The greatest sporting event of the year began this week and thankfully, after just one day of madness in the books, I have almost completely forgotten about the dumpster fire that was Selection Sunday (TBS single handily caused the unemployment levels in the US to spike Monday morning). With one day down and the first game kicking off at 11:15 A.M. today, we are currently in the midst of the greatest 4-day stretch in sports. Besides watching a Kyle Schwarber long ball disappear into the bleachers at Wrigley, there is nothing that brings me more unbridled joy than the opening weekend of the NCAA Tournament. High-quality basketball on television from the time you head out to lunch until the time you go to bed; buzzer beaters, which you may see live once or twice a year, become more frequent than an offensive Trump tweet; players you never have heard of from colleges you could not locate on a map become overnight celebrities; all of your co-workers having a busted bracket before the weekend even begins; looking around your office and noticing everyone is watching multiple games on their monitors even though the workday isn't close to ending. The tournament is a thing of beauty and provides constant must watch-TV for even the average consumer of sports.
Besides all the above and every other way in which March Madness touches you individually, the NCAA Tournment is also a showcase for the NBA draft in June. Almost all of the top pro prospects in the upcoming draft play in March every year and 2018 is no exception. Every collegiate player expected to be drafted within the top twenty picks in the upcoming draft are participating in this year's tournament. Over the next three weeks, we get to watch some of the future stars of the NBA audition for their future employers with millions of people watching and for some, millions in future earnings on the line. Imagine sitting in room 1106 at your office for a job interview that is being broadcast to millions of people across the nation, including not just the company you are interviewing for, but all of their competitors as well. That is the reality for the players who aren't going pro in something else after college basketball.
With two first-round picks in the upcoming draft, the Chicago Bulls and the city of Chicago have more skin in the game than usual and should be paying extremely close attention to this year's tournament. From what we have seen from the Bulls this season, a quick turnaround to a playoff caliber team is not far out of reach (hard to believe right now, but remember, we are attempting to tank right now). Hitting on this year's draft is crucial to a successful 1-year rebuild and with Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine, and most importantly, Lauri Markkanen, all showing potential to be building blocks for the future, we cannot waste this opportunity to acquire top young talent.
Over the course of the tournment, I will be providing a list of three players to specifically watch in the upcoming tournment games, starting with players I think might be out after this wild weekend. These are players I believe the Bulls should be targeting with either their lottery pick (at this rate, it will be out of the top 10 if they can't figure out how to properly tank) or their late first rounder acquired from the New Orlean Pelicans as part of the Nikola Mirotic trade.
With that, here are the top three prospects that you should make sure to watch this weekend, as they most likely won't make it to the Sweet 16 next week:
Michael Porter Jr., Missouri
If you want to see Michael Porter Jr. play, you may want to clear you schedule tonight, as his game at 8:55 P.M. game against Florida State may very well be his last (and just third) collegiate game. Michael Porter Jr. (I am going to call him MPJ from here on out. I don't believe he goes by that, but typing Porter Jr. is going to get old fast, while just typing Porter may imply I am talking about Michael Porter Senior, which, as great of a guy I am sure he is, I do not plan on discussing him at this time) is an interesting prospect for the Bulls to consider. Once considered to be a lock as the #1 pick in this upcoming draft, MPJ has seen his stock drop throughout the year as he has sat on the bench due to a back injury he suffered minutes into his college career. This, although not helping him, helps the Bulls, since he may be available when we finally get to pick. However, he has now become a questionable prospect who may not be as good as once advertised coming out of high school.
He played his first full game last week in the SEC tournment and immediately showed there isn't a shot he doesn't like. MPJ went out and jacked up a team-high seventeen shots in 23 minutes, making just five of them. Now I don't know if he was just making up for lost time or if this is how MPJ operates, but it did not help the team win the game, as they lost to a Georgia team that they had beat handily earlier in the season without MPJ. I felt like I was watching 2016 Carmelo Anthony out there and that might be what MPJ translates too (for those not at home that haven't been following the NBA for awhile, 2016 Carmelo is not a good thing. It is actually a very bad, fairly depressing thing); a high-volume jump shooter who doesn't contribute much else to his team.
I know, I know; it was one game. However, that is all we have to look at right now and if my bracket is accurate (it is about as accurate as Puxsatawney Phil on Groundhog's Day), tonight's game will be the only other time we get to see him play in a competitive match until the fall. With such a small sample size, I need to see more from MPJ to feel comfortable with the Bulls picking him. He seemed to lack the ability to put the ball on the floor, pass, play defense, and basically do anything besides hoist ill-advised jumpers. That.....is not a glowing review, not matter how much potential we may think he has. With MPJ still being such a mystery to me, he really needs to put on a good performance this weekend or he will leave us all with an absolute cliff-hanger on who he is as a player going into the draft.
Mohamaed Bamba, Texas
I hope Texas makes it to the NCAA Championship Game for the sole purpose of providing me six more games to try and figure out Mohamaed Bamba. I just need more time to understand what we are dealing with here. Even though Bamba played 26 more games than MPJ, he is still a larger question mark to me. It wouldn't matter if Scooby-Doo and the entire gang rolled up in the Mystery Machine to help solve this mystery. Is he the missing piece that can help the Bulls get back into the Eastern Conference playoffs? Or a future lottery bust who is destined for the G-league?
