While Thursday's NBA trade deadline is not expected to have much of an impact on the Toronto Raptors, Thursday's start to the NCAA tournament could have a tremendous effect on the club's future. With the Raptors currently possessing the league's fourth-worst record, it would appear that a high lottery pick is in the offing, and so March Madness should provide fans with a chance to see the newest Raptor months before he's even drafted.
What follows below is a list of players for Raptors fans to keep an eye on over the next three weeks so that they can be prepared to see what all of the losing this season was for come the NBA draft on June 28th.
Anthony Davis - Kentucky
Even if Kentucky gets bounced in the first round (and they probably won't, considering they are the early favorites to win it all), Davis still goes number one overall in June. He's a dominating defensive force, averaging 4.6 bpg and 1.4 spg in college, and as the season wore on he began rounding out his offensive game by developing a nice little hook shot and a semi-dependable mid-range game. It also helps that Davis never stops chugging on the basketball court. He's drawn comparisons from Marcus Camby to Kevin Garnett, but the truth is that there is no ideal comparison for Davis right now, not that it matters because every team is salivating for the chance to get him.
Raptors fans seem apprehensive about the possibility, though, because of the team having drafted Jonas Valanciunas last spring to play the center position for the club. Having Davis, Valanciunas and Andrea Bargnani manning your frontline would be a wonderful problem to have, though, and with Davis' defensive versatility and Bargnani's offensive versatility there would be situations when all three could log minutes together in certain situations. Bottom line: if the Raptors can get their hands on Davis, then fans should be ecstatic about the possibilities.
Harrison Barnes - North Carolina
6'8 Small Forward
Going back to last year's draft, before Barnes decided to go back to school, fans dreamed of pairing Barnes' scoring might alongside DeMar DeRozan on the wings. He's got a pure-scorers game and he's got that Joe Johnson size that allows him some maneuverability with regards to getting his shot off against most defenses. Perhaps most importantly for Raptors fans, he's got range that extends easily out to the three-point line and he would do wonders stretching the defense for drives from DeRozan and Bargnani in the starting five.
That isn't to say all is rosy with Barnes, though. His motor runs a bit cool at times and it's unclear if he has the mentality to be a truly killer offensive force. His rebounding and assist numbers are down this year, too, creating a fear that he's too content being strictly a scoring threat and not the well-rounded player a lot of people expected him to be when he joined the Tar Heels. A big tournament could do wonders for his stock but right now he's kind of stalled and even if the Raptors were in a position to draft him it's unclear if they even would at this point in the game.
Michael Kidd-Gilchrist - Kentucky
6'7 Small Forward
If you want a near-opposite option to Barnes at the top of the draft, Kidd-Gilchrist is it. He's an always-on type of defensive force, with the athleticism and bounce to cover the defensive gamut from shutting down his man to securing the rebound after the miss. While he's not the pure scorer that Barnes is, he plays an attacking style and doesn't take shots that he cannot make. He also oozes leadership. He's the kind of natural leader that the Raptors could seriously use from a guy that actually plays in their rotation.
So what's the rub? He may be staying in school. He's been insisting that a return to Kentucky is inevitable, but Coach Calipari has suggested he may advise him strongly to enter his name in the draft - especially since he may go as high as second-overall. Players like Barnes and Jared Sullinger have proven that going back to school doesn't always help an elite player's stock and sometimes the risk of injury can completely torpedo it (just ask Josh Selby about that one). He may be mentally locked-in to returning, but a lot can change between now and the withdrawal deadline so watch Kidd-Gilchrist closely because there is going to be tremendous pressure on him to declare.
Thomas Robinson - Kansas
6'9 Power Forward
Like Kidd-Gilchrist, Robinson is a go-go-go type of forward, although he tends to spend more time on the post than the perimeter. His 17.9 ppg and 11.8 rpg have put him behind only Anthony Davis in the eyes of most college types, but college production doesn't always translate into NBA attractiveness in equal measures. If the three previously mentioned players are off the board when the Raptors pick they'll be in a tough spot. They need another undersized power forward like they need a hole in the head, but Robinson is, in a lot of ways, simply better than most of the players below him. If he has a big tournament for Kansas that might make Bryan Colangelo's decision even harder if faced with Robinson being the best player available when he selects.
Bradley Beal - Florida - 6'5 Shooting Guard || Jeremy Lamb - Connecticut - 6'5 Shooting Guard
Because the Raptors are so starved for perimeter talent there is a good chance that they'll be looking at these two before they take a look at guys like Perry Jones or Jared Sullinger (and maybe even Robinson) with their pick. Beal is a pure scorer with a jumper that has drawn comparisons to (not my comparison) Ray Allen. Lamb is an athletic offensive specimen with an ability to create shots for himself all over the floor. Lamb had the better season of the two, scoring more and doing so more efficiently, but Beal may be the better prospect as many feel Florida's system did not showcase his talents to their fullest. If Toronto had to decide between one of them right now it'd be Beal, but the tournament could significantly shift the perceptions on either one before the month is out.
Perry Jones - Baylor
6-11 Power Forward
Jones is the kind of player that gets some GMs awards but gets other GMs fired. He's the biggest high-risk, high-reward player in this draft. He's a do-it-all forward that could be the next Tracy McGrady as easily as he could be the next Anthony Randolph. His sleepy on-court demeanor has its detractors, as does his wildly inconsistent output, but if a team could tap into his deep reservoir of talent with regularity he could be a steal outside of the top-five. I doubt Toronto takes the risk on him, but he's worth keeping an eye on nonetheless.