NEW YORK — The denouement of the 2016–17 college basketball season offered a misleading window into the state of team building at the highest levels of the sport. Only one Final Four team featured a freshman projected to be selected in the first round of the upcoming draft. That freshman, Gonzaga’s Zach Collins, arrived in Spokane, Wash., with nothing approximating the tidal wave of NBA hype his freshman peers rode to the top of various mocks, and then spent the year coming off the bench behind a fifth-year senior tracking toward a career overseas. There was only one other likely first-rounder, North Carolina junior Justin Jackson, but his draft stature was less about untapped potential than hard-earned improvement, the sort of year-to-year leap few veterans leverage into major draft bumps these days. (As thrilling as it was to observe in real time last year, Buddy Hield breakouts are not the norm.)
The paucity of prodigious first-year players in college hoops’s marquee event seemingly reaffirmed the significance of talent development over talent procurement. The distinction has long driven a wedge between, on the one hand, NBA-inclined observers parachuting in to get a peek at the guys who’ll spice up their League Pass sessions in a year’s time and, on the other, purists who revere coaches capable of turning lemons into lemonade. Don’t get it twisted: Getting good recruits to come to your school is a winning strategy. More specifically, getting the best recruits will pay off right away more often than not. Last Fall, Sports Illustrated’s Luke Winn and Dan Hanner found that players ranked in the top 10 of the Recruiting Services Consensus Index, a composite rating incorporating data from multiple services, became “efficient starters” a little more than three-fourths of the time.
The importance of the experience and poise upperclassmen can offer in big games like the three we just witnessed in Glendale should not be glossed over. John Calipari’s best Kentucky teams, for instance, have mixed superstar freshmen with tried-and-true role players. Some five-star recruits hit the ground running once they get on campus, but others need time to adjust to the stark contrast between athletically challenged high school defenders cowed by the presence of future pros and floor-slapping collegians aiming to put the highly touted new guy in his place. If elite prospects served as the fuel for recent title-winning juggernauts like 2012 Kentucky and 2015 Duke, productive seniors like Darius Miller and Quinn Cook were the steady hands on the wheel. At the same time, with few exceptions, unremarkable crops of gray beards tend to come up short against squads flush with soon-to-be lottery selections.
That helps to explain why coaches push so hard for the high schoolers populating the top of the recruiting rankings. At this stage of the cycle, most of the biggest prizes are off the board. Thirteen of the top 17 prospects in the class of 2017, according to Scout.com, have already chosen which school they’ll attend. The three top-ranked holdouts are in New York this week for the Jordan Brand Classic, a basketball showcase, scouting hot spot and logo promotion party culminating Friday with a game that may fall short, in its competitive rigor, of the NBA’s no-defense dunkathon at the end of All-Star weekend. But these kids really do get after it in the preceding workouts, which makes them much more valuable from an evaluation standpoint. SI was on hand to observe an impressive group of prospects but focused on the top-flight trio of undecideds: Center Mohamed Bamba, point guard Trevon Duval and small forward Kevin Knox.
Here is an update on each player:
No member of this triumvirate claims a more interesting collection of finalists than Bamba. Two of them are usual suspects, Duke and Kentucky, but he’s also considering a pair of gridiron powerhouses, Michigan and Texas, only one of which has enjoyed recent success in the NCAAs. It’s tempting to paint this as a familiar recruiting battle between the bluest of the bluebloods and their iconic coaches, but completely writing off the Longhorns and Wolverines would be a mistake. Bamba didn’t provide much insight into where he’s leaning, mostly sticking to basic talking points about the attractive features those programs offer him. “Each four of the schools I think I can get there and have [an] impact day one,” he said. Bamba also indicated that draft declarations, such as that of outgoing Texas center and projected first-round pick Jarrett Allen, won’t significantly influence his decision. “I honestly think I can play with anyone,” he said.
Bamba’s comments on when his decision will take place were even less revealing. “I don’t currently have a timeline,” he said, adding, “Just reflecting on each university, each program and how I would look at each school.”
A recruiting matchmaker concerned solely with the on-court implications of Bamba’s landing spot would find it really hard to deny Michigan. The Wolverines could spread a battery of long-range gunners around Bamba and let him clean up at the basket. And with his Nile-length wingspan (measured at 7’9’’), Bamba would supply the drive-deterring presence Michigan has largely lacked during coach John Beilein’s tenure, never ranking above 148th nationally in two-point field goal defense. He’s an ace shot blocker with the wheels to range away from the paint and hold his own on the perimeter. There are times, like during a one-on-one drill against Arizona commit and likely top-10 pick DeAndre Ayton, when Bamba cedes ground in the paint, but that probably won’t hold him back against most college bigs, and anyway, he could pack on some mass to his 7-foot frame over the next few months.
It’s probably more likely Bamba opts for one of the two recruiting hegemons on his list. He spoke Wednesday about how he is “definitely looking at things beyond basketball” when examining his finalists, yet Bamba also mentioned, in response to a question about one-and-done culture, how the “worst-case scenario is a second year in college.” Bamba is something like an ideal solution for a Duke team that, even with Marques Bolden back for another year, needs to address its thin frontcourt, which saw Amile Jefferson expire his eligibility, Chase Jeter transfer and Harry Giles jump to the pros this off-season. But Bamba would no doubt thrive at Kentucky, too, whether or not big man Bam Adebayo stays in the draft. “He’s going to be a top-five pick regardless,” Wildcats commit and five-star forward Jarred Vanderbilt said. “Why not be the [next] like, Anthony Davis, Karl Towns? That’s pretty much him.”
