Mark Cuban was a little too honest while recording a podcast with NBA legend Julius Erving last month.
The Dallas Mavericks owner told Erving about a candid dinner conversation he recently had with some of his players in the midst of the franchise’s worst season in 19 years.
“We weren’t competing for the playoffs, and I was like, ‘Look, losing is our best option,'” Cuban said. “[NBA commissioner Adam Silver] would hate hearing that, but at least I sat down and explained it to them.”
It’s no mystery why so many NBA teams have targeted this season to tank. Scouts believe this year’s draft class features an unusual number of prospects with the potential to develop into impact players in the NBA someday.
There’s a supremely gifted 7-foot-1 forward from Arizona who once engineered an upset of North Carolina as a 16-year-old. There’s a freakishly athletic power forward from Duke with a second and third jump like a pogo stick. And there’s a scoring guard from Alabama who nearly rallied his team to victory earlier this season despite playing 3-on-5 for the final 10 minutes of the game.
Many of the prospects who are part of that wave of talent will be on display when college basketball’s showcase event tips off next week.
To evaluate how promising those players truly are, Yahoo Sports offered anonymity to college coaches whose teams have faced them. Below they assess the strengths and weaknesses of the 10 best NBA prospects likely to be playing in this year’s NCAA tournament.
Arizona’s Deandre Ayton is among the leading contenders to be taken No. 1 in this year’s NBA draft (Sports Illustrated)
1. DEANDRE AYTON, C, ARIZONA (7-1, 250 pounds)
Key stats: 19.9 ppg, 11.4 rpg, 1.9 bpg
Strengths: He’s a physical marvel with a polished, well-rounded offensive skill set.
Weaknesses: His lack of defensive instincts are a concern, as is his sometimes uneven effort level.
Pac-12 assistant coach on Ayton: “He may be the best talent to come through the Pac-12 since I’ve been here. I’ll be happy to see him in and out of here. … Beyond his combination of power and skill, his feel and IQ adds to his potential that much more. We threw two or three guys at him, and he always made the right play. The guy’s not a black hole. He’s a willing passer. He makes the game easier for his teammates. … The scary part is he’s starting to rebound the ball and really go after offensive rebounds. That’s something I don’t think he really did great at the beginning of the season, but down the stretch he has taken more of that load on his shoulders. His nose for the ball has elevated, and when he plays with urgency, he’s borderline unstoppable. … If there’s an Achilles’ heel to his game at this point, it’s on defense. You want to try to get him off balance and get him in foul trouble. Don’t let the physique fool you. He’s still a freshman. Defense is always the biggest adjustment you make going from high school to college, and I don’t think Deandre is any different. … My philosophy with the draft is who checks the most boxes? No disrespect to Marvin Bagley or Luka Doncic or whoever, but I think Deandre is the safest bet.”
NBA comparison: Karl-Anthony Towns
2. MARVIN BAGLEY III, F, DUKE (6-11, 234 pounds)
Key stats: 20.7 ppg, 11.2 rpg, 1.0 bpg
Strengths: Elite athleticism, explosive leaping ability and a nonstop motor around the rim.
Weaknesses: The consistency of his outside shot and his technique defending in space.
ACC assistant coach on Bagley: “He’s an unreal offensive talent. You don’t find many guys that size who get off the ground the way he does but can also put it on the floor and make the occasional three. You can sit on his left hand a little bit, but he’s talented enough to spin back. … He can change a game with his offensive rebounding. Good luck boxing out a guy who’s that long, that athletic and that active. He’s all over the rim. … The defensive end is where he has the most room for growth. I don’t think he’s very comfortable showing on a ball screen. I do think he has the ability to be a good shot blocker though. He has really good timing in that regard. … He doesn’t go into the post often, but he has the ability to do that. His footwork is really, really good. … He never seems to get flustered, which is a good quality to have. He’ll start out cold, and then you’ll look up and he’ll still have his 16 to 18 points. He has as much upside of anyone in the country, I think.”
NBA comparison: Amare Stoudemire
3. MOHAMED BAMBA, C, TEXAS (6-11, 225)
Key stats: 13.0 ppg, 10.6 rpg, 3.8 bpg
Strengths: 7-foot-9 wingspan, monster defensive upside and flashes of shooting touch
Weaknesses: He’s not ready yet. He’s still raw and he needs to get stronger.
