-- What an outstanding, competitive and compelling 2015-16 season that was. Now, enough wallowing in nostalgia. On to new business ...
We're already peeking ahead at 2016-17, and we have come up with our first rankings of the nation's top 25 players. As with any April list, this one comes freighted with assumptions.
Specifically, I'm assuming the following projected first-round picks, who would otherwise be eligible in 2016-17, will pursue their aspirations at the professional level: Ben Simmons, Brandon Ingram, Jamal Murray, Henry Ellenson, Kris Dunn, Jaylen Brown, Marquese Chriss, Jakob Poeltl, Ivan Rabb, Deyonta Davis, Tyler Ulis, Skal Labissiere, Domantas Sabonis, Diamond Stone, Demetrius Jackson, Wade Baldwin IV, Dejounte Murray, Thomas Bryant, DeAndre Bembry, Cheick Diallo, Grayson Allen, Ben Bentil and Stephen Zimmerman Jr.
In addition, several other top-25-level players are reported to have already hired agents: Anthony Barber, Malik Beasley, Brannen Greene, Stefan Jankovic, Tim Quarterman and Wayne Selden Jr. For his part, Damian Jones announced in October that he intends to try his luck at the next level. You won't find any of those names here.
Granted, it's unlikely that every single player named above will go pro (Dunn, for example, faked me out last year). Mindful of this fact, you'll want to watch for an update as this picture becomes clear. In the meantime, here are my way-too-early rankings of the top 25 players for 2016-17:
Giles is Mike Krzyzewski's second national No. 1 recruit in three seasons. Jahlil Okafor was also the nation's top recruit entering his freshman season, and like Giles, he had previously led a USA team to a FIBA U19 gold medal. Using apples-to-apples stats from international competition, we can make some handy comparisons between the two players.
First the bad news for Blue Devil fans: Giles does not appear to be the ready-made 2-point-making monster Okafor so clearly was, even at the beginning of his freshman season. In 149 FIBA minutes last summer, Giles made 47 percent of his 2s. Conversely Okafor's number from the summer of 2013 was (take a deep breath) 30 percentage points higher.
Now the good news for Coach K: Giles recorded that so-so 2-point percentage while personally accounting for one-third of Team USA's shot attempts in his minutes. He won't carry anywhere near that heavy of a load in the Duke offense, and his efficiency should rise accordingly. Plus, Giles is clearly an absolute beast on the glass, particularly on the offensive end.
Lastly, there's the obvious point: Giles was Team USA's featured player in an international U19 competition when he had turned 17 just two months earlier. The past trajectories of guys that young who post the kind of rebounding numbers Giles did that summer in Greece are, shall we say, impressive. Assuming reports are correct, and he's healthy after overcoming an ACL injury, Giles is the (very) early leader for top player honors nationally in 2016-17.
Whitehead is testing the draft waters, and if it appears likely that he'll be a first-round pick, he might be finished with college ball. For now, however, he's listed here on the assumption that recency effect will tip the scales in favor of his staying in school.
About that recency effect: The last time NBA front-office types saw Whitehead in action, the Pirate star was recording a 4-of-24 shooting performance against Gonzaga in the round of 64. Indeed, for a solid 80 percent of his college career thus far, Whitehead's 2-point shooting has been less than auspicious.
Then again, this is the same player who connected 52 percent of the time inside the arc over the five games preceding the loss to the Bulldogs, drained 43 percent of his 3s in conference play and led his team to a thrilling win over Villanova in the Big East tournament title game. Whitehead plays with aggressiveness and impact on defense and gets to the line virtually at will. At 6-foot-4, his "pure" point guard stats are exemplary. (Even in the round of 64 debacle, he dished eight assists.) In a setting in which the shooting light is less green and the misbegotten burdens of hero-ball are lifted, he might thrive. Who knows? Maybe that setting will be Seton Hall in 2016-17.
3. Jayson Tatum, Duke Blue Devils
Tatum was Giles' teammate at the FIBA U19 championships last summer in Greece. In Team USA's eight-game run to a gold medal, the 6-foot-9 small forward made exactly half his 2s while accounting for 32 percent of the offense's shot attempts during his minutes. Tatum showed a laudable inclination toward guarding opponents, with 13 steals in 323 personal defensive possessions.
In last week's McDonald's All-American game, Tatum scored 18 points but needed 15 shots to do so. On the plus side, he was a perfect 8-of-8 at the line, and the freshman-to-be is invariably billed as a "versatile" scorer with good basketball IQ.
If that whole handshake controversy with Coach K does nothing but bring Brooks to the attention of hoops fans, the kerfuffle will have performed a valuable service. The Oregon star was excellent as a sophomore, scoring from both sides of the arc while functioning as a de facto point forward in Dana Altman's offense (see, for example, the six assists he recorded against the Blue Devils). In a tight game against Saint Joseph's in the round of 32, Brooks scored 25 points on 7-of-13 shooting to lead the Ducks to the win.
