Before the concept of guaranteed rookie contracts came into existence in 1995, freshmen were seen as players who usually had a lot of growth in front of them at the college level. The NBA Draft changed forever in that fateful year and now with the "one year out of high school" rule, these first year players are usually seen as the cream of the crop of possible draftees. Since the rule came into place in 2007, we have seen 5 out of 6 #1 picks having just finished their first year of college, with sophomore Blake Griffin being the exception in 2009.
Freshman aren’t only top overall picks, many of them often fill out a good portion of the lottery as well. The first three picks in last years draft were all "one-and-done", as well as 6 of the first 15 draft choices. Of the two previous high school classes (2010/2011), 29 have already been chosen in the NBA Draft. This points to the herd being thinned of much of the top talent. Other players from these classes will still shine, there will still be a demand for them. Just know that if you are looking for the best players from those high school classes, chances are they are on a NBA roster right now.
This is why these freshman rankings have become one of the more intriguing lists to follow on NBADraft.net. This is usually one of the only classes with all of the best possible options intact. Chances are, you may not see many of these guys around for too long and that at least the top few may be making a very short stay at their college of choice. The high school class of 2012, or college class of 2016, is not incredibly loaded. It in fact may have more players stick around college compared with typical incoming freshman classes. However, in accordance with current times, these guys may benefit greatly from the ones that have left before them. Here is a breakdown of our current top 15 freshman, with a number of strong possibilities for the 2013 or 2014 NBA Draft:
1. Shabazz Muhammad, 6-6 225 SG/SF UCLA
The last "true" wing (unless one counts LeBron James, who was thought to be more of a PG when drafted) to be selected #1 overall was Glenn "Big Dog" Robinson in the 1994 NBA Draft. Shabazz Muhammad is a player who has a great chance of ending this 18 year drought of scoring wings at the top spot. A definite alpha amongst the incoming freshman class, Shabazz combines high level athleticism with overpowering strength to gain competitive advantage. The lefty has an excellent wingspan and plays every possession like it was his last. He leads by example and even amongst his top peers in the high school All-Star games, was more often than not deferred to as the absolute #1 scoring option.
His major detractors will point out his strong hand dominance as well as consistency with long range shooting, two things he will definitely need to improve to ensure the top spot in the 2013 Draft. Shabazz draws comparisons to James Harden and while he might be even stronger at a similar stage of development, he is not at Harden’s level as a distributor. Nonetheless, the only thing holding Shabazz from having a big time freshman season at UCLA would be questions surrounding his eligibility. If these concerns are ironed out, look for Shabazz to have the best freshman season seen at Westwood since Kevin Love was on campus.
2. Nerlens Noel, 6-11 225 PF/C Kentucky
A majority of recruiting services ranked this late addition to the 2012 HS class as the #1 recruit. Noel has a rare combination of size, length and athleticism. The kid sporting the high top fade is expected by some to rival the unibrowed wonder, Anthony Davis, as a shot blocker at UK. The main difference between the two seems to be court awareness, particular on the offensive side of the floor. Nerlens should be able to get plenty of dunks much like Davis, just seems to be a long ways behind Davis’ ability as an offensive rebounder. Davis displayed excellent hands and a much softer touch than one might expect from his replacement in the middle of UK’s zone.
Nerlens did seem to have some added pressure in reclassifying from 2013 to 2012, spending most of the summer taking courses to ensure his eligibility. He did not exactly blow away the competition at adidas Nations, gaining the ire of some in attendance and maybe a reality check on expectations for his premier season. Still, his first season should more than likely be his last and the aforementioned qualities still make Nerlens a commodity the NBA will be looking at closely. Nerlens level of effort will be integral to the Wildcats having near the success they did in their NCAA Championship run last season. Those expecting Davis 2.0 will be disappointed, but look for Nerlens to be amongst the nations leaders in blocked shots while averaging close to a double double. Anything more than that, Nerlens may indeed climb in the conversation for top spot once again.
3. Steven Adams, 7-0 250 C Pittsburgh
If the draft was done on a combination of physical tools and incredible stories, it would be hard to beat what Adams brings to the table. The youngest of 18 children, he could barely read or write at the age 13, when his father passed away from cancer. Taken in by a guardian who worked for Scots College in New Zealand (Adams is from the town of Rotorua), Adams turned things around, hit the books and hit the radar of major universities. Jamie Dixon, who used to play with a couple of Adams brothers during a professional stint in New Zealand, gains a massive interior presence with rare strength and athleticism for an incoming freshman post.
