Well, the ride’s almost over.
The Charlotte Hornets have dealt with bad luck and disappointment in almost every way possible for a basketball team this season. A five-game winning streak spearheaded by LaMelo Ball and Mark Williams and complemented by Gordon Hayward and Terry Rozier inspired hope for a positive ending, but that was quickly dispelled when the basketball gods sidelined Ball yet again, and the fanbase’s collective eyes went right back to the lottery balls.
Thankfully, the Hornets’ season ended (in spirit) right when the most exciting portion of the college basketball schedule hit. Multiple teams have already punched their ticket to the NCAA Tournament later this month, and every other league is in the midst of their conference tournament. This time of year can be a make-or-break period for NBA prospects.
Of course, team’s play only a half-dozen games or so in March, and those who want a full picture of each prospect should go back and watch games from the fall and winter. That doesn’t change the fact that the mainstream public perception of many prospects are currently being formed as they march towards Selection Sunday.
A few players we’ll cover here won’t be participating in March Madness, so the conference tournaments may be the last opportunity to watch them barring a surprise run from their respective teams to earn an automatic qualifier. Either way, though, this year’s NCAA Tournament is going to be stacked with future NBA talent.
The “top tier” college prospects are slightly further down the draft board than usual due to Victor Wembanyama, Scoot Henderson and the Thompson twins all playing outside the NCAA. Players like Brandon Miller, Cam Whitmore and Jarace Walker are all elite prospects in their own right though, and in the case of Miller and Walker, have a chance to be key contributors to a national title run.
Whitmore won't be participating in March Madness unless the 16-15 Villanova Wildcats win the Big East Tournament, but ‘Nova could play at least a couple more games assuming they don’t falter against lowly Georgetown on Wednesday. Alabama and Houston, two of the best teams in the nation, both earned automatic quarterfinal bids in their respective SEC and AAC tournaments, and are locked into the top of the bracket regardless of a playoff upset.
Hopefully, the Hornets receive a stroke of lottery luck and are positioned too high to draft any of the following players. Still, guys like Nick Smith Jr., Keyonte George, Dariq Whitehead and Gradey Dick are all worth watching and play on quality NCAA Tournament teams. Smith and George are electrifying guards with elite shooting and finishing touch, and Whitehead and Dick are two contrasting archetypes of shot-making floor-spacers. All of the lottery prospects in this class are fun to watch.
People (me) forget that the Hornets also have a late first-round pick via Denver this year, as well as their own second-round pick they recouped in the Jalen McDaniels trade. While this draft class is very deep, the Hornets are unlikely to get a high-level immediate contributor with a pick between 25 and 35 — but that doesn’t prevent us from diving way too deep into projected late-first prospects.
Connecticut’s Jordan Hawkins is in the mold of Klay Thompson as an aggressive wing defender and impressive movement shooter, while his teammate Andre Jackson reminds me a bit of Cody Martin, in that he’s a staunch perimeter defender and solid playmaker, but is a much more explosive athlete. Julian Strawther fits the three-and-D bill but in a different way than Hawkins and Kris Murray, Keegan Murray’s twin brother, would be a nice potential replacement for McDaniels. If the Hornets want another young point guard in the stable, Marcus Sasser has a lot of qualities that Charlotte seems to prefer in its draftees. No matter the results in conference tournament play, all of these prospects are able to be seen throughout the month.
Don’t forget the sleepers, either. Kansas State’s Nae’Qwon Tomlin, Ricky Council IV of Arkansas, Drake’s Tucker DeVries, and Providence Friar Bryce Hopkins are just a handful of the second-rounders that the Hornets could stick on a Two-Way for next season, or a Nick Richards Special low-salary, long-term deal, and all of them will be on national television this week. Honestly, a peruse of the TV guide at any time within the next month will quickly turn up a game featuring some draftable NCAA players.
Well, there we have it. There’s just over a month left in this Hornets season, and knowing that LaMelo would be out there if not for a fractured ankle adds an element of sadness to each game despite the promising flashes from Williams and Bryce McGowens. Sadly, my basketball brain is almost fully shifted into draft mode. Let me know in the comments which prospects I didn’t mention here that you’ve got an eye on.
Next year, with Wemby in the fold, things will be different. Speak it into existence!