By Nick Whalen, RotoWire
Special to Yahoo Sports
As the 2017-18 Fantasy regular season nears its close, for many owners it’s time to start looking ahead to next season, and the draft prep that comes with it.
While we’re still three-plus months from the NBA Draft, with the exception of 19-year-old Slovenian Luka Doncic, nearly every other consensus lottery prospect — if there ever was such a thing — is set to take part in the NCAA tournament.
Among the headliners are DeAndre Ayton, Marvin Bagley, Mikal Bridges and Jaren Jackson, each of whom lead top-four seeds with sights on a run to San Antonio. Meanwhile, the teams housing the draft’s two best point guard prospects — Trae Young (Oklahoma) and Collin Sexton (Alabama) — each snuck in as one of the final at-large bids
For the most part, there’s not a ton a blue-chipper like Ayton can do in the Tournament to dramatically help or hurt his draft stock. He’s going in the top-three whether he fouls out in 12 minutes or throws up a few 20/20 games. But for prospects who aren’t the second coming of David Robinson, a deep run in March can mean the difference between going in the high-to-mid-lottery or the late-lottery.
Let’s take a look at 13 prospects in this year’s NCAA Tournament who could be impacting Fantasy basketball teams in 2018-19:
DeAndre Ayton, Arizona
If you’ve followed college basketball at all this season, particularly over the past month or so, you know the drill with Ayton. The 7-foot-1 center capped off a dominant run through the Pac 12 Tournament with 32 points and 18 rebounds in a title game win over USC on Saturday night. That came less than 24 hours after Ayton hung 32 points, 14 boards, three assists, two blocks and two steals on UCLA in the semifinals.
A rare blend of size, strength and quickness, Ayton’s recent dominance has drawn comparisons to Shaq’s run with LSU in the early-90’s. While that may be a bit of a stretch, Ayton has emerged as the most-feared player in the country — by a fairly decent margin — heading into Opening Weekend. In doing so, his name has also risen to the top of most NBA mock drafts.
For as an imposing as Ayton can be catching lob after lob on offense, if there’s a knock on him as a prospect, it’s that the dominance hasn’t carried over to the defensive end. Ayton gets away with being the biggest and most athletic player on the floor in college, but in the NBA he’ll need to develop into a much more disciplined defender. The tools are unquestionably there.
Michael Porter, Missouri
Porter enters the Tournament with perhaps the most to prove among the elite NBA prospects. The 6-10 freshman has played a grand total of 25 minutes for Missouri this season, 23 of which came in Thursday’s SEC Tournament loss to Georgia, which marked Porter’s return following back surgery.
Talent-wise, Porter stacks up with any player in the country, but he didn’t look great in his first game back — 12 points, 8 rebounds, 5-of-17 FG — and the pressure will only build on a bigger stage. That said, Porter was going to be a top-seven pick regardless of whether he ever played another minute at Mizzou, and some scouts will view his decision to return as a mark in his favor, from a competiveness standpoint.
Expectations will probably be too high for Porter heading into Friday’s 8/9 matchup with Florida State, but if he’s able to settle in and lead the Tigers to a win, or even to the second weekend, Porter could vault his way back into the discussion as a top-3 pick come June.
Marvin Bagley Duke
Bagley has been as consistent as any freshman in the country, but his draft stock has steadily declined over the course of the season — or, perhaps more accurately, Bagley has been passed up by other elite prospects. While he has excellent size (6-11) and athleticism, to go with a springy first step, Bagley has a slim frame and doesn’t project to protect the rim at the level of Ayton, Jackson or certainly Bamba. And though he’s been virtually unstoppable in the paint as a freshman, questions remain as to how Bagley’s overall offensive package will translate to the next level.
In terms of NBA stock, Bagley remains an elite-level prospect who will probably go in the top-five. However, Ayton and Jackson, in particular, have supplanted Bagley on most boards, and at this point Bagley is no longer viewed as a can’t-miss superstar in the same tier as past frontcourt standouts like Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid or Karl-Anthony Towns.
Wendell Carter, Duke
A five-star recruit with great size and a strong all-around game, Carter entered the season as a projected late-lottery/mid-first-rounder, but he’s played his way into top-10, and perhaps top-six or seven, consideration. Carter isn’t the scorer or the athlete Bagley is, but he’s a better defender and spot-up shooter, and might be just as good on the glass. Carter also has roughly 30 pounds on Bagley, and while that limits his bounce, Carter has more than twice as many blocks than Bagley on the season.
Come late-June, Bagley is still the favorite to be the first Blue Devil off the board, but Carter, who’s shooting better than 46 percent from beyond the arc, has at least made it somewhat of a debate. Plus, there’s the fact that Carter has essentially been asked to fill the role of a traditional five alongside Bagley, so it’s possible he could blossom further in a system more tailored to his individual skills.
