KANSAS CITY, Mo. – It is the game within the game this time of year for basketball fans who follow the pros avidly and the college level only casually:
Which of these guys in the NCAA Tournament might help my NBA team?
That is especially true for teams bound for the NBA draft lottery, including the one that plays home games at Madison Square Garden.
Lonzo Ball got the ball rolling Friday night, when he announced he is NBA bound. This was shortly after his UCLA team had been eliminated by Kentucky, which has three freshmen of its own projected to be selected in the first round.
Then there is Josh Jackson of Kansas, who played Saturday night in the Midwest Regional final against Oregon.
On one hand, he is 20 and doesn’t look a day older than that, and he is a skinny (by NBA standards) 6-8, 207 pounds.
On the other hand, he is supremely talented and is expected to be a top-five pick come June, and potentially an object of the Knicks’ desire.
“I think Josh is going to be a very good pro,” Kansas coach Bill Self said. “In the NBA they talk about skill sets. Does he have an NBA skill? I think Josh has multiple NBA skills. He’s a guard that can obviously play much bigger than that.
“You could almost play him at four spots offensively, and he’s big enough and quick enough that he could almost guard four sports defensively.”
All true, but Self and Jackson himself agreed that being forced to spend a year in college was a benefit to his career.
Had that not been required of him, Jackson might be in the NBA right now. He is thankful that he is not.
“I could not imagine playing [pro ball] right now, no,” he said. “I honestly don’t think I would be ready to go and play. Having a year in college is way better than coming out of high school, in my opinion.
“I feel like now I’m a lot more ready than I would have been.”
Self said that like many college stars, Jackson could use some beefing up to handle the grind at the next level.
“As effective as he could be playing with the professionals right now, he will be better moving forward because he’s added a year of weight and strength,” Self said. “He’s going to have to continue to get stronger in order to hold his position against guys that are 26, 28 years old.
“But to me that’s the only thing that could possibly keep him from being really, really good at a very young age.”
Jackson is bright and engaging, but he likely will benefit from a year of off-court maturing as well.
He was charged earlier this season with a misdemeanor for criminal damage to property after allegedly damaging a car belonging to a Kansas women’s basketball player by kicking it outside a bar in December.
Asked before the day before the regional final whether he has been tempted to look ahead while still playing high-stakes college games, Jackson said that has not been a problem.
“I’m just living in the moment,” he said. “I’m here at Kansas right now, so I have a job to do and I’m really not too worried about the future. I’m just going to take it all as it comes.”