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Kentucky continues to add to top class
John Calipari and the Kentucky Wildcats surged into the No. 1 spot in the team recruiting rankings during the month of December when they snagged four pledges from top 50 prospects, including three five-star prospects.
Right before Christmas the Wildcats added to their lead in the rankings when they landed a pledge from Jarred Vanderbilt. The combo forward ranks as the No. 15 prospect overall and gives Kentucky four total five-star prospects committed in the class.
Calipari just continues to keep things rolling on the recruiting trail. He has had Kentucky in the top two of the team recruiting rankings every year since he took over in Lexington, and that streak will absolutely continue this year as well.
The addition of Vanderbilt was nice for Kentucky, but it also comes from a spot of depth. The Wildcats already had landed a similar player in P.J. Washington, so now Calipari and his staff have two players who are more power forwards than small forwards, but who are elite rebounders with athleticism and tremendous motors.
It is clear by the makeup of this class that Calipari isn’t worried at all about positions on the basketball court. He simply wants to get the most talented players that he can find, and then dominate with athleticism, physical play, toughness, rebounding and defense.
With a frontline of Vanderbilt, Washington, and five-star center Nick Richards, there likely won’t be a more imposing front-court in the country on the defensive end or rebounding-wise in the 2017–18 season. None of those three players are dynamic offensive players yet, but they’ll be a nightmare to contend with on defense.
It is possible the Wildcats will continue to add to their class going forward as well. They remain in the top group for five-star small forward Kevin Knox, five-star shot-blocking center Mohamed Bamba, and recently hosted top-10 wing Hamidou Diallo for an official visit.
The situation with Diallo is interesting. Since Diallo graduated last year, he is actually NBA draft eligible in 2017, and NBA teams have been scouting him all year. He could enroll in a college for the second semester and practice without playing, or he could enroll and play right away with the NCAA team. Of course, he might also never play in an NCAA game, if he elects to jump straight to the draft.
What Diallo does is up in the air, but his combination of elite athleticism and size could potentially give Kentucky one more weapon to come in and make an impact right away.
Eleven early candidates for college basketball player of the year
Honorable mention: Markelle Fultz, Washington
From a statistical standpoint, Markelle Fultz has better numbers than everyone on this list. Fultz is averaging 22.0 points, 6.2 rebounds and 6.3 assists a game. The issue is Washington has underachieved and is 7–5 entering Pac-12 play. So basically, Fultz doesn't have a chance at winning this award. But since Fultz could very well be a top pick in June's NBA draft, his play should be noted. He's performing at a high level and has scored 20 or more in eight games this season. In high school, he was thought of as an average shooter. Now it's a strength, as he's averaging 46.8% from three-point range. — Evan Daniels
10. TJ Leaf, UCLA
Lonzo Ball seems to be getting most of the attention at UCLA, but TJ Leaf has been terrific as well. The freshman has had a seamless transition to college and has been as efficient on the offensive end as any player on this list. Leaf has hit 65.5% of his field goal attempts so far this season. He's been the difference maker in some of UCLA's biggest wins, including at then-No. 1 Kentucky. Leaf leads the Bruins in scoring with 17.5 points a game, but is also reeling in 9.2 rebounds and tossing out 2.8 assists a game. — E.D.
9. Joel Berry, UNC
This was a tough call, as you could easily have North Carolina wing Justin Jackson on this list, especially after his 34-point outburst against Kentucky. But thus far, Berry has been UNC's MVP, so we'll go with him for now. Berry is averaging 15.2 points, 4.7 assists and 3.9 rebounds through 13 games. Berry has been efficient and his percentages are up across the board from last season, including from three, where he's shooting 43.6% on 55 attempts. — E.D.
No. 8 Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
The Oklahoma State point guard is carrying coach Brad Underwood's team. Jawun Evans has taken a huge leap forward this season and raised his scoring average from 12.9 last season to 20.2 through 12 games. He's had four 25-plus point games and is averaging 4.6 assists and 3.1 rebounds. The only gripe about his game would be his 2.5 turnovers a game, but he's asked to do so much for Oklahoma State that it's hard to knock him. Evans has tremendous speed and is tough for opposing defenders to keep in front. Plus he's even shooting the ball well from deep (56.0% from three). — E.D.
