If you’re a Sixers fan and you’ve got plans tonight, cancel them. UCLA vs Kentucky (9:39 PM on CBS) is must-see TV.
Not because it’s the most anticipated matchup of the Sweet Sixteen or because they’re two of the most storied programs in college basketball, but because of the trio of lottery-bound freshman it’ll feature; UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Kentucky’s duo of De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk.
Ball and the Bruins have been fantastic through two games of the NCAA tournament, with Ball putting on a clinic in the second round: 19 points, 7 rebounds and 9 assists. Kentucky, despite the recent hiccup in an otherwise stellar season from star scorer Monk, is the hottest team left in the field, winners of 13 straight. To thicken the plot, the teams met in an early season thriller on Dec. 3rd, with UCLA coming out on top 97-92. All three standouts showed up, with Monk scoring 24, Fox with 20 points and 9 assists, and the victorious Ball hovering right around his averages.
Here’s a look at each of their 2016-2017 regular season stats:
Lonzo Ball -PG-6’6”-190lbs – 14.7 PTS / 6.1 REB / 7.6 AST / .7 BLK / 1.9 STL / 2.4 TO / .55 FG% / .42 3P% / .67 FT%
Malik Monk -SG/PG-6’3”-190lbs – 20 PTS / 2.5 REB / 2.4 AST / .4 BLK / 1 STL / 2.1 TO / .45 FG% / .39 3P% / .83 FT%
De’Aaron Fox -PG-6’4”-187lbs – 16.1 PTS / 4 REB / 4.6 AST / .2 BLK / 1.4 STL / 2.5 TO / .47 FG% / .23 3P% / .73 FT%
So why should Sixers fans care?
Let’s assess the state of the 26-45 Philadelphia 76ers moving forward. In spite of the recent announcement that Joel Embiid is to undergo surgery to repair the meniscus in his left knee, the big man features prominently in the teams plans for the future. Last years’ top pick Ben Simmons was as highly touted as any prospect in recent memory, and his recovery from the right foot surgery which as cost him the season has been careful and methodical. Coach Brett Brown is adamant that Simmons will crack the rotation as a true-blue point guard. Dario Saric has emerged as the favorite for rookie of the year, averaging 12.6 PTS, 6.3 REB, and 2.2 AST for the season and playing the role of centerpiece on both sides of the ball since Embiid left action for good in late January. Nerlens Noel, not Jahlil Okafor, was traded at the deadline in a move that appeared more panic-induced than strategic. The deal netted them, among other things, 23-year-old forward Justin Anderson, who has shown toughness, hustle and solid play on both sides of the ball since he joined the team. Richaun Holmes has been great in the month of March, with Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot (or TLC for short), Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas putting in solid work over the same timeframe, and are all of the right age to grow with the teams’ core of Embiid, Simmons and Saric. The same can be said of T.J. McConnell.
It can also be said that anyone other than the Sixers core three is a rotational player, with the two remaining starting spots up for grabs. In the upcoming draft, they’ll look to fill at least one of those needs. Ball, Monk and Fox could all potentially do so.
Ball plays well beyond his years, with vision seldom seen in a point guard his age and size. As the maestro of UCLA’s high octane offense, he somehow finds a way to not turn the ball over, with the 23rd best assist-to-turnover ratio (3.1) in the country. Despite having the ugliest jump shot since Joakim Noah, he’s got deep range and is just as dangerous finishing at the rim. At his core, Ball is a pure, pass-first point guard with a high IQ that, if it wasn’t for Washington’s Markelle Fultz, would be a clear candidate for the #1 overall selection.
Make no mistake; in a draft stocked with major talent at the guard position, barring any major setbacks, Fultz and Ball are the clear top two prospects. Throughout the season, much like the Sixer’s own Ben Simmons a year ago, Fultz has been regarded as the consensus top prospect, garnering loads of unfair comparisons and lofty expectations along the way. Ball continues to do his best to dethrone him, and is rightfully in the conversation. If the basketball gods shine a line on Philadelphia on lottery night, the Sixers, like any of the other 29 teams in the league, would be ecstatic to acquire either player. This isn’t likely to happen, though, as Philly is currently projected to own the 5th pick with only 11 games left on the schedule. Perhaps in a more desirable situation, the Sixers may end up with two lottery picks, thanks to the ability to ascertain the Lakers pick if it falls out of the top 3, in addition to owning the right to swap picks with a sinking Sacramento.
Hence why Kentucky’s dynamic duo deserves just as much as the spotlight tonight as Ball does.
An ideal fit amongst the trees next year at the Wells Fargo Center would be a perimeter scorer who can play at a high tempo while also offering up something on the defensive end of the court. In Monk, they’d have a premier shooter, capable of spreading the floor and scoring at will. It isn’t clear what position he’ll defend at the next level, but the positives outweigh the negatives. Plugging Monk into the lineup would immediately take some of the pressure off of Ben Simmons to score, freeing him up to play his point-forward game as we understand it. In Fox, on the other hand, they’d have potentially the fastest player in the league. He’s makes up for his abysmal shooting ability with his tenacious defense and unselfish playing style essential to Brett Brown’s offense. Drafting Fox would leave a hole in scoring, just as drafting Monk would leave a hole in just about everything else. Luckily for the Sixers, they’ve got more cap-space than they’ll need to make a splash in free agency if they decide to do so.
If you’ve got a few minutes, head over to Tankathon.com, where you can conceptualize the thousands of draft night scenarios running through your head by simulating the lottery, viewing mock drafts and pick odds, and even comparing players.