Philadelphia 76ers

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jayson Tatum, Duke lose as Josh Jackson thrives

2017 NBA draft prospect watch: Jayson Tatum, Duke lose as Josh Jackson thrives

The first week of the NCAA Tournament has come to a close and so have some college careers for the top players in this June's NBA draft. However, the best players were able to lead their teams to the Sweet 16 and potential glory lies ahead for those select few.

Here's a recap of a few of both, albeit a focus on the winners from this weekend who will be high up on draft boards and could be Sixers in just a few months.

Josh Jackson, forward, Kansas (6-8/203)
Do you remember the beginning of the season when Jackson's jump shot looked crooked? It seems very long ago now. Jackson led all scorers on Sunday with 23 points in Kansas' 90-70 win over No. 9 Michigan State. The likely top five pick did just about everything in the Round of 32 win. He pulled up for jumpers and swished them, grabbed a few boards, played strong defense inside and even had a few blocks.

The Spartans' one hope was that fellow freshman Miles Bridges would be able to outplay Jackson, but Bridges played with little control at times and was simply outplayed, even though he had 22 points of his own. Jackson hit a few big jumpers in his face and was a force throughout whenever MSU cut into the Jayhawks' lead. Jackson may have some big things lying ahead for him in the Midwest Region and beyond. 

Jayson Tatum, forward, Duke (6-8/204)
While Jackson led his team to glory Sunday, Tatum was not able to do the same later in the evening. In Duke's first round game, Tatum was able to run roughshod through No. 15 Troy's defense, scoring 18 points. He added 12 rebounds and four blocks and was simply the best player on the floor. The Trojans had no one who could stay in front of him, as so few teams in the NCAA do. 

But in what was essentially a road game against No. 7 South Carolina, Tatum was held in check in part by the Gamecocks' potent zone. He was also limited by foul trouble. He still had 15 points and made a few nice moves inside as well as some key rebounds. But he didn't rise to the moment like he did in the ACC Tournament. Again, a zone like South Carolina's eliminates his innate advantage against any one defender and the Gamecocks were able to prevent a dominant effort, upsetting Duke, 88-81.

Lonzo Ball, guard, UCLA (6-6/190)
In UCLA's first game, Ball didn't quite look like himself. He played through a bruised hip and was clearly not his same explosive self. This came after he nursed a thumb injury during the Bruins' Pac 12 Tournament loss to Arizona. Despite any limitations, he still made 6 of 7 shots for 15 points, made two threes and dished out three assists in UCLA's 97-80 win over No. 14 Kent State. Not bad for someone who is supposed to be injured, right?

His first half against No. 6 Cincinnati wasn't remarkable by any means. But as he's done many times this season, he came alive with a thunderous stretch to key a UCLA win. The Bruins trailed 47-46 in the early second half when Ball shed his defender for a step-back three. Next possession, he ran into a trey in transition. A few minutes later, he dished out some pretty assists and put in a layup himself to give UCLA a double-digit lead. Many of his assists during the second half were of his other-worldly self, finding guys for alley-oops with beautiful feeds.

Ball finished with a near triple-double. He led both teams with 18 points (7 of 10 shooting, 4 of 7 from three) and nine assists. He also had seven rebounds and two steals in the Bruin victory.

De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, guards, Kentucky
Kentucky's freshman combo struggled Friday in an easy 79-70 win over No. 15 Northern Kentucky. Fox had 19 points and dished out three assists, although he had an unseemly six turnovers. Monk was off from the field, going 3 of 11 for 12 points. He missed all six of his threes. 

And for most of Sunday, they had similar struggles. Fox's jump shot, which isn't anywhere close to Monk's, was off. Monk was limited by a stout Wichita State defense. With that backcourt in a rut, the Shockers were poised to, well, shock. But as the best players do in March, Fox and Monk made winning plays. Monk made a key three with 2:10 left. Fox drove for a dunk on the next possession. And with the Wildcats up just one with 12 seconds left, Monk came up with a key block and hit two free throws.

Overall, Fox and Monk had 14 points each on 13 and 10 shots, respectively. That's not a very pretty line. But each was essential to the Wildcats' win, combining to score Kentucky's last 10 points and leading the team to see another day in the NCAA Tournament.

Quick hits
Florida St. forward Jonathan Isaac played what are likely the final games of his collegiate career. The freshman was efficient, making 9 of 15 shots for 25 points. While he had double-digit rebounds in both games, his Seminoles were blown out by Xavier on Saturday evening.

