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Top of 2018 draft shows evolution of NBA

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We all too often think and talk about small ball completely wrong.

The strategy that has revolutionized basketball over the last decade — shoutout to the 7 Seconds or Less Suns — is unfortunately named. It conjures up images of a guard-heavy lineup with wings sliding down the positional scale to man the frontcourt. When we talk about small ball, we think of pint-size (by NBA standards, at least) shooters around a 6-foot-7 Draymond Green at center.

Play small, go fast, get buckets.

The problem with that line of thinking, though, is that small ball really has little to do with size. It’s a name that labels the byproduct of the aim of a style of play. Small ball isn’t about size. It’s about skill.

Small ball is about putting as much skill on the floor as possible. It’s about maximizing shooting, playmaking and versatility of both the offensive and defensive variety. Small ball is a means to an end, with the goal being having as technical proficiency and adaptability in the lineup as possible.

Now, what do players who can shoot, switch and sprint the floor usually look like? They’re guards or 6-foot-7 wings repurposed as frontcourt players.

If you want to play with shooting, skill and versatility on the court, you go small not out of philosophy, but out of necessity.

But maybe not any more.

As the 2018 NBA draft looms next week, it’s increasingly clear that small ball is increasingly becoming supersized with as many as six of the top seven selections potentially being centers, the heavy majority of which project as so-called modern bigs.

The “unicorns” we’ve celebrated in the last half-decade — Anthony Davis, Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Giannis Antetokounmpo — are becoming decidedly less rare. Or at least the archetype they helped create is ushering in a new generation of players who will try to replicate their success while having the size and skill combinations that make such long-term projections not entirely unreasonable.

FULL SCOUTING REPORTS: Deandre Ayton | Mo Bamba | Jaren Jackson | Marvin Bagley

A 7-footer who handles the rock, blocks shots, switches one-through-five and makes threes is no longer a guaranteed generational player, but rather a piece that unlocks the rest of the roster to maximum versatility and skill.

Those types of players don’t populate every roster and they are in the highest demand by NBA franchises, but no longer does a team need to be drafting in the top spot to have a shot at such a big.

Just look at this year’s mock drafts.

Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Mo Bamba and Michael Porter Jr. all project to be among the first players selected next Thursday and are all 6-foot-10 or taller with the skill sets and physical frames that allow them to anchor small ball lineups, or at least that’s what NBA franchises are hoping and banking on.

And that doesn’t even include Wendell Carter Jr.

Look at the presumptive top pick, Ayton. At 7-feet and 243 pounds with arms that look like they’ve been photoshopped to appear on the cover of a bodybuilding magazine, he’s got one of the most imposing frames that college basketball has seen in recent years. Ayton’s strength is phenomenal, but it’s his feet that make him so tantalizing.

He moves with the agility, quickness and effortlessness that belies a player that is, quite simply, a massive human being. Ayton has the size and physicality of a traditional big man. He’s a high-level rebounder, finishes at the rim and has the physical tools that allow NBA scouts to tell themselves he’ll be a better rim-protector than his block rate would indicate. His real appeal, though, is the prospect he can switch a one-five pick-and-roll, is potentially a devastating rim-runner and projects as pick-and-roll big who can pop or dive to wondrous results.

Ayton is at the top of draft boards because scouts believe that he can competently do everything Draymond Green can while inhabiting David Robinson’s body.

That’s much the same thing that has Jackson and Bagley projected in the top-five, slotted behind Ayton because they’re not quite as physically intimidating but still possess some combination of the athleticism, wingspan, agility and level of skill that has front offices dreaming of them fitting well into small ball lineups. Porter is a mystery after essentially missing all of last season, but he fits that same mold.

The outlier here is Carter. The 6-foot-10, 260-pounder is by no means a plodder, but he’s much more in the mold of a traditional big. He rebounds, protects the rim and is comfortable with his back to the basket. The question, though, is can he defend the pick-and-roll or will he be susceptible to switches that will play him off the floor? Post play is probably become somewhat underrated as it’s possible to stress defenses from the inside to create opportunities for the outside, but it’s increasingly de-emphasized.

If teams are looking to zig while the rest of the league zags, Carter would seem to be an option. If he can improve his footwork and extend his range, he could well fit into modern NBA offenses. The fact that he’s further behind in those areas, though, is why he’s generally considered the least of the best available big men.

Which brings us to Bamba.

While Ayton continues to be the conventional wisdom at 1 and Jackson’s combination of frame and skill entices front offices, the former Texas big may be the most intriguing prospect with the highest ceiling in this draft.

