Even an NBA snob like yours truly, who refuses to fill out an NCAA tournament bracket, is infected with Zion Fever.
The skills and potential of Duke’s Zion Williamson are irresistible. He’s a finisher. He’s a defensive anchor. He can run the floor, bang inside and skip scrumptious long-range bounce passes off the hardwood like a top-flight point guard — as Florida State just discovered in the ACC title game when Williamson connected with Tre Jones on a gorgeous fast-break layup.
Back from February’s scary sneaker blowout and knee injury just in time to lead the Blue Devils to the ACC tournament title, Williamson has increasingly been projected at the next level as the ultimate small-ball center in the modern game.
By now, though, everyone understands that Williamson, at an explosive and versatile 6-foot-7 and 285 pounds, is must-see. He is a LeBron James-level lock to go No. 1 overall in the NBA draft on June 20.
What you really need to know, as the NCAA tournament begins, is who else NBA executives will be watching closely over the next few weeks.
That prompted me to convene a panel of 10 trusted personnel experts from around the NBA to help assemble a list of five players not named Zion who you should be looking for on the college game’s biggest stage — with anonymity granted because the league forbids public discussion of college players until they have formally declared for the draft.
Ja Morant, Murray State
Widely regarded as a consensus top-five pick in June, and the highest-rated point guard in the class of 2019, Morant was the only unanimous selection among the 10 scouts polled.
In a nod to the uncommon athleticism Morant brings to his position, some draft experts believe he will be selected as high as No. 2. But the inherent limits that come with playing at a non-marquee school from a modest conference would suggest Morant has plenty to gain (and lose) in this tournament.
This Ja Morant dunk sounded like a cannon went off 😤
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) March 10, 2019
It certainly does not hurt Morant’s appeal, from a watchability and intrigue standpoint, that he will be matched up against Marquette’s diminutive-but-dangerous Markus Howard in the first round.
Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech
To quote one of my favorite former colleagues — ESPN’s Kevin Pelton — Culver “looks the part of an elite wing prospect but doesn’t have the statistical profile of one.”
Jarrett Culver bringing Texas Tech all the way back and now they lead West Virginia lead! pic.twitter.com/gZmXeXvRlP
— Basketball Society (@BBallSociety_) March 15, 2019
NBA talent evaluators will thus want to see how Culver fares in this environment, when the spotlight is obviously brighter and the stakes are elevated.
For the Red Raiders, Culver has quickly blossomed into an NBA lottery pick candidate. Scouts say he should be able to guard multiple positions and play on and off the ball offensively in the pros — if he continues to develop and cuts down on stretches of passive play.
P.J. Washington, Kentucky
Has Washington supplanted his teammate Keldon Johnson as the best NBA prospect on coach John Calipari’s Kentucky roster? Does Kentucky even have a lottery pick on this roster?
Those are the sorts of questions Washington can answer with a strong tournament run. As with Morant and Culver, teams want to see whether Washington — or Johnson for that matter — can raise his game under tournament pressure.
Washington is said to have a 43-inch vertical leap and projects to be a difference-making defender in the NBA because of his length and athleticism.
But there is an injury component. Washington started wearing a walking boot on his left foot Sunday “for precautionary reasons,” according to school officials.
Cameron Johnson, North Carolina
He is a senior, which tends to work against draft prospects, but the 6-foot-9 swingman just catapulted into the top 20 of an ESPN mock draft with a team-high 23 points in the ACC tournament against the eventual champion Duke.
— Carolina Basketball (@UNC_Basketball) March 15, 2019
He is converting 46.5 percent of his attempts from 3-point range and building a reputation as shot-maker, which helps explain how Johnson has countered fears that NBA scouts tend to sour on players who stay in college for more than a year or two.
Rui Hachimura, Gonzaga
Hachimura tied Duke’s R.J. Barrett with five votes each from our 10-scout panel. But I made the executive decision to feature the West Coast Conference player of the year in the last slot of our Not-Named-Zion all-stars rather than Barrett, since all of the Duke freshmen (Cam Reddish and Tre Jones included) receive plenty of attention playing with Williamson.
Rui Hachimura throws down on the break and Bill Walton waxes poetic pic.twitter.com/3omkOaSRf7
— CJ Fogler (@cjzero) December 6, 2018
Hachimura, a junior from Japan, has impressed teams with his athleticism, natural scoring ability and work ethic. The 6-foot-8 forward will be asked to step up his rebounding in the NBA, but he is poised to become the first player born in Japan to be drafted — and quite possibly in the lottery.