Mike Cortez recaps what he saw from 2019’s draft prospects competing in the NCAA tournament—everyone from Zion Williamson to Nassir Little.

The Knicks have done their heavy lifting. The worst record in the league belongs to them, securing a floor of picking fifth overall in this year’s draft. The top prospects have shown us everything we need to know.

The game plan for draft night is still very much “Zion or bust,” but the rest of the draft class have made compelling cases. We have followed most of these guys all season, and the tournament gave us the last thing we needed to see.

This is our final check-in on the stock of each prospect. To make it easy, they are sorted by college, in order of their overall seedings. Numbers next to a player’s name signify his final standing on our TKW Board. Simple enough, right? Let’s get started.


Duke

Prospects: (1) Zion Williamson, (2) R.J. Barrett, (6) Cam Reddish

Duke’s demise felt inevitable the more time you have to sit and reflect. All season, Zion, R.J. Barrett, and sometimes Cam Reddish, masked the Blue Devils’ massive flaws.

The tournament has always been the litmus test, and Duke was exposed. Coach K’s worst coaching job, coupled with zero shooting, culminated in an Elite Eight finish that fell way below lofty expectations.

Williamson is the only player associated with Duke who did not see his name dragged—and for good reason. He confirmed much of what we already knew. Zion is an alpha of the highest order. When the dire moments arose, Zion was involved in some fashion.

He flashed the same mind-numbing disregard for gravity he has shown since he was in high school.

While also showcasing his jumper.

Zion has a ways to go refining jumper to the point it can be a threat consistently. In the immediate, it’s not irrational to believe Williamson can be serviceable as a catch-and-shoot guy in the corners.

He shot a superb 41.2% from three in the tournament on 4.3 attempts—not to mention those made threes were to save Duke’s season. Zion left the tournament as he entered it: the unanimous first-overall pick.

Zion’s teammates were not as lucky. Cam Reddish may or may not have been hurt for longer than we knew, possibly alleviating much of the criticism thrown his way. But even when he did play, there were moments you forgot he was on the floor.

Reddish was a no show after the UCF game. He missed the Virginia Tech game altogether, and might as well have missed the Michigan State game, too. Reddish enters the draft with the cloudiest future, compared to his teammates.

The hope is he becomes a poor man’s Paul George, which he does look like in brief moments.

These fleeting moments were all we got from Cam; he never put it together for a stretch of games. He has become an option for the Knicks only if they fall to five. Even then, sniffing out a trade from a team that likes him (Hawks) could be better option.

Then there is R.J. Barrett. Barrett’s tournament cemented his status as most polarizing prospect. No one has divided the masses quite like him. It is true he did not shoot the ball well (43.3% for the tournament), and went cold in his final two games. It is also true Coach K did not put the 6-7 wing in places to succeed.

Barrett only sat for seven minutes the whole tournament. In the final three games, he played the full 40 minutes, often with zero shooting flanking him.

What we did see from him was good. He is still a top-four prospect, and likely at the top of the Knicks’ wishlist should they fall from one.

The shooting concerns are overblown, but he does need to improve on his off-the-dribble jumper. He is most comfortable catching and shooting.

His greatest trait is his relentlessness. One thing you can rest easy on with R.J.—his is going H.A.M. every second he is on the floor.

With more space and with shooters around him, R.J. will prove the doubters wrong quickly. He’s not Andrew Wiggins 2.0 or Kobe.

He’s his own man, and he’s pretty fucking good.

Virginia

Prospect: De’Andre Hunter

De’Andre Hunter is one of the few top prospects still alive heading into the final weekend. Virginia’s run has been surprising in spite of its number-one seed status. The Cavaliers handled business in a pedestrian region but most notably survived Carson Edwards going Super Saiyan against them.

In that game, Hunter was called upon to extinguish the blazing Edwards. This is something Hunter should get used to when he moves to the pros. He will never be relied on to carry a team’s offense, which the Cavaliers do not ask of him.

Hunter has shot more this tournament (4.5 attempts beyond the arc compared to 2.8 season average) to less-than-stellar results (27.8%). After his 23-point outing in the Round of 64, he has averaged a meager 10.3 points on 37.5% shooting.

Hunter’s value lies on the defensive end of the ball. His highlight play against Auburn was meeting Jared Harper at the rim.

The typically gun-shy Hunter finally emptied the clip in his final game. He kicked Jarrett Culver’s ass most of the night, and when it seemed as if Culver had gotten the last laugh, Hunter responded. 

He finished with a career-high 27 points, by far the highest point total of the tournament in the most important game, too. His win in the head-to-head matchup against Culver was a key to Virginia’s victory. There is a good two-way player within Hunter, it all comes down to his willingness to push his offense beyond the arc and stray away from his comfort zone in the midrange.

If Hunter ends up being the selection, please do not be a numbskull and complain about his points per game. His offense will be a work in progress. Defense is where Hunter yields the most value from day one. The last time I checked, the Knicks were in dire need of some dogs on defense too.

North Carolina

Prospect: Nassir Little

There was a brief moment where it appeared as if Roy Williams was ready to unleash Nassir Little on the world.

Little started the tournament hot, first with a 19-point outing in 17 minutes against Iona. For an encore he dropped 20 points in 21 minutes against Washington in the second round, to go along with seven rebounds.

