Freshman Watch: Who’s Your Favorite Jayhawk?

We’ve been gone for the past six weeks, but college basketball is kicking into high gear and NBA tanking season is just getting started.

The Celtics have lost eight straight, the Lakers have lost 10 of 11, the Jazz are still the Jazz, the Bucks remain in pole position at the halfway mark, and … it’s all happening. All around pro basketball, teams are gearing up for a nosedive to rock bottom. You know what that means?

It’s time for another Freshman Watch. We’re doing this for Celtics fans, who have to watch Kelly Olynyk and Kris Humphries play major minutes over the next few weeks, and for the people in Milwaukee who have to live and die with Brandon Knight three times a week. They need this.

One note before we get started: Maybe it’s just because we’ve all been nitpicking everyone to death, but over the past few months the Greatest Draft Class in History has started to come back to earth. We’ve all sobered up a little bit after getting drunk on the collection of all this talent. This isn’t the ’03 draft, where four guys (Wade, LeBron, Melo, and Bosh) could pop up and take franchises to the playoffs.

This Forbes piece from Mark Heisler outlines the prevailing attitude these days: “Deep as this draft class is, its star quotient is another question … No one in this class is as highly regarded as No. 1 picks Anthony Davis (2012), Kyrie Irving (2011), John Wall (2010), Blake Griffin (2009) or Derrick Rose (2008).”

A year ago you were a cool basketball fan if you hyped the 2014 draft class; now you’re cool if you say the 2014 draft class is all hype.

For the record, though, if you land in the top five or six, you’re getting a guy who can probably be a key part of a title nucleus one day, and there’ll be future starters all the way down to the teens. Or to put it a little differently: If the top of this class doesn’t have a LeBron, it still has a lot of candidates who could be Wade or Bosh. More than any other year in recent memory, actually. It’s insane.

So that’s my argument for the 2014 draft class as everyone gets all skeptical halfway through the season. Put any of these guys on my barely decent Wizards and they probably become a contender in two years.

With that said, we’re here to talk about the freshmen. Last time we did this, the order looked like this:

5. Aaron Gordon
4. Joel Embiid
3. Andrew Wiggins
2. Julius Randle
1. Jabari Parker

Now? We have a new face to add to the mix.

6. Zach LaVine, UCLA

So … 6-foot-3 UCLA tweener with insane athleticism who shows flashes of brilliance and might leave for the NBA without ever really maxing out on any of it? LaVine could go in the top five solely on the strength of GMs being terrified of passing on the next Russell Westbrook.

As far as that inevitable comparison … he’s not as powerful (or psychotic) as Westbrook, but he’s also a better shooter than Russ ever was in college, and he’s probably just as athletic. We know this because for various stretches of every UCLA game, LaVine will come off the bench and look like the best player on the floor. It doesn’t last very long, but it’s long enough to force you to do a double take.

LAVINE_ZACH

As Chad Ford tells Adam Zagoria, “You see a combination of shooting stroke, really bouncy athletically and he really seems aggressive when he’s out there playing.”

Not just bouncy, but really  bouncy. He’s probably the biggest wild card in the field right now, and nobody has any idea if he can actually sustain any of the flashes he has shown. But he’s bouncy. And he can shoot.

I was at Arizona-UCLA the other night, and in between stretches when LaVine floated and looked ordinary, there were a handful of flashes when you could see why scouts have been freaking out. For example, there was one stretch when he attacked the rim and got to the line, hit his free throws, and grabbed a steal on the other end and took it 80 feet the other way, gliding straight to the rim. He had the ball stripped on the finish, but he made the rest of it look so easy that anyone could see why people are excited about LaVine as a finished product, whenever he puts it all together. (Note: That last sentence captures the insanity of the scouting process in general.)

He also had a catch-and-shoot 3 from 30 feet to bring UCLA within two in crunch time. All net. Maybe that sequence would be considered more impressive than a stripped layup. And on Sunday, he scored 15 points in 10 minutes to help bury Arizona State before halftime. He finished the game with only four more points, but like I said, you see flashes.

He’s the best shooter of any of these freshmen, he’s quick, and his (bouncy) athleticism will help him finish at the rim AND get his shot off against anyone in the NBA. All of which is to say, maybe we have Zach LaVine too low here.

5. Julius Randle, Kentucky

I’m sad about Randle. We started the year convinced that his post game was going to put someone in the hospital, and that he was destined to be the college Elton Brand and then the pro Elton Brand with a touch of Zach Randolph and more athleticism than either one. The big difference between Brand and Randle: Brand was only 6-foot-8, but his wingspan was 7-foot-5.5. Randle’s wingspan is 6-foot-11.

SB Nation’s Jonathan Tjarks does a nice job explaining why this is a problem — namely, his shorter arms will make it tough for him to stop people on defense and harder to score on offense (otherwise known as “playing basketball”).  There are exceptions, like Blake Griffin and Kevin Love, but Randle doesn’t have Griffin’s athleticism or Love’s shooting, so … yeah, this will make you depressed.

He’s been nitpicked as much as anyone except Andrew Wiggins, but while Wiggins is getting better, Randle’s looking increasingly mortal. Especially over the past few games, too — first in a loss at UNC (3-for-9, 11 points), then in wins over Mississippi State and Vandy, his first two games all year under double figures (6-for-17 combined). All around, not a great month for Randle’s NBA potential. I have a spirited defense of Randle in me at some point, mostly because he plays basketball like Meek Mill raps, but for now we’re just gonna move on.

