College basketball’s elite prospects rarely choose to return to school following their freshman campaigns, and considering the allure of big money in the NBA, it’s easy to understand why.
It’s also easy to understand the appeal of selecting the youngest available draft-eligible players. With plenty of room for development at the NBA level and the possibility of additional productive seasons in the league, teams take advantage of the young (though sometimes unproven) talent that litters the draft board in June.
This year’s crop of freshmen is like many we’ve seen before. Several could have opted to skip college in favor of the draft were it not for the one-and-done rule, including UCLA’s Shabazz Muhammed.
A lot of uncertainty also surrounds this year’s freshman draft class. Kentucky’s Nerlens Noel suffered a devastating ACL tear against Florida on Feb. 12. While he still stands to be a top selection in this year’s draft, he also has a long road to recovery and a successful NBA career.
We’ll rank the top freshmen in this draft, highlighting each player’s pro potential and possible landing spot with an NBA franchise.
1. Ben McLemore, G, Kansas
An underwhelming NCAA tournament showing wasn’t what McLemore needed to boost his draft stock. The 6’5” shooting guard scored just 13 points in Kansas’ first two tournament games, but a strong showing against Michigan was enough to prove he has what it takes to thrive under the NBA’s bright lights in the formative years of his career.
McLemore has all the traits teams look for in an NBA shooting guard. He has good length, excellent athleticism and a jump shot that is unmatched by anyone in college basketball. McLemore has the potential to be a premier shooting guard at the next level.
Given his skill set, McLemore could be selected anywhere in the top five in June. A lot will change in the next two months, but Charlotte, Orlando and Phoenix could all be potential landing spots for the draft’s best shooter.
2. Nerlens Noel, C, Kentucky
Noel’s knee injury will likely cause him to miss much of his rookie season, but his sky-high potential warrants a top-three selection in June’s draft.
The 6’11” center is one of the most athletic big men in this class, highlighted by his incredible shot-blocking and leaping abilities. There may not be a more intimidating defender available this year.
Unfortunately, Noel still has a lot of room to grow as an offensive player. That likely won’t deter teams from making him a top selection, but it’s hard to gauge his pro potential at the offensive end of the floor.
Lottery order will dictate where the big man is selected on draft day, but Cleveland and Orlando would be prime candidates should they pick in the top two.
3. Anthony Bennett, F, UNLV
Freshman forward Anthony Bennett has the frame and skill set NBA teams love in young forwards. At 6’7” and 240 pounds, he has the build and length to spend time at both the three and four at the next level.
Versatility and athleticism are big parts of Bennett’s game. At UNLV, he showed the ability to both bang in the paint and hit long jumpers from nearly anywhere on the floor. While scheme and fit will play into where Bennett spends most of his playing time at the next level, he projects best as an explosive wing with the potential to develop into a strong in-the-paint scorer.
Given his versatility, nearly every team picking in the top five will likely be able to find a fit for Bennett. His ceiling is a mile high, and teams like Cleveland and Orlando would certainly love to have a player of his ability.
4. Shabazz Muhammad, G-F, UCLA
Muhammad probably would have been a higher selection had he been able to enter the draft last year, but he still stands to be a top-10 pick in June’s draft. With elite athleticism and tremendous slashing ability, the 6’6” swingman won’t have a problem finding a fit in the NBA.
UCLA’s leading scorer still has some work to do, though. Muhammad’s jump shot isn’t quite on par with where teams would like it to be from a potential two-guard, but that’s a skill that tends to develop fairly quickly at the next level.
What really stand out about Muhammad are his intangibles. The freshman is one of the hardest workers on the floor, and he always appears to be fighting for rebounds and pushing the limits at the defensive end.
Because of his lack of elite shooting, Muhammad may slide past the top five, but don’t expect him to fall beyond the seventh or eighth pick. Oklahoma City and Washington would be terrific fits for the UCLA product.
5. Marcus Smart, G, Oklahoma State
Marcus Smart is one of the premier combo guards in this draft class. He’s a little undersized for a two-guard (6’4”), but he isn’t small enough to warrant a positional change. Given the ability of combo guards to thrive in the NBA, Smart will be a good fit for any team looking for a sixth man with tremendous scoring ability.
The Oklahoma State product still needs to work on developing a more consistent shot, especially with a slight height disadvantage against lengthier NBA shooting guards. He makes up for it with excellent ball-handling skills and a high motor at both ends of the floor, though.
All signs point to Smart being a top-five pick in June’s draft, but his ceiling isn’t quite as high as a few of his fellow freshmen. A selection at No. 6 or No. 7 wouldn’t be all that surprising, especially if teams like Phoenix and Cleveland choose to go in another direction.
Next Best Freshmen: Isaiah Austin (F, Baylor), Steven Adams (C, Pittsburgh), Archie Goodwin (G, Kentucky), Alex Poythress (G, Kentucky), Glenn Robinson III (F, Michigan)