I spent four long, but joyful days this month watching several hundred high school players compete in grassroots tournaments in Las Vegas and just outside of Augusta, Ga. That's a pittance compared to the number of days college coaches and hardcore recruiting experts have spent, but it was enough time to give me a good sense of many players who will soon be coming to a college campus near you. Allowing that there are several top prospects I did not see, and also allowing that it's hard to develop a definitive opinion based on three or four sightings, here is my take on 13 soon-to-be college players:
Justin Anderson, 6-5 forward, Rockville, Md. Anderson is by far the best recruit to commit to Tony Bennett at Virginia. His build and skill set calls to mind Ron Artest. Anderson has wide shoulders and a sculpted physique, and he can even knock down the occasional three-pointer. He also loves to defend and plays with a ton of energy, which also calls Artest to mind. That's mostly a compliment because, but if there's a fine line between emotion and intensity, Anderson often crossed it during a game I watched in Augusta. He shouted and talked trash, and at one point as he leaned into a defensive post position, he reached around and grabbed his opponent's genitals, which brought out snickers from the lineup of coaches sitting just a few feet away. I'm not sure that kind of behavior is what Thomas Jefferson had in mind when he founded UVa, but given the hard times the Cavaliers have experienced the last few years, I'm sure Bennett will deal with it.
Brandon Ashley, 6-9 forward, Oakland, Calif. I was surprised to see Ashley listed at this height, because he seems taller to me. I liked his game last summer, and he has really expanded his repertoire since then. Ashley does great work around the rim, but he now has a jump shot that extends to 18 feet. Even so, he does not roam around the perimeter excessively like a lot of big high school kids these days. Ashley is transferring to Findlay Prep in Nevada for his senior season and his list of seven finalists includes UCLA, Arizona and Kentucky.
Isaiah Austin, 7-foot forward, Arlington, Texas. When I watched Austin last summer, it was a very frustrating experience. Here was a 7-foot kid with terrific agility (albeit little strength), and all he did was loiter behind the three-point line. Austin was more willing to mix it up when I saw him this week, but his teammates didn't do a great job feeding him the ball so often times his effort went for naught. He sure looked good running up and down the court, though.
DaJuan Coleman, 6-8 forward, Dewitt, N.Y. Coleman's weight is listed at 280 pounds, so that should give you a sense of how he's built. He is a below-the-rim post player with excellent footwork, putting him in the mold of Jared Sullinger or Sean May. Even though he's ranked pretty high, Coleman strikes me as the kind of player who has limited potential as a professional but could be effective in college. Kentucky and Ohio State are on him hard, but Syracuse has the homecourt advantage on this one. It also doesn't hurt that the son of Coleman's summer coach with the Albany City Rocks is a walk-on guard at Syracuse.
Kris Dunn, 6-3 point guard, New London, Conn. It's always a little dangerous comparing high school kids to pros, because saying someone is "like" an NBA player infers that he's "as good as" that player, when that is probably not the case. That said, Dunn plays a lot like Rajon Rondo. He rarely looks to score, and when he does it's usually at the rim. But my goodness can he deliver the ball! Dunn is a quick, explosive athlete, and he always seems to pass somewhere you don't expect. He plays on the Connecticut Basketball Club with Andre Drummond, so of course he's going to get a lot of assists, but that's not the only reason he's so hard to guard. Rivals has Dunn ranked as No. 40 in the Class of 2012, but I have a feeling he'll be ranked much higher after this summer.
Ricardo Ledo, 6-5 guard, Fitchburg, Mass. Ledo has great size for a two-guard and he makes nice plays from the wing, but he has more red flags on his profile than any other top prospect. Ledo committed to Providence in early January and then de-committed three weeks later, well before the school fired coach Keno Davis. This fall he will be attending his fourth high school in four years. Ledo lists Kentucky as one of his top choices, but I have a feeling he's more interested in UK than UK is interested in him. Ed Cooley, the new coach at Providence, is recruiting Ledo hard, but Cooley may not feel like he has no choice because Ledo lives a few miles from PC's campus. I hope it works out for the kid, but let the buyer beware.
