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March 15, 2018

March Madness: Four games (and five players) Sixers fans should watch on Friday

Welcome back, ladies and gentlemen. If you pinned any of your bracket hopes on a Sean Miller coached Arizona team, as yours truly did, congratulations on having things blow up for you on the very first day of the tournament. There's nothing like having the most dominant big man in the country and spending the entire game isolating Allonzo Trier on the perimeter.

But for those of you who are in this to watch prospects, I think you got some good showcase games on Thursday. Miami's game against Loyola showcased the ups and downs of Lonnie Walker, with some nice attacking and shooting supplemented by bouts of inconsistency and a brutal final minute. The Kentucky boys took care of business in their opening round game, with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander putting up a near triple-double and Kevin Knox dropping a cool 25 on Davidson.

Today's group features a very different set of players, and I wanted to make sure we throw a couple big men in the mix because of the questions the Sixers have at the backup five spot long-term. Full discosure: I think there's a near-zero chance they use their first pick on a big, which could make it tough to draft a couple of the guys listed here. 

But the draft is funny and fickle, so you never know who you should be keeping an eye on. Unless of course, you have this guide. Then you're basically set for Friday.

Jacob Evans, Cincinnati

When does he play? 2 p.m., TBS

One of the big names tied to the Sixers is forward Mikal Bridges, who represents something like the perfect three-and-D player for the modern NBA. Evans is in the same sort of mold as the Villanova product — who helped lead Nova to a blowout in their opening game on Thursday — and is just a step down in the talent department.

Bridges is a better athlete than Evans by a decent margin, and he has more functionality with the ball in his hands than the Cincinnati junior. But the biggest gap between the two players right now comes in the shot-making department, despite both players boasting healthy percentages from deep.

Evans is proficient as a catch-and-shoot player, but that's mostly as a stationary target for the Bearcats. Bridges has turned himself into a weapon coming around screens and rising up quickly, something Evans hasn't proven he can do on a consistent basis. That's an important distinction for players who will need to have a lot of their offense created for them. Off-ball activity and the ability to make use of it can make or break players in the Evans archetype.

If you're looking for good news, Evans is better than a lot of his wing peers as a passer, which helps offset some of his shortcomings as a ballhandler. His decision making is sound, and he's the type of guy who will make the smart play and keep the offense moving.

He's not a sexy pick, but the Sixers don't necessarily need sizzle to fill in the gaps. Dependable players on the wing of any kind would be useful on this squad.

Daniel Gafford, Arkansas

When does he play? 3:10 p.m., Tru TV

If you're looking for an ass kicker to come off the bench behind Joel Embiid, this is your guy. Gafford is one of the big risers in this freshman class, a classic rim-running big that can make highlight plays at both ends of the floor.

With a larger frame, Gafford would have the potential to be one of the best rim protectors in the NBA, but he makes up for an average wingspan with crazy hops that he isn't shy about unleashing on either end of the floor. He had one of the highlights of the year in a winter matchup against Vanderbilt, blocking a shot so hard it sounded like the air came out of the ball, then getting down the floor for a windmill flush.

This isn't to say he's refined as a defender yet, and he has a lot of the usual issues you'd expect in a young shot blocker. He's a bit foul prone and can get baited into selling out for a blocked shot, which smarter players turn against him. Gafford also stands a little too upright in the post, which allows bigger (or at least burlier) post players to stick an elbow in his chest and move him off his spot.

Fortunately, he has a high motor and one of the best block rates in the nation in spite of these flaws, and there's plenty of hope that he can iron out the kinks in time.

His backstory is also rather hilarious, having taken a path perhaps more surprising than Embiid's. Tall for most of his life, Gafford didn't start playing basketball until his early teens because he was busy playing the drums. You read that correctly: before he was convinced he ought to dedicate himself to basketball, Gafford was in the marching band in his small Arkansas town.

Just one man's opinion, but I think making the switch was the right choice.

Khyri Thomas, Creighton

When does he play? 6:50 p.m., TNT

Capable defenders don't exactly grow on trees, as the Sixers have found out the hard way this season. Weak links in the chain up and down the bench have hurt them, and bringing in a player who can provide defensive versatility and spot-up shooting would be a blessing.

Enter Khyri Thomas, a third-year guard who has shot the ball well from deep every season for the Blue Jays. What could have been considered a product of small sample his freshman year has turned into a trend, with the junior guard hitting 40.9 percent of his threes on 320 total collegiate attempts.

But defense is his calling card, and will be the reason he gets minutes on an NBA team somewhere during his rookie season. With a 6'11" wingspan and a relentless pursuit of the basketball, Thomas has built a reputation as one of the best defenders in all of Division I. He jumps into passing lanes, picks pockets when he's on the ball, and quickly turns steals into layups and dunks going the other way.

His length allows him to defend at least two positions, and with the way the NBA is moving, you might be able to ask him to guard some threes depending on the matchup. That versatility, plus a willingness and ability to shoot, would make him an excellent fit alongside Simmons when Philadelphia turns to their bench.

There are probably higher upside options than Thomas in the top-20 because his self-creation skills are limited, which limits him to a three-and-D outcome at best. But if the Sixers end up trading back or acquiring a pick later in the first, I like Thomas a lot as a sleeper. If you're a fan of defense, I would suggest checking him out on Friday night. 

Jontay Porter and Michael Porter Jr., Missouri

When do they play? 9:50 p.m., TBS

After the success of the two-for-one special, you know we had to go double or nothing on Friday. After all, gambling is what the NCAA Tournament is all about — at least if sports betting was legal in the great state of Pennsylvania.

This is a very different combo than what you may have seen in the Kentucky game. Whereas Knox and Gilgeous-Alexander are both realistic candidates for the Sixers to draft, the Porter brothers exist on opposite ends of the spectrum. Michael has missed most of the year with a back issue but is expected to be a top-six pick anyway, while Jontay reclassified to play with his brother and has since played himself into first-round territory.

Jontay is the more realistic name to keep an eye on if you're a Sixers fan. His physical limitations (in both the length and athleticism departments) leave him a little under-equipped to anchor a defense at the five spot, but he shows an understanding of the game beyond his years at just 18 years old. He overcomes some of the verticality problems by moving well horizontally, and he's better than most bigs his age at closing out on shooters without fouling or getting blown by.

Where he really shines at the moment is as a shooter, where he could potentially offer the Sixers a dimension they don't have off the bench. For a man his size, Porter is excellent at moving off the ball and finding space on the perimeter. He's shooting 37.7 percent from three on decent volume, and his touch closer to the basket suggests his shooting ability will translate to the next level.

For my money, an ideal version of Jontay represents something of a happy medium between Richaun Holmes and Amir Johnson. He can help open up the paint for a guy like Ben Simmons, and he's not a total liability on the defensive end despite some limitations. That's a great fit behind Joel Embiid.

Michael is the headliner, of course, and he's expected to be thrust back into the starting lineup on Friday. If by some chance Porter falls to the Sixers — let's say it's a medical red flag situation, for the sake of argument — the upside he represents is too great to pass up on. I find that possibility unlikely, but it's a decision they should plan for in any case.

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