For many NBA fans, March Madness is the embarrassing time of year when they realize that while they can recite, say, the Milwaukee Bucks’ bench rotation or the draft implications of a Sacramento Kings win, they can’t name more than a handful of college players. The tournament is the first time such fans will be seeing many of the players whom they’ll then discuss at length leading up to the NBA draft. So if you’re starting from zero, or are just looking for a quick refresher on a few prospects, here’s a viewing guide to the top lottery prospects in the tournament.
If you’re looking for point guards
Freshman PG, 6-foot-6, UCLA
Chances are that most NBA fans have heard a little bit about Lonzo Ball. But much of the talk has been about his father, his brothers or his draft stock, rather than just how outstanding Ball has been on the court.
First off, Ball is one of the most efficient scorers in the college game. His top-line analytics are staggering: Ball has a 66.7 true shooting percentage and scores 108 points per 100 plays; 56.3 percent of his field goal attempts are threes (he hits 41 percent of those). The overall efficiency is propped up a little because 31 percent of his plays (a massive chunk) have come in transition, where he scores 112 points per 100. Getting out and running is an effective strategy, and a big reason why the Bruins lead the NCAA with 90.4 points per game, but it’s not quite as telling for what Ball will be able to do in the NBA. For that, catch him spotting up for that broken-looking jumper of his — he scores 125 points per 100 plays on spot-ups, which is just as impressive as it sounds.
Where Ball isn’t as polished is on the pick-and-roll — a play type that fellow top prospect Markelle Fultz of Washington excels at. Ball scores a more mediocre 78 points per 100 pick-and-roll plays. He’s also just a so-so rebounder for his size, with a 9.4 total rebound rate and 14.4 defensive rebound rate, neither of which is overly impressive for a 6-foot-6 superathlete.
But those are all just individual stats. What makes Ball so special is that he can do all those things while also operating as a true point guard. Combine Ball’s individual stats with his passing numbers and the numbers begin to get silly. According to Synergy Sports Technology, he has an absurd 156 points per 100 plays on all plays he finishes — so when he shoots or draws a foul or commits a turnover — plus plays on which he records an assist. A little reference, since this isn’t the most common stat around: These plays + assist numbers tend to look a little inflated compared to what you usually see for players, because adding assists includes only made shots. This isn’t ideal, but it does give a good sense of the total contribution of a player, since adding more assists will nudge the number upward. Here are the numbers for some other top players: Fultz and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox are at 127p+a/100; Malik Monk of Kentucky is at 119; Josh Jackson of Kansas is at 116. Those are very good numbers, but Ball’s still stand out when compared apples-to-apples.
Freshman PG, 6-foot-3, Kentucky
The line on Fox has been that he’s a jump shot away from being a top-five pick. So it’s telling that he’s still projected to be a late-lottery pick. On the year, Fox is scoring just 79 points per 100 plays on spot-up jumpers, according to Synergy, which is not very good at all. That’s not a great sign for a perimeter prospect, but Fox has one big thing working in his favor: speed.
Fox is a burner, one of the fastest guards in the country, and puts that speed to material use in his game. He and backcourt mate Malik Monk are both in the top 15 of transition plays per game (5.6 per game for Fox, 5.7 for Monk). And once Fox is out in the open court, he can get to the rim at will. His penetration also carries him on isolation plays, where he’s strong (97 points per 100 plays). The question is whether Fox can combine those individual skills into an all-around game. He’s sitting on an assist percentage1 of 30, which is solid, but he doesn’t have the best passing instincts out on the break and can force things at the rim.
FiveThirtyEight: Villanova is a weak favorite, and Wichita State is dangerous
If you want to talk about the really good guy who’s not in the tournament
Freshman PG, 6-foot-4, Washington
Fultz’s Huskies won’t be in the tournament, but he may come up in draft conversations just the same. Like Ball, Fultz is a stand-out point guard prospect. But while Ball’s offense comes from all over, Fultz was at his best in pick-and-roll, where he has scored 101 points per 100 plays — among the best in the nation for that play type, according to Synergy. He’s especially good at turning the corner quickly and finishing at the rim, but he can also curl around the screen and fire a pull-up three — a shot that’s growing in popularity (and effectiveness) in the NBA. Otherwise, Fultz gets most of his offense by getting out in transition and getting set up for spot-up jumpers, where he’s good but doesn’t stand out as much as he does in the pick-and-roll.
If you’re looking for wings
Freshman SF, 6-foot-8, Kansas
Jackson is a defensive standout and one of the best point-forward prospects in the class. While his defensive numbers (via Synergy) are good but not great (he’s holding his marks to 81 points per 100 plays overall), he can straight-up stick his man and chase him off of shots he’d otherwise take. In fact, his overall numbers are pulled down a bit by his role: Despite spending most of his time as a stretch-4, almost 60 percent of his defensive plays come against spot-up shooters and in isolation, which are play types where the offense believes it has an advantage. Yet Jackson is still holding his own.
