Incoming College Basketball Freshmen Who'll Have an Instant Impact in 2014-15
Once a game grounded in the gradual improvements of four-year players, college basketball has become heavily reliant upon the instant impact of incoming freshman, and we've ranked what we expect to be the 10 most impactful arrivals on the 2014-15 scene.
Please note this is not a hierarchical list of the most talented incoming freshman. Rather, this is a ranking of how likely we feel they are to become the most valuable player for a national title contender.
Instead of simply evaluating each player's skills, we also considered projected rotations and the expected strength of each team. After all, it's hard to have an instant impact when playing sparingly for a team that makes the tournament or playing extensively for a team that doesn't.
As you'll see on the list of honorable mentions, a lot of quality names missed the cut. However, the players expected to make the biggest impact are the ones like Justin Jackson and Jahlil Okafor who could be the leading scorer for an already strong rotation expected to make a deep tournament run.
Strengths and Areas for Improvement listed on the following slides are courtesy of ScoutHoops.com.
Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall
Whitehead was practically invisible in the McDonald's All-American game and missed the Jordan Brand Classic with an injured hamstring. Factor in the lack of national attention Seton Hall has received over the past decade, and his impact in the grand scheme of things is far from a guarantee.
Daniel Hamilton, Connecticut
Shabazz Napier and DeAndre Daniels may be gone, but the Huskies still have Ryan Boatright, Omar Calhoun, Rodney Purvis, Terrence Samuel and Sam Cassell Jr. creating a backlog in the backcourt. Hamilton projects as a great player, but it may be a season or two before he's able to reach his potential.
Devin Robinson, Florida
The Gators are losing an awful lot to graduation, but another combo forward is the one thing they really don't need. They'll already have 6'10" Chris Walker, 6'10" Alex Murphy and 6'8" Dorian Finney-Smith battling for playing time. Like Hamilton above, Robinson should eventually be an incredible asset, but his immediate impact could be minimal.
Players with future teammates higher on the list
We arbitrarily decided only one player from each team is allowed to be in the top 10, so guys like Joel Berry (UNC), Theo Pinson (UNC), Tyus Jones (Duke), Justise Winslow (Duke) and Kelly Oubre (Kansas) were ruled ineligible for consideration because of teammates who rank in the top five.
Everyone going to Kentucky
With all due respect to Trey Lyles, Tyler Ulis, Karl Towns Jr. and Devin Booker, we have no idea how much of an immediate impact they'll be able to have with all of the returning talent John Calipari has. The smart money is on Lyles starting at power forward and the other three aforementioned names coming off the bench, but it's nearly impossible to forecast.
10. James Blackmon Jr., Indiana
Name: James Blackmon Jr.
Committed to: Indiana
Height and Position: 6'3" shooting guard
Strengths: Three-point range, Catch and shoot, Confidence
Areas for Improvement: Ability to create, Size for position
Why He's Here
What I love most about Blackmon is that every scouting report has raved about his three-point shooting ability, yet he went out and scored 36 points between the McDonald's All-American game and Jordan Brand Classic while shooting just 1-of-6 from three-point range.
Though he has the range to be the next Jimmer Fredette, he is hardly a one-trick pony. Watching him and Yogi Ferrell co-exist in the Hoosiers' backcourt will be a thing of beauty.
It's Indiana's frontcourt that is keeping him from ranking any higher on the list.
Blackmon may well average 18 or more points per game, but who is going to play effectively enough in the post to keep Indiana from losing at least 15 games? Troy Williams is good, but Indiana no longer has Noah Vonleh, Will Sheehey, Jeremy Hollowell, Luke Fischer or Austin Etherington.
Unless Devin Davis, Hanner Mosquera-Perea and Peter Jurkin blossom into studs this summer, it could be a long season for Blackmon and company. Nigel Williams-Goss averaged 13.4 points and 4.4 assists per game for Washington, but how much did you hear about him while the Huskies were putting together a 17-15 record?
9. Myles Turner, Texas
Name: Myles Turner
Committed to: Texas
Height and Position: 7' center
Strengths: Length, Shot-blocker, Upside/potential
Areas for Improvement: Strength
Why He's Here
Please don't misinterpret this as criticizing his decision, but are we 100 percent certain Turner is going to start for Texas?
The Longhorns already have Jonathan Holmes and Cameron Ridley to start at power forward and center, respectively, and also have Connor Lammert and Prince Ibeh fighting for frontcourt minutes.
Even if we (perhaps foolishly) assume Turner gets to play upwards of 25 minutes per game, which members of the team are going to sacrifice their quota of field-goal attempts to make room for Turner in the scorebook?