The 7-footer has a wingspan of 7-feet-10 inches and a standing reach of 9-feet-7.5 inches, which eclipse The Stifle Tower himself, Rudy Gobert. That height and length didn’t go unutilized in Austin as Bamba showed himself to be an elite rim protector (13.2 block percentage) and excellent rebounder (28.2 defensive rebounding percentage). Shot-blocking and rebounding translates, and Bamba measurements suggest he’ll be able to do both at the next level.

Then there’s his agility. He moves extremely well both as a rim-runner and laterally against guards. Given his length, he doesn’t have to be perfect when he’s switched on to small guards, but just stay within shouting — well, swatting — distance. Given what we saw from him last year, he seems entirely possible he’ll be capable of that going forward.

Bamba slightness and 3-point shooting percentage (27.5) along with questions about his physicality have depressed his draft stock, but those hurdles seem clearable. Bamba has what no other prospect in this class – or maybe any other – doesn’t with his size and length. Even among unicorns, Bamba stands out.

The 2018 NBA draft is revealing what we mean when we talk about small ball. To make it work, you need players that can switch and shoot. You need speed, athleticism and length. For years, those combinations came in smaller packages, but increasingly it’s becoming supersized as small ball becomes the preeminent way to play and the skills that are prized and necessary to employ it are now being taught to and honed by bigger and bigger players.

Small ball has become the bible for NBA franchises, but the label describes the book’s cover, not its substance.

Providence guard to miss at least a month with foot injury

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Rough news for Providence on Tuesday morning, as the school announced that freshman guard A.J. Reeves will miss the next four-to-six weeks with an unspecified foot injury.

Reeves, a native of Roxbury, Ma., has averaged 14.2 points this season while shooting 45 percent from three. He’s been the best freshman in the Big East and one of the best weapons for a talented Friar team that has yet to truly figure themselves out.

“It’s unfortunate that A.J. has to go through this as he has been having a very productive start to his college career,” head coach Ed Cooley said. “However, he is a great person and will use this time to get better and he will continue to support the team.”

Player of the Year Power Rankings: Ethan Happ is top two, who is Gonzaga’s best?

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1. ZION WILLIAMSON, Duke

Williamson is still the leader for the National Player of the Year race, and it should probably still be a consensus. He’s averaging 20-9-2-2-2, something that hasn’t been done in roughly three decades, and he’s doing it on the team that is the favorite to win the national title even if the silly rules of the polls won’t let us rank them there.

2. ETHAN HAPP, Wisconsin

Happ is so integral to what the Badgers do on a nightly basis. I’m not sure there is a player in college basketball that carries a bigger load for his team than Happ does for the Badgers. He’s their anchor defensively, the best rebounder on the team, a guy that brings the ball up the floor as much as anyone, the player that offense runs through offensively and the most dangerous offensive weapon in the conference not named Carsen Edwards.

The thing that really makes a difference for Happ this year is what he’s developed into as a passer. In the past, he’s been susceptible to teams throwing double teams at him, but it’s not something that is as effective this year because of how well he is able to move the ball.

He sees the floor. He understands where the double is coming from, and his ability to dribble into the post makes it really difficult for teams to sends double-teams; the defense can’t move while the ball is in the air. Throw in the fact that he’s capable of grabbing a rebound and going coast-to-coast — or, as you’ll see in the last clip, beating a press on his own — he’s become such a weapon for Greg Gard:

3. RUI HACHIMURA or BRANDON CLARKE, Gonzaga

Who is the best player on Gonzaga this year?

That’s a debate that can go back and forth for hours. On the one hand, Hachimura is unquestionably their star. He’s the leading scorer, he’s the guy that is a sensation in Japan, he’s the guy that has made the game-winning shots against Duke and Washington this year. He’s deservedly an all-american.

But there’s a very strong argument to make that Clarke is actually the best player on the Gonzaga roster. He’s quite possibly the best defensive player in all of college basketball. He’s an elite rim protector. He’s agile enough to switch ball-screens. He jumps passing lanes. He landed what may go down as the best block in basketball by anyone this year, in college, the NBA, wherever:

Oh, and he also happens to average 16.9 points and 8.2 boards.

But there’s more to this conversation.

For starters, Zach Norvell Jr. is probably the most dangerous player on Gonzaga given his ability to get hot out of nowhere and reel off four or five threes in the time it takes to go from one TV timeout to the next. Josh Perkins is the most important player on the roster, because Gonzaga doesn’t really have another option at the point and because Perkins himself is so consistently inconsistent.

