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College Basketball: Ranking the Top-10 SEC Freshman

For once, UK isn’t the only SEC team with NBA talent. This year’s freshman class promises to be one of the best the league has had in recent memory.

The Kentucky Wildcats continually haul in the nation’s top recruits. While Coach John Calipari may have struck out on the top of the 2016 class, he did manage to accumulate arguably the greatest five freshman in the SEC (spoiler alert, we suppose). The Cats bring in five talented freshman this season, which truthfully outclass the paltry cast brought in my the entire rest of the conference.

Kentucky’s top-three freshman are expected once again to be of the "one and done" variety, with the trio all expected to be 2017 NBA lottery picks. The bar is set pretty high for their pro success after the proliferation of talented Wildcats to enter the Association, but at least Cats fans will get to enjoy their lone NCAA season before making the leap.

Though Mississippi State did have a nice recruiting class, this slideshow is predictably dominated by Wildcats, and it is hard to contest, dispute, nor hate us for one single bit of that. Mississippi State did well for themselves, but Kentucky is the recruiting envy of every college basketball program.

That said: Let us dive in!

1) De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky

De’Aaron Fox is a point guard with good size at 6’3" and he is a lefty. He’s extremely quick and skilled, and Cats fans will no doubt see flashes of one John Wall in their similar games. Fox is a superb passer with natural point guard vision, which is something that can hardly be taught. His footwork is top-notch, and he works well in the mid-range with an effective jumpshot that will serve him well both at Kentucky and in the NBA.

Also like Wall, he is great at playing passing lanes and getting out in transition, where he will find plenty of talented options to pass the ball to. His shot will need some refinement, but he is a natural scorer and is considered to be a potential top-5 picks in the 2017 NBA Draft.

The "nitpicky" things include the fact that he needs to add bulk and learn to establish the tempo of a game better, but these are all things he can begin to remedy as he works with Coach Cal this season. His decision making may be shaky to start, but this talented freshman floor general will be ready to lead by March and he is the next major guard to come out of UK.

Fox will rival Wall and the likes of Eric Bledsoe, as a physical and athletic point capable of doing much more than just dishing the rock. A very versatile guard, he will make his impact felt in a number of ways, and he is the best freshman in the SEC this season.

2) Bam Adebayo, Kentucky

Bam Adebayo is a big-bodied 4/5. At 6’10" 255, he is pretty quick and mobile. Though he is not quite on the level of an Anthony Davis or Karl-Anthony Towns, he is a very solid back to the basket player, and he is a traditional big.

Players like Adebayo seem to be a rarer breed as more bigs develop games suited to stepping out on the court, but do not discount the possibility that his offensive skills allow for a lot of inside/outside play, be it for Coach Cal or next season in the NBA. Adebayo is deceptively quick and his footwork is efficient. He rises up fairly effortlessly around the basket and is a top-notch finisher.

There will not be much most opposing bigs can do if he catches the ball within eight feet of the basket, as his instincts more or less do the work after that. Adebayo tends to focus on going right to the rack, but perhaps that is because he has been able to do just that. The majority of his high school buckets were dunks, so he has some work to do in becoming a more well-rounded threat.

In fact, given the way High Point Christian functioned, it is difficult to get any read on what he can do as a passer and facilitator. When Adebayo got the ball, the motive was pretty clear: dunk hard. That should help Fox rack up some pretty assists, but for Adebayo’s personal career development, there will be some focus put on developing his repertoire into what it will take to succeed at the next level.

3) Malik Monk, Kentucky

Malik Monk will start in the backcourt alongside Fox, and at 6’3" 200, he is a versatile "tweener," a true combo guard. That positional versatility will help him, and he has been slowly adding muscle, having gained 20 pounds in the past two years since his 180 pound measurement at the Nike Guard Skills Academy in 2014.

Gifted with a 6’6" wingspan, Monk has the raw tools to be a tough defender, and along with Fox the Wildcats should be able to apply a lot of pressure to opposing backcourts. Oh, and Monk can leap—out of the gym. He will have his show-stopping dunks this year, and watching mixtapes of his highlights reveals the hops and creativity of a guy who could be an NBA dunk contest champion at some point.

