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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.