It’s that time of the year again, folks. The time when us fans ignore the playoff-less Sixers for three weeks and glue our eyes to March Madness as we daydream about how great it would be to see Kentucky’s latest teenage phenom with PHILA written across his chest. And during this time we fall in love with players that we shouldn’t or forget about the players that we should love. For many the tournament is not only a break from a team that makes one want to pull his hair out, but it is also a chance for all to do a little scouting in preparation of what will be a roller coaster ride of a draft process in Philadelphia.

The second weekend of college basketball greatness featured some of the top talents in the game being given the opportunity to put their skills on display under the pressure of a national audience. Some were able to improve their stock with dominant performances, like South Carolina Forward Sindarius Thornwell, who has led the Gamecocks to the Final 4, and others folded on the biggest stage, like Kansas Guard Devonte’ Graham, who scored only 3 points in 38 minutes in the Jayhawks’ Elite 8 loss to Oregon.

But although Thornwell and Graham have been key pieces for their teams throughout the season, they are not considered top prospects in the NBA draft. It would be safe to say that few, if any, Sixers fans will be getting excited for each of the aforementioned players in anticipation of June’s draft. However, five players who may become top-10 picks took the court this weekend, and there is no harm in taking a look at each of them if there’s a chance that any of them will be sporting the same jersey as Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons next season.

Lauri Markkanen, F, Arizona

The nightmare of all Sixers fans is that the team comes out of a stacked point guard draft with another big man. Unless the lottery goes horribly wrong, Markkanen will not be the Sixers only first round selection. If the Lakers pick conveys and the Sixers manage to attain another pick (either via their own selection or the pick swap with Sacramento) in the 5-10 range, Lauri would be a fantastic complementary player to Ben Simmons. As a seven-foot tall European, he gets the “next Kristaps Porzingis” categorization more often than not.

However, when finding a fair comparison for the Arizona Wildcat, Liberty Ballers blogger Max Rappaport might have had the most interesting Markkanen take on the internet:

“Dirk Nowitzki is an easy comp for the sandy-haired, bird-chested big man, but when I watch him play I see a lot of Sixers legend Ersan Ilyasova in him. That’s a good thing I think.”

Drafting Ersan Ilyasova with a top-10 pick sounds crazy, but does drafting a high-ceiling player who fits perfectly with the franchise’s cornerstones? Not at all; in fact, it sounds much smarter than drafting a point guard who stints the development of his teammates. As a second first-round pick, there are not many options better than the Finn.

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In Arizona’s Sweet 16 against Xavier, Markkanen had one of those “Devonte’ Graham” games, scoring only 9 points in 40 minutes for the Wildcats. He averaged 15.6 points and 7.2 rebounds per game throughout his freshman season, and was a key contributor in Sean Miller’s team’s run to the Sweet 16. Due to the expanding popularity of the stretch-four in today’s NBA, Lauri will be a consensus top-10 pick as the draft approaches. He is a must-draft for Philadelphia if he falls into their lap in the second-half of the lottery.

Malik Monk, G, Kentucky

Monk’s lone season in Lexington was electrifying. He averaged nearly 20 points per game and won SEC Player of the Year. He scored 47 points in Kentucky’s first game against North Carolina; however, he scored only 12 points, with half of them coming in the final minute. In an Elite 8 game between two of college basketball’s most storied programs, Monk flashed his biggest strength and most glaring weakness at the same time.

As a 6’3″ shooting guard, much of Coach Cal’s plays for Malik consisted on him coming off a screen or two which would result in a quick catch-and-shoot.

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But although Monk’s shooting will be his main calling card at the next level, he brings athleticism that few other prospects in this year’s class can match, and it will be interesting to see how that ability will be used at the next level when he matches up against taller, stronger guards.

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Time and time again, the Sixers’ lack of shooting is made known to those who watch the team. Since Ben Simmons was drafted, all that those covering the team seem to be focusing on is putting the players around him that would make it easiest to thrive in the run-and-gun system that a Simmons-run lineup would result in. Malik Monk is exactly that player. Although he may need to make the switch to the one to make up for defensive mismatches, he would be able to complement Simmons in many ways, including drive-and-dish threes while on the wing, backdoor cuts on Ben’s fast breaks, or using speed to get out into transition with the 2016 first-overall pick.