Monk is certainly up there (literally) with the best of the guys banging their heads on the rim. In terms of pure basketball talent, he is very good keeping his dribble alive and makes sound decisions even with a lot of defensive pressure. It is conceivable he could play a lot of point guard, but Fox is such a natural 1, that it might not happen as much as it would with a different backcourt mate.

Either way, Monk’s natural gifts and athleticism set the ceiling pretty high for his progression. And that is exactly what NBA GMs tend to salivate over.

4) Wenyen Gabriel, Kentucky

Wenyen Gabriel is a 6’9" combo forward who really badly needs to add bulk at just 200 pounds. But he will have to consider how he is going to craft and market his game. He could be a stretch-4 with some cultivation, given his impressive shooting range and overall foot speed.

But he also could play the 3-spot given that same lateral motion that gives him the ability to defend a variety of opposing players.

Gabriel’s elevation around the basket is effortless—and he has a natural basketball body. It is just that he may be a year or two away from really coming into his own as a player. He may not be one-and-done like his three aforementioned teammates, and it would be to his benefit to stay and hone both his talents and his body before making the leap to the NBA, just to be either drafted too low or not at all.

That is not to say this guy lacks ‘top-shelf talent,’ hardly, just that he is a bit more of the "project" variety than the other freshman coming to Kentucky this season. He has been on the radar for several years and was highly recruited by Kansas.

Really, the best career path for Gabriel in today’s era is to work on his shooting even more and follow in the steps of former Cat Trey Lyles. He is basically a more athletic version of Lyles, and if he is given the time and offensive usage, he should be an effective small forward this season. Adding bulk will enable that shift to the 4-spot eventually.

5) Mustapha Heron, Auburn

Mustafa Heron is a 6’5" shooting guard and checks in as the highest non-Wildcat in the SEC. A lefty, Heron will bring all the unorthodoxy and skill to the position that Auburn needs this season. He has an extremely quick release and he elevates well while finishing in traffic.

Heron certainly has the ball skill to play some point guard, but he is a natural scorer that the Tigers will want to keep moving away from the ball plenty, too. He is really adept at drawing contact and finishing through it, and Heron will get his trips to the charity stripe.

With his strength and physicality, he will be well cut out for bodying up with the stronger 2-guards should he make it to the next level. For the time being, the Tigers will pair him with senior T.J. Dunans to form one of the better backcourts in the conference.

Given that both its true point guards are freshman, the Tigers will likely be playing their two shooting guards, Dunans and Heron, often in tandem. Neither lacks playmaking skills, so it should work out just fine, and perhaps we even discover that Heron excels better at the 1. His size would certainly be a nice boost there. The "James Harden" comparison being thrown around may be lofty, but on the basis of their skill set (and southpaw game) it is hard to discard it, too.

6) Sacha Killeya-Jones, Kentucky

Sacha Killeya-Jones is another guy that, like Gabriel, will need some seasoning and conditioning. Or at least he will if he is smart about it. Much like Skal Labissiere last season, Killeya-Jones comes in plenty talented, but simply far too thin at 6’10" 220.

He is a long-bodied forward with a high motor though, and his basketball skills are hard to miss. He finishes well with either hand, and he plays with high energy. He is a very mobile 6’10", so he may not be entirely limited to just playing the 4-spot. He certainly has the skills to play small forward until he is ready to move to his natural position (at a high level).

Defensively, he may encounter the most problems at power forward anyway, at least until he adds bulk.  But the upside on his offensive game is well worth developing. And until he does become a tougher post defender, the Wildcats will benefit from his weak-side defensive help. He has great instincts for picking up those blocks.

Killeya-Jones also faces up well and has some back to the basket moves. The typical problems of an ultra-light big will likely apply, as he may have struggles getting into good post position. However, if Killeya-Jones can add 20 pounds of muscle by the end of next season, NBA teams will be looking pretty closely at drafting him.

He is just not there yet, and given he just turned 18 years old, it is fair to say he is an unfinished product. But a very exciting unfinished product who can develop under Coach Cal to become a legitimate NBA player in time. Killeya-Jones is already a heck of a basketball talent, but sometimes it requires the right tinkering and seasoning to ensure a guy has a career at the next level. That is the case here.

7) Mario Kegler, Mississippi State

Mario Kegler is a 6’7" small forward that hails from vaunted basketball factor Oak Hill Academy. He is hardly short on basketball gifts, as is often the case of that programs premier prospects. Kegler can shoot the triple, and he shoots very well both spotting up and coming off the dribble. He is quick and has good length, enabling him to stretch out well and finish in traffic. His shot is consistent and steady, and he could be a consummate 2 or 3 at the next level.

