Zion, Zion, Zion.
Zion Williamson seems to be the 2019 NBA Draft prospect that everyone seems to be talking about, and deservedly so, but there are a number of other prospects that could be very good players in the NBA besides the Duke freshman.
In the current standings, the Cleveland Cavaliers (19-53) had the third-worst record in the NBA, behind only the New York Knicks (14-58) and Phoenix Suns (17-55). While the new NBA Draft Lottery odds give the same probability to the bottom-three teams to win the No. 1 pick, with the fourth-worst record not far behind, it seems as though the most important part of the tanking is locking up a top-five pick. Having the worst record in the NBA does that, while the second-worst record is guaranteed in the top six, third-worst in the top seven, and so on.
With the NCAA Tournament set to tip off in just a couple hours, let’s take a look at some of the best prospects in March Madness and players that not only the Cavs should keep an eye on, but fans of the wine and gold should as well:
PF/C Zion Williamson, Duke
2018-19 stats: 22.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 2.2 steals, 1.8 blocks, 69.3 percent from the field, 31.5 percent from beyond the arc, and 65.4 percent from the free-throw line in 29.1 minutes (29 games)
Unless he suffers a significant injury, Zion Williamson will be the No. 1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft, no matter who the team is. He’s that good. Obviously, Cavs fans want it to be them, but at this point, the wine and gold can only hope that is the case.
There’s a reason Duke seemed to struggle at times during the six-game stretch between when Zion blew out his shoe in the opening minute against North Carolina and prior to this return in the ACC Tournament. When he’s 100 percent, the Blue Devils are the best team in the country; when he’s unable to play, they are very beatable, as North Carolina (beat the Zion-less Blue Devils twice) and Virginia Tech (beat the Zion-less Duke team once) both proved. Not only is Duke the No. 1 overall seed, but many people are picking them to win it all. Zion is the biggest reason why, both literally and figuratively.
At 6-foot-7, 285 pounds, the freshman would be the second-heaviest player in the NBA, behind only Sixers’ Boban Marjanovic (7-foot-3, 290 pounds). Yet, with that said, Zion can jump out of the gym and seems to have a highlight-reel dunk on a nightly basis. You could argue that he has to lose some weight before it starts causing his knees to hurt, especially with his ability to jump as high as anyone, but at this point, the kid is just a freight train that’s hard to stop when he has the ball in his hands.
If Zion can develop a shot, much like people hope Milwaukee’s Giannis Antetokounmpo can eventually do, he will be damn near impossible to guard offensively. At this point, as long as he can knock down an open jumper that’s good enough, anything better than that is just a bonus. Even though defenses want him to shoot from beyond the arc, Zion continues to leave opponents speechless because they have no answers in order to try and stop the big man from getting to the basket, no matter where he may catch the ball on the court.
Given that he is only 18, the big man will continue to develop his game offensively. Defensively, Zion may not be able to guard the quickest point guards, but he can go up against any position on the court, no matter how big the opponent may be. He has the quickness and athleticism to keep up with the guards and strength to stop forwards and centers.
Zion’s not only the best player in the draft, but the sky is the limit for him as well. He by far has the biggest upside as a prospect.
First game: Friday at 7:10 p.m. ET
PG Ja Morant, Murray State
2018-19 stats: 24.6 points, 10 assists, 1.8 steals, 50.3 percent from the field, 33.6 percent from three-point range, and 81 percent from the free-throw line in 36.5 minutes (31 games)
He can posterize you with a dunk, give it up to a teammate with a sweet pass and assist, or even take over a game by himself. Ja Morant might be a mid-major kid, but he has a high-major game. Many didn’t know who he was prior to this season, but with the point guard has taken quite a big leap during his sophomore season, as he has taken college basketball by storm and the NBA has already taken notice. Morant has been so successful that he has led his team to an NCAA Tournament berth.
Whether it’s his athleticism or playmaking ability, there’s plenty to be excited about with him already. The point guard must still improve on his decision-making ability and as a shooter, but that will come in time. It will also help when he has much better teammates alongside him as well.
Keep in mind, many people, fans and analysts alike, seem to knock Zion for not having much of a shot, especially from beyond the arc. Morant shoots just two percent better than him. I’m not necessarily hating on him, but it’s just something to remember.
Morant and the Racers’ first-round matchup is set to be a very good one. The 5-12 game between fifth-seeded Marquette and 12th-seeded Murray State features two of the best scorers in the country and the top two scorers in the tournament: Marquette’s Markus Howard averages 25 points per game (fifth-most in Division I) while Morant averages 24.6 points a game (sixth).
