March Madness is the last chance for NBA draft hopefuls to showcase their skills against stout competition. Scouts and executives will watch the 2017 NCAA Tournament closely to find standouts, disappointments and breakout prospects.
What’s the most exciting part about this tournament and draft crop? No pick is a lock yet, and much of the mid-to-late lottery and beyond is wide open. There is plenty of time and room for prospects to rise and tumble down the board. One or two games shouldn’t outweigh a full season’s body of work, yet every year a couple of prospects boost their NBA value with strong postseason play.
As the full slate of tournament games tips off, here are our latest first-round projections. Who’s in good position leading up to all the mayhem?
*Draft order based on standings (and trades) through games played on March 14. College basketball statistics accurate as of March 15.
1. Boston Celtics (via Nets): Markelle Fultz, Washington PG (6’4”, Fr.)
As I’ve mentioned in previous mocks, this pick isn’t set in stone. Boston will do its due diligence on Lonzo Ball, Josh Jackson and Jayson Tatum. As of right now, Fultz seems to offer the most all-around value, even if his Huskies finished 9-22 and aren’t in a postseason tournament of any kind. His dynamic potential as both a scorer and playmaker is too hard to pass up.
2. Los Angeles Lakers: Lonzo Ball, UCLA PG (6’6”, Fr.)
The Lakers’ recent slide has afforded them the projected No. 2 slot in the draft and a crucial decision to make. Josh Jackson’s explosive versatility is tempting, but Lonzo Ball could drastically boost L.A.’s playing style. Thanks to his rare playmaking vision (8.8 assists per 40 minutes), he could shoulder the passing duties while D’Angelo Russell serves as a 2-guard.
3. Phoenix Suns: Josh Jackson, Kansas SF (6’8” Fr.)
Jackson is the top two-way prospect available. He represents a significant long-term upgrade at the 3 spot over T.J. Warren, and he’d jell magnificently with Eric Bledsoe and Devin Booker.
Jackson’s a disruptive force on defense, racking up 1.6 steals and 1.1 blocks per game for the Jayhawks. His speed and range would give Suns coach Earl Watson more schematic flexibility and firepower.
4. Orlando Magic: Jayson Tatum, Duke F (6’8”, Fr.)
The ever-rebuilding Magic need help in several areas. They could push a couple of different buttons, but Tatum is the best prize left on the board. Duke’s slashing star is arguably the best non-guard offensive weapon in this draft, armed with a plethora of moves and counter-moves.
Tatum has noticeably improved his foot speed and agility over the past year. That will translate to better wing defense in the NBA and more separation for mid-range shots and drives. He could quickly become Orlando’s go-to weapon.
5. Philadelphia 76ers: Malik Monk, Kentucky SG (6’3”, Fr.)
Philly needs guards. But should it pick a point guard or shooting guard in this draft? If Markelle Fultz or Lonzo Ball were available, it would be an easy choice, but they’re both taken.
Instead of picking a primary ballhandler, the Sixers could opt for Monk, who doesn’t need the rock in his hands all the time to be effective. That allows Ben Simmons, Dario Saric and Joel Embiid to do most of the creating while he spaces the floor and drills catch-and-shoot triples.
6. Sacramento Kings: Dennis Smith Jr., N.C. State (6’2”, Fr.)
Another tough choice here. Smith didn’t lead the Wolfpack to the Big Dance, but his slashing, scoring and passing potential is exciting. He racked up 18.1 points and 6.2 assists per game while playing pesky defense and plucking 1.9 steals. Smith also shot 46 percent from the field and 36 percent from distance, which is impressive considering his high-volume workload. His blend of aggressiveness and finesse is exactly what Sac-town needs.
7. New York Knicks: De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky PG (6’4”, Fr.)
New York is lucky this draft has a deep crop of playmakers. Fox would be one of the top two or three point guards in most drafts, but in this one, he’s the fourth off the board.