Shabazz Muhammad, 6-6 forward, Las Vegas. Is it damning Muhammad with faint praise to say that the best part about him is his intangibles? Perhaps. Muhammad is a crafty lefty wing player, and while he isn't a great three-point shooter, he has a terrific midrange floater than he can get off anytime he wants. But what he does best is attack, attack, attack. Muhammad is a classic example of someone who is a great scorer more than a great shooter. He really brings his A game every time he steps on the floor, which is really rare in summer ball. Muhammad was nursing a badly sprained ankle in Vegas, but he sucked up the pain and brought his Dream Vision team to the championship game. UCLA is the team to beat here, but Dave Rice, the newly hired coach at UNLV, is making a strong push to try to convince Muhammad to stay home.
Nerlens Noel, 6-10 center, Everett, Mass. (JUNIOR) I normally wouldn't highlight a player who's basically a specialist, but when he does that specialty so well you have to tip your hat. In this case, Noel is the best shot blocker in high school, regardless of class. He is plenty tall but has the wingspan of someone several inches taller. He also has that uncanny presence and timing that all the great shot blockers have. Noel is also an effective rebounder who can make you cringe when he attempts a 10-foot jumper, but given how young he is I doubt that will dissuade any of the big boys from going after him.
Rodney Purvis, 6-3 guard, Raleigh, N.C. Purvis made headlines in the spring when he reneged on his commitment to Louisville and opened up his recruitment. His reasoning was that the Louisville assistant who was recruiting him, Tim Fuller, left to work for new Missouri coach Frank Haith, who was an assistant coach at Wake Forest when Fuller was a walk-on there. Louisville is now totally out of the hunt, but Missouri is going to have a hard time beating out N.C. State. Purvis is a very chiseled 185 pounds, but while he's an explosive athlete he's not a very good shooter. Nor does he do much to make his teammates better. Purvis gives me the same misgivings that I had about Florida guard Kenny Boynton when he was in high school, although Purvis is much bigger. At any rate, he'd be a huge get for new N.C. State coach Mark Gottfried.
Julius Randle, 6-8 forward, Plano, Texas. (JUNIOR) There will be a fun debate next season as to whether Randle or Chicago swingman Jabari Parker is the best player in the Class of 2013. If Parker is the ultimate finesse player, Randle is all power, a sturdy left-hander who prefers to score through people as opposed to over them. Randle has a bad habit sometimes of trying to show people he's a point guard, which usually only shows that he's not. But when he's focused and intense -- and angry -- he is a load on the block. It's too early to have a good idea where Randle is headed, but I do know that Baylor coach Scott Drew was at every one of Randle's games at the Peach Jam. Given the recruiting inroads Baylor has made the last couple of years, it will be interesting to watch this play out.
Marcus Smart, 6-4 guard, Flower Mound, Texas. Smart's teammate on the Texas Assault is Johnathan Gray -- the top running back in America -- but Smart looks like he could do a lot of damage on the gridiron as well. He has a nice skill set for hoops, but his intangibles are off the charts. He's tough, intelligent and very vocal. During his semifinal game at the Super 64, Smart's team was defending a baseline inbounds play when he yelled to his teammates, "Step back! They're crossing!" His teammates did what they were told but not quickly enough, and the opponent scored. "I told you they were crossing," Smart said. He can defend four positions, and as one high-level assistant said to me, "He imposes his will on a game more than any other player in high school." Smart has basically the whole Big 12 after him, but Roy Williams is trying his best to pry him to Chapel Hill.
Rasheed Sulaimon, 6-4 guard, Houston. If Smart isn't the best guard in high school, then that mantle should go to Sulaimon. He has committed to Duke, where he will be the latest in a long line of guards who can both run the point and score in bunches (Think Daniel Ewing, Nolan Smith and Elliott Williams). Sulaimon is especially effective at getting to the rim just about any time he wants. I've heard that his problem in the past is he didn't have enough of a mean streak, but I didn't notice that in him at all. Seems to me like he enjoys the big stage, which will make him a perfect fit in Durham.
Kaleb Tarczewski, 7-foot center, Southborough, Mass. For the over-40 set, Tarczewski reminded me of Eric Montross. For the younguns among you, think of him as a more mobile Cole Aldrich. In other words, he's big, he's white, and he cuts his hair real short. He can also score over both shoulders and loves to play with his back to the basket (which is rare these days). Once again, though, he's a big man playing summer basketball so his teammates rarely get him the ball. Kansas, North Carolina and Arizona are the big three giving chase.