With letters of intent in the books for most of the biggest names in NCAA basketball recruiting, the nation’s top hoops prospects can look ahead and see what they’re up against next season.
The transition from high school to college ball is a major jump, and even the best seniors have reason to worry about what they’re facing as they become freshmen again.
Arkansas commit Bobby Portis is one of the best power forwards in a class loaded with them, and he’s a great fit in coach Mike Anderson’s up-tempo system. He’s also facing the daunting prospect of trying to win in the SEC without a functional backcourt supporting him, now that former Razorbacks star B.J. Young is off to the NBA.
Read on for more on Portis as well as the rest of the top potential pitfalls for each of the nation’s 22 5-star recruits (as ranked by ESPNU).
Can he earn respect as a leader from a veteran team?
Point guards are called floor leaders for a reason. A team has to trust that its point guard will make the right decisions with the ball at the right times, and Rysheed Jordan won’t have long to earn that trust.
St. John’s returns a talent-rich roster that could be a very dangerous sleeper in the truncated Big East. That mix includes such established scoring threats as D’Angelo Harrison and Jakarr Sampson (a combined 32.7 points per game).
If the vets try to make the Red Storm “their team” too forcefully, Jordan won’t be able to do his job, and the offense will suffer proportionally.
Will the loss of Jack Cooley throw the offense into disarray?
Joining a backcourt with two veteran combo guards—Eric Atkins and Jerian Grant—puts point guard Demetrius Jackson in a fine position to run the offense in spurts and defer to the veteran ball-handlers when needed.
The real question, though, is whether the Irish guards will have enough room to operate.
The Notre Dame offense loses its only serious post presence with the graduation of Jack Cooley, leaving it with perimeter weapons but no one to draw the defense away from them.
Mike Brey and his veterans must orchestrate a way to keep creating open shots without Cooley grabbing a defense’s attention. If they can’t, Jackson’s introduction to the ACC will be a rocky one.
Will he have enough weapons around him?
Nigel Williams-Goss led the McDonald’s All-American Game with six assists, leaving little doubt about his abilities as a distributor. However, he may find that his targets at Washington pale in comparison to those he was feeding for one night in Chicago.
Superscorer C.J. Wilcox is back, but no other returning Husky even managed as many as eight points per game.
Williams-Goss and Wilcox will make a fine two-man show (or law firm), but UW’s chances of improving on a .500 campaign in the Pac-12 will be slim unless another scorer joins the party.
Is he the weak link for a team on the rise?
If Allen Crabbe had stayed for his senior year at Cal, the Golden Bears would be the clear-cut pick for second place in the Pac-12 with a chance to surprise mighty Arizona.
Instead, Crabbe’s starting shooting guard spot—and all its attendant pressure—is waiting for star freshman Jabari Bird.
Bird is an outstanding scorer with the length at 6’6” to get his shot against any perimeter defender. All the pieces are there for him to succeed immediately, but if the Golden Bears falter, Bird will be the first one feeling the heat.
Where is he going to find any minutes?
Marcus Lee is a skinny 6’9” power forward with the kind of athleticism that can ignite a home crowd with one play.
On the vast majority of teams in the country, he’d be competing for a starting job from day one purely because he can run the floor so well and block shots with his great leaping ability.
On Kentucky, Lee is the roster’s fourth-best power forward.
It’s not going to be easy to accept sitting behind Julius Randle, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer and taking the few minutes he can get. Nonetheless, that’s exactly what Lee must do for the Wildcats to thrive.
How will he and James Michael McAdoo fit together?
The news that James Michael McAdoo will return for his junior season in Chapel Hill gave the Tar Heels and their fans plenty to be happy about.
However, it does raise some questions about what the UNC offense will look like next year, especially with the arrival of Isaiah Hicks.
Both Hicks and McAdoo are slender, face-up power forward types rather than back-to-the-basket low-post grinders.
With loads of shooters on the Tar Heels roster, it’s going to be important for Roy Williams to keep his big men out of each other’s way.
Will half-court offensive issues cut into his playing time?
In many ways, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson’s game makes him a fine approximation of the player he’s hoping to replace in Arizona’s lineup: graduating small forward Solomon Hill.
However, Hill developed into a solid perimeter shooter as a senior (hitting with .390 accuracy from beyond the arc). That skill isn't yet in Hollis-Jefferson’s toolbox.
Without an effective outside shot, the freshman may not fit well in an offense where big men Kaleb Tarczewski and Aaron Gordon are going to have opponents packing the paint.
For all of Hollis-Jefferson’s defensive acumen (and transition-offense electricity), he’ll need to show he can contribute something in the half-court game in order to secure minutes early on.
How many post players do the Tigers have room for?