On paper, Bamba is the perfect fit for the Chicago Bulls. A 7-footer with a Monstar-like 7-foot, 9-inch wingspan. What am I supposed to do with that? I know I could Google if that is the longest wingspan recorded in NBA history, but I am just going to assume that is the longest wingspan ever recorded in human history. This guy could put the star on top of the Christmas tree inside the Walnut Room without a ladder. He can also block any basketball that comes within his vicinity. His arms simply never end and he uses this superhuman length to his advantage on the basketball court.
Bamba averaged 3.8 blocks per game this season and is a menance in the paint. He is exactly what the Bulls need at center and would be a perfect complement to Lauri in the frontcourt. His defense prowess down low would make up for Lauri's deficiencies on defense and his rim running ability would make up for Lauri's lack of elite athleticism (for the record, Lauri is a much better athlete than people give him credit for and he showed it all season. He is no Carlos Boozer, who I may have seen put his hand up on defense twice and dunk once despite being 6'8"). They would be best friends in the paint, and hopefully, off the court. Blocking shots and draining 3-pointers by day; playing wingman for each other at the bars on Hubbard Street at night; it is a Chicago I want to live in.
However, as much as I love Bamba's defense and his potential to anchor our defense for the next 10 years, he is by far the riskiest lottery prospect in this year's draft. He is fairly limited offensively and at 225 pounds, his lack of strength is worrisome. Will he be able to hold his own in the paint? Will he ever successfully add muscle? Can he develop into an offensive threat? All questions that have not been answered at this point and I found myself wanting to see him takeover games at times, but that doesn't seem to be in him. He only scored over 20 points four times this season, despite usually being by far the largest player on the floor.
The main problem I keep running into with Bamba is that all I can see when I look at him is Nerlens Noel, the former Kentucky star who now sits on the bench for the Dallas Mavericks. Noel was the 6th selection of the 2013 NBA draft and was pegged as a future all-star and defense anchor. Bamba and Noel almost have identical measurements and if anything, Noel is a better athlete than Bamba. Nevertheless, Noel has really struggled to find a place in today's NBA and is averaging just over four points per game in his 5th season in the league. The fact that he cannot find a place in a NBA rotation already makes me question how Bamba's game will translate to the NBA and I will be watching every minute he is on the floor in the tournament to see how he does in the spotlight. It might not be enough to crack this mystery, but dammit will I try.
Deandre Ayton, University of Arizona
I know Ayton is not in the tournament anymore after the Buffalo Bulls ran them off the court last night. I know this is titled "Players to Watch" and it is now impossible for you to watch him this weekend. However, Ayton is too great not to talk about and title would have been a lot less sexy as "Two Players To Watch and One Player I Hope You Watched Because His Team Failed To Get Him The Rock and He Can't Be Expected To Do Everything Himself and The Buffalo Bulls Could Beat The Chicago Bulls If They Played Today." So, live with the inaccurate title and just get educated on the be monster the Bulls took down last night.
Ayton is hands down the best college prospect in this year's draft and is the reason why way too many teams have put all of their resources into studying the science of tanking. Unfortunately, unless the Bulls hire some outside tank consultants to help their front office, Ayton might be out of reach, as the Bulls keep winning just enough to knock themselves out of the Ayton sweepstakes. However, there is still a chance we can grab this superstar and until the lottery balls tell me otherwise, I will keep up the belief that Ayton is an option for Chicago and that is a scary scenario. A franchise altering scenario in fact.
Paring Ayton's 7'0", 250 pound chiseled body next to Lauri in the frontcourt is a move that would push the Bulls back into the playoffs next year after just a one year hiatus. I firmly believe that. Saying players like Ayton don't come around often is an understatement. What is more accurate at this point is to say that Ayton is a generational talent. I honestly look at him and think of a young Shaquille O'Neal. Not the 330-pound Shaq who won his titles in LA, but the youthful, skinny (relative to his eventual size) Shaq that could run the break at LSU and fly around in the hoop in Orlando (however, as my girlfriend pointed out last night, his squared head shape compares a lot better to San Antonio Spurs great David Robinson than Shaq's round head shape. Something very important to keep in mind)
Ayton just overpowers opponents in the paint with his strength, yet possess rare fluidity and acceleration not seen in many centers. Fast, powerful, quick, and skilled, are adjectives I would only use for a few NBA players of recent memory, one being LeBron. You look for prospects to have one or two of those attributes packaged together, but all four are unheard of for a 7-footer. Ayton is far from perfect, with his defensive game not nearly as strong as it should be for someone of his athletic ability, but most believe he can at least become an average defender due to his ability to move so effortlessly on the floor. Since a majority of his games this year started long after you already had gone to bed and he lost last night, you still might have never seen him play. In that case, YouTube some highlights and pray that the Bulls continue to lose so we have a chance in the Ayton sweepstakes this June.