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24 players to watch in the NCAA tournament if you’re an NBA fan

By Tim Bontemps

March 12, 2018 at 10:29 AM

Mo Bamba of Texas, DeAndre Ayton of Arizona and Marvin Bagley III of Duke are expected to go early in the NBA draft. (Composite photo/)

The NCAA tournament brings the best opportunity for NBA fans to get a look at the next generation of potential stars.

While a few elite prospects won’t be part of the festivities because they aren’t in college — most notably, Real Madrid star Luka Doncic — or because their teams didn’t make the tournament, most of the cream of the crop of the upcoming draft class will be among this year’s field of 68 teams vying to cut down the nets.

Here’s a look at the top two-dozen players in the NCAA tournament, from an NBA draft perspective and listed in alphabetical order:

Grayson Allen, G, Duke

The latest in a long line of players to accept being the face of Duke basketball — and, thus, the title of “most hated player in the nation” — Allen, a senior, will be a borderline first-round pick but has a chance to stick in the NBA with his size (6-foot-5, 205 pounds) and scoring ability (15.7 points per game).

Next game: Thursday, 2:45 p.m. (CBS) vs. No. 15 Iona

DeAndre Ayton, C, Arizona

Potentially the top pick, Ayton is a physical specimen (7-1, 250) capable of both protecting the rim and spacing the floor to three-point range. The freshman could also be a question mark if he’s caught up further in the FBI probe into college hoops.

Next game: Thursday, 9:40 p.m. (CBS) vs. No. 13 Buffalo

Marvin Bagley III, F, Duke

Bagley (21.1 points, 11.5 rebounds) has been every bit the force he was expected to be. While there are concerns about which position he’ll fill in the NBA, the freshman’s combination of size (6-11, 234) and athleticism will make him a high lottery pick regardless.

Next game: Thursday, 2:45 p.m. (CBS) vs. No. 15 Iona

Mo Bamba, C, Texas

Like Ayton, Bamba (12.9 points, 10.4 rebounds, 3.7 blocks) is another big center (6-11, 225) who will be in the running for the top spot in the draft. But you’d better get a look at the freshman early, given the Longhorns are a No. 10 seed likely to be a quick out.

Next game: Friday, 4:30 p.m. (TBS) vs. No. 7 Nevada

Keita Bates-Diop, F, Ohio State

In the modern NBA, where wings are in great demand, the 6-7 Bates-Diop is precisely the kind of player every team is seeking. And, as a 22-year-old junior, he should be able to step in and contribute right away.

Next game: Thursday, 4 p.m. (TNT) vs. No. 12 South Dakota State

Mikal Bridges, G, Villanova

Like Bates-Diop, Bridges is a long, lanky perimeter player (6-6, 210) who can space the floor and defend. That, along with the junior’s experience on the big stage at Villanova, will help him transition smoothly to the NBA and should make him a late lottery pick.

Next game: Thursday, 6:50 p.m. (TNT) vs. No. 16 LIU Brooklyn or Radford

Miles Bridges, G-F, Michigan State

Bridges could’ve been a lottery pick last year but chose instead to stick around for a second season under Tom Izzo. His stock hasn’t surged this season as much as expected, but he’s yet another combo guard-forward who should find a home somewhere late in the lottery.

Next game: Friday, 7:10 p.m. (CBS) vs. No. 14 Bucknell

Wendell Carter Jr., F, Duke

Carter has been a fixture alongside Bagley in Duke’s frontcourt and should be in the mix to be a top-10 pick. The freshman’s stock could get a boost by a big tournament run.

Next game: Thursday, 2:45 p.m. (CBS) vs. No. 15 Iona

Daniel Gafford, F-C, Arkansas

One of many talented bigs in this year’s draft, Gafford is likely to land somewhere in the middle of the first round — a status that could fluctuate depending on how Arkansas does in the tournament, and how the freshman does in pre-draft workouts.

Next game: Friday, 3:10 p.m. (truTV) vs. No. 10 Butler

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, Kentucky

The NBA is looking for length and athleticism on the perimeter. As a 6-6 point guard, Gilgeous-Alexander provides both, making the freshman an intriguing option somewhere in the draft’s first round.

Next game: Thursday, 7:10 p.m. (CBS) vs. No. 12 Davidson

Devonte’ Graham, G, Kansas

Graham is the senior leader that a team hoping to make a deep tournament run needs, and Kansas Coach Bill Self will lean heavily on him. The 6-2 scorer is likely a second-round pick, but that could change with a big March.

Next game: Thursday, 2 p.m. (TBS) vs. No. 16 Penn

Aaron Holiday, G, UCLA

The third of the Holiday brothers (behind New Orleans Pelicans guard Jrue, a one-time NBA all-star, and Chicago Bulls guard Justin), Aaron should be following them to the NBA after a breakout junior season in which he has posted 20.3 points and 5.8 assists per game.

Next game: Tuesday, 9:10 p.m. (truTV) vs. No. 11 St. Bonaventure

De’Andre Hunter, G, Virginia

There’s no guarantee that Hunter, a talented 6-7 freshman, chooses to leave Virginia after his first season under Coach Tony Bennett. But he’s precisely the kind of player who could have a breakout tournament that takes him from fringe first-round prospect to surefire pick, compelling him to enter the draft.

Next game: Friday, 9:20 p.m. (TNT) vs. No. 16 University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Jaren Jackson Jr., F-C, Michigan State

Likely the youngest player in the draft, the 6-11 Jackson has the potential to turn into the kind of floor-spacing center (shooting nearly 40 percent from three-point range and 80 percent at the free throw line) that every team in today’s shot-happy NBA dreams of finding. That combination is almost assuredly going to place the freshman among the first few names announced by Commissioner Adam Silver in June.

