2014-15 Season Preview: 20 Impact Freshmen

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Justin Jackson (left) and Jahlil Okafor (right) at the McDonald’s All-American Game

Beginning on October 3rd and running up until November 14th, the first day of the season, College Basketball Talk will be unveiling the 2014-2015 NBCSports.com college hoops preview package.

MORE: 2014-2015 Season Preview Coverage | Conference Previews | Preview Schedule

Freshmen are a major part of the college basketball landscape. While basketball fans have become enamored with talk of “one-and-done” freshmen that pepper the top of the recruiting rankings, there will be difference-making freshmen at every level of college basketball this season.

So this isn’t your typical impact freshman list.

This one has been broken into four tiers: The headliners, the impact All-Americans, the  other high-major players to watch and mid-major players to watch. Only one player per team was eligible.

THE HEADLINERS

Jahlil Okafor, Duke – Not only is the 6-foot-11 Okafor the consensus No. 1 player in the country, but he’s also the biggest impact freshman of this college basketball season. The arrival of Okafor allows Duke to put Amile Jefferson to the four at his more natural position and it gives Coach K a natural post scorer to draw double teams and kick it out to Duke’s many perimeter threats. Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and Grayson Allen could all show flashes this season, but Okafor doesn’t have anyone else like him on the Duke roster.

Stanley Johnson, Arizona – If Okafor isn’t the premier college freshman in the country than Stanley Johnson is. The powerful 6-foot-7 wing combines tremendous perimeter skill and a power drive game that is very tough to stop. Johnson already owns the body of a pro and people in Tuscan are excited for his arrival because he might be a better fit for the Wildcats current lineup than last year’s impact freshman, Aaron Gordon

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Karl-Anthony Towns (Getty Images)

Karl Towns Jr., Kentucky – Kentucky and head coach John Calipari bring in another class filled with McDonald’s All-Americans and the 7-foot-1 Towns might be the most talented player in the Wildcats’ roster. Towns showed flashes of brilliance during the team’s Bahamas trip this summer and gives Kentucky a skilled post player on the offensive end. Among Kentucky’s loaded front court, Towns could separate himself from the pack if he can defend and rebound his area with consistency because returnees Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson aren’t as talented on offense.

Cliff Alexander, Kansas – Kansas has a few potential impact guys in Kelly Oubre and point guard Devonte Graham in this class, but Alexander’s athleticism and raw power at 6-foot-8 means he could overpower college players this season. With Perry Ellis playing more of a finesse game on the interior, Alexander’s power game gives Bill Self some nice balance in the front court and Alexander is also a premier rebounder in this incoming group of freshmen.

Myles Turner, Texas – Rick Barnes returns Cameron Ridley and Jonathan Holmes on the interior but Turner is more naturally talented as a shot blocker and perimeter shooter. Playing Turner alongside Ridley or Holmes — or in a jumbo line-up that features all three — could be a major problem in the Big 12 this season.

MORE: Best non-conference games | NBCSports.com’s Preseason Top 25 Countdown

THE ALL-AMERICANS

Rashad Vaughn, UNLV – The 6-foot-5 Vaughn might be the most physically ready guard in the freshman class and that strength allows the Minnesota native to make an impact on both ends of the floor. Vaughn and Emmanuel Mudiay waged war on each other in McDonald’s All-American practices this spring and Vaughn enjoys playing in the spotlight.

Justin Jackson, North Carolina – North Carolina is bringing in quite a bit of firepower in the 2014 class, but 6-foot-8, rail-thin wing Justin Jackson has a very developed mid-range game and he can also operate as a ball handler in pick-and-roll situations. Jackson might be slender, but he can score in bunches all over the floor.

Melo Trimble, Maryland – The 6-foot-2 Trimble is Maryland’s first McDonald’s All-American since Mike Jones in 2003 and he gives Mark Turgeon a scoring guard that can also handle the ball. Trimble has a developed pull-up jumper and will be counted on to produce immediately after the Terps lost five transfers this offseason.

Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall – Kevin Willard did everything he could to get Whitehead to come to Seton Hall and he’ll give the ball to his new McDonald’s All-American from the opening game. Whitehead can score a lot of points in a hurry and can also handle the ball a bit in spot situations. The Pirates are going to count on Whitehead to make a major impact this season.

James Blackmon, Jr., Indiana – Indiana was able to reel Blackmon Jr. back in after the in-state guard briefly de-committed and now he’ll be asked to score points alongside starting point guard Yogi Farrell. Blackmon Jr. can catch fire from the perimeter and he’s a fearless scorer attacking the basket.

MORE: Top 25 Potential Breakout StarsCoaches on the Hot Seat 

HIGH-MAJOR PLAYERS TO WATCH

Daniel Hamilton, UConn – The younger brother of former Texas star Jordan Hamilton and guard Isaac Hamilton (UCLA), Daniel joins the Huskies as a 6-foot-7 scorer with a knack for hitting big shots. Expect Hamilton to get immediate minutes — and shots — from the wing.

Tra Holder, Arizona State – Herb Sendek re-loaded the roster with experienced junior college players but he’ll likely replace Jahii Carson with Holder as the Sun Devils’ starting point guard because he’s the most talented lead guard on the roster.

Kaleb Joseph, Syracuse – The No. 46 player in Rivals’ 2014 class, the 6-foot-2 Joseph should step in and be the starting point guard for Syracuse this season, the fourth starting point guard the program has had in as many seasons.

Vic Law, Northwestern – Chris Collins brought in a talented recruiting class and Chicago-native Law is a centerpiece of those efforts. The 6-foot-7 wing can rebound very well for his position and gives Northwestern an athletic on the wing that the program hasn’t seen in quite some time.

Jordan McLaughlin, USC – Andy Enfield needs a legitimate floor general to run his uptempo system and local point guard McLaughlin should provide a major boost for the Trojans. The 6-foot McLaughlin can hit shots and is a very good athlete.

RELATED: NBCSports.com’s Mid-Major Power Rankings | Mid-Major All-Americans

MID-MAJOR PLAYERS TO WATCH

Josh Cunningham, Bradley – After winning two Illinois Class 3A state titles at Morgan Park High School, the athletic 6-foot-7 Cunningham chose Bradley after programs like DePaul and Indiana offered scholarships and showed significant interest during his senior season. Rivals rated him as the No. 88 overall player in the 2014 class.

Omega Harris, UTEP – The Miners lost freshmen Chris Sandifer and Shaq Carr before the season because they didn’t qualify but the 6-foot-2 Harris can really score and should give Tim Floyd’s ballclub a boost on the perimeter.

William Lee, UAB – The Gatorade Alabama Player of the Year is a 6-foot-8, bouncy forward who should make an immediate contribution in the front court thanks to his athleticism and motor.

Wyatt Lohaus, Northern Iowa – The son of former NBA veteran Brad Lohaus, the younger Lohaus is a skilled 6-foot-2 guard with one of the best mid-range games in the class. He should contribute immediately for Ben Jacobsen.

C.J. Turman, Florida Atlantic – Turman was committed to Tennessee until Cuonzo Martin left and re-opened his recruitment before deciding on the Owls. New head coach Michael Curry will be thrilled to have a 6-foot-9 forward that had plenty of high-major interest.

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

Preseason Top 25 | Mock Draft 3.0 | Early Entry Tracker

He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.