And I haven’t even mentioned Killian Tillie yet.

4. R.J. BARRETT, Duke

Barrett has been terrific since the last time we really needed to pay attention to the Blue Devils. He’s averaging 24.2 points, 7.2 boards and 4.2 assists, but the Blue Devils haven’t played something other than a buy game for two weeks. They’ll get Texas Tech in New York City next Thursday.

5. DE’ANDRE HUNTER, Virginia

Hunter has been the best player for Virginia this season, but this is something to keep an eye on as the injury to Kihei Clark could force him to play out of his best position.

6. JARRETT CULVER, Texas Tech

I am fully on board the Jarrett Culver bandwagon, and depending on how he plays against Duke next Thursday, I’m sure I will be joined there by quite a few other people.

7. GRANT WILLIAMS, Tennessee

Williams has unquestionably been the best player for the Vols this season, averaging 19.9 points, 9.3 boards and 4.6 assists. He’s been an all-american, without a doubt, and it almost seems like a disservice to have him this low. The issue is that, in both of Tennessee’s biggest game, Williams has fouled out late while Admiral Schofield has been the guy tasked with making the biggest plays in the biggest moments.

8. DEDRIC LAWSON, Kansas

Lawson hasn’t really been all that flashy, and there’s an argument to be made that his teammate Lagerald Vick has been more important to the Jayhawks this season, but at this point, given Vick’s inconsistency and the fact that he has been benched, Lawson has to be the pick in the Player of the Year race for the Jayhawks.

9. CARSEN EDWARDS, Purdue

Sunday’s loss at Texas more or less summed up this Purdue team: Edwards went for 40 points on 15-for-26 shooting. Purdue lost 72-68.

10. NICKEIL ALEXANDER-WALKER, Virginia Tech

Alexander-Walker burst into the national conversation with a terrific performance in Virginia Tech’s run to the Charleston Classic title. Since then, he’s been fine while the Hokies have played games that mostly haven’t been interesting. Outside of Saturday’s date with Washington, they won’t play another game that we need to pay attention to until the new year.

IN THE MIX: Jordan Caroline (Nevada), Luguentz Dort (Arizona State), Charles Matthews (Michigan), Ja Morant (Murray State), Shamorie Ponds (St. John’s)

Self on Vick’s benching: ‘He had a really bad day Thursday’

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The status of Lagerald Vick in the Kansas basketball program is a storyline that feels like it’s never going to go away.

If you’re just catching up, Vick was run out of the program during the spring. After a poor end to the 2017-18 season, Vick and Bill Self came to an agreement that it would be in the best interest of both parties if Vick moved on after the season. He declared for the draft. He planned on signing with an agent. He realized that the NBA, last spring, was a pipe dream, and he and Self worked things out enough that Vick was allowed back into the program.

The understanding was that the issues that popped up as league play kicked off last season — a lack of effort, a lack of buy-in, a lack of interest in playing defense or playing hard — would not pop-up this year, but it’s fair to wonder whether something did happen. Vick has been benched for the last two Kansas games. He didn’t start against Wofford and played just 22 minutes off the bench. He didn’t start against New Mexico State and played 31 minutes, going 2-for-8 from the floor.

The benching against Wofford was because Vick was late for a shootaround. When asked after the 63-60 win over NMSU on Saturday, Self said, “he had a really bad Thursday, let’s just leave it at that. Hopefully those days are behind us.”

We’ve written plenty about the season that Vick is having. He’s been the Kansas savior on more than one occasion — Vermont, Louisiana, Stanford, Tennessee. There’s no chance that Kansas is undefeated right now if it wasn’t for Vick.

And, with Udoka Azubuike sidelined, there’s no chance that Kansas can hit their ceiling without Vick figuring this out.

CBT Podcast: Monday Overreactions on Gonzaga-Tennessee, Pac-12 is one-bid, Kentucky isn’t top 25

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Rob Dauster was joined by Jeff Eisenberg of Yahoo Sports to break down everything that happened in college basketball this weekend. Is there an actual good basketball team in the Pac-12? Is Kentucky a top 25 team? Is there a top tier of teams in the sport, and where does Kansas actually fit into that top tier? We get into all of it in this podcast.

Open: Is the Pac-12 a one-bid league?

11:45: Tennessee beat Gonzaga and The Admiral is awesome

23:30: Is there a top tier of teams, and where does Kansas fit in it?

