Off-season Power Rankings: Duke has firm grasp on top spot
The draft is behind us, and the window for college coaches to be rumored for NBA job openings has closed. The transfer market has mostly settled, with just one potential major-conference starter, former Nebraska wing Andrew White III, still available. Every top-100 recruit from the Class of 2016 has committed to a college, and we know which one is skipping college altogether: ex-Arizona signee Terrance Ferguson, who signed a pro deal in Australia instead. All of which makes this an ideal time to unveil SI’s offseason Power Rankings. The potential for seismic change between now and November has been minimized.
Let’s begin with a hypothetical. If Duke’s roster were comprised exclusively of returnees, where would it rank? Consider this starting lineup:
PG: Grayson Allen (Jr.)
SG: Luke Kennard (Soph.)
SF: Matt Jones (Sr.)
PF: Chase Jeter (Soph.)
PF/C: Amile Jefferson (Sr.)
Yes, the bench would be so thin that the backcourt might collapse before it reaches the ACC tournament, and yes, walk-ons would be getting spot minutes, but that would still—easily—be a top-10 team next season.
That hypothetical starting lineup has five former top-30 recruits, three of them with experience in a national-title run. Jones and Jefferson are among the nation’s best glue guys. And Allen, regardless of whether he drives you nuts, is a rare backcourt commodity. During the past 10 seasons, just four major-conference guards have stayed in school for another year after hitting what I consider the "super-efficient go-to-guy" threshold: using at least 25% of their team’s possessions with an offensive rating of 120 or better. Allen is one of them—and the only one that had first-round draft potential when he opted to remain in college:
Duke’s reality is much better than my hypothetical. The aforementioned group of returnees, who might be good enough to win the ACC on their own, are being joined by the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class. Filling out Duke’s rotation will be the No. 2 prospect in the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, power forward Harry Giles; the No. 4 prospect, small forward Jayson Tatum; the No. 11 prospect, center Marques Bolden; the No. 14 prospect, combo guard Frank Jackson; and the No. 35 prospect, power forward Javin Montgomery-DeLaurier. All of which means that choosing a No. 1 team for this upcoming season is much easier than it was last year.
There is no clear next-best team after Duke. I settled on the Jayhawks due to the Bill Self Reliability Factor (seven top-10 finishes in adjusted efficiency in the past 10 years, despite significant roster turnover) and the quality of their starting perimeter trio. Whereas Duke’s one potential flaw is that it lacks a pure point guard, Kansas’s starting backcourt will have two seasoned floor generals and the potential No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft in freshman wing Josh Jackson, making it arguably the best 1-2-3 punch in the nation.
Power Rankings-Within-Power Rankings: The six best perimeter trios for 2016–17, based on expected college production
1. Kansas: Dual PGs Frank Mason and Devonte’ Graham, SF Josh Jackson
2. Duke: Dual combo guards Allen and Kennard (or Jackson), SF Tatum
3. Kentucky: PG De’Aaron Fox at PG, combo Malik Monk, non-shooting wing Isaiah Briscoe
4. Oregon: PG Dylan Ennis (or Casey Benson), SG Tyler Dorsey, SF Dillon Brooks
5. North Carolina: PG Joel Berry, SG Theo Pinson, SF Justin Jackson
6. Villanova: PG Jalen Brunson, combo Phil Booth, SF Josh Hart
Plenty of things to be excited about on the ‘Nova front, starting with the likely breakout of sophomore Mikal Bridges. The 6'7" freshman was the Wildcats’ defensive Swiss Army knife coming off the bench during the NCAA tournament, as he was able to guard four positions and use his massive (7'1") wingspan to create turnovers, often as the head of their 1-2-2 press. (The steal in the below GIF was kind of a big deal, helping seal Villanova’s trip to the Final Four.):
In Bridges and teammate Josh Hart—who split primary defensive duties on Oklahoma’s Buddy Hield in his nightmare college farewell in Houston—the Wildcats should have the nation’s best pair of defensive wings, and both are excellent around-the-basket finishers on offense. What I’d love to see is coach Jay Wright experiment with a super small-ball lineup of Hart, Kris Jenkins and Bridges as the 3-4-5, to get all of his best players (and five shooting threats) on the floor together.