Adams still has a lot of seasoning to catch up on and will have to get used to the physical play of the Big East, though his frame should help. With the transfer of Khem Birch last season due to a presumed lack of playing time, one can only hope that the extra strength gives Adams a bit more PT as a frosh. His defensive game appears well ahead of his offense at this point, like most young big men. His post game is a major work in progress and his confidence at times is waning. The bottom line is, his size, strength and athletic ability are heavily attractive qualities at the NBA level. He is somewhat of a project, but one that some NBA franchise probably wants to take on sooner rather than later.
4. Alex Poythress, 6-8 240 SF/PF Kentucky
A big bodied, long limbed forward, Poythress used these qualities along with top notch athleticism to dominate high school All-Star games. With Kentucky losing their top 6 players, he will be expected to come in and fill in the role of a couple top 20 picks from last years draft. With a body similar to recent Wildcat Terrence Jones, Poythress may have more of an opportunity to play on the wing due to the set up of UK’s roster. In fact, he will be expected to do a lot of the same dirty work Michael Kidd-Gilchrist did last season that made the Wildcats so difficult to beat.
Poythress should turn into another big time recruit for John Calipari, with one-and-done status seeming almost like a lock. While there may be slight questions pertaining to which forward position he may be best suited for in the NBA, his wing skills seem to definitely be there with top notch athleticism to keep up with perimeter oriented forwards. He is a willing rebounder and can even put the ball on the floor at times. His listed weight is almost 25 more pounds than he was measured last summer, yet he has not appeared to have lost a step. Poythress should have a strong edge on being UK’s primary scorer and along with that a likelihood of being another UK one-and-done that is lottery bound.
5. Ben McLemore, 6-5 195 SG Kansas
Ruled a partial qualifier last season, McLemore was not allowed to play for a Jayhawk team that made it to the NCAA Championship game. However, he still had an ability to practice and should play a big role in what is his red-shirt freshman season. Word out of Lawrence is that coach Bill Self feels McLemore has just about as much potential as any player he has coached at Kansas. McLemore is an explosive athlete with prototype size that makes him a huge contributor on either end of the floor.
With Kansas losing long time leader Tyshawn Taylor, McLemore seems to have a heavy burden placed on his shoulders. To make this even more difficult, their were injuries that kept him from being fully involved on the teams exhibition trip to Europe. Even with all of these factors, his rare bounce and prototype size firmly put him on the NBA radar. He will need to work on the consistency of his shot, along with giving consistent effort on every play, but he seems like he could explode out of the gates for Kansas this year.
6. Marcus Smart, 6-4 225 PG/SG Oklahoma State
"Tough as nails" and "a flat out winner" are two phrases often used to describe Marcus Smart. Whether it was playing at the AAU level, for his Marcus High team or starting for Team USA’s U18 squad, Smart has experience in leading champions. Smart lead Team USA in steals and assists, while garnering major praise from his coaches. With his lock down defense and willing distribution ability, Travis Ford expects him to run a great deal of point this season for the Cowboys. While he may be a two guard by NBA standards, his attitude and versatility should really intrigue a number of teams. Look for Oklahoma State to be vastly improved this season with Smart absolutely leading the charge.
7. Rodney Purvis, 6-3 195 PG/SG NC State
After a summer that put his eligibility up in the air, Purvis was finally fully cleared by the NCAA recently. This is great news for the Wolfpack as they get a flat out scorer with some definite driving ability off the dribble. Purvis can be downright explosive and seems programmed to be a scoring guard, though with speed and handle to possibly be viewed by some as a point. Seen as maybe an undersized 2 by NBA standards, his ability to put the ball in the basket will keep him on the court early and often for strong NC State team. His college stint will more than likely be short and while he may have some concerns surrounding his pro position, players with Purvis’ elite ability to score always seem to find a taker.
8. Glenn Robinson III, 6-6 210 SF Michigan
The son of the last "true" wing selected first in the NBA Draft has been making a definite name for himself before hitting the floor at Michigan. The second coming of "Big Dog" (nickname possibilities include "Little Big Dog", "Big Dog Jr." or, probably Glenn III’s favorite "Bigger Dog"), has Wolverines fans excited as they were at the wrath of his Purdue graduate father, who scored at will in college. With their top two scoring options returning in Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., Glenn should still make an absolute impact for this team. His specialty is putting the ball in the bucket, as he can do so from every level of the court. He may hang around Michigan for a year or two, but expect him to be on the NBA radar shortly and for Michigan fans to be incredibly happy they landed Robinson III.
9. Willie Cauley, 7-0 245 PF/C Kentucky
Much like Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Willie Cauley-Stein decided to go the hyphenated route on his last name. This goes along with his new body and confidence upon arrival in Lexington. Cauley-Stein seems to be a legitimate 7 footer and has put on considerable bulk from his HS days. He showed a good deal of promise at the adidas Nations this summer and is seen as a likely 6th man in John Calipari’s rotation. Cauley-Stein even spent some time on the football field in high school, where his size obviously helped as a WR, but also displayed surprising speed and ability. Playing against the likes of Nerlens Noel, Alex Poythress and Kyle Wiltjer should not hurt, either. Cauley-Stein may not put up major numbers as a freshman, but he should contribute and have NBA teams quite interested.
