1. TORONTO RAPTORS: As much as basketball is a game of health and having the right players and personnel groupings on the court, it’s also a game of consistency and habits. When I look at the lapses and breakdowns in concentration that have been popping up too often, I see an area that needs to improve in the final 15 days of the regular season. The Raptors also need to shore up their defensive details and fundamentals, their defensive rebounding and start to put a much greater value on protecting the ball at the offensive end. If there’s a positive, it’s that these are all fixable areas. But there is no magical switch that can be turned on to correct it. It’s going to take a greater attention to detail and effort. It’s okay for Golden State to cruise into the postseason. They’ve been to four straight finals and won three titles. The Warriors have proven that they have a switch and extra gear. Good for them. No other team in the NBA has proven to have that skill yet. The Raptors have been swept in back-to-back years in the East semi-finals. I understand that these are new players and a new coaching staff. One concern is the fact that this group hasn’t had the opportunity to play, practice and prepare together a whole lot. Over the next few weeks we need to see a higher level of urgency and improvement to build the sound foundational base that is necessary to operate under during the duress of postseason play. Fingers crossed that they’re finally healthy and ready to come together. There are too many instances right now of inconsistent play. It’s time to dot the I’s and cross the T’s. The devil is in the details. It can be done – the Raps just have to start grinding with greater regularity towards that goal.
2. TRAE YOUNG (Hawks): The Atlanta guard is making a strong late-season push at Luka Doncic for Rookie of the Year. He’s been much improved in February and March, averaging 24 points a night while shooting 40 per cent from three. I like what I’m seeing from him. He’s figuring it out. As the roster improves and he upgrades his strength, stamina and defensive approach, I expect the results will be even better.
3. DUKE: The Blue Devils barely got by Central Florida on Sunday and I must say that it could be a blessing in disguise to have such a scare. They are so much better when they’re running and playing loose in transition. They must dramatically pick up their defensive effort and create deflections, steals, blocks and stops to get the game going at a pace that will benefit them. It could be a major problem if they’re forced to execute in the 5-on-5 half-court game and make threes and free throws. Run baby run.
4. PAYTON PRITCHARD (Oregon): I love how he runs the Ducks attack. He was been awesome down the stretch of the season, leading them to a surprising PAC-12 tournament title. He’s been steady as a rock in the first two games of the NCAA tournament, averaging 18 points, four rebounds and 7.5 assists a game. Pritchard is a tremendous leader who gets everyone going and involved. Teammates love playing with him and react beautifully to his direction.
5. BRANDON CLARKE (Gonzaga): The Canadian has had an excellent year for his squad and was outstanding in his second-round game with 36 points, eight rebounds and five blocks. This guy is relentless. I love his motor. He posts up like a pro and is willing to fight for space in the lane. Clarke gets after it and won’t be denied.