LSU's Ben Simons, Mississippi State's Malik Newman and Duke's Brandon Ingram among highest-impact freshmen this winter.
Nothing stirs more excitement in the slow college basketball off-season than speculating about the incoming crop of freshmen. Can Jaylen Brown and Ivan Rabb make Cal a contender right away in the Pac-12? Will Cheick Diallo be the next great Kansas freshman, a la Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, or will he underwhelm like Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre? The unknown is enticing and nerve-wracking. Over the next two weeks, SI will make its early predictions about which players will have the biggest impact in each class. And although they’re last in the buffet line at lunch, we’re serving up the freshmen first for you here.
1. Ben Simmons, forward, LSU
Kentucky forward Skal Labissiere is pushing Simmons in the early hype about the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft, but there’s little doubt that the 6'10" Simmons is the most college-ready player in his class. His father played professional basketball in Australia, and Simmons played high school ball at powerhouse prep program Montverde (Fla.) Academy. LSU will ask a lot of Simmons from the start. The Tigers lost their top two offensive weapons, Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey, to the NBA draft, and Simmons—along with top-15 prospect Antonio Blakeney—should inherit most of those possessions. He’ll produce eye-popping numbers, but his biggest challenge will be guiding LSU deep into the NCAA tournament.
2. Skal Labissiere, center, Kentucky
Kentucky’s frontcourt won’t intimidate opponents defensively the way it did last season, but that’s only because last year’s Wildcats boasted an embarrassment of riches in the post, including departed seven-footers Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. Although as recently as a month ago it seemed that Labissiere would be shouldering a huge load in the paint, the addition of Australian forward Isaac Humphries should ease his transition. A true 7-footer, Labissiere is known as a rim-protector and has a surprisingly good jump shot. He could progress along the same trajectory as Karl-Anthony Towns did a season ago in the same uniform. By the end of the season, Labissiere should be a dominant force on a team that will be eyeing its fifth Final Four in six seasons.
3. Malik Newman, guard, Mississippi State
If Newman hadn’t been a Bulldog by birthright—his father, Horatio Webster, starred for Mississippi State for two seasons in the late ‘90s—his commitment would have made bigger waves. Newman is the type of talent that normally winds up on Tobacco Road or in the state of Kentucky. While Newman just getting the Bulldogs to their first NCAA tournament since 2009 will be an accomplishment in the wake of last year's 13-19 finish, he will have a bigger showcase in Starkville than he would elsewhere considering he will be taking the reins of an offense that finished 255th in efficiency a season ago. New coach Ben Howland will surely give his gifted young shooting guard plenty of possessions. With senior guard Craig Sword running the floor, Newman should be able to showcase his excellent shot on his way to a strong season.
4. Brandon Ingram, forward, Duke
No one will confuse Ingram for Jahlil Okafor, but he’ll be the top offensive option for the defending national champions, who lost five of their core offensive players from last season. (Freshmen Okafor, Tyus Jones and Justise Winslow were selected in the first round of the NBA draft; guard Rasheed Sulaimon was dismissed in January and has since signed with Maryland; senior guard Quinn Cook graduated.) All Ingram does is win: He took home four state championships and the North Carolina Mr. Basketball award in high school. At 6'8", 190 pounds, he handles the ball like a point guard but should spend most of his time at the four. Duke’s offense, featuring so many freshmen, might struggle to start the season; then again, last season’s underclassmen-led Blue Devils managed just fine.
5. Jaylen Brown, forward, Cal
In terms of pure talent, an argument could be made for Brown to be a spot or two higher on this list. But fortunately for him, he is headed to a team with some more established scorers. Cal brings back the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer, Tyrone Wallace, as well as efficient junior playmakers Jordan Mathews and Jabari Bird. With a solid foundation in place, Brown and fellow top-10 freshmen Ivan Rabb will have to earn every shot they take. The 6'7" Brown has an enviable inside-outside game and has drawn comparisons to Stanley Johnson, who spent last year at Arizona before becoming the eighth pick in the NBA draft by the Pistons, and even longtime NBA star Antonie Walker. Head coach Cuonzo Martin has proven he can lure elite talent to Berkeley. Now its time to show he knows how to use them.