No. 7 Amile Jefferson
Amile Jefferson has been active, consistent and efficient for the Blue Devils through the first third of the season. Jefferson is averaging 14.2 points and 10.8 rebounds a game, while shooting 64.8% from the field. With Jayson Tatum, Marques Bolden and Harry Giles now available, Jefferson's production may drop some, but he's been Duke's best rebounder and its vocal leader. — E.D.
No. 6 De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky
John Calipari has had a long list of gifted point guards, from Tyreke Evans to John Wall to Brandon Knight. De'Aaron Fox was expected to be next on his list, and he is living up to expectations, averaging 16.3 points, 6.8 assists and 5.0 rebounds. His end-to-end speed and burst in the open court is beyond impressive. He's been difficult for the opposition to stop in transition and he lives in the paint. The lone bad spot in his game so far has been his outside shooting. Regardless, Fox is a big reason the Wildcats are 10–2. — E.D.
No. 5 Malik Monk, Kentucky
Malik Monk's 47-point outburst against North Carolina was borderline ridiculous and is clearly the best individual performance of the young season. Monk is an electric athlete, but it's been his balanced scoring attack that has been so impressive during his freshman campaign. Monk is averaging 21.4 points and shooting 39.4% from three through 11 games. — E.D.
No. 4 Lonzo Ball, UCLA
In high school, Lonzo Ball flashed keen vision and the type of passing that drew comparisons to Jason Kidd. Ball's transition to college has been flawless, and his unselfish nature and ability to facilitate is a major reason UCLA is undefeated. Through 12 games, Ball is 29-for-67 from three (43.3%) and is averaging 13.7 points, 8.3 assists and 5.8 rebounds a game. — E.D.
No. 3 Luke Kennard, Duke
At the beginning of the season, I don't think anyone expected Luke Kennard to be on this type of list. But Kennard has taken advantage of a big increase in minutes. Kennard has gone for 20 or more seven times on the season and is averaging 20.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.8 assists a game. Most thought Grayson Allen would be the best non-freshman on the Blue Devils' roster, but so far it's been Kennard. — E.D.
No. 2 Frank Mason, Kansas
The truth is, it's splitting hairs for the top spot and you couldn't certainly make a case for Frank Mason to be at No. 1. Mason's stats are as good as anyone's in the country, as he's averaging 19.7 points, 5.8 assists and 4.7 rebounds a game. Mason is as tough as it comes and his tenacity on the defensive end sets the tone for Kansas. Kansas is 11–1 on the season. In the loss, Mason nearly orchestrated a late comeback against Indiana on his way to a 30-point, nine-assist and seven-rebound outing. He's also the primary reason the Jayhawks handed Duke its only loss of the season, as he hit a game-winner from the elbow at the Garden. — E.D.
No. 1 Josh Hart, Villanova
Not only is Josh Hart the best player on the nation's top-ranked team, he also had one of the best performances of the season when he went for 37 points on 14 shots in a win over Notre Dame. Hart has been sensational throughout the young season, but in his last three games is averaging a blistering 27.7 points. He's been efficient too, shooting 56.0% from the field and 43.3% from three on 58 attempts. And we haven't even gotten to his rebounding (6.6 rebounds) and passing (3.7 assists) yet. Hart impacts the game in so many ways, and that's the reason he's No. 1 right now. — E.D.
Tucker likely next to decide
There aren’t many top-100 prospects left on the board for college coaches to choose from, but one who is close to deciding is Jordan Tucker. The four-star forward, who likely ends up either as a wing or a stretch power forward, will pick between defending national champion Villanova and Indiana.
Both the Hoosiers and Wildcats recently hosted Tucker for official visits, and he narrowed his school list to those two. Tucker ranks as the No. 79 prospect in the class, and is one of the best catch-and-shoot forwards in the country.
Whichever school is able to land Tucker will immediately add a lethal three-point shooter. Tucker has good size at 6' 7" and proved his worth all summer long in the EYBL, where he averaged 15 points per game and shot 39% from distance.
At this point Tucker needs to continue to add to his game off the dribble, as he is much better off the catch, but he does have the requisite size and athleticism to be someone who spaces the floor and who will give either Indiana or Villanova a quality weapon to add for next season.