Now that college basketball is in its first week of regular season play, the NBA fans who care about the NCAA only in terms of watching future pro stars jockey for position on mock draft boards can finally start to get their first glimpses of college hoops’ biggest stars – most of whom are likely to be freshmen this season.
In fact, 13 of the top 16 picks in the early DraftExpress mock draft are freshmen, which very likely means that the best individual college basketball we watch this season will come from players we know very little about. In fact, there already are rumblings that this could be the strongest draft class since 2003, which means these youngsters absolutely will be worth watching throughout the season.
With plenty of college basketball ahead, here are five elite prospects who should find their way to the NBA Draft lottery before long:
Markelle Fultz, Washington – Of all the freshmen on this list, Fultz seems like the one with the highest ceiling. And playing at the University of Washington, he’ll have every opportunity to rain down the sort of statistics that make him extremely appealing as a No. 1 overall prospect. His story of getting cut from the varsity team is shades of Michael Jordan, but let’s not get carried away this early. Athletic, explosive, well-rounded and dominant on both ends of the floor, Fultz has the inklings of superior talent. Last year, Marquese Chriss found his way from Washington to the lottery, and Fultz looks like a sure bet to continue that trend.
Harry Giles, Duke – The thing about Harry Giles is that nobody knows exactly when he’ll make his debut for the Blue Devils this year. Giles tore his ACL, MCL and meniscus just minutes into his first game in his senior year of high school, which at this point was over a year ago. However, there have been a number of setbacks for the talented big man and he apparently still isn’t quite ready to play. He reportedly will be soon, even though former Duke great Jay Williams believes he should sit out the whole season. Considering Giles already has torn ACLs in both knees before even getting to college, he’s quite an injury risk.
His talent, though, is sky-high. He’s extremely athletic, runs the floor well, is versatile offensively and rebounds at an elite level. Seeing him play will tell us a lot about how these injuries and a year off of basketball have affected him and whether he’s still good enough to be a top-10 pick in June’s draft. With plenty of Duke games on national television, we’ll have plenty of opportunities to take a close look at him, as will NBA scouts.
Jayson Tatum, Duke – Also playing for Coach K this year will be Tatum, a traditional small forward with an NBA body that looks like he already belongs on a pro roster. He’s exactly the kind of cerebral, likeable kid that Duke always recruits, and on the floor he’s talented enough offensively (especially with mid-range jumpers and finish moves around the rim) to suggest he could be Duke’s leading scorer this season. His defense and deep ball leave something to be desired, which could hurt his stock for a league that values those two things in wings more than ever, but he’s a hard worker and a clean player. Duke fans are going to love him.
Josh Jackson, Kansas – The fact that Jackson is playing his freshman ball at Kansas this year is perfect considering he is essentially an Andrew Wiggins clone. Every bit as athletic, competitive and tenacious on the defensive end, Jackson is an explosive player that looks like he’ll have no trouble scoring at the NBA level. There even have been some Tracy McGrady comparisons that, on the offensive end at least, are lofty but not unreasonable. He was named the Co-MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game back in the spring, scoring 19 points to go along with four boards and three assists, but he always tends to rise to the occasion in big moments. He’s a passionate kid and really fun to watch. Let’s hope for a deep Kansas run in this year’s Final Four, if only to see how Jackson responds to an even bigger spotlight.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA – There really isn’t anybody like Lonzo Ball in the NBA today. At 6’5, he’d be one of the taller pure point guards in the league, but his size, length and athleticism combined with his uncanny court vision make him look like the kind of floor leader that could restore the UCLA program to a credibility it hasn’t seen for years. Ball and his two brothers spearheaded what many consider to be one of the greatest basketball teams of all time out in Chino Hills, CA, as they scored like a minor-league version of the Golden State Warriors and ran the table last season. Now without his brothers, Ball will adapt his game to more advanced competition, and even with one of the ugliest jumpshots since Joakim Noah, Ball still looks like a fascinating future NBA player. The only question is whether he’ll go one-and-done or wait for his brothers to join him at UCLA.
Dennis Smith, NC State – Smith is a smaller point guard at 6’2, but he’s much more prolific offensively than Ball, particularly in terms of scoring. He’s one of those little speedsters who’s impossible to keep away from the rim. Combine that with his lightning-fast first step and athletic explosiveness and it’s clear he’s an ideal NBA point guard. Think of him as a Derrick Rose type of player, as he sports the same basic skills that made Rose so successful early in his career. Like Rose, Smith also has a torn ACL on his resume, but he seems to be over that and ready for his first (and maybe only) season at NC State, where he’ll likely be allowed to do whatever he wants offensively for a team more than happy to let him have the spotlight.
College basketball is finally underway, and for many of us that means getting our first look at the top NBA draft prospects. These five players represent some of the best of those prospects, so keep your eyes on them and enjoy the forthcoming NCAA season!
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.