6. Jamal Murray, guard, Kentucky
Murray’s stock is soaring after an impressive past few months. In April, he led all scorers with 30 points (on 12-of-23 shooting) at the Nike Hoop Summit. In June, he decided to reclassify from 2016 to '15, and by the end of the month he had committed to Kentucky. In July he took the court as the second-youngest player at the Pan American games and led Canada to a silver medal. Kentucky will be deep again this year, and how Wildcats coach John Calipari sorts out playing time between sophomore point guard Tyler Ulis, incoming freshman point guard Isaiah Briscoe and Murray will be interesting to watch. Murray and Briscoe are both excellent shot creators, so Calipari may employ some small-ball lineups if the offense needs energy. After the summer he’s had, it seems a safe bet that he's in store for a big winter.
7. Diamond Stone, forward, Maryland
As with Brown, Stone could be higher on this list if it were purely based on talent. The 6’10”, 250-pound power forward is the closest thing to Jahlil Okafor that this class produced. Stone is ready to dominate the paint offensively right away. The only problem he’ll face—and it’s an enviable one—is shot distribution. The Terrapins bring back sophomore point guard Melo Trimble and senior wing Jake Layman, both of whom could go in the first round of the 2016 NBA draft. They also added Duke grad transfer Rasheed Sulaimon, and Georgia Tech transfer Robert Carter is eligible to play after sitting out last season. Stone will be essential to Maryland’s offense, creating space for the guards with his post play and his ability to step out and hit jumpers. But on such a strong offensive team, his numbers might not amaze right away.
8. Henry Ellenson, forward, Marquette
The Golden Eagles only return one player who had an offensive rating above 100 last season: big man Luke Fischer (105.2). With the graduation of guard Matt Carlino, expect Marquette’s offense this year to rely heavily on its post game. And while Fischer should continue to improve, the centerpiece of the unit will be Ellenson. He averaged 27.4 points a game as a senior in high school and is capable of everything from scoring over either shoulder in the low block to leading a fast break in transition. Second-year coach Steve Wojciechowski told SI.com’s Brian Hamilton earlier this month that Ellenson “has a star quality about him.” He’ll need to show it early and often to give Marquette a chance at winning in the Big East.
9. Allonzo Trier, guard, Arizona
Trier may be the best pure scorer in this year’s freshmen class—or he may simply be the best pure shot-taker. He averaged 30.8 points a game in the Elite Youth Basketball League (EYBL) last year. While he won’t approach those numbers at Arizona, the Wildcats do need to replace their top four scorers from a season ago. To do that, they’ll rely on senior big man Kaleb Tarczewski, sharpshooting senior Gabe York and Trier. Even if Trier doesn’t start immediately—fellow frosh Ray Smith will push him for that spot—he’ll still get plenty of minutes and plenty of touches.
10. Cheick Diallo, forward, Kansas
Diallo could have a huge impact immediately for the Jayhawks—or he could not play at all. In what seems all-too familiar scenario that must be all-too frustrating for coach Bill Self, Diallo may not be eligible to play right away this season as the NCAA reviews his high school, Our Savior New American, in Centereach, N.Y. On Saturday, Self told reporters that Diallo’s eligibility decision is at least a month away. After losing heralded freshman Cliff Alexander to an NCAA probe late last season, this is certainly not what Self wanted for his star first-year big man this summer. After averaging 17.5 points, 10.5 rebounds and 2.5 blocks a game as a high school senior, Diallo seems ready to do everything for Kansas. He’s praised for his high motor and tenacity in chasing rebounds, but his most important mission for this summer is simply to ensure he’ll see be on the floor when the season starts.