Arizona forward Lauri Markkanen may be the best player left in the West Region. In games against North Dakota and St. Mary's, Markkanen scored 36 points on just 18 shots, getting to the free throw line for 14 attempts. He also reeled in 17 rebounds and led the Wildcats to the Sweet 16.

South Carolina guard Sindarius Thornwell began the weekend with a thorough domination of No. 10 Marquette with 29 points, 11 rebounds, two assist, two blocks and three steals. The senior followed that up with 22 points, six rebounds and five assists while leading the high-profile upset of No. 2 Duke.

Give and Go: What is the biggest challenge for Brett Brown this season?

Give and Go: What is the biggest challenge for Brett Brown this season?

With training camp starting next week, our resident basketball analysts will discuss some of the hottest topics involving the Sixers.

Running the Give and Go are CSNPhilly.com Sixers Insider Jessica Camerato and producer/reporters Matt Haughton and Paul Hudrick.

In this edition, we discuss the biggest challenge for head coach Brett Brown this season.

Camerato
For years Brett Brown has faced the challenge of piecing together a shorthanded roster to put some kind of, any kind of, rotation on the floor. This season he will have healthier players to work with, and that in itself will pose a different set of challenges.

Brown has a young roster that is eager to play. Former No. 1 pick Ben Simmons has been waiting nearly 12 months to make his NBA debut since suffering a Jones fracture on the last day of training camp. Markelle Fultz, this year’s top pick, has not played since mid-February as a student-athlete at Washington. Joel Embiid last suited up on Jan. 27 before undergoing season-ending knee surgery.

These hungry players, and it is not limited to only the three mentioned above, will want to be in the game as much as possible. Brown will be tasked with managing eagerness and anxiousness to play all while following medical guidelines and restrictions. Lineups could change from a night to night based on player availability (back-to-backs, rest, etc.). Brown will have to establish consistency and flexibility at the same time, also keeping his players on board even if they can’t be on the court as much as they would like to be.

Haughton
Brett Brown will face a whole new world as head coach of the Sixers in 2017-18. He’ll have to find a way to make a rookie backcourt work, mix contributing veterans into the fold and, for the first time in his tenure, face some semblance of pressure to win.

But Brown’s biggest obstacle next season has nothing to do with X’s and O’s or wins and losses. The coach must maintain the spirit of the process.

At first glance, you may think that has something to do with continuing to lose games for the highest possible draft pick. No, not at all. In fact, it’s quite the opposite.

In Brown’s four years at the helm, the Sixers have lost a combined 253 games. Some close, some by a wide margin and far too many of the nightmarish variety.

But no matter the previous game’s score, Brown always had his players on the court for the next matchup ready to give their max effort. His ability to stay positive amid the mounting losses and still push his guys to play all out every single night is somewhat remarkable (see story). It’s what the players love about him the most.

The egos that go along with high-level talent and the pressure of playoff aspirations mean Brown is sure to encounter some new challenges. However, it may just be that process mentality that gets the Sixers fully over the process.

Hudrick
For the last four years, Brown has barely had enough healthy players to form an entire team. And even when he had healthy players, most of them were borderline D-Leaguers (now G-Leaguers, of course).

The blessing and the curse for Brown this season is having real, NBA talent up and down his roster.

Nerlens Noel is gone so the logjam at center is over, right? Nope. Embiid is your starting center and franchise cornerstone. Richaun Holmes proved last year that he is a capable backup at the pro level. Jahlil Okafor is still here and needs to prove he's healthy if the Sixers hope to move him. Oh yeah, the team also went out and signed veteran Amir Johnson away from the Celtics. The uncertainty behind Embiid's status means there will be minutes available, but how many? Bottom line: This team still has four NBA-caliber centers.

The newest challenge for Brown is an overabundance of guards/wings. With Fultz, JJ Redick and a now healthy Jerryd Bayless added to the mix, where does that leave T.J. McConnell, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, Nik Stauskas, Justin Anderson and Furkan Korkmaz?

Sure, it's a nice problem to have, but figuring out the rotation on an improving roster will be the biggest challenge for Brett Brown this season.

Sixers notes, quotes and tidbits: Simmons' defensive assignment; Saric's role

Sixers notes, quotes and tidbits: Simmons' defensive assignment; Saric's role

Sixers coach Brett Brown reiterated Wednesday that he plans to use Ben Simmons as his point guard this season, while adding that Markelle Fultz will not be excluded from “decision-making and point guard-type of responsibilities” on occasion.

