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Cinder-fellas: Eight Future NBA Players to Watch in the Tournament

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The NCAA tournament is here and that means … it’s officially NBA draft season! Here’s a quick guide to eight archetypal college players to keep an eye on this week.

The Star: Brandon Ingram (Duke) looks like the result of someone having too much fun with Photoshop. At 6-foot-9, 195 pounds, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he is all arms and legs, not to mention a tantalizing combination of length, speed, and shooting ability. Jabari Parker lost in the first round and Jahlil Okafor won a national title, so there’s a wide range of outcomes for the Blue Devils in the freshman Ingram’s only NCAA tournament. With Ben Simmons watching from home, the spotlight is on Ingram, the one player in this year’s draft with a comparable ceiling to the Australian phenom.

The Enigma: Jaylen Brown (Cal) is the most polarizing prospect in this year’s draft class. On one hand, he’s an elite athlete with prototypical size for a combo forward in the modern NBA (6-foot-7, 225 pounds, 6-foot-11 wingspan). On the other, the stats don’t love him and he’s an inconsistent shooter with spotty on-court decision-making. Cal doesn’t need the freshman to be a star, but if he can play like one, the Bears are as talented as any team in the country.

The Big Man: No team depends on one player more than Utah leans on its sophomore center, Jakob Poeltl. He averaged 17.6 points, 9.0 rebounds, and 1.9 assists a game this season, while shooting 66 percent. Those are eye-popping numbers, but the best center prospects he has faced this season are potential late second-rounders: Kaleb Tarczewski of Arizona and Colorado’s Josh Scott. We will find out a lot about Poeltl’s NBA potential when he squares off against other top prospects. That’s what makes the Midwest region so intriguing. We could see Poeltl face Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga), Deyonta Davis (Michigan State), and A.J. Hammons (Purdue) in consecutive games.

The Senior: It has been a slow and steady build for Denzel Valentine (Michigan State), who has gone from fringe top-100 recruit to Wooden Award candidate in four seasons at MSU. The MVP of the team that many consider the tournament favorite, Valentine is a do-it-all point forward who can dominate an NCAA game in almost every conceivable way. There are questions about whether he can defend at the next level, but a magical run through March could silence a lot of the doubters.

The Prototype: Senior Taurean Prince (Baylor) has everything you would want in a 3-and-D forward. He’s a plus athlete with a 6-foot-11 wingspan who can slide between multiple defensive positions on one side of the ball while being able to shoot 3s and serve as a secondary playmaker on the other. It’s just hard for him to show what he can do while he’s on a team without a star PG who can create open looks for him. A potential second-round matchup against Ingram could be Prince’s national coming-out party.

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The Son: Playing in the shadow of Arvydas Sabonis can’t be easy, but sophomore Domantas Sabonis (Gonzaga) has made a name for himself this season. At 6-foot-11, 240 pounds, he’s a ball of energy who has shown flashes of his father’s ability to score out of the post, pass the ball, and rebound. While he’s not a great shooter and he lacks the length to be a great rim protector, there will always be a place in the NBA for an athletic, skilled big man who plays hard.

The Late Bloomer: Academic issues forced Gary Payton II (Oregon State) to the junior college ranks, which is why he’s a 23-year-old senior at OSU, his father’s alma mater. The point guard didn’t show up on NBA radar screens until coming to Corvallis last season, but there’s a lot to like about the two-time Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Year, who pairs size (6-foot-3, 190 pounds, 6-foot-6 wingspan) with athleticism. If GP2 can break the VCU press in Round 1 and lock up Buddy Hield in Round 2, he could rise up draft boards quickly.

The Giant: A.J. Hammons (Purdue) has always had talent, and he has finally put it all together in his senior season. At 7 feet, 280 pounds, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he is practically unstoppable in the NCAA. One of the premier rim protectors in the college game, Hammons is a better athlete than many give him credit for. The game is getting smaller at every level, but there’s still value in a guy who makes everyone else play in the shade.

This piece originally appeared in the March 17, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.