A long, winding recruitment marked by speculation, uncertainty, list expansion and contraction, and announcement pump-faking is nearing its conclusion. Having settled on a final list of five (Arizona, Baylor, Duke, Kansas and Seton Hall), Duval told SI Wednesday that he plans to make his decision “sometime this month, hopefully. End of the month.” Between now and then, Duval said, he’ll be keeping tabs on draft declarations involving players from his finalists. When asked whether Devonte’ Graham’s announcement that he’ll return to the Jayhawks for his senior season made that program more or less appealing, Duval said, “Kept it the same.” He added, “I can play alongside any guard. I’ve done it before, and I wouldn’t have a problem playing with any other guard.” Duval indicated he didn’t have any in-home visits scheduled but said he’s spoken recently to the head coach of every program in his top five.
Setting aside Duval’s claim about being amenable to playing alongside any backcourt type, the cleanest fit for his game may lie with the Wildcats, which could use an upgrade over returnee Parker Jackson-Cartwright. Duval’s a lead guard who dictates the course of possessions by surveying the floor and attacking off the bounce. He might be the best ball handler in this class, as he possesses a vast repertoire of quick dribble sequences that leave defenders swiping at air. Duval’s upper-body strength is another huge asset for navigating coverage in close quarters, and if defenders back off him in anticipation of a blow-by, he’s got the jets to zoom past them anyway, leaving opposing guards in damed-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t binds when deciding whether to press up on Duval in the halfcourt. Duval’s skill set is tantalizing, but it also may not be compatible with another pure 1 who doesn’t like operating off the ball.
Shorn of its recent backcourt track record, Kansas, with Graham back in the fold, may not seem to offer a favorable set-up for Duval. But the Jayhawks have proven that they can more than merely get by with two point guards in their lineup. Just this season, they lit up the Big 12 and reached the Elite Eight with Graham and national player of the year Frank Mason running the show. (National championship winners like 2015 Duke and 2016 Villanova also bear testimony to the virtues of a dual-PG alignment.) Duval’s addition, along with the activation of Mississippi State transfer guard Malik Newman, would ensure coach Bill Self can roll out another prolific perimeter corps in 2017–18 despite the sizable production void left by the exit of #BIFM. Graham’s choice may have eased the pressure, to the extent that it existed, on Self to land Duval, but Duval would only give Self more to work with when sorting out his rotation.
At Duke, Duval likewise would probably have to share a backcourt with someone else at his nominal position. Even if Grayson Allen decides not to enter the draft, sophomore Frank Jackson is expected to be back for a second college campaign. For his part, Duval seems less fixated on possible perimeter partners than playing in a system that suits him. “Just getting up and down,” Duval said when asked about his preferred style. “Just playing that West Coast style of just, you know, running and jumping and not really in a halfcourt set.” Neither Seton Hall nor Baylor offers the sort of clear path to regular- or post-season success that the Blue Devils, Jayhawks and Wildcats do, but both programs probably wouldn’t think twice about handing over the reins on offense to Duval. This recruitment remains something of a mystery, so it wouldn’t be shocking to see him choose any of the five contenders.
The reason you probably haven’t heard much about Knox has less to do with his game than that of an A-List prospect ranked ahead of him in this class who’s an early candidate to be selected with a top-three pick in the 2018 draft, Michael Porter Jr. As it happens, Porter Jr. and Knox could wind up spending a season in college together. Knox recently took a visit to Missouri, which earned a commitment from Porter last month, and added Porter’s father to its coaching staff, after the duo decamped from Washington in the wake of former Huskies coach Lorenzo Romar’s firing. Before the visit, Knox had narrowed his choices to Duke, Florida State, Kentucky and North Carolina. That group has grown by one. “You can throw them in the mix now,” Knox said of Missouri, which also recently picked up a pledge from three-star point guard and former Washington signee Blake Harris.
According to Porter, he and Knox talk every day, and Porter said he feels “good” about his chances of persuading Knox to join him in Columbia. “I just feel like we’re both very unselfish players, and us two on the wing, with Blake and Terrance Phillips at point, they like to distribute. And I mean, we’ll be, like, legends there,” Porter said. “Like, we’ll be remembered there forever.” Porter’s optimism notwithstanding, it’s hard to believe Knox won’t have some misgivings about committing to at least one season with a program that’s spent the last three years collecting dust in the cellar of maybe the worst high-major league when three of his alternatives (Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina) should open 2017–18 in the top 10 of the polls, and the other (Florida State) is fresh off a 26-win campaign plus offers legacy appeal: Knox’s father, Kevin, played wide receiver for the Seminoles in the 1990s.
But among SEC opponents, even a reloaded Kentucky squad, an Alabama outfit elevated by a top-five recruiting class or a defensively stout South Carolina outfit fresh off a Final Four run would have a really hard time dealing with Porter and Knox in transition. If Knox picks Missouri, it would punctuate one of the more fruitful opening recruiting stretches for a new coach in recent memory. Media members and fans saw the Porter pickup coming a mile away, but regardless of the circumstances, plucking two first-round-bound wings in the space of two months would be a remarkable feat for an HC settling into his new gig after a middling three-year stint at a different high-major program (Cal). Still, we can marvel about the possibility of a Tigers revival, short-lived though it may be, while also acknowledging that they were late to the party. Knox intends to reveal his choice over the next month, saying it would come by the middle of May. “From end of April to May 10, you could see a decision.”
There’s no question Missouri has put itself in the conversation for Knox, but even with Porter at pains to aid Martin’s pitch, the Tigers still have to beat out a trifecta of college hoops royalty as well as a local program with a family connection. As for which one of those four has the best shot at getting Knox on board, Vanderbilt offered a hint when discussing his attempt to lure Knox and Bamba to Lexington. “I’ve been talking to Mo a lot more than Kev, because I mean, honestly, I think we’ve got a better shot with Mo right now.”