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.
I’ve always had a love-hate relationship with naming a freshman the Preseason National Player of the Year.
On the one hand, with the way that the one-and-done rule works these days, the best prospects in the country are always going to be the first-year players. College basketball is simply a one-year stopover for the best players in the country, which means that as guys like Anthony Bennett, Nerlens Noel and Ben McLemore head off to the NBA, kids like Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker and Julius Randle slide in to take their place.
Duke center Jahlil Okafor is the guy that headlines that crop of newbies this season, which means that there is going to be plenty of hype and expectation for him as we enter the 2014-2015 season.
But hype and potential doesn’t always equal immediate production, especially for freshmen playing college basketball at the highest level. It’s easy to forget that last season’s National Player of the Year was senior Doug McDermott, and fellow old men Shabazz Napier, Sean Kilpatrick and Russ Smith were first-team all-americans.
Part of that was because those four were really, really good players. But they were able to take home those honors in large part because the freshmen didn’t quite live up to those expectations. Wiggins’ has a world of potential, but as good as he was last season, he still didn’t quite understand how to harness that potential. Parker’s lack of defense and inability to get Duke past Mercer in the NCAA tournament didn’t help his cause. Randle’s Kentucky team struggled. Aaron Gordon’s offensive repertoire needs to grow. Joel Embiid got injured.
There are so many things that could go wrong when heaping this kind of pressure onto a kid that has yet to play his first collegiate game. How will he adapt to the college level? How will he fit into his team’s system? Can he defend? Can he grasp the offensive schemes his coach runs?
But those same questions can be asked of the upperclassmen as well. How will Frank Kaminsky handle being the center of attention for an entire season? Can Marcus Paige make North Carolina elite once again? How will Caris LeVert adapt without Nik Stauskas by his side? What do we make of Wichita State’s two stars?
Which brings me back to Okafor.
There isn’t a freshmen in the country that is more ready to force at the college level than Okafor. He’s a big man, but he isn’t a typical big man prospect. He’s not highly-valued because he’s long, athletic and can run without tripping over his own feet. He’s a solidly-built, 6-foot-11 center with an array of low-post moves that will make many NBA centers jealous. Like Parker, Okafor is going to be able to score immediately at the college level. How good he’ll end up being defensively is another conversation, and whether or not he’ll be able to handle double-teams from veterans that are his size and strength is also a question mark, but there’s no questioning whether or not he is prepared to play right away.
It’s risky — and, to a point, unfair — to put undue pressure on a kid that may not be ready to handle it.
With Okafor, that’s a risk we are willing to take.