Scouting the Champions Classic: The freshman progress report
Report filed to the Sports Illustrated Scouting Bureau:
Location: Madison Square Garden, New York
Event: Tuesday’s Champions Classic, in which No. 7 Kansas beat No. 1 Duke, 77–75, and No. 2 Kentucky beat No. 13 Michigan State, 69–48. The doubleheader doubled as an assembly of the nation’s best freshmen, with 15 of the top 35 players in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index’s Class of 2016 rankings in the building. It gave us (and more than 100 NBA personnel) a prime opportunity to scout them at an early stage. And for many of these freshmen, 2–3 games into the season isn’t all that early; if practice time counts, they’re already 25% into what could be only a six-month college career.
This is my assessment of what the four freshmen with the most star potential—the Wildcats’ De’Aaron Fox and Malik Monk, the Jayhawks’ Josh Jackson and the Spartans’ Miles Bridges—are as of Nov. 16, and what they could be by the time we see them in the 2017 NCAA tournament:
6' 3″ PG, Kentucky; RSCI Ranking: 6
What he is now: Fox is a left-handed streak of lightning. He’s a point guard so fast in transition that when Kentucky coach John Calipari saw former star John Wall after Tuesday’s game—Wall had shown up in disguise during the second half, wearing a red sweatshirt with the hood up and a pair of shades—the coach told him, “De’Aaron is faster than you.” Wall scoffed at that, but it actually might be close. And Fox is averaging 15.0 points and 7.0 assists through three games—right in line with the 16.6 and 6.5 that Wall averaged in his one-and-done year of 2009–10.
Where those two point guards differ, freshman role-wise, is that Fox isn’t Kentucky’s go-to-guy or its clear top draft prospect—his role is to run the offense for 30-plus minutes per game and be part of a three-headed perimeter scoring attack along with fellow freshman Malik Monk and sophomore Isaiah Briscoe. Fox’s best attribute at this point is his ability to draw fouls (he’s drawing 7.7 per 40 minutes) and make free throws (he’s a perfect 21-of-21 from the stripe). He’s a lefty who can go both directions, and his drives are rarely in a straight line. They’re herky-jerky, with inside-out dribbles, crossovers, and Eurosteps; he’s a Texas-bred point guard from a generation that grew up seeing Eurosteps in the NBA rather than having to add them to his game as an adult.
Fox’s speed and change-of-direction skills make it easy for him to create separation on drives, but his biggest shortcoming is an inability to knock down pull-up mid-range jumpers or pull up behind ballscreens for threes. He’s 0-for-7 from deep thus far, and unless that changes, defenses are going to sag on him just like they sag on Briscoe, and that’ll make it more difficult for him to drive and create for Kentucky’s bigs, especially fellow freshman Bam Adebayo.
What he could be in March: I can envision a role for Fox as Kentucky’s closer—the guy the Wildcats use to protect late leads by simply putting the ball in his hands, letting him drive, get fouled and convert from the free-throw line, where he’s been automatic. Fox already excels at pushing the ball ahead to Monk and Briscoe in transition, but if he can improve at setting up his big men—Adebayo for lobs and duck-ins, Derek Willis and Wenyen Gabriel in pick-and-pops—Kentucky’s offense will become much more difficult to guard.
6' 3″ SG, Kentucky; RSCI Ranking: 9
What he is now: Monk may be the least-hesitant, most guilt-free shooter in this freshman class, and that’s fine for Kentucky on his good days, because he can be a lethal scorer. He was on Tuesday, scoring 23 points (on 7-of-11 three-point shooting) against Michigan State. That came after he went 3-of-12 from deep in his first two games, and Calipari rode Monk for being too “casual” with his shot. Monk admitted this was the case—he called what he saw on film “very casual”—and said the solution was staying low, doing a better job of stepping into each attempt, and focusing on taking each shot the same way. He did that during Tuesday’s shootaround, had great success with it, and it carried over into the game.
Monk was a prolific scorer on the AAU circuit—even more so than the other Wildcat freshmen—and he seems hard-wired to eventually lead the team in scoring, even though Briscoe does after three games. Monk is taking the highest percentage of the team’s shots (32.0%) while he’s on the floor of any player, and that’s without doing much ball-handling. He’s great at running ahead to the wings in transition—something that got Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield plenty of wide-open treys last season—and in the halfcourt, Kentucky tends to position him in a Hield-like manner, having him start in the corners and then lift up to receive handoffs or pass-backs out of the pick-and-roll. Monk can be an excellent catch-and-shoot weapon, but he’s a tad too in love with shooting off the bounce, and he hasn’t looked comfortable enough yet to show off his full scoring arsenal, which includes aggressive basket-attacks.
