Source: USA TODAY
College basketball’s star freshmen know exactly what’s being said about them and just how much praise is being heaped upon them – as much as they try to ignore it.
Oklahoma State coach Travis Ford thinks this might be the most talented freshman class ever. Michigan State coach Tom Izzo says it’s at least the best in a long time. Others are running out of superlatives to describe the athletes in this class; some have resorted to simply calling them monsters.
Two of them – Kansas’ Andrew Wiggins and Duke’s Jabari Parker – each have been hailed as “the best basketball player since LeBron James,” and both were on the cover of Sports Illustrated before they suited up for a college game. The most astounding part? Kentucky’s Julius Randle might be better than both and beat them out as the top pick in the 2014 NBA draft.
That’s the kind of class this is – a potentially historic group of teenagers over whom NBA executives are salivating. The draft is more than six months away, yet prognosticators already are debating who should go No. 1 and how many freshmen will be lottery picks.
“Six or seven freshmen are going to be taken in the first eight or nine picks,” ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla said.
This unprecedented level of hype – background noise that will only get louderas the season wears on – served as the backdrop for these freshmen’s college debuts over the weekend.
Randle scored 23 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in the opener, then added a second double-double (22 and 14) in Game 2. Parker dropped 22 (8-for-8 from the field) and added six boards. Wiggins went for 16, plus three rebounds and three steals. Other elite rookies dazzled, too.
“I was a little nervous at first,” Arizona forward Aaron Gordon said after his first game, in which he scored 13 points, grabbed 10 rebounds and blocked four shots. “I finally told myself that basketball is basketball no matter what level or where you play at. It’s always the same game.”
There are just slightly higher stakes now.
There have been other memorable freshman classes during the past four decades. The 1979-80 class, which included Ralph Sampson, Isiah Thomas, Dominique Wilkins and James Worthy, was noteworthy for players’ accomplishments in college and the NBA. The same goes for the 1981-82 class with Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Chris Mullin.
It became challenging to judge the overall quality of classes from 1995, when Kevin Garnett ushered in the preps-to-pros era, through 2005, the last year before the NBA age restriction, which requires players to be at least 19 years old and one year out of high school to enter the draft.
Many of the elite high school stars of that era – most notably Kobe Bryant, LeBron James and Dwight Howard — skipped college altogether. And in 2004 and 2005, a combined 20 high school players – ready or not – entered and remained in the NBA draft, diminishing the strength of those respective freshmen classes.
The 1995-96 freshmen class, featuring recognizable names such as Paul Pierce, Vince Carter and Chauncey Billups, is regarded as one of the best of the modern era, even without Garnett. The class of 2007-08 was noteworthy because Kansas State’s Michael Beasley dominated the Big 12, Kevin Love led UCLA to another Final Four berth and Derrick Rose nearly stewarded Memphis to a national championship.
And during the 2006-07 season, Greg Oden helped lead Ohio State to the national championship game, and Kevin Durant became the first freshman to win the Naismith College Player of the Year Award.
Durant entered college with considerable hype, but Texas coach Rick Barnes said Durant’s will to work, which evolved through the course his lone college season helped distinguish him as one of the best offensive players in recent history.
“Believe it or not, when Kevin got here, I wouldn’t say he had a great motor,” Barnes said. “But he loved to play.”
Durant, not surprisingly, is Wiggins’ favorite player.
This year’s class has the talent to compete with those historic classes. And Tuesday, eight of the top 10 in ESPN’s class of 2013 recruiting rankings will play in the most anticipated night of college basketball’s regular season. No. 1 Kentucky tips off against No. 2 Michigan State at 7:30 p.m. ET, followed by No. 6 Kansas vs. No. 4 Duke.
The freshman-heavy rosters have only fed the frenzy.
Kansas coach Bill Self doesn’t know if it’s possible to protect Wiggins from the hyperbole or incessant media attention. And he thinks dealing with all of it will only benefit Wiggins long term – as long as he doesn’t get caught up reading it now.
“Andrew will learn to roll with it,” Self said. “That goes with the territory. All the great ones have to deal with that.”
Self said the comparisons to LeBron James are “very unfair. He’s not LeBron. And he’s not Durant. And he’s not Wilt. He’s Andrew. And Andrew will impact our game and our college program in a huge, huge, huge way without question. But to compare him to people who his game doesn’t resemble at all, I don’t think that’s fair at all.”
Self isn’t the only one who has shuddered at the LeBron comparisons. Some of college basketball’s returning players have been irked by all the attention the freshmen have gotten.
Reflecting on the unprecedented hype surrounding now Big 12 foe Wiggins, Oklahoma State star Marcus Smart, the only unanimous first-team Associated Press All-American, told USA TODAY Sports: “They are saying he is the best college player there is, and he has not even played a game yet.”
“These guys haven’t played one second, and they get a lot of hoopla and everything,” Georgetown senior Markel Starks said. “If they’re hyped up to be what they are, then great. Sometimes these guys really are that good. But at the same time, it is kind of a slap in the face for guys who’ve been in college basketball for two, three, four years. You hear about these freshmen who are supposed to be ‘the next great thing.’ It’s every year. A freshman that comes in is supposed to be better than the (last) freshman that came in. It’s just like that year in and year out.”
