Ranking the Top 25 Freshmen of the 2016-17 College Basketball Season
It's lather, rinse and repeat for Kentucky head coach John Calipari. The Wildcats' incoming recruiting class features four of the top 14 freshmen in the nation, as well as a fifth stud who earned an honorable mention in our ranking of the top 25 freshmen for the 2016-17 men's college basketball season.
We ranked these 25 players based on a combination of (in descending order of importance) individual expectations, value and projected team success.
A big-time performer for a potential national champion would rank at or near the top, but it was largely a balancing act between crucial role players on title contenders and scoresheet stuffers on lesser squads.
Catch them while you can, college basketball fans. At least half of these guys will be off to the NBA after just one season.
Bruce Brown, Miami
Even with the loss of Angel Rodriguez and Sheldon McClellan, Miami still has quality backcourt options in Ja'Quan Newton, Davon Reed and San Jose State transfer Rashad Muhammad. Brown (a combo guard) will be a welcome addition and may well be handed a starting job, but he isn't nearly the "must have" addition to this roster that the majority of the players in the top 25 are on their respective teams.
Lauri Markkanen and Kobi Simmons, Arizona
Despite losing former signee Terrance Ferguson to international hoops, Arizona still has the seventh-best recruiting class in the nation, as well as one heck of a redshirt freshman in Ray Smith. As a result, the Wildcats have two players in our top 25 and this pair, who just barely missed the cut. Add in Allonzo Trier, Kadeem Allen, Dusan Ristic and Parker Jackson-Cartwright as notable returning players, and this should be one dandy of an eight-man rotation.
Sacha Killeya-Jones, Kentucky
As is the case for Markkanen and Simmons, Killeya-Jones is the odd man out in an incredible class. Kentucky is responsible for four of the top 14 spots on this list and also brings back Isaiah Briscoe and Derek Willis. Killeya-Jones should see plenty of action, but this team's top six is so good that this 5-star power forward might not even be the first guy off the bench.
Tony Bradley, North Carolina
Bradley is going to be the frontcourt star for the Tar Heels in 2017-18. Until then, he'll be backing up seniors Isaiah Hicks and Kennedy Meeks, likely only playing 20 or more minutes on nights when one of those two is battling foul trouble.
Udoka Azubuike, Kansas
This mountain of a man could be a dominant force in the post if given the opportunity. But with Landen Lucas and Carlton Bragg blocking his path to minutes and head coach Bill Self's propensity for making freshmen earn their playing time in recent years, it's hardly guaranteed he'll get that chance this season.
25. Dewan Huell, Miami
With Tonye Jekiri graduating, Miami needs a new frontcourt presence. Jekiri led the Hurricanes in blocks and finished the season with nearly twice as many offensive rebounds as any teammate. He was never much of a scorer (just 7.6 PPG as a senior), but he was the most indispensable player on the roster.
Enter Dewan Huell.
He isn't quite as big as Jekiri (6'10" compared to 7'0"), but Huell is much more of an athlete and offensive weapon. He has speed, soft hands, effortless hops, a legitimate mid-range game and a willingness and ability to draw contact.
Huell should immediately start alongside Kamari Murphy and should frequently benefit from point guard Ja'Quan Newton's slashing play to the tune of alley-oop dunks and easy dump-off buckets.
24. Omer Yurtseven, North Carolina State
North Carolina State head coach Mark Gottfried won the international lottery by getting 7'0" Turkish star Omer Yurtseven.
Shortly before signing with the Wolfpack, Yurtseven had a performance that even a video game junkie playing on the easiest setting would have a hard time replicating: 91 points, 28 rebounds and five assists in a single game.
No one is expecting him to put up numbers like that in college, but it's worth noting how singularly dominant he can be.
It has been a while since NC State had a legitimate center. Jordan Vandenberg (7'1") was the only player on the roster in the past seven years taller than 6'9", and he never made much of an impact. In fact, one has to go all the way back to Todd Fuller's senior year in 1995-96 (20.9 PPG, 9.9 RPG) to find the last time this team had a big man this talented.