In the category of "best March game that no one saw," Felder walked off with the title last week. Facing East Tennessee State in the semifinals of the Vegas 16 tournament, the junior put a 29-point, 10-assist and 10-rebound triple-double into the record books. Big numbers and prodigious feats are nothing new for Felder, who at 5-foot-9 draws nearly seven fouls per 40 minutes and shoots 85 percent at the line. In three seasons to date, Greg Kampe's floor general has dished 788 assists, which brings him within range of former Duke point guard Bobby Hurley's career record of 1,076.
I suppose it's not completely out of the question for Morris to take a shot at the next level here and now, but assuming he returns to Ames for his senior season, he should give Frank Mason III of Kansas and Isaiah Taylor of Texas some competition for Big 12 Preseason Player of the Year honors. In three seasons at ISU, the 6-foot-2 Morris has taken uniformly excellent care of the ball and hit shots from both sides of the arc while transitioning from strictly a pass-first to a scoring point guard.
In his three seasons at Villanova, and with the curious exception of three of the Wildcats' first four games in the 2016 NCAA tournament, Hart's shots have very often gone in the basket. What has changed over those three seasons has been his role. Hart has gone from being a supporting player on a team headlined by James Bell, Darrun Hilliard and JayVaughn Pinkston to being very much "the man." Jay Wright certainly deserves partial credit here; Villanova's system churns out insanely efficient 6-foot-5 or so scorers like nobody's business. But Hart brings his own talents and horsepower to that system, and the result is rather impressive. Just ask Oklahoma.
Carter arrived at Maryland as a nominal stretch-4 who in fact was a career 27 percent 3-point shooter. But the Georgia Tech transfer improved from both inside and beyond the arc as a junior, as demonstrated by his high-profile 18-point game (including 3-of-5 shooting on his 3s) against Michigan State in the Big Ten tournament. As a prospect who will be 23 on draft day 2017, Carter faces a difficult decision in 2016 -- it's by no means assured that he'll stay in school. Still, if he does return to College Park, the essentials seem to be in place for a big senior season.
For 30 very convincing minutes, it looked like Perrantes was going to carry Virginia past Syracuse in the Elite Eight virtually single-handedly. The point guard hit five 3s (all from roughly the same spot beyond the top of the key) to help stake the Cavaliers to a 54-39 lead with a little more than nine minutes remaining. Then the roof caved in, of course, but in Perrantes, you're still looking at a deadly outside shooter and premier perimeter defender rolled into one.
10. Josh Jackson (uncommitted)
Still another veteran of the 2015 FIBA U19 championships, Jackson says he has narrowed his list down to Kansas, Arizona and Michigan State. He earned co-MVP honors at last week's McDonald's All-American Game by scoring 19 points on 9-of-11 shooting from the field. The 6-foot-7 small forward is reputed to be a tireless worker, though as a member of Team USA last summer, this trait also landed Jackson in occasional foul trouble.
He might not be a household name, but barring a surprise decision in the next few weeks, Blossomgame figures to be the only member of the 2015-16 All-ACC first team still playing college hoops in 2016-17. More importantly, the senior-to-be is an excellent scoring wing who developed 3-point range seemingly out of nowhere last season. For a player who hit 20 percent of his 3s and shot 60 percent at the line as a freshman, Blossomgame has come a long way.
Trimble's 3-point shot deserted him as a sophomore, and with opponents more comfortable playing off of him, the Terrapin guard shot 58 fewer free throws than he had as a freshman. Still, you can put me down as bullish on the future perimeter prospects of a career 86 percent foul shooter. Throw in Trimble's ability to convert half his 2-point attempts and the fact that he does all of the above while functioning as a solid point guard within the Maryland offense, and you have the makings of a strong junior season.
It's rare to find a North Carolina player who might be shooting too many 3s, but you can at least raise the question with Jackson. A career 29 percent shooter from beyond the arc, the 6-foot-8 wing nevertheless fired up more than 116 attempts this season. Then again, you might have registered that, on balance, missed shots weren't exactly the end of the world for a superb offensive rebounding team such as the Tar Heels in 2015-16. The fact that Jackson went nearly four months this season without committing more than two turnovers in a game speaks volumes about UNC's ability to generate a high volume of shot attempts.
Mason is a career 38 percent 3-point shooter who has now made 77 starts at point guard for Bill Self, and it's fair to say the senior-to-be is a master of his role. To the degree that anything has changed over the course of three seasons, it's that Mason has taken an already low turnover rate and driven it even lower. Assuming Self's point guard and Iowa State's Morris both return for another season, Big 12 fans are guaranteed a minimum of two additional outstanding head-to-head match-ups.
Jenkins hit a shot that will go down as one of the greatest moments in Final Four history. Yet even before he became iconic, he was invaluable. Jenkins is the more perimeter-oriented version of his teammate Hart (see above) -- or, to be fair, maybe the latter is the more interior-oriented version of the former. In any event, Jenkins attempted more than 250 3s this season while also connecting inside the arc 61 percent of the time. His performance against Miami in the Sweet 16 didn't even earn him outright leading scorer honors (he shared those with Ryan Arcidiacono), but those 40 minutes could be framed and labeled as the very essence of Jenkins: 21 points on just 10 shots to go with nine boards and four assists.