First game: Thursday at 4:30 p.m. ET
SG/SF R.J. Barrett, Duke
2018-19 stats: 22.9 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 45.7 percent from the field, 30.4 percent from beyond the arc, and 66.2 percent from the free-throw line in 34.9 minutes (34 games)
On basically any other team in the country, R.J. Barrett would be his team’s top player. That’s not the case when he is essentially Zion’s Robin this season. Although that may be the case, there’s a reason many believe the freshman will be a top-three pick this June.
He has the dribbling ability and athleticism to be a shooting guard and even handle the ball as a point guard at times, and has the size to be a small forward. Much like the previous two prospects, one of his biggest downfalls is his ability to make threes, or lack thereof. He has great scoring instincts but still must improve his offensive game, especially his shot.
Then again, this is just a reminder that he is only 18 years old.
First game: Friday at 7:10 p.m. ET
SG Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
2018-19 stats: 18.5 points, 6.3 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.3 steals, 48.6 percent from the field, 32.3 percent from three-point range, and 70.4 percent from the free-throw line in 32.1 minutes (32 games)
If the team with the No. 2 pick in the draft doesn’t need a point guard, there’s a chance Culver could be the second player off the board this June. He, Barrett, and Morant will likely fight for the No. 2 spot behind Zion.
Culver’s ability to lead his team became even more noticeable in the Big 12 tournament when he scored 57 points in his team’s final two games. That was proof of his transformation from just a role player during his freshman year into his team’s top scorer an playmaker as a sophomore. The forward can create his own shot or set up a teammate, he has the ability to do both at the highest level.
First game: Friday at 1:30 p.m. ET
SF/PF De’Andre Hunter, Virginia
2018-19 stats: 15.1 points, 5.0 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 53 percent from the floor, 45.7 percent from beyond the arc, and 78.4 percent from the free-throw line in 31.6 minutes (32 games)
You can never have too many versatile, two-way wings. That’s the type of player De’Andre Hunter is. Whether it’s his physicality, shooting ability, creating for himself, or defense, the sophomore has it all. Hunter may not have the highest upside, but he seems like a low-risk prospect that is guaranteed to at least be a solid role player in the NBA.
While he will continue to improve and develop, the 2018-19 ACC Defensive Player of the Year has nothing NBA teams should be scared of and seems to be one heckuva player on both ends of the floor, especially as a 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward.
First-game: Friday at 3:10 p.m. ET
SG/SF Cam Reddish, Duke
2018-19 stats: 13.7 points, 3.7 rebounds, 1.9 assists, 1.6 steals while shooting 35.4 percent from the field, 32.7 percent from three-point range, and 75.9 percent from the free-throw line in 29.5 minutes (33 games)
For Reddish, this seems to be all about potential. He has been quite a disappointment so far this season. Then again, he’s still averaging nearly 14 points a game. It may be due to the forward being the Blue Devils’ third-best option and if he was on virtually any other team in the country, Reddish would be the top player.
At 6-foot-8, 218 pounds, the freshman has already proven that he can be a three-and-D player. He just has to show the world that he can be continued on to score on a consistent basis.
While he may struggle with making shots, he has knocked down a number of game winners and has already proven that he has ice in his veins.
First-game: Friday at 7:10 p.m. ET
PF Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
2018-19 stats: 20.1 points, 6.6 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.0 steals while shooting 60.9 percent from the field, 46.9 percent from beyond the arc, and 74.1 percent from the free-throw line.
First-game: Thursday at 7:27 p.m. ET
The oldest player of this bunch, the junior continues to prove that he is really good. It may just be that he’s on the west coast, but Rui Hachimura seems to be an under-the-radar prospect even though he’s a legitimate playmaker and the best three-point shooter, at least on paper, in this group.
With his 6-foot-8, 230-pound frame, the forward has the size to go up against big men on both ends of the floor while also possessing quickness, physicality, and athleticism to take bigger guys off the dribble as well. Whether it’s creating his own shot or knocking down an open look, Hachimura is an outstanding player.
There’s a possibility that Hachimura may not even be considered a top-10 prospect on some draft boards but he deserves to be. Just imagine if he was playing at a big-name school like Duke. The big man has all the tools, size, shooting, playmaking ability to be a solid player at the highest level.
PG Coby White, North Carolina
2018-19 stats: 16.3 points, 3.4 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 1.0 steals, 43.1 percent from the field, 36 percent from three-point range, and 81.4 from the free-throw line in 28.2 minutes (32 games)
North Carolina and Coby White may get overshadowed by Duke, but there’s a reason they are not only a No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament but one that some believe the Tar Heels will win it all. The 6-foot-5, 185-pound point guard is a key reason why that’s the case.
As a leading ballhandler, he can create a shot for himself or for a teammate. He has the ability to spot up as well. That, paired with White being a solid ballhandler and defender, and that’s why he should be a top-10 pick in 2019. I mean, his afro is No. 1-overall worthy, honestly.
First-game: Friday at 9:20 p.m. ET