Though he has displayed good range on his jumper, Yurtseven should be a low-post force alongside Abdul-Malik Abu. The Wolfpack don't have much depth, but if Terry Henderson is healthy at shooting guard and Yurtseven pans out in the frontcourt, they would have a starting five worthy of consideration as one of the 10 best in the country.
23. Andrew Jones, Texas
Andrew Jones is the exact type of player Shaka Smart would have fruitlessly pursued as the head coach of VCU. A teachable, athletic guard with strong defensive instincts, he's the ideal candidate for that "HAVOC" style of play—who would have chosen a more high-profile program.
Now that Smart has the recruiting pull that comes with coaching at Texas, he was able to nab a guy who could be an absolute stud in the Big 12.
With Isaiah Taylor opting for the NBA draft rather than returning for his senior year, the addition of Jones became even more crucial for the Longhorns. They lost both of their starting guards (Taylor and Javan Felix) and three noteworthy frontcourt players (Cameron Ridley, Prince Ibeh and Connor Lammert). Texas needs multitool players in order to fill all those holes, and Jones is a guy who can create for both himself and others.
As Taylor did three years ago, Jones should immediately start at point guard for one of the younger teams in the country. If he can also imitate Taylor by scoring in double figures while leading his team to the NCAA tournament, he will be a borderline All-Big 12 player.
22. V.J. King, Louisville
V.J. King might be the most naturally talented player in this year's class. He can score from anywhere on the court and has the physical attributes—6'6" with a wingspan closer to 6'11"—to be an absolute menace of a perimeter defender.
And at Louisville, he's in a position to immediately become "the guy." The Cardinals lost Damion Lee, Trey Lewis and Chinanu Onuaku, so there are plenty of points there for the taking.
If he wants them.
The biggest concern that most scouts seem to have about King's game is his willingness to take what's available to him. Both ESPN and Scout question his assertiveness and aggression, but if he can tune that motor to take over games from time to time, he could easily become one of the top scorers in the ACC.
21. Rawle Alkins, Arizona
Arizona seems to have cornered the market on physically dominant shooting guards who become unstoppable when their threes are falling. It started with Stanley Johnson two years ago, and now head coach Sean Miller will have two of them playing together: Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins.
Every scouting report on Alkins seems to begin with some remark about his frame or physical prowess. While most high school players need to improve their strength before they can excel at the collegiate level, Alkins is a guy who oozes toughness and athleticism and who could be a star with a bit of coaching.
Because of his strength, he’s an excellent rebounder for his height (6’5”) and a player who is more than capable of finishing through contact. Even if he doesn’t become much of a three-point shooter, adding a pull-up mid-range game would make him one of the most unguardable freshmen in the country.
20. Mustapha Heron, Auburn
A southpaw with great three-point range and energy for days, Mustapha Heron should make a huge splash with a team that hasn’t finished above .500 since the 2008-09 season.
Writing about the SEC’s haul on signing day this past November, Scout's Brian Snow said, “I think [Heron] makes the biggest impact. Heron is a physically developed wing who will have no problem adjusting to the physicality of college basketball. On top of that, Heron will be headed to Auburn, where there is a lot of playing time available on the wing.”
Actually, with T.J. Dunans, T.J. Lang and Bryce Brown all returning and graduate transfer Ronnie Johnson joining the mix, the Tigers have a surplus of guards. But Heron is a quality rebounder who could take on the type of undersized power forward role that Trevon Bluiett played for Xavier last year.
19. Josh Langford, Michigan State
The second-best piece in Michigan State's outstanding recruiting class, Josh Langford could be the next Denzel Valentine.
From the triple-threat position, few players his age are more dangerous. He's a solid three-point shooter with a lethal first step and great court vision. He can finish in the paint or simply get there before setting up a teammate with an even better look. Langford is also a quality perimeter defender, which is something the Spartans sorely lacked in 2015-16.
