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The Knicks fan’s guide to the NCAA Tournament: East Region

Zion, Zion, Zion, Zion and Zion

NCAA Basketball: ACC Conference Tournament-Florida State vs Duke Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

What’s up, hoops fans? You guys probably already read Stingy’s lovely look at the NCAA Tourney’s Midwest Region earlier today. Now I’ll edumacate you guys on some of the prospects worth taking a look at in the East Region, including the biggest home run in recent history...

Zion Williamson, #1

(1) Duke, Freshman Forward

Look, this is basically an alley-oop. Which, coincidentally, Zion does a lot of, in addition to any other basketball or basketball-related thing that requires unheard-of amounts of athleticism. Matter of fact, I’m almost just as interested to see what kind of stuff Zion does at ridiculous levels off the court as I am on the court at this point.

Does Zion go to wholesale clubs and jump up to grab whole pallets full of stuff 20 feet off the ground?

How many dishes did he accidentally break as a teenager just by pushing them too hard when he was washing them? (We already know an average basketball stands no chance.)

Did Zion ever singlehandedly bring down an alien whale creature and help save New York City?

Nah but seriously, this dude’s good. He’s basically good enough to be the only reason a normally-I-only-watch-the-NBA person watches this tournament, because you know he’s going to be tearing up the NBA for years to come.

His athleticism is on a level that is maybe unprecedented in NBA history. His jumper is still shaky, but he does everything else that you could possibly want on offense — he breaks down the D, knows how to pass and has sublime finishing ability around the rim (and not just on dunks). His two-way potential is off the charts as well, because he’s a consistently engaged defender that uses his considerable physical advantages to accrue blocks and steals at a disgusting rate (he’s set to become the only freshman in NCAA history to average greater than 1.7 blocks and 2.2 steals per game, and join Shane Battier and Matisse Thybule as the only players to do so out of power conferences).

Just look what Zion did to poor Syracuse in the ACC tournament in his return from his shoe-busting knee injury:

Dude’s the truth. You should all be hoping the Knicks beat the odds and get the first pick for him. He could legitimately be the type of talent that alters a franchise’s entire trajectory by himself.

RJ Barrett, #5

(1) Duke, Freshman Guard/Forward

RJ Barrett has consistently been the second-most-talked-about prospect on the Blue Devils (and maybe the nation) this year, and yet he’s not at all a lock for the second pick in the draft. It’s because, despite the considerable hype that he carried coming into the season (including being ranked No. 1 on most 2018 high school prospect lists), Barrett has some definite red flags that have popped up in his time at Duke.

His counting stats for the year look good enough — 22.9 points per game, 7.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists. But, unfortunately, a lot of those numbers have been going down as the year goes on rather than up. Couple that with Barrett’s tendency to dominate the ball (he takes almost 19 shots a game, six more than Williamson and Cam Reddish) and his increasing turnovers and lowering assist totals, and there’s definite room for concern. Also, he only shoots 30.4 percent on college threes and 66 percent from the free throw line, both numbers that are concerning for his projected future as an NBA scorer.

Granted, there’s a reason he’s generally considered the No. 2 overall prospect in this draft. He has his moments where he absolutely looks like the second-best prospect in the nation:

Definitely a guy to keep an eye on, because there’s a real shot he could wind up a Knick should New York fall to the second or third pick.

Nickeil Alexander-Walker, #5

(4) Virginia Tech, Sophomore Guard

So, the first thing to consider with Nickeil Alexander-Walker is the extremely awesome possibilities of tweeting out “OH HELL NAW” whenever he does anything awesome. There’s also like 1,000 “HELL NAW” GIFs to go with it.

As far as actual basketball goes, NAW is a very talented scorer for VA Tech, averaging 16.8 points per game on .478 shooting and .381 from 3. He’s kind of swooned as the year has gone on (likely a product of getting more attention from opposing defenses), sinking a player that arguably could have been a late lottery pick to a guy that could go anywhere from 15-25.

