Players headed for the NBA will be tearing up your NCAA bracket before they go. There are soon-to-be pros in each region, and each player has the potential to change a game, the outcome of the tournament, and his own future. With a little more than 100 days until the NBA draft, this is an opportunity for players to make a final impression on NBA scouts, general managers, and team owners.
Twenty-three of the past 28 national champions had two or more future NBA first-round picks on their rosters. Pro prospects frequently win championships, and those players have become great barometers of success. (A big exception, of course: defending national champion Villanova. The Wildcats did not meet that criteria and won with senior leadership, teamwork, a world-class coach, and by staying humble and hungry.)
In NBA mock drafts for 2017, Kentucky, Duke, Arizona, and UCLA are all projected to have multiple first-round picks. That may be a good reason to pick one or more of these teams to head to the Final Four. Here are four pro prospects to watch:
Lonzo Ball, UCLA
A 6’6” freshman guard from Chino Hills, California, Ball is a skilled playmaker who is averaging 14.6 points and 7.6 assists. He is also averaging one outrageous statement per week from his dad, LaVar Ball, who likes to promise championships and claims his son is better than Steph Curry. Lonzo Ball is a versatile player known for his length and speed. Many experts think his unconventional shooting form may handicap him in the NBA. But as UCLA coach Steve Alford reminds us, “The prettiest shots are the ones that go in.” A dominant point guard like Ball can carry a team all the way to a championship, and UCLA has a pretty clear path until the Bruins likely meet another pro-stacked team, Kentucky, in the South Regional semifinal.
Malik Monk, Kentucky
The 6’3” freshman guard from Arkansas may be one of the best players to ever come through the Kentucky program. He is averaging more than 20 points a game and is not afraid to take a big shot. The Wildcats’ game against North Carolina in December showcased Monk at his best. These two bluebloods could meet again in the South Regional final for a rematch. First, however, Monk will need to step up and use his athleticism and incredible shooting abilities to help Kentucky get by potential matchups with Wichita State and UCLA.
Jason Tatum, Duke
This athletic 6’8” freshman forward from St. Louis, Missouri, is averaging 16.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 2.2 assists. He came on strong in the ACC tournament, carrying Duke to four straight wins and an unlikely ACC championship as the No. 5 seed. He scored 88 points in four games over four days. The East Region is filled with tough defensive teams that Duke could meet, such as Virginia, Florida, or Villanova. Tatum could be Duke’s best offensive weapon, as he is capable of taking over and scoring from any spot on the court. In order for the Blue Devils to make a deep run in the tournament, Tatum must continue to play at a high level, and the Devils must play as a team and focus on defense.
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
Many say this Finnish freshman is the best 7-foot shooter college basketball has ever seen. He is averaging more than 15 points and seven rebounds a game, going 43.2% from three-point range. In the Pac-12 tournament, Markkanen was 4 for 10 from downtown against UCLA and finished with 29 points. He was 4 for 4 in the Wildcats’ title-game win over Oregon. Both Markkanen and a healthy Arizona team seem to be peaking at the right time. The Wildcats may have the easiest path to West Regional Final, and Markkanen would match up well with Gonzaga’s big man, Przemek Karnowski.
These pro prospects and their talented, well-coached programs appear to be a safe bet to advance. But don’t overlook Villanova, the No. 1 overall seed who won it all last year without a big-name NBA prospect on the court. Josh Hart, the Big East Player of the Year and MVP of the Big East tournament, may not be a top pro prospect now, but he will be a second-round—if not a late first-round—pick and has the skills and physical gifts needed to succeed in the NBA. The NCAA tournament may be just the stage he needs to showcase himself as a future NBA player.
Photographs by (from top): Leon Bennett/Getty Images (Ball); Andy Lyons/Getty Images (Monk); Lance King/Getty Images (Tatum); Chris Coduto/Getty Images (Markkanen)