create space. When he gets hot it’s lights out for the opposition.
Johnson has been the least consistent of the group, starting off the season hot, but tailing off recently. Despite that, he has ideal physical tools for a modern-NBA wing and competes to the highest degree. The question for him is whether he can consistently create, and make, shots for himself. That could vault him potentially as high as the top-10.
Brandon Clarke, PF/C; Rui Hachimura, PF; Gonzaga (vs. 16-seed Farleigh Dickinson, 4:27 p.m. PT)
Clarke is the ideal run-and-gun big man for today’s NBA. While he doesn’t have the ideal height for a traditional center, he makes up for it with amazing length and athleticism. He is a target at the rim for alley-oops and other easy passes, and averages more than three blocks on the other end of the floor.
He is an older prospect when compared to others, but teams love bigs capable of switching out on to guards while also protecting the rim and playing high energy at all times. Clarke is someone with big-time sleeper potential in this draft class.
Hachimura on the other hand seems to have a wide range on draft boards with some great positives, but also very real concerns.
He has shown some very intriguing ability offensively as a big man, with excellent shooting touch out to 15 feet and the potential to stretch that range out to three-point land. He also has the athleticism and strength to play down low and finish through contact.
Hachimura, however, still lacks an overall feel for the game, which can really show itself defensively as he can be slow to react to things. He has also shown a tendency to fade in the background at times so his assertiveness and willingness to takeover games will be something to watch.
Bruno Fernando, C; Maryland (vs. 11-seed Belmont, 12:10 p.m. PT)
One of the best physical specimens in all of college basketball, Fernando has the size, length, and athleticism teams are looking for at the center position these days. Fernando, however, is still very much a work in progress despite showing some solid growth in his two years in College Park.
Fernando has moments, especially on offense, where he looks like a potential top-10 prospect and others, especially on defense, where he looks two years away from being two years away. In general, players with Fernando’s size, athleticism, and offensive potential tend to rise the close the draft gets.
If he can lead Maryland to a surprise Sweet 16 appearance with some big performances he could be one of the biggest risers of the entire tournament.
Chuma Okeke, PF; Auburn (vs. 12-seed New Mexico State, 10:30 a.m. PT)
One of the prospects on a big role coming into the tournament, Okeke showed why scouts are beginning to take notice in Auburn’s SEC Championship victory over Tennessee, dominating on the glass, while also showing off his three-point range.
Okeke is a physical specimen, capable of switching out onto guards as well as defend the post. Offensively he’s physical on the block, but can also step out and hit the three with regularity. Leading Auburn to a big run in the tournament could see his stock rise tremendously.
Naz Reid, PF/C; LSU (vs. 14-seed Yale, 9:40 a.m. PT)
LSU is a bit of a mess with everything going on surrounding their coach and potential NCAA violations all of which has many viewing them as a popular pick to be upset early on. All the more reason to catch a glimpse of Reid while you can.
He has good size and length for a big in the league with an excellent offensive skill set. Reid can dominate down low, but also has the touch to step outside and knock down the college three at a good rate. He can become too reliant on the outside game and has been known to coast at times, but he has a game that will appeal to scouts if he’s at his best.