Breaking down college basketball's top 25 recruits for 2015: Nos. 5-1
The top high school basketball players in the country typically get significant playing time during their first college seasons. Most of those players have already arrived or will soon be arriving on campus to begin their freshmen campaigns. With that in mind, SI.com is taking a look this month at how each player in the 2015 Recruiting Services Index Top 25, a composite of several recruiting services, fits in with his new team. Here are the top five (plus a bonus player):
Jamal Murray, Kentucky
* Murray was not ranked in top 25 of RSCI, but he was considered a top 25 recruit after reclassifying
Kentucky was one of the biggest losers of the spring signing period. The Wildcats failed to land several five-star prospects they coveted, including Stephen Zimmerman (UNLV), Malik Newman (Mississippi State), Cheick Diallo (Kansas) and Jaylen Brown (California). The succession of misses was jarring, considering the success John Calipari has had plucking the nation’s top high school players since he became Kentucky’s head coach in 2009.
When it was reported that Murray, a standout at Orangeville Prep (Ontario), had decided to reclassify from the class of 2016 to 2015, it seemed possible Kentucky would come up empty again. An Oregon assistant previously served as the co-director of Murray’s grassroots program, and a Ducks player, forward Elgin Cook, tweeted days before Murray’s announcement to welcome “our newest commit Jamal Murray to the family.” In the end, though, Murray picked the Wildcats. The 6’5’’, 195-pound Murray shined at this year’s Nike Hoop Summit, scoring a game-high 30 points and recording five assists. It will be interesting to see how Calipari decides to use him given the players that will join him in the backcourt.
Tyler Ulis returns from last season’s Final Four team, and incoming freshman Isaiah Briscoe is considered one of the top point guards in the country. Ulis is a skilled facilitator, while Briscoe excels at getting to the rim off the dribble. Murray may be a better scorer than both. “You're talking about a 6’5” playmaker that can score and can guard multiple positions,” Calipari said of Murray. “He can make an impact from anywhere on the floor.” Whether or not playing Murray, Ulis and Briscoe together for long stretches is feasible, Kentucky will have an abundance of scoring and playmaking at both guard positions. That’s a good starting point when you’re trying to replace seven players who left for the NBA.
5. Ivan Rabb, Cal
The first recruit Cuonzo Martin called after Cal hired him in April 2014 was Rabb. Several high-major programs were pursuing the five-star big man, but the Golden Bears quickly made him a priority. Cal was included on the list of five Rabb released last October, and after eliminating Kansas and Kentucky, he announced his commitment to the Golden Bears over Arizona in April. “I just saw the vision of where coach Martin wanted to go with this thing, and I definitely wanted to be a part of it,” Rabb said.
Rabb is one of the most highly regarded prospects to pick Cal since Saint Joseph Notre Dame (Calif.) High’s Jason Kidd in 1992. As a senior at Bishop O’Dowd High, Rabb averaged 24.5 points, 16.3 rebounds and 4.5 blocks per game, led the Dragons to a state title and was named California’s Mr. Basketball. Expect Rabb to anchor Cal’s frontcourt after the Golden Bears lost forwards Christian Behrens, David Kravish and Dwight Tarwater this offseason. At 6’10” and 210 pounds, Rabb is a skilled scorer in the low post who offers defensive versatility. “Not only is Ivan a four that realizes he’s a four, but he’s got a tremendous skill level on the block, he’s ambidextrous, he has a variety of post moves, he’s got very good foot work, he’s tough, he plays very hard, but he can also take defenders outside and consistently hit mid-range shots,” Josh Gershon, a national recruiting analyst for Scout.com, said of Rabb.
With rising juniors Jabari Bird and Jordan Matthews and leading scorer Tyrone Wallace returning—to say nothing of the addition of five-star recruit Jaylen Brown—Cal will feature one of the top perimeter groups in the Pac-12. Rabb can provide a scoring complement inside while also bolstering a defense that finished 10th in the Pac-12 during conference play last season in allowed adjusted points per possession, according to kenpom.com.
4. Brandon Ingram, Duke
Ingram’s commitment to Duke solidified the Blue Devils’ place atop Rivals.com’s team recruiting rankings for the second consecutive season. Though the Kinston (N.C.) High standout had been considering six schools (Duke, Kansas, Kentucky, North Carolina, North Carolina State and UCLA), his decision was particularly disappointing for Tar Heels fans. Ingram played for former UNC star Jerry Stackhouse’s grassroots program and for the same high school that produced Stackhouse and ex-Tar Heel Reggie Bullock. Ingram said in March that he probably would have pledged to the Tar Heels last year if not for the lingering NCAA punishment North Carolina faces.
Ingram is considered one of the fastest-rising prospects in the class of 2015. His ascension of recruiting rankings culminated this spring with invitations to the Nike Hoop Summit and McDonald’s All-American games, a fourth-consecutive state championship and a North Carolina Mr. Basketball award following a season in which he averaged 24.3 points, 10.4 rebounds and three blocks per game. Few prospects in this class possess more long-term potential than Ingram. The five-star wing is coveted for his combination of length, athleticism and perimeter skills. "In Brandon's case, his ability to handle the ball as a 6’9” player and not just handle it, he could really be like a point guard,” Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski said. “Because he's 6’9” with a 7’3” wingspan, he can play big, too. The versatility that he has, his intelligence and his ability to score from all those positions, or help others score, make him a very multi-dimensional player."