Brown also didn’t rule out using the 6-10 Simmons as a small-ball center.

Simmons and Fultz have been the top picks in each of the last two drafts, but Simmons missed last season while his broken right foot healed.

Simmons, who played a single season at LSU, is “an elite passer,” in Brown’s estimation, as well as a guy who has “jaw-dropping” speed.

Brown has also found that the 6-4 Fultz, selected after the Sixers engineered a trade with Boston for the most recent No. 1 choice, is very coachable. And his skill set is as advertised.

There will be times, as a result, when each runs the point.

“Once the ball is missed and you have sort of jailbreak, Markelle’s going to be in (the) open court with the ball,” Brown said. “He will be at that point one of the primary ballcarriers. When it’s a static situation and you’ve got to run a play at the start of the year, Ben Simmons will have the ball. … At the start of the game and it’s a dead ball, we’re going to give Ben the ball.”

Defensively, Brown envisions Fultz playing opposing point guards and Simmons guarding power forwards. The matchups with the other projected starters are also conventional. Joel Embiid will play centers, Robert Covington will guard the other team’s best wing and JJ Redick will check the other wing.

Brown also said Simmons “has a chance to be an elite defender,” though his reputation in college was otherwise. Fultz also played a lot of zone in his lone year at Washington.

The Simmons-at-center discussion was an interesting one. Brown said it is “possible” he will use Simmons – or possibly 6-10 Dario Saric – in that capacity at times, noting that the Warriors closed games with no one bigger than 6-7 Draymond Green (and more recently, 6-10 Kevin Durant) on the court.

“When you get down to the last six minutes, inevitably it ends up a smaller game,” Brown said.

As for Simmons’ health, president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said that hasn’t been a concern for a while.

“He’s playing 5-on-5,” Colangelo said, “and dominating the gym.”

Fluid rotation
Much is still to be determined about the rotation, given the presence of veterans like Amir Johnson, Jerryd Bayless, Richaun Holmes, Nik Stauskas and (possibly) a slimmed-down Jahlil Okafor.

And what of Saric? He averaged 12.8 points and 6.3 rebounds as a rookie last season, while appearing in all but one game. There is speculation that he might wind up the sixth man, but Brown is not yet certain about that.

“His gift of basketball intellect is high, and so when you say where does he fit in, I’m saying anywhere we want,” he said. “Where does he fit in to start games, end games, I don’t know. I just know that in my opinion, that’s probably the Rookie of the Year (last season), and his skill package and his toughness and his intellect will be fit in where it’s needed most -- in a timely fashion, we believe.”

Milwaukee guard Malcolm Brogdon was chosen Rookie of the Year, while Saric and Embiid made the All-Rookie team. Now Saric is one of many players for whom Brown must find time.

“The gym’s going to tell us a lot,” he said.

And, he added, “I feel the first third of the season is going to be a lot of learning for all of us.”

Playoffs?
Playoff talk has been rampant for a while, and when asked by Ian Thomsen of NBA.com about that, Colangelo said, “Forecasting that would definitely, I believe, be unrealistic. But hoping for that? It’s on everybody’s mind.”

Colangelo revisited that on Wednesday.

“I don’t think it’s unrealistic to want to be in the playoffs, or have a goal to be in the playoffs,” he said. “That is our goal, but (there are) things you have to look at with respect to the situation we find ourselves in.”

He pointed out the difficulty of making the postseason with two rookie guards. According to the Sixers’ research, it hasn’t happened since Houston did so in 1998-99, with a backcourt of Cuttino Mobley and Michael Dickerson.

Then there is the matter of incorporating the other new pieces, like Redick and Johnson.

“I think it’s premature to throw anything out with respect to a number (of victories) or any goal,” Colangelo said, “but I would say our objective is to make the playoffs.”

Brown, 75-253 in his first four years on the job (including last year’s 28-54), knows the team is “in a different phase,” as he put it, and understands how difficult it can be to take the next step. At the same time, he too is caught up in the excitement of the playoff talk, which has in part emanated from the players.

“I really don’t say anything to them about tempering expectations,” he said. “I like them saying stuff. Then you’ve got to own it. … Words are one thing, actions are another.”

But certainly he likes how hard they have worked in the offseason, and sees the potential.

“Years ago,” he said, “I heard a phrase: ‘If they show you who they are, believe them.’ That’s over a period of time. … On first glance, when I check some of our guys, I think they have a real chance for greatness. We aspire to win a championship in the city. Then you want another one, and then another one.”