Jaren Jackson, Michigan State
Bagley and Ayton are household names to even casual college basketball fans, but Jackson is still flying under the radar while playing alongside another potential lottery pick in Miles Bridges. Jackson’s shooting cooled off in the Big Ten Tournament, but he’s hitting just under 40 percent of his threes for the season and has perhaps the most complete skill set of any big man in the draft — Ayton included.
While Jackson isn’t quite the physical specimen Ayton is, he’s a much more advanced shooter and might be the second-best rim-protector in the draft (3.2 BPG), behind Bamba. Jackson likely won’t be an immediate star in the NBA, but he has all the tools to develop into a prototypical, modern five, and his draft slot will ultimately reflect that.
Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Bridges would have been a lottery pick had he come out after his outstanding freshman season, when he averaged 16.9 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game. He opted to come back in an effort to improve his stock, and while it’s hard to argue he’s accomplished that goal, Bridges also has not significantly hurt his draft position either.
Production-wise, Bridges’ numbers are nearly identical to those from last season. He’s been slightly less-efficient as a sophomore, which is fine, though not exactly what scouts hope to see from a returning, lottery-caliber talent. The emergence of Jackson has certainly eaten into some of Bridges’ offensive responsibilites, but what’s ultimately going to cap his NBA stock is his lack of elite size and questionable fit at the pro level.
In a modern NBA where the reigning Defensive Player of the Year could pass as an NFL defensive end, the “tweener” label doesn’t carry the same damning connotations it may have five years ago, but Bridges is a true tweener in every sense of the word, and he’ll have to answer questions about whether he can hang with taller, quicker big men in the NBA.
Mohamed Bamba, Texas
The Longhorns made the field as an at-large and will take on seven-seed Nevada in what should be one of the more intriguing first-round matchups. Texas bowed out early to Texas Tech in the Big 12 Tournament, but Bamba played only 14 minutes in that game due to a toe injury.
The freshman says he’ll be at 100 percent for Friday’s matchup, which is bad news for Nevada considering how well Bamba has played over the second half of the season. Since the turn of the calendar, Bamba has racked up nine double-doubles, five of which came during a dominant, six-game stretch in the midst of the Big 12 schedule.
Still, despite his length and otherworldly wingspan, Bamba has looked a bit overmatched, at times, on the offensive end, and scouts have called his motor into question. He still needs to add strength and his back-to-the-basket game is rather weak. And while he has excellent fluidity as an athlete and above-average touch for his size, Bama is shooting a relatively disappointing 54 percent from the field, and just 28 percent from three.
As a result, Bamba’s stock has slipped a bit from where it was to begin the season, but he’ll still get heavy consideration in the top-five, and he could go as high as third overall. The inefficient three-point shooting isn’t ideal, but the fact that a player with Bamba’s physical profile is even comfortable shooting threes — his stroke looks fine — is somewhat of a bonus, all things considered.
Bamba’s upside as a rim-protector — 3.7 BPG; 20 games with at least four blocks — can’t be overstated. that was on full display in the Longhorns’ Big 12 opener against Kansas back in late-December, when Bamba put up 22 points, 15 rebounds and eight blocks in 34 minutes. The Harlem native will enter the draft — he literally laughed out loud when asked if he’d consider coming back to school — with the potential to be the best defensive big man in the league in three or four years.
Collin Sexton, Alabama
A top-10 recruit in the 2017 class, Sexton has been outstanding for most of the season, but his play in the SEC Tournament, headlined by a 31-point outburst in a win over Auburn, has vaulted him onto the national scene. That’s not to say Sexton hasn’t been a projected lottery prospect since October — he has — but he’s mostly sat in the 8-to-12 range.
At 6-3 with a long, lanky frame, Sexton plays an aggressive, downhill style and might be the most outwardly competitive player in the country. He’s rightfully warranted some De’Aaron Fox comparisons, but Sexton might be a better overall prospect than Fox, who was much slighter and a considerably worse three-point shooter. To be fair, Sexton doesn’t exactly shoot the lights out from three (34.4% 3PT), but he commands more respect on the perimeter, even if he doesn’t have Fox’s chops as a distributor in the halfcourt.
At the end of the day, Sexton probably won’t be able to play his way into a possible top-five selection, but he’s certainly on the short list of players whose stock could see an appreciable boost from a memorable March run. Like Trae Young, Sexton also benefits from the 2018 draft shaping up to be overwhelmingly frontcourt-heavy. Both players could present an interesting dilemma for teams like Phoenix or Orlando — which have each spent multiple lottery picks on forwards in recent years — should they pick in the five-to-eight range.
