For folks who cover and follow the elite AAU hoops circuit, this 2017 college basketball freshman class has been talked about ever since they arrived in high school. And judging from the results so far, they lived up to every ounce of the hyperbole that has followed them into the college game.
This year’s freshman class is already on par with the 2008 class that featured Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Michael Beasley and O.J. Mayo, along with the most recent ridiculousness of the 2014 crew that boasted the likes of Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon and Julius Randle.
True basketball historians are already debating as to whether they might surpass the absolute best freshman class in college basketball history, the first-year wonders of 1980 that included Ralph Sampson, Isiah Thomas, James Worthy, Steve Stipanovich, John Paxson, Sidney Lowe, Clark Kellogg, Sidney Green, Antoine Carr, Sam Bowie, Dereck Whittenburg and The Human Highlight Film, Dominique Wilkins.
Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac, Kentucky’s Bam Adebayo, Miami of Ohio’s Michael Weathers, Creighton’s Justin Patton, Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen and Kobi Simmons, Duke’s Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles, Michigan State’s Miles Bridges, Kansas’ Josh Jackson, UCLA’s T.J. Leaf and Texas A&M’s Robert Williams have NBA scouts excitedly putting together their 2017 Draft profiles and dossiers.
It remains to be seen if the 2017 freshman will ultimately be seen, overall, as the best ever. But one thing that is for certain is that from a point guard perspective, the subject isn’t even up for debate.
This is unequivocally the best crop of rookie point guards to ever grace the NCAA hardwood. Five freshman floor generals are predicted to be among the top ten selections of the upcoming NBA Draft.
Kentucky’s Malik Monk is a scorer extraordinaire with athleticism that is in the alien-esque Russell Westbrook category. When he’s really feeling it on the offensive end, it matters not who is guarding him. Double-teams are simply inadequate.
When I watched him in high school, the soaring dunks, as he flew through the air like a pretty bird, were smile-inducing, but the most impressive aspect of his game was his ability to distribute the rock. The things he does are instinctual in the passing game, and for someone with his hops and speed, to see the advanced vision as part of that package is rare. He will gladly find his teammates in transition and pass ahead when someone else has a better look.
Money rains buckets both off the bounce and the catch-and-shoot on the wing. His dribble game is on point as well. He regularly cracks ankles with a vicious crossover, is smooth in creating space with swift behind-the-backs and the way he shifts gears and bursts into turbo mode simply can’t be taught. Once in the lane, he’s either dunking in your face or dropping delectable floaters over big men.
As good as Monk is, his teammate De’Aaron Fox is just as good, if not better. He’s averaging 16 points, six assists and four rebounds, and is one of only two players in the illustrious history of Kentucky basketball to have notched a triple-double.
He’s drawn comparisons to a young Jason Kidd in that his jumper is still a work in progress, but his ability to run a squad negates any apparent flaws in his game. Against UCLA, in a much anticipated matchup with the Bruins phenomenal point guard Lonzo Ball, he put up 20 points and dished out nine assists in the Wildcats 97-92 loss.
Fox’s end-to-end speed is next-level, and his quickness combined with his ball-handling skills allows him to get to the rim whenever he wants. His biggest asset at this point is his potential as a floor general and distributor. The crafty lefty can fill it up and rack up big assist numbers simultaneously.
And he excels on defense with his innate anticipation, quick hands and a great instinctual feel for what his opponent wants to do. He creates chaos and has a knack for forcing turnovers, which lead to easy buckets. When you combine his scoring, passing and defense with his intensity and athleticism, you’re looking at something special right here.
North Carolina State’s Dennis Smith, Jr. doesn’t possess the size or length of some of his contemporaries, but he has some Allen Iverson-type illmatics in his repertoire. NC State isn’t a very good team, but Smith gives them a chance to beat anyone in any given game.
He’s fully in control of the game, and it won’t matter what NBA point guard is guarding him next year, his quicks and yo-yo handles will allow him to embarrass cats of the dribble while getting to the rim greasily-easily. His athleticism wanders toward the explosive category, and his transition game, with the way he changes directions and speeds, is funkier than Patrick Ewing’s underarms in the fourth quarter. He’s a supreme finisher at the rim, with some Rod Strickland-type creativity.
Smith also excels in the slow-it-down half-court offensive action, and will pick and roll you to death, in addition to hurting your feelings with long-range pull-up jimmy’s off the dribble. But don’t just watch him when his team has the ball because he’s Dennis The Menace on the defensive end with great lateral movement and the hand-speed of a lizard’s tongue.
Don’t believe me? Ask Duke and the Cameron Crazies about the nightmares they’re still having.
In terms of impact, especially as it relates to making others around you better, look no further than UCLA’s Lonzo Ball. The Bruins went 15-17 last year, but with Ball now running the show and averaging 15 points, eight assists, six rebounds and two steals while connecting on 54% of his overall shots and 42% from deep, they’re 19-3 and a legit Final Four contender.
He has transformed the program with his outstanding vision and understanding of the art of the pass. At a lanky 6-foot-6, his size, ridiculous instincts, rebounding and defensive prowess are a hoops connoisseur’s dream. A threat to notch a triple-double every time he steps on the court, he also has the funkiest release on the Jimmy since Cornbread.
And as amazing as all of these freshmen point guards are, the overall consensus is that Markelle Fultz just might be the best of them all. You haven’t seen him a lot on national television because his Washington Huskies squad isn’t ranked, but trust and believe that he’s the real-deal-Holyfield.
Markelle is being projected as the overall #1 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft. He can score in so many ways, and looks to be so at ease in making the extremely difficult look routine. Pay attention to how effortlessly he creates space off the dribble, then proceeds to pull up off the bounce with the precision of an elite pro. The variety in his offensive arsenal is mind-numbing.
He can play both backcourt positions at the next level but is most devastating with the rock in his hands while running the show. His offensive weaponry, especially his ability to convert through contact in traffic and maintain his sweet touch even when off-balance, is so lovely that the uneducated fan will not notice his rebounding, passing skills, steals and bulldog mentality on the defensive end.
The young fella’s versatility has lottery teams drooling. With supreme vision, creativity, unselfishness, ability to blow by his man and get to the rim at will along with his soft shooting touch, his future is beyond bright.
I’ve seen my fair share of incredible freshman point guards over the years, from Magic Johnson to Pearl Washington to Kenny Anderson to Chris Jackson, but I’ve never seen this many all at one time.