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How to Watch March Madness When All You Care About Is the NBA Draft

Ten(ish) questions to ponder during the NCAA tournament, assuming you’re an NBA fan who doesn’t have a team in the race, and also doesn’t believe in betting on the hopes and dreams of America’s youth

Brandon Clarke, Ja Morant, Cam Reddish Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sometimes it’s not about the drama of the now, but the hope and doubt of the future. Sometimes it’s not about One Shining Moment, but One Glaring Flaw. Sometimes you just don’t really care about college basketball as a bastion of basketball purity, but as a step ladder to your NBA team’s ultimate destiny. Here are 10 questions about the round of 64 that might just help the NBA fan in your life who hasn’t invested any bit of themselves in March Madness beyond draft ramifications.

For more NBA draft coverage, please visit our 2019 NBA Draft Guide.

How will Ja Morant fare under the brightest lights of his career?

Murray State vs. Marquette (Thursday, 4:30 p.m., all times Eastern)

For our purposes, the Murray State phenom is the biggest draw of the tournament. For all we know, Morant will have only Thursday’s game against Marquette to give the world one final piece of evidence that he should be an undisputed top-three prospect on the board before the predraft process officially begins.

At 6-foot-3 and 175 pounds, Morant combines speed, exceptional two-footed explosiveness in space, and true point guard savvy—even if his gaudy scoring numbers belie that fact. He was the Russell Westbrook of the Ohio Valley Conference, averaging a staggering 24.6 points and 10 assists per game. The biggest knock on Morant has little to do with him: The OVC just doesn’t provide elite competition night in and night out. But Morant has regularly risen to the occasion against tougher opponents. In four games against Alabama (a competitive team in the ultracompetitive SEC), Auburn (a tournament team that finished its SEC run on a blistering eight-game win streak), and Belmont (a tournament sleeper), Morant averaged 29.8 points on 47.1 percent shooting, seven rebounds, and six assists. NBA fans are hoping his performance against the Golden Eagles will hew close to that standard he’s set for himself.

What will the Blue Devils look like under duress?

ND State vs. Duke (Friday, 7:10 p.m.)

When Duke is humming, its games become free-form dunk exhibitions, or contests among the team’s four elite freshman recruits to see who can steal the ball from a hapless opponent in the most forceful, humiliating way. But we’ve seen the Blue Devils stall out for significant stretches this season, and weird things happen in the crucible of March Madness.

As a whole, this Duke team has a problem most blue-chip factories of the past decade made up of the most physically superior freshmen in the nation can relate to: They can’t shoot at all. R.J. Barrett, a ball-dominant sledgehammer of a wing, hoists more than six 3-point attempts per game, yet converts them at only a 30.4 percent clip—one of the worst percentages among high-volume shooters in the past five years. Cam Reddish looks like a 3-and-D star built from an algorithm, but something has gotten lost in translation at the NCAA level: He’s nowhere near as good a shooter as he appears to be, and he is often a wraith floating around the court, taking up the space that a corporeal body ought to be assuming. Tre Jones, the younger brother of former Duke tournament hero Tyus Jones and the Ringo of Duke’s freshman quartet, is an on-ball defensive savant but has the worst 3-point shooting numbers of the group, which is saying a lot.

Zion Williamson is the most talented player in the country and the glue guy who holds these disparate parts together. No one can question the sheer talent that Duke has at its disposal, but talent doesn’t guarantee anything in the NCAA tournament. A rising tide lifts all boats, but I’m more curious to see how these young stars will adjust when that wave recedes.

How tall does Jarrett Culver look today?

Northern Kentucky vs. Texas Tech (Friday, 1:30 p.m.)

The Texas Tech polymath is listed at 6-foot-5. In my heart of hearts, I believe he is much taller than that. And given his all-around talent on both ends of the floor, height could dictate whether he’ll become a star or a role player.

How often will Tennessee’s two beefy boys play in their projected NBA roles?

Colgate vs. Tennessee (Friday, 2:45 p.m.)

The Volunteers are one of the most imposing teams in the tournament, with burly focal points in Grant Williams (6-foot-7, 236 pounds) and Admiral Schofield (6-foot-6, 241 pounds), who are uniquely skilled for guys who could easily pass as tight ends. Williams is a true post presence with legitimate playmaking skill and improving accuracy from deep; Schofield is perhaps the strongest, most muscle-bound shooting specialist in recent memory. As my colleague Jonathan Tjarks noted earlier this week, Tennessee is almost untouchable when it surrounds its two best players with perimeter players. How often will the Vols go to this Death Lineup facsimile? The answer could clue us in to both Williams’s and Schofield’s ultimate futures in the NBA.

We get it: Virginia is boring. But at what point can we consider it an NBA factory?

Gardner-Webb vs. Virginia (Friday, 3:10 p.m.)

The Cavaliers have played at the slowest pace in Division I basketball for the past three seasons and have been in the bottom five in the past five. This is not revelatory. But the slow, slow burn has allowed for the development of some exceptional role players: Mike Scott, Joe Harris, and Malcolm Brogdon have all been solid contributors to NBA playoff teams this season. By the time the tournament is over, expect two more of Tony Bennett’s system players to join the fray.

