Elite College Basketball Freshmen Most Likely to Stay for Multiple Seasons

Kerry MillerCollege Basketball National AnalystSeptember 12, 2017

Elite College Basketball Freshmen Most Likely to Stay for Multiple Seasons

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    Jalek Felton is near the top of our list of 5-star recruits who will not be one-and-done freshmen.
    Jalek Felton is near the top of our list of 5-star recruits who will not be one-and-done freshmen.Associated Press

    No one in his or her right mind expects Marvin Bagley III or Michael Porter Jr. to play more than one season of college basketball, but there are always a bunch of 5-star freshmen who come back for a sophomore year.

    Per Scout, there were 29 5-star freshmen in last year's star-studded class, and Miles Bridges headlines the group of 11 that will still be playing at the collegiate level this season. The year before that, 18 of the top 27 freshmen turned down a shot at the NBA to further hone their craft for free. (Heck, three of those guys transferred, deciding a year of not playing was better for their future than declaring for the draft.)

    So, which of this year's crop of high school stars waits until at least 2019 to take their talents to the pros?

    Based on a combination of individual expectations and projected roster fit, these are the 10 standouts from the 2017 class that are most likely to still be in college for the 2018-19 season.

10. Jaren Jackson, Michigan State

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    Associated Press

    Every year, most of the top 10 freshmen are about 10 months away from the NBA before they ever step foot on a college campus. It didn't matter that Skal Labissiere and Harry Giles played poorly in their one season, because there was never going to be a second one.

    But there's always at least one that comes back.

    Scout's No. 8 recruit, Marques Bolden, is this year's holdover. No. 5 Ivan Rabb and No. 10 Malik Newman stayed for multiple seasons after ranking prominently in the 2015 class. 2014 No. 10 Justin Jackson stayed for three seasons. And the 2013 class had five of the top 10 players (Andrew Harrison, Aaron Harrison, Chris Walker, Kasey Hill and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson) stick around beyond their freshman campaigns.

    Which high school star will keep that tradition going for another year?

    It won't be any of the top four guys. Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr., DeAndre Ayton and Mohamed Bamba are each in the conversation for the No. 1 pick in the draft. Duke has already signed 2018 stars Tre Jones (point guard) and Cam Reddish (wing-forward), so it's unlikely No. 5 Wendell Carter Jr. or No. 8 Trevon Duval will return to Durham.

    The Harrison twins were the exception to the rule at Kentucky. John Calipari's top-10 recruits almost always bolt after one year, so don't expect No. 10 Kevin Knox to be in Lexington for 2018-19. And who the heck knows if No. 9 Mitchell Robinson is going to play this year, let alone next year?

    That leaves No. 6 Jaren Jackson and No. 7 Collin Sexton. It's possible both guys will play two years, but the more likely of the two is Jackson.

    For starters, Jackson is entering a time-share situation in the Michigan State frontcourt. The Spartans still have Nick Ward, Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter and Kenny Goins, and Tom Izzo also got a commitment from power forward Xavier Tillman. One doesn't need to be a starter to declare for the NBA draft. Just ask 2005 No. 2 pick Marvin Williams, or, more recently, Zach Collins, Tony Bradley or Devin Booker. But it certainly helps one's profile.

    More importantly, each of the top six players in this year's class is at least 6'10". Maybe a lottery team that needs a point guard will grab Sexton as a top-three pick, but even if Jackson puts up National Player of the Year numbers, he'll almost certainly be selected behind Bagley, Porter, Ayton and Bamba. The 2018 class, on the other hand, is devoid of elite power forwards, so he could be the No. 1 pick in 2019 if he plays two years.

9. Gary Trent Jr., Duke

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    As mentioned on the previous slide, Duke figures to (once again) lose a lot of players after this season. Grayson Allen will definitely be gone, barring an injury that results in a medical redshirt. And it's hard to imagine a scenario in which Marvin Bagley III, Trevon Duval or Wendell Carter Jr. will play a second season.

    The one wild card is Gary Trent Jr.

    Trent is a sensational scorer with nearly limitless range on his jumper. He's also a savvy player who can get buckets in the paint, even when he's giving up several inches to a defender. The Blue Devils already have one of those guys on their roster, however, and Allen has three more years of experience in that role.

    Having too many good shooters on a roster is never a problem for Duke. Mike Krzyzewski found a way to divvy up more than 1,700 points between Allen, Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum last year. But you have to think Trent believed he would be the primary shooting guard when he signed with the Devils in Novemberback when Allen was the consensus preseason National Player of the Year and a virtual lock to forgo his senior year.

    Instead, Trent will enter his freshman year somewhere between the fourth- and sixth-best scoring option in the offense and might not even be a starter.

    Again, we've seen multiple examples in recent years of players becoming lottery picks despite not starting for their college teams. Serving as the sixth man wouldn't be the end of the world for Trent's draft stock. But 2018-19 figures to be his year to shine. If Duke ends up signing 2018 No. 1 shooting guard Romeo Langford, though, maybe Trent will leave—regardless of how this season goes.

