CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. -- The party's over.
For the last two years, the college basketball world has been agog over freshmen. This fixation might have offended purists, but it was a boon to the sport because it perfectly matched the "Who's next?" ethos that drives today's sports culture. Since freshmen were dominating the sport at the very moment the NBA instituted its 19-year-old age minimum, it made sense to conclude that every year was going to be the "Year of the Freshman".
Turns out, not so much. Whereas the stellar high school class of 2006 (led by Greg Oden and Kevin Durant) was followed by the stratospheric class of '07 (Michael Beasley, Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, O.J. Mayo), the class of '08 is, in the words of longtime recruiting maven Clark Francis, "the worst class I've seen in the 25 years I've been doing this." That assessment may be a tad harsh, but there is no question there will be a significant dropoff next season. And as the annual, frenetic July recruiting season gets underway in a few weeks, it will become further apparent that the classes of '09, '10 and '11 are not going to measure up, either.
This was driven home for me as I watched some of the best high school players in America compete last week at the NBA Players Association Camp in Charlottesville, Va. Don't get me wrong, there were some very good players at the camp, guys who will be able to have an impact at the college level right away. (See my list of favorites below.) But there wasn't a single player who would have a realistic chance at being a lottery pick next year if there were no age minimum.
Every class is going to produce a few players who would have a shot at going straight to the NBA out of high school. Derrick Favors, a 6-foot-9 forward from Atlanta who was not at the NBAPA camp, is one of the few players who is ready to play in the pros in the '09 class. Two other players who were also not at the camp, 6-10 forward Renardo Sidney and 6-5 guard Lance Stephenson, have the physical ability to make the leap, but neither possesses the maturity.
Meanwhile, in my mind the only dead-certain straight-to-the-pros player amongst next season's freshmen class is Memphis-bound guard Tyreke Evans. Beyond that, there are a couple of promising big men (Georgetown-bound Greg Monroe and Ohio State-bound B.J. Mullens), a pair of solid point guards (UCLA's Jrue Holiday and Arizona's Brandon Jennings) and at least one dazzling wing (USC-bound Demar DeRozan). But those guys don't compare to players like Oden, Beasley and Rose, nor do these two classes come close to matching the astounding depth of the ones that came before.
"We've been so spoiled the last few years, people have forgotten what an average class looks like," said Van Coleman, the publisher of Hoopmasters.com. "We're just going back to the way it used to be."
Added Dave Telep of Scout.com, "You have to look at recruiting as cyclical. The '07 group was so exceptional that it's unfair to these guys to ask them to measure up. It's too tall an order."
Indeed, my point is not to denigrate the top players currently in high school. It is to illustrate that what happened the last two years was an aberration. It is unusual to have even one class of such caliber, much less two back-to-back. That those classes arrived at the same time the NBA put its age minimum in place was just a happy coincidence. Next season, things will return to normal, and we'll have a new storyline:
The Year of the Freshman was so last year.
In the state of Oklahoma, the top three sports are football, baseball and spring football. It's unusual for the state to produce a basketball player who's ranked in the top 10 in his high school class. It's rarer still for the state to have two top-10 players.
So take note of Xavier Henry, a 6-6 guard, and Daniel Orton, a 6-10 forward. They are both Oklahoma City natives who are second and eighth, respectively, in Rivals.com's ranking in the class of '09. Henry is a strong, graceful guard with a sweet left-handed jumper. Orton is a wide-shouldered post player with exceptional passing ability. Though they play for two high schools that never compete against each other because they're in different size classifications, they are teammates on the local AAU team, Athletes First, which is coached by Henry's dad, Carl.
Besides being teammates, the one thing they both have in common is they come from athletic families. Orton's older brother, Terrence Crawford, played for Oklahoma State. Xavier (pronounced "ZAH-vee-ay") is the younger brother of C.J. Henry, who originally committed to Kansas to play basketball but turned to baseball when the New York Yankees selected him in the first round of the 2005 MLB draft. (C.J. has been bouncing around the minor leagues since then. The Yankees traded him to the Phillies but recently re-signed him to a free agent contract.) "I hated playing against my brother," Henry said. "It always ended up with me crying."