De’Andre Hunter is the centerpiece, with a 3-and-D game seemingly more equipped to handle the NBA than the methodical churn of the NCAA. Hunter had been in the lottery discussion all season but has seen a rise of late: He was the no. 4 player on our big board in February and is now the no. 5 prospect on ESPN’s latest mock draft. Hunter has the versatility to create his own shot off the dribble, spot up from deep (where he’s shot 42.6 percent in his two-year career at Virginia), and defend just about every position on the floor. Power wings who can masquerade as big men have become a crucial new-age positional archetype in the NBA, but teams often have to gamble to reap the benefits: OG Anunoby, who possesses a similar profile, has had to grow into the role everyone saw in him across his first two seasons with the Raptors; Nassir Little is learning the hard way at UNC how hard it can be to translate to consistent production. Hunter’s projected ceiling may be a result of Virginia’s greenhouse effect, but at the very least, his floor seems impossibly high. That in itself makes him incredibly valuable.

Hunter isn’t the only player garnering significant NBA interest. 6-foot-5 combo guard Ty Jerome will likely hear his name called by the early second round, because, like with Hunter, there is already a working precedent for the type of player Jerome projects to be as a pro, and it’s one of the most in-demand molds in the game. Landry Shamet has been a surprise in his rookie season, a plus-minus god on both the Sixers and the Clippers by serving as a secondary playmaker, a willing shooter who can generate all his own looks through perpetual motion, and a player who makes smart, quick decisions with the ball. Jerome fits the bill as a savvy player who is equally comfortable operating in the pick-and-roll as he is curling around a screen for a quick-fire 3. Teams will be keying in on just how limited an athlete he actually is, but he already has NBA-ready skills that might not need much restructuring.

This has to be the most NBA-caliber talent on any Gonzaga roster ever, right?

FDU-Gonzaga (Thursday, 7:27 p.m.)

Brandon Clarke, a staggeringly efficient two-way Shawn Marion–esque big man who has a claim to arguably being the second-best player in college basketball. Rui Hachimura, a classic power forward with some serious straight-line driving ability. Killian Tillie, a smart, do-it-all big man from France who has returned healthy from a serious early-season injury just in time for the Big Dance. Zach Norvell Jr., a smooth lefty who understands the power of the 3-pointer: More than 60 percent of the field goal attempts in his NCAA career have come from behind the arc.

Gonzaga could see as many as four players drafted by the middle of the second round. Assuming the Bulldogs advance as far as their talent would dictate, there will be ample opportunity to scout each and every prospect.

Who is the best Tar Heels prospect, anyway?

Iona vs. UNC (Friday, 9:20 p.m.)

Is it Nassir Little? The 6-foot-6, 220-pound stick of dynamite was one of the top recruits in the nation, and his size, explosiveness, length (an absurd 7-foot-2 wingspan), and nascent skills screamed prototypical NBA small-ball 4. But the adjustment period never made way for actual, consistent production. It wouldn’t take much for an NBA team to talk itself into a player with his unteachable gifts. (For instance, if the Magic draft him, then we can, indeed, confirm that Orlando’s draft mantra of length over everything is officially stuck on loop.)

Is it Coby White? He’s certainly been the more impressive freshman (16.3 points and 4.2 assists per game), and one whose modern template isn’t completely theoretical. The Tar Heels point guard boasts size (6-foot-5, 185 pounds), volume 3-point-shooting ability (36.2 percent from deep, on 6.6 attempts per game), and fluidity on his stepbacks—he is a clear acolyte of the Church of Harden, except the lusciousness of Harden’s beard is mounted on top of White’s head instead.

Is it Cam Johnson? The fifth-year senior isn’t the most heralded player of the lot, but he is the only Tar Heel with an elite NBA-caliber talent: He’s shot 40.6 percent from 3 in his career and is shooting an absurd 46.5 percent this season. At 6-foot-9, he has adequate size to operate as a no-nonsense, mistake-free stretch 4. If none of these players necessarily project as stars, Johnson’s ability to stretch the floor might just be the safest bet for a pro team.

Will Iowa State’s funky freshmen solidify their draft stock?

Ohio State vs. Iowa State (Friday, 9:50 p.m.)

Freshman Cyclones Talen Horton-Tucker and Tyrese Haliburton are two of the most interesting players in the tournament and, in some ways, inverses of each other.

Horton-Tucker, a bullyball guard at 6-foot-4 and 233 pounds, is a barrel chest with absurdly disproportionate arms (a reported 7-foot-1 wingspan!) and balletic feet. He is a sort of Mike D’Antoni dream chimera—a player somewhere on the Eric Gordon–P.J. Tucker continuum, who, in D’Antoni’s warped floor, could probably play any position from 1 to 5. Every game features at least one offensive move of his that will leave you speechless. The rest of the game is mostly missed jump shots, but having turned 18 only a few months ago, it’s been fun watching a gifted player like THT get a feel for what he can and can’t do in real time.