Under both Josh Pastner and predecessor John Calipari, Memphis has consistently valued speed over strength, playing its best when it can outrace opponents up and down the floor.
Now, the addition of Austin Nichols gives Pastner a novel challenge: What does he do with two traditional back-to-the-basket big men in an otherwise freewheeling attack?
Although Tarik Black is transferring, sophomore-to-be Shaq Goodwin will be seeing heavy minutes.
Nichols occupies a very similar niche as Goodwin, and most of the playing time he gets will likely have to be as a backup.
How will Florida’s offense bounce back?
Despite boasting one of the best scoring defenses in the country, last year’s Gators finished a decidedly mortal 29-8 behind an offense that tended to sputter at bad times.
The success of Chris Walker’s freshman year is going to depend heavily on other people’s ability to shore up that offense, something Walker himself is decidedly ill-equipped to do.
Like returnees Casey Prather and Will Yeguete, Walker is an athlete first and a basketball player second. He's a wonderful finisher and offensive rebounder but a poor choice to hit a jump shot.
There’s absolutely a place for such forwards in Billy Donovan’s aggressive system. However, with long-range gunners Kenny Boynton and Erik Murphy gone, Walker’s arrival may be too much of a good thing on the dunk-specialist front.
Will B.J. Young’s departure torpedo the Razorbacks offense?
B.J. Young, the only Arkansas guard to score in double figures last year and the only Arkansas player with more than 1.8 assists per game, is off to the NBA.
He may take all pretense of offensive cohesion out of Fayetteville with him, which would not be welcome news to Bobby Portis.
The 6’9” Portis is a versatile and explosive offensive player in his own right, but he’ll do the Razorbacks little good if they can’t get the ball to him.
In addition, with Young and Marshawn Powell gone and no proven three-point shooters to threaten the defense, opponents will have a much easier time double-teaming Portis when they do get scoring chances.
Can he be effective in catch-and-shoot situations?
Even before his freshman year starts, swingman Wayne Selden has a Big 12-ready body at 6’5”, 220 pounds. There’s no doubt he can finish at the rim—and will have plenty of chances to do so—but that’s not all Kansas will be asking of its star freshman.
With Naadir Tharpe returning to run the offense as a junior, the Jayhawks also need drive-and-kick options for their penetrating point guard.
For Selden to maximize his effectiveness (and keep KU’s offense flowing), he’ll need to be able to knock down three-pointers off Tharpe’s passes with the same facility he’s shown in attacking the paint.
Is he ready to run with the athletic Wildcats?
A highly skilled 6’10”, 250-pound center, Dakari Johnson will be one of the SEC’s top post scoring threats from the get-go.
How much playing time he gets to show off that post game, though, is going to depend heavily on how well he plays outside of his half-court comfort zone.
Conditioning is not a particular strength of Johnson’s, and Kentucky (with its staggering depth and mobility up front) is going to be running at every opportunity.
If Johnson bogs down the pace of the Wildcats fast break, he’ll lose even more minutes to sophomore Willie Cauley-Stein and UK’s other, fleeter big men.
Can he carry the weight of a program’s hopes?
The moment he steps on the LSU campus, Jarrell Martin will become the center of coach Johnny Jones’ rebuilding project.
The Baton Rouge native would already be facing enough pressure just playing for his hometown program, but Martin is being asked to rescue it.
Few recruits in the class are better suited to building a team around than the 6’9”, 220-pound Martin, a scoring power forward with great athletic ability.
Even so, the SEC is going to be a stronger league next year than it was in 2012-13, and turning the Tigers into a contender will be a steep challenge for any freshman.
Can he and Scottie Wilbekin play together effectively?
The loss of Mike Rosario and Kenny Boynton to graduation means that freshman point guard Kasey Hill will immediately become one of the two best guards on the Florida roster.
However, as the other is incumbent point guard Scottie Wilbekin, finding the right balance of scoring and passing isn’t going to be easy for the Gators backcourt.
Both guards are pass-first distributors by instinct—and neither has an 2-guard's size—with Wilbekin being the better shooter at this stage.
It’s going to be crucial for Hill to develop as a scoring threat to complement his backcourt mate, while senior-to-be Wilbekin will need to get more accustomed to a catch-and-shoot role.
Is he ready for the Big Ten grind?
As freshman big men go, Noah Vonleh is on the high end of the development curve physically at 6’9”, 222 pounds.
Even with that much muscle on him, though, Vonleh may not be ready to get thrown into the fire in what’s likely to be the most punishing conference in the country for big men next season.
Indiana’s prize recruit will almost certainly be thrust into a starting job from day one, meaning that when Big Ten play starts, he’ll be up against the likes of 6’10”, 250-pound Mitch McGary and 6’10”, 240-pound Adreian Payne (if he doesn't declare) on a routine basis.
