Incoming College Basketball Freshmen with Best Chance to Win Player of the Year

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystApril 9, 2018

Incoming College Basketball Freshmen with Best Chance to Win Player of the Year

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    R.J. Barrett
    R.J. BarrettGregory Payan/Associated Press

    Duke's R.J. Barrett is the top-rated player in the 2018 recruiting class, but where does he rank among first-year candidates to be named the men's college basketball national player of the year?

    At least one freshman has been named as one of the five finalists for college basketball's Wooden Award in four of the last five seasons, but you need to go back to 2012 to find the last time a one-and-done star was named national player of the year.

    Could this be the year that drought ends, or will the honor go to yet another upperclassmen?

    With limited exceptions, three commonalities among all NPOY finalists is that they:

    • Lead their team in scoring
    • Average at least 16 points per game
    • Play for a team that earns a No. 4 seed or better in the NCAA tournament

    Thus, in addition to recruiting ratings, we're ranking the freshmen based on likelihood of meeting those three qualifications.

Honorable Mentions

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    Tre Jones, Duke

    Most of the recruiting sites rank Jones as a top-10 player in this year's class, but they all list him as the fourth-best incoming Blue Devil. However, Jones is arguably the most important player on the roster, since it'll be his job to set up those bigger stars. He likely won't be the national POY, but if you had to bet on one freshman to at least be named a third-team All-American, he'd be a fine choice.

                   

    Immanuel Quickley, Kentucky

    Kentucky has three excellent incoming players in Quickley, Keldon Johnson and Tyler Herro, but this isn't a normal year of mass exodus from Lexington. Even if Shai Gilgeous-Alexander jumps to the NBA, the Wildcats still have Quade Green as the likely lead guard. One of the three incoming freshmen could immediately become the offensive leader, though, and Quickley seems like the best option.

           

    Nazreon Reid, LSU

    LSU was a year ahead of schedule in winning 18 games this season. The Tigers have four of the top 60 players in their 2018 recruiting class and could be a title contender if Tremont Waters returns for a sophomore year. Reid is the biggest star of that bunch, and the big man is all but guaranteed a starting job with both Aaron Epps and Duop Reath leaving as seniors.

           

    Jahvon Quinerly, Villanova

    Quinerly is on a great team, so how much run will he get as a freshman? Even if we assume Mikal Bridges, Jalen Brunson and Omari Spellman are all leaving for the NBA, Villanova could still trot out a starting five of Collin Gillespie, Phil Booth, Donte DiVincenzo, Eric Paschall and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree. If Brunson and/or Spellman opts to return, Quinerly drops even further down the depth chart.

           

    Darius Garland, Vanderbilt

    If this is your first foray into the 2018 recruiting class, here is some surprising news: Vanderbiltwhich last signed a top-100 recruit in 2014 and last signed a 5-star recruit in 2009—has two of the top 15 players in this year's class.

    Of the two, the power forward (Simi Shittu) figures to be more of a lock for immediate contributions than the point guard (Garland), simply because the Commodores have a few noteworthy returning guards and not much in the forwards department.

    But either one could get a lot of national attention for turning around a team that went 12-20 this year—similar to Trae Young making Oklahoma relevant after an 11-20 season before his arrival.

8. Quentin Grimes, Kansas

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    247 Sports Rank: 11

    Reason to Buy

    Quentin Grimes boasts a remarkable combination of explosion, vision and deception. He's a great straight-line driver, but he also has an arsenal of head fakes, crossovers and Eurosteps that made it virtually impossible for opposing guards to stay in front of him at the high school/AAU level.

    It's going to be a lot tougher getting to the rim in the Big 12, but guys like Keenan Evans, Malik Newman and Trae Young proved repeatedly that it's possible.

    But Grimes is much more than just a machine built for layups and dunks. He's also a willing and creative passer, as well as a better than average three-point shooter. His defense is going to need some work, but it shouldn't be long before he joins Frank Mason and Devonte' Graham on the recent list of combo guards to lead Kansas to a lot of victories.

           

    Reason to Sell

    Kansas might be the best team in the country, but will Grimes even be a starter? The Jayhawks brought in Charlie Moore from California to play point guard, and they also have another 5-star point guard in Devon Dotson. And those are just the backcourt players. Even if Grimes does get a starting job, he'd still have to be better than Dedric Lawson and Udoka Azubuike to be the MVP of this team.

7. Simisola Shittu, Vanderbilt

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    Simi Shittu
    Simi ShittuGregory Payan/Associated Press

    247 Sports Rank: 10

    Reason to Buy

    There's a fine line between a stretch 4 and a power forward with guard-like skills. Guys in the former bucket are a dime a dozen, but the latter is a rare player who leaves both college fans and NBA scouts drooling about potential and versatility.