The only reason he doesn't rank higher is because another shooting guard is the one thing Michigan State doesn't need. Eron Harris and Matt McQuaid are the only returning players who ranked in the top eight on the roster in points last season, so Langford might not get the playing time his talent deserves.
18. Omari Spellman, Villanova
Jay Wright certainly has a type when it comes to recruiting power forwards. From JayVaughn Pinkston to Markus Kennedy, Kris Jenkins and now Omari Spellman, he seems to target big men with a little bit of range who could be special if they keep up with their conditioning.
But Spellman has more potential and agility than any of the other aforementioned players. While most recruits at Villanova have taken a few years to really hit their stride, he could be a star from day one as the primary replacement for Daniel Ochefu.
In fact, he could be a slight offensive upgrade over Ochefu because of his combination of touch around the rim and his ability to score via jumpers from the high post.
Villanova already had one of the toughest offenses to slow down with four starters who averaged better than one made three-pointer per game, but Spellman will give the Wildcats offense an additional degree of versatility. If he can also defend the post even 80 percent as well as Ochefu did, Spellman could be the catalyst that propels Villanova to another national championship.
17. Ray Smith, Arizona
Ray Smith was a legitimate candidate to start for Arizona last season before suffering a torn ACL in October. Head coach Sean Miller said in a statement, "Ray Smith is one of the most talented young players that has ever entered our program."
That's high praise from a coach who has consistently put together top-notch recruiting classes over the past seven years, but after a year on the sideline, Smith will get the chance to back that up.
At 6'8" with perimeter range, Smith is the type of multifaceted weapon who will force an opposing coach to consider employing a zone defense. He has the strength and height to back down a guard and is quick enough to get by most forwards who might attempt to contain him along the arc.
Smith probably won't lead the Wildcats in scoring, but he should add a ton of value by commanding the attention of the opponent's most versatile defender, thus opening up lanes for Allonzo Trier and Rawle Alkins to go to work.
16. T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Though he's capable of rising up for a thunderous dunk or an emphatic rejection, the most intriguing aspects of T.J. Leaf's game are his finesse and vision.
Leaf can stretch the floor, but he's not your average stretch 4. The 6'9" power forward can face up his defender 18 feet from the hoop and get a shoulder past him before stopping on a dime for a pull-up jumper or floater. Or he can dump it off to an open teammate, or get all the way to the rim for an easy bucket.
He's probably the most versatile freshman in the country, and he's joining a team that doesn't need to pigeonhole him into a specific role.
With Thomas Welsh available to handle the frontcourt grunt work; plenty of three-point shooting in Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday; and arguably the best freshman point guard in the nation (Lonzo Ball) to tie them altogether, Leaf has the freedom to essentially become a free safety in this offense.
Can he bring anywhere near that much value on defense, though? Leaf isn't particularly strong, so he's not a great rebounder and struggles to keep opposing big men out of the lane. But he should contribute enough on offense for the Bruins to give him just about all the minutes he can handle.
15. Jarrett Allen, Texas
Jarrett Allen's ranking on most scouting websites seems to be grounded in his potential rather than his value as a current product.
Allen has the type of length that will make Jay Bilas swoon on draft night. At the Nike Hoop Summit in April, he was measured at 6' 10 ½" with a 7' 5 ½" wingspan and a 9' 2 ½" standing reach. Scouts have harped on his less-than-elite leaping ability, but who needs a 37-inch vertical when you barely need to get a foot off the ground in order to dunk?
Allen is an agile athlete with soft hands, but his offensive game is a work in progress. Give him an open right-handed look within 10 feet of the hoop, and he'll make you pay. But his mid-range game and left hand will need to develop at the collegiate level.
Once he adds a few pounds to his slender frame and a counter move to his offensive repertoire, he should be a dominant big. And at Texas, he's going to get plenty of opportunities to develop, as Shaquille Cleare, Arkansas-Little Rock transfer Mareik Isom and fellow freshman James Banks are the only other frontcourt options on the roster.
14. Wenyen Gabriel, Kentucky
Like Jarrett Allen, it's the potential that keeps people drooling over Wenyen Gabriel's future.