Although he missed seven games in January and February after suffering a broken hand, Trier posted season stats good enough to rank a few spots higher on this list. Then again, the freshman compiled those numbers while playing alongside Ryan Anderson and Gabe York. Both teammates will be gone next season, and it's reasonable to expect the 6-foot-4 wing's efficiency to dip as his workload increases. On the other hand, a healthy Ray Smith and new arrivals such as Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons (and perhaps even Josh Jackson -- see No. 10) could give Trier enough support to meet or exceed expectations set in 2015-16. Sean Miller certainly hopes so.
After posting the only double-double in the McDonald's All-American game in just 22 minutes, Adebayo has some observers saying this is what Kentucky lacked in 2015-16. Surely, the thinking goes, a big body in the paint (6-foot-9, 260 pounds) will get UK back to the tournament's second weekend, where it belongs. In truth, I'm not sure the Wildcats really "lacked" anything this season, other than a non-brutal region of the bracket and perhaps a few defensive rebounds. Adebayo can do zero about the former, but he will likely be a great help with the latter.
After two full seasons, Hamilton is still a work in progress, particularly in terms of scoring and shot selection inside the arc. That said, the potential of a 6-foot-7 player who came within a whisker of leading the American in both defensive rebounding percentage and assist rate is difficult to overstate. Also note that the 86 percent shooting Hamilton unveiled at the line this season indicates that his career 34 percent 3-point accuracy might be due for an upgrade.
The etiquette for declaring whether you're in the draft is plainly in flux in 2016, and for proof, look no further than Williams. Last week, he released a statement phrased rather confidently in the past tense ("I can't say enough about the three years I have had"), but the following day, Bob Huggins said his senior-to-be wouldn't be hiring an agent. Make of that what you will, but Williams is here for now. The 6-foot-9 post player is a master of drawing fouls and possibly the best all-around rebounder in the nation.
Assuming he returns after testing the draft waters, Onuaku is poised to record the mother of all breakout junior seasons. As a sophomore, he showed impressive capability as a post scorer for the first time while continuing to control the defensive glass and block shots. It is rare to find a big man who can do all three of those things, and Rick Pitino's center is likely to be limited only by fouls. (See, for example, his season-ending 20-minute DQ at Virginia.) If Onuaku stays on the floor, he can start memorizing his acceptance speech for 2016-17 All-ACC first team honors.
Both Happ and Nigel Hayes attempted more than 300 shots inside the arc this season, but the precocious freshman shot 14 percentage points better on those 2s than the wizened old junior. At 6-foot-9, the sophomore-to-be is also an outstanding defender who records steals and holds his own on the defensive glass. The next step for Happ will be improved shooting at the line. In 2015-16, he hit just 64 percent of his free throws, and his 3-of-7 effort against Pittsburgh in the round of 64 exposed the Badgers to a surprising level of jeopardy in a game in which they held the opponent to 43 points.
In the moments after Syracuse's loss to North Carolina in the national semifinal, Richardson was pointedly noncommittal about his future plans. Maybe the freshman will take a shot at the next level before the next version of these rankings appears. In the meantime, Richardson merits inclusion here -- in spite of a (very) low 2-point success rate -- thanks to his burgeoning perimeter range and ability to distribute the ball. In five NCAA tournament games, the 6-foot-6 wing shot 37 percent on 3s.
No player on this list -- not even Devin Williams himself, playing in that foul-drawing-and-committing mecca known as Morgantown, West Virginia -- draws fouls at a higher rate than Daum, a freshman reserve in the Summit League. Perhaps next season he'll get to start at SDSU. Certainly, drawing nearly eight fouls per 40 minutes is a good skill for a starter to possess, as is shooting 83 percent at the line once you get there. The 6-foot-9 Daum also makes his 2s and flashes occasional range from the perimeter. With mid-major legends such as High Point's John Brown and Stony Brook's Jameel Warney having exhausted their eligibility, the crazy-stat torch has officially been passed to Daum.
As a sophomore, Bluiett accepted a big upgrade in workload on offense from Chris Mack, and it happened to come at a time when Xavier earned its highest NCAA tournament seed (No. 2) in program history. Cause and effect? Not entirely, of course, but don't underestimate the value of a 6-foot-6 player versatile enough to make 40 percent of his 3s, back up Jalen Reynolds on the defensive glass and lead the team in scoring. With Bluiett, Reynolds and Edmond Sumner (presumably) returning for the Musketeers, Mack has an already illustrious program reaching new heights.
Davis had one of his best outings in one of his team's worst games. In A&M's season-ending 77-63 loss to Oklahoma in the Sweet 16, the 6-foot-10 freshman scored 17 points on 7-of-8 shooting to go with eight rebounds and three blocks. In conference games, Davis was the best offensive rebounder in the SEC -- not an easy honor to win in a league that includes Kentucky's frontcourt. He will carry a larger load in Billy Kennedy's offense as a sophomore, and any improvement Davis can show at the line will be a significant boost to the Aggies' performance on that side of the ball.