Kegler is a dynamic talent whose skill set is easy to fit within any offense: he makes quick moves and is decisive with the ball. He seems a likely pick at forward for the All-Freshman SEC team. Mario is just a natural small forward and scorer, and one of four very talented frosh at Mississippi State.

8) Schnider Herard, Mississippi State

At 6’10" 260, Schnider Herard has a man’s body already, and he was highly prized by Kansas, Texas Tech, Cal and Purdue—before settling on Mississippi State. The guy is simply a physical monster, and his strength leaves backboards weary. The NBA may be moving away from dominant bigs, but with the influx of them that seems to be happening on its own accord, Herard will be one more powerful 5 that some NBA team will incorporate into its offense eventually.

Herard’s pure strength just makes him such a tough matchup for opposing bigs. He makes good quick decisions around the basket and he is smart about getting the shot up quickly. Herard will not waste time with backdown dribbles, but prefers to make his move and get the ball to the rim—often simply jammed through it.

Affectionately nicknamed "The Haitian Hammer," he is a next-level talent undoubtedly and Miss State had a nice recruiting class for itself. It should be interesting to see how much Herard can do beyond simply jamming it down defenses’ throats; because, as is often the case, that was all he had to do in high school. With the physical advantages he had over other high schoolers, doing anything less would hardly make sense, anyway.

9) Clevon Brown, Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt commit Clevon Brown is a 6’8" 200 pound power forward whose athleticism and length more than makes up for his seemingly undersized stature. Think Paul Millsap with still more (perhaps even "far more") athleticism. Brown can elevate off the floor and has great hands.

Brown will not be a pass dropper, and when he does get it, he is quick around the basket and finishes well moving to either direction. His basketball IQ and feel for the game seems to be pretty good, and he knows how to move without the ball. These are all great attributes for enabling quick success. While he may not be quite on the level of the UK bigs, Vandy has a true power forward who should help the program rise some in the SEC.

Brown’s is particularly good around the hoop with his left hand, and he spins so quickly to that direction that it often looked like (high school) defenses were hardly even trying. Brown may be stereotypically casts as an "undersized big," but one would think that faulty narrative of post players would eventually fade away. The guy in no way appears undersized, to be definitively clear on the matter.

10) Lamar Peters, Mississippi State

Just one of two point guards to grace the top-10, Lamar Peters will be the floor general to head the influx of talent at Mississippi State. Peters was a 4-star recruit on 247sports, but that does not really do the diminutive guard justice. He will be a pest.

Peters is lightning quick and a lefty whose pull up game is strong. He tends to over dribble often, but that can be ironed out. His ability to shake a defender is what leads to it, but as he becomes more efficient with that it will only help him set up teammates with his deft court vision.

Peters is highly reminiscent of Brandon Jennings, and if he embraces the role of becoming more of a distributor it will be to Miss State’s advantage this season. While there is no doubting his scoring ability, what can distinguish him and give him the chance of going to the next level is becoming a true point.

There are plenty of guys that can score the ball, and if Peters can really focus on using his court vision rather than his itchy trigger, he will maximize his ability to lead either an NCAA or NBA team. At this point the NBA may be a long-shot for him, but it is very early to pass that judgement on him and certainly his speed and shooting ability keep him in this discussion of the best freshman in the SEC.

Honorable Mention: Tyson Carter, Mississippi State

Tyson Carter, like Peters, is another talented freshman point guard coming into Mississippi State. Is he as good as Peters? It is really hard to tell, given the lack of footage available of Carter on the web. He seems to be more of a traditional point guard, but he is also too thin at this point, clocking in at just 150 pounds.

Watching the scant helping of clips, he is a shooter and scorer that could function well at the 2, but the same really applies to Peters. Both of these point guards can play the 2, and it may be simply perfunctory as to which one has to do it.

Carter is effective in the mid-range and Peters can dial up the ultra-long triples, but the only certainty at Mississippi State is that there is a bounty of excitement in its backcourt and its incoming freshman class. How it all fits together is still a matter of debate, and something that SEC fans will pay close attention to as the Bulldogs could become a major program to contend with, at least for teams other than Kentucky, that is.