College Basketball’s Impact Freshmen

Markelle Fultz, via UW Athletics
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The recent trend in college basketball dictates that five-star freshmen are potential one-and-done players who have a chance to be a major impact at the college level right away.

This season will be no different.

In fact, this is one of the deepest freshmen classes in terms of five-star talent over the last 20 years. While there are no LeBron or Kevin Durant megastar type of prospects, this year’s crop of freshmen should be a major boost to college basketball.

Since the class includes so many dynamic lead guards who will be given the ball right away, it will be especially fun to track those dudes this season.

Helpful hint for college basketball fans looking to watch the best freshmen: stay up late for the Pac-12 — or set your DVR — because Duke and Kentucky aren’t the only programs with freshmen to watch this season.

CONTENDER SERIES: Duke | Oregon |Kentucky | Kansas | Villanova

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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.

1. Markelle Fultz, Washington: No freshman might be asked to do more than this 6-foot-4 guard who will be given the ball for a young Washington team. Fultz went from missing the varsity team at DeMatha as a sophomore to now being a potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft as he combines an advanced scoring acumen with ridiculous amounts of perimeter skill. With deep range, crafty ball handling, slick passes and a unique style of play, Fultz will have plenty of highlight-reel plays this season.

2. Josh Jackson, Kansas: Stepping into an ideal situation at Kansas is the 6-foot-7 Jackson as he’ll join Frank Mason and Devonte Graham to form one of the country’s best perimeter defenses. An alpha male who isn’t intimidated by the spotlight, Jackson is a ridiculous athlete who can score, rebound, pass and defend. Unlike Andrew Wiggins, who was timid at times during his freshman year, Jackson should be charged up to go right away and his production could be the key to a potential Kansas title team.

3. Dennis Smith, N.C. State: It’s going to be fascinating to see how the 6-foot-2 point guard looks this season after he enrolled early last season to help recover from a torn ACL. If the preseason videos and hype are any indication, Smith could be the most important freshman in the country and he has a lot of weapons at his disposal. An expert in the pick-and-roll or operating in transition, Smith is going to have some huge dunks this season. Some are saying he’s the Pack’s most talented freshman since David Thompson.

LEAGUE PREVIEWS: Big 12 | ACC | Pac-12 | Big Ten | SECMid-Majors

Jayson Tatum (photo courtesy Duke Athletics)
Jayson Tatum (photo courtesy Duke Athletics)

4. Jayson Tatum, Duke: Already dealing with an early-season foot injury, that shouldn’t do much to slow down this talented 6-foot-8 St. Louis native. The next big Duke wing who can score and rebound, Tatum has an advanced feel in the mid-range and he excels at getting to the free-throw line and putting up points. A plus athlete who is smooth with the ball, Tatum could have the ball in his hands a lot this season if Duke can’t find consistent options to handle the point.

5. Lonzo Ball, UCLA: An absolute wizard with the ball, the 6-foot-5 Ball is one of the best passers to enter college basketball in years. A triple-double threat who will rifle deep outlet passes and crisp cross-court feeds, Ball makes offense easy for others and the deep range on his jumper help. Although he has a funky-looking release on his jumper, Ball shot it well in high school and it made him nearly unguardable with his passing skills. If Ball can help the Bruins defensively, that would be a huge bonus for a team that needs stops.

6. Bam Adebayo, Kentucky: It comes as no surprise that John Calipari is bringing in freshmen reinforcements and the 6-foot-9 Adebayo is the most physically gifted of the group. A powerful athlete who can finish with authority and rebound in traffic, Adebayo could be Kentucky’s most productive player this season. Since he’s a potential double-double threat and the team’s top rebounder, Adebayo will get a ton of minutes, but it’ll be interesting to see how much he protects the rim and how deep his shooting range extends.

7. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky: A potential two-way terror at lead guard, the 6-foot-3 Fox is one of the fastest players in the country and could be unstoppable in transition. Defensively, Fox takes a lot of pride in being a shutdown guy, as his on-the-ball ability could make the Wildcats a tough team to score on. Shooting range and consistency is going to be the big thing with Fox. A streaky shooter, Fox is tough to contain off the dribble because of his quickness and burst, but he has to prove that he can make open jumpers.

