The Trail Blazers are in the thick of a competitive fight to claim a favorable playoff seed in the Western Conference, but it is never too early to look at the next crop of incoming NBA talent. With the play-in games already underway, this weekend’s slate of NCAA Tournament matchups will put a large portion of the best NBA prospects in the spotlight.
Will the next Blazers’ draft pick rise to the occasion and make a name for himself over the course of this year’s tournament? In preparation for this weekend’s games, Blazer’s Edge contributor Steve Dewald compiled a list of four players worth tracking.
Talen Horton-Tucker | Iowa State Cyclones | G | Freshman
Age: 18 | HT: 6’4” | WT: 233
2018-19 Stats: 12.1 PPG | 2.4 APG | 5.0 RPG
First Opponent: Ohio State Buckeyes | Friday | 6:50 PST | TBS
Horton-Tucker announced his arrival with two 26-point performances in the Maui Invitational to start the season. On offense, his game is centered around his size and creativity on the wing. When Horton-Tucker puts the ball on the floor and heads to the rim—good things tend to happen. Along with creating for himself, he possesses the skills to create favorable looks for his teammates.
Defensively, Horton-Tucker’s upside is directly tied to his physical profile. His transition to the NBA is less daunting thanks to his 233-pound frame. Despite being listed at 6’4”, he should hold his own against taller opponents thanks to his 7-foot wingspan.
Noticeable weaknesses do exist for Horton-Tucker on both ends of the court. There aren’t any major hitches in his shooting form, but the Chicago native has struggled with efficiency throughout his first year with the Cyclones. With a free throw percentage of 62.5, his future outlook as a perimeter threat isn’t promising. On defense, Horton-Tucker must do a better job tracking movement away from the ball.
Horton-Tucker turns 19 November, which makes him a prime candidate for improvement under the right coaching. Given his physical gifts and unique skillset on offense, the Blazers could invest in Horton-Tucker to become the heir to the role that Evan Turner currently fills.
Brandon Clarke | Gonzaga Bulldogs | F/C | Junior
Age: 22 | HT: 6’8” | WT: 215
2018-19 Stats: 16.5 PPG | 8.4 RPG | 3.0 BPG
First Opponent: Fairleigh Dickinson Knights | Thursday | 4:27 PST | truTV
Still wish the Blazers selected Jordan Bell in the 2017 NBA Draft? If so, Clarke is the perfect prospect to monitor. Clarke landed with Gonzaga after transferring from San Jose State. Once he arrived in Spokane, he proved to be the missing link for the Bulldogs’ interior defense.
It is tough to find anything negative to say about Clarke on the defensive end. Perfectly timed blocks, effortless switching, and fierce rebounding are just three things that Clarke excels at. He is a high-energy player that avoids foul trouble by staying vertical in the post. Offensively, Clarke is a mixed bag. He consistently secures passes in traffic and plays to his strengths around the rim. Clarke has a soft touch on his shot, but it hasn’t translated to the perimeter.
The elephant in the room is Clarke’s lack of size. Listed at 6’8”, his future in the NBA will be dictated by style and matchups. With the NBA trending smaller, his stature might actually work in his favor. Clarke fits the profile of a modern switch-friendly small-ball center.
Depending on how the offseason unfolds, Clarke would add even more depth to Portland’s frontcourt. Given his age and experience in a high-profile program, the Blazers wouldn’t have to wait for Clarke’s presence to pay dividends.
Matisse Thybulle | Washington Huskies | G | Senior
Age: 22 | HT: 6’5” | WT: 195
2018-19 Stats: 9.3 PPG | 3.4 SPG | 2.2 BPG
First Opponent: Utah State Aggies | Friday | 3:50 PST | TNT
Thybulle is a one-man wrecking crew on the defensive end of the court. Over his career with the Huskies, Thybulle re-wrote the Pac-12 record book with his ball-hawking mentality. His defensive numbers reached new heights once former Syracuse assistant Mike Hopkins took over at Washington in 2017. Thybulle is now looking to parlay his college success into a first-round selection.
It all starts with defense for the Huskies standout. In an era where contact is strictly enforced on the perimeter, Thybulle’s foul-free aggression will be in demand for teams selecting near the end of the first round. Thanks to his 7-foot wingspan and timing, Thybulle won’t have a problem guarding multiple positions at the next level. On offense, he is a low-volume shooter. He averaged just 7.4 attempts from the field in his final year in Washington.
This wouldn’t be the flashiest choice for the Blazers, but Thybulle’s defensive acumen would give coach Terry Stotts more flexibility on defense.
Bruno Fernando | Maryland Terrapins | C | Sophomore
Age: 20 | HT: 6’10” | WT: 240
2018-19 Stats: 13.7 PPG | 10.4 RPG | 1.9 BPG
First Opponent: Belmont Bruins | Thursday | 12:10 PST | truTV
After flirting with the NBA Draft last year, Fernando returned to Maryland to produce stellar numbers. Armed with a NBA-ready frame, Fernando headlines a talented frontcourt for the Terrapins.
Offensively, Fernando is excellent at creating favorable opportunities for himself at the rim. He uses his wide frame to create space and shield his shot from opponents near the rim. Moving forward, his shooting mechanics paint a favorable picture for his long-term versatility on offense. If he expands his range to the three-point line, Fernando will be a dangerous dual-threat option.
Defensively, Fernando has plenty to prove to NBA evaluators. He has all the physical gifts to be a formidable rim protector, but he is too often caught flat-footed. Outside of the interior, Fernando has to show that his athleticism will translate to defending in space. Even with those flags in mind, his upside is undeniable.
Fernando’s fit with the Blazers hinges on two things: Zach Collins’ future is at the power forward position and Enes Kanter departs in the summer. If those two scenarios play out, Fernando would be a high-upside backup for Jusuf Nurkic.
—Steve / @SteveDHoops / BEdgeSteve@gmail.com