But there’s still always a chance he could be a Knick! All it would take is for some teams to pass on him, and he could be ripe for the plucking in the second round (a la Deyonta Davis, KJ McDaniels, or, ahem, the Blockness Monster). Or, as Stingy noted in the first preview today, he could be a target if the Knicks get unlucky, fall back to pick five, and opt to trade down instead.

The biggest problem with NAW won’t be on offense — it definitely seems like he has NBA-level shooting ability and good passing instincts, at the least — it will be on defense, namely finding where to play him. He’s 6-foot-5 and not a standout athlete, so he’s either going to have to figure out how to improve his ability to defend shooting guards or bulk up to play undersized against small forwards.

I found this read by Ben Rubin at The Stepien to be very informative, so check that out if you’re interested in more info on NAW.

Naz Reid, #0

(3) LSU, Freshman Forward/Center

Pretty much a consensus top-20 recruit coming out of high school, Reid seemed like a pretty good bet to be a potential lotto pick in this year’s draft on an LSU team that would give him all kinds of opportunities to shine. His performance hasn’t really borne that out so far this year, though, dropping him to the late-first, early-second round discussion or later in many mocks.

A local kid from Asbury Park, NJ, Reid has a lot of tools that make him an intriguing modern NBA big man prospect. He’s shooting a pretty solid 37 percent on college 3-pointers this year, along with 73.7 percent on his free throws (generally a pretty good indicator for future success as a shooter at the next level). He’s a beefy individual, listed at 6-foot-10 and 250 pounds, but he’s surprisingly nimble and seems to have a nice touch around the rim.

What brings Reid down are concerns about his motor. A player his size at the college level should have no problem gobbling up rebounds, yet Reid averages only 7.1 per game in about 27 minutes of action. He’s also not a standout defender, and not really a threat for blocks. If he can’t be a rim protector and rebound efficiently at the next level, it’s going to be hard to find a position for him in a league where centers are required to do those things and “power forwards” are increasingly looking and moving more and more like wings.

Still, if he declares for the draft and could be available in the second round for the Knicks (or available in the late first for a modest price), he could be worth a look. He’s definitely a guy to keep an eye on, playing for one of the tournament’s top seeds at LSU. (Also, Naz-Nas puns and nicknames for days.)

Tacko Fall, #24

(9) University of Central Florida, Senior Center

I’ve been a Tacko Fall fan for a while, and even though there’s a real chance he may not even get drafted this year, he’s without a doubt one of the most uniquely watchable players in this tournament.

Standing a monstrous 7-foot-6 with the ability to grab rim flat-footed, Fall completely changes how any given game is played. Teams basically refuse to go into the paint when they play against him, and he positively affects all aspects of UCF’s game while he’s out there — per a great article at FiveThirtyEight by Josh Planos, the Knights’ eFG% jumps up almost eight points with Fall on the floor, and opponents’ eFG% drops about two points. A 10-point overall swing in eFG% is stunning.

I’m personally in the camp that Tacko would be interesting to take a flier on in the late second round, or especially as an undrafted free agent. He’s surprisingly mobile for a guy his size, and he doesn’t have stone hands, either — he’s going to set the NCAA career field goal percentage record by almost seven points (at 74.1 percent!!!) by the time the final buzzer sounds for UCF. I’ll take it to my grave that I was a big fan of Rudy Gobert pre-draft, even when he was considered at the time to be too slow for the modern game. I get the same vibe off of Fall that he could maybe work at this level, though I’m not nearly as confident as I was with Gobert. He also just seems like a really good kid that works hard at his craft, which is always a plus.

Still, all other things aside, sign me up for a potential matchup where Zion and the perimeter-offense-challenged Dookies would have to attempt to drive the lane against Tacko in the second round. Also, sign me up for Tacko Tuesdays at MSG next fall.

That’s all for today. Get those brackets filled out tonight, and we’ll be back tomorrow with your West and South Region previews to get you all ready for the big dance.