No team had more things go right this offseason than the Ducks. In March, Chris Boucher, their 6'10" gem of a juco transfer, received a waiver for another season of eligibility, and then passed on entering the NBA draft, where his combination of shot-blocking and three-point shooting likely would have made him a second-round pick. Playmaking forward Dillon Brooks and shooting guard Tyler Dorsey made the right call to pass on the draft, too, giving Oregon All-Pac-12 candidates at the 2, 3 and 4 spots. And then on June 30, Villanova transfer Dylan Ennis, who missed nearly all of ‘15–16 with multiple foot injuries, received a medical waiver to extend his college career to a sixth season. When Ennis arrived as a graduate transfer prior to last season, coach Dana Altman called him the best player and leader on the team, and Ennis was projected to start at point guard. He and junior Casey Benson, who emerged as a solid, pass-first game manager in Ennis’s absence, should combine to give Oregon 40 quality minutes at the 1.
The Wildcats should be good enough to run away with the SEC, but will their offense be efficient enough to win the school’s ninth national title? I have them 2-3 spots lower than other offseason rankings mostly because I have concerns about their long-range shooting ability. Senior stretch-four Derek Willis will almost certainly be Kentucky’s most dangerous perimeter threat, as it’s likely to start one non-shooting guard (sophomore Isaiah Briscoe), a freshman point guard with a suspect long-range shot (De’Aaron Fox) and a freshman combo guard (Malik Monk) whom I’d define as more of a volume scorer than a marksman.
AAU, high-school all-star and summer sneaker-camp stats collected by DraftExpress allow us to get a sense of how Fox and Monk profile as shooters coming into college, and how they compare to past and present Kentucky guards. In a sample of 232 treys over the past three years, Fox made just 28.0%. Monk’s sample is much larger—383 treys, which accounted for 45.5% of his shots—and his accuracy is slightly better, at 32.1%. But their pre-Kentucky profiles lag well behind those of Jamal Murray, Tyler Ulis or Devin Booker, all of whose high-school accuracy translated over to college.
Joel Berry is on a promising trajectory. He jumped from backup point guard duty in ‘14–15 to a starting role as a sophomore, and increased his efficiency, usage rate, assist-turnover ratio and two-point, three-point and free-throw percentages in the process. In the NCAA tournament, he had a 30-to-8 assist-turnover ratio, and he was one of the best players on the floor in an epic national title game, even if his performance is unlikely to be remembered due to all the attention on Kris Jenkins’s and Marcus Paige's heroics. Berry is a big-game guard—he had a remarkable 131.3 offensive rating against opponents ranked in kenpom.com’s top 50 last season—and his next step should be to take on a bigger scoring role with Paige and Brice Johnson moving on to the pros.
Personnel-wise, the Badgers will be almost the same as they were last year, when they went 22–13 and reached the Sweet 16. They bring back their entire rotation and figure to have the same starting lineup—but I expect them to become a much better team. They’ll have the continuity of the same head coach all season (Greg Gard took over in December of last year after Bo Ryan’s awkward departure) and the same swing offensive structure (which Gard had to alter in his first month). Star forward Nigel Hayes is an obvious, offensive bounce-back candidate after a junior season in which his two- and three-point percentages and overall efficiency dropped off significantly. The team as a whole is likely to cut down on turnovers as it gets more experienced; mistake-avoidance has long been a pillar of Badgerball, but they committed turnovers on 17.1% of their possessions last year, their highest rate since ‘07–08. They also add quality depth in redshirt freshmen Brevin Pritzl, a former four-star shooting guard, and Andy Van Vliet, a stretch power forward—something that should be a boost for a program that ranked 340th in minutes allocated to its bench in ‘15–16.
Virginia managed to have an elite defense without elite rim protection last season, as starting five-man Anthony Gill was an infrequent shot-blocker, swatting just 2.6% of opponents’ twos. That should change as Memphis transfer Austin Nichols is swapped into the lineup. Nichols is the same height as the departed Gill—6'8"—but Nichols’ shops, length and timing allowed him to block 12.5% of opponents' twos for the Tigers in ‘14–15, the eighth-best block rate in the nation. Here’s an example of Nichols using what might be best described as his “casual explosiveness” to rotate over on a drive and shut down a layup attempt:
The Wildcats’ Finnish 7-footer, Lauri Markkanen, should be the best new Euro import in college basketball this season, with most of his value coming as a pick-and-pop stretch-four on offense. Stats on Markkanen are available from three FIBA Europe competitions over the past three years, and he profiles as a legit shooter, taking 40.2% of his shots from the international three-point line and making 41.3% of them. Markkanen’s FIBA film passes the eye test, too—his catch-and-shoot mechanics look great, he’s also able to attack off the bounce, and he’s mobile enough to handle switches on defense. I like what I’ve seen.