By the end of last season, Isaiah Taylor and Javan Felix were two of the biggest ball hogs in the country. Over his last 16 games, Taylor averaged 13.1 field-goal attempts per game. Felix averaged 11.9 in his final 21 games. Factor in the 10 shots per game for their best shooter (Holmes), and there isn't much room at the dinner table for Turner.
We're all assuming Turner will do well at Texas and the Longhorns will be better than they would have been without him, but expecting 15 points per game and a clear-cut one-and-done campaign might be overly optimistic.
8. Rashad Vaughn, UNLV
Name: Rashad Vaughn
Committed to: UNLV
Height and Position: 6'5" shooting guard
Strengths: Aggressive scorer, Shooting off dribble, Strength
Areas for Improvement: Catch and shoot
Why He's Here
Vaughn's situation at UNLV is the complete opposite of Myles Turner's at Texas: who aside from Vaughn is going to play?
When he signed with the Rebels in mid-February, it looked like he would be joining a rotation with Bryce Dejean-Jones, Khem Birch and Roscoe Smith. However, Birch and Smith are forgoing their senior season for the NBA draft, and Dejean-Jones transferred to Iowa State.
Throw in Kevin Olekaibe's graduation, and their four best players from the 2013-14 season are gone. There's a good chance Vaughn, Goodluck Okonoboh and Dwayne Morgan will all start as freshmen.
That's not necessarily a good or bad thing, but having that many new players in the rotation does introduce a lot of uncertainty in regard to how and how well they play together.
Despite that variable, Vaughn should be one of the most impressive freshmen in the nation. On a team without a single returning player who averaged 10 points or 3.5 rebounds per game, there's plenty of freedom for him to develop into a leader and a leading scorer.
7. Stanley Johnson, Arizona
Name: Stanley Johnson
Committed to: Arizona
Height and Position: 6'6" small forward
Strengths: Competitiveness, Strength, Work ethic
Areas for Improvement: Perimeter shot
Why He's Here
Johnson's spot in these rankings was the most up in the air of all.
Were it my decision, Arizona would have a starting rotation of T.J. McConnell, Johnson, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Brandon Ashley and Kaleb Tarczewski. Not a whole lot of three-point shooting on that team, but who needs three-pointers when you're getting easier two-pointers than any other team in the nation?
However, I can absolutely see Sean Miller going with Gabe York, Elliott Pitts or even Kadeem Allen at shooting guard and bringing Johnson off the bench.
Whether Johnson starts or not, Arizona has a deep rotation, making it difficult to truly expect anyone other than McConnell to average more than 25 minutes per game.
Johnson is more than talented enough to make a significant impact with just 25 minutes, but this has the potential to be a situation where Johnson ends up just looking like another good cog in a well-oiled machine.
As a possible precedent, Hollis-Jefferson averaged 9.1 points and 5.7 rebounds in roughly 25 minutes per game last season, and he was almost never mentioned as one of the better freshman in the country.
6. Kevon Looney, UCLA
Name: Kevon Looney
Committed to: UCLA
Height and Position: 6'8" power forward
Strengths: Competitiveness, Rebounding, Versatility
Areas for Improvement: Explosiveness, Strength
Why He's Here
Like Rashad Vaughn, Looney is entering a situation where he will be expected to immediately contribute in large quantities for a team losing a ton from last season.
UCLA still has a few good guards on the roster in Norman Powell and Bryce Alford, but it's Tony Parker or bust when it comes to returning interior players—and it's not as if Parker was exactly a focal point of the offensive attack or a player capable of staying out of foul trouble.
When UCLA goes down low during the 2014-15 season, it will likely be to Looney's benefit. In just 11 minutes in the McDonald's All-American game, he had 11 rebounds, six points and two blocked shots.
Not only is Looney a great interior player and rebounder, but he has range out to the three-point line. He could be the lite version of Kevin Love's one year at UCLA. Love averaged 17.5 points, 10.6 rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game during the 2007-08 season.
It wouldn't be a stretch to expect Looney to throw up 15.0 points and 8.0 rebounds with the occasional blocked shot and three-pointer.
5. D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State
Name: D'Angelo Russell
Committed to: Ohio State
Height and Position: 6'4" shooting guard
Strengths: Ability to create, Secondary handler, Versatility
Areas for Improvement: Strength
Why He's Here
Not only is Ohio State losing its three leading scorers from last season (LaQuinton Ross, Lenzelle Smith Jr. and Aaron Craft), but with Amedeo Della Valle returning to Europe to play professionally, Shannon Scott is the only guard on the roster who scored a single point last year.
The Buckeyes will have redshirt freshman Kam Williams in the mix in the backcourt, but all signs point toward Russell starting at shooting guard and leading the team in scoring as a freshman.
