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

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Featuring Bargain Bin Zion, which still equals a really good player

NCAA Basketball: San Francisco at Gonzaga James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

How’s everyone feeling? Ready for the tournament? Well, not quite yet, of course. You’ve heard about the Midwest, East and South regions of the tournament, so let’s dive a little into the wild, wild West and see what it’s all about.


Brandon Clarke, #15

(1) Gonzaga, Junior Forward

Clarke is such a unique prospect this year. If he were two or three years younger, we’d probably be talking about him being in the No. 1 overall pick discussion with Zion (or at least the clear-cut No. 2). But, as it stands, he’s 22 years old and will be 23 by the time the 2019-20 NBA season starts. This will probably keep a lot of NBA talent evaluators away, assuming that he doesn’t have as much room to grow as some other 19-year-old piece of clay.

Those talent evaluators may end up regretting that decision. On offense, this dude is relentlessly relentless, attacking the basket with fervor at every opportunity. He’s a whirling dervish when he gets in the lane, often busting out crafty spin moves or just straight up bullying his way to the hoop.

In many ways, Clarke’s game resembles sort of an older, slightly-less-good Zion (and that’s a compliment, not a knock). Unfortunately, the outside shooting concerns that follow Zion also follow Clarke, as he shoots just .286 from 3; however, you can live with that, considering he’s been putting a lot of effort into getting better from there and he shoots a ridiculous 71.2 percent from everywhere else. (Also of note, Clarke has increased his free throw percentage by almost 12 points to 69.1 percent this year, often considered a good indicator of future success as a shooter.)

On defense, though, whew. Clarke is a total monster. He’s averaging three blocks and 1.2 steals per game, with that block number placing him fourth in the nation and far and away the best of anyone in a power conference (not that the WCC is really a power conference, but the Zags always play a really tough schedule). He’s a ridiculous athlete, and though he stands just 6-foot-8, he has what Jackson Hoy of The Stepien presumes is about a 7-foot wingspan. That’s right in line with a guy like Draymond Green, so his relatively small height shouldn’t be a concern for him at the next level considering how muscular he already is (and how much bigger it seems like he can get).

Basically, Clarke could be a real consideration anywhere from the second to fifth pick, age aside. If the Knicks lose out on Zion, he’s definitely on a shortlist of guys that have the potential to be one of the best in this draft.

Ja Morant, #12

(12) Murray State, Sophomore Point Guard

Morant is another guy that will absolutely be in the picks 2-5 conversation if the ping pong balls don’t go the Knicks’ way. “Another point guard, tho?” you say, which is definitely an understandable stance to take should the Knicks end up with Morant. But the talent of this kid is perhaps worth just throwing team needs to the wind and going best player available.

A super springy athlete, Morant has a quick first step and seems able to get into the paint almost at will. Once there, he has great body control around the hoop, be it murdering guys at the rim or finessing a layup. But it’s definitely most fun when he murders someone:

Morant’s passing is also a huge asset to his team. He’s averaging an even 10 assists per game, and his impact on the game (to be clear: not his skillset) reminds me a lot of Trae Young a year ago. He has the ability to drag his squad kicking and screaming to a victory all on his own.

The concerns with Morant are his 3-point shooting (where he’s averaging 33.6 percent, but he also averages a respectable 81 percent from the free throw line) and his turnovers (he averages 5.2 per game, pushing his AST:TO ratio slightly under the 2.0-and-greater number that you usually want to see out of a point guard). Also, his defense is less than ideal at times, despite his transcendent physical tools. The Russell Westbrook comps that he tends to draw feel pretty apt in that regard.

The most interesting part of his first-round matchup will be seeing just how well he can do against a major conference team in Marquette. Murray State only lost four times this season, but their schedule was a cakewalk by comparison to a lot of teams (thus the 12 seed for a 27-4 team). We’ll see if Ja fares any better than Trae Young did last year in his first-round loss.

Rui Hachimura, #21

(1) Gonzaga, Junior Forward

On top of being a Japanese player and having a very cool name, Hachimura has an intriguing skillset as sort of a small-ball scoring power forward. Scoring is his main skill, and he does that really, really well — 20.1 points per game on a staggering .609/.469/.741 slash line (albeit he does only take one 3-pointer per game for that high percentage from deep).