Speedy redshirt sophomore Edmond Sumner has the physical tools to become the Big East’s best point guard. He’s already one of the league’s best free-throw generators off the bounce—he drew 5.8 fouls per 40 minutes in conference play—but needs to be a more effective interior scorer when he doesn’t get fouled. He shot 49.6% on dunks and layups this past season and just 27.9% on all other twos, which dragged down his efficiency. If he somehow can solve that and become a respectable three-point shooter—that part could be two years away—he’ll be unguardable.
This might seem high for the Cardinals, but the Rick Pitino Reliability Factor is just as strong as the aforementioned Self Factor. Pitino’s Louisville defenses have ranked in the top five in adjusted efficiency for eight out of the past nine seasons, and his roster has the talent, size and athleticism to do it again. Pair that with a respectable offense, in a season where the rankings seem wide open after the top six, and you have a team worth of the top 16. The “respectable offense” assumption is based on sophomore guard Donovan Mitchell capably handling a go-to-guy role, and twin towers Mangok Mathiang and Ray Spalding serving as high-percentage finishers around the rim, but I think both of those expectations are reasonable.
Post-ups accounted for 8.7% of the Hoosiers’ offensive possessions last season, slightly above the national average of 8.1%, according to Synergy Sports Technology. I’m curious if the return of sophomore 7-footer Thomas Bryant will push that post-up rate higher. As a freshman Bryant averaged 1.02 points per possession in the post, making him the ninth-most efficient major-conference big man in that category (with a minimum of 100 possessions). Going too heavy on post-ups, especially when you have the shooters that Indiana does, is unwise, but Bryant was efficient enough last season that giving him the ball on the blocks was a better option for the Hoosiers than an isolation or a pick-and-roll.
The decision by former five-star power forward Caleb Swanigan to pass on the NBA draft was hailed as a boon for the Boilermakers, but could the return of monstrous, junior center Isaac Haas—who wasn’t a real risk to leave—be an even bigger deal? Swanigan was a defensive-rebounding force as a freshman, but in Big Ten games plus the postseason, Purdue played better with him on the bench (a +0.15 efficiency margin) than on the floor (+0.05 PPP). The member of the Boilers’ frontcourt who made the biggest impact from an efficiency-margin standpoint was the 7'2" Haas: they were +0.21 PPP with him in the game and +0.05 with him sitting. With A.J. Hammons no longer blocking him at center, Haas’s minutes are almost certain to increase.
This is yet another Coach Reliability Factor decision. Tom Izzo’s teams have been in the top 20 for each of the past five years, and eight of the past 10. This version of the Spartans is no lock to thrive, because it requires some serious offensive re-tooling post-Denzel Valentine and Bryn Forbes. But Izzo has two elite, long-range shooters in Eron Harris and Matt McQuaid, enough role players to piece together a frontcourt, and a new star arriving in freshman small forward Miles Bridges, the No. 11 recruit in the 2016 RSCI. This team’s ceiling is a surprise run at a Big Ten title, and its floor is probably a 7-seed in the NCAAs.
Last season, Randy Bennett took a team that SI projected to rank 132nd nationally, due to it having an all new (and mostly unproven) starting lineup, and finished 45th in efficiency and in a tie for the West Coast Conference regular-season title. It was one of 2015–16’s best coaching jobs—but the Gaels no longer have the luxury of sneaking up on anyone. They return every player and have the makings of one of the country’s best offenses, with the potential to have five 40-plus-percent long range shooters.
The Zags are this season’s Transfer U, with PG Nigel Williams-Goss (Washington), SG Jordan Matthews (Cal) and PF Johnathan Williams III (Missouri) all projected to be in the rotation. Having PG Josh Perkins and SG Silas Melson back makes the Zags two-deep, with quality, at each of the backcourt spots, but the biggest key is getting Polish center Przemek Karnowski, whose ‘15–16 season was cut short after just five games due to a back injury, in working order. At 7'1" and 287 pounds, he can be almost unguardable in the post—he shot 65.6% on twos as a junior—and he has major value as a conservative, straight-up rim protector.
The Next 16
18. Texas A&M
20. West Virginia
21. Iowa State
24. Rhode Island
27. Virginia Tech
31. Florida State
32. Wichita State