The NCAA Tourney: In Search of the Next Unicorn
Wow, what a weekend. I could write 10,000 words on what transpired in the first weekend of the NCAA tournament: from Loyola Chicago shocking the world to UMBC shocking the universe. Alas, this is an NBA website so I’m going to break down the implications of the tournament’s first weekend on the draft. But this was easily the most fun this Suns fan has had watching basketball all year.
The top of last year’s draft was dominated by point guards. This year is a different story as the top five picks on NBAdraft.net are 6’10’’ or taller. The success of players like Joel Embiid and Anthony Davis have teams looking for the next “Unicorn” to point their horn toward the road to an NBA championship. (The NBA is truly a progressive league. Could you imagine NFL pundits referring to anyone with a sub 4.3 40 time as a Pegasus?) To make it as a big man in today’s NBA, you have to be able to do more than just take up space (sorry, Kendrick Perkins). This generation of young big men have recognized that as they have grown up focusing on becoming better shooters and ball handlers. Let’s take a look at how this year’s crop of prospective Unicorns fared in the first weekend of the tournament (and give them way-too-generous Unicorn comparisons.)
Deandre Ayton (1 game) – 38 Min, 14 PTS, 46% FG, 13 REB, 1 AST, 1 BLK, 1 STL
Perhaps the second biggest upset of the first round was Buffalo’s dismantling of Arizona. Deandre Ayton seemed to be the most imposing presence in the whole tournament. A lot of people probably want to pin the loss on Ayton, but Arizona’s guard play was dismal. Buffalo packed the paint against Ayton, essentially doubling Ayton even before he caught the ball. Arizona’s guards couldn’t get Ayton the ball with any consistency and couldn’t hit anything from the perimeter to soften that up. Still, Ayton struggled to seal his man to provide his guards with any lanes for entry passes. Defensively, Buffalo drew Ayton away from the basket and made him guard on the perimeter. He got torched more often than not, allowing Buffalo’s smaller forwards to penetrate at will.
Despite the poor performance, Ayton will still likely be one of the top two picks in the upcoming NBA draft. His combination of size and athleticism along with a decent jumper have most NBA teams salivating over his potential as the next generational big man. Questions about his lack of shot-blocking ability for his size may give teams pause. He’ll need to acquire some defensive instincts as well as continue to improve as a ball handler and shooter. But if he does, he can be the next Joel Embiid.
Marvin Bagley (2 games) – 33.5 Min, 22 PTS, 75% FG, 8 REB, 1 AST, 0 BLK, 0.5 STL
Duke has been one of the few tourney favorites that have seen little resistance thus far. Bagley has continued to put up great numbers as he has all year, leading Duke in scoring through two tournament games. His offensive arsenal has been on full display: alley-oops, put backs, drives from the perimeter, and he’s even hit two of three from the arc. A lot of his stats can be attributed to simply being the biggest guy on the court, but he’s easily the most polished offensively of all the big men in the draft. It’s tough to gauge his viability on defense, as Duke has employed a zone most of the time. And it’s usually Duke’s other lottery hopeful, Wendell Carter manning the middle.
Bagley is one of the few players that could bust up the Ayton-Doncic party atop the draft, especially if he can lead Duke to a championship. Although he has the physical tools to be a great defender, it remains to be seen whether he has the motor to achieve that. If he can show that as well as the consistent jumper he’s displayed as of late, he could become a Chris Bosh type and separate himself as the best player in this loaded draft.
Michael Porter Jr. (1 game) – 28 Min, 33% FG, 16 PTS, 10 REB, 0 AST, 3 STL, 0 BLK
Michael Porter Jr. is the player I was most looking forward to seeing in this tournament simply because he had only played 25 minutes all season. He’s the biggest unknown heading into the draft, and his game against Florida State did little to help his cause. He is clearly not even close to 100%. Many are worried that his premature return will only hurt his draft stock. He was getting no lift on his jumper and was a step slow on his drives. However, I did see flashes of the potential that had him rated as a top-5 pick at the beginning of the season. He’s a smart player, and he showed that with savvy positioning on both sides of the floor. This allowed him to put up decent numbers, but ultimately, he seemed a shell of his healthy self.
I don’t think that Porter’s return will hurt his draft stock too much. If anything, his decision to play demonstrates his competitive nature as well as his commitment to his team. It says a lot more about him as a person than a player, but those types of intangibles don’t go unnoticed in NBA front offices. Going into the season, Porter’s skillset was being compared to Kevin Durant because of his size, shooting, and ball handling ability. It’s hard to imagine that at this point, but the talent is still there. A team will definitely take a chance on him with a high lottery pick.
Jaren Jackson (2 games) – 16.5 MIN, 4 PTS, 29% FG 6 REB, 0.5 AST, 1 BLK, 1 BLK
Jaren Jackson Jr. is another big man oozing with potential. He’s only 18 years old, so he’s still extremely raw. His growth over the course of the season caused him to soar up draft boards. He was plagued with foul trouble during both of Michigan State’s games, which explains his mere 16.5 minutes per game. When he was in the game, he made a noticeable impact on defense, but couldn’t get it going offensively. He has a solid shooting stroke that allowed him to shoot nearly 40% from three during the season, but he didn’t get a chance to display it in limited minutes.
Jackson Jr. will likely compete with Mohamed Bamba and Bagley to be the second big man off the board. He has the length and foot speed to cover a lot of ground on the perimeter as well as protect the rim, but he will need to focus reducing his fouls to become the defensive anchor that scouts project him to be. He’s the youngest player on this list, so he still has plenty of time to work on that and improve his offensive game. He could have the highest upside of anyone on this list. Think Kevin Garnett (the original Unicorn).
Mohamed Bamba (1 game) – 31 MIN, 13 PTS, 14 REB, 3 BLK, 1 STL, 1 AST
Mohamed Bamba had a typical Mohamed Bamba game before fouling out late in Texas’ game against Nevada. He altered countless shots at the rim while grabbing every rebound in his (not so) immediate area. His impact was on the game was most evident during the overtime period after he had fouled out. Nevada hit all six of their shots during those five minutes including three right at the rim. On offense, Bamba scored mostly due to length alone, but one play in particular highlighted his promise as a scorer. After blocking a shot, he raced down the court and posted up 15 feet from the basket. He spun baseline, took one step, and threw down a reverse dunk.
Bamba’s 7’9’’ wingspan alone will get him drafted in the top 10. The most common NBA comparison for him is Rudy Gobert, but he will have to add some weight to have that kind of defensive impact. He is more polished offensively than Gobert was at the same stage of his career. If he can mature offensively and extend his range to three-point line, the sky is the limit. Admit it, Rudy Gobert with a jump shot would be the ultimate Unicorn.