Lexington’s shifty, defensive-minded floor general has flashed much-improved shooting potential of late. He’s 7-of-12 from deep during the past half-dozen games, including 3-of-5 during the SEC playoffs. Let’s see if he can keep it up during Kentucky’s NCAA tourney run.
8. Sacramento Kings (via Pelicans): Jonathan Isaac, Florida State F (6’10”, Fr.)
Isaac has the most two-way upside of any remaining prospect. He still holds a relatively modest role for the Seminoles, so we haven’t seen him unleash his physical tools for extended stretches. However, his length, agility and smooth shooting stroke suggest he’ll be an inside-out asset in the Association.
Sacramento has a bunch of frontcourt players on the roster right now. But Rudy Gay won’t be around forever, and the Kings need an influx of offensive versatility and interchangeability. Cue Isaac.
9. Dallas Mavericks: Frank Ntilikina, France PG (6’5”, 18 years old)
The point-guard depth of this class continues to impress. Although Ntilikina is the fifth quarterback taken, he has almost just as much two-way potential as the studs picked before him. Dallas will finally have a long-term point guard with size, skill and upper-echelon defense.
While Ntilikina’s defensive awareness and fundamentals are beyond his years, he’s a multi-purpose weapon on offense as well. In his last four games for Strasbourg, he’s been exceptionally efficient: 26.8 minutes per game, 12.0 points, 1.5 assists, 20-27 (74 percent) on field goals and 7-of-11 (64 percent) on three-pointers.
10. Minnesota Timberwolves: Lauri Markkanen, Arizona PF (7’0”, Fr.)
Markkanen could help the Wolves in several ways, most notably as a floor-spacing shooter. He’s 67-of-155 (43 percent) from three-land so far this season, and his range will quickly expand to the NBA arc. He can also attack closeouts, pass and run the floor extremely well.
Markkanen’s not a defensive standout. He’s certainly not as good of a rim protector as Kristaps Porzingis, his most common comparison. However, he moves his feet nimbly for someone his size and could eventually hold his own in Tom Thibodeau’s rotation.
11. Charlotte Hornets: Miles Bridges, Charlotte Hornets SF/PF (6’6”, Fr.)
It’s hard to envision Bridges as a full-time power forward because he’s 6’6” with a 6’9” wingspan. Fortunately, he has legitimate multi-positional tools: loads of strength and athleticism to battle some 4s, and plenty of skill and agility to play the 3 spot.
Charlotte would love his three-point accuracy, sharp instincts and active defense. He’d begin as a rock-solid role player for the Hornets while growing into a featured weapon alongside Kemba Walker.
12. Portland Trail Blazers: Robert Williams, Texas A&M PF (6’9”, Fr.)
Williams has greater potential than almost all of Portland’s bigs except for Jusuf Nurkic. He’s the most explosive unpicked prospect at this juncture, and he’d give the Blazers an athletic jolt on both ends.
Williams swatted 3.8 shots and hauled 12.6 rebounds per 40 minutes this season thanks to his 7’4” wingspan. But he also scored 18.3 points, dished 2.2 assists and shot 41 percent on two-point jumpers, per Hoop Math.
13. Miami Heat: John Collins, Wake Forest PF (6’10”, So.)
Miami’s roster may undergo somewhat of an overhaul this offseason. Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra will look to add talent all over the place. Collins is a worthwhile investment late in the lottery because he’d improve the Heat’s pick-and-roll depth, post-up options and possibly more. Collins has showcased a nice mid-range jumper this season, which bodes well for his pick-and-pop production down the road.
14. Chicago Bulls: Justin Patton, Creighton PF/C (6’11”, Fr.)
The Bulls will hunt for upgraded guard depth this offseason. However, they don’t want to reach for a mediocre guard at this spot in the draft. Instead, they’d boost their frontcourt outlook by adding Creighton’s big fella.