Haliburton, on the other hand, is a scrawny 6-foot-5, 172-pound guard who plays so within himself that you wonder whether he’s actually holding himself prisoner. He has a 4.6-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio; his 2-point shooting percentage (67.3) is higher than 7-foot-3 Purdue center Matt Haarms, who has nearly 100 pounds on him; he has a microscopic usage rate of 9.3. Haliburton was recently ranked sixth among all draft prospects in ESPN writer Kevin Pelton’s annual assessment based on his WARP metric, largely because he is brutally efficient across the board. Barring a complete reversal of norms in the tournament, Haliburton is unlikely to declare; Landry Shamet, who is having a lot of success in the NBA with a similarly frail frame, needed three years of college seasoning to prove he could hold up. Haliburton will need to develop physically, but he’ll also need to start taking risks.

Is PJ Washington OK?

ACU vs. Kentucky (Thursday, 7:10 p.m.)

Kentucky fans were put through a scare earlier this week when it was reported that the Wildcats’ star player had been in a precautionary walking boot since Sunday after spraining his foot in the SEC semifinal against Tennessee. John Calipari’s press conference Wednesday seemed to assuage fears: Washington’s X-rays returned negative. Still, the Wildcats have opted to hold Washington out of Thursday’s game. It’s unclear just how much we can expect from the big man should they make it past their first hurdle.

Washington has been one of the most improved players in the country, seeing an uptick in virtually every statistical category in his sophomore campaign. He’s become a better shooter, facilitator, and decision-maker; at 6-foot-8 and 228 pounds, with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, his game’s expansion has also opened new avenues for his prospects as an NBA player. With his strength and length, there are avenues for Washington to play some small-ball 5 in the future, and with his ever-improving 3-point shot, he’ll certainly be able to play some 4. But it’d be difficult to expect Washington to have his full array of athletic tools for the first few rounds of the tournament. If lacking his gliding athleticism, Washington might hew closer to Carl Landry, who, while having a great deal of success in both the NCAA and NBA as a below-the-rim interior scorer more than a decade ago, definitely wasn’t as multifaceted as Washington has become.

Of course, Washington isn’t the only meaningful draft prospect on the Wildcats: Keldon Johnson, another potential lottery pick, is a hard-nosed wing slasher who has been a much better shooter than most people expected; Tyler Herro is an obvious candidate to boost his stock considerably with a good tournament run given his rare ability to hit the 3 off movement; since February, Herro has been shooting 44.6 percent from 3 on 4.3 attempts per game. But all three of the Wildcats’ major prospects could use the extra seasoning of a deep tournament run, and that will all depend on just how healthy Washington is.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander had a star-making tourney run; will history repeat itself for his cousin?

Saint Louis vs. Virginia Tech (Friday, 9:57 p.m.)

Virginia Tech’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker will have a chance to vault himself into serious lottery discussion with a strong tournament, because his player profile all season has suggested that he already deserves to be there. Alexander-Walker went from a one-dimensional spot-up player in his first season to the team’s unquestioned best player, taking on more shots, more playmaking responsibility, and more of the defensive workload. His efficiency has only increased with the five-point bump in usage from his freshman to sophomore campaign.

Like his cousin, who will likely make his first NBA playoff appearance in a few weeks, NAW is very much in the mold of a modern point guard—that is to say, a player who might not be a point guard at all. But as the demands of a position become more and more amorphous, the “lead guard” position encourages players to be comfortable with or without the ball in his hands, with the size to defend multiple positions, and a confidence from 3. NAW checks those boxes. He could use some dramatic punctuation, though.

That’s 10 questions. How about a lightning round of your favorite sleepers?

  • Auburn’s Chuma Okeke, a player with impeccable fluidity and feel as a facilitator and defender, whose 6-foot-8, 230-pound build should hold up at the 4 at the next level. New Mexico State vs. Auburn (Thursday, 1:30 p.m.)
  • LSU’s Naz Reid is a 6-foot-10, 250-pound, sweet-shooting, playmaking freshman big man. What’s not to love? Yale vs. LSU (Thursday, 12:40 p.m.)
  • Michigan’s Ignas Brazdeikis has put together a stellar offensive season in his freshman season, so it’s interesting that there hasn’t been more talk of him as a late-first-round flyer. That could change if his production carries into the tournament. Montana vs. Michigan (Thursday, 9:20 p.m.)
  • Washington’s Matisse Thybulle has the best name in the tournament and might be the best college defender in recent memory—at the wing position, no less. He’s an unorthodox type of game-changer. We’ll see how that translates in the tournament. Washington vs. Utah State (Friday, 6:50 p.m.)
  • Belmont’s Dylan Windler is a legitimate NBA player. He has great size at the wing (6-foot-8, 200 pounds), is a career 40 percent 3-point shooter, and has good athleticism to back up his nifty forays to the rim. Belmont vs. Maryland (Thursday, 3:10 p.m.)

This story was updated Thursday to reflect developing news about PJ Washington’s potential injury.