Big 12 assistant coach on Bamba: “He has the most defensive upside of any player in the country with his length, athleticism and lateral quickness. His timing as a shot blocker is unique. He doesn’t leave the ground until you leave the ground. That’s special. … I actually think [West Virginia’s Sagaba Konate] impacts the game with his shot blocking more at our level, but at the NBA level, Bamba’s ability to block shots will translate better. You can bump Bamba right now because he’s not strong enough yet. You can put a shoulder into his chest and get around him. But he has that length and instinct you can’t teach. … He’s really gifted offensively. He’s just not strong. When he gets stronger, then his offensive side will blossom. … When we played them, I told our guys to sit on his left shoulder in the post and pray he shoots as many 3-pointers as possible. He’ll make one on occasion, but if he’s out there shooting the ball, he’s not rebounding. … If you’re an NBA team that’s building something, he has unbelievable upside if you give him time. If you’re trying to be a playoff team next season, I don’t know if he’s the guy I would draft.”
NBA comparison: Rudy Gobert
4. MICHAEL PORTER JR., F, MISSOURI (6-10, 215)
Key stats: N/A (Porter has not played since Missouri’s season opener, but he is expected to return in the SEC tournament.)
Strengths: Three-level scorer who can create mismatches at either forward spot.
Weaknesses: Sometimes shies away from contact, lacks toughness; Teams will have to evaluate his health.
Rivals.com’s Eric Bossi on Porter: “What has always set Michael Porter Jr. apart from others in my eyes is his package of size, agility, smooth athleticism and skill. Here is a kid pushing 6-foot-10 who has prototypical size for an NBA four man but the game of an NBA three man. He’s a versatile player that should be able to play the three or the four in the NBA and his ability to put the ball on the floor, feel for the game and scorer’s mentality should help him find early success in the man’s league. He could certainly be more physical but at the same time he’s a high volume rebounder. During last spring’s all-star circuit at places like the McDonald’s All-American game and the Hoop Summit, he is the guy that NBA people felt was ahead of everybody else. I think with his injury this season and the emergence of DeAndre Ayton playing to his potential, people have kind of forgotten about how good Porter is.”
NBA comparison: Danny Granger (but with a higher ceiling)
5. JAREN JACKSON, F, MICHIGAN STATE (6-11, 236)
Key stats: 11.3 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 3.2 bpg
Strengths: Terrific defender in space and at the rim; Capable, if unorthodox, perimeter shooter who’s starting to attack closeouts
Weaknesses: Foul-prone, still raw offensively
Big Ten assistant on Jackson: “I call him Kevin Garnett 2.0. He’s going to be a problem. He’s still trying to figure it all out, but he has a high ceiling defensively … He’s one of the best shot blockers in the country, but he also has a good grasp of where to be on defense position-wise. He played the four spot where most times people play more mobile players, guys who can shoot or put it on the floor. He was able to guard those guys as well as the power players. … He’s skilled on offense. He can shoot the three or play inside. When his body fills out a little more, I think he can be even more of a presence offensively. His post-up game will get better. He’ll get to the free throw line a little more. Add that to his ability to drive from the perimeter and shoot the three, and the sky’s the limit.”
NBA comparison: Myles Turner
6. TRAE YOUNG, G, OKLAHOMA (6-2, 180)
Key stats: 27.5 ppg, 8.9 apg, 35.9 3P%
Strengths: Elite court vision; Good ball handler; Shooting range to 30 feet
Weaknesses: Modest size, athleticism; Inefficient finishing at the rim; Red flags defensively
Big 12 assistant on Trae Young: “I watched him a lot in high school and I thought he was a volume shooter, so I’ve been really impressed with how efficient he has been. He has a good handle and decent burst, but his shooting ability makes him quicker. You can back off of guys who can’t shoot it but are fast. You have to guard him 30 feet from the basket with your hands up every single time. … I never realized he was such a terrific passer because on his high school team he never had guys to pass the ball to. When we played him the last time, he had like 14 or 15 passes that could have been assists but his teammates either didn’t make the shot or weren’t ready for the pass. He throws players open like a quarterback. If you’re not turning and not ready for the ball, it will hit you in face. … If he has to guard and he’s got the right mindset, he can be an adequate defender, but he has to want to. He’s a liability defensively right now because that effort isn’t always there. … I don’t know about the Steph Curry comparisons, but I think he’s going to be a good NBA player because he can shoot, dribble and pass.”
