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Weekly NBA Draft Watch: Top prospects exit early from March Madness, but some intriguing talents remain

Remember last week when I said that the beginning of March Madness [1] is the greatest four-day stretch on the sports calendar? Well, I rarely get to reap the benefits of being right, so this is the part where I say, “I told you so.”

Seriously, what a weekend. Some will whine and complain about the low scores, the long shot clock or the quality of the play. Really!? Mercer completely outplaying Duke wasn’t shocking enough for you? Harvard winning a tournament game for the second year in a row, then giving Michigan State [2] a run for its money didn’t entertain you? Dayton battling past Ohio State and Syracuse into the Sweet 16 [3] — setting up a double-digit-seed showdown with Stanford, which took down Kansas — didn’t inspire you? Sorry to ramble, but this tournament is just too much fun.

To sum it all up, just picture this: No. 5-seed VCU is at the free throw line for a pair, up four points, with 10 seconds left against 12th-seed Stephen F. Austin. Now I tell you Stephen F. Austin will win this game by two points in overtime, arriving there on two missed free throws followed by an improbable four-point-play with 3.6 seconds remaining in regulation. Would you even believe me? It makes it 10 times more fun if you had Stephen F. Austin in your bracket, too.

This is why you watch March Madness [1].

The Celtics [4] are involved in some madness of their own, as they jostle for lottery position in the bottom-heavy NBA. They currently are slotted into the fifth lottery spot, which after giving a glance at the standings and schedules isn’€™t a horrible place to end up. With 12 games remaining, Boston has to face the amazingly horrible 76ers (riding a cool 25-game losing streak) twice before season’€™s end, but the rest of their games could be helpful to their cause.

The Celtics [4] will play the Bulls, Raptors and Wizards twice each, along with games against the Hawks and Bobcats [5] — all teams battling for playoff position in the East. Lets just say those teams will be playing for a lot more than the Celts. And even when Boston faces off against fellow lottery competition on the road in Cleveland and Detroit, those games come on the tail end of back-to-backs ‘€“ meaning no Rajon Rondo [6]. A 3-9 finish is not too much to ask for going into Wednesday night when Boston plays host to Toronto.

As much fun as the NCAA [7] tournament was to watch, things didn’t go quite as well for the top NBA prospects. Jabari Parker and Marcus Smart went down in their first games, Andrew Wiggins dropped his second game (ending his college career with a four-point stinker) and Joel Embiid never even played. Add Dante Exum (the heralded Australian prospect) to the mix, and none of the potential top five picks in the draft will be playing in a Sweet 16 [8] game.

These guys will basically disappear until summertime, when the lottery/draft talk starts to heat up again. Other potential top-10 picks Tyler Ennis and Doug McDermott were knocked out in the Round of 32, and recently declared Noah Vonleh‘€™s Indiana squad never even made the big dance. So, what notable NBA prospects are even left in the tournament?

Only two of the core freshman prospects remain in the madness: Julius Randle and Aaron Gordon. Randle’s Kentucky team took down undefeated Wichita State in impressive fashion and moved on to an in-state rival showdown with Louisville [9]. Randle has posted typical double doubles in both of his tourney games, even chipping in six assists in the Wichita upset. Gordon’€™s Wildcats rolled into the Sweet 16 [3], and he has been a huge part of it. In his two tournament games Gordon has 34 points on 15-of-21 shooting, posting five blocks in his March Madness [1] debut and following it up with four steals in his next game. His offense is coming, and his defensive upside is limitless.

Aside from the sure-fire top 10 guys, there are some intriguing talents who will be playing in late March. In a recent interview for Celtics [4].com, Danny Ainge stated that “rim protectors” would be an emphasis for the C’€™s in this draft. Of course, you never know with Ainge, he could just be speaking on trades or free agency, but this draft goes deeper than Embiid at center. Willie Cauley-Stein of Kentucky is a 7-footer and a leaper who has to intrigue scouts at the next level based on potential.

Montrezl Harrell has been an impressive big man for Louisville [9] of late, and similar to Randle seems to have an NBA body with NBA strength already in his game. Isaiah Austin of Baylor is another “rim protector” who comes to mind. Austin is more of an inside-out player, although at 7-foot-1 he would be expected to challenge shots in the NBA. These three bigs remain very “raw” in the eyes of scouts, though.

Many fans, however, do not want to see a pick based on potential (see Fab Melo), rather more of a safe pick to assure the rebuild does not go haywire. Here are three more “safe” picks that could work for Boston.

To stick with size just one last time, Adreian Payne of Michigan State [2] is a proven player in his four years with the Spartans. Although he is 6-foot-9, he makes up for it with experience and skill. If you want a glimpse at Payne’s ceiling, watch his 41-point first-round performance in just 24 minutes against Delaware.

Payne’s teammate, Gary Harris, is a potential lottery pick as well. As a sophomore wing player, Harris has been the Spartans’ best option much of the season and is good at getting to the rack. On the other hand, Michigan sharp shooter Nik Stauskas looks to be another off guard who would translate well to the NBA game. Playing at a higher level cannot take away his quick release, something that is very appealing. With Avery Bradley [10]‘s future uncertain, one of those players could be a great replacement.

Much of the “madness” has played out, but safe to say there is a fantastic Sweet 16 [8] and further rounds ahead of us.

Follow Julian Edlow on Twitter @julianedlow [11].