With the NCAA Tournament set to tip off on Tuesday, NBA fans turn their attention to the college game, with a special eye on which players will join the league soon.
The projected top pick in this year’s draft will not participate, as Markelle Fultz failed to help Washington qualify, and the same is true for two other players expected to be selected in the top 10; Dennis Smith Jr. and Robert Williams.
But every other high end prospect playing college ball in the United States made it to the tournament and for those who are unfamiliar with these teenagers and young adults who will be getting a paycheck for one of the 30 NBA teams next season, here’s a summary of the top 10 pro prospects taking part in March Madness.
Stats in this post were researched on our stats database, sports-reference and hoop-math, unless credited otherwise.
- Lonzo Ball (2nd on Draft Express’ top 100)
The magnificent passer led UCLA to 29 wins in 34 games, igniting an offense that ranked third in the country in adjusted offensive efficiency – according to Ken Pomeroy.
What makes the six-foot-six point guard special is his natural inclination to speed up the pace of the game and anticipate passing lanes a second ahead before they come open. UCLA ranked 12th in nation in three-pointers made and Ball was the one creating the vast majority of those looks in semi-transition or catching defenders napping in the half-court, assisting on 31.7% of the Bruins’ scores when he was on the floor.
Despite his remarkable shooting percentages (77.9% at the rim and 41% from beyond the arc), there’s skepticism regarding Ball as a scoring threat. He’s very good in transition and has proven himself able to hit deep step-back three-pointers in isolation but he’s struggled to get to the basket or the foul line against a set defense and been unwilling to take the eventual stop-and-pop pull-up jumper out of the pick-and-roll to prevent opponents from completely sagging off him in the two-man game.
Ball is considered an uneven individual defender at best but his feel for making plays in the passing lanes (2.2 steals per 40 minutes) and contributions on the glass (14.4% defensive rebounding rate) have led to him ranking second among the six rotation players who average at least 24 minutes per game in defensive rating.
- Josh Jackson (3rd)
I wrote about Jackson in January, detailing his athletic prowess in the open court and above the rim and his intelligence passing on the move and in help defense. Those remain his best attributes but he’s shown some signs of improvement regarding one of the gaps in his game: his shooting.
The six-foot-eight combo forward nailed 48% of his 25 three-point shots over the last 10 games. That hot streak led to him finishing the conference part of the schedule with a 43.5% three-point percentage and the overall season at 37.7%.
Those are palatable percentages, for sure, but probably shouldn’t be blown out of proportion. Jackson still only averaged 3.2 three-point shots per 40 minutes and shot only 58% from the foul line against Big 12 competition.
- Jayson Tatum (4th)
Tatum started the season injured and was a bit underwhelming in his first couple of months back, as a part of a Duke team that lost four of its first seven ACC games. But as Duke righted the ship, subsequently going on a seven-game winning streak and finishing the season with 11 wins in 18 conference games, Tatum went back to looking like a top five pick.
The six-foot-eight combo forward is a classic matchup nightmare in this era of basketball, when players his size are more comfortably used as “big men” in four-out lineups.
Tatum is very skilled for someone his age and can take opposing wings into the post or use his strength to create separation and launch mid-range jumpers in isolation, which he nailed at a 40% clip this season.
If guarded by a prototypical big, Tatum can spot up from beyond the arc or handle the ball in pick-and-roll, though these are two things he hasn’t shown to be legit strengths of his this season, despite the fact he did them reasonably well in high school, as he hit just a third of his three-point shots and wasn’t put in the two-man game a whole lot by Duke.
As a defender, Tatum has been a pleasant surprise, as he’s flashed the ability to bend his knees to get low in a stance and stay in front of smaller players, aside from showing decent feel for making plays in the passing lane and making himself a presence near the basket in help defense, as he’s averaged 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per 40 minutes.
De'Aaron Fox (5th)
This is kind of rare year for Kentucky. They are good but not excellent. They are not that good but not disappointing. And yet, out of this team might leave their highest draft pick since Anthony Davis, as Fox is currently ranked fifth in Draft Express’ top 100.
The six-foot-three point guard has been excellent breaking down opposing defenses at this level. He’s taken 48.3% of his attempts at the basket, converted at a 65.2% clip there, shot 7.8 free throws per 40 minutes and assisted on 29.9% of Kentucky’s scores when he’s been on the floor.
Fox is also considered a very good defender. He presses opponents 35 feet away from the basket and uses his reach to pick their pockets – as he’s averaged 1.9 steals per 40 minutes, did very well in high school navigating over screens and beating his man to the spot with his anticipation skills and contributes in the defensive glass – collecting 13.3% of opponents’ misses when he’s been on the floor – a very good mark for a point guard.
But his struggles as a shooter limit perception of his star potential. He’s missed almost 70% of his 194 shots away from the basket.
Lauri Markkanen (7th)
The seven-foot gunner from Finland posted one of the most remarkable shooting seasons in NCAA history, nailing 40.2% of his 107 two-point jumpers and 43.2% of his 155 three-point shots.