Hachimura’s offensive game really isn’t in question. He’s not afraid of contact, he finishes well, he seems to be able to create space. Matched up against bigger forwards, he seems willing and able to exploit the advantages that his quicks provide. His jumper is pretty fluid and he has a nice, high release point.

The real detractors for Rui are his rebounding and defensive ability. For a guy that projects to be a 4 at the next level, Hachimura doesn’t rebound at a high rate at all (just a 12.2 total rebound percentage, which is actually the lowest of his career). Defensively, he often looks lost, as Jackson Hoy broke down in depth at The Stepien a few months ago.

Still, though, Hachimura is an intriguing prospect, and another one of those guys that could be available to the Knicks if they opt to trade down from a not-number-one pick. The Zags’ upset of Duke this year offers maybe the most tantalizing footage of Hachimura this season:

Jarrett Culver, #23

(3) Texas Tech, Sophomore Guard/Forward

There’s a lot of really good upperclassmen in this bracket! Wait, are sophomores upperclassmen? Well, whatever. There’s a lot of good non-freshmen in this bracket.

Culver is a slick player and an offensive force, even if he’s not necessarily a standout athlete. Standing 6-foot-8, he has a real fluidity to his game with the ball in his hands. Granted, he’s no Luka Doncic or anything, but he’s apparently grown a couple inches in the last year and could definitely get even better with the ball than he is now.

His shooting form is very interesting... it almost looks like if you hold the shoot button too long in NBA 2K, but instead of that leaving his shot short like it would for most guys, it doesn’t seem to affect him negatively. My friend Spencer Pearlman over at The Stepien actually thinks that the hitch helps Culver, getting defenders off their feet earlier and shooting the ball on the way down.

(I should note — I mentioned The Stepien a lot in these two articles, and the reason is, they’re quickly carving out a spot for themselves as arguably THE go-to draft site now that DraftExpress is locked up at ESPN. In case you weren’t aware of that site.)

Culver’s percentages have taken a dip as the year has gone on, though — he was once shooting over 40 percent from deep to start the season and pouring in over 20 points per game, but his splits currently sit at 18.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game on a .486/.323/.704 slash line, due to a pretty serious January/February swoon. He’s been cooking the last couple games though, scoring 31 and 26 points in his last two outings before the tourney against Iowa State and West Virginia (both quality programs and tournament teams). Perhaps most importantly, Culver’s a good defender and tends to keep the ball moving.

Culver could potentially be in play in the 2-5 range, or as a trade down candidate for the Knicks. Either way, he’s definitely a guy worth keeping an eye on. A lot of how he and Texas Tech do in the tournament could potentially have a bearing on where he goes in the draft.

Luguentz Dort, #0

(11) Arizona State, Freshman Guard

I’ll fully admit to having little to no knowledge on Dort before Arizona State’s 74-65 play-in victory over hometown St. John’s in the First Four. Then I saw this happen:

First off, it wouldn’t be OK to ogle this play if he had gotten hurt — thank goodness he didn’t, and he returned to the game. Probably took a nice, long ice bath after the game. But secondly, look at how high that man got in the air! By the time he got horizontal and plummeted down, Dort was something like 10 feet up. That seems to be kind of the Dort experience in a nutshell — a freakish athlete that plays balls-to-the-wall for every second.

If the average NCAA player was a cellphone, most would be around 40 percent battery and needing some juice by the end of the game. Dort fell off a 10-story building and still seemed like he was chugging along at 87 percent charge by the end of the game. No backup battery needed.

Dort’s mostly a wrecking ball right now on offense, completely unafraid of drawing contact due to that meaty 6-foot-5 frame (Ben Rubin at The Stepien wrote a great piece on him that focused on that front and center). What really needs work is his shot — he’s at 40.7 percent overall from the field this year and 31.4 percent from 3. His 69.6 percent mark from the free throw line doesn’t inspire a ton of confidence, either.

But physically, he’s basically a perfect NBA guard. And the killer mindset seems to be there, which, as we’ve learned with Frank Ntilikina, is not something that can be just be installed like a computer program. Oh, and speaking of Frank, Dort is French Canadian!

And now you guys should be all ready for the NCAA Tourney! Feel free to comment in here as the games go on today. Or in the other thread. Whatever. Also let me know if I missed your favorite player.