Next game: Friday, 7:10 p.m. (CBS) vs. No. 14 Bucknell

Kevin Knox, F, Kentucky

Yet another guy who can play both forward spots while providing scoring punch (15.5 points per game) and defensive versatility, the 6-9 freshman also is likely to be a mid-first-round pick.

Next game: Thursday, 7:10 p.m. (CBS) vs. No. 12 Davidson

Jontay Porter, C, Missouri

The younger brother of consensus top-10 pick Michael Porter Jr. (who we’ll get to in a moment), Jontay Porter could wind up staying at Missouri for at least another year. But he does offer some intriguing potential as a near-7-footer who can space the floor (37.7 percent from three-point range) and has great passing ability.

Next game: Friday, 9:50 p.m. (TBS) vs. No. 9 Florida State

Michael Porter Jr., F, Missouri

Porter may be the most intriguing player to watch heading into the tournament. After sitting out virtually all season because of a back issue — he logged two minutes total — he played in one game in the SEC tournament, posting 12 points and eight rebounds in 23 minutes. If healthy, the freshman could be a game-changer for Missouri in the NCAA tournament, and he could get back in the conversation for the top pick if he proves his back issues are behind him.

Next game: Friday, 9:50 p.m. (TBS) vs. No. 9 Florida State

Related: [He’s been compared to Kevin Durant. Now he’s coming back for March Madness.]

Collin Sexton, G, Alabama

The best point guard prospect in this year’s draft, the 6-3 Sexton has helped put Alabama basketball on the map. Questions about the freshman’s shot linger, but he brings enough to the table (19 points per game) to be a late lottery pick.

Next game: Thursday, 9:20 p.m. (TNT) vs. No. 8 Virginia Tech

Landry Shamet, G, Wichita State

Shamet will hope to follow a couple of other recent Wichita State guards to the NBA: Fred Van Vleet (Toronto Raptors) and Ron Baker (New York Knicks). And the sophomore is another guy with the size (6-4, 180) and length to be an intriguing selection late in the first round for a team looking for an immediate contributor.

Next game: Friday, 1:30 p.m. (TNT) vs. No. 13 Marshall

Zhaire Smith, G, Texas Tech

Another talented freshman who will likely stay in school, given he’s a borderline first-round pick at this point, the 6-5 Smith is averaging more than 11 points and shooting 41.9 percent on three-point attempts. A big run from the Red Raiders could change his stock dramatically.

Next game: Thursday, 7:27 p.m. (truTV) vs. No. 14 Stephen F. Austin

Khyri Thomas, G, Creighton

Yet another wing player with the ability to evolve into the coveted “3-and-D” wing, Thomas should be a first-round pick if he chooses to leave Creighton after a junior season in which he has averaged 15.3 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 steals.

Next game: Friday, 6:50 p.m. (TNT) vs. No. 9 Kansas State

Lonnie Walker IV, G, Miami

A 6-4 freshman guard with a 6-10 wingspan, Walker is definitely the type of intriguing package that can blow up in the tournament and surge higher than the mid-first-round projection he currently holds. If he can help Jim Larranaga make another long tournament run, look out.

Next game: Thursday, 3:10 p.m. (truTV) vs. No. 11 Loyola Chicago

Robert Williams, F-C, Texas A&M

Williams, like Miles Bridges, had the ability to leave as a lottery pick last year but stuck around. Also like Bridges, Williams has seen his stock flatline this season. He’s the type of player who could make general managers look really good or really bad for passing on him, but he has enough physical gifts to make himself a lottery pick regardless after nearly averaging a double-double (10.3 points and 9.0 rebounds).

Next game: Friday, 12:15 p.m. (CBS) vs. No. 10 Providence

Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma

There is no more divisive player in this year’s class than Young, who leads the nation in points and assists per game (27.4 and 8.8) but faded during Big 12 Conference play as teams learned how to deal with him (not to mention that he doesn’t have much talent around him). His career could wind up being like Stephen Curry’s … or like Jimmer Fredette’s. Either way, like both, he should be a mid-lottery selection.

Next game: Thursday, 12:15 p.m. (CBS) vs. No. 7 Rhode Island

Read more:

Texas beats Iowa State; Oklahoma State sends Trae Young, OU packing in Big 12 tournament

St. John’s bounces Georgetown from Big East tournament for second straight year; Marquette survives

Oregon State knocks off Washington in OT; Colorado, Stanford, Oregon advance in Pac-12 tournament

UNC routs Syracuse, Notre Dame rallies to upset Virginia Tech in ACC tournament

A season on the stink: Remembering the smelliest team in NCAA tournament history


Tim Bontemps is The Post's national NBA writer. He hosts the "Posting Up" podcast and writes the "Monday Morning Post Up" newsletter. He joined The Post in 2015.

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Sports

24 players to watch in the NCAA tournament if you’re an NBA fan

By Tim Bontemps

March 12, 2018 at 10:29 AM

Mo Bamba of Texas, DeAndre Ayton of Arizona and Marvin Bagley III of Duke are expected to go early in the NBA draft. (Composite photo/)

The NCAA tournament brings the best opportunity for NBA fans to get a look at the next generation of potential stars.

While a few elite prospects won’t be part of the festivities because they aren’t in college — most notably, Real Madrid star Luka Doncic — or because their teams didn’t make the tournament, most of the cream of the crop of the upcoming draft class will be among this year’s field of 68 teams vying to cut down the nets.

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