NBA comparison: Mike Conley Jr.
7. WENDELL CARTER, F, DUKE (6-10, 259)
Key stats: 14.5 ppg, 9.1 rpg, 2.2 bpg
Strengths: Good low-post scorer and passer who can knock down shots from 3-point range too
Weaknesses: Not an explosive athlete; Lateral quickness defending in space is a concern
ACC assistant on Carter: “I think he’s a lottery guy. He’s got great footwork in the post, he’s a good passer and I’ve watched him make threes more and more all season. He’s got the whole package. He’s a really talented kid. … Last I looked he was only fourth on their team in field goal attempts. He would be putting up even bigger numbers if he played somewhere else, but they have so many different options. … He’s a really good rebounder and he has improved defensively as the season has gone along. When those guys played at Boston College in mid-December, he was lost. I think he’s gotten a lot better since then.
NBA comparison: A better-shooting Greg Monroe
8. MIKAL BRIDGES, G, VILLANOVA (6-6, 210)
Key stats: 17.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, .420 3P%
Strengths: Vastly improved shooter who can attack a close-out; Elite perimeter defender
Weaknesses: Room for improvement as a shot creator and scorer off the dribble
Big East assistant coach on Bridges: “He’s shooting the ball at such a high level this year, which he really hadn’t done the past couple years. I wouldn’t say he’s unguardable, but he’s a really tough cover. He has such length and when he dribbles he covers so much ground. You’ve got to plan for that because he’s good at it, but now when he’s able to rise up, it makes it that much harder. … He’s definitely a 3-and-D guy at the next level, but I think he can develop into someone who can make plays off the dribble too. He can guard pretty much 1 through 4 at that level. … It seems like he’s a high-character kid. He’s always out there talking. Then with the way he shoots the ball, he’s a great fit for the NBA game. A guy with length, a guy with size, a guy who can guard and a guy who can knock down an open jump shot? They love a guy like that.”
NBA comparison: Otto Porter
9. MILES BRIDGES, F, MICHIGAN STATE (6-7, 225)
Key stats: 16.9 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 2.8 apg
Strengths: Explosive athlete; Improving shooter; Finishes well in transition
Weaknesses: Struggles to score efficiently off the dribble; Is he an undersized power forward or a big wing?
Big Ten assistant coach on Bridges: “You can tell he has put in a lot of work on his shot because he has become a very good shooter. He’s effective whether’s mid-range coming off screening actions or just basic catch-and-shoot stuff from 3-point range. … Sometimes guys think they have to shoot more perimeter shots because they’re trying to prove to scouts they can do it at the next level. That whole dimension of having to prove things can either hurt you or help you. But I’ll tell you one thing. He was still hard to guard, so it didn’t hurt Michigan State in the long run. … If he goes to an organization that isn’t playoff-ready and he has to be an immediate impact guy, it’s going to tough for him. He’s not overly skilled. He’s a very good athlete, but athleticism can only take you so far. He’s going to have to continue to develop his skill set — ball handling, perimeter shooting range and accuracy. If he can go somewhere with established veterans where he has time to grow, I think that would be more beneficial for him.”
NBA comparison: Justise Winslow
10. COLLIN SEXTON, G, ALABAMA (6-3, 190)
Key stats: 18.3 ppg, 3.6 apg
Strengths: Strong, athletic combo guard who attacks downhill and puts pressure on the rim
Weaknesses: There are increasing questions about his outside shooting, ability to create for others
SEC assistant on Sexton: “He’s a strong, physical, dynamic guard. We knew that out of high school. He can really score in bunches off the dribble and finish at the rim. When he gets out in transition, he can be very tough to contain. … We told our guys to always play him to drive and to make him prove that he can hit a jumper. That’s probably his biggest weakness right now. He passes well, but he can get better in that area too. … His confidence coming into college has really stood out to me. I think he’ll be effective as a scoring point guard at the next level.”
NBA comparison: Eric Bledsoe
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