After a strong summer in 2015, Gabriel went flying up the scouting rankings from an anonymous kid to a 5-star stud. A late growth spurt is to thank for his guard-like tendencies as a forward and to blame for his rail-thin frame.
At the Nike Hoop Summit in April, he checked in at 6'9 ¼" and 197 pounds—which is almost identical to where Brandon Ingram (6'9 ½" and 196 pounds) was at during the previous year's summit, so let's not act like he's going to snap in half if he doesn't pack on 30 pounds.
Kentucky already has one stretch 4 in Derek Willis, but Gabriel can play both inside and outside—provided he adds some strength. He's a plus defender with lateral quickness and a tireless motor that he puts to great use on both ends of the court. Add in capable skills as a ball-handler, and his versatility will be a big bonus for the Wildcats as they seek to optimize their gifted seven-man rotation.
13. Frank Jackson, Duke
Frank Jackson is one of the best scoring guards in the nation. As of early February, he was averaging 29 points per game at Lone Peak High School and has been heralded throughout his high school career as a guy who thrives at putting the ball in the hoop.
But Duke already has several players like that in Grayson Allen, Luke Kennard and Jayson Tatum. What the Blue Devils really need is for Jackson to hone his skills as a passer.
That isn't to say he can't still be a dynamite scorer. Jay Williams averaged 19.3 points and 6.0 assists per game during his three seasons with Duke, scoring in bunches while still setting up the likes of Shane Battier, Carlos Boozer and Mike Dunleavy en route to the 2001 national championship.
With so much talent around him, Jackson doesn't need to become a world-class passer in order to put up numbers like Williams did. As long as he makes a point of getting others involved in the offense, the assists will come.
12. Marques Bolden, Duke
With the possible exception of Bam Adebayo, Marques Bolden is the best back-to-the-basket freshman in the country. He can score fluidly over either shoulder and has the length, footwork and athletic ability to eventually develop a lethal drop-step move. He may need a little seasoning, but by the end of the year, the only way to stop him from scoring in the paint may be to deny him the ball in the first place.
Bolden is also an excellent rebounder and serviceable shot-blocker who still has plenty of room in his game for growth.
Two of the big things that made Jahlil Okafor so tough to beat at Duke were his ability to dribble around a post defender or pass out of a double-team. Bolden doesn't currently possess that type of strength or ball-handling skill, but on this roster, he won't face nearly as many double-team situations as Okafor did.
The big unknown for Bolden is playing time.
With Harry Giles, Amile Jefferson, Chase Jeter and Javin DeLaurier all in the mix for minutes at the 4 and 5—and perhaps Jayson Tatum, as well, when the Blue Devils decide to go a little smaller—Bolden isn't in nearly the same position as guys like Jarrett Allen, Jonathan Isaac, T.J. Leaf or Omer Yurtseven who are clearly the best options at their positions on their respective rosters.
11. Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Miles Bridges is possibly the best recruit that Tom Izzo has ever signed. But he's not a flashy athlete or a lights-out shooter. Bridges is simply a beast, and opposing teams would be wise to make sure he never gets a head of steam on a drive to the hoop.
Jonathan Givony of DraftExpress evaluated Bridges (along with several forwards from next year's class) in late June, and the final two sentences of his outlook sum up exactly what to expect: "Impressive athlete who has strong basketball instincts and plays with a high intensity level. Doesn't have great size, length or shooting ability, but has quite a few things going for him otherwise."
He's a powerful combo forward who works harder and understands the game better than most players, which should make him a natural leader on a young Michigan State roster. Bridges is an excellent rebounder, too. He might not quite average a double-double, but he's going to record a good number of them.
10. Malik Monk, Kentucky
Good luck finding a more explosive player than Malik Monk.
Metz Camfield of CoachCal.com recently attended a summer practice at Kentucky and said of Monk's game, "The freshman makes things happen with the ball in his hands. When he puts the ball on the deck and drives to the basket, he appears to be nearly impossible to stop without fouling him. His quickness is ridiculous."
