0 of 9
Lance King/Getty Images
Following years of ever-increasing hype, class of 2017 stars like Marvin Bagley III, Michael Porter Jr. and Mohamed Bamba are finally about to grace college basketball with their collective presence.
But is anyone all that interested in watching those future lottery picks beat up on the likes of Utah Valley, Northwestern State and Wagner? Sure, it might be fun to watch them steamroll through inferior opponents like they did in high school, but the real intrigue will arrive when they face their first major tests of the season.
If things break right in the Phil Knight Invitational, Bamba and Bagley will go head-to-head just two weeks into the season—this after Bagley and the rest of the highly touted Duke freshmen take on Michigan State in a possible preview of the 2018 national championship. And if Porter’s Missouri Tigers run into West Virginia in the AdvoCare Invitational, that just might be the most entertaining man vs. team battle of the entire year.
Players on the following slides are listed in alphabetical order by last name—except for the final slide—and were selected based on a combination of recruiting rankings and NBA mock draft standing.
1 of 9
Alex Caparros/Getty Images
The Test: vs. North Carolina State (Nov. 22 in Bahamas)
DeAndre Ayton is one heck of a physical specimen. He’s 7’1″ with what appears to be 250 pounds of 110 percent muscle. And while a Goliath with those attributes could make many millions by becoming a prolific dunker and little else, Ayton is a more-than-capable three-point shooter. When he gets into a groove, it’s going to look like someone activated a cheat code.
Few players in the country will be capable of hanging with Ayton, but North Carolina State’s Omer Yurtseven will at least give it the old college try.
A 7’0″, 245-pound center in his own right, Yurtseven was a highly rated player who came over from Turkey last season. He hasn’t yet delivered on that potential, but he grew up facing more than his fair share of Euro big men who tend to gravitate to the perimeter to get their buckets. He has the size to at least compete with Ayton, and he should be somewhat comfortable with defending his versatility.
And during the stretches of the game in which Ayton and Dusan Ristic are on the floor together and Abdul-Malik Abu draws the short straw of trying to defend Ayton, the 6’8″, 240-pound power forward won’t get thrown around like a rag doll. The Wolfpack weren’t renowned for their defensive intensity under Mark Gottfried, but this is a front line that could cause some problems for Arizona’s new big man.
2 of 9
Gregory Payan/Associated Press
The Test: vs. Duke (Nov. 24 in Portland)
This game isn’t guaranteed to happen, as Duke and Texas need to both win (or both lose, I suppose) their quarterfinal games in the PK80 Phil Knight Invitational to set it up. If it does happen, though, the fine folks working this event at the Moda Center may want to stock up on napkins to accommodate all the drooling from NBA scouts in attendance to watch Mohamed Bamba wage war against the front line of the Blue Devils.
If Stretch Armstrong had been a basketball player, he would have been Mo Bamba. The big man for the Longhorns is 6’11” with a 7’9″ wingspan. He isn’t nearly as polished as some of the other soon-to-be NBA centers in this year’s class, but he does have some touch and some range and is already a world-class shot-blocker. The physical attributes make him a surefire lottery pick, and he could go No. 1 overall if he fares well in games like this one.
Most of these selections are intriguing one-on-one battles, but this should be an interesting one-on-three affair. Maybe it’s not fair to Texas’ James Banks and Dylan Osetkowski to just disregard them like that, but those guys aren’t nearly the can’t-miss talents that Bamba and Duke’s trio of Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr. and Marques Bolden are.
No one will be expecting Texas to win, nor Bamba to dominate on either end of the floor. However, if he can hold his own against Duke for something in the vicinity of 12 points, seven rebounds and three blocks, it could be the start of a special run.
3 of 9
Sam Forencich/Getty Images
The Test: vs. Connecticut (Nov. 23 in Portland)
Troy Brown Jr. is the rare freshman who will play like a senior. He isn’t as physically or athletically gifted as the other guys on this list, but he more than makes up for it with his versatility and basketball IQ.
On an Oregon roster that went through a near-complete overhaul this offseason, one might worry about most freshmen fitting in and learning the ropes on the fly. However, Brown was arguably the ideal highly touted guy for Dana Altman to snag. He might be even more of a leader on this team than fifth-year senior Elijah Brown.
Troy Brown can run the point, serve as the shooting guard—though his perimeter shot is a work in progress—or play small forward. This will make him tough to guard (and score against) for most teams, but Connecticut is in great shape at all three of those positions.
Jalen Adams and Alterique Gilbert give the Huskies an exceptional dual-combo guard backcourt, and Terry Larrier—who will likely bounce between playing the 3 and a small-ball 4—has the height and length to be a real nuisance, if and when he’s committed to playing defense.
Connecticut vs. Oregon in the PK80 should be the most entertaining first-round game in any early-season tournament, given their combination of backcourt talent and frontcourt inexperience. How Brown fares against a team similar to his own could be an early indication of his ceiling.