No amount of practice can fully prepare Vonleh for the toll that’s going to take on his body, especially after a dozen games of nonconference action.
Will he be selfish enough?
Aaron Harrison’s career has inevitably been linked to that of his twin brother Andrew, with whom he’s likely to start alongside next season.
Both Harrisons have a fair amount of point guard in their makeup, but Aaron (who’ll be playing off the ball) is the one who’ll need to learn when not to share.
Kentucky has plenty of talented forwards, but none of them is equipped to create his own shots the way Aaron can.
When the Wildcats offense stalls—as it did a year ago with a freshmen-heavy lineup—it’ll be Aaron's job to assert himself as the go-to option rather than deferring to his brother or any of UK’s many other standout players.
Can he handle a bench role?
On the face of it, the notion of James Young having to worry about playing time ought to be laughable. He’s the sixth-best recruit in the class, a 6’6”, 210-pound small forward with tremendous scoring punch.
Even so, the presence of Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer on the Kentucky roster means that Young is very likely to be coming off the bench as a freshman.
Although neither returnee is as traditional a fit at the small forward spot as the freshman, both are proven scorers. A logjam at power forward will encourage John Calipari to give Poythress (in particular) minutes at the 3.
Young has the potential to be an absolutely lethal instant-offense sixth man, but he must embrace that prospect rather than pining for a starting job he’s unlikely to win.
Can he run point for a national title contender?
Kentucky began the 2012-13 season ranked No. 3 in the national polls and ended it with a first-round loss in the NIT.
The biggest difference between early optimism and painful reality for those Wildcats was poor point guard play, and it’s Andrew Harrison’s job to ensure that won’t happen again in 2013-14.
Surrounded by an embarrassment of riches on both ends of the floor (including twin brother Aaron at shooting guard), Harrison will have every opportunity to duplicate Marquis Teague’s national championship effort as a freshman in Lexington.
He’s head and shoulders above any other point guard prospect in the recruiting class right now, but none of that will mean anything if he doesn’t execute when the games (and the pressure) arrive.
How will he handle opponents he can’t overpower?
As he demonstrated in winning MVP honors at the McDonald’s All-American Game, Aaron Gordon specializes in powering to the hoop for rim-shaking dunks.
His 6’8”, 210-pound frame has let him do so with impunity against other high schoolers, but the Pac-12 will be a very different story.
Against such opponents as UCLA’s Travis Wear (6’10”, 230 lbs) or Cal’s Richard Solomon (6’10”, 235 lbs), raw power isn’t going to cut it for Gordon.
His quickness will help, but his ability to win offensive battles with skill and smarts rather than solely with athleticism will be tested next season as it never has before.
How will the Wildcats frontcourt fit together on offense?
A major contributor to Kentucky’s early-season doldrums last year was having a bunch of freshmen on the court who didn’t appear to know their offensive roles (or those of their teammates).
For power forward Julius Randle, seeing that must have been somewhat akin to pulling onto a highway on-ramp and looking at a long line of taillights stretching into the distance.
Kentucky will be more offensively talented this year but not much more experienced, and the frontcourt pileup that includes Alex Poythress, Kyle Wiltjer, Willie Cauley-Stein and assorted freshmen is not an easy one to untangle.
Randle is probably UK’s best scoring option from the low block, but whether the other Wildcats on the floor will be ready and able to help him realize that potential is a question John Calipari will have to figure out.
How much can the Blue Devils count on their bigs?
By signing with Duke, Jabari Parker made sure that the Blue Devils’ vaunted perimeter offense will be at least the equal of last year’s model, even without graduated Seth Curry.
However, versatile as the 6’8”, 220-pound Parker is from his small forward spot, he can’t do much to help at positions he doesn’t play.
The center and power forward spots vacated by Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly are likely to be the determining factors in just how far Parker and his mates can go in 2013-14.
If Amile Jefferson and (probably) Josh Hairston can hold down the fort inside, Parker will have a great chance to make a Final Four run in his collegiate debut.
Which program is the right fit for him?
While virtually every other impact recruit has announced where he’ll be playing his college ball, the nation’s top prospect is still weighing his options.
The versatile small forward has plenty of enviable choices, including Kentucky, North Carolina, Kansas and Florida State (where his father, a former NBA guard, and track-star mother went).
The Wildcats seem to be the safest route to a championship, while the Seminoles give Wiggins the best chance to display his individual dominance.
Any of these paths could be exactly what he needs, but he’s the only one equipped to figure out where he’ll be best able to set himself up for a future in the NBA (and, if he opts to look that far ahead, beyond).