In honor of the glorious event that is March Madness, I’m going to be taking a break from the NBA and focusing on some of the young stars in college. In this edition, I’m taking a look at some of the best players who have not only made it to the Tournament, but are still dancing as well. Here we go!
Josh Jackson, Kansas Jayhawks: Entering his college career as a highly touted recruit, it is safe to say that Jackson has lived up to expectations, and perhaps even exceeded some. Jackson is averaging 16 points, three assists, and a healthy seven rebounds per game for Kansas; Jackson also gets a steal and a block a game, and is turning the ball over 2.3 times per contest. Coming into his freshman year known as an athletic wing with an outstanding leaping ability, there were critics who believed Jackson was simply an athlete with a hitch in his shot. Well based on his performance this year and thus far in the Tournament, Jackson has silenced these critics and has proven he is a flat out scorer with the ability to do much more than just that. Jackson shot 38% from three during the season and over 51% from the field, yet his abysmal 55% from the free throw line is concerning. Overall, Jackson is most definitely a player with loads of potential and numerous superb performances backing this up, I think it is very possible Jackson goes number one overall in June. I also see him and Kansas continuing their run in March.
*Miles Bridges, Michigan State Spartans: Having not watched a lot of MSU play during the season, it has been a treat watching the young Miles Bridges ball during the Tournament. A big 6’7″ 230 pound forward, Bridges is a player that has a lot more game than meets the eye. In his lone season at MSU, Bridges has averaged 16.7 points, eight rebounds, two assists, and swats one shot a game, while turning the rock over two times. And while Bridges may resemble a power forward, he shoots the ball like a guard, as he is shooting threes at a 39% clip. Bridges is an athletic strong player with a knack for being an on-court leader, making mid-range shots and a respectable rate, and can play much larger than his height suggests. I believe that if Bridges continues to focus on his shooting mechanics and improves on his defensive consistency and intensity, he will be a great player in the NBA. If he declares this June, Bridges should be a lotto pic, even though his Spartans didn’t make it to the Sweet 16.
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky Wildcats: For years, Kentucky has produced excellent players who find a way to continue being studs in the Association. I am confident this years class of Wildcats won’t disappoint. In Fox, John Calipari has a 6’5″ guard with the ability to both attack the rim as well as consistently make plays for his teammates. In his freshman year as a Wildcat, Fox averaged 16 points, four rebounds, and five assists, while swiping the ball once a game, and turning it over twice. A stat that should be noted for Fox: while he turned the ball over 47 times all year, he had 157 assists, triple the number of times he coughed it up. And when you watch Fox, it is apparent that he is always looking for his teammates, sometimes to a fault. One major downside to Fox’s game, his weak three point shot, as he shot the deep ball at a 23% clip this past season. Nonetheless, I am confident in Fox and his ability as well as mentality; if the young Wildcat decided to declare for the draft, expect him to go within the top seven picks. I also envision more March success for Fox and the Wildcats, as I am confident they will make the Final Four.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA Bruins: Despite all of the nonsense Ball’s father may spew, his son is one heck of a ball player. During his debut season at UCLA, the former Chino Hill’s star had a nice year; Ball averaged 14 points a night, six rebounds as a guard, and over seven assists, while stealing and turning the ball over twice. Entering this season, I believed Ball was overrated. I am not ashamed to say that I was wrong. Ball is a magician with the rock, placing pin-point passes into his teammates hands with shocking precision, and though I didn’t believe his unorthodox shot would translate to college, his 41% three point shot is impossible to doubt. Ball is also a vocal guy on the court, often directing plays and calling out ball screens wherever they appear, something I believe will translate well in the League. Ball does need to work on his free throw percentage which is in the mid sixties, as well as become a more consistent player on a nightly basis in terms of ball security. When he declares, expect Ball to be a top five pick. And even though there have been many upsets this March season, I think the Bruins advance after tonight.
Frank Mason III, Kansas Jayhawks: Possibly one of the best players in all of college basketball, this guard on the Jayhawks is cold. A two year starter for Kansas, the senior guard has really stepped up this year; Mason III averaged 13 points last year, that has gone up to 21 in his senior campaign. He also contributes five assists a night, four rebounds at 5’11”, and steals the ball 1.3 times per contest. A player with a knack for getting buckets, Mason III is a hard man to stop on offense as he is so quick off ball screens, moves well without the ball, and is an adept ball handler. Mason’s shooting is also shocking, as he shoots the three at a startling 48%, nearly as well as his field goal percentage which is at 49%. While Mason III may not be a lotto pick, predominantly because of his 5’11” frame, I am confident he will make a name for himself in the League.
