The 13 College Freshmen Every NBA Fan Should Watch
If you're a reasonably attentive NBA fan, you've probably heard dozens of writers or fans remind you that this June's draft has the deepest pool of freshmen talent we've ever seen in the one-and-done era. It's become a talking point for any NBA conversation about the future. “This year's draft class” is something to casually reference to signal that you pay attention.
Now it's time to actually watch this draft class play. College basketball season begins all over the country this week, and the festivities really get going in New York tonight. Michigan State will face off with Kentucky at 7, and we get Duke-Kansas afterward. As an NBA fan and a lifelong draft nerd, I'm so ready. There is talent everywhere. The top of the draft is still mostly in flux, and over the next few months, names I vaguely recognize from scouting services will turn into real humans who inspire passionate basketball opinions from coast to coast. It's wonderful.
With that in mind, here are some players for NBA fans to follow this year, along with some quick notes I've gleaned from following this class through draft experts and highlight clips for the past few years.
Markelle Fultz, PG, Washington. Over the course of the spring and summer he blossomed into the best prospect in this year's class, and likely the No. 1 pick. That also means he's the de-facto name to insert into every grassroots tanking campaign among fanbases around the NBA. Flop for Fultz? Walk Through Hell for Markelle? Whichever you choose, what's important is that he is 6'5″ with a 6'9″ wingspan, has the skills to play either guard spot, and possesses all the tools to grow into an excellent defender. If you were creating a modern NBA point guard in a lab, you'd probably come up with exactly these skills. (He also had 30, 7, and 6 in his debut over the weekend).
Josh Jackson, SF, Kansas. Even in the age of Embiid and KAT or Russ and CP3, a superstar two-way wing is still the most valuable weapon in basketball. Josh Jackson's got all the tools to grow into that type of player, and there's a decent chance he could unseat Fultz by June. At 6'8″, he's got the prototypical size and look, and he's already dunking his way through Emporia State. The biggest question is whether he can hit a jumper consistently. I'm generally skeptical of super-athletic wings until they prove they're skilled enough to create offense on the perimeter, but if Jackson even show glimpses of those skills, he'll be a top–3 pick.
Harry Giles, PF, Duke. If not for injury questions, Giles would be the most credible threat to Fultz for the top spot. Unfortunately, he suffered two season-ending knee injuries in high school, and after looking fully recovered this summer, he's now out indefinitely due to precautionary knee surgery this fall. This is a major bummer. Early season Duke broadcasts are more likely to be dominated by “Should Harry Giles play in college at all?” questions than actually dominated by Harry Giles. In theory, though, he's the kind of mobile four/five hybrid that offers an instant cheat code for the small–ball generation. If he plays college basketball this year, it'll be appointment viewing.
Jonathan Isaac, SF, Florida State. At 6'11″ with perimeter skills, he could be another Myles Turner… or, perhaps, Jonathan Bender for a new generation. We'll know more in a few months. For now, Draft Express has Isaac pegged as a top–10 pick, and paired with returning-sophomore Dwayne Bacon and junior guard Xavier Rathan-Mayes, he has a chance to make FSU basketball more exciting than it's been since the Von Wafer/Leonard Hamilton/Raycom Sports glory days.
Dennis Smith, PG, NC State. He was considered the best point guard in America until an ACL injury in August 2015. He's since recovered, and he's been enrolled at NC State since January. As SI's Luke Winn reported, over the summer Smith demanded to return to the Adidas Nations camp where he'd torn his ACL to prove that he's back. And yet, as he rehabbed all year, he had to watch Fultz eclipse him to earn the top spot in this class. Who's ready for the Dennis Smith revenge tour?
Jayson Tatum, SF, Duke. Giles is out indefinitely, but Tatum is a potential top–five pick in his own right. He's a 6'8″ wing with a 6'11″ wingspan, and while Josh Jackson is a more athletic wing, Tatum's supposedly more skilled as a shooter and more natural as a scorer. Alas, he's also out for Duke-Kansas. He and Duke's other star freshman, center Marques Bolden, are nursing minor injuries to begin the year. We'll have to be patient before we can resume being outraged and confused by all the superstar talent at Duke.
Malik Monk and De'Aaron Fox, PG/SG, Kentucky. Imagine a version of the Splash Brothers with half the shooting, and twice the dunking. At 6'4 with blinding speed, Fox is going to give off strong John Wall vibes, and Monk seems like a good candidate to be his Eric Bledsoe. If this isn't enough to make you watch Kentucky in 2017, I'm not sure what to tell you.
Seventh Woods, PG, North Carolina. He's not a prospect for next year's draft, but NBA fans may remember the Seventh Woods mixtape from 2013, when he was 14 years old. That 14-year-old is in college now, and he's already dunking on helpless undergrads. Give Markelle Fultz your attention, but give Seventh Woods your heart.
Jarrett Allen, C, Texas. At 6'10″ with 7'5.5 wingspan, he'll likely be in the mix to be the top center taken in June. DraftExpress has him projected at No. 13, for example. In another year he'd probably be a much bigger deal. Instead, he's listed here as your reminder that there are so many great freshmen this year, it quickly becomes impossible to track them all. While we're here: Kentucky freshman Bam Adebayo is another big man worth keeping an eye on, Frank Jackson is a freshman point guard who should be a lot of fun for Duke, and apparently Arizona has a 7-foot stretch–four freshman named Lauri Markkanen, who just arrived from Finland to take over Tuscon. What a year.
Lonzo Ball, PG, UCLA. First, read Danny Chau's delightful story on the Ball family. Second, imagine John Wooden's reaction to a point guard who appears to alternate exclusively between dunks and 30-footers.
Miles Bridges, PF, Michigan State. I have a friend who's a diehard Michigan State fan. On Monday I asked him about Miles Bridges. His early take: “Some poor decision making/shot selection. But pure man child with boost that might top Shannon Brown and Jason Richardson. He's a f—ing problem.”
Terrance Ferguson, SG, Australia. Terrance Ferguson was dominant at the Hoop Summit last April in a performance that felt a lot like watching J.R. Smith at the McDonald's All-American Game. Alas, when NCAA qualifying became complicated because of his time spent at Deion Sanders's high school, Ferguson chose to play a year of pro basketball in Australia instead of attending Arizona. It's now a challenge for all of us: You say you love the draft, but do you really love the draft if you're not live-streaming Adelaide 36ers games to check on Terrance Ferguson down under?