College basketball's top 20 talented and entertaining freshmen to watch this season
OK, so no, this year’s crop of freshmen don’t match up to the 2016-17 group, which proved to meet the hype. If you want a refresher on that class, just go check out the 2017 draft results, in which a record number of freshmen were taken in the first round.
This year’s newbies do have plenty to offer, though. A lot of really good power forwards and centers. It’s not the “Year of the Big Man” or anything like that, but we’re likely to see a lot of guys 6-foot-9 and taller turn into top-40 players in college hoops this season.
Below, I’ve listed the 20 freshmen who I think are a combination of being the most talented, having the best chance of producing big numbers and overall being the most watchable guys in their class. It’s not just about how they project as pros. I’d say at least eight of the players I have listed should return for their sophomore seasons.
Not included on this list: Former Western Kentucky commit Mitchell Robinson, who has left the sport; Brian Bowen, who may never play college basketball thanks to the FBI; and Jarred Vanderbilt, a top-12 prospect at Kentucky who’s out for three months with an ACL tear.
Even without those three players, all of whom were five-star recruits, we’ve got a nice crop of frosh to gab about. Here’s a head start on the new guys to know in college hoops this season.
1. Michael Porter, PF, Missouri
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 2.
- The skinny: Porter does it all from an offensive standpoint. He can play any of the forward positions in dominant fashion, and although Missouri has a lot of new pieces in place (including his brother, Jontay, who was able to reclassify to 2017 and will also be a freshman), Porter is the posterchild for program turnaround. He’ll attempt to do what Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz could not: be statistically dominant, make a push for No. 1 overall draft status and reach the NCAA Tournament. Missouri fans are already plenty familiar with Porter’s game, but if you’ve only heard the name and don’t know much else, take a look.
2. Marvin Bagley III, PF, Duke
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 1.
- The skinny: Bagley would be tops on this list if not for the fact he’s on a team that’s got more talent than Porter. Make no mistake about it: Bagley’s a bad man, and he’ll do damage at Duke this season. But Grayson Allen will probably put up around 20 points per game, and Trevon Duval should command the offense. Bagley will be the best complementary player in America, probably. He’s as well-rounded a power forward as you could ask for. Truthfully, he’s got no business playing college basketball, but that’s where we’re at now. Duke’s young, but Bagley’s likely to help the Blue Devils overcome that inexperience thanks to his dominant rebounding, deft ball-handling, terrific body control and NBA-ready jumper.
3. DeAndre Ayton, C, Arizona
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 4.
- The skinny: Allow me to coin the term “power center,” if you will? Because that’s what Ayton should be labeled. He’s 7-foot with a 7-6 wingspan, can play back to the basket or handle in the mid-range, and he’s got defensive potential that is going to put him in contention for Defensive Player of the Year in the Pac-12. He probably won’t be Arizona’s best all-around player, but he might wind up being the most valuable. He’s a stark contrast from the big man that helped the Wildcats last year, Lauri Markkanen. Arizona’s dealing with plenty of off-the-court problems, in addition to Rawle Alkins’ long-term injury, but there’s no shortage of talent on the roster, and Ayton will supplement all of it.
4. Mohamed Bamba, PF, Texas
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 3.
- The skinny: Bamba will be watchable from game No. 1, and it’s not going to be for his offense. He’s got a wingspan like an albatross. Shaka Smart has his best offense-breaker ever. He’s never coached a player close to what Bamba boasts. Expect the freshman to average 10 or 11 points, 10 or 11 rebounds, and probably north of 3.0 blocks. He’ll guard down low and get out on the perimeter. During Rick Barnes’ best years at Texas he often had guys with long reach and dominant rebounding ability. Bamba is a throwback to that in some regard. On that end of the floor, he’s bust-proof.
5. Trevon Duval, PG, Duke
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 6.
- The skinny: If he can compete in the style and at the level he did as a junior and senior in high school, Duval is going to be the clear-cut best point guard in this year’s class. He’s got composure and smoothness to his game. He’s athletic. Think of his game as a cousin to Dennis Smith Jr., only with more consistent results defensively. Duval has more lead guard tendencies than a true point guard, but he’ll be a welcomed sight for Duke fans who watched the Blue Devils win in spite of having a true point guard running the floor last season. Allen and Bagley will command a lot of attention, but it wouldn’t be a shock to see Duval seal a few victories in big spots for the Blue Devils by the time we get to mid-February.
6. Hamidou Diallo, SG, Kentucky
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 10.
