Beginning in September and running up until November 10th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2017-2018 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.
This season’s freshman class isn’t quite as deep as last season’s bunch — which saw a ridiculous group that is already contributing at the NBA level — but the star power at the top of 2017 might actually be better than last season’s guard-heavy group.
While this class is very focused on big men and bigger wings, there are talents at all positions to keep track of. Another interesting wrinkle for this season is some of the new schools that five-star prospects are choosing.
Traditional bluebloods like Arizona, Duke and Kentucky are still cleaning up on five-star talents but some other schools have entered the mix for some of the nation’s best young talent.
Watch out for these 20 names this season, and there will also be plenty of other freshmen to keep tabs on throughout college basketball.
TEN NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW
These are the studs, the best players in the class, the guys that are going to be at the top of draft boards and in the all-american conversation all season long.
Michael Porter Jr., Missouri: Capable of being the best player in the country this season, Porter might be one of the most polished freshman scorers that college basketball has seen over the past several seasons. And unlike a lot of his peers who teamed with other five-star super talents, Porter is going to have to do a lot of the heavy lifting for the Tigers this season. Yes, Missouri has some four-star talents like younger brother Jontay Porter and Jeremiah Tilmon coming in with Michael, but if the Tigers want to make noise in the SEC then Porter might have to have a Kevin Durant/Michael Beasley type of season to make it happen.
Marvin Bagley, Duke: Even if Porter Jr. has a monster season, the 6-foot-11 Bagley might be the best long-term prospect and No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. A gifted and fluid athlete with a very high skill level for his size, Bagley’s August commitment to the Blue Devils made them the preseason No. 1 team in the eyes of many. Bagley is a double-double machine capable of snaring almost any miss above rim level and his ability to handle the ball and pass makes him deadly pushing off of a rebound. And with elite off-the-floor athleticism, Bagley can make plays around the rim that others can only dream of.
Deandre Ayton, Arizona: If exhibition games are any indication, then Ayton should still be considered a potential No. 1 pick and possible All-American. In only 24 minutes against Eastern New Mexico, Ayton had 31 points (13-for-16 FG), 10 rebounds, two blocks and two assists. If Ayton is focused and playing with a high motor, then he is one of the most physically-gifted 7-footers that college basketball has seen in the last decade. With unique touch for a player of his size and athleticism, Ayton can be a special player for Arizona this season if they get him enough touches and keep him engaged. And with the help of another double-double threat in senior big man Dusan Ristic, defenses can’t take a break defending against Arizona’s talented interior scorers. That should wear down a lot of teams this season.
Collin Sexton, Alabama: Watching Sexton should be a very unique experience this season as head coach Avery Johnson tries to reign in the 6-foot-3 guard’s hyperactive intensity. Sexton is the kind of electric talent who led the Nike EYBL in scoring by a full nine points per game a few years back but he also plays with such energy (both good and bad) that it has to be harnessed correctly or things can go poorly. Thankfully, Sexton has become better about playing in level-headed ways as he’s also capable of getting others involved by drawing in multiple defenders. Sexton should be one of the biggest weapons with the ball in his hands in the country this season. Don’t be shocked to see Sexton among the nation’s leaders in attempted free throws.
Mohamed Bamba, Texas: It will likely only be one season in Austin for this 6-foot-11 center and it’s hard to predict what type of player Bamba can be for the Longhorns. With a 7-foot-8 wingspan and tremendous lateral quickness for his size, Bamba is a completely distinctive prospect because he can do so many uncharacteristic things on the defensive end. Bamba is long enough to challenge and swat at nearly any look while also being quick and instinctive enough to switch onto some wings and shut them down. And offensively, Bamba is also trying to figure out how to use his unique gifts as he can limited on that end because of his developing strength and skill level. Bamba will have to show he’s able to score outside of the paint if he’s going to be a consistent factor on offense. Even with some limitations, Bamba is a scary prospect and one who should help Texas immensely at times this season.
Wendell Carter, Duke: It’s scary to think that Carter could be a top-five pick — even though Bagley is playing in the other frontcourt spot. The 6-foot-10 Carter is another monster on the interior who can impact a game on the glass, score on the block or stop opposing big men one-on-one in the paint. A little bigger and stronger than Bagley, Carter is also underrated from a skills perspective as he’s a gifted passer and solid jump shooter. Watching to see if Carter has any kind of extended range is going to be a major factor early in the season as Duke seeks consistent spacing from anyone besides Grayson Allen and Gary Trent Jr.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State: The ceiling is the roof for the 6-foot-11 Jackson as he’s skilled enough to shoot 40 percent from three-point range but long and athletic enough to be a menacing rim protector. That’s why Jackson has shot up NBA Draft boards over the past year as he’ll give the Spartans a big man who space the floor. Armed with a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Jackson can also be a major impact on the glass and defensively as he should be a great compliment to the bruising low-post game of sophomore Nick Ward. If Jackson has a monster season then Michigan State might have the scariest collection of talent in the country.
Trevon Duval, Duke: Nobody is doubting the physical tools and lead guard skill that Duval can potentially bring to Duke this season. The 6-foot-3 Duval is nearly impossible to contain off the bounce and his slick handles and passing ability is also noted. But Duke needs Duval to tone down his streaks of wild play and make sure that he’s a floor leader who can get others looks in the half court. For all of the talent that Duke has this season, it might be up to Duval to see this team’s true ceiling because he can make things so much easier on everyone else. Duval’s jumper will also be something to watch for as he’s never been consistent in that department. It’s not just that Duval is inconsistent, he can be flat-out bad shooting the ball sometimes. If Duval can handle point-guard responsibilities adequately then Duke won’t have to worry as much about the jumper but how Duval handles having the ball in his hands early is something to monitor.
