Why you should care
Because basketball is not a one-man game.
Hey, sports fan, have you heard the news? A young Oklahoma Sooner named Trae Young has taken college basketball by storm. His game looks like what would happen if Steph Curry’s form and “Pistol” Pete Maravich’s pizazz enjoyed a candlelit dinner and two too many chalices of montepulciano. His 29.1 points and 9.3 assists per game could add up to the greatest freshman season ever, and a top-10 NBA draft selection awaits.
But if you’ve glanced at ESPN in recent months, you knew that already. With the postseason blessedly on the horizon, here follow five players who are top professional prospects with madness-inducing potential in March. These are the most interesting players in college basketball not named Trae Young.
Let us know who we missed in the comments or @mattyfoles on Twitter.
DeAndre Ayton, Arizona
It’s a testament to Ayton that even as the 7-foot-1 center averages 19.5 points and 10.7 rebounds, Arizona head coach Sean Miller is consistently critiqued for not using him properly. A freshman from the Bahamas, Ayton is a dominant presence in the post with impressive shooting range. At 34.5 percent, he has become a consistent 3-point shooter — especially from the corner, the perfect spot for a big man in today’s game. His 16 double-doubles, seventh in the nation, don’t hurt either. Ayton could improve defensively, but he is probably the most complete player in college basketball and could be the NBA draft’s No. 1 pick this summer. If Miller loosens his big man’s reins in March, look out.
fyi DeAndre Ayton is a beast pic.twitter.com/UdQztD8VNx— FOX College Hoops (@CBBonFOX) January 26, 2018
Marvin Bagley III, Duke
How good is Bagley? Consider that the 18-year-old should still be in high school right now. “It’s really hard to wrap your head around,” says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas. “He’s the real deal. He’s really versatile and runs the floor exceptionally well.”
Last summer, Bagley sprinted through his coursework to graduate high school a year early in order to enroll at Duke. Now averaging 21.2 points and 11.4 rebounds per game, Bagley ranks second in college basketball with 18 double-doubles. Much like Ayton and Michigan State’s Jaren Jackson Jr., Bagley is an elite college big man. But unlike those two, the 6-foot-10 Bagley does not neatly fit into an NBA position.
His outside shooting needs improvement and his rim protection is not yet NBA-center caliber. Still, Bagley is the player I trust most in this freshman class, with an elite athleticism that evokes memories of David Robinson. If Bagley returns good as new from a recent knee sprain, a Duke national championship would be no surprise.
Collin Sexton, Alabama
If Trae Young is Steph Curry, then Sexton is Russell Westbrook. The freshman point guard plays with a level of aggression rarely seen in college hoops. “I was underrated for most of high school,” the Marietta, Georgia, native told OZY at last year’s McDonald’s All-American Game. “I don’t ever think there’s a player on the floor who can stop me, and I want to prove it.”
At 6-foot-3, Sexton is an athletic freak — lightning quick with exceptional bounce — but he’s more than just an athlete. “He also has very great vision and uses it to make [his teammates] better,” says ESPN analyst Tom Crean. Sexton’s strength is another plus, allowing for tough finishes at the rim. In a 80-73 win over Oklahoma, Sexton abused Young en route to the hoop.
Slight nudge or not this is where Young will have to get better at the NBA level. Never going to offer much resistance from a physicality + length perspective but has to know tendencies, get by on smarts. pic.twitter.com/MuPcoKkCPP— Mike Schmitz (@Mike_Schmitz) January 27, 2018
And while Young did have eight assists, Sexton held the standout guard to 17 points on 17 shots, his second-worst scoring performance to date. As long as Sexton stays on the floor, Alabama will be a March Madness upset threat. And given that his coach, Avery Johnson, played 16 seasons and coached seven more in the NBA, Sexton will be well-schooled for the big leagues.
Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State
Jackson flew under the radar compared with his fellow über-talented freshmen big men. But not for long. The 6-foot-11 forward averages 11.6 points, 6.1 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in only 22.5 minutes per game. And while Texas’ Mo Bamba is the more heralded defender, Jackson actually averages more blocks per minute and is a better wing defender.
He displays exceptional defensive instincts, and his offensive game is NBA-ready. The fourth-ranked Spartans have enough offensive firepower that Jackson hasn’t had to overextend himself, but he’s been impressive in flashes, including an incredible 44.3 percent from the 3-point line. It could be genetic, via his sharpshooting NBA-veteran father, Jaren Jackson Sr. Add in Junior’s elite handle, and he looks like a top-five pick.
I am 100% sure that Jaren Jackson Jr. is Ainge’s guy. Out of all the big men, his shooting is actually real & there’s no questions about his defense. If the Lakers pick misses, I wouldn’t be surprised if he tries to trade into the lottery to get him. pic.twitter.com/1r5JXKpEc5— Pᴜʟʟ ᴜᴘ sʜᴏᴏᴛ 🅥 (@Kl11A) January 14, 2018
Trevon Bluiett, Xavier
The lone upperclassman on this list, Bluiett has improved each of his four seasons at Xavier (24-3). This year, he is averaging 19.6 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, and his Musketeers are ranked fourth in the country. In the one-and-done era, Bluiett’s age is a detriment to his draft stock, but his time in college has made him a more complete prospect. Bluiett is the primary scoring option in crunch time, but he also opens up opportunities for his teammates. Much like Villanova’s Jalen Brunson, who could easily be on this list, it’s taken time for Bluiett to develop into an NBA-caliber athlete. But develop, he has. If Xavier stays hot, Bluiett could lead the Musketeers to their first-ever Final Four.
- Kendrick Nunn, Oakland
- Kyle Guy, Virginia
- Angel Delgado, Seton Hall
- Zach Thomas, Bucknell
- Miles Bridges, Michigan State
All statistics as of Wednesday, February 15.