10. Anthony Bennett, 6-8 240 SF/PF UNLV
Another in the recent line of big time Canadian prospects, Bennett’s body is absolutely college ready. With strong leaping ability and an ability to step out on the perimeter, he should be a match-up nightmare as soon as he plays his first game for UNLV. Much like former Runnin’ Rebel Larry Johnson, Bennett may not have prototypical PF size, but he has massive strength and an ability that at least makes a translation to the 3 spot possible. At the college level, look for him to put up big rebounding numbers and be a bruising 4. This may lead to questions of where his spot may be at the pro level, though I still feel that due to his physical and athletic tools there will be a number of teams after his services.
11. Kyle Anderson, 6-9 235 SF UCLA
Their may not be a more polarizing prospect in this years freshman class than the man they call "Slo-mo". Some absolutely love his ability to run the point, see the floor and get to his spots on the court by changing speed. Others point to the fact that his athleticism is lacking far beyond the point of players he is compared to positively (Brandon Roy, Magic Johnson, Jalen Rose, etc.). At UCLA, we will get a chance to see Kyle play off of the ball, yet still at times handling some major distribution duties. The most major concern is who exactly Kyle covers. Is he quick enough to defend the perimeter or willing to bang down low? Definitely something to monitor. The overwhelming feeling most seem to have is that Kyle is really good at a number of things as an overall basketball player, which at the end of the day should convince NBA teams to figure out a place for him in their line-up.
12. Isaiah Austin, 7-1 220 PF/C Baylor
Austin has a rare combination of size and skill set. He can stretch the floor, block some shots and even at times put the ball on the floor. The major issue with Austin is beyond shot blocking, he does not really do much one would expect from a 7 footer. He lacks strength and has yet to develop a post game to counter his face-up ability. A big first game at adidas Nations had some singing his praises, but than he went back to showing the same concerns surrounding physical play associated with his presumed NBA position. Austin is a good athlete for his size, but is he really formidable enough to beat PF’s off the dribble at the NBA level? Will he be strong enough to defend or keep centers off of the block at the next level as well? Time is on Isaiah Austin’s side, but at the current time their is that bit of apprehension surrounding his eventual jump to the big league.
13. Devonta Pollard, 6-8 200 SF Alabama
With the losses of their two main scoring options, Pollard has an immediate chance to make an impact at Alabama. He is a wing who is explosive off of the bounce and uses this athleticism to his advantage on both sides of the court. Definitely a player who will need to gain strength, though in the mean time he has speed and hops both on his side. Consistency on his shot will be something to follow, but he has a strong possibility of being the best SEC freshman that does not play for Kentucky. After a couple of years at Alabama, with some added muscle, Pollard projects to get strong looks as a NBA 3 man.
14. Archie Goodwin, 6-5 200 SG Kentucky
The 4th Kentucky freshman in the top 15, Goodwin has the responsibility of stepping into the shoes of the ever so steady Doron Lamb. For last years Wildcats, Lamb was their premier shot creator and an all out assassin from long range. Archie is much more of a penetrator and will be expected to make much more happen off of the dribble. If anything, Archie’s shot is a tad mechanical and a slight cause for concern at the next level. What he does to make up for this is attack the basket and use his athleticism as an advantage. Chances are, he may have an opportunity to enter the pro ranks right away, though much like Lamb, his coming back might be in his best interest. Though Lamb was a 2nd round pick and had a tad more versatility offensively compared to Goodwin’s superior size, athleticism and wingspan. This should bode well for his gunning for a first round spot in 2013 or 2014.
15. Kaleb Tarczewski, 6-11 230 C Arizona
Seen as the likely crown jewel of a very strong Arizona recruiting class, Tarczewski has the makings of a true back-to-the-basket pivot. The most reminiscent comparison people come away with seeing him would probably be Rocky IV’s Ivan Drago as opposed to any basketball players in mind. Kaleb’s willingness in the post, along with his athleticism and building strength, are tools that have him on the NBA radar. He has prototype size for a center and has really impressed with his work ethic this summer at Arizona. He should get big minutes as a freshman and while their is no guarantee he leaves early, their is certainly a belief that his stint in college might not last more than a couple of years. Tarczewski’s post arsenal is still a work in progress and limited at this current time. However, it is just kind of refreshing to see a player who is willing to be a center and the guess is that some NBA teams will see it that way as well.
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