An undersized, athletic guard who relies on his shooting to be effective like Monk is a dangerous prospect. He could become a starting guard on a championship team or a rotational player on a mediocre team. He has one of the lowest floors of the top prospects, but he is exactly what the Sixers need at this point in the rebuild. So it might just be worth the risk.

Lonzo Ball, G, UCLA

There has been a ton of hype surrounding Ball over the past few weeks. However, the news is not about Lonzo Ball, the former UCLA point guard who declared for the draft within the first hour of the Bruins being eliminated by Kentucky in the Sweet 16. In fact another member of the Ball family is making headlines daily: LaVar Ball, Lonzo’s father. LaVar Ball should not be mentioned in an article that scouts his extremely talented son. But it is necessary to let the public know that the criticism Lonzo gets because of his father’s actions is undeserved. LaVar Ball is outgoing, talkative, and loves the spotlight more than anything. His eldest son is the exact opposite. The 6’6″ NBA draft prospect lets his play do the talking and makes an effort to avoid media attention.

If you don’t believe me, watch this clip from ESPN’s First Take:

Enough about dad, though.

Before Lonzo Ball fell to Malik Monk’s Wildcats, he was at the helm of the most high-powered offense in all of college basketball. UCLA led the country in points per game, and it is no coincidence that the addition of Ball leapfrogged the team from a tournament miss last season to a 3-seed in 2017.

Lonzo uses his long frame and freak athletic ability to wreak havoc on defense, which he often turns into instant offense. The clip below just about sums up his freshman year in Los Angeles, as he gets out on the break before feeding a teammate (in this case it happened to be fellow prospect Josh Jackson) for two points. Ball led the NCAA in assists this season, and many of his dimes came off the break.

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As is per usual when discussing Lonzo’s NBA potential, his jump shot must be mentioned. He made three-pointers at a 41% clip this season, which is good for a college player and great at the NBA level. He makes them from this deep more often than not, so there is no worry about how he will adjust to a deeper three-point line:

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The critique about Ball’s jump shot is not whether or not he is able to make it, but rather about how he shoots it. Notice how he starts from his left hip and seemingly lets the ball fly from his left shoulder before swinging his arms around to an orthodox follow-through. Against NBA-sized guards, he may have trouble getting that shot off when contested. However, at 6’6″ and likely to outsize many opponents at the next level, the answer may be to leave the shot as is if it continues to fall at the rate that it currently does.

Loans Ball would thrive in the Sixers’ system. A fast-paced, run-and-gun offense in which the rebounder is often the primary ball-handler like Brett Brown has implemented would be perfect for Ball’s game. He can shoot threes, so he would fit with Ben Simmons, who will try to get out in transition as much as possible. Ball can also pass about as well as anybody else in the draft, which would complement Embiid’s game well.

If Markelle Fultz is off the board and Lonzo is on when the Sixers are on the clock, then Ball (against his father’s wishes) should be playing home games at the Wells Fargo Center next season. In three tournament games, Lonzo averaged 14.3 points, 6.7 assists, and 4.7 rebounds per game; he showed his versatility on the biggest stage.

De’Aaron Fox, G, Kentucky

If not for Luke Maye’s career-defining shot that sent North Carolina to the Final 4 over Kentucky, Fox would have been the South Region’s Most Outstanding Player. The freshman point guard averaged 21.3 points per game in four contests at the NCAA Tournament, and he dropped 39 points against Lonzo Ball’s UCLA team in the tournament’s most dominant performance.

Fox has long been considered a lottery pick at least in this year’s draft, but the show that he put on in the tournament has folks wondering if he should be ranked even higher on draft boards. The Houston-native is known for his long arms, blistering speed, and advanced playmaking ability–all of which were key in Kentucky’s conference winning and Elite 8 appearing season.