- The skinny: Diallo could have taken a gamble on himself and left for the NBA Draft in June. Instead, he got feedback that he wouldn’t be a top-20 pick. Now he has an opportunity to be the dominant player on this young-as-ever Kentucky roster. And this UK team is going to be green but good. Diallo might wind up as the most watchable player in the sport. Freak athlete, fairly good handle, loves to run, will get up in your face and defend. He also plays hot from time to time, which is a good quality but one he’ll need to keep in check. He’s probably the most competitive guy John Calipari has on the roster this season. It’s a good thing for college hoops that a program like Kentucky has a player like Diallo. They fit each other well.
7. Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 5.
- The skinny: If you missed my rundown of the top point guards in college basketball, . A snippet of what I wrote about Sexton: “The resurgence of Alabama’s basketball program doesn’t fall only on the Sexton’s shoulders, but if the Crimson Tide are going to play up to the hype this season, Sexton will almost certainly be the biggest reason. He’s a flash of an athlete and a really fun player to watch. He’ll move with abandon and bring an element of excitement that the program hasn’t seen in ages.” When was the last time you tuned in to watch Alabama play hoops? Sexton could become appointment television. He was a great recruit, should be an A-level college player, and almost certainly is going to be one-and-done. There are general wonderments regarding any potential eligibility issues, — who seems obliquely connected to the FBI’s case — resign. The school claims it’s reviewed what needs reviewing and all players are still in uniform.
8. Jaren Jackson, PF, Michigan State
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 8.
- The skinny: The biggest man on Michigan State’s roster should blend in quite well on a sophomore-dominated Spartans team that has national championship expectations. Miles Bridges is getting preseason POY pub. He’ll be supported by Jackson, who will tag team with Nick Ward in the post to give MSU and Tom Izzo a refreshingly old-school pound-pound-pound approach. Since Bridges is so heralded and Ward was so good last season, Jackson’s cruising under the radar at this moment. He could wind up becoming an elite freshman by the time we get to January, though. Powerful, bruising, intelligent player.
9. Kevin Knox, SF, Kentucky
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 11.
- The skinny: Knox will probably battle with Diallo to lead Kentucky in scoring. He’s a really good shooter, someone who can be tinkered with in John Calipari’s offense. If he wants, Cal can put Knox along the perimeter and find success by getting Knox 12 or 13 shots per game. He’s 6-9 and malleable, though. If asked, Knox could slip into playing some shooting guard. Or he could be a stretch-4. Or he could thrive in a traditional small forward role. Kentucky’s got an overload of players who play the power wing spot. Knox is the most bankable player on offense in that regard.
10. Omari Spellman, C, Villanova
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 20 (2016).
- The skinny: Villanova hasn’t had a player like Spellman in a long time. He’s not going to be as vital as Jalen Brunson, perhaps not as consistently called on as Mikal Bridges, but he’s absolutely set to be a cog for Jay Wright. He’s got a reliable back-to-the-basket skillset, something that’s seemingly disappearing by the year in college basketball. You can dump it down to him in the post and know he’ll sink the defense. He’s also a solid shooter for his size. Not a one-dimensional player. Good passer from the post, nice hands. Probably is going to take teams a while to catch up to his game. Most of all, he wasn’t eligible to play last year, meaning he’s got a year of experience vs. every other freshman on this list. He’s ready to compete, finally.
11. Trae Young, PG, Oklahoma
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 23.
- The skinny: Dazzling player. If you see the headline “Trae Young is this year’s Steph Curry of college basketball” or something close to it, know that you saw it here first. No, Young should not be compared to Curry on such a high level, but the comparison will be inevitable if the Sooners freshman puts up 16 points or more per game while dropping long-range 3s at a better-than-40-percent clip. Young is a lead guard with a green light. The Sooners don’t necessarily stack up, for sure, as an NCAA Tournament team, but Young’s inclusion to the roster makes it a lot more likely. He has a chance to be statistically one of the four of five most valuable first-year players in college hoops this season.
12. Wendell Carter, PF, Duke
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 7.
- The skinny: Before Bagley came aboard, Carter was gonna be the guy down low. He’ll still get his looks. Smart player with a little bit of everything to his game. It will be curious to see how Mike Krzyzewski deploys him along with Bagley, Marques Bolden and Javin DeLaurier. By the way, if the name sort of sounds familiar, this is the kid who was considering Harvard late into his recruitment before inevitably going with Coach K. (It would’ve been incredible to see him stomp through the Ivy League.)
13. Lonnie Walker, SG, Miami
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 16.