This is hardly groundbreaking news. Monk was a human highlight reel throughout high school, dunking on, over or through defenders like they weren't even there. It's almost a given that he's going to make a few plays this season that go viral.
Whether he can make some pivotal three-pointers will play a big part in where he's drafted after his presumed one season with the Wildcats. He is freakishly athletic and a great scorer, but his long-range shot has been inconsistent. If he can shoot better than 35 percent from beyond the arc, he'll be a top-10 pick.
9. Dennis Smith Jr., North Carolina State
Before tearing his ACL in August 2015, Dennis Smith Jr. was regarded by most scouts as the best point guard in this year's recruiting class. He has since fallen behind the likes of De'Aaron Fox, Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz, but not by much.
And he appears to be back to full strength. Smith took part in the CP3 Elite Camp in June and was up to his old tricks, blowing by defenders with ease as one of the most agile guards in the country. If there's a spot on the floor he wants to get to, there aren't many players who can stop him from doing so.
Keeping opponents from doing the same was one of his biggest weaknesses before the injury. Every scouting report on Smith questioned his commitment on defense, suggesting he would take plays off or simply go through the motions. No one is expecting him to be the next Kris Dunn or Gary Payton II on D, but improved effort in that area could be the difference between a good season for Smith and a great one.
8. Jonathan Isaac, Florida State
Jonathan Isaac oozes raw talent and potential.
He was a guard until a growth spurt to 6'10" forced him to become a forward. As a result, he possesses footwork and ball-handling skills unfathomable for most players his height. He has legitimate three-point range, but he can also put the ball on the deck and get to the rim if a defender cheats out too far to deny him that shot.
Strength and defense are areas he will need to improve on. Isaac will grab plenty of rebounds due to his height, but fighting for position and keeping opposing players out of the paint could be a struggle until he adds some bulk.
Consistency may also be an issue as he continues to acclimate to the power forward position, but his versatility is off the charts. Once he starts putting his game together on a regular basis, he could be the most unguardable player in the country.
7. Edrice "Bam" Adebayo, Kentucky
One doesn't get the nickname "Bam" by playing soft.
Bam Adebayo will be one of the toughest and most hardworking players in the country, freshman or otherwise. Scouts initially fell in love with him because of his tireless effort on the glass. He has excellent rebounding instincts and a quick jump that will put him in position for a lot of putback dunks.
Adebayo has also developed nicely on offense. He used to get buckets by simply having more brute force and determination than anyone else, but he has added some finesse to complement his strength. He has an effective spin move and can finish with either hand, often through contact.
It's a shame the Wildcats didn't have him last year. They desperately needed a player like him in the frontcourt.
6. Harry Giles, Duke
Were it not for major injuries in both knees that required surgery, Harry Giles would likely be No. 1 on the list. He's No. 1 or No. 2 on all the major scouting sites based on how much promise he showed both before and after the first injury, but it's hard to rationalize putting him in the top five for the 2016-17 season while we wait to see him in action following the second one.
When fully healthy, though, Giles has been freakishly good with a ton of potential for further growth.
He's the type of player who appears to glide on the court. His fluidity and athleticism are second to none. Giles isn't a great shooter, but he is a tremendous rebounder with solid footwork and ball-handling skills. He's one of the few players in the country who could sky for a rebound before taking the ball the length of the court for a thunderous dunk.
5. De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky
John Calipari has had more than his fair share of gifted guards in recent years, but you have to go back to John Wall and Tyreke Evans to find the last time he had a point guard this good on both ends of the floor.
De'Aaron Fox might be the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year. His length, quickness and instincts are goalie-like on the perimeter, enabling him to force a lot of turnovers. That strength often leads to another one, as Fox is an elite player in fast-break situations. Whether finishing for himself or deftly setting up a teammate, his ability to turn defensive possessions into offensive points is impressive.
Shooting is not his forte, though. He'll score plenty of points either in transition or by slashing through the lane to get to the rim, but his mid-range and three-point stroke could use some improvement. If he can get to a point where opponents have to at least respect his pull-up jumper, he'll be one of the best two-way players in the nation.
