Murphy: Sweet 16 could tell us a lot about potential Sixers draft picks

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Jahlil Okafor had a battle on his hands against Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky in Duke's championship win in 2015.

LIFE IN TANKVILLE is full of all kinds of subtle and unexpected pleasures. Take the NCAA Tournament. When the Sixers were mediocre, March was a time for watching buzzer beaters, and predicting upsets, and remembering that places such as Greensboro and Tulsa exist (opening weekend is great . . . as long as you don't have to live there).

Now, it feels more like a scouting mission. Which of these players would look best in a Sixers uniform? Or, rather, which would look best in street clothes while recovering from surgery on the Sixers' dime? Losing might not heighten the senses, but it certainly does warp them. What fun is a draft if you don't have definitive opinions rendered on the basis of a statistically insignificant sample size?

I'm telling you, I like what I see out of that Brandon Ingram . . .

Seriously, though. Wasn't it the 2015 tournament that offered the nation its first extended look at the liabilities that Jahlil Okafor would have to overcome to be anything more than the NBA player he has been thus far? It's easy to forget he'd entered the regular season as the consensus favorite to go No. 1 overall the following June. Much more memorable is the way a series of lottery big men ate him up during Duke's title run.

The first sign of trouble came against Utah, when Okafor was outplayed by Utes freshman Jakob Poetl, a 7-footer whom the Raptors would select at No. 9 overall in the 2016 draft. In a 63-57 Duke win, Okafor managed only six points, eight rebounds and two blocks despite playing 32 minutes, while Poetl had 10 points, eight rebounds and three blocks in 27 minutes.

Next came Gonzaga and a trio of big men that included the No. 11 overall pick in the 2016 draft, Domantas Sabonis, who played only 18 minutes but scored nine points and grabbed four rebounds. The Zags also featured 6-10, 240-pound forward Kyle Wiltjer and 7-1, 288-pound Przemek Karnowski. Okafor scored nine points in 29 minutes on 4-for-10 shooting.

Okafor saved his most concerning performance for last, wilting against the bigger, faster, stronger and, most notably, more aggressive Frank Kaminsky in Duke's championship-game win over Wisconsin. Kaminsky, whom the Hornets selected at No. 9 overall that June, shot 7-for-16 from the floor, grabbed 12 rebounds and committed only one foul while finishing with 21 points in the showdown between top-10 picks.

Okafor's final line: 5-for-9, 10 points, three rebounds, four fouls.

When you look back on that tournament, it is interesting to think about how things played out. Up until the Sweet 16, Okafor had averaged 18.1 points and 8.7 rebounds in 30 minutes over 34 games for the Blue Devils. In the final four games of his career, he averaged 10.8 points, 6.3 rebounds and 28 minutes.

Currently, Sabonis is averaging 21 minutes a night for the 40-30 Thunder, averaging 5.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and a couple of three-point attempts per game (he's shooting .312 from downtown). Kaminsky has all the makings of a valuable rotational piece on a future playoff team, averaging 26 minutes per night for the Hornets (11.6 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.1 assists, .316 shooting on 4.7 three-point attempts per game).

It's pretty remarkable, actually: Among players drafted since 2006, nine of the top 13 players in NBA Win Shares played a starring role in an Elite Eight run. And that doesn't even include Kevin Durant's 57 points in 78 minutes over two tournament games. Who can forget LaMarcus Aldridge's 59 points, 41 rebounds and nine blocks in Texas' 2006 run to the Elite Eight? How about Russell Westbrook's 13.4 points, 4.0 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 2.0 steals in UCLA's 2008 Final Four run, or Kevin Love's 99 points, 53 rebounds and 20 blocks in those same five games? Al Horford averaged 12.7 points and 10.7 rebounds in Florida's back-to-back title runs. Blake Griffin averaged 28.5 points and 14 rebounds in Oklahoma's Elite Eight run.

The others: Kyle Lowry, Mike Conley, Joakim Noah and, of course, Steph Curry.

When you think of singular March performances, you think of Kemba Waker, J.J. Redick, Gordon Hayward. There's a lot that doesn't translate from college to the pros. But, perhaps, big-game dominance does.

It's something to keep in mind as this year's tourney enters Week 2. Six of the top eight prospects in ESPN's latest Top 100 will be in action this weekend, with Kansas swing man Josh Jackson and Kentucky guards De'Aaron Fox and Malik Monk of particular interest for the Sixers, who seem destined to draft somewhere from fourth to eighth. UCLA's Lonzo Ball is worth the price of admission, but is less likely to be on the board when the Sixers pick. Arizona's Lauri Markkanen and Duke's Jayson Tatum both seem a bit redundant, given their frames.

Then again, who knows? Here in Tankville, March never seems to end.

dmurphy@phillynews.com

@ByDavidMurphy

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