8. Emmanuel Akot, Arizona

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    Associated Press

    In addition to outstanding big man DeAndre Ayton, Sean Miller continued his tradition of signing one of the top positionless players in this year's class. This particular one reclassified and won't turn 19 until after the 2018 NCAA tournament begins.

    Emmanuel Akot is a 6'7" wing-forward who can both play and defend any position from 2 through 4. It's hard to imagine a reason he would need to play the 1, but in a pinch, he's got the ball-handling skills and vision to run the point.

    Unfortunately for him, Arizona's starting 2 through 4 jobs are already just about set in stone for Allonzo Trier, Rawle Alkins and Ayton. And with Keanu Pinder, UNC-Asheville transfer Dylan Smith and incoming freshmen Ira Lee and Brandon Randolph also in the conversation for playing time at those positions, Akot may have a tough time carving out minutes.

    As is the case for Gary Trent Jr. at Duke, this could change drastically with a marquee signing or two, but it looks like Akot could be the star of next year's Wildcats. Trier, Alkins and Ayton will probably all declare for the draft, and projected starters Parker Jackson-Cartwright and Dusan Ristic will be graduating.

    Some guys reclassify so they can hurry up and get to the NBA. For Akot, the decision was probably made so he could get a year of experience in the system before taking over as its leader.

7. Jarred Vanderbilt, Kentucky

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Though Kentucky has sent multiple 5-star freshmen (if we count Enes Kanter) to the NBA draft in each of John Calipari's eight seasons, the Wildcats have also had at least one 5-star freshman become a 5-star sophomore in each of those eight years.

    Ah, the luxury of signing roughly 3.5 McDonald's All-Americans per year.

    Playing time in college tends to dictate which Wildcats stay and which ones go. Thus, as projected starters, Quade Green, Hamidou Diallo, Kevin Knox and PJ Washington are on the list of guys likely to partake in the 2018 NBA draft. And whether he starts at center or comes off the bench for 20-25 minutes per game, the 6'11" Nick Richards will also be a coveted commodity in NBA draft circles.

    That leaves Jarred Vanderbilt as the odd man outin part because the foot injury he suffered in the Jordan Brand Classic limited him this summer.

    Make no mistake about it, Vanderbilt is a gifted player. He's a committed, versatile defender who handles the ball well enough to be a point forward. Comparisons to Lamar Odom's game have become the norm.

    However, after factoring in sophomores Wenyen Gabriel and Sacha Killeya-Jones, Kentucky has nine guys on its roster who were top-50 recruits in their respective classes. Moreover, the Wildcats already have a versatile defensive-minded forward in Gabriel.

    Vanderbilt should easily get more playing time than Killeya-Jones did last year (96 minutes), but will he get enough minutes to stand out as even the fifth-best draft prospect on this team?

6. Brian Bowen and 5. Malik Williams, Louisville

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    Brian Bowen
    Brian BowenGregory Payan/Associated Press

    Louisville has signed its fair share of 5-star recruits over the years, but did you know the Cardinals have never had a freshman drafted? They have lost a sophomore in each of the last three years, and it's possible V.J. King keeps that trend going in June. But the one-and-dones go to Lexington, not Louisville.

    Of course, that could always change this year.

    Power forward Malik Williamsnot to be confused with Louisville's starting running back of the same nameand wing-forward Brian Bowen are going to be key first-year pieces of this Cardinals system. Bowen provides the shooting and playmaking ability on the perimeter they lost when Donovan Mitchell declared for the draft, and Williams should fit in beautifully with Anas Mahmoud and Ray Spalding in yet another elite defensive frontcourt for this program.

    Given the roster construction, Bowen will probably be a starter, while Williams is right on the fifth starter/sixth man border, which is a primary reason Williams is marginally more likely to stay for multiple seasons. It's also looking like this will be a draft class that is lacking in perimeter shooters, so Bowen could shoot his way into the lottery conversation.

    However, there's a better-than-decent chance that Louisville will enter the 2018-19 season in a situation similar to the one that Michigan State is in this yeara strong candidate for the national championship because an elite inside-outside duo returns for a sophomore year.

4. Trae Young, Oklahoma

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    Brace Hemmelgarn/Getty Images

    It stands to reason that the players who barely make the cut as 5-star recruits are the ones that tend to stick around for multiple seasons. Eight* of the 11 players in the Nos. 19-29 range in the 2016 class will still be playing college ball this year, and every single player ranked Nos. 13-27 in 2015 put off the 2016 draft for at least one year.

    Thus, the top four players on this list rank in the bottom five of Scout's 2017 5-star recruits. The one who is not listed is UCLA's Jaylen Hands, and that's because he's all but guaranteed a starting job for a preseason Top 25 team.

    That isn't the case for these guys.

    Trae Young should start at point guard from day one for Oklahoma, but after going 11-20 last year, the Sooners won't even sniff the preseason AP poll. Granted, team success in college doesn't necessarily mean anything to pro scouts. (See: Fultz, Markelle; Simmons, Ben.) But those No. 1 draft picks were all-world athletes that NBA teams might have taken first overall straight out of high school.

    Young is a talented point guard, but he isn't nearly in that same can't-miss level of the prospect spectrum.