In addition, Carl Henry played basketball for Kansas, as did Henry's mother, Barbara. Carl also competed against KU coach Bill Self when they were both high school players in Oklahoma City. That would seem to give KU a distinct advantage in the Henry sweepstakes -- but for the fact that when Carl played at Kansas, Larry Brown had an assistant named John Calipari. Xavier told me that his list of four schools includes Texas and UCLA, but he confirmed that Kansas and Memphis are the clear favorites.
Orton is a little more of a late bloomer. He went through an awkward stage early in his high school career while he adjusted to an 11-inch growth spurt. He has been criticized for not showing enough intensity on the court, but at the NBAPA camp he demonstrated that when he attacks the rim, he is as good as any big man in the country. In the day and a half that I was at the camp, Orton was clearly the best player there.
"He lets the game come to him too much," Carl Henry said of Orton. "He loves passing. He loves making other people better. During a lot of our games I have to tell him to score. Once he decides to attack the goal, that's it."
It is telling that in a year when two outstanding players are coming out of Oklahoma City, neither is considering playing for Oklahoma or Oklahoma State. The same thing happened in 2001, when another pair of elite products from Oklahoma City, Kelenna Azubuike and Shelden Williams, opted for Kentucky and Duke, respectively. Xavier Henry went so far as to say that if he could play for any school in Oklahoma, it would be Oral Roberts. Carl Henry said he'd be happy wherever his son wanted to go, as long as it was outside the state. "Basketball doesn't get much recognition in our area," Orton said. "We have some good players, but we don't get enough recognition."
Henry and Orton will get plenty of recognition on the recruiting circuit this summer. That ought to capture the attention of the locals, at least until the start of football practice.
The NBA Players Association does an excellent job putting together this camp. Not only do the folks from the NBAPA assemble quality talent from all over the country, they also produce daily seminars on important topics like academics, nutrition, substance abuse and sex education. Other camps include these kinds of components, but no camp that I've covered puts in the same effort that the NBAPA does.
As for the basketball, here are some more players who jumped out at me during the three sessions of games I watched in Charlottesville. Their Rivals.com rankings are in parentheses:
Kenny Boynton, 6-2 guard, Plantation Fla. (10). Boyton is a strong, ultra-quick, athletic scorer, but I have concerns about whether he's able to get a lot of points while making his teammates better. Whenever the ball is in his hands, it goes right up -- though it should be said, it also usually goes in.
D.J. Byrd, 6-4 guard, Crawfordsville, Ind. (129). The Purdue commit is a great knockdown shooter and should fit perfectly in Matt Painter's offense.
Dominic Cheek, 6-5 guard, Jersey City, N.J. (11). A bit on the thin side and has a tendency to disappear at times, but with his length and leaping ability he can be a devastating finisher around the rim. Cheek doesn't take a lot of outside shots, but made more than I thought he could. Looking at some Big East and ACC schools right now, but lots of coaches are trying to get in the mix.
Abdul Gaddy, 6-3 point guard, Tacoma, Wash. (14). Gaddy was the best guard at the camp. He doesn't so much run as glide, and he has a very savvy way about creating space for his shot. He's a clear floor leader and a natural scorer. Reminds me a little of Mike Bibby.
Tommy Mason-Griffin, 5-10 point guard, Houston, Texas (72). Point guards are easier to notice at camps like these because the basketball is so unstructured. Mason-Griffin is short, but he is strong enough to consistently beat his man off the dribble.
Mfon Udofia, 6-2 point guard, Stone Mountain, Ga. (39). Another strong and wide point guard built low to the ground. Has a great first step and is usually looking to pass off when he gets in the lane. No real leader for his recruitment at this point.
Maalik Wayns, 6-1 point guard, Philadelphia (24). Wayns is headed to Villanova, aka Guard U, and you can be sure he'll fit right in. He's a little on the small side, but he's got terrific breakdown skills and is a pass-first throwback.
Brandon Knight, 6-3 point guard, Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Showed why many people consider him the top point guard, if not the top player, in the class of '10. Has terrific size and proper passing instincts for a lead guard and is impossible to keep out of the lane.
Josh Selby, 6-2 point guard, Hyattsville, Md. Has ridiculous shooting range.
Josh Hairston, 6-8 forward, Spotsylvania, Va. Very thin but has long arms and a live body. When he played inspired was a force around the rim.