With the field of 64 down to but 4, the HQ again checks in on some of the top prospects of interest to Raptors' fans, and how they've fared in the tourney.
Aaah the cruelty of March Madness.
You get one shot and if for some reason you don't bring your A game, or close to it, you can be sent packing much earlier than expected.
This is the case every year but perhaps no more than this one since none of the four number one seeds will be participating in this year's Final Four, a first since 1979.
It's uncanny and a complete shock to most, especially considering that while PITT and Duke had some definite weaknesses in their number one rankings, Ohio State and Kansas looked to be head and shoulders above the rest of the NCAA class this season.
Now though, only North Carolina looks like a club that could have been a Final Four contender back in the fall, as while the talent was there, it was simply a matter of sorting out the chemistry.
Good, but not great.
Had you mentioned those two clubs as Final Four locks you probably would have promptly been escorted off to the loony bin.
While the final field makes for some very exciting viewing (think about it, either Butler returns to to the finals for another shot at a title, or VCU somehow is taking on a mammoth program like Kentucky or UCONN), it's not the best from an NBA Draft perspective. The main chunk of top lottery picks aren't playing in the final games, so scouts and GM's will have a bit less to work with when all is said and done.
That doesn't mean folks won't be keeping an eye on the likes of Kemba Walker and Brandon Knight, but guys like Jared Sullinger, Harrison Barnes, Derrick Williams and Kyrie Irving will be watching the games from home.
From a Raptors' perspective, Saturday night's loss coupled with Sacramento's recent win now suddenly has the Dinos only a half game back of the Kings for the fourth-worst record in the league. As mentioned on Friday, it's tough to see Toronto passing Sacto down the stretch, but stranger things have happened. And in a year where there's not a lot to jump up and down about regarding the top prospects, and with potential top 3 pick Jared Sullinger announcing that he's returning to Ohio State, I'd argue that it's more crucial now than ever to get as many lottery balls as possible into the pot.
Who should the Raps take if they had their pick?
This morning's poll has most people grabbing Kyrie Irving and I'd agree.
And in fact he's first on today's prospect updates...
1. Kyrie Irving - PG - Duke.
There's no question to me that if the Raptors had the top pick, Irving should be their man. He fits a need for the team, plays the most important position in the game right now, and has a ton of NBA transferable skills. No, again he's not a Derrick Rose or John Wall, but he's a better shooter than either were in college, has a great basketball IQ, has a good build (ESPN.com's Coach Thorpe recently compared him to Jrue Holiday in this way), is a great floor general and distributor, and is extremely crafty with the ball. Watching him against Arizona was a real eye-opener as he consistently changed speeds and used various crossover dribbles to get to the rim at will. Simply put, to me he's the surest bet in this draft.
2. Derrick Williams - F - Arizona.
There isn't a player that's opened my eyes more than Williams this season. Early in Pac-10 play I worried about his ability to dominate at the next level since he was an under-sized 4 that never really stood out to me when the game was on the line. That all changed of course over the past month as key offensive and defensive sequences of his helped Arizona all the way to the Elite 8.
If the Raps can't get Irving or Sullinger, than Williams would be next on my list. He scores from inside and out (shooting 60% from 3 this season), rebounds the ball, blocks shots, and while a bit small for the 4 spot, his uber-quick first step and shooting touch should enable him to be a Big 3 at the next level. I've heard the Mike Beasley comparisons and I agree in premise, although as a huge Beasley fan at K-State, I'll say that Williams plays with much more passion and aggression, two things this Raptors' team sorely needs. I truly feel that the drafting of Williams would replace both Andrea Bargnani and James Johnson in one fell swoop and In fact it's hard not to get excited thinking of a Raptors' starting five of Calderon, DeRozan, Williams, Davis and Amir...
3. Harrison Barnes - SF - North Carolina.
Barnes and his Tar Heels were eliminated by Kentucky yesterday but this was a solid tournament for the dynamic freshman. He shot only 7 of 19 yesterday but was a major thorn in the side of Kentucky's D, using his length and shooting ability to keep UNC in it.
Like Derrick Williams, Barnes wasn't a player I was that enamored with early in the NCAA season and in fact, he looked a lot to me like DeMar DeRozan. He could score, but...well, that was about it, and he wasn't even doing that very efficiently. However as the season progressed, so did his game and it was hard not to notice his sweet stroke from the perimeter or ability to change a game with a key offensive put-back or steal.
He's got a ways to go in terms of rounding out his game, but the Raps could do a lot worse than having Barnes fall in their laps on draft day.
4. Kemba Walker - G - UCONN.
There aren't many more exciting players to watch in all of college ball. Walker can score with the best of them thanks to his quickness, high release and sweet mid-range game, and he's carried the Huskies to yet another Final Four.
The knock on him is his size, but the more I watch him, the more I think that he's got the quickness and athletic ability to compensate for that, not to mention his heart. TSN.ca's Tim Chisholm recently wrote an excellent piece on why Walker makes a ton of sense for the Dinos, and he's bang on.
Would I prefer a few other options?
Yes...but if Toronto picks from the five spot on down, he could be a very nice upgrade for this club.
5. Brandon Knight - G - Kentucky.
The player I'd prefer over Walker by a slight margin at this point? Brandon Knight. Knight is another player who's gotten stronger as the season's gone on and at 6-3 he's got great size for the 1 in the league.
Is he a 1? Perhaps not a true pass-first type, but he's got great upside thanks to his length, quickness, and athletic ability, and has shown tremendous poise in big moments. He struggled against the hounding defence of Ohio State in the Sweet 16, but hit the game-winner yet again and has been the go-to guy for his club when the Wildcats needed a big bucket. A dominant performance in the Final Four could push him into top 5 consideration which makes his head-to-head match-up versus Kemba Walker in the next round, much-watch viewing.
Other Thoughts from the Last Two Tourney Rounds:
-If Toronto could get a second pick in the mid-first round, they should try and grab Florida State's Chris Singleton. He's hands down the best perimeter defender in the draft, and is still coming into his own offensively.
-Drafting Jimmer? No thanks. I don't think he'll be an Adam Morrison in the league, but looks more JJ Redick to me than Steph Curry.
-Some folks are big on John Henson but I'm not one of them. He could become a Marcus Camby type for sure, but looks years away both in terms of build and maturity.
-Another player I'd love the Raptors to stay far, far away from? Terrence Jones. He's been pretty invisible in the tournament and doesn't look fluid enough to me to be a starting 3 at the next level. Put it this way - I'd rather have James Johnson.
-We'll have to see what happens with this whole "Tristan Thompson signing with an agent" situation, but I don't see him as being an option for Toronto. His offensive game needs a lot of work and the skills he does possess are ones the Raps have in spades at present.
-I'm a Duke fan, but I also don't see the hype with Mason Plumlee. Can you say Josh Boone?
-However I do think that Kyle Singler is one of the most underrated players in this draft. If a team gets him in the second round they should be jumping for joy. Maybe he's never a starter in the league, but he plays with more grit and passion than 95% of the guys who will be drafted, and has a nice, well-rounded skill-set.
-I thought both Kenneth Faried and Kawhi Leonard showed their limitations as the tournament went on. Both have great physical tools and would look great coming off Toronto's bench next season, but right now Toronto could use more starting talent.
-Finally, if for some reason Patrick Young declares and slips into the early second round, I'm hoping the Raptors do everything they can to snatch him up. He didn't get much burn behind Vernon Macklin for Florida, but looks to me like a DeAndre Jordan type with much more upside than guys like Ajinca or Alibi.