Unlike his teammate Malik Monk, De’Aaron Fox lacks a reliable three-point shot. During his freshman year in Lexington, he shot 24.6% from beyond the arc and never made more than two three pointers in a single game. In fact he made only two three pointers in the entire NCAA Tournament (both against UNC).

But Fox doesn’t rely on a three-pointer to be effective as a point guard. He ran his team’s offense as a facilitator and inside scorer. In this clip, he uses a euro-step to get around a defender before dumping it off to a teammate for an easy dunk. Playmaking instincts may be one of the most intriguing aspects of Fox’s game, and they should make the adjustment to the NBA much easier for the young guard.

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On defense De’Aaron Fox uses his speed to come out of nowhere and intercept a pass, which he takes to the other end for an open layup. Fox was constantly heckling defenders while at Kentucky, and he made sloppy guards pay in the form of forced turnovers becoming points at the other end.

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As a Sixer, Fox would simply not be a good fit; his jumper needs significant improvement if he is going to be a star at the next level. It is very possible that the shot comes around and Fox becomes great. It may even be likely. However, for where Philadelphia is now with their lack of outside shooting, it would be surprising if Fox is playing in Philly next season. Below is a video of Fox after Kentucky’s season ended in the Elite 8. Beware: after watching the two minute video, there is not doubt that you will fall in love with De’Aaron.

Josh Jackson, F, Kansas

In Kansas’ first three games of the tournament, Josh Jackson was fantastic, averaging 18.3 points and 7.3 rebounds per game while shooting 45% from three for the Jayhawks. He had a double-double against Purdue, a team which featured college basketball’s leading rebounder Caleb Swanigan. It was a dominant run for the freshman, but he went cold in the Elite 8 game against Oregon.

The numbers did not tell the story of Jackson’s game against the Ducks. He had 10 points, 12 rebounds, and 5 assists in his last game at Kansas. However, he did not score in the games final six-and-a-half minutes. In total it was an impressive tournament for anybody, not to mention a player as young as Jackson. He dominated in three games before coming up short in crunch time, and “clutch-ness” is a trait that more often than not comes with age and experience.

As an NBA draft prospect, Jackson checks off just about all the boxes. He is a 6’7″ forward who would benefit by a weight gain program, as is the case with many players coming out of college. The freshman is an incredible athlete who plays like a taller and longer De’Aaron Fox. Except the Kansas star made three-pointers at a 37.8% rate during his time in college.

The jumper looks awkward. But much like Lonzo Ball’s situation–if it isn’t broken, should it be fixed?

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Almost an identical clip here as De’Aaron Fox’s, as Jackson uses speed and length to infiltrate the passing lane and take it to the other end for a dunk. Josh Jackson was great all season on defense, as he averaged 1.7 steals and 1.1 blocks per game. But it wasn’t all gritty defense for the superstar, as he flashed some of his freaky athleticism throughout the year, finishing above the rim time and time again.

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But when Jackson isn’t trying to posterize defenders or knocking down jump shots, he shines his inner Ben Simmons by putting his vision and playmaking ability on display. If Jackson continues to polish his playmaking ability and becomes a consistent threat as a facilitator, there won’t be much that teams could do to stop him.

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Josh Jackson is projected by many, including Draft Express, as the third overall prospect in the draft, behind Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball. Odds are that the Sixers will not have the opportunity to draft him. However, as long as the top two point guards in the draft are off the board, Jackson is a must-draft by any team. Although he would be a questionable fit on a team flooded with wing players, the Sixers would do well to draft one of the most talented players in the draft. Drafting for best player available is seldom the wrong way to approach a selection, so general manager Bryan Colangelo should jump at the chance to draft Josh Jackson if the opportunity presents itself.

This year’s Final 4 does not feature any of the top prospects in the 2017 NBA Draft, but it features four teams who have had fantastic runs throughout the past couple weeks and will be leaving it all out on the floor in hopes of bringing a championship to their schools. So although there is little by way of high-profile prospects, there will be two great games played on Saturday and a thrilling final on Monday. Be sure to tune in.

Photo by a_aguirrejr (via Flickr)




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