The only real question is whether the Buckeyes will be good enough for it to matter.
Because of Ross' early departure and the graduation of media-darling Craft, they have been a bit disrespected in the vast majority of way-too-early Top-25 articles. But with Russell leading a list of impact arrivals that also includes Jae'Sean Tate, Keita Bates-Diop and Anthony Lee, reports of Ohio State's demise may be quite exaggerated.
If Ohio State does better than expected, Russell could do what Tyler Ennis did last season, skyrocketing from a top-20 recruit into a leader of men who might be a lottery pick.
4. Justin Jackson, North Carolina
Name: Justin Jackson
Committed to: North Carolina
Height and Position: 6'7" small forward
Strengths: Basketball IQ, Mid-range game, Size for position
Areas for Improvement: Penetration, Strength
Why He's Here
You don't want to make too big of a deal out of a couple all-star games where players are hardly even pretending to play defense, but Jackson shot 16-of-22 from the field between the McDonald's All-American game and the Jordan Brand Classic.
Jackson is an exceptional scorer who simply knows how and when to get to where he needs to be to make the biggest impact. Having him and Marcus Paige on the court together should make life a little less stressful for Roy Williams.
There's at least a reasonable expectation he'll battle J.P. Tokoto and Theo Pinson for playing time, but Jackson should start and instead be battling Paige for the honor of highest-scoring Tar Heel.
3. Emmanuel Mudiay, SMU
Name: Emmanuel Mudiay
Committed to: Southern Methodist
Height and Position: 6'5" point guard
Strengths: Athleticism, Attack mode, Upside/potential
Areas for Improvement: Three-point range, Catch and shoot
Why He's Here
Even if other freshman wind up with more impressive statistics, it's almost a guarantee Mudiay will dominate the instant-impact discussion as the point guard leading a team to its first NCAA tournament appearance in more than two decades.
Mudiay joins a solid rotation of Nic Moore, Ben Moore, Markus Kennedy and Yanick Moreira. Where others on this list run the risk of entering into a timeshare or being asked to do it all for a rebuilding team, Mudiay couldn't possibly enter a more favorable situation.
SMU is already the overwhelming favorite to be this year's breakout team. Mudiay is essentially being handed the keys to a Mustang. He just has to avoid wrecking it on the way to the Big Dance.
If he happens to duplicate Tyler Ennis' season by averaging 12.9 points and 3.2 assists per turnover, even better.
2. Cliff Alexander, Kansas
Name: Cliff Alexander
Committed to: Kansas
Height and Position: 6'9" power forward / center
Strengths: Toughness, Rebounding, Strength
Areas for Improvement: Multi-positional
Why He's Here
Quite simply, Alexander is a beast. He is a slightly stronger version of Julius Randle, which sounds about as silly as saying someone is a slightly better three-point shooter than Stephen Curry, but it's true. If it weren't for the obsession over 7' giants, he would probably be the top-ranked recruit in the country.
Alexander is already expected to be one of the top picks in the 2015 NBA draft, and he will be an immediate, dominant presence in the post for the Jayhawks. Though they lost Joel Embiid to the NBA and missed out on Myles Turner, they'll be just fine down low.
In the Jordan Brand Classic, Alexander had 23 points, eight rebounds and five blocks—there were only four other shots blocked in the entire game.
As a freshman, Jared Sullinger led Ohio State to a 34-3 season by averaging 17.2 points and 10.2 rebounds per game.
That's approximately where I'm setting my expectations for Alexander and Kansas.
1. Jahlil Okafor, Duke
Name: Jahlil Okafor
Committed to: Duke
Height and Position: 6'11" center
Strengths: Post play, Rebounding, Strength
Areas for Improvement: Explosiveness
Why He's Here
The Blue Devils have historically been a three-point shooting team, but the difference between their good teams and their elite teams has been a dominant presence in the post.
During their string of nine consecutive Sweet 16 appearances from 1998-2006, they had either Elton Brand, Carlos Boozer or Shelden Williams down low. It was only because of Brian Zoubek's emergence as a senior that they won the national championship in 2010.
Last year, they didn't have that go-to big man. Jabari Parker was excellent, but he's much more of a small forward than a center. Amile Jefferson played well at times, but he wasn't the assertive or consistent threat he needed to be.
Now that they have Okafor, they should be right back on top of the world.
Duke has quite the logjam of quality talent in the backcourt, but there's no question Okafor will start at center and serve as the primary frontcourt player. His ability to finish at the rim, rebound and defend will be a night-and-day difference from the interior game that lost to Mercer last March.
If Duke wins the 2015 national championship, it will be because of Okafor. He's at No. 1 on this list because there doesn't appear to be another freshman in the country for whom that is a more probable proposition.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.