4. Aaron Gordon, Arizona

The RIDICULOUS part of this dunk is that he finished it at all.

And yeah, every Arizona game has at least one Gordon alley-oop, so that’s something to get excited about in the NBA. Beyond the dunks, the Griffin comparisons don’t make sense, for reasons we outlined last time. Gordon is not as dominant, and he’ll probably never be on that level offensively. But he’s much better defensively.

The biggest difference between Gordon and most other tweener forwards you see dominate college is that Gordon could guard either forward position in the pros. Throw in his rebounding, scoring in transition, and the potential for his offense to grow, and it’s hard not to love him. It’s not clear what his ceiling is, but worst-case scenario, he’s a player who hustles and does a bunch of little things to help teams win, and someone who’ll be a pain in the ass to play against for the next decade. He’ll probably end up going in the middle of the lottery because teams can’t project him as a superstar, but whoever drafts him won’t regret it.

3. Jabari Parker, Duke

Ever since I saw Gordon drive him crazy at one of the 10,000 college basketball tournaments played at Madison Square Garden every preseason, it’s been tough to be quite as excited about Jabari as a pro. He was no. 1 in the first Freshman Watch, and I wrote, “He’s athletic enough for the one-handed alley-oop, strong enough to defend anyone in college hoops, he can handle the ball and become a one-man fast break, he rebounds on both ends, and he can score from the post or the perimeter … He just does everything.”

On the other hand: Strength aside, he’s not quick enough to defend 3s, and there’s a chance that NBA athletes like Gordon can slow him down a bunch on offense. If that happens, you’ve got a defensive C-plus whom you have to play at the 4, and an offensive weapon that won’t be quite that impressive against the best defenders on earth.

I’m not saying this is Jabari’s future, but that’s the worst-case scenario. Like Randle, he’s hit a wall over the past few weeks. He hasn’t shot above 40 percent in the past five games, and after starting the year shooting 65 percent from 3-point range in his first five games, he’s shot 27 percent since. At the end of a close UVA game in Cameron last night, Duke had two huge possessions, and Jabari wasn’t an option on either one. He finished 3-for-11 with eight points, and Rasheed Sulaimon carried them at the end instead.

Is this all stupid nitpicking for a freshman who’ll definitely look awesome again by the end of the year?

Of course! It’s so, so stupid. I’m overthinking it. Everyone’s overthinking it. Anyone who drafts Jabari Parker will be thrilled, and they’ll probably be a lot better instantly.

Jabari will be fine.

But just for the record, everything mentioned above is why he dropped from no. 1 to no. 3 in these rankings.

2. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas

He may not be a Kevin Durant– or LeBron-type superstar, but that’s still his ceiling, and in the meantime the floor is pretty high. He could be a lockdown defender. He’s already a one-man fast break. He could rebound from the wing as well as anyone this side of Durant. He could rain 3s and then cut through the lane and finish at the rim.

Everyone always talks about how we’re in the middle of the “new” NBA, right? Teams are spreading the floor and killing you from the outside in. So, a once-in-a-generation athletic small forward who can lock down people on defense and shoot 3s and get to the rim in transition … how is that not the perfect player for the new NBA? If the league’s going to look more and more like the Warriors … isn’t Wiggins kinda like Andre Iguodala from outer space?

Anyone who tells you the NBA is “down on Wiggins” is lying. He’s not the player who was supposed to turn college basketball upside down, but as an NBA prospect, he’s just as addictive as he’s always been.

Imagine if Wiggins didn’t enter this season as the icon for NBA tanking and a freshman takeover, and if that guy were Joel Embiid instead. Everyone would watch Kansas games and say, “Yeah, that center is impressive but he’s not dominating. Maybe he doesn’t have the motor you need from a superstar. But holy shit, imagine what that wing from Canada could be in a few years. THAT guy is impressive.”

That’s why this process can be kinda stupid sometimes.

1. Joel Embiid, Kansas

On the other hand: IMAGINE JOEL EMBIID IN A FEW YEARS.

It’s ridiculous. He’s so big, and so coordinated, and so impossible to deal with on either end of the floor. We’re not used to centers like this, because centers like this mostly stopped existing 15 years ago.

What he is right now could help NBA teams, because anyone who’s that big and can use his body makes life so much harder for an offense. Size is a talent when you pair it with someone who can actually use it. Embiid already does that better than most 7-footers, and he’ll only get better as we go.

He’s averaging 13.8 ppg, 8.5 rpg, and 3 bpg in Kansas’s last eight games. He had 16 points, nine rebounds, five blocks, and two steals in a win over no. 8 Iowa State last night. He also had seven turnovers, but that’s beside the point.

Embiid_Joel

The point? Embiid started playing basketball at 16, and we’re just scratching the surface of how good he’ll be one day. That “scratching the surface” quality would’ve been enough to make him a top-10 pick two months ago. But then the season started, and we all found out Embiid’s further along than anyone imagined.

He’s got touch around the rim, his footwork is flawless, and he can change every shot he sees on defense. He’d be blocking shots in the NBA if he started tomorrow, and there’s enough skill on offense to make you think his scoring could get a lot better over the next few years. That’s what separates him from everyone else, I think. Any draft conversation basically boils down to a tug-of-war between what’s there now and what might be there later, and Embiid combines the two better than anyone. Even better than Wiggins. For now.

Filed Under: College Basketball

Headshot

Andrew Sharp is a staff editor at Grantland.

Archive @ andrewsharp