30:10: Kentucky is not a top 25 team

41:00: Getting to the Elite Eight was actually a bad thing for Bruce Weber

AP Poll: Kansas returns to No. 1 as Gonzaga drops to 4th after loss

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Kansas is back where it started the season.

The preseason No. 1, the Jayhawks are again the top-ranked college basketball team in The Associated Press Top 25 despite struggling to get past New Mexico State at home. Kansas received 57 first-place votes from a 65-person media panel in the poll released Monday, sliding into the top spot after previous No. 1 Gonzaga lost to Tennessee.

No. 2 Duke moved up a spot and received four first-place votes. No. 3 Tennessee, No. 4 Gonzaga, No. 5 Michigan and No. 6 Virginia received the other first-place votes. No. 7 Nevada, Auburn, Michigan State and Florida State rounded out the top 10.

The Jayhawks were the preseason No. 1 but dropped a spot after Duke decimated then-No. 2 Kentucky to open the season.

Gonzaga moved to No. 1 after beating Duke in the Maui Invitational title game, lasting two weeks before losing 76-73 to the Vols on Sunday in Phoenix.

Kansas (8-0) kept winning, though it needed a big game from Dedric Lawson to beat New Mexico State in Kansas City on Saturday. Lawson, a preseason All-American, had 20 points, including the final 14 for Kansas, and 10 rebounds in the tighter-than-expected 63-60 victory.

Kansas played without center Udoka Azubuike, but coach Bill Self was not buying any excuses for the struggles.

“We were fortunate tonight,” he said. “How in the world we’ve won these games … it’s one thing to not play well, it’s another thing to not play well and not be intellectually into the game and that was certainly the case tonight.”

It was good enough to get the Jayhawks past the Aggies — and move to No. 1.

Tennessee picked up its biggest win in four seasons under coach Rick Barnes by knocking off Gonzaga in the Colangelo Classic and has its highest AP ranking since hitting No. 1 in 2007-08.

The Vols (7-1) kept their poise and made the biggest plays down the stretch, holding off the Zags 76-73 after Admiral Schofield scored 25 of his 30 points in the second half and hit two key 3-pointers.

The victory was Tennessee’s first over a No. 1 team since beating Kansas in 2010 and Barnes’ first in 31 years as a head coach.

Tennessee matched the biggest climb of the week, moving up four spots from No. 7, while No. 15 Ohio State, No. 17 Villanova and No. 18 Mississippi State also moved up four.

No. 19 Kentucky had the largest drop this week, losing 10 spots to No. 19 after losing to Seton Hall in overtime. No. 25 Kansas State was next at nine.

Furman moved into the poll for the first time last week, thanks to a resume that includes wins over 2018 Final Four teams Villanova and Loyola-Chicago.

The Paladins (10-0) moved up two spots in this week’s poll to No. 23 after beating Elon and South Carolina Upstate. Furman plays Charleston Southern on Tuesday and UNC Wilmington Saturday.

This week’s poll had a rarity — three teams tied for the final spot, meaning there are 27 teams in the top 25.

Syracuse, Indiana and Kansas State all came in at No. 25 after receiving 118 points. It’s the first three-way tie in the AP Top 25 since three teams shared No. 13 in 1991.

The Hoosiers are ranked for the first time since climbing to No. 3 in 2016-17. The Orange moved back into the Top 25 after beating Northeastern and Georgetown. The Wildcats dropped nine spots from No. 16 after losing to Tulsa.

In addition to Syracuse and Indiana, No. 21 Marquette and No. 24 Houston each moved into the poll this week. The Cougars are ranked for the first time since hitting No. 21 last season and the Golden Eagles are back in the poll after dropping out in Week 3.

AP Top 25 poll
First-place votes in parentheses

TEAM LAST
1. Kansas (57) 2
2. Duke (4) 3
3. Tennessee (1) 7
4. Gonzaga (1) 1
5. Michigan (1) 5
6. Virginia (1) 4
7. Nevada 6
8. Auburn 8
9. Michigan State 10
10. Florida State 11
11. Texas Tech 13
12. North Carolina 14
13. Virginia Tech 15
14. Buffalo 17
15. Ohio State 19
16. Wisconsin 12
17. Villanova 21
18. Mississippi State 22
19. Kentucky 9
20. Arizona State 20
21. Marquette —
22. Iowa 18
23. Furman 25
24. Houston —
t-25. Syracuse —
t-25. Indiana —
t-25. Kansas State 16