Mikal Bridges, Villanova
Of the players on this list, Bridges is the token upperclassman whose stock can only rise so high because of his age. A bit of a late-bloomer alongside fellow-junior Jalen Brunson, Bridges is the ideal college wing. He’s one of the best three-point shooters in the country (43.3% 3PT), who does everything else well, but nothing extremely well. At 6-6, Bridges has prototypical NBA two-guard size and is among the two or three propects most preparted to contribute immediately as a rookie.
Bridges will turn 22 in August, however, so his upside is perceived to be quite a bit lower than that of his one-and-done draft classmates. Even so, Bridges is on track to hear his name called somewhere in the lottery, and leading Villanova on another deep Tournament run would likely solifify his place in the top 10.
Trae Young, Oklahoma
Young ascended to the top of the college basketball world midway through the year after a series of jaw-dropping perfromances early in the Big 12 season. At 6-2 and a generously listed 180 pounds, Young uses his ball-handling and ability to change speeds on the fly to complement his unlimited three-point range.
Simply put, for about 60 percent of the season, Young was the closest thing to Steph Curry the college game has seen since Curry himself — and Young was doing it on a much bigger stage against better competition. Of course, as we know now, Young began to run out of gas midway through the conference season, and Oklahoma limpted into the Big 12 Tourament having lost seven of its previous nine games.
Nonetheless, the Sooners earned an at-large bid, providing Young with one final chance to redeem what was at one-time arguably the best individual season in recent college basketball history. The odds may not be in his favor, but if Young is able to recapture his shooting stroke and lead Oklahoma into the second weekend, his lasting impression on scouts — and NBA fans — will be much more positive one.
Even if that doesn’t happen, Young showed enough over the first half of the season that he’s still considered a comfortable lottery pick. There’s a reasonable chance that despite Oklahoma’s very public demise, Young could still win the Naismith Award– that’s how truly remarkable his first 20-odd games were. Young will be the guy to target for teams outside of the top six or seven looking for the ultimate home run pick.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kentucky
Their games are vastly different, but Gilgeous-Alexander’s rise reminds me of Devin Booker’s ascent into the lottery back in 2015. Both were highly regarded, top-40 recruits, but neither were considered locks — or even likely — to leave after one college season.
After a slow start, Gilgeous-Alexander has come into his own as Kentucky’s unquestioned best player. He’s scored at least 14 points in all but three games since Jan. 20 and took home SEC Tournament MVP honors after capping the week with 29 points and seven rebounds in a championship game win over Tennessee. Far from a traditional point guard, Gilgeous-Alexander is 6-6 with a near-seven-foot wingspan, and he uses that length to finish over and around smaller guards in the paint.
While he’s not overly explosive, Gilgeous-Alexander has excellent instincts and doesn’t get too carried away looking to create off the dribble. “Poise” is an overused term when it comes to prospect evaluation, but there’s a certain always-in-control feeling that comes with watching him.
Gilgeous-Alexander closed the season shooting nearly 50 percent from the floor and 40 percent from three, both excellent numbers for any freshman guard. His relative lack of athleticism at the NBA level will be called into question, but Gilgeous-Alexander’s upside as a do-it-all guard in the Mike Conley mold has propelled him into the late-lottery conversation.
Kevin Knox, Kentucky
Knox has all the physical tools to be an elite scoring wing in the NBA, and he’s begun to demonstrate more consistency down the stretch, scoring in double-figures in 11 straight games entering the Tournament.
As one of the youngest players in the class, it’s no surprise Knox is still a bit of a project on both ends, but his athleticism and potential as a multi-positional defender should be enough to land him somewhere in the 12-to-18 range on Draft night.
Lonnie Walker, Miami
Through the first half of the season, Walker vacillated between looking like a lottery pick one night and a G-leaguer the next. He’s still been a bit up-and-down, but it’s been mostly up over the last two months, with Walker demonstrating why he was one of the most highly coveted guards in the 2017 class.
At 6-4 with a rangy, 6-10 wingspan, Walker fits the defensive and athletic profile NBA teams look for in a combo guard, and it’s easy to imagine more than a few teams talking themselves into Walker as this draft’s (lite) version of Donovan Mitchell. Like Mitchell, Walker will have to prove he can be a more consistent three-point threat before anyone takes a stab at him before mid-first-round.
Other Players to Watch: Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky; Trevon Duval, Duke; Gary Trent, Jr., Duke; Landry Shamet, Wichita State; Khyri Thomas, Creighton; Jontay Porter, Missouri; Allonzo Trier, Arizona; Rawle Alkins, Arizona; Devonte Graham, Kansas; Jalen Brunson, Villanova; Keita Bates-Diop, Ohio State; Mo Wagner, Michigan