8. Miles Bridges, Michigan State: Tom Izzo is going to need a lot from the powerful 6-foot-6 Bridges as this versatile forward could be a matchup nightmare. At 225 pounds, Bridges is more physically developed than a lot of freshmen wing forwards and that enables him to score around the rim and rebound at a high level. If Bridges shows that he’s capable of hitting three-pointers, he’s going to be tough to defend as a small-ball four, since the Spartans are so depleted in the front court.

POSITION RANKS: Lead Guards | Off Guards | Wings | Big Men

9. Jonathan Isaac, Florida State: Florida State had plenty of offensive firepower last season but the 6-foot-10 Isaac is probably a better fit with this roster’s personnel. Since Isaac is a good rebounder with a face-up, perimeter-oriented skill set, he should give the Seminoles some tough lineups this season since he’s more of a natural fit with players like Xavier Rathan-Mayes and Dwayne Bacon. It’ll be interesting to see how Isaac finds his offense, since Rathan-Mayes and Bacon can dominate the ball so much.

10. Harry Giles, Duke: The wildcard on this list because of his knee injuries, the 6-foot-10 Giles is a potentially special player if he’s fully healthy and ready to go. With a high skill level, a history of winning (two gold medals with USA Basketball) and some elite skills like rebounding, Giles could be the Blue Devils’ most talented NBA prospect, but he doesn’t have to have huge success right away because of the team’s frontcourt depth. Don’t be surprised if the nation is buzzing about a healthy Giles come March.

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.

1. Jarrett Allen, Texas: Shaka Smart was able to convince the McDonald’s All-American to stay in-state as Allen gives the Longhorns a valuable two-way center. Allen should be the key Texas frontcourt player on a team that will be smaller and athletic around him.

2. Marques Bolden, Duke: The center chose Duke over Kentucky and his ability in the post gives the Blue Devils an extra insurance policy for Harry Giles. Bolden has soft touch, a 7-foot-9 wingspan and should command a lot of defensive attention.

3. Malik Monk, Kentucky: A freak athlete at guard, Monk was a streaky scorer in high school with an ability to play well above the rim. During his freshman season, don’t be surprised if Monk has some huge scoring nights but consistency has been an issue. If Monk improves his perimeter jumper, he could be the Wildcats’ most productive freshman in the scoring column.

Top Backcourts | Top Frontcourts | Top 100 Players | Preseason Top 25

Lauri Markkanen, Arizona Athletics
Lauri Markkanen, Arizona Athletics

4. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona: Arizona has a glut of guards who will command the ball, but this 6-foot-11 forward from Finland can really shoot and he could give the Wildcats a ton of unique lineups and spacing this season.

5. Mustapha Heron, Auburn: Snubbed from many of the big-name spring all-star games, Heron is the most important recruit Bruce Pearl has brought in. The 6-foot-4 wing is physically gifted and athlete and should be an impact on both ends of the floor.

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.

1. Cassius Winston, Michigan State: The point guard should split minutes with Tum Tum Nairn early in the year, but if Winston is able to make jumpers with more consistency he could see more time and close games.

2. Alterique Gilbert, UConn: A McDonald’s All-American who is explosive despite his 5-foot-11 size, Gilbert could earn quality minutes if the Huskies play two-guard lineups that allow Gilbert to be a playmaker.

3. Kyle Guy, Virginia: The Cavaliers haven’t had a lot of freshman scorers like Guy and the McDonald’s All-American could be a key rotation player and spark plug off the bench. Guy has to fight through a crowded backcourt to earn minutes.

4. Payton Pritchard, Oregon: The Ducks return a lot of talent and experience at guard but don’t be surprised if this point guard challenges for more minutes. The 6-foot-1 Pritchard is a good long-range shooter and ball handler.

5. Jarron Cumberland, Cincinnati: We know the Bearcats can get stops, but the 6-foot-5 Cumberland can really score as he’s comfortable taking jumpers from all over the floor. If Cincinnati needs scoring they might turn to the four-star wing.