    Simisola "Simi" Shittu appears to be one of those guards trapped in a big man's body. He handles the ball well, particularly in the open floor when running the fast break. He isn't much of a perimeter shooter at this point, but he does have excellent court vision and footwork for a power forward.

    If Bryce Drew so chooses, Shittu could be a Royce White type of phenom for Vanderbilt. He'll handle most of the interior work on defense, but he can play point-forward on offense, bullying smaller defenders or driving right by the bigger ones. Doing so for a team that goes from 20 losses to 24 or more wins would be enough for him to get a lot of love from those of us in the national media.

           

    Reason to Sell

    Vanderbilt has a steep hill to climb to get into the running for a top-four seed in the NCAA tournament. Yes, the Commodores have probably their best recruiting class ever, but they also lost three of the four leading scorers from a team that already wasn't much good. And as Trae Young proved this season, even putting up historic numbers isn't good enough to be named NPOY if your team is merely a No. 10 seed.

6. Zion Williamson, Duke

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    247 Sports Rank: 3

    Reason to Buy

    Have you ever seen a freight train on a basketball court? Well, you're about to, because that's what it feels like when watching Zion Williamson barrel toward the hoop with a head of steam.

    Listed at 6'6" and 275 pounds, Williamson is unlike anything we've seen in recent years. Some have compared him to Julius Randle, but Randle was three inches taller and almost 50 pounds lighter when he was a senior in high school. The best physical comparison might be the ironically nicknamed Keith "Tiny" Gallon, who was 6'9" and 293 pounds when he led all players in scoring at the 2009 McDonald's All-American Game.

    But Williamson is remarkably agile for his size. He has garnered a lot of internet fame for his dunk videos, but he also has a lot of touch at the rim and an uncanny ability to control his body well enough to get to the rim without committing offensive fouls. Williamson is also a sensational offensive rebounder, which will help ease the transition at Duke from Marvin Bagley III and Wendell Carter Jr.

           

    Reason to Sell

    Simply put, he's not a good shooter. Williamson has some three-point range, but his driving ability is the much bigger threat if he gets the ball at the top of the key. His dreadful free-throw shooting figures to be the real problem, though. There might not be a catchy name like hack-a-Shaq, but it'll only be a matter of time before opponents realize the best way to neutralize this guy is by putting him on the free-throw line.

5. Nassir Little, North Carolina

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    Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

    247 Sports Rank: 6

    Reason to Buy

    Being named the MVP of the McDonald's All-American Game doesn't necessarily mean anything. It's just one all-star game in which defense is optional, at best. If anything, the MVP has been cursed in recent years. Cheick Diallo got it in 2015 before eligibility issues ruined his college career, and Michael Porter Jr. won last year before suffering a back injury that cost him basically the entire season.

    Nevertheless, Nassir Little received that honor this year, making 12 of his 17 field-goal attempts for a game-high 28 points.

    This combo forward is dripping with potential, and he should be the perfect replacement for Theo Pinson in North Carolina's starting lineup. Scouts rave about Little's defensive intensity, which is usually the main complaint you see about 5-star recruits. He's also an aggressive rebounder and a much better shooter than Pinson ever was.

    Roy Williams doesn't often dabble in the one-and-done market, but he has a likely 2019 lottery pick on his hands now. With Joel Berry and Jalek Felton out of the picture, though, we'll see if the Tar Heels can find a point guard who can put Little in a position to succeed.

           

    Reason to Sell

    Little is a tenacious defender with gobs of upside, but how often do you hear those phrases used to describe a national player of the year? Josh Jackson fit those descriptions two years ago and became the No. 4 overall draft pick, but it was his teammate (Frank Mason) who ran away with the NPOY honors.

    Little should be an excellent asset for the Tar Heels, but becoming the leading scorer on a team with Kenny Williams, Cam Johnson and Luke Maye as seniors will be no simple task.

4. Romeo Langford, TBD

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    247 Sports Rank: 5

    Reason to Buy

    If you like shooting guards with limitless range and who aren't afraid to use it, then you are going to love Romeo Langford. Not since Jamal Murray has there been a pure shooter this highly touted out of high school—which is a fitting comparison on multiple levels, since Langford still hasn't picked a school and Murray was the last big domino to fall in the 2015 offseason.

    Listed at 6'6", Langford is going to be taller than the vast majority of players tasked with guarding him. That's going to be a major problem for those defenders, because if you give this guy an inch of space anywhere within 28 feet of the rim, he's liable to turn it into points. Teams will basically need to treat him like Trae Young in that regard, as Langford already has NBA three-point range and then some.

    He isn't just some Ethan Wragge or Max Hooper type of three-point specialist, though. Langford can score at all three levels and has great ball-handling and slashing skills. One player comp I've seen a lot that seems to fit here is D'Angelo Russell, but we'll see how much of a ball-dominant guard he needs/gets to be.