Jayson Tatum, Duke Blue Devils: Although I may not be a fan of Duke, you gotta love this kid Tatum. A 6’8″ Forward from Saint Louis, since his return from injury, Tatum has made Duke the frightening powerhouse they once were. After missing eight games to injury, Tatum came in and put on a show during his freshman campaign: averaging 17 points, nearly eight boards, two assists, and a block and a steal. Tatum also turned the ball over two and a half times. An athletic player with a solid stroke from outside (33% from three), Tatum is a guy who can put up big numbers any given situation. He is a strong player at 205 pounds who has the ability to play in the post, drive the lane, and has shown an ability to go coast to coast after a defensive rebound. If he declares for the draft, I guarantee Tatum will be a top five pick, I also have a sneaking suspicion that this may be Duke’s year…
Justin Jackson, North Carolina Tar Heels: A lanky kid from Texas, Justin Jackson is the silent killer of the NCAA. Now in his junior year,averaging 18 points, close to five rebounds, two assists, and only one turnover a game, Jackson has truly developed in his three years under Roy Williams. Jackson is also more aggressive on both sides of the court than he used to be, something that can be noted in his five steals in tonights win over Arkansas. Now the go-to guy for UNC, Jackson has stepped up to the challenge and become an excellent shooter from three, raining in deep buckets at a 38% clip. While I am unsure whether Jackson will declare or not, if he puts on weight and stays aggressive, I have faith that he will be a solid role-player in the NBA. I see the Heels making it to the Elite Eight.
Malik Monk, Kentucky Wildcats: If there was one player I would define as a straight up scorer in college hoops, it would have to be Malik Monk. This is the guy who went off for 47 back in December, and the same guy who averaged 20 points during his freshman year. In addition to his 20 points, Monk also averaged two assists and rebounds, while shooting 82% from the stripe, and 39% from three. Oh yes, Malik Monk is an absolute bucket. A guy who is athletic enough to get around defenders, split defenses with his ball handling ability, while also dangerous enough from outside to attract attention from his teammates, Monk has a bright future. Monk is also clutch, not in the sense that he hits a lot of game winners, but in the sense that he makes timely buckets, something that was highlighted earlier today with his big three against Wichita State. While a great player, who will no doubt go top five come June, Monk needs to do more than just score as two assists and rebounds is simply not enough on the next level.
TJ Leaf, UCLA Bruins: The leading scorer on the Bruins, TJ Leaf is yet again another excellent player on the stacked Bruins. The 6’10” forward from Cali is about as diverse a player as they come, as he has an uncanny ability to both be an effective post player as well as a consistent and efficient outside scorer. In his freshman year at UCLA, Leaf averaged 16 points, a nice eight rebounds, and 2.4 assists per contest, while turning over the rock about once a game. Yet the impressive thing about Leaf is, at 6’10”, he shot the three at a superb 46% clip, going 26-56 throughout the year. Leaf is a big kid with excellent footwork, solid court vision, and a willingness to do the little things on the court. Although, I would like to see Leaf become a more aggressive defender and work on upping his free throw percentage. If he declares come June, I think Leaf should be a lotto pick.
Luke Kennard, Duke Blue Devils: While I was considering placing Edrice Adebayo from Kentucky at this spot, I think the Wildcats have had enough representation here, and this kid Kennard absolutely deserves some due. As a sophomore in Durham, Luke Kennard has broken the idea that he is only a sharpshooter with his play this year; Kennard is now averaging 20 points per game this year (up nine points from his freshman year), five rebounds, two assists, and shoots the lights out (44% from three and nearly 50% from the field). A deceptive player, Kennard is more athletic than he may appear as he possesses the ability to not only get his shots off running around screens, but also after shifty dribble moves he uses to create space for a nice mid-range jumper. And at only 6’6″, Kennard is a very solid rebounder who is not afraid of contact, something that will serve him well in years to come. Though I have a feeling Kennard may remain under Coach K for one more year, if he were to declare for this years draft, he’d go in the first round for sure.