As of right now, it’s pretty much certain: Duke star Zion Williamson is going to be the No. 1 overall pick in June’s NBA draft.
But there’s no shortage of other future NBA players gearing up for the NCAA tournament, which tips off Thursday.
USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt, Martin Rogers, AJ Neuharth-Keusch and Matt Eppers take a look at some of those players in this NBA roundtable.
Note: This roundtable first appeared in our weekly NBA newsletter, which is delivered to inboxes every Wednesday. Want more content like this early and delivered directly each week? Then sign up for NBA Click & Roll, which also features the biggest moments, quotes and news you may have missed from throughout the Association.
Zillgitt: I’m going to give you one to watch in a one-game scenario and one to watch whose team could reach the Final Four. They’re both players you probably haven’t seen much this season, especially if you watch more NBA than college. Both are Naismith Player of the Year finalists. Let’s start with Murray State sophomore guard Ja Morant. The 12th-seeded Racers play fifth-seeded Marquette. Morant is an explosive guard who can leap, finish at the rim (sometimes with highlight dunks), knock down threes and run the offense. He averages 24.6 points and 10 assists and is a projected top-three pick in June’s draft.
The other is Gonzaga junior forward Rui Hachimura, who is a projected late lottery pick. At 6-8, he operates inside the 3-point line for the most part and shoots 60.9 percent from the field, but he can also step outside and make threes (shooting 46.9 percent on just 32 attempts). He averages 20.1 points and 6.6 rebounds. The Bulldogs are a No. 1 seed and are expected to have a long run.
Rogers: It might seem like an obvious selection, given that he is probably going to be taken second in the draft, but I’ll also go with Morant. Lightning speed has never been more important than it is now in the modern NBA, and Morant has the up-tempo vibe that so many teams are looking for.
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This is a better and deeper draft pool than a lot of people are giving credit for, but in terms of a player capable of making a true winning impact at the next level – outside of Williamson – it’s hard to look past Morant.
There’s no shortage of teams who could benefit from having a savvy floor general with a fearless streak and a competitive edge. It might be the Year of Zion, but his old buddy (they played AAU ball together) could develop into a special player, too.
Neuharth-Keusch: Jeff and Martin both hit the nail on the head with Morant, whose 20-point, 10-assist averages have never been logged in NCAA history. But there are a handful of other potential first-round picks suiting up for the Big Dance, many of whom, like Morant, aren’t playing for blue bloods.
To name a few: There’s Texas Tech’s Jarrett Culver, who has taken a huge step forward this season and should be a top-10 pick; Virginia’s De’Andre Hunter, a versatile wing and the top prospect on the No. 1-seeded Cavaliers; Maryland’s Bruno Fernando, a dominant big man who’s averaging 13.7 points, 10.4 rebounds and a pair of blocks; and Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker, a combo guard who should be taken somewhere in the middle of the first round.
As for those blue-blood players with first-round potential? Just turn on any Duke, Kentucky or North Carolina game.
Eppers: Hunter elected to return to Virginia for his sophomore season after breaking his wrist late last year and missing the Cavaliers’ historic loss to UMBC. The additional year in college paid off and vaulted Hunter from first-round selection to likely lottery pick.
Hunter was the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, and at 6-7, he has the size, smarts and versatility to defend four positions, and potentially even centers in small lineups. He improved his 3-point shooting and shot creation significantly. Provided top-seeded Virginia doesn’t repeat last year’s first-round disaster against another 16 seed, there are some potential matchups in the South Region that would enable Hunter to put his defensive versatility on display.