Duke and Kentucky dominate our look at the most talented freshman

A common talking point you'll hear about -- starting now -- and as we head closer to the start of the 2016-17 college basketball season: Freshmen are really, really good again.

We always have a few newbies who come in and create themselves into stars. But 2016-17 is one of the most loaded freshman classes of the past decade, especially at the top. It would not surprise me if we had at least 20 freshmen declare for -- and remain in -- the NBA Draft next spring. It's perhaps the best crop of point guards in a decade; there's talent spread around to every position, really; and almost every blueblood program is represented on the list below.

I've written this sentiment before, and it still stands true: Plenty of people who criticize college basketball do so by saying one-and-dones prevent the sport from having familiarity on a year-to-year basis. That's a half-truth, really. College hoops has a built-in discovery factor to it that's fun each year. Because we're always guaranteed a handful of one-and-done guys. So finding those players, watching them change from November through March? That's pretty great.

And the sport always has juniors and seniors we already know.

But this is about the newcomers. Here are the 20 must-see freshmen as we come up on the start of the 2016-17 season in college basketball.

joshjacksonkansas.jpg
Josh Jackson is the most athletic, perhaps dynamic, player in the class of 2016. Getty Images

1. Josh Jackson, Wing, Kansas

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 1.
  • The skinny: Tremendous athlete who's going to step in at Kansas and be a factor right away. He's the highest-ranked prospect KU's had since Andrew Wiggins. And while Wiggins was very good under Bill Self, he wasn't as assertive as he could've been, and in fact he needed a little time to adjust to the college game. I don't expect that to be the case with Jackson. He'll have a really good backcourt (Devonte Graham and Frank Mason, Jr.) to set him up. He'll be in the mix for the No. 1 overall pick, too. You're going to love watching him.

2. Markelle Fultz, Combo Guard, Washington

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 5.

  • The skinny: Fultz can run offense, score, defend, has poise and can really get up. He's a classic late-bloomer, as he didn't even make varsity until he was a junior in high school. Now he's a kid who's in the mix to be the top pick in the 2017 draft. Washington has been in need of a program boost for years now. Fultz can be that. Lorenzo Romar has had NBA talent, but nothing transcendent. Perhaps that changes this year. Fultz is so watchable because he's graceful in transition but can also casually kill you from deep. Fultz was the top pick of any frosh by the more-than-100 coaches we polled this summer.

3. Dennis Smith Jr., Point Guard, NC State

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 7.

  • The skinny: I'm higher on NC State than most heading into this season. This guy is why. To me, he's set up to be the best/most productive point guard in college basketball this season. The question mark is if Smith is fully healthy and ready to go against top D-I competition after suffering an ACL tear a year ago. By all accounts, the answer is yes. He's a smooth player. Makes great decisions. Not incredibly flashy but ... just ... sleek. To me, the kind of player that's set up to be really productive in college, then go on to the NBA and advance his game even more. He plays terrific defense and doesn't force shots, either. State Fan can rightfully daydream about what's to come this season. Smith will probably singlehandedly win a few games.

4. Jayson Tatum, Small Forward, Duke

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 4.

  • The skinny: You watch him play and you instantly think, "Pro." Tatum's game is smooth. Casually dominating. He'll mix very well in Mike Krzyzewski's offense. He's a small forward who can play some at the 4 in college if needed. (And it might be needed early on, due to Harry Giles' injury.) Tatum is long, can handle the ball against any type of defender and has adapted his style to burying 15-foot jump shots. That's not something you see out of a lot of one-and-done types, but Tatum's game is a stellar mix of modern athleticism/body type and retro efficiency. He'll beat you at all three levels, but he's relentless in the soft spots against a defense. He's so good, he'll probably wind up competing with teammate Grayson Allen for ACC Player of the Year.
062416harrygilesjaysontatum.jpg
Jayson Tatum, left, and Harry Giles are a big reason why Duke is ranked No. 1. Getty Images

5. Harry Giles, Power Forward, Duke

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 2.

  • The skinny: If Giles was fully healthy and hadn't been subjected to three surgeries on his knees in less than three years, I'd have him atop this list. I think Giles' ability and impact -- when he's at full strength -- is better than anyone in this class. I think his ceiling is higher in that regard. But the fact is, Giles' minutes are probably going to be limited early in the season, and we just don't know what his role is going to be right away due to that knee scope he just had that's going to more than likely cause him to miss the start of the season. When he does get on the floor, you'll see a big man with handles (even 15, 17 feet away from the rim), a terrific passer and ferocious finisher. He'll have a bundle of double-doubles this season, even if he only manages 20 minutes per game or so. Tremendous talent.

6. De'Aaron Fox, Point Guard, Kentucky

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 6.

  • The skinny: Any basketball fan is aware of John Calipari's point guard lineage over the years. Cal alumni include Derrick Rose, John Wall, Tyler Ulis, Tyreke Evans, Marquis Teague and Brandon Knight. Fox's talent and savvy as a lean point guard could have him crack the top four point guards Cal's ever coached. I think he's that talented and that set up to succeed at UK. He's going to have plenty of opportunities to score and distribute because of all the talent on this team this season, but watch him play beyond the stuff that pops off the screen. He'll make a lot of winning plays. I don't think he'll be a high-turnover guy. He's fast without being overly flashy. UK got a great one.

