NBA preseason basketball started last night and NCAA basketball begins practices. It’s finally that time of year for basketball junkies, and I couldn’t be more excited for the next class of new freshmen prospects entering college basketball. Last year, combo guard D’Angelo Russell soared up draft boards after being unranked early on in the season.
It seems to happen often, a lower-ranked freshman prospect comes from out of nowhere to make a big impression on NBA scouts only to enter early and see more success than many anticipated. This is the beginning of that process, so who are a few freshmen outside the top 30 on my previous Big Board I have my eye on as we enter the college basketball season?
5. Chase Jeter 6-10 240 PF/C Duke Freshman
Jeter will have plenty of opportunity and attention while playing at Duke after another anointed five-star big man in Jahlil Okafor. Jeter doesn’t have the size that Okafor has at 6-10 and 240 pounds with a 7-1 wingspan, but he’s skilled enough regardless to put in time at both frontcourt spots. Jeter is a smooth operator in the low post and can shoot the mid-range right now, which should help the Duke offense immediately.
Jeter is more smooth than explosive at this stage of development, but his athleticism should improve as he continues to grow into his body and add weight to his long frame. Jeter is a bit caught between both frontcourt positions, which could limit his NBA potential down the line. Defensively, Jeter should translate fine at one of the two frontcourt positions in college, but in the NBA, he might lack the quickness to guard 4s and the strength to deal with 5s. Jeter will be one to watch throughout the season, and the lights will be bright on him in Durham.
4. Antonio Blakeney 6-4 190 SG LSU Freshman
Blakeney has elite quickness and speed to make an immediate impact as a freshman alongside fellow five-star and potential number one overall pick freshman forward Ben Simmons at LSU. Blakeney should be able to make an impact on both ends of the court and especially in transition where he can take advantage of his elite speed.
Blakeney does a nice job in isolation, but can sometimes get too iso-heavy in his game, where he stops the ball unnecessarily and kills the offense. The tools are there, Blakeney just needs to refine them.
Right now Blakeney is simply a scoring guard, but at 6-4.5 with a 6-7 wingspan, he’d be better to groom his point guard skills in time to play both spots at the next level. Blakeney has a ways to go in terms of slowing down the game, as Blakeney plays at a very high speed.
Blakeney needs a second year before the game truly slows down, but the talent is there that if LSU makes a run in the NCAA tournament, he’ll head to the league a year early.
3. P.J. Dozier 6-6 200 PG/SG South Carolina Freshman
Dozier was a top 10 pick in my first initial glance at the 2016 draft back in June, and he has that ceiling while taking the reigns of a dismal South Carolina team. It’s more likely the lanky, Shaun Livingston-esque point guard takes two years of development at the college level, but Dozier has the natural talent to make the leap after one year and is somewhat flying under the radar a bit after ACL surgery on a knee he had played on for years. But Dozier is a natural at slashing to the basket and plays a selfless style of game that should immediately improve South Carolina.
Dozier is one of my favorite prospects of this incoming freshman class, but his health is still a question mark – although it’s possible getting the knee fixed might improve his production as a player. Dozier needs to keep improving his jump shot so he can be as versatile as possible at the next level, and he’ll be playing off the ball some at South Carolina so the opportunity should be there. With all the incoming and returning talent in the SEC, South Carolina might struggle this year, so they might as well give the ball to their most talented player in Dozier and let the growing pains begin.
2. Ray Smith 6-8 200 SG/SF Arizona Freshman
Smith has all the physical ability in the world, but a torn ACL in July of 2014—which Smith called a “blessing” at the time—makes him a question mark in terms of his readiness to compete at Arizona next year. There will be an adjustment period for Smith, both in the level of competition and returning from such a significant injury. But pre-injury Smith was an electric athlete while running in transition with the size to guard three positions. Smith has NBA athleticism and stature as a swingman, and could surprise people and jump into the first round conversation next year.
Smith will need to continue working on his perimeter game to take the next step as a prospect. He also should continue adding strength to his frame that should help him absorb contact on the offensive end of the floor while providing more resistance on the defensive end. Obviously Smith’s biggest question mark is his health, which is why he might be the most curious prospect on this list in terms of NBA projection. With a healthy season at Arizona, it’ll be hard to keep Smith off draft boards after this coming season.
1. Malik Newman 6-4 185 PG/SG Mississippi State Freshman
Newman has been ranked all over draft boards since 2016 projections started being made after the 2015 draft came to a close, but he is not a lottery-level pick. He is a combo guard in every sense of the word, too small as a shooting guard (6-4 with a 6-5 wingspan) but lacking the playmaking skills for a point guard. Newman should have the ball in his hands from the get-go at Mississippi State, which will allow him to put up big time numbers right away.
Newman is a splendid athlete and scorer, both as a slasher and shooter, but he still needs to show more point guard skills to be able to play both spots at the next level. Newman also puts most of his efforts into the offensive end of the court, so he’ll need to focus on improving on the defensive end to avoid the one-dimensional label. He still has a ways to go, but at Mississippi State he’ll have the opportunity to impress and show his talents to make his way into the lottery, where many have him projected.