Perhaps even more impressive than the volume of shots he got up and made is the multiple ways he did it. Markkanen can not only hit spot-up looks but also proved himself able to make three-pointers out of the pick-and-pop and coming off screens, which opposing big men have a really hard time defending. Hell, he even gotten some stop-and-pop pull-up jumpers up, as Arizona gave him the ball in side pick-and-roll here and there.
Markkanen is the walking, talking, breathing definition of gravity in basketball and his mere existence on the court makes life easier for his teammates, as they are often playing four-on-four because the man guarding Markkanen is told to have no help responsibility.
He will not be the number one pick in the draft because of every other aspect of the game, though. Markkanen can’t play above the rim as a target for lobs, doesn’t have long arms to rebound outside of his area in the offensive glass, doesn’t have much strength to set deep position in the post on offense or hold his ground in the post on defense, lacks toughness in the defensive glass, hasn’t shown particularly great instincts in help defense and lacks length to act as a rim protector.
Malik Monk (8th)
As I profiled in December, Monk is essentially the smaller version of Markkanen.
His shot making is remarkable, as he nailed 40.7% of his three-point shots while averaging 8.7 such attempts per 40 minutes.
The six-foot-three gunner is undersized for a pure wing, though, projecting to lack strength and length to matchup against position peers in the pros, aside from not being the most interested defender to begin with.
A transition to the point might be in his future but considering he wasn’t given much shot creation responsibility this season, it’s unclear how that would play out.
Jonathan Isaac (9th)
I profiled Isaac is January and his season played out about the same as it had up until that point. His role stayed the same, his usage even went down a little bit. His defensive rebounding held up against strong ACC competition, as he picked up a very appealing 25% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor, playing primarily as a power forward.
His shooting, however, went a bit down. Isaac nailed just 16 of his 45 three-point shots in conference play and his two-point jump-shooting regressed to 37.5%, down from that red-hot 48.3% from the first 20 games.
Miles Bridges (12th)
Of all the players ranked outside the top 10 in Draft Express’ top 100, Bridges seems to me the one with the most viable path to superstardom.
The six-foot-seven combo forward has shown the ability to crossover his man in isolation or get by him with a spin move and make a pocket pass or pass across his body to the opposite end of the court in the pick-and-roll.
His pull-up jumper isn’t all that reliable, he hasn’t learned the ability to draw fouls in volume yet, his 3.1 turnovers per 40 minutes are unpleasant and the fact he’s hit just 68.7% of his free throws make you skeptical of his 38.8% three-point percentage (despite the fact he’s averaged 6.5 such shots per 40 minutes).
But when you consider that aside from showing shot creation potential, Bridges is a sick athlete who can play above the rim as a target for lobs and shot blocker (averaging two blocks per 40 minutes), has impressed with his intelligence defending the pick-and-roll as a big man on a few instances and held his own on the glass (collecting 23% of opponents’ misses when he was on the floor), it seems very clear that this guy is as good a prospect as anyone not named Fultz or Ball.
Justin Jackson (13th)
Jackson is the rare prospect who has improved his stock by staying in college longer. A subpar shooter over his first two years at North Carolina, the wing has developed into a sharpshooter as a junior, nailing 37.7% of his 239 three-point shots (average of almost nine attempts per 40 minutes) and acting not only as a spot-up weak-side threat but even coming off pindown screens.
Aside from his shooting, Jackson has proven himself the perfect wing teams are looking for these days in a couple of other areas. He’s able to pass on the move attacking a closeout (assisting on 15% of North Carolina’s scores when he’s been on the floor) and can defend smaller players. His thin 193-pound frame in the context of his six-foot-eight height might be a weakness against bulkier wings but has helped him navigate screens trailing shooters sprinting from side-to-side and defending point guards in the pick-and-roll. That sort of versatility makes him huge asset in an era where switching is becoming the preferred method for guarding the pick-and-roll.
John Collins (15th)
Collins led college basketball with a 36 PER, carrying Wake Forest to an NCAAs bid for the first time in seven years.
The six-foot-10, 218-pound center is the bruising type, who does most of his damage bullying opponents with his back to the basket game and controlling the glass – collecting 25.7% of opponents’ misses and 16.5% of Wake Forest’s misses when he’s been on the floor.
There are aspects of his game that are expected to translate more reliably to the pro game, though. Collins can play above the rim as a target for lobs, has shown nice hands to catch the ball on the move, flashed a catch-and-shoot mid-range jumper out of the pick-and-pop and a face-up jump-shot against players who can hold their ground against him in the post (nailing 44.2% of his two-point jumpers this season).
The areas for concern regard his defense in space and his feel for the game. Collins hasn’t shown much prowess for moving his feet in the perimeter and has assisted on less than 5% of Wake Forest’s scores when he’s been the floor, which is even more head-scratching when you consider his 30% usage-rate.