Patton has an awesome feel for the game for someone his age and size. He has pro vision, a blossoming back-to-the-basket game and some three-point potential. If Chicago truly rebuilds during the next few years, Patton would be a bright spot.
15. Denver Nuggets: Isaiah Hartenstein, Germany PF/C (7’0”, 18 years old)
Hartenstein does a little bit of everything for Lithuanian club Zalgiris. He can attack the bucket, pass from the post, vacuum the offensive glass and defend aggressively. The German prodigy’s mobility and defensive toughness would make for a superb fit next to Nikola Jokic if Mason Plumlee leaves in free agency.
16. Milwaukee Bucks: Justin Jackson, North Carolina SF (6’8”, Jr.)
The Bucks could use some long-term depth on the wing, and Jackson is the perfect remedy. He’s the type of prospect who can immediately help streamline the offense as a role player. During his three years at UNC, Jackson has displayed elite basketball IQ, a fluid mid-range game and improved three-point shooting. His contributions off the bench would help Milwaukee move from the middle to the top of the Eastern Conference.
17. Detroit Pistons: Donovan Mitchell, Louisville SG (6’3”, So.)
Stan Van Gundy will try to address Detroit’s shooting guard situation behind Kentavious Caldwell-Pope this offseason. Mitchell won’t be a dynamic shot creator, but his outside shooting and defensive speed would fit superbly in the Pistons’ system.
Mitchell can catch fire from deep, and he hit at least three triples 11 different times this season. He’s also an explosive finisher in transition and on weak-side drives. On defense, he leads all Louisville rotation players in steals (2.6 per 40 minutes) and all Cardinals guards in defensive rating (93.6).
18. Indiana Pacers: Rodions Kurucs, Latvia SF (6’8”, 18 years old)
Indy’s choice at No. 18 will depend on its overall approach to the offseason. If the Pacers can’t get over the hump with their current group, it might be time for a more thorough rebuild.
Kurucs has flashed versatility in Spain’s B level, and he’s poised to move up to the ACB League next year. He has a fascinating combination of skill and athleticism; he attacks the hoop and also sinks mid-range and long-range jumpers. The Pacers should invest in him because he’s one of the best draft-and-stash candidates in the field.
19. Atlanta Hawks: Johnathan Motley, Baylor PF/C (6’9”, Jr.)
This is one of the few picks that stayed the same from our previous mocks. I just really like the Motley-to-Atlanta fit. He’s much more than a rebounder and low-post player. He’s a terrific passer for his position, and he’s also a confident mid-range shooter. With the Hawks potentially losing Mike Muscala and Kris Humphries in free agency, Motley would be a welcome addition. Mike Budenholzer could play him next to Dwight Howard or Paul Millsap.
20. Portland Trail Blazers (from Grizzlies via Cavaliers and Nuggets): OG Anunoby, Indiana SF (6’8”, So.)
Anunoby was a potential lottery pick before he had season-ending surgery on his right knee. Toward the late teens and early 20s, teams will think about rolling the dice on him. Anunoby’s defense is that good; his lightning quick feet and 7’6” wingspan would drastically improve Portland’s perimeter and interior fortification.
21. Oklahoma City Thunder: Luke Kennard, Duke SG (6’5”, So.)
The Thunder could tab a big man with this pick, but Kennard’s all-around repertoire is too convincing. He’d help OKC’s backcourt as both a shooter and passer.
Kennard hopes to translate his outstanding ACC tourney play into the Big Dance and then the NBA. Five of Duke’s last six games were against ranked opponents, and in that six-game stretch he’s shined: 20.8 points, 5.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.2 three-pointers per game.
22. Toronto Raptors: T.J. Leaf, UCLA PF (6’10”, Fr.)
Toronto will likely seek a forward or two in the offseason thanks to the possible free agent departures of Serge Ibaka, Patrick Patterson and P.J. Tucker. UCLA’s T.J. Leaf may not be a highly productive starter right away, but he’d make multidimensional contributions in the rotation. His rebounding, soft scoring touch and passing vision would take some of the burden off the Raptors’ stars.
