The NCAA tournament is an annual celebration of upsets and Cinderella stories, a three-week smorgasbord of basketball that’s become a national pastime and nonstop water-cooler conversation starter every March.
But for NBA fans, the tournament offers something else: an opportunity to catch some of the league’s stars of tomorrow under the brightest of lights. Beginning Thursday, many players who will be selected at this year’s NBA draft in June will showcase their talent as they attempt to make a run through the field of 68.
Here are the top 30 NBA prospects in this year’s tournament, courtesy of DraftExpress’s Top 100 prospects list:
1. Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA: At 6 feet 6 with brilliant passing and playmaking, it’s easy to see why the Lakers are enamored. Then again, so is just about everyone in the NBA, which is why Ball is considered to be the best pure point guard prospect in the draft — and behind only Washington star Markelle Fultz, whose team didn’t make the tournament, on almost any draft board.
2. Josh Jackson, SF, Kansas: There are doubts about Jackson’s shooting stroke, and he’s had some off-court issues, but he’s also the kind of rangy, athletic wing player every NBA team dreams of finding. He won’t wait long to go off the board.
3. Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke: Tatum can do it all — and showed as much during Duke’s run to the ACC Tournament title in New York last week, showing off the ability to go coast-to-coast and score with ease. He may have the best chance of forcing his way higher up the draft board with a huge tournament.
4. De’Aaron Fox, PG, Kentucky: Scouts love Fox’s ability in the floor game. But Fox’s questionable shooting could make him a risky pick early in the draft.
5. Lauri Markkanen, PF, Arizona: A rare hoops prospect from Finland, Markkanen has shown both a capacity to score inside and out. With every NBA team hoping to find skilled bigs who can shoot and play power forward, he will go early.
6. Malik Monk, SG, Kentucky: Monk can flat-out score, as he showed by putting up 47 points in the Wildcats’ win over North Carolina in what was arguably the game of the season. It’s unclear what else Monk will do in the pros, but that will be enough to make him a lottery pick.
7. Jonathan Isaac, SF, Florida State: Isaac, with a 6-foot-11 frame and a 7-1 wingspan, will have to grow into his game, but NBA executives will be drawn by his potential.
8. Miles Bridges, PF, Michigan State: Tom Izzo’s guys are expected to play hard, and Bridges has the athletic talent to go with it. It’s unclear if he’ll be a small or power forward, but given the way the NBA values flexibility, that may not matter.
9. Justin Jackson, SF, North Carolina: A 6-8 wing who averaged 18 points a game and shot 37 percent from three-point range on seven attempts per game, Jackson is going to get looks simply because of his shooting ability. A big tournament performance could really help his stock.
10. Justin Patton, C, Creighton: Patton has stormed onto the scene as a freshman big who can do a little bit of everything, from scoring inside to showing off a three-point shot. But can he defend well enough to stay on the floor?
11. Ike Anigbogu, C, UCLA: A raw, developing big man, Anigbogu is expected to stay in school, but a big tournament performance could push a talent like him out early.
12. Luke Kennard, SG, Duke: Kennard is scoring 20 points per game and hitting 45 percent of his three-pointers. So, yes, he’ll be getting drafted in the first round — if the sophomore declares.
13. Donovan Mitchell, SG, Louisville: An athletic combo guard, Mitchell — with a big tournament — could shoot up draft boards, especially if he looks able to play the point.
14. Zach Collins, C, Gonzaga: Like Anigbogu, Collins is a reserve big who is developing nicely and who, if he has a big tournament, could be coaxed into leaving college early.
15. Johnathan Motley, PF, Baylor: Motley is the latest in a long line of long, athletic bigs from Baylor. But all of them have become fringe players in the NBA. Can he beat that standard?
16. Harry Giles, PF, Duke: Giles could probably use more time in school, but after multiple knee issues, he’ll enter the draft. He’ll likely be a boom-or-bust pick.
17. T.J. Leaf, PF, UCLA: Playing alongside Ball has brought the best out in Leaf, an offensively gifted power forward who will be a first-rounder if he comes out of school.
18. Bruce Brown, SG, Miami: A freshman shooting guard with a 6-8 wingspan, Brown is yet another guy solidly in the 2018 first round that could potentially bolt early if he has a big tournament.
19. Bam Adebayo, C, Kentucky: A physical specimen, Adebayo — like so many Kentucky players — is expected to be one and done. He could dramatically change his draft stock with a strong tournament showing.
20. Semi Ojeleye, SF, Southern Methodist: Ojeleye transferred from Duke and has played a huge role in SMU’s impressive season. A borderline first-rounder, the tournament could determine whether he stays or goes.
21. Caleb Swanigan, C, Purdue: Swanigan feels like the second coming of Jared Sullinger, another former Big Ten star big man who was an overweight but skilled player. The difference is that Swanigan hasn’t had Sullinger’s injury concerns.
22. Dillon Brooks, SF, Oregon: Hitting 41 percent of his threes, Brooks is the kind of pure scorer who can carry his team deep into the tournament. If he does, his draft stock will improve.
23. Jawun Evans, PG, Oklahoma State: Evans is only 6-1, but by averaging 19 points and six assists in the Big 12 showed he can play. He’s another guy whose tournament could determine his draft ceiling.
24. Josh Hart, SG, Villanova: Coming back for his senior year not only gave Hart a chance to win a second straight title, but proved to NBA scouts he’s capable of being a contributor.
25. Chimezie Metu, C, Southern California: Yet another raw, athletic big who is expected to stay in school, and who falls under the same umbrella: he can change his stock with a big tournament.
26. Grayson Allen, SG, Duke: Arguably no one on this list needs a good NCAA tournament more than Allen, who has dropped out of the first round for many after a tumultuous junior season. A good few weeks in March, though, could change that.
27. Wesley Iwundu, SF, Kansas State: With a season-high 24 points to go with seven assists in a win over Wake Forest in a play-in game Tuesday night, Iwundu became the first NBA prospect to take advantage of tournament exposure to shine.
28. Devin Robinson, SF, Florida: Robinson’s numbers aren’t eye-popping, but he’s long and shooting 38 percent from three-point range. That will get NBA scouts’ attention if he declares.
29. Frank Jackson, PG, Duke: Jackson has impressed as a freshman, and he’s another guy who seems likely to stay in school — unless he rockets up draft boards with an impressive tournament.
30. Monte Morris, PG, Iowa State: Morris may not have the measurables, but he’s been productive and a winner in college. That will get him a look in the second round — and could potentially make him next year’s Malcolm Brogdon.