Of the millions of brackets being filled out, all with hopes of taking Warren Buffett's money, none are more valuable to NBA teams than those being turned in by scouts. Their brackets don't have teams, just players.
The winner of the NBA scouting brackets won't be known in three weeks. We'll await the winner in June, when we get the answer to the annual question: Who's going first in the NBA draft?
Some years, the No. 1 pick is a no-brainer. Other years, it's a toss up. This is one of those years. A year ago the Cavaliers weren't sure who they'd select with the first pick, but that was mostly because the draft was weak and nobody was a true standout. It showed when the Cavs took Anthony Bennett. June brings a three-player possibility: Joel Embiid, Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins. Ultimately, the choice will depend on who does the picking and, to a small degree, how each player does in the tourney.
The NCAA tourney has a way of breaking ties, at least when it comes to public opinion. It's the best and last chance to see college players in pressure situations against the best competition. It's an important time for scouts to get a better handle on the top players, because most won't suit up for drills during the pre-draft combines.
Therefore, it's money time for players projected to go in the draft lottery. While this draft is one to lust for, one NBA general manager said: "It's a good one, make no mistake, and better than last year's. But it's also inflated. It's not as good as all the attention it gets."
After getting feedback from a few scouts, here's an early look at how the draft lottery might fall based on the picking order if the season ended today. Most players projected to go high will be on the floor later this week and next if they're lucky.
1. Bucks: Jabari Parker, SF/SG, Duke. Desperately needing a ready-made potential superstar, rather than a project big man, the Bucks are more likely to take Parker or Wiggins over Joel Embiid if they get the first pick. There's another reason the Bucks will play it safe and go for the sure thing: If they blow this draft, they might as well pack for Seattle.
2. Sixers: Andrew Wiggins, SF/SG, Kansas. Philly has been a basketball wasteland attendance-wise since Allen Iverson left. When Philly fans stop hating you and simply ignore you, that's a major problem, the ultimate diss. Philly needs a lot of things but a box office draw is right at the top. Wiggins had a slow start at Kansas but is gaining steam at the right time. A Wiggins-Michael Carter-Williams backcourt could sting.
3. Magic: Joel Embiid, C, Kansas. Orlando already has a young and functional big man in Nik Vucevic but the chance to get the next Dwight Howard, minus all the drama, would be too tempting to pass up, even if Embiid is still a work in progress offensively. Embiid and Victor Oladipo might not ever be Shaq-Penny, but the closest thing to it in Orlando.
4. Lakers: Julius Randle, PF, Kentucky. Where's David Stern and his frozen envelope when you need him? The proud Laker organization has a track record of replacing one superstar with another, but the best way for that to happen is by getting a top-two pick. While Randle, the most polished low-post big man in the country, would be acceptable compensation for the Lakers after enduring this ugly season, the Hollywood faction would prefer Wiggins or Parker as Kobe Bryant's heir apparent.
5. Celtics: Dante Exum, PG, Australia. The best player nobody in America has ever seen won't get any NCAA daylight. Still, Exum, who has a mature game despite being a teenager, would get the phones ringing in the Celtics' office about the sudden availability of Rajon Rondo.
6. Kings: Marcus Smart, PG, Oklahoma State. Sacramento likes Isaiah Thomas and will sign him to a long-term contract, but Thomas is a two-guard trapped in a horse jockey's body. Smart is a big, tough compliment who can play either backcourt position and only needs to improve his outside shooting.
7. Jazz: Gary Harris, SG, Michigan State. Utah needs somebody to supply points and could lose leading scorer Gordon Hayward to free agency or a sign-and-trade this summer. Harris would be a sensible backcourt mate to Trey Burke (the two had some rugged battles in the Big Ten last year), but the Jazz could go a few directions with this pick.
8. Pistons: Aaron Gordon, PF, Arizona. Just what the Pistons need, another 6-9 type, right? Well, they may trade Greg Monroe, or maybe even Josh Smith (a year after giving him a big contract). That's how screwed up the Pistons are, chemistry-wise, on the front line as they look for someone to pair with Andre Drummond. There are indications GM Joe Dumars won't be around to make this pick. If the pick falls out of the top eight, it goes to the Bobcats from the Ben Gordon deal.
9. Sixers (from Pelicans): Noah Vonleh, PF, Indiana. The Sixers gave up Jrue Holiday last summer to get another pick in this draft. They need help everywhere except point guard, and could go big with Vonleh, who's raw and just a freshman, or grab a shooter like Doug McDermott.
10. Nuggets: Doug McDermott, SF, Creighton. Scouts disagree whether McDermott has a chance to be an all-around scorer at the next level or just a glorified Kyle Korver. He's too automatic a shooter to fall far from the top 10, though, and can convince NBA with a breakout effort in the tourney.
11. Cavaliers: Rodney Hood, SF, Duke. Is it possible the 10th pick could work out better for the Cavs than the first pick last season? Anthony Bennett set the bar low. Hood doesn't receive the level of shine his Duke teammate Parker gets, but he's a late lottery guy.
12. Magic (from Nuggets, Knicks): Tyler Ennis, PG, Syracuse. Orlando could use someone who's more of a natural point guard than Oladipo, and the countdown has begun on Jameer Nelson's days with the Magic. There will be a half-dozen point guards available.
13. Timberwolves: Willie Cauley-Stein, C, Kentucky. It's a poor draft for centers and the gap is huge after Embiid. Cauley-Stein is strictly for defense, but he's athletic and has something you can teach (low-post moves) and something you can't (he's 7-foot tall). The T'wolves could also go for Dario Saric if he's around; if this pick falls out of the top 13, it goes to the Suns.
14. Suns: Zach LaVine, SG, UCLA. The Suns are loaded with young players who have upside, so it wouldn't be a surprise if they swapped this pick for veteran help. A lack of veteran experience could be why the Suns have faded lately. LaVine is one of a half-dozen shooting guards/small forwards who'll be taken in the middle picks because the draft is filled with them.
That's an early look at the possible lottery picks. Here are some players who could force their way into the lottery with big efforts in the tourney:
Jerami Grant, SF, Syracuse. The son of Harvey Grant, who had some decent years with the team formerly known as the Bullets, Jerami is your typical 6-8 athlete who needs to polish his skills. He might stay an additional year.
Nik Stauskas, SG, Michigan. He's purely a shooter with deep range who could struggle at the next level trying to create his own shot because he's just an OK athlete. Still, he brings good size (6-5) and experience against top competition.
Kyle Anderson, 6-9 G-F, UCLA. Scouts like his ability to see the floor and play with a point guard's mentality. He is a solid rebounder and good overall skill-wise but he's not the best athlete on the floor.
Wayne Selden, SG, Kansas. He's only a freshman and this is a loaded draft, so he might wait a year and, with Embiid and Wiggins expected to make the jump, be the main focus at Kansas next season. Still, with a solid tourney, he could sneak his way into bottom of the lottery.
Elfrid Payton, PG, Louisiana-Lafayette. A feisty defender who will get in your grill, and dependable on offense as well, Payton is the best player on a Cinderella team whose profile could soar with an upset victory or two.