(As part of Prospectus' continuing relationship with Sports Illustrated, you can also read this piece at SI.com.)
The superstar freshman basketball player has had as about as many incarnations through history as Sinatra.
Before 1972, of course, the fabulous freshman weren’t even eligible. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, arguably the greatest college player of all-time, played on the freshman team in his first year at UCLA. Legend has it that Abdul-Jabbar (then known as Lew Alcindor) and his freshman teammates beat the Bruin varsity in a preseason scrimmage. Impressive being that UCLA was the defending national champions.
After the NCAA reinstated freshman eligibility, first-year players often contributed but more often than not sat behind upperclassmen. Even Michael Jordan, who started as a freshman at North Carolina, was still the third wheel on a national champion Tar Heel squad that also featured Sam Perkins and James Worthy.
Beginning with Kevin Garnett in 1995, most top high school seniors began skipping college altogether. Kobe Bryant never went to Villanova. LeBron James was never a Buckeye. With the notable exception of Carmelo Anthony at Syracuse, by 2005 the notion of the superstar freshman was all but extinguished.
That changed three years ago, when the NBA announced the implementation of a draft-age requirement (19 years) that meant even the most talented amateur American players would have to spend at least one token year in school. Unlike the 1973-1994 era, however, this time freshmen took center stage in the college basketball world. With so many of the top talents departing after their sophomore or junior seasons, the best first-year players were now expected to lead their teams right away.
The end result was last season, when college basketball featured what some consider to be the best freshman class in NCAA history. Freshmen Derrick Rose of Memphis and Kevin Love of UCLA were the top players on Final Four teams. Kansas State’s Michael Beasley was viewed by many as the nation’s best player. The sexiest matchup of the first round in the most recent NCAA tournament--Kansas State and USC--was deemed so because of the head-to-head matchup of fabulous freshmen Beasley and O.J. Mayo.
Not surprisingly, quite of few of last season’s freshman class, 13 of them to be exact, turned out to be of the one-and-done variety, declaring for the NBA draft en masse. A number of these players populate the upper rungs of mock drafts all over cyberspace.
One season of major-college competition yields invaluable evaluative data that makes life easier for basketball operations officials in the NBA. Two years would be better. Three or four years would be perfect. One year of college ball tells scouts infinitely more than four years of high school competition. Yet there still is a considerable risk factor involved with one-and-done players. Talent evaluators still face a precarious balancing act in weighing production and potential, with the latter usually winning out.
So who among the 13 players coming out is ready for The Show? Who may be retarding their development by coming out? For all but two of these players, the “should they stay or should they go” question is moot. All but North Carolina State’s J.J. Hickson and Kansas State’s Bill Walker have already signed with an agent.
Ready For The NBA
- Michael Beasley, Kansas State. Beasley would have been the NBA’s best rookie player last season had he been able to turn pro directly out of high school. Beasley is the complete package offensively, is a dominant rebounder and has NBA strength. (NBA Comp: a better-passing Carmelo Anthony without the over-reliance on jump shots)
- Derrick Rose, Memphis. Rose is an athletic marvel, with topflight leaping ability and quickness. His numbers don't exactly leap off the page, but the bottom line is that as a freshman, he nearly led his team to an undefeated season and was a hairsbreadth way from leading the Bulldogs to the national title. (NBA Comp: Jason Kidd with a jump shot)
- O.J. Mayo, USC. Unrealistic expectations masked the fact that Mayo became the best player on a talented team as freshman. Needs to make better use of his athleticism in getting to the basket and not spend so much time on the perimeter. Mayo has underrated skills as a playmaker. (NBA Comp: Jamaal Crawford with much more consistency)
- Kevin Love, UCLA. One of the premier freshmen and overall rebounders in the land, Love has a full range of skills and a body mature beyond its years. Love may rank with Beasley as the most NBA-ready freshman in the draft but he may also be the closest to his long-term ceiling. (NBA Comp: Carlos Boozer)
- Jerryd Bayless, Arizona. Bayless features a great first step, shoots the ball well from deep but also has a tremendous knack for getting to the foul line. Only drawback is that he has a two-guard’s game in a lead guard’s body. (NBA Comp: Jason Terry)
- J.J. Hickson, N.C. State. Hickson still has until June 16 to withdraw his name from the draft. Another year could vault him into next year’s lottery, but Hickson’s game is nearly ready for the next level. He’s a bit short for a power forward, but is very strong, has a nice inside-to-midrange shooting touch. Hickson has the agility to be a top-notch defender. The production in his one season with the Wolfpack has been underrated and marks him as a sleeper. (NBA Comp: David Lee)
Needs More Seasoning
- DeAndre Jordan, Texas A&M. The 7'0", 255 pound Jordan is extremely talented and extremely raw, as evidenced by his 43.7 percent mark from the foul stripe last season. He's got no passing skills and turns the ball over way too much. He's got the potential to be a dominant rebounder and interior defender in the NBA, but really needed another year or two at A&M to develop his offensive game. Let’s not forget that Aggie coach Mark Turgeon didn’t even start Jordan in the NCAA tournament. (NBA Comp: Kwame Brown)
- Eric Gordon, Indiana. Gordon has NBA talent, there’s no denying that. Nevertheless, he was an inefficient shooter in his one year at Indiana and the playmaking skills that he’s going to need as a 6’4” guard were inconsistent and need polish. He finished off his career with a 3-of-15 shooting performance in the NCAA tournament. His situation is tricky--Gordon needs more seasoning, but how much could he have improved by playing another year for the decimated Hoosiers? (NBA Comp: Rashad McCants with more upside)
- Anthony Randolph, LSU. Along with Jordan, Randolph is destined to become a classic potential over production pick. He’s 6’11” with a long wingspan and tremendous athleticism. But can he play basketball? Randolph shot only 48.3 percent on two-point attempts last season and had lackluster rebound rates. He’s a major gamble that someone will take with one of the first six or seven picks. (NBA Comp: Kevin Garnett's body; Andray Blatche's game)
- Kosta Koufos, Ohio State. Watching Koufos, you could see his raw potential. He looked a little uncomfortable with his midrange game, something that you’d think would be a strong point. In the paint, Koufos has a nice jump hook but he’ll be a face-up player in the NBA. With hyped center B.J. Mullens headed to Columbus next season, Koufos could have developed his perimeter game on a strong Buckeye squad. (NBA Comp: Raef LaFrentz)
- Davon Jefferson, USC. Displayed solid interior skills as freshman but doesn’t have the type of body to translate that to the next level. Jefferson is already 21 years old, which limits his upside projections. With some solid coaching, could become a good NBA defender and adequate midrange shooter. (NBA Comp: Jamario Moon)
- Donte Greene, Syracuse. Greene has great athleticism and has raw skills and a build not unlike Kevin Durant. Not that it matters because all Greene does is stand around and chuck up three-point shots and not very efficiently, at that. That’s why this particular NBA comp was selected. (NBA Comp: Steve Novak)
- Bill Walker, Kansas State. For all of his hype, Walker underachieved with Kansas State. His once near-mythic explosiveness just hasn't been there since a knee injury last season. A 6'6" tweener, he would do well to hang around another year outside of Beasley's considerable shadow. (NBA Comp: Kareem Rush)
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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