- The skinny: Big-time playmaker who plays with a good pace and can shift his vision into catching an open shooter after he’s left his feet and made the defense commit. The Hurricanes are a dark horse choice to win the ACC because of Bruce Brown returning for his sophomore year and Lonnie Walker coming aboard to create an athletic, imposing-at-both-ends 1-2 punch. Walker won’t get overpowered by backcourt veterans in the conference. He’s got a lengthy wingspan on his 6-foot-5 frame. He plays outside in, but when goes all in, he goes all in. It’s going to be fun to watch him run. There could be a few instances this season where Walker snags a carom and takes it 90 feet for two in a flash.
14. Troy Brown, PG/SF, Oregon
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 13.
- The skinny: Versatile player who will be asked to do a lot for Oregon this season after the Final Four Ducks lost Dillon Brooks, Tyler Dorsey and Jordan Bell to the NBA Draft. Brown’s had an interesting path to this point. As a freshman in high school, he and DeAndre Ayton were considered the two best players in the class. He “fizzled” (if you want to even call it that) and got passed by another 12 or so guys in the ensuring three years. Now he arrives at Oregon as someone who can play the 1, 2 or 3, can guard anyone 6-9 and under, and will be a solid wingman to emerging point guard Payton Pritchard. Dana Altman will ask Brown to do many things this season, and he’s likely to pass a lot of those tests.
15. Brandon McCoy, PF, UNLV
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 14.
- The skinny: Will UNLV be worth watching this season? The Runnin’ Rebels went 11-21 last season, and now McCoy figures to put up big numbers on a team that’s going to need his services in a huge way. In fact, the Mountain West, which has been trending down the past three seasons, probably has its best player in McCoy. Good athlete and quick-twitch ability. His length will cause problems for opponents, and he’s tricky to handle because of how effective he is with dump-offs, putbacks. Not a back-you-down kind of guy. Active, and Marvin Menzies would be advised to let him roam in the midcourt.
16. P.J. Washington, PF, Kentucky
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 15.
- The skinny: Washington is similar to Knox, only he’s more prone to attack the rim, is a little better in getting a bucket in transition, and his size makes him a tough matchup for a lot of undersized power forwards. He’s a bulldog in the paint — but has good touch. I could see his role in November being different from how he’s used by March, but there’s no doubt about it that he’s a top-20 freshman in terms of talent and value. UK’s challenge will be working out how each of these players works together and supports each other.
17. Jaylen Hands, PG, UCLA
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 22.
- The skinny: No, he’s not Lonzo Ball. But he’s damn good. Hands could wind up splitting offensive responsibilities with Aaron Holiday, but that doesn’t mean he won’t wow and take advantage of his chances. Hands looked very nice at the Under Armour All-American Camp in July. He’s a little undersized but never intimidated. His handle is elite for his age and he can push the floor with his passing in a Lonzo-like manner. He’s not next-level with his vision the way Ball was, but it’s not a big drop by any means. Very fun point guard to watch, and UCLA fans will enjoy Hands’ ability to use the dribble in a creative but commanding manner. Bruins should be relatively good again because of Hands and fellow freshman Kris Wilkes.
18. Quade Green, PG, Kentucky
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 26.
- The skinny: Point guards under John Calipari often thrive, and with good reason. He coaches them well, surrounds them with talent and often lets them do what they excel at. Green isn’t an all-time point guard prospect, but he’ll be a joy to watch because he’s a tough-nosed true point guard out of Philly who is going to facilitate a bevy of wings Kentucky is going to deploy. Distribution might as well be his middle name. All-around, he’s not the best point guard in this class but he’s probably going to average more assists than any other freshman point guard in a major conference. His first name is pronounced “Qwah-day,” by the way.
19. Billy Preston, PF, Kansas
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 20.
- The skinny: Preston can be streaky, but he’s got the build of a player who can play well at the college level and grow even more as a pro. The question is how impactful Preston can and will be to start the season. There’s an expectation that Bill Self will use a four-guard lineup of Devonte’ Graham, Svi Mykhailiuk, Lagerald Vick and Malik Newman. The big man would be Udoka Azubuike, meaning Preston comes off the bench. That will probably be the case in November. Give him time, and by the time we get to February we could see Preston settling into 20 minutes per game and turning into a crucial piece for KU’s quest to yet another Big 12 title.
20. Gary Trent Jr., SG, Duke
- 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 17.
- The skinny: Trent is going to want his shots. He’ll have to earn them. But it wouldn’t be surprising to see him as the clear No. 2 shooting option on this Duke team, behind Allen. Trent’s also going to have to prove himself, though, because he’s a streaky shooter that might not get respect defensively early. If he can fill in the holes the way Frank Jackson did at Duke last year, it will be a successful season. Has big-play DNA, certainly. And is not short on confidence. If Duval winds up playing below expectations, Trent’s the guy in the backcourt who will be asked to step in and be the beta to Allen’s alpha.