Kevin Knox, Kentucky: A surprising spring signing for the Wildcats, Knox might have the best upside of a loaded Kentucky recruiting haul. The son of former Florida State receiver Kevin Knox, the younger Knox is a mega-athlete on the wing who is capable of scoring and rebounding at a high level. The 6-foot-8 Knox showed an improving jumper during his senior season and that could be a huge key for his freshman success and Kentucky’s season. Since the Wildcats don’t have a lot of consistent perimeter threats, Knox knocking down jumpers would keep a lot of defenses honest and make the Wildcats very tough to beat.
Lonnie Walker, Miami: Now that it looks like he’ll be fully recovered from a torn meniscus suffered this summer, the 6-foot-5 Walker joins a Miami team with very high expectations. A natural scorer with a developed pull-up game and ability to get to the basket, Walker will have a lot of weapons around him, so he might be an immediate tough cover in the ACC. If Walker can knock down three-pointers on a consistent basis then he’ll continue to generate pro interest as he’s been rising up boards since the spring all-star circuit.
FIVE POTENTIAL D’ANGELO RUSSELLS
Here are five players ranked outside the top ten that might play their way onto an all-american team or into the NBA Draft lottery.
Hamidou Diallo, Kentucky: Redshirting the second semester of last season, Diallo has already experienced the highs and lows of practices and preparing for game days. Now the ultra-athletic 6-foot-5 Diallo gets a chance to play under the bright lights of Big Blue Nation. With tremendous athletic gifts and a ridiculous 6-foot-11 wingspan, Diallo could be one of the nation’s elite perimeter defenders this season and he’s also capable of above-the-rim plays that could lead top-ten highlight lists on a nightly basis. If Diallo becomes more consistent scoring away from the rim then he could be a force this season.
Troy Brown, Oregon: Highly-touted since he dominated the LeBron James Skills Academy as a high school freshman, the 6-foot-7 Brown is a very polished wing who can do a bit of everything. Capable of handling the ball, distributing and scoring, Brown has a chance to play a major role for an Oregon team that is losing a lot off of last year’s Final Four team. Brown should be one of the Pac-12’s better offensive players this season.
Trae Young, Oklahoma: It isn’t very often that the Sooners get a local five-star point guard but that is the case for the 6-foot-2 Young. Nobody on this list can match Young’s long-range shooting ability as he has the ability to rise and fire off the dribble from Steph Curry range. While he doesn’t own Curry’s consistency from three-point range (but, really, who does?), the sheer threat of Young knocking down deep jumpers makes him that much more of a threat off the bounce, where he’s a deceptively good floor leader.
Kris Wilkes, UCLA: The Bruins won’t have the magic of Lonzo Ball at point guard this season but they’ll still have a high-octane offense with a lot of weapons. Among the better options for the Bruins will be this 6-foot-8 wing from Indiana as Wilkes is a very good scorer. Very tough to stop in the open floor and also skilled enough to score at multiple levels in the halfcourt, Wilkes is a potential mismatch problem on the wing who is versatile enough to play a few different roles.
Brandon McCoy, UNLV: Coming off of an 11-21 season, the Runnin’ Rebels need this five-star 6-foot-11 center to produce immediately. The McDonald’s All-American is a solid athlete who brings a lot of natural size and ability at center for UNLV. It also helps McCoy that he’ll have two senior guards to get him the ball and some of the nation’s best junior college players joining him in the frontcourt. UNLV will have a lot of new pieces but McCoy will be one of the few freshman asked to produce for them right away.
FIVE MORE NAMES THAT WILL HAVE AN IMPACT IN MARCH:
They may not be the superstars, but these guys will be relevant in the tournament.
Paul Scruggs, Xavier: A rugged two-way guard who isn’t afraid to play with physicality, the 6-foot-3 Scruggs could play his way into more minutes if he’s able to be a threat on offense. Strong at getting in the paint and attacking the basket, Scruggs can play on or off the ball, although he needs to improve the consistency on his perimeter jumper.
John Petty, Alabama: If Alabama envisions themselves as an NCAA tournament team then they’ll likely need a good season from this potent four-star shooting guard. The 6-foot-5 Petty is capable of some big scoring outbursts as he’s equipped with a streaky perimeter jumper and college-ready transition game. Cutting back on bad shots and turnovers could be key for Petty but he’s never had this much talent around him.
Matt Coleman, Texas: Without a point guard last season, the Longhorns struggled to take good shots and generate consistent offense. A true floor leader who has played for some high-level teams during a storied prep career, Coleman is hoping to be the piece that helps fix the Texas offense by making everything easier on everyone else. Coleman’s perimeter jumper needs work, but he’ll get plenty of good looks for others to make up for it.
Rayshaun Hammonds, Georgia: Some serious frontcourt depth means that the 6-foot-8 Hammonds doesn’t have to shine early. But if Hammonds can play like a top-50 prospect, then it gives the Bulldogs one of the best frontcourts in the country as he’ll join senior Yante Maten and junior Derek Ogbeide. Versatility will help for Hammonds as he’s capable of knocking down jumpers while also providing rebounding and defense at multiple positions.
Makai Ashton-Langford, Providence: Jumping late from UConn to Providence, the Friars are thrilled to be gaining such a talented floor general. The 6-foot-3 Ashton-Langford is very poised and does a great job of attacking off the dribble. Ashton-Langford could be a valuable change-of-pace from senior point guard Kyron Cartwright or he might force his way into the lineup if he plays up to his potential.