It's time for March Madness and the HQ takes a look at some players in this year's tourney that Raptors' fans should be keeping an eye on.
Merry Christmas to all!
Well...Merry March Madness at the very least.
On Thursday the field will be set for the NCAA's annual college basketball tournament, "March Madness" as it is often referred to, and yes, Christmas Day for myself and millions of other hoops fans around the world.
To put it simply, it's my favourite time of the year.
This year though, for the first time I'd argue in nearly a decade, I'll be watching "the Dance" with an extremely keen eye, one that will be trained on various players hoping to make the leap to the NBA lottery next year. Yes, this has been my practice in the past as well to a certain extent, however thanks to the Toronto Raptors basement-dwelling season, the team should have a top five pick for the first time since 2006, Bryan Colangelo's first year on the job in TO, and the year of the infamous Andrea Bargnani draft.
Make no mistake about it, the Raps desperately need an infusion of talent, and they need to hit a home run in this draft regardless of where they actually pick after the lottery balls stop bouncing.
This extends beyond a potential top pick in the draft too as a second-round steal ala Gilbert Arenas or Carlos Boozer would go a long ways towards getting this club back on track.
Last week we took a look at five players who many have near or at the top of their respective "draft boards," but this morning I thought we'd cast a wider net, and look at some additional prospects playing in this year's tournament that Raptors' fans should get to know.
1. Harrison Barnes - SF - North Carolina.
I'm starting to warm up on Mr. Barnes. Early in the season he looked a bit like a DeMar DeRozan clone at USC, an athletic player who didn't attack the hoop often enough, who settled for jumpers, and yet who wasn't hitting them at a very good clip. However he's been on fire lately, putting together some very impressive all around games, culminating in a 41 point, 8 rebound effort against Clemson on the weekend. If Barnes can continue to lead Carolina and show that he can be a dynamic offensive force both from the perimeter and attacking the lane, he'll be someone Toronto should seriously consider come draft day.
2. Terrence Jones - SF - Kentucky.
Another small forward to keep an eye on in this tournament, Jones is a bit of a do-it-all option at the 3, and a player who's amazing length and ball handling skills enables him to play basically any position on the floor in college. At one point he looked to be an option as a top 3 pick but he's struggled with his shot of late, and needs a good tourney run to show that he's not simply another Marvin Williams type; a jack-of-all trades, master of none.
3. Kemba Walker - G - UCONN.
There aren't many more exciting players to watch in all of college ball. If you watched the Big East tournament this past weekend you saw why Walker is such a hot name in draft talk as the kid simply competes game in and game out. He's a bit of a combo guard for certain, but it's hard not to think that he'll have an impact at the NBA level thanks to his speed and ability to score the ball and draw fouls. I'm not sure he's a huge improvement over Jerryd Bayless however, a similar player in college some may recall, so Raptors' fans probably need to see him run his team efficiently over the course of the tourney in addition to simply putting up points on the scoreboard.
4. Kawhi Leonard - SF - San Diego State.
Every year players like Leonard go too low in the NBA draft because they don't have a "position" on the court, or look too raw as prospects. Guys like Gerald Wallace are examples of this and the athletic and tough Leonard has drawn comparisons to the former Bobcat in addition to players like Shawn Marion. Is he a top 5 pick? On "upside" perhaps not, but it's hard to watch Leonard and think that he wouldn't be a great fit skill-set-wise at the 3 for this Raptors' team, and a great tournament performance may put him in top 5 consideration.
5. Brandon Knight - G - Kentucky.
I don't think nearly enough people are talking about Knight but I expect that to change with the upcoming tourney. He's not John Wall or Derrick Rose, but if you take his game for what it is, Knight is one of the best scoring 1's in the country, a hard worker and great leader. You can see the Jason Terry comparisons quite easily when watching him play, and I think even his PG game is underrated. If Knight can lead Kentucky deep and score at an efficient rate, I bet we see his stock soar.
6. Nolan Smith - G - Duke.
Going from one sleeper to another we turn to Mr. Smith. He's not a "sleeper" in the sense that he's won a ton of accolades already this season, and is up for the Naismith Award, however he's well outside of the lottery on most draft boards. This baffles me as at worst, I think he's a better version of Louis Williams, a 1 with a scorer's mentality but unlike Lou, an excellent defender and player who can create his own shot and get to the rim. The possibility of him sliding late in the draft due to lack of "upside" has me dreading Toronto giving up their late first-round pick as experienced winners like Nolan are what this Raptors' team needs a major infusion of.
7. John Henson - F/C - North Carolina.
Henson is going to get a long hard look at the top of the lottery I'm guessing. He's got great length and athleticism for a big man and has put together a very impressive sophomore season. Big men that block shots and rebound the ball (he had 18 boards against Duke in the ACC final) the way he does don't grow on trees and he'll certainly be in high demand even though he's got a ways to go in terms of getting stronger and rounding out his offensive game. The Raptors already have similar big men in Ed Davis and Amir Johnson, but could package one to fill another need if they feel that Henson is the top option on the board when it's time for them to pick.
8. Kenneth Faried - PF - Morehead State.
Now we get into the second rounders. Faried normally would be an off-the-radar type thanks to playing for Morehead State, but this year he made headlines by breaking Tim Duncan's NCAA rebounding record. He's an undersized four but this is one of those players who has the heart of a lion, competes on every possession, and has the length and athleticism to be a factor at the next level. If Faried dominates against Louisville in his club's first-round match he'll probably put himself well out of second-round consideration. However if he should slip for some reason ala DeJuan Blair, the Raps would be crazy to pass one someone who provides so many of the elements their current club needs.
9. JaJuan Johnson - F - Purdue.
Johnson has joined the ranks of Chris Douglas-Roberts, Wes Matthews and Bill Walker as players who I've viewed as second-round steals. He's a long and athletic big man who while manning the 4 in college, looks to be able to man the 3 spot quite well in the L once he ads some bulk to his frame. He's been dominant this season for a very good Boilermaker squad and I'd be thrilled to see the Raps scoop him up at some point in the upcoming draft. However should he put on a show in the tourney and should Purdue go deep, I doubt Johnson will fall out of the first round.
10. Chris Singleton - F - Florida State.
One final bonus second-rounder. Singleton is one of my favourite prospects in this draft. He was on pace for a breakout season and potentially being a lottery pick before he went down with a broken foot mid-way through the season. He's the best wing defender in the country, gets after it on the glass, and uses his excellent length and size to create mismatches on the perimeter and in the post. He's not a top lottery option but like Leonard, would be a great fit at the 3 for Toronto. The big question mark is if he'll play in the Dance and while he's said to ESPN's Andy Katz that he will indeed participate, Raptors' fans may be hoping that that's not the case, and his injury makes him somehow slide into the second round.