4. Markelle Fultz, Washington
Stock in Markelle Fultz has been skyrocketing over the past two years, as the standout combo guard has evolved from an unknown sophomore into a possible No. 1 pick in next year's NBA draft.
Fans in the Pacific Northwest got their first up-close-and-personal look at Washington's star of the future in a summer league game in late June. As Matt Calkins of the Seattle Times wrote, they were awestruck.
"In his first public showing in Seattle, the 6'4" Fultz pole-vaulted over the hype bar set when UW nabbed him out of DeMatha Catholic in Maryland. ... On Monday night, there were 10 players on the floor—and nine jaws."
With Andrew Andrews graduating and Dejounte Murray going pro, Fultz immediately inherits the keys to Lorenzo Romar's offense. Whether it's enough to get the Huskies back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2011 remains to be seen, but playing on a poor team didn't keep Ben Simmons from setting the college basketball world on fire this past season.
3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Lonzo Ball is hands down the best passer in this year's class. At 6'5", he can see the whole floor better than most point guards, and he puts that advantage to good use. With three-point shooting teammates like Bryce Alford, Isaac Hamilton and Aaron Holiday as well as a big man in Thomas Welsh with a strong mid-range game, Ball's surgical passing could make UCLA one of the best offenses in the country.
Ball also has a great leap, enabling him to dunk with authority and rebound better than the average point guard. It's almost inevitable that he will flirt with a triple-double on multiple occasions. He might also average better than one steal and block per game. He's a unique combination of every position 1 through 4 in one package.
The only major drawback to his game has been his decision-making. Though he has legitimate NBA range to his jumper, it's not consistent, and he has been known to shoot at ill-advised times. Ball will also occasionally try to do too much when hunting an assist. As Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress wrote last August, "Flashy passer who will turn it over at times trying to make the home run play."
But even if he takes two bad shots and commits two bad turnovers per game, he'll make up for it with everything else he does so well. If the Bruins weren't coming off a 15-17 season, they would be a more popular Final Four candidate because of Ball.
2. Jayson Tatum, Duke
Mid-range specialists are a dying breed in basketball. Increased focus on efficiency and analytics has led to a game where the two-point shot from just inside the three-point arc is viewed as the worst shot.
For most players, this is true. But not for Jayson Tatum. The wing-forward has become a master of the mid-range game full of jab steps, step-back jumpers and pivots. He almost acts like a low-post player, but instead of working the defender to get off a high-percentage shot two feet from the hoop, he does it from 20 feet away. And when he does end up in the paint with the ball, those same moves work just as well.
He's not a great three-point shooter, but he's lethal once he gets the ball inside the arc.
Ideally, he'll either get a little stronger or become a better perimeter shooter, but similar requests at Duke have worked out nicely over the past few years in the form of Justise Winslow and Brandon Ingram. If Tatum can follow in their footsteps, he might be the No. 1 overall pick next June.
1. Josh Jackson, Kansas
The batch of players in the 2017 NBA draft is going to be better than the one we just witnessed. There are a lot of world-class athletes in this year's recruiting class, but Josh Jackson is pretty clearly the best of the bunch.
"Quite simply, he is one of the better prospects we've seen over the past five years," Brian Snow of Scout said.
Pick any word used to describe a top prospect, and it's in on one of the scouting reports on Jackson. Explosive. Versatile. Bounce. Competitive. Toughness. Motor. Quick. Confidence. Potential. He has it all, and as a 6'7" small forward committed to defense and rebounding, he's going to fill up the stat sheet on a regular basis.
The only thing he doesn't have is a great shooting stroke, particularly from the perimeter. As Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress reported from the Stephen Curry Select Camp in early July, Jackson shot just 28.6 percent from three and an even more troubling 55.2 percent from the free-throw line.
But that's a correctable skill for a guy dripping with athleticism. Once his shot becomes a little more reliable, he'll be every bit the phenom that Andrew Wiggins was for Kansas.
Recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports.
Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.