After Calipari praised Monk by calling him “one of the most athletic kids that I’ve coached,” he added, “He’s a little antsy right now. His mind moves really fast. When his feet move fast, his mind moves fast, so I’ve gotta slow down his mind, and let him see the game a little differently.”
What he could be in March: If Monk begins to see the game more slowly, he could become an efficient driver; he’s more of a straight-line guy than Fox, but Monk has the explosiveness to get to the rim against nearly any guard. SI’s projection system forecasted him to lead the Wildcats in scoring and a confident, consistent, non-casual version of him should have no trouble doing so. There will be plenty of 20-point outings in his future.
6' 8″ SF, Kansas; RSCI Ranking: 1
What he is now: He’s Kansas’s best player on the floor when he wants to be, which so far is only in spurts. He’s Kansas’s best player on the floor when he can stay on the floor, which he hasn’t been able to do due to foul trouble. Jackson is a small forward in Kansas’s starting lineup and a small-ball four in its scary, spread lineup; and although his listed height might be inflated by a few inches due to his massive ‘fro, his athleticism cannot be exaggerated.
Jackson effortlessly creates scoring opportunities on drives or dribble pull-ups, against any defender. His jumper’s form has an imperfect flow from the catch to the shooting pocket, but the release isn’t bad, and he’ll make his share of threes this season. Jackson had a stretch where he scored nine points between the 15:00 and 11:55 mark of the second half against Duke where he “put us on his back,” as coach Bill Self put it, and we saw glimpses of what Jackson could be: an unstoppable scorer in transition, wing or elbow isolations, or out of wing ballscreens. It’s not unfair to make comparisons to former Jayhawk Andrew Wiggins, because Jackson is so many of the same things: a crazy-athletic wing, a decent-but-not-great shooter, a possible No. 1 pick in the draft, a freshman who can take over games but isn’t likely to do so every game.
What he could be in March: Jackson committing 8.0 fouls per 40 minutes has limited his playing time to 22.5 minutes per game thus far, but Kansas wouldn’t mind him playing 30-plus in Big 12 games. The Jayhawks don’t really need him to be a go-to-guy, though, because they have senior floor general Frank Mason, who’s not much of a draft prospect, but is an incredible college guard and a cold-blooded killer in crunch time. They just need Jackson to be a complementary scorer and a lockdown defender, which he’s capable of being once he acclimates to college refereeing—something that he should be able to do over the course of a few months, if not a few weeks. He has the ability to be the highest-impact defender of this freshman class, and a key piece of a top-five team defense.
6' 7″ SF/PF, Michigan State; RSCI Ranking: 10
What he is now: Bridges is a lock to have the best freshman-year mixtape—a montage of vicious chase-down blocks, transition lob flushes, reverse dunks off of baseline drives and posterizations of late-coming charge-hunters. He’s playing a small-ball four role out of necessity, as the Spartans have no frontcourt depth. I’m just curious if Bridges can figure out a way to be efficient enough to carry a Michigan State offense that isn’t offering him a lot in the ways of a supporting cast. He’s using a team-high 31.1% of possessions, but after impressing against Arizona (21 points, seven boards), he crashed and burned against a Kentucky defense that sagged off of him and his teammates, clogged the lane, and forced him into more turnovers (nine) than points (six). When Bridges was pulled from the game in the final minutes, his coach, Tom Izzo, said to him, “Welcome to the real world. . . . You’re going to get doubled. Just register and learn.”
Bridges told Izzo he was embarrassed by the performance, and more than any other freshman in this scouting report, Bridges has to be the guy to make his team great, so he’ll have to learn on the fly. Can he make his basket attacks—which although he’s a lefty shooter, are overwhelmingly right-handed—less reckless, and become less reliant on a three-point shot that’s only gone in on 2 of 11 attempts thus far?
What he could be in March: Bridges has already flashed great potential—when the Spartans use him as a ball-screener, have him pop and catch to drive against a late closeout, he’s so hard to contain—and as he gets better at reading defenses, his points per possession (currently at a ghastly 0.678) should improve. A realistic comparison for him might be the production the similarly built Stanley Johnson had in his one-and-done season at Arizona in 2014–15, where he was his conference’s freshman of the year but not efficient enough overall to be an All-America.
Bridges can only do so much on his own for a team that looks like it may fall into the second tier of the Big Ten. Kentucky provided an effective blueprint for mucking up the Spartans’ offense, and unless some long-range shooters emerge who need to be guarded with no-help D—that’s you, Eron Harris and Matt McQuaid—Bridges isn’t going to have ample driving lanes. That will limit most of his highlights to transition plays, and although they’ll be fantastic highlights, they may not make for a fantastic season.