College basketball's Midnight Madness is less than four months away! Maybe a reach. But the NBA Draft is this week and a freshman collegian is going first. So let's examine which first-year players may have the most impact in the coming NCAA season.
Powerhouse Programs Simply Reload
Freshmen obviously have a much bigger impact in college basketball than they do in football, where most times guys are redshirted. Just look at defending national champion Duke. Arguably its three best players this past season were Jahlil Okafor, Justise Winslow and Tyus Jones. All three were freshmen. Okafor might go No. 1 in the draft to Minnesota and probably won't go any lower than No. 2 to the Lakers. Winslow also is going to be a lottery pick. Jones projects as mid-to-late first-round pick. He was the Final Four's Most Outstanding Player. Jones had 23 points, including two crucial 3-pointers late, in the national title game against Wisconsin. He and Okafor were essentially a package deal for Mike Krzyzewski as they have been friends since grade school.
So you might expect Duke to take a minor step back this season after losing that trio, but the Devils are currently +900 Bovada favorites with Kentucky and Maryland to cut down the nets next April in Houston. Why? Because by most accounts, Coach K is bringing in the nation's top-rated recruiting class. By ESPN's rankings, Duke welcomes the No. 1 small forward in the class in Brandon Ingram, the No. 3 point guard in Derryck Thornton, No. 4 center in Chase Jeter and No. 6 shooting guard in Luke Kennard. Duke fans will love that latter guy because he's a lot like J.J. Redick. So other fans will despise him in true Duke tradition. Thornton reclassified into the 2015 class. He is the third five-star point guard recruit Duke has signed since 2010. The other two left after their freshman seasons, Jones and current Cleveland Cavaliers All-Star Kyrie Irving. That Duke beat out North Carolina for Ingram was a minor surprise as he played for former Tar Heels All-America Jerry Stackhouse’s grassroots program and attended the same high school, Kinston (N.C.) High, as Stackhouse and Reggie Bullock, another former Heels star. Ingram told the Charlotte Observer that he probably would have made a verbal commitment to North Carolina last November if the Tar Heels had not been implicated in an academic scandal.
So if I were to give you five guesses on where the nation's No. 1 overall recruit and early favorite to be the first player chosen in the 2016 draft is going to play next year, I bet you wouldn't get it unless a fan of said school. That's because it's LSU and I'm speaking of Ben Simmons. He is a 6-foot-10 forward and was the Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year. He grew up in Australia. It certainly helped LSU's cause that assistant coach David Patrick has known Simmons since birth. Patrick was tight with Simmons' father Dave as they played together Down Under in the 1990s.
"You don't want to put the whammy on him by comparing him to Magic Johnson and LeBron and Tracy McGrady, but he's going to be a positionless star," ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said of Simmons. "It would be absolutely stunning to me, barring injury, if he's not the No. 1 pick in 2016."
Simmons is joined by five-star shooting guard Antonio Blakeney. So the Tigers might have their most relevant basketball season since the Dale Brown days, although they did make the NCAA Tournament last season. The team's two best players, Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, declared for the draft. The Tigers are +5000 according to the NCAA basketball odds at Bovada to win the national title.
LSU's class is ranked third in the nation. Sandwiched in between the Tigers and Duke is Kentucky, which lost pretty much everyone of note off last season's Final Four team. Coach John Calipari simply reloads (think he might take the Cavs job if the team decides not to bring back David Blatt? Coach Cal and LeBron are friends). The consensus No. 2 player in this class is 7-foot center Skal Labissiere and he headlines UK's class. He's a native of Haiti (lived through that devastating earthquake there in 2010) but played high school in Memphis. One NBA scout has compared him to Trail Blazers star LaMarcus Aldridge. Haiti has had only three NBA players in Samuel Dalembert, Olden Polynice and Yvon Joseph, who played in one game. Labissiere is joined by the top-rated point guard in the class in Isaiah Briscoe. So Kentucky will be just fine. Any UK-LSU matchups will be must-see TV.