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#pounditFriday, December 1, 2023

10 future lottery picks to watch in the NCAA Tournament

Michael Porter Jr

After weeks of speculation about which teams would squeak in and who would be left out, after Joe Lunardi frantically updated his Bracketology predictions dozens of times, the NCAA Tournament is finally here.

Aside from the shocking upsets, the dramatic buzzer-beaters, and the emergence of unlikely heroes, one of the best parts of the tournament each year is getting the opportunity to watch future lottery picks — many of whom will be one-and-done — compete with each other at the collegiate level. The 2017 tournament included Kansas’ Josh Jackson, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Duke’s Jayson Tatum, Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen, and Kentucky’s De’Aaron Fox, among others.

The top 11 picks in the NBA’s 2017 draft were freshmen or international players, and nine of them played in the tournament. One (Gonzaga’s Zach Collins) made it all the way to the Final Four.

So, which future NBA players should you keep an eye on as the tourney gets underway? Which prospects could blossom into household names this March? Here are 10 future lottery picks to watch.

10. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, G, Kentucky

Gilgeous-Alexander became a popular name during Kentucky’s improbable run to the SEC Tournament championship, but hoops nerds have sat firmly on his bandwagon all season. The reason? He has both the physical and mental tools to be great.

Gilgeous-Alexander is a 6-foot-6 point guard; if that isn’t impressive enough, he has a 6-foot-11 wingspan, and he’s an explosive athlete to boot. Gilgeous-Alexander reminds me in some ways of Donovan Mitchell last season at Louisville, though Mitchell was a more developed offensive player. Gilgeous-Alexander also has the intangibles. He’s Kentucky’s leader, he plays with incredible intensity, and he’s garnered the respect of John Calipari.

9. Trae Young, G, Oklahoma

The Trae Young hype reached a fever pitch in January, and you can’t help but wonder if all the attention got to him. Call it ESPN Syndrome or The Manziel Effect. His performance trailed off dramatically in the second half of the season, and though he remains a Naismith Award contender, he hasn’t been the same guy since Big 12 play kicked into full gear (he has a theory to explain it).

Young may not be the next Steph Curry, but he’s an incredibly gifted player who has full-court range. He’s scoring 27.4 points and dishing out 8.7 assists per game while shooting 36.2 percent from deep — which is made all the more impressive when you realize he shoots more than 10 threes a night. Many felt Oklahoma was a longshot to make the tournament. It’s quite possible Young’s star power played a role in his squad garnering a bid; the NCAA loves eyeballs, and a game involving Young guarantees viewers.

8. Wendell Carter, F, Duke

Every member of Duke’s starting five deserves attention, and it’s entirely possible they’ll all go in the first round of the upcoming draft. The Blue Devils trot out four impressive freshmen and senior Grayson Allen. Carter would probably have received more attention if he had gone elsewhere, where he could have stood out as the alpha, but he elected to play alongside Marvin Bagley and form the most imposing frontline in the country. Carter was the No. 5 recruit in his class. He’s scoring 13.8 points, grabbing 9.3 rebounds, and blocking 2.2 shots per game. The Atlanta native has a good-looking jumper; he doesn’t shoot from outside much, but when he does, he’s effective. One of Carter’s biggest assets is his ambidextrousness around the basket.

7. Mo Bamba, C, Texas

Bamba is a project. The 7-footer has unbelievable physical tools; he has a 7-foot-9 wingspan, he can really get up, and he has great instincts and hands. He’s swatting away 3.7 shots per game. Bamba, however, needs to work on his offensive game.

Teams are infatuated with his pick-and-roll potential, as he’s a stellar lob target, but he needs to put on some weight and polish his skillset. Shaka Smart’s prized prospect, the No. 4 recruit in the Class of 2017, has a decent jumper — but it leaves something to be desired, particularly as the modern NBA emphasizes bigs’ ability to space the floor. Bamba’s Longhorns finished sixth in the Big 12 and earned a 10 seed in the tourney.

6. Miles Bridges, F, Michigan State

Some call Miles Bridges the college version of Carmelo Anthony. That may sound like a stretch, but Bridges is going to be really good. He turned heads during his freshman year at Michigan State and was a projected lottery pick. He tested the waters at the next level but elected to come back to college for another season.

Bridges, another candidate for the Wooden Award, can play both the 3 and 4 and is comfortable as the focal point of an offense. Bridges is averaging 16.9 points. 6.9 rebounds, and 2.8 assists per game while posting an impressive Player Efficiency Rating of 22.8.

The Spartans, like Duke, are a popular choice to make a run in the tournament, but their road won’t be easy. The two talented teams could meet in the Sweet 16.

See Nos. 5-1 on Page 2

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