Creighton’s Doug McDermott – who passed up chances to go pro each of the last two offseasons – said he feels bad for these freshmen, because the extra attention “puts a lot of pressure on those guys that I don’t think they need.”
But of the many things McDermott is looking forward to this season, one of the most prominent is watching Kentucky’s freshmen play this season.
Kentucky coach John Calipari has a problem most college coaches would love to have: Six McDonald’s All-Americans, just one basketball, and only so many minutes to divvy up.
But if his 2012 national championship team has a lasting legacy, it’s not talent, it’s unselfishness. When asking his current freshmen to suppress egos, all Calipari has to do is point to Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. Neither ranked among the top three in shot attempts on the team, yet Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist were picked first and second, respectively, in the 2012 draft.
“If you talk to John or anybody who was close to that team a couple of years ago, Davis and Kidd-Gilchrist were incredibly selfless guys,” Izzo said. “That is not the norm of most freshmen because they have been brought up in a different culture. I don’t know what his [players] are like. I really did not recruit many of those guys … But if they are not that way, that could be a problem. If they are that way, that could be scary.”
What is scary is that guard Aaron Harrison is a projected NBA lottery pick, and he’s only the second-most touted Harrison on the team and in his family. He and twin brother Andrew, who was even more heralded, make up arguably the best package deal in the history of modern recruiting. NBA scouts also have been raving about James Young, whose ability in transition reminds Calipari of Kidd-Gilchrist.
And the headliner is Randle. Ford, the Oklahoma State coach who recruited the Texas native, said Randle is slightly more skilled than Chris Webber and likened him to Derrick Coleman, the No. 1 pick in 1990 who played 15 NBA seasons.
“For the NBA, he will be spectacular,” Ford said. “I don’t know what position he is, and that’s a good thing. Maybe he can play all five positions at the next level.”
Calipari has been playing Randle in practice as if he is a shooting guard or small forward, taking the 6-9 Randle out of his comfort zone and making him attack from 20 feet away from the basket. Calipari said playing Randle exclusively around the basket may win games, but it would not be the best preparation for Randle’s NBA career.
“I don’t want him to play under the basket,” Calipari said. “That’s not preparing him for what’s ahead of him.”
Self sees scouts from six to 10 NBA teams at every Kansas practice watching his players, and not just Wiggins. With Wiggins, 7-footer Joel Embiid and guard Wayne Selden, Kansas could potentially have three one-and-done freshmen on its roster.
The story of Embiid, a Cameroon native who only started playing basketball at 16, illustrates how, in the eyes of NBA personnel, potential is the most coveted attribute of all.
Self understands that Embiid might not contribute much early in the season as he continues to learn the game. But Embiid, who has earned praise for his footwork, has as much raw talent as any young big man Self has ever seen. And unlike some of the more heralded freshmen who are ready to star in November, Embiid’s improvement during the season could be the most striking.
“You are talking about a kid with Olajuwon-like potential,” Fraschilla said. “And I underscore potential, OK. There is potential there to make the NBA team with the No. 1 pick in the 2014 draft think long and hard about passing up on him. He moves like a 6-7 guy and he is already 7-feet.”
With all the attention centered on Lexington and Lawrence, Duke’s Parker has managed to fly under the radar – which is a testament to how deep the overall class is, Ford said.
Parker, a 6-8 forward with tremendous scoring ability, may end up the best of all, said Izzo, who recruited him hard to come to Michigan State. Izzo points to a foot injury the previous summer that kept Parker sidelined much of his senior year as a reason he’s not getting hyped as much as Wiggins, Randle, et al.
But the hype will come, as the rest of the nation starts to see what Parker’s teammates at Duke have seen all fall in practice.
“You see the YouTube videos, but it’s nothing like watching him in person and competing against him,” Duke forward Rodney Hood said. “He loves to just play. You don’t find that often with guys, especially lately. They just want to get in the gym and get out.”
For the elite freshmen, pressure accompanies hype. Parker plays for one of the nation’s most publicized programs. For Randle’s team, anything short of a national championship will be considered a failure in the eyes of Big Blue Nation. And Self knows Wiggins could average 20 points and 10 rebounds and “disappoint everybody.”
“Those kids get hyped up so much that if they meet that level, well that’s what they were supposed to do,” Marquette coach Buzz Williams said. “It’s near-impossible to meet that level of hype. Then, they’re viewed in a negative sense. That’s so hard.”
And as many of these freshmen begin their likely five-month showcase before entering the NBA draft, Ohio State senior Aaron Craft said all the talk about the freshmen makes him feel old – and a little sad.
“You feel a little bad for everyone who comes in nowadays and just wants to leave as soon as they get there,” Craft said. “College has been phenomenal to me. I have absolutely no regrets in my time at Ohio State, and I wish I could stay longer. … I just hope these kids, these freshmen can come in and enjoy the college experience. It’s like nothing else.”