Jackson is a natural and willing passer who finds runners on the break and in semi-transition, often on clever back-door cuts, and sucks defenders in on drives before dishing to a teammate for an easy dumpoff and dunk. Kansas also puts Jackson in a lot of 4-5 pick-and-rolls, where he can throw lobs to center Landen Lucas. A lot of times, prospects can put up impressive passing numbers simply by using a lot of possessions (Jackson’s assist percentage is 18.9 — very good for a non-point guard), but in this case, the eye test matches the numbers. Jackson is the truth.
The one question with Jackson’s game is whether his jump shot is real. Jackson began the season shooting miserably from long range, going 23.7 percent on 2.1 3-point attempts per game in his first 18 games. But since late January, he’s been on a tear. In 13 games since Jan. 21, Jackson is shooting 51.3 percent on three 3-point attempts per game. That evens out to 38 percent on the season, but that kind of extreme swing is worth keeping in mind. As with any one-and-done prospect, we’re dealing in small sample sizes. But for Jackson, there’s at least some explanation for the inconsistency: His coaches aren’t touching his jump shot this season.
“Now can he tighten it up and do some things differently? Absolutely,” Kansas coach Bill Self said in December. “But that will probably be on somebody else’s watch. That won’t be on our watch as much. I don’t see a reason why when you have a young man for a very brief period of time why you want to totally cloud his brain with something other than very, very few, simple things.”
So the state of Jackson’s jumper over the next few weeks may not be the most important thing to focus on. But how able he is to adjust once he’s in the NBA will be crucial, as the difference between a wing prospect who can do it all and one who can do it all minus a jumper is the difference between an All-NBA-level talent and a useful role player.
Freshman F, 6-foot-8, Duke
Tatum is a down-the-middle wing prospect. He’s a good defender (allowing 73 points per 100 plays), a pretty good defensive rebounder (19.7 percent defensive rebound rate), a pretty good spot-up jump shooter (89 points per 100 plays, according to Synergy, although 12 of his 37 made threes for the year came during a three-game stretch in February), and a pretty good passer. But his underlying metrics don’t match up with his more obvious talents, such as when he broke out and averaged 22 points per game through the ACC tournament. The natural comparison for Tatum is Justise Winslow, another Duke swingman/small-ball 4 with obvious talents that can go unrecognized by college stats.
If you are Vivek Ranadive
Freshman PG, 6-foot-3, Kentucky
Over the last several seasons, we’ve gotten a pretty clear idea of the tastes of Sacramento Kings owner Ranadive, as well as the forcefulness of his pursuit of those tastes. The Ranadive type is a guard in the mold of Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas or Buddy Hield, a gunslinger who can shoot a team into the Final Four all on his own. This season, no player captures that type better than Kentucky’s Malik Monk. No offense to Monk.
Monk is a shooter, and almost singlehandedly shoulders the load of 3-point shooting for Kentucky. This makes him a somewhat unique Kentucky guard, as he’s averaging nearly seven 3-point attempts per game and hitting 40 percent of them, which is impressive on its own, but more so when you consider that he’s doing it while dealing with extra defenders cheating off of backcourt mates De’Aaron Fox (24.2 percent from three) and Isaiah Briscoe (27.3 percent).
This perimeter workload has weighed down other parts of Monk’s game. As a prospect, he was known for killer athleticism, but he hasn’t gotten to the basket the way Fox has for the Wildcats: 80 percent of his shots in the halfcourt offense have been jumpers, according to Synergy. He’s scored an excellent 111 points per 100 plays on those jumpers, so it’s working out. But he’s even more efficient when he gets to the rim, either in half court or in transition.
If you’re looking for big men
Freshman PF/C, 7-foot, Arizona
Markkanen is a 7-foot freshman center out of Finland who lacks a true comparison in the modern game because I’ll be struck down by the Almighty if I invoke Arvydas Sabonis.
Markkanen is sitting on a 63.3 true shooting percentage; 44.4 percent of his field goal attempts are threes, and he hits 43.2 percent of them. He isn’t just a jump shooter, though — Synergy has him averaging 125 points per 100 plays as the roll man in pick-and-roll and 102 points per 100 plays posting up — both excellent numbers. He is a bigger body than recent rangy big-man prospects like Nikola Mirotic but has more bounce than guys his size. This allows him to be a strong rebounder (17.7 defensive rebound rate) but also a live body filling the lane in transition or cutting off the ball. While Markkanen’s stats are impressive enough, he’s one of the guys in the tournament who are especially eye-opening in live action since a not-that-scrawny 7-footer moving around the court and doing the things he can do is a rare sight, even in the NBA.
Check out our March Madness predictions.