College hoops begins Friday, which means two different things for two different sub-sets of fans. For actual college hoops fans, it’s a chance to get to see your favorite team for the first time in months. It also gives NBA fans the first chance to see the next wave of superstars who will one day be gracing their rosters.
According to Scout.com (and current FS1 college hoops analyst Evan Daniels) last year’s high school seniors (and this year’s college freshmen) are the best group since at least 2007, when guys like James Harden, Kevin Love, Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin came through the college ranks. Add in some solid upperclassmen in college hoops, and it’s going to be a great year for NBA fans scouting future talent.
Here are the 10 players NBA fans should know.
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Malik Monk, SG, Kentucky
Truthfully, there are at least three freshmen (and I would argue four) on Kentucky’s roster that NBA fans will need to watch, but in terms of sheer excitement, Monk is your guy.
At 6-foot-3, he’s a little undersized for the shooting guard role but thankfully makes up for it with next-level athleticism. And when I say “next-level” I mean “once-in-a-generation, even in a sport full of freak athletes, he’s the freakiest of all the freaks” level ability. If you don’t believe me, just check out this dunk. Or this one. And the kid is only 18-years-old!
Kentucky point guard De’Aaron Fox will probably end up in the lottery, too, as will power forward Bam Adebayo. Also, don’t sleep on 6-10 Wenyen Gabriel. No one’s talking about him now, but I predict he plays his way from “project” in the preseason to first-round pick by June.
As a 6-5 point guard he’s got “future star” written all over him, with the size of a prototypical NBA point guard and an old-school, pass-first game that scouts are going to love. UCLA coaches rave about his ability to get others involved, as much as looking for his own offense.
The Bruins truly have enough talent on their roster to make the school’s first Final Four since Russell Westbrook and Kevin Love were on campus, but Ball is the piece that ties that talent together.
Dennis Smith Jr., PG, NC State
What’s great about this college class is there are four really good point guards – Ball, Fox, Washington’s Markelle Fultz and Smith – and they all play the game in slightly different ways. It will be fun next spring figuring out how NBA teams evaluate and prioritize each.
Beyond just his skill, Smith is has phyiscal and mental toughness. One of my favorite things about him is he could have chosen a more traditional school – he nearly went to Duke – but loved NC State (and their coaching staff) and wanted the challenge and responsibility of restoring a formerly great program. Look for him to do just that in what will almost certainly be his only year on campus.
Todd Burandt/adidasTodd Burandt
Ivan Rabb, PF, Cal
Not every guy on this list is a freshman, and Rabb is the rare player who could have gone pro after last year but wanted to come back and refine his game before heading to the NBA. Credit to him for realizing that it isn’t just about making the NBA, but being prepared to produce once you get there.
And “produce” is exactly what he did as a freshman last year. He came on especially strong tallying double-doubles in four of Cal’s last six games to close out 2016. With Jaylen Brown now playing in Boston, this is unquestionably Rabb’s team. Expect him to be a star this year for the Golden Bears.
At 6-7, he’s got the body of a prototypical NBA wing player, and the athleticism and strength to defend anyone at just about any position on the college level. Even on a floor full of potential NBA Draft picks at this summer’s Nike Skills Academy (in what is essentially a combine for high school and college kids in front of NBA scouts), Bridges stood out.
With Michigan State losing a bunch of talent off last year’s roster – including National Player of the Year Denzel Valentine – the Spartans will need Bridges to be productive right away. Thankfully, that shouldn’t be an issue.
Lauri Markkanen, PF, Arizona
I’ve got to say: Of all the 7-foot projected lottery picks from Finland playing college basketball this year, Markkanen is undoubtedly one of my three or four favorites.
I’m obviously kidding, but Markkanen is flying a bit under the radar entering this season since he didn’t play high school basketball in the States. Still, don’t sleep on him. He’s a legit 7-footer who is equally comfortable banging in the post as he is stepping out and hitting 3s, and a guy who Sean Miller raved about on a recent episode of “The Sidelines” podcast.
Miller isn’t the only guy raving. After a coaching buddy of mine saw him dominate at the Euro U-20 championships this summer, he said, “This guy is going to end up as a Top 5 pick." You heard it here first folks. Markkanen opens his season Friday as Arizona face Bridges and Michigan State.
Jaron Blossomgame, SF, Clemson
Again, it’s unfair to limit this list to just freshmen, so why not include a senior who has spent the last eight months rising up draft boards?
If you’re looking for this year’s Buddy Hield – a really good college player who can transform into a star as a senior – this is your guy. Blossomgame averaged 18 points per game last season at Clemson and took things to another level at the Nike Skills Academy where he dominated mostly younger players with an ability to score all over the floor.
The only downside to Blossomgame is that he’s much older than everyone on this list (he’ll be 24 by the start of his first NBA season). But if you’re a fan of a solid NBA team that won’t be drafting in the lottery, this could be your guy (meaning that, yes, there’s a 100 percent chance he ends up as an All-Star on the Spurs five years from now).
In terms of Jackson’s game, the one thing worth noting is his competitiveness. It’s one thing for a freshman to come in and be able to score – which he will – but few players so young take so much pride on the defensive end of the floor. If his offensive game becomes more refined through the season, he could end up as the No. 1 pick in next summer’s draft.
NBAE via Getty ImagesSam Forencich
Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke
Speaking of “potential No. 1 picks” Tatum has as good a shot as anyone on this list at ending up No. 1 next spring. At 6-8 he is the perfectly built modern NBA wing, but what separates him is his ability to score from all over the floor. This is a guy who – if he develops as expected – could one day be one of the leading scorers in the NBA.
Along with Tatum, keep an eye out for fellow Duke freshmen Marques Bolden, a powerful center, and power forward Harry Giles, both of whom will start the season on the sidelines with injuries.
Markelle Fultz, PG, Washington
And finally, the guy who many are projecting as the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft, Fultz.
By now his story is well-known, as a guy who was cut from his high school varsity team early in his career only to grow – literally and figuratively – into the top high school player in the country last year. As a 6-5 point guard he’s got the ability to see the floor and get others involved just as easily as he gets his own points.
The only question for Fultz: Does he have enough talent around him to get Washington to the NCAA Tournament? Only time will tell, but whether he does or not, that won’t impact his chance to end up as the No. 1 pick in next year’s draft.