    Anything's possible, though. With Young's ability to drive, dish and shoot, he should at least be able to flip Oklahoma's record to 20-11 and give it a great shot at an NCAA tournament berth. If he goes bonkers and averages 19 points and seven assists for a Sweet 16 team, it won't matter where he was ranked coming out of high school, nor where Oklahoma was (not) ranked to begin the year.

         

    *Lauri Markkanen never should have been ranked in the 19-29 range, and the other two guys who actually did leave for the NBA draft (TJ Leaf and Tony Bradley) were our No. 1 and No. 2 picks on this list last year. Whoops!

3. Nick Weatherspoon, Mississippi State

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    Photo courtesy of Scout.com

    Whether Nick Weatherspoon decides to leave for the NBA after one season may depend upon what his older brother, Quinndary, does, as well as how successful his team is.

    Both high-scoring guards will be suiting up for Mississippi State this year. Quinndary does so as a junior, while Nick is the highly touted incoming freshman. They'll likely both start in this Bulldogs backcourt, giving the program more talent than at any other point in the past decade.

    Will it be enough for Mississippi State to really compete in the SEC, though? And if it isn't, would Nick Weatherspoon be content with jumping ship to start his career in the NBA?

    Nick has often been compared to Russell Westbrook because of his versatility and hyper-competitiveness. We're not talking about flippant comments from scouts or message board junkies, either. Ben Howland coached Westbrook in college, and he will be coaching Weatherspoon in college. He's the one who made the most oft-referenced Westbrook comp, speaking to Paul Jones of 247Sports last November:

    "Watching him a year ago, he played out in Vegas and was phenomenal. He made his team so much better. He's the only other player I've ever watched that reminded me of Russell Westbrook. He is the only kid I've ever recruited where I've said 'yeah, he's like Russell'. That is about the ultimate compliment I can pay a player and it's because of his motor. What makes Russell special is what makes Nick special—competitiveness, toughness, desire to win and plays both ends of the floor."

    Maybe you hear that and think there's no way that guy is playing more than one season of college ball, but I hear it and think that's a guy who wants to put Mississippi State basketball back on the map, even if it takes two years. Weatherspoon could have gone to any one-and-done factory in the country, but he chose to stay close to home, with his brother, to build something special. And if Quinndary has a fourth season in his future, there's a good chance Nick plays a second.

2. Jalek Felton, North Carolina

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    Associated Press

    If there's one 5-star recruit guaranteed to not have a starting job this season, it's Jalek Felton.

    That's not a slight against the nephew of former UNC great Raymond Felton; it's just the situation he's entering. In theory, Justin Jackson's departure opens up a starting job that Jalek could claim. But in reality, he would need to leapfrog a lot of talented players to get that spot.

    If we can assume all of the options are healthy, it should be Joel Berry II at point guard, Kenny Williams at shooting guard and Theo Pinson at small forward. The Tar Heels also have Seventh Woods, Brandon Robinson and Pitt transfer Cam Johnson for depth in the backcourt. Thus, even if they decided to go small with Luke Maye at the 5 alongside four wings, Felton still probably wouldn't have a starting job.

    That could always change as the season progressesparticularly if Felton becomes a more reliable shooter and/or a more committed defender. At the outset, though, it looks like he'll be headed for about as much playing time as last year's highly touted freshman Tar Heels. Woods, Robinson and Tony Bradley were all rated in the top 60, but not one of them started a single game, and their combined minutes would've only been good enough for third-most on the roster.

    That didn't stop Bradley from becoming a late first-round draft pick, but if you're 6'11" and can walk and chew gum at the same time, the NBA wants you. Point guards need to show a bit more to make a strong impression on scouts.

1. Kezie Okpala, Stanford

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    Photo courtesy of Scout.com

    Kezie Okpala was barely on anyone's radar two years ago. At a time when top recruits are receiving offers as early as eighth grade, Okpala's first offer (from UC Irvine) didn't come until midway through his junior year, per Eric Sondheimer of Los Angeles Times.

    Part of that is because he didn't start playing travel ball until near the end of his high school career. Another part of it is because he sprouted 10 inches from a 5'10" point guard to a 6'8" wing forward between his freshman and junior years.

    But both parts of that equation make it unlikely that he jumps to the NBA after one year.

    Okpala is a smooth athlete, but he's still figuring out how to play at his size. And for the most part, he hasn't been going through that learning curve against the other elite athletes in this year's classthough, he did outplay 2018 star Zion Williamson on one occasion. He wasn't part of the McDonald's All-American Game or the Jordan Brand Classic, both of which typically include at least 90 percent of the freshmen who leave for the NBA.

    Moreover, Okpala puts the "student" in student-athlete. The academics at Stanford played a huge part in his decision, and getting a degree from a prestigious university likely means more to him and his family than the chance to be a late first-round draft pick. Maybe he'll finish college while in the NBA if he eventually becomes a unanimous top-10 projection, but that probably isn't happening this year.

         

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames. Recruiting information courtesy of Scout.com. Advanced stats courtesy of Sports Reference and KenPom.com.