4 of 9
Gregory Payan/Associated Press
The Test: vs. Duke (Nov. 14 in Chicago)
The first of several appearances on this list for the Champions Classic, per usual, this event will serve as something of a way-too-early NBA draft combine. B/R’s Jonathan Wasserman recently ranked the top 50 prospects to watch this year, and 12 of his top 28—five for Duke, five for Kentucky and two for Michigan State—will be playing in Chicago on this night, if healthy.
Jaren Jackson Jr. joins an already loaded frontcourt at Michigan State. Nick Ward was sensational last year as a freshman, and getting fifth-year senior Gavin Schilling and sixth-year senior Ben Carter back from injury will provide the Spartans with the depth and experience they dearly missed in 2016-17. Throw in Miles Bridges as a wing-forward who spent a ton of time last year as a small-ball 4, and that would be one heck of a logjam for most incoming freshmen to navigate.
Jackson is an exception to that rule. Unless Tom Izzo decides to be unnecessarily deliberate about bringing him along, Jackson should immediately start alongside Ward as a freshman, giving Michigan State arguably the best frontcourt tandem in the nation. Jackson is listed at 6’11”, but he’s no bumbling big man. He has range out to the perimeter, both as a scorer and as a defender. At this stage in his development, he’s somewhat of a jack of all trades, master of none. But when a man-child this big and athletic has a little bit of every tool, he can dominate most opponents.
Best of luck dominating against Duke’s front line, though. Marvin Bagley III is a more polished Swiss army knife who will be a major problem for Jackson on both ends of the floor. And should he get by Bagley, he’ll still have to deal with either Wendell Carter Jr. or Marques Bolden protecting the rim. Having guys like Ward and Bridges out there to divert attention is a big plus that should present opportunities, but Jackson is going to have to work for everything he gets in this game.
5 of 9
Gregory Payan/Associated Press
The Test: vs. Vermont (Nov. 12)
We’re going well off the beaten path for this one, but Vermont has someone who could be an issue for Kevin Knox.
Knox is an athletic 6’9″ wing-forward who can score at all three levels. As tends to be the case for a lot of guys that John Calipari signs to play at Kentucky, there are some concerns about the consistency of his perimeter jumper, but nearly limitless potential will be more than enough for Knox to spend the entire season as a projected lottery pick.
“Nearly limitless” is also an apt description for Calipari’s rotation options with this roster. Both in terms of individual ability and lineup construction, Knox could play anywhere from shooting guard to power forward. Predominantly, though, he figures to play the 3, where he will be matched up with Vermont’s Anthony Lamb in this opening-weekend affair.
Over the final 12 games of last season, Lamb quietly went berserk for a team that won 29 games. During that stretch of six-plus weeks, he averaged 18.1 points, 5.9 rebounds, 1.6 blocks and 1.3 steals while shooting 21-of-35 (60.0 percent) from three-point range. This included a 20-point, nine-rebound, three-steal performance against Purdue in the NCAA tournament.
Granted, Albany, Maine and New Hampshire didn’t exactly have a Kevin Knox on their rosters. There’s a not-so-fine line between dominating in the America East Conference and slowing down a potential future NBA All-Star. But the fact remains that Lamb is the main guy Kentucky needs to concern itself with in this game, so the Wildcats might not get Knox too involved in this one. Couple that with a tough matchup against Kansas in the Champions Classic two days later and there may be some knee-jerk reactions to Knox’s lackluster stats in the opening week of the season.
6 of 9
Ted S. Warren/Associated Press
The Test: vs. West Virginia (Nov. 26 in Lake Buena Vista)
Missouri vs. West Virginia should be the championship game of the AdvoCare Invitational. Maybe St. John’s or Oregon State throws a wrench into those plans, but the Tigers and Mountaineers appear to be the two best teams in that field.
And if we end up getting this game, Michael Porter Jr. against Press Virginia would be must-watch television.
To say the least, Porter isn’t your average 6’10” freshman forward. Similar to Ben Simmons, Porter is the rare blend of size and athleticism that can sky for a defensive rebound before putting the ball on the floor, dribbling 94 feet and finishing through traffic at the other end. The former No. 1 draft pick and the possible 2018 No. 1 draft pick are cut from similar cloths, with the biggest difference being that Porter has exceptional range on his jumper in place of Simmons’ otherworldly court vision and unselfishness for a big man.
But no matter how gifted he is, the idea of a 6’10” forward dribbling the ball around against the Mountaineers is kind of hilarious. Everyone on West Virginia’s roster is more than capable of forcing turnovers, and big men like Sagaba Konate and Maciej Bender are talented enough on the offensive glass to keep Porter from even starting that rebound-dribble-score sequence.
With Esa Ahmad suspended for the first 17 games of the season, there are some serious concerns about West Virginia’s overall depth and talent in the frontcourt. However, they’re going to attack Porter like a swarm of bees. How well he handles that pressure could be a factor for the NBA team with the No. 1 pick to consider.