7. Bam Adebayo, Power Forward, Kentucky

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 9.

  • The skinny: Most years, a guy listed at No. 7 in a freshman-class ranking wouldn't have a chance in hell at being taken No. 1 in the next year's NBA Draft. But Adebayo's that good, and it speaks to the depth of this class that he's still someone NBA general managers are at least potentially targeting for the top spot. He'll have to really perform to get there, but a few high-major college coaches have told me they think he'll have the chance to show he can be a No. 1 overall pick. Really, though, Adebayo's game is about power and charisma. He could well become the personality star of this year's UK team (though Wenyen Gabriel might give him a run there), and I think he'll have at least 20 double-doubles. Kentucky has a really good front line and Adebayo should be the best of those bigs.

8. Miles Bridges, Small Forward, Michigan State

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 12.

  • The skinny: If you think Michigan State is going to tumble because do-it-all player-of-the-year Denzel Valentine is gone, then you haven't seen what Miles Bridges can do. He's a top-three athlete in his class, a small forward who can play power forward, a guy who I expect to grow exponentially from the time he plays his first game on Nov. 11 to what he becomes in the NCAA Tournament. Tom Izzo's freshman class this season is the highest rated he's ever had. Bridges is at the top of the list. He'll probably be a one-and-done player if he accepts Izzo's coaching and establishes his jump shot. I cannot wait to see this kid play.

9. Lauri Markkanen, Power Forward, Arizona

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 21.

  • The skinny: Honestly wondering if I have Markkenen too low here. He's projected as a lottery pick right now by Draft Express (No. 13 as of this post's publishing), but I wouldn't be shocked if he played his way into a top-six pick. The Finnish big man (a 7-footer) has the talent to take over games. He can step out and shoot. He has power. He has a great coach. He has a really good roster around him. Arizona's fairly loaded, though there's a lot of new faces this season. I think the Wildcats have a fun mix of vets and newbies. Markkanen's going to be a well-founded defensive presence, and overall, I expect him to be a matchup problem for most teams. He's the best freshman you don't know about. That changes within six weeks.

10. Lonzo Ball, Point Guard, UCLA

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 3.

  • The skinny: I'm probably rating Ball lower than anyone else would. Why? Well, I want to see how Steve Alford uses him, given Bryce Alford's been running UCLA's offense for almost three years now, and that's not just something you simply hand over. Ball's a lot of fun, a big talent, and he'll be a major factor in getting UCLA not just back to the Big Dance, but probably landing the Bruins somewhere in the range of a 3-5 seed come March. At 6-foot-5, Ball is the second-tallest point guard in this class (Arizona's Kobi Simmons is 6-6), and that height and length are a big reason why he was a five-star prospect. He'll also help UCLA because his vision is so good. The potential is there, but I want to see him prove he has the ability to shoot above 45-percent from the field. That's his one weakness, and it's another reason why I don't have him as high as most would.

11. Jonathan Isaac, Power Forward, Florida State

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 8.

  • The skinny: Isaac is long, lanky and projected as a lottery pick. Florida State has enough talent this season to get to the NCAA Tournament, but the program's been the Washington of the East Coast. Winning in recruiting hasn't translated to March success in many a year. Isaac's frame and game will make you think of Brandon Ingarm, probably. He's not quite as skilled, but he's got a shot to open up his game at FSU if he's able to add enough muscle and keep his long ball consistent.

12. Wenyen Gabriel, Power Forward, Kentucky

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 14.

  • The skinny: Gabriel was the biggest riser of any prospect on this list. He was virtually unknown, and then, in the span of four months in 2015, absolutely blasted up the rankings. He wound up picking Kentucky and, in doing so, gave Calipari one of the three best recruiting classes he's ever had. His game is still evolving, but you watch him play and jut see example after example of a guy who has good instincts -- fun instincts -- for how to make impact plays. He could struggle to start the season, sure, but I think he'll be one of the 30 best players in the sport by the time we get to the NCAA Tournament. I think he's a guy who could unexpectedly have a 20-rebound, 20-point game on one night, then go for eight points and four boards the next.

13. Jarrett Allen, Power Forward/Center, Texas

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 17.

  • The skinny: Texas needs size, and Allen's going to give it to them. He's the second best freshman in the Big 12 (behind Josh Jackson), and it's going to be interesting to see how Shaka Smart utilizes him. Smart's never coached a player of Allen's size and skill before, at least not since he's been a head coach. He can play above the rim but also has some touch from outside. I think UT can be a surprise nationally, maybe even flirting with top-10 status throughout the season. A lot of that will be because of Allen, who should average north of 25 minutes per game. He'll be able to stabilize the offense and play/pass out of the post in addition to his short-to-mid-range game.

14. Marques Bolden, Center, Duke

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 15.