23. Orlando Magic (from Clippers via Raptors and Bucks): Tyler Lydon, Syracuse PF (6’10”, So.)
Syracuse’s failure to make the NCAA tourney didn’t help Lydon’s chances to boost his draft stock. But they didn’t damage his draft value, either. His NBA role was already pretty clear: knock down open threes, roll to the hoop, stay active defensively and clean up the defensive glass. He’d do all those tasks smoothly coming off Frank Vogel’s bench.
24. Brooklyn Nets (via Wizards): Harry Giles, Duke PF (6’11”, Fr.)
Giles didn’t exactly dominate the ACC tourney, but he made a huge impact in his 10-15 minutes per game. The North Carolina game was particularly striking: he challenged the Tar Heels’ athletic frontcourt with six points, seven rebounds, four blocks and a steal in just 15 minutes.
The Nets are still in tanking, gambling mode. They’d strongly consider adding Giles’ agility, 7’3” wingspan and promising offensive game to the rotation. He’s not a star, but could play an electrifying role in Brooklyn.
25. Brooklyn Nets (via Boston): Terrance Ferguson, U.S.A. SG/SF (6’7″, Fr.)
The Texas native has maintained a relatively small role for the Adelaide 36ers this season. It’s hard to gauge his all-around potential due to his limited minutes and middle-tier competition. Nevertheless, the eye test tells us he’s worth the risk late in the first round. Ferguson has boatloads of athleticism, great size for an NBA wing and a good-looking jump shot.
26. Utah Jazz: Dwayne Bacon, Florida State SG (6’5″, So.)
Bacon has enough creativity and control off the bounce to enjoy a peripheral role for the Jazz. Florida State’s leading scorer wasn’t always efficient this season, but he’d play smartly within his modest capacity at Utah. The biggest question is how effective he’ll be on defense; his development on that end will determine how much playing time he gets.
27. Portland Trail Blazers (via Cavaliers): Ivan Rabb, California PF (6’10”, So.)
I doubt Portland will keep all three of their picks, especially with the roster and payroll as full as they are. For now, we’ll predict they’d tab the best forward available in Cal’s Ivan Rabb. While he didn’t have a dominant sophomore season, he made incremental improvements and expanded his game out to the three-point line. If the Blazers trade or stash other picks and keep this one, his inside-out skills will be useful.
28. Los Angeles Lakers (via Rockets): Edrice Adebayo, Kentucky PF/C (6’9″, Fr.)
Although L.A. has a few promising young forwards, the frontcourt is nothing to rave about. They could use an infusion of physicality and rebounding tenacity, courtesy of “Bam” Adebayo. He enters the NCAA tourney coming off a strong SEC title run, including 17 points and nine rebounds against Arkansas in the championship. His combination of quickness and strength is rare for someone his age. Adebayo would give the Lakers some explosiveness off the bench.
29. San Antonio Spurs: Josh Hart, Villanova SG/SF (6’5″, Sr.)
Hart will be one of San Antonio’s primary draft-day targets because he knows how to grind out wins. More specifically, the Spurs are attracted to three key basketball qualities: three-point accuracy (41 percent), passing instincts (3.8 assists per 40 minutes) and defensive effectiveness (94.6 defensive rating). Gregg Popovich would quickly incorporate Hart’s talent as a secondary playmaker, off-ball scorer and sharp perimeter defender.
30. Utah Jazz (via Warriors): Anzejs Pasecniks, Latvia PF/C (7’2″, 21 years old)
After taking a guard with their first pick, the Jazz turn to the post at No. 30. Pasecniks is a towering presence for ACB League club Gran Canaria, and he’d be a massive pick-and-roll receiver for Utah. In addition to point-blank buckets, Pasecniks is in the early stages of three-point development. He also has the agility and length to be a respectable reserve defender.