7 of 9
James Crisp/Associated Press
The Test: vs. Kansas (Nov. 14 in Chicago)
As mentioned in the Kevin Knox section, Kentucky has all sorts of options, especially in the frontcourt. Wenyen Gabriel, Sacha Killeya-Jones and rarely mentioned Tai Wynyard are the returning big men joining forces with newcomers Knox, Nick Richards and Jarred Vanderbilt. (However, head coach John Calipari told ESPN’s Jeff Borzello last week that Vanderbilt’s left foot injury could keep him out for the entire season.) Each of those six players is at least 6’9″, and 6’7″ freshman P.J. Washington will also feature prominently in the frontcourt rotation.
At 6’11”, Richards is the biggest of the bunch. Even if he doesn’t start at center, he’s going to get a lot of run at the 5 because of his ability to impact the game as both a finisher and protector at the rim. Of all the big men who have gone through Lexington in the past few years, Richards is most similar to Nerlens Noel, though we shouldn’t expect 5.5 blocks and 2.6 steals per 40 minutes like Noel had.
For Noel, the Champions Classic was a breakout party. He had 16 points, eight rebounds, four steals and three blocks against Duke and senior-year Mason Plumlee.
Could Richards be headed for a similar performance against Kansas and Udoka Azubuike?
The big man for the Jayhawks has battled back from torn ligaments in his wrist that truncated his freshman season, and now the 7’0″ center is going to be the primary—and just about only—frontcourt presence for Kansas. Prior to that injury, he was starting to emerge as a real force for the Jayhawks, and he could be an equal or superior to Richards in this game.
8 of 9
Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press
The Test: vs. Minnesota (Nov. 25 in Brooklyn)
In most years, Alabama vs. Minnesota wouldn’t even be a blip on the national radar—especially on the penultimate Saturday of the college football season.
But this isn’t most years. Minnesota is almost certainly going to open the season in the AP Top 20 for the first time since 1993, and Alabama has signed its first future NBA star since Antonio McDyess—which was also more than two decades ago.
On the Crimson Tide side of the equation, Collin Sexton is more explosive than TNT and is going to do some ridiculous things this season. Comparing him to John Wall or even De’Aaron Fox might be a bit much, but this dude has a nose for the bucket, good vision and a perimeter stroke that needs a lot of work. He is exactly the assertive presence that Alabama needs to finally get over the hump of more than a decade of usually lingering on the wrong side of the NCAA tournament bubble.
The Golden Gophers are one of the teams that might be able to slow him down, though. Nate Mason isn’t an elite defender, but he’s a savvy veteran who will cause problems for Sexton and force him to work tirelessly on defense.
And on the several occasions that Sexton blows by Mason, his work is only 50 percent complete, because he’ll still have top-notch shot-blocker Reggie Lynch waiting for him at the rim. Factor in Richard Pitino’s propensity for zone defense, and Minnesota isn’t a great opponent for a guy who thrives on drives.
9 of 9
Lance King/Getty Images
The Test: vs. Michigan State (Nov. 14 in Chicago)
Rather than individually listing Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr. and Trevon Duval with Michigan State as their first real test, we might as well just address them collectively in what should be the best game of November.
As far as the frontcourt battle is concerned, this isn’t just the first real test for Bagley and Carter. It’s probably the biggest of the season. If Duke draws Gonzaga (Killian Tillie, Johnathan Williams III, Rui Hachimura and Jacob Larsen) in the championship of the Phil Knight Invitational, that would also be a stiff test. The same goes for any possible pairing with Kentucky, Arizona, USC or Texas A&M in the NCAA tournament, as each of those teams has at least two potential NBA big men. But in terms of what’s cemented on the schedule, this is as good as it gets.
Nick Ward is only 6’8″, but he averaged 28.0 points, 13.1 rebounds and 3.1 blocks per 40 minutes last year, and he was just starting to really cook when the season ended. Putting him alongside the aforementioned Jaren Jackson Jr. gives the Spartans one heck of a one-two punch in the paint. And that’s without accounting for Miles Bridges, Gavin Schilling, Ben Carter, Kenny Goins and Xavier Tillman. The Spartans can throw waves of forwards at Duke’s Bagley-Carter combo. We’ll see how the young guns handle that war of attrition.
The backcourt matchup isn’t quite as juicy, but Duval against Cassius Winston is hardly a snoozefest. The latter had one of the best assist rates in the nation as a freshman, and arguably the biggest question facing Duke is whether Duval will become a distributor or if he’ll be a ball-dominant lead guard who keeps this offense from reaching its full potential.
Duke has finished 13 of the last 16 seasons ranked in the top 10 on KenPom. In the three exceptions, its primary ball-handlers were Austin Rivers, Grayson Allen and Jayson Tatum. Unselfish play has been the hallmark of Duke’s best teams, and that could be more important than ever on this roster loaded with talent. When the going gets tough against the Spartans, how will Duval respond?
Kerry Miller covers college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.