For many top NBA prospects around the country, the 2018 NCAA Tournament will be the final chance to suit up for their college teams. Whether they’re eliminated in the first round or win the national championship, the league and its many perks will come calling.
For players like Alabama’s Collin Sexton or Oklahoma’s Trae Young, this will be a crucial opportunity to push their draft stocks to the next level. Those players are leaders on their respective teams, and under the bright lights of March Madness, they’re the kinds of athletes who could take over games and leave NBA executives dreaming of picking them.
It could also be a chance for disappointment, if a top player struggles and finds himself needing to spend the summer convincing teams it was an aberration. The stakes are always high this time of the year.
There’s a lot of talent in this year’s tournament, including the next wave of big men who could take over the NBA. Guards like Sexton and Young will also be thrilling to watch, as having players who can handle the ball and create scoring chances late in games tends to be important in this tournament.
But for Bulls fans, who are anxiously awaiting a draft where the team is expected to have a top-10 draft pick, these will be the top five players to keep an eye on this month. Along with Real Madrid’s Luka Doncic, they’re the top candidates to go at the top of the 2018 NBA Draft.
DeAndre Ayton, Arizona
Ayton became the source of controversy earlier this year when his interaction with Wildcats coach Sean Miller was investigated as part of the widespread scandal rocking college basketball, but that will likely be forgotten once he enters the NBA. The big man is one of the most unique young talents in basketball and could be a star in short order.
Arizona posted a 27-6 record this season behind the dominant play of Ayton. The forward recorded 20.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 1.9 blocks per game while shooting 61.6 percent from the field. He dominated the Pac-12 tournament recently, including back-to-back 32-point performances against UCLA and USC in the semifinal and final, respectively.
There are few players who measure 7’1 and have the kinds of skills that Ayton already displays as a 19-year-old. He could become the first Arizona player to go No. 1 overall in NBA Draft history.
Marvin Bagley III, Duke
Bagley was the No. 1 recruit in the class of 2017, according to ESPN and 247Sports, and he has a chance to be the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft, too. The 6’11 forward brings a stunning level of athleticism to the table and has utilized that to overwhelm opponents at the college level.
Despite being fairly raw in some areas of the game, Bagley has averaged 21.1 points and 11.5 rebounds as a freshman. The Blue Devils forward is shooting 60.5 percent from the field and hitting 37 percent of his threes while taking two per game.
Pushing his range as a shooter and working on his defense will be crucial to Bagley’s development, but his all-around upside is massive.
Michael Porter Jr., Missouri
Arguably no player will see more attention in the tournament than Porter, who’s played just two games for Missouri due to a back injury. He finally returned to the Tigers’ lineup for the SEC tournament on March 8, but didn’t play well with 12 points on 5-of-17 shooting in a 62-60 loss to Georgia.
Still, the hype around Porter remains because he’s a superlative talent. The 6’10 forward ranked No. 2 in the class of 2017 and his arrival at Missouri was supposed to be a big deal. Instead, he’s hoping March Madness will be an opportunity for redemption.
A big tournament would go a long way toward rehabbing Porter’s stock and pushing him back to the top of the draft. He needs to prove that his back injury won’t be an issue long-term.
Mohamed Bamba, Texas
It’s difficult not to notice Bamba on the court given his remarkable 7’9 wing span. Those long arms have allowed the Longhorns big man to become a force defensively, and he projects as a potential Defensive Player of the Year candidate at the NBA level.
Bamba has had a productive freshman season with 12.9 points and 10.4 rebounds per game, but it’s the 3.7 blocks per game that really stand out. He’s blocked at least three shots in 21 of Texas’ 29 games this season, and the Longhorns are 10th in adjusted defensive rating, per KenPom.com, as a result.
The offensive upside may not be as high with Bamba as it is with other top prospects, but he’s shown finishing ability along with rebounding. And if he can reach his potential as a team defender and anchor in the middle, then whatever he can provide offensively will be gravy.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State
Unlike the other four players on this list, Jackson hasn’t had quite as dominant a freshman year. However, he doesn’t turn 19 until September, so he’s one of the youngest players in college basketball, and he’s shown flashes of converting his raw tools into a devastating all-around game.
Like with Bamba, the part of Jackson’s game that already stands out comes on defense. He’s a beast in the middle as a shot blocker, having averaged 3.2 per game. KenPom.com ranks the Spartans as the ninth-best defense in the country.
Jackson is also intriguing as a floor-spacing big man. The freshman shot 39.6 percent on nearly three three-pointers per game, including some really impressive performances. He scored 27 points on 14 shots against Minnesota. He scored 21 points on six shots against Illinois. He scored 19 points on 10 shots against Duke, 19 points on seven shots against Michigan, and 15 points on six shots against Maryland.
That ability to produce offensively in a relatively small role is valuable, and hints at the kind of two-way impact player he could be in the NBA.