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From Ja Morant to Zion Williamson, a look at top NBA prospects

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Among the top NCAA players expected to go high in the NBA draft are (from left) Ja Morant, De’Andre Hunter, Jarrett Culver and Zion Williamson
(AP and Getty Images)

If there was one moment that could be brighter than any shining moments this weekend in Minneapolis, it would be Zion Williamson cutting down the nets. Or tearing down the rim. Or destroying the backboard like it was a pair of his Nikes.

But college basketball’s most famous player — and probably its best — won’t be in Minneapolis for the Final Four of the NCAA tournament this weekend. Duke got eliminated by Michigan State on Sunday. While college basketball would certainly benefit from more Williamson, NBA executives and scouts don’t care.

They’ve seen enough.

It wouldn’t have taken a national championship for talent evaluators to crown Williamson as the top NBA prospect. That has been the case almost since the first day he stepped on campus and nothing that happened in any of his 33 games — including the loss to Michigan State — has changed any of that.

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That’s not to say there haven’t been performances during the NCAA tournament that have changed some perceptions, because that has happened. Even with Duke out of the tournament, there are still NBA prospects playing into college basketball’s final weekend.

Here’s a look at how some of the NCAA tournament stars, starting at the top, are viewed by NBA scouts and executives:

Zion Williamson, Duke, Fr., 6-7, F

Williamson is the consensus No. 1 overall pick and should be selected there barring some catastrophic change in philosophy or circumstance. One of the fun parlor games NBA people have played this season with Williamson has been trying to assign a comparison to an NBA player with unmatched size, athleticism, strength and skill.

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Some have pointed at former Seattle forward Shawn Kemp. Others have looked at Williamson as a more dynamic Blake Griffin.

“He’s a unicorn,” one Western Conference executive said.

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Williamson reminds some scouts of Charles Barkley with a little more recklessness. One executive said he sees some Lance Stephenson in Williamson’s game in how he runs the floor with the ball.

Williamson certainly looks like he was born ready to impact a team the second he steps onto an NBA court. In four tournament games, he averaged 26 points and 8.5 rebounds on 61.6% shooting from the field and 41.2% from three-point range.

He has some work to do as a playmaker for others and there are still some concerns about his weight, but he’s certainly been as good as advertised.

Ja Morant, Murray State, So., 6-3, G

Morant has climbed up to the No. 2 spot on a lot of boards this season, pushing past Duke wing R.J. Barrett in the eyes of some scouts and executives.While Barrett, in a lot of ways, possesses a perfect NBA frame and a lot of skills that should translate, there are questions whether he’s great at anything. Scouts don’t have that question about Morant.

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His ability to lead a team was on full display in the first two rounds of the tournament, beginning with a triple-double in an “upset” over Marquette. He joined an elite group of players — Draymond Green, Dwyane Wade, Andre Miller, Shaquille O’Neal and Cole Aldrich — who have had triple-doubles in NCAA tournament games.

Then in the second round, he showed his scoring acumen and ability to space the floor as a shooter.

Morant might not end up as the No. 2 pick in the draft, but if he falls to No. 3 or beyond, it won’t be because of Murray State’s NCAA performance.

De’Andre Hunter, Virginia, So., 6-7, G

After losing in the first round of last year’s NCAA tournament — the first No. 1 seed ever to do so — the Cavaliers have been one of the better redemption stories of the last two weeks.

In the eyes of NBA talent evaluators, Hunter’s the best NBA prospect on the team and a likely lottery pick even after a very quiet Sweet 16 and Elite Eight.

Scouts love his defensive abilities — one called him the best in the field — and he has shot better than 42% from three-point range this season. He projects as someone who can guard multiple positions — maybe even point guards and power forwards — in the NBA.

In the right situation, maybe Atlanta, Hunter could be the glue guy in a strong young nucleus.

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Another name to watch on Virginia is junior guard Ty Jerome. Scouts love his size as a point guard and have compared him to Greivis Vasquez and Matthew Dellavedova.

Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech, So., 6-6, G

Culver, the Big 12 player of the year, is another prospect who could find himself in the NBA lottery if he declares for the draft.

Culver has struggled to shoot the ball during the NCAA tournament — it’s the biggest knock on his status as a prospect— but he’s still been a productive scorer (21.5 points per game) and passer.

If he shows NBA people that he’s a consistent three-point threat, it could help his stock, but scouts like that he’s willing to do the little things that help a team win.

Cassius Winston, Michigan State, Jr., 6-1, G

The Big Ten player of the year, Winston is a classic Michigan State player. He’s not going to wow anyone with his athleticism, but he has won over fans in scouting communities with his toughness, smarts, attitude and intangibles.

A career 43.3% mark from three-point range is a good sign, with some scouts comparing him to Denver rookie point guard Monte Morris, who has been a valuable piece in the Nuggets’ rotation.

His strong play in the tournament (19.0 points, 7.8 assists) has definitely helped him if he decides to leave school after this season.

Other buzz

Keep an eye on 7-6 Central Florida center Tacko Fall. One Western Conference executive pointed to the success Philadelphia has had with Boban Marjanovic’s limited minutes as a compelling argument for taking Fall, who has impressed NBA people by improving every season. … Auburn forward Chuma Okeke (6-8) was viewed as a possible first-round pick before tearing his left ACL. Tigers junior guard Justin Harper (5-11) has reminded some of former undersized bench scorer Will Bynum. Scouts like his athleticism. … Purdue guard Carsen Edwards (6-1) got red hot during the tournament. He’ll get drafted if he declares, though concerns about his height will persist.

dan.woike@latimes.com

Twitter: @DanWoikeSports


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