Unfortunately that was the apex of Little’s tournament and season. He went on to play 13 minutes against Auburn in the Sweet 16, going 2-for-7 for four points. Little leaves UNC like he came in: with nothing noteworthy to point to.

Despite his mundane college career, Little remains an intriguing prospect. His explosiveness will make him an above-average rebounder, as he was at Carolina, and the open fields of the NBA should benefit his scoring.

Should the Knicks pull the plug on Frank Ntilikina, a pick to acquire someone like Little at the end of the lottery should be the reasoning. He can give David Fizdale another blank canvas to work with on the wing. Little can be the perfect complement to the offensive-minded Kevin Knox on the perimeter, with the potential to grow into a defender the team leans on.

Gonzaga

Prospects: (5) Brandon Clarke, Rui Hachimura

It’s a shame Gonzaga had to go down; it appeared as if everyone was finally realizing how great Brandon Clarke is.

On the TKW Podcast, I said if you want someone like Zion but get screwed over by the impartial crudeness of math, Clarke would be a viable option at fifth overall.

Clarke validated his status as a top-ten pick by finishing out a stellar season appropriately. He finished the tournament with at least two blocks in every game, including back-to-back games in which he had five blocks. His 36-point, eight-rebound, and five-block performance against Baylor was one of the more impressive of the tournament.

The obvious next step for Clarke is his jumper, which has already seen vast improvement. His free-throw percentage has spiked from 57.2% last season for San Jose State to 69.4%. Clarke is a worker—the type of blue collar guy who can help furnish a championship-minded culture.

Clarke is not the only hard worker on Gonzaga, nor the only top prospect. Rui Hachimura has stolen most of the shine this season for Gonzaga. His numbers pale in comparison to Clarke’s, but compared to where he was as a freshman, Rui has come a long way.

He took home player of the year honors for his conference and made the AP All-American second team over Clarke. The appeal of Rui over Clarke is obvious: people love scoring. Hachimura averaged 19.7 points in his first season as a starter and ended his season on a high note.

Had Gonzaga held on to beat Texas Tech, his draft stock could have soared. Hachimura’s 22 points were not enough to get it done, but it did paint a picture of what type of player to expect in the immediate future.

He used his size to his advantage and had his way inside the three-point line, shooting an efficient 50%. Where he did not have success was beyond that three-point line, going 0-for-3.

Extending beyond the arc is the next phase in Rui’s evolution. At the next level, his greatest value will be on the offensive end. He is not a rim protector (27 total blocks this season) or good at cleaning the glass.

There are some Tobias Harris vibes to him, and given his work ethic, Rui leaves no reason to doubt his ability to add the long range shot to his arsenal.

Rui remains on the outskirts of the Knicks’ radar, but is worth tracking nonetheless.

Texas Tech

Prospect: (4) Jarrett Culver

Jarrett Culver’s rise continued into the tournament. He has flown under the radar for a large part of the season, but has benefited from playing on the national stage. He and his Texas Tech squad have been the best team in this tournament, and Culver has been at the center of it.

Prior to his ugly 10-point outing against Michigan State in the Final Four, he averaged 21.5 points, 6.8 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.3 steals, and 1.3 blocks per game. He operates in the shadows mostly, rarely making the highlight play—but often making the right play.

He was not his stellar self on the final weekend of the season, shooting an arctic 20.5% from the field his last two games, and a horrific 1-for-9 from three. Michigan State took away the paint, and even when Culver was able to get a shot off he was off target. Against Virginia, De’Andre Hunter had his way with him most of the game. 

In the final moments against Michigan State, Culver was able to erase his struggles. He scored his final five points when his team needed it most, including this game-sealer.

He was not so lucky in the title game. Hunter and Virginia executed too much, and Culver misfired too much.

His floor remains the highest among the top-four picks, despite his ill-timed cold spell. On a talent-deprived team like the Knicks, Culver’s ability to do a little of everything cannot be understated. But if his Final Four did teach us something, it’s that Culver may not possess the ceiling R.J. or Ja possess as number one options.

Murray State

Prospect: (3) Ja Morant

Ja Morant had the shortest stint in the tournament, but arguably the most impactful. All season the question with Morant was quality of competition. He quieted some of that noise with an electric conference tournament, and silenced the doubters in just two games at the big dance.

He kicked things off by beating the brakes off Markus Howard and Marquette. Ja could have probably erupted for 30-plus points. Instead he revealed the whole repertoire, opting for a triple double instead.

Ja flashed some De’Aaron Fox.

And some Trae Young.

His toughest test came against Florida State. They were his greatest simulation of a pro roster, in terms of size, and Ja handled the test as he handled all others.

Murray State fell to the vastly superior Seminoles, but Ja still had an impressive showing with 28 points, five rebounds, and four assists. He also got a nice bump by Auburn’s deep run. In case you forgot, Ja had a strong showing versus the Tigers earlier this season.

The case for Ja to New York remains the most intriguing. If Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving are not coming, a pivot to rebuilding around Ja is a good option.

Ja possesses the same culture-shifting personality that Fox and Trae have been for their teams.

Should the Knicks fall to two, Ja should be well in the mix with Barrett and Culver.

 

 

 

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»LISTEN: TKW Podcast: Mike Cortez joins to discuss the national championship game (taped prior to Monday)