The Rockets ‘ 2022-23 season is fading to the background of the Houston sports scene as April approaches, with the city set to host the men’s Final Four just days after the Astros begin their 2023 season . But the future of Houston’s professional hoops team could look increasingly brighter in the coming seasons.
The Rockets will very likely hold a top-three pick in June’s NBA draft, and a certain star point guard could return to his former franchise in July. You’re forgiven for not tuning into the late-March portion of the Rockets’ current season. Next year’s roster should hold far more intrigue.
With that in mind, those still looking to get their basketball fix will likely now turn their heads to the college season, with the Sweet 16 of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament set to tip off on Thursday. So which current college stars should Rockets fans have on their radar this weekend? Let’s sort through the top NBA prospects in every Sweet 16 game below.
No. 3 Kansas State vs. No. 7 Michigan State (Thursday)
Keyontae Johnson, Kansas State
Johnson’s rise to becoming the Wildcats’ leading scorer is one of March Madness’s better stories after his collapse on the floor during a game in 2020, but he and the Wildcats aren’t happy to simply be in the Sweet 16. Kansas State is a legitimate Final Four contender with Johnson flanked by 5-foot-8 guard Markquis Nowell, who will be right at home in the regional semifinal as a Harlem native playing at Madison Square Garden. Johnson isn’t the most high-upside NBA prospect given his five years of collegiate experience. But the sharpshooting wing could continue raise his NBA profile with a run to the Final Four over the weekend.
No. 4 UConn vs. No. 8 Arkansas (Thursday)
Anthony Black, Arkansas
While Nick Smith (more on him below) was projected to be the top NBA prospect from Arkansas entering the 2022-23 season, Black continues to show why he will likely be a lottery selection in June. The freshman is an oversized guard at 6-foot-7, one who plays an unselfish hit-ahead style that could fit well with the Rockets’ collection of high-usage guards along with center Alperen Şengün. I’d like to see more from Black as a spot-up shooter, but his feel for the game continues to impress as Arkansas makes a run at the Final Four.
Nick Smith Jr., Arkansas
Smith’s freshman season has been far rockier than Black despite entering the year with hopes of being a potential top-five pick in June’s draft. Smith missed time from December until February due to knee injuries, and he tallied six points in two games for the Razorbacks in the first and second round. Smith is a slippery guard who can score in bunches. Perhaps he can get back on track and re-secure a spot in the lottery in the next stage of the men’s tourney.
No. 4 Tennessee vs. No. 9 Florida Atlantic (Thursday)
Julian Phillips, Tennessee
Phillips is the most likely pro in a Sweet 16 game light on NBA prospects. Tennessee’s forward isn’t a big-time scorer at this point in his development, but the 19-year old is a serious athlete who could develop into a quality 3&D wing. Perhaps Phillips can help bring Rick Barnes back to the Final Four 20 years after the coach’s run with Texas.
No. 2 UCLA vs. No. 3 Gonzaga (Thursday)
Jaime Jaquez Jr., UCLA
Jaquez isn’t a high-upside product at 22 without noted athleticism, though he’s the kind of quick-thinking frontcourt player who could quickly provide quality minutes at the NBA level. Jaquez can stretch the floor and is a smart defender despite some physical limitations. He currently slots in as at least a second-rounder, one who could vault into the first in the right scheme.
No. 1 Alabama vs. No. 5 San Diego State (Friday)
Brandon Miller, Alabama
Miller is the best NBA prospect in college basketball this year, and a run to the Final Four could very well give him the edge over G League Ignite guard Scoot Henderson as the second-best prospect in the 2023 draft. It’s easy to envision Miller in a Rockets uniform in the event Houston doesn’t land Victor Wembanyama. Miler is a smooth scorer on the wing who gets his shot off with ease, with a 6-foot-9 frame drawing comparisons to Clippers star Paul George. We won’t send Miller to the All-Star Game just yet. He first has a battle with San Diego State on Friday, which should provide a serious test to the No. 1 seeded Crimson Tide.
Noah Clowney, Alabama
Could the Rockets opt for an Alabama double-dip this summer? It’s certainly possible. The Rockets’ offense is often crying out for an impact rim runner (all due respect to Usman Garuba) and Clowney appears to fit the mold as a 6-foot-10 big with 7-foot-2 wingspan. Add in the nascent spacing ability on display in his freshman season at Alabama, and don’t be surprised if Clowney sneaks into the lottery by late June.
No. 1 Houston vs. No. 5 Miami (Friday)
Jarace Walker, Houston
Walker is very likely to be a lottery pick in June’s draft, pairing a sturdy 6-foot-8, 240-pound frame with a lateral quickness that belies his size. He should be an impact defender early in his NBA career, and he’s a crafty interior scorer who finishes well through contact. Questions remain about Walker’s shot-making, but his motor and desire are unquestioned . Walker could very well drive the Cougars to the national title in April, then walk across the stage at the Barclays Center in Brooklyn as a top-10 pick in June.
Marcus Sasser, Houston
The engine of Houston’s 2022-23 squad, Sasser faces an uphill climb to NBA rotation duty as a 22-year-old with middling measurables. But the 6-foot-2 guard shouldn’t be discounted as he seeks a career at the next level. Sasser is a strong shooter with mature playmaking instincts, and he defends better than his size suggests. A team could very well take a flier on Sasser in the second round in this year’s draft.
No. 6 Creighton vs. No. 15 Princeton (Friday)
Arthur Kaluma, Creighton
All due respect to the Tigers, but I can’t forsee a Princeton product cracking NBA rotations anytime soon. As for Creighton, their 6-foot-7 forward is currently the best bet. Kaluma gets to the rim with relative ease with his large frame and impressive wingspan, and he’s a dedicated and impactful rebounder. The Rockets may target a slew of wings with any non-Wembanyama picks in June. Kaluma may be a player worth taking a swing on.
No. 2 Texas vs. No. 3 Xavier (Friday)
Colby Jones, Xavier
The Rockets stuggle as it is to find enough minutes for its collection of bench guards, though perhaps Jones is in a bit of a different mold. He’s 6-foot-6 with a tidy assist-to-turnover ratio, a noted point of difficulty for Houston this season. Like many players on this list, Jones could be in consideration in the late first or early second round.
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