  • The skinny: Bolden's going to have his chances to make an impact right away, given Giles' setback. He'll be playing a true 5, but his speed is going to be what really sets him apart from most freshmen bigs. Duke is going to run plenty, and Bolden's going to have his chances to shine in transition and playing the block. He's versatile and reliable. What's crazy: He'll probably be option No. 4 at best. Duke is crazy-loaded and so deep this season. Bolden's going to have more big moments than big games, but he'll almost certainly be a top-15 pick no matter what he does this season. The frontcourt (Bolden, Giles, Amile Jefferson) is going to be a problem.
kentuckyfroshclass1617.jpg
UK's freshman quartet, from left: De'Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo, Wenyen Gabriel, Malik Monk. USATSI

15. Malik Monk, Shooting Guard, Kentucky

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 11.

  • The skinny: Monk is one of the best dunkers in the country, a supreme athlete with a streaky jump shot and a penchant for scoring in spurts. He'll be good for 15 to 20 "wow!!!!" moments this season, and Kentucky will be all the more watchable with him in the mix. I'm not as high on Monk as others because I want to see more of him on defense, and I'm not so sure he'll have a deep-ball shot, but I do think he's a fun player who's got NBA talent and shouldn't be at Kentucky more than two seasons. One-and-done is certainly on the table, yes. Few guys will dazzle on the break like Monk.

16. Frank Jackson, Combo Guard, Duke

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 13.

  • The skinny: Jackson is an aggressive guard who has hops, makes good decisions and can thrive for many years at Duke. He's not a true point guard, and probably won't ever be, but he's got an offensive game that's going to find its verve in Coach K's system. Jackson's going to be the type of player to kill a few opponents with opportune 3-pointers (he can score at all three levels). Better defender than his reputation suggests, I think, and I'm also expecting him to improve by the time we get to conference play. Might not be a difference-maker right away for Duke, but he's smart and competitive enough that he'll likely adjust and become of the best backcourt freshmen in the ACC.

17. Omer Yurtseven, Center, North Carolina State

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 25.

  • The skinny: He's 18, from Turkey and a 7-footer. He's currently in limbo, waiting to be cleared to play by the NCAA, but I think he'll be cleared. Could he sit to start the season? Yes, probably, but I'd be shocked if he's not on the floor for State by December. Talent-wise, he's absolutely one of the 15 best freshmen. Impact-wise, it's going to take some time. Believe me, he's really good and a virtual lock to be an NBA pick. He's got post skills, a nice baby hook to his game and a terrific instinct for shot-blocking without getting into foul trouble. If he's able to adapt to the style of college hoops after playing FIBA/international in the past few years, NC State will become a chic Sweet 16 pick.

18. Josh Langford, Shooting Guard, Michigan State

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 20.

  • The skinny: Stud player as a 2/3 combo-type. Izzo is going to love coaching him, and I think he'll make a surprise push for Big Ten Freshman of the Year. Bridges overshadows him for now, but Langford's going to be a guy who does more in critical late minutes, I think. He's strong, strong-willed, able to defend at a high D-I level right now. You'll get a great look at him right away, as Michigan State starts it season against Arizona on Nov. 11, then plays Kentucky on Nov. 15. Langford will have a good shot to make a great first impression. I think he'll average more than 12 points per game on the year.

19. Tony Bradley, Power Forward, North Carolina

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 26.

  • The skinny: UNC cracks the list with Bradley, who's not going to be a stat-buster, but he'll be necessary for the Heels' hopes to get to a second consecutive Final Four. He's lean, but he will thrive in the Carolina secondary break. He can score with either hand, and he'll probably block more than two shots per game. His presence is going to help Kennedy Meeks a lot. Bradley won't be as efficient or reliable as Brice Johnson was last season, but he works as a replacement, absolutely. Carolina will need his length and benefit from his rebounding.

20. T.J. Leaf, Power Forward, UCLA

  • 247Sports composite recruiting ranking: No. 18.

  • The skinny: Not a great defender, given his size and strength as a flexible 4, but man is he going to have his chances in UCLA's offense. Leaf originally committed to Arizona, but after backing out, he now gives Alford a chance at competing with the Wildcats for the Pac-12 title (Oregon says hello, too). Leaf's going to beat a lot of defenders with a quick pull-up, and then he'll bait others with a shot-fake-and-finish. A fun player, just the perfect complement to a UCLA Bruin who I think is going to explode this season, Isaac Hamilton.

So yeah, that's a loaded top 20. I didn't even get to list guys like Zach Collins (Gonzaga), Kobi Simmons (Arizona), Bruce Brown (Miami), Sacha Killeya-Jones (Kentucky), Alterique Gilbert (UConn) and Tyus Battle (Syracuse. Get ready, because college hoops is going to be entertaining from the get-go. The first-year talent is going to bolster the veterans, and we could have 35 teams good enough to be top-25 quality.

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Matt Norlander is a national award-winning senior writer who has been with CBS Sports since 2010. This is his 10th season reporting on college basketball for CBS. He also covers the NBA Draft, the Olympics... Full Bio

Our Latest Stories