           

    Reason to Sell

    This isn't necessarily a reason to sell, but Langford is the ultimate wild card on this list because of the school uncertainty. His three finalists are Indiana, Kansas and Vanderbilt. If he chooses Kansas, he'll be playing for a title contender, but how much will he actually play? At Indiana, he would be the primary shooting guard, but it would be for a team that might not even make the tournament. The non-blue blood program might be his best chance at NPOY.

3. Cameron Reddish, Duke

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    247 Sports Rank: 2

    Reason to Buy

    Cameron "Cam" Reddish is the type of do-it-all wing that Mike Krzyzewski has been thriving with since embracing the one-and-done world. Jabari Parker, Justise Winslow, Brandon Ingram and Jayson Tatum turned the small-ball 4 into an art form in their brief stays in Durham. And Reddish should join that fraternity of top-10 draft picks in 2019.

    Reddish is more of a true wing than those former stars were. He'll likely be at his best as an off-ball shooter, but he can run the offense or create for himself when need be. And on the defensive end, he has the size, length and lateral quickness to guard any position from point guard to smaller power forwardswhich should mean Duke's man-to-man defense won't be a complete and utter disaster next season.

    As far as opportunity to shine is concerned, Duke might lose its entire starting five to the NBA draft. R.J. Barrett and Zion Williamson may well be the biggest instant-impact stars for the Blue Devils, but there shouldn't be any returning players blocking Reddish's path to as much playing time as he wants.

           

    Reason to Sell

    The talent is undeniable, but the big question with Reddish throughout high school has been consistency of effort. When he wants to, Reddish destroys everything in his path. But he seems to be playing in cruise control a bit too often. In this absurdly loaded Duke class, even the slightest hint of passivity could obscure or mitigate his impact, as it did with Wendell Carter Jr. this past season.

2. Bol Bol, Oregon

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    247 Sports Rank: 4

    Reason to Buy

    This past year, most of the can't-miss recruits were big men. Seven of the top nine guys on 247 Sports (Michael Porter Jr., Marvin Bagley III, Mohamed Bamba, Deandre Ayton, Jaren Jackson Jr., Wendell Carter Jr. and Mitchell Robinson) were listed at 6'10" or taller. Ayton and Bagley both ended up as first-team All-Americans, averaging better than 20 points and 11 rebounds per game.

    This year, the big-man market is pretty much Bol Bol or bust. Only two other top 20 recruits are listed at 6'10" or taller, and both E.J. Montgomery (No. 12) and Jordan Brown (No. 16) are a far cry from the overpowering physical forces that Ayton and Bagley were.

    But we're not just putting Bol at No. 2 on our list because of positional scarcity. He is a special talent with small forward skills on offense, even though he's 7'2" (and still growing). He doesn't live on the perimeter, but he has three-point range, which is terrifying when combined with his shot-blocking ability. Given what Dana Altman was able to do with Chris Boucher a few years ago, watch out.

           

    Reason to Sell

    Oregon already has a shot-blocking phenom in Kenny Wooten (5.2 per 40 minutes), so Bol will need to share some of that spotlight. Moreover, this team missed the NCAA tournament before losing three of its four leading scorers. The Ducks have an excellent recruiting class, but will it make them nationally relevant enough for Bol to become NPOY?

1. R.J. Barrett, Duke

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    Gregory Payan/Associated Press

    247 Sports Rank: 1

    Reason to Buy

    R.J. Barrett is the total package. There isn't one specific thing he does better than everyone else in this year's classaside from being left-handedbut there's not a weakness in his game.

    Barrett is smoother than silk and tough as nails. He always seems to be playing with a chip on his shoulder, even though he has been lauded as the best player in the country by all of the recruiting sites. He can play any position 1 through 4 on both ends of the floor, although you probably wouldn't want him primarily playing point guard on offense, nor defending conventional power forwards. In a pinch, though, he's versatile and physically gifted enough to handle either role.

    A lot of people have questioned how Duke will be able to function with three elite freshman forwards—not to mention Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurieron the roster, but this jack of all trades will make it work. Maybe he never quite gets to 10 assists in a game, but with his rebounding, vision and willingness to create for others, Barrett is going to flirt with a few triple-doubles in his one season with the Blue Devils.

           

    Reason to Sell

    The only possible concern here is that Cam Reddish, Zion Williamson or Tre Jones will instead be the MVP for the Blue Devils. That isn't to say Duke is guaranteed have the best freshman in the country, but it is the clear-cut favorite. Thus, if any freshman is going to be named national POY, it's likely to come from this team.

            

    Stats are courtesy of KenPom.com and Sports Reference. Recruiting information is courtesy of 247 Sports.

    Kerry Miller covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.