Though Ingram is comfortable operating on the perimeter, Duke could elect to play him at power forward given its alternatives in the post. Either way, expect Duke’s focus to shift away from the low block after it funneled its offense through a dominant post scorer (Jahlil Okafor) last season.
3. Jaylen Brown, Cal
Among the top prospects in this class, perhaps none inspired as much debate among recruiting analysts as Brown. He identified Kentucky as the “best basketball program in the country” in late March, released a list of eight schools through a video in April, then cut the list later that month amid speculation over whether adidas would influence his decision. Brown was also linked to a potential package deal at Cal with center Caleb Swanigan and Rabb. Ultimately, Swanigan chose Purdue (after first committing to Michigan State), but Brown followed Rabb to Cal as part of one of the top recruiting classes in the country.
If the addition of Rabb turned the Golden Bears into a Pac-12 contender, Brown’s choice elevated them into the national elite. The 6’6”, 220-pound Brown, who has drawn comparisons to Arizona standout Stanley Johnson, is a strong one-on-one defender who excels at attacking the basket off the dribble on offense. As a senior, Brown averaged 28 points and 12 rebounds per game, led Wheeler High to a 30-2 record and state championship and was named Georgia’s Gatorade player of the year. Brown is considered a potential top-five pick in next year’s draft. In its latest mock, the scouting website DraftExpress pegs him at No. 3. “He is a strong, athletic player with a tremendous work ethic,” Cal coach Cuonzo Martin said of Brown after he signed with the Golden Bears. “Jaylen has the skill and ability to play four different positions on the floor.”
Considering the depth Cal returns on the perimeter, it may be best served slotting Brown at power forward next to Rabb. However Martin chooses to sort out the rotation, the Bears may be able to push Arizona, Oregon and others for a conference title.
2. Skal Labissiere, Kentucky
Labissiere is perhaps better known at this point for the unusual circumstances of his recruitment than he is for his basketball ability. After surviving the devastating earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010, Labissiere came to America through a nonprofit organization run by a man who allegedly inquired about how to make money off of basketball players. Labissiere enrolled at Evangelical Christian School in Memphis, Tenn., but was ruled ineligible for his senior season after transferring to another school in the city, Lausanne Collegiate, because he took part in spring practice at his previous school. His prep career took another strange turn when Labissiere announced in October that he would be playing for Reach Your Dream Prep, which didn't seem to exist at the time. Labissiere wound up suiting up for Reach Your Dream, which was formed by man running the nonprofit, while attending Lausanne.
The strange setup stripped Labissiere of eligibility for the McDonald’s All-American Game, but he dazzled scouts and media at other postseason events this spring. The website DraftExpress elevated Labissiere to No. 1 on its 2016 NBA mock draft after he impressed during workouts at the Nike Hoop Summit, and he also played well at the Jordan Brand Classic. Labissiere is renowned for his athleticism and versatility on both ends of the floor. At 7-foot and 215 pounds, Labissiere can drill perimeter jump shots, operate from the midrange, score on the blocks and protect the rim.
He’s the lynchpin of another recruiting class that finished ranked No. 3 in Rivals.com’s team rankings, as well as the most talented player joining a Kentucky team that lost seven players to the NBA this off-season. Expect Labissiere to start alongside junior forward Marcus Lee, another projected draft pick in 2016, with 6’8’’ wing Alex Poythress also returning after tearing his ACL last season.
1. Ben Simmons, LSU
The recruitment of Simmons ended before it ever really got started. Had he not issued a verbal commitment to LSU in October 2013, more than a year before signing his National Letter of Intent, Simmons would have been at the center of an intense battle between the top programs in the country. Instead, he effectively squelched the possibility of suiting up for a blue blood in favor of joining the football-first Tigers, whose coaching staff includes Simmons’s godfather, David Patrick.
After growing up in Australia, where his father played professionally, Simmons enrolled at Montverde Academy in Florida during his sophomore year. He shone in the Elite Youth Basketball League with the Florida-based Each 1 Teach 1 program—which also featured fellow LSU commit (and No. 15 on this list) Antonio Blakeney. He also helped the Eagles compile a 62-1 record and three national championships, and was named the Gatorade national player of the year and Naismith player of the year in 2015 as a senior. The 6’10”, 240-pound Simmons offers a rare blend of size and perimeter skill. He can run the floor, beam crisp passes in transition or the halfcourt and finish at the rim. SI.com’s Seth Davis described him as a “point center.”
Simmons is considered one of the leading candidates to be selected No. 1 overall in the 2016 draft; DraftExpress currently projects him at No. 2, behind only Labissiere. Accordingly, LSU is using Simmons as the focal point of a new advertising campaign. Kentucky will enter this season as the clear favorite in the SEC, but LSU, with Simmons scoring and playmaking, could push for second place despite losing forwards Jordan Mickey and Jarrell Martin to the NBA. Arizona transfer big man Craig Victor will be eligible at the end of the fall semester, and the Tigers return a strong perimeter rotation featuring junior Tim Quarterman, seniors Josh Gray and Keith Hornsby and incoming recruits Blakeney and Brandon Sampson.