Commentary

Talent overload for 2013-14 AA teams

Originally Published: April 30, 2013
By Eamonn Brennan | ESPN.com

On Monday, my colleague Dana O'Neil did two things in one column.

1. Coined the term "champ stamp" for Rick Pitino's national title tattoo, which is a work of phraseology genius that deserves to be enshrined in the Smithsonian, and …

2. Summed up why weeks of surprise NBA abstentions have led to a widely-held consensus that the 2013-14 college hoops season will, if I may borrow a phrase from rock god Nigel Tufnel, go to 11.

[+] EnlargeMarcus Smart
Peter G. Aiken/Getty ImagesMarcus Smart lived up to the hype in his freshman season. And he's just getting started.

This is a totally thrilling development. For a year-plus we've been hearing how much talent would join the college ranks this fall, how loaded the 2014 NBA draft promised to be, and thus how likely it was that this season's stars would practically have to take the chance to get in on a weaker draft pool whether they liked it or not. Instead, a handful of the nation's best decided to stick around. Marcus Smart turned down a sure-fire top-five spot to return to Oklahoma State. Doug McDermott decided to play a year in the new Big East. Russ Smith came back to take one final step at Louisville.

And on down the line, from hugely promising sophomores (Mitch McGary, Glenn Robinson, Gary Harris, Jahii Carson, Isaiah Austin) to seniors finally ready to put their stamp definitive on their programs (C.J. Fair, Shabazz Napier, Adreian Payne, Patric Young) and everywhere in between.

In the meantime, the incoming class has solidified its reputation as the best batch of talent to join the college ranks in years, if not decades. It's chock full of game-changing future NBA talents, the best of which -- Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker, specifically -- have both spent a not-inconsiderable amount of their prep careers being compared to LeBron James.

All of which made it rather difficult to finish the assignment before me … in which I will project the 2013-14 preseason All-Americans! You read right: preseason All-Americans in April. More like pre-offseason All-Americans. Did I just blow your mind?

Such lists are sort of silly even with the benefit of proximity to Midnight Madness; at this early date, the exercise feels downright insane. But by far the most difficult challenge of all came as I tried to find a place for the litany of talented players who will lace 'em up on college courts next season. Trust me: It wasn't easy. Fun? Yes. Giddiness-inducing? Oh yeah. Easy? Not in the least.

Here's what we've got: A first team that holds fast to positional conventions, second and third teams that do not, and a batch of honorable mentions who could just as easily have made the cut. Talent-wise, that's where we'll be next season: experienced and young, diffuse and deep.

So let's get to it, shall we? Without further ado, here are your 2013-14 pre-offseason All-Americans:

First Team

Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State: You hear a lot of hype in the summer. Remember when UCLA's freshmen class was going to take Ben Howland back to the Final Four? When Harrison Barnes was going to be the next Kobe Bryant? When Kentucky was going to reload with an entirely new roster and make a run at a second straight national title? (OK, so that one was more plausible than most; who are we to doubt John Calipari and talented freshmen? We'll come back to this.)

Smart was no different in every way but one: His hype was almost all about intangibles. Scouts recognized his issues shooting the ball and his tendency to turn it over but were nonetheless in love with things you can't always see in YouTube mix tapes: His heart, his work ethic, his ability to lead, how every coach who had ever worked with him (even for a few weeks or a few days) praised him and pined for another like him. It was kind of weird. Who was this dude? Just how good of a teammate can one 18-year-old kid really be?

A year later, we have our answer: Smart really was the truth all along. He had some noticeable flaws in his game during his freshman campaign, particularly on the offensive end, where he shot 46.5 percent from 2 and 29.0 percent from 3. But he was a monster defensively, both on the court and off, in that his visible talent (he had the fifth-highest steal rate in the country, for starters) was even exceeded by his ability to get a Cowboys lineup that finished outside the top 100 in defensive efficiency in 2012 to buy in. OSU finished with a top-15 defense, and Smart is only going to get better this summer. This was the no-brainer of all no-brainers.

[+] EnlargeRuss Smith
Chris Chambers/Getty ImagesLouisville guard Russ Smith is averaging 16.8 points per game this season.

Russ Smith, Louisville: Actually, "duh" will be a running theme for the early portions of this list. Like Smart, Smith was just too obvious to even consider for longer than, like, half a second. (It might not even have been that long.) He was the leading scorer on the defending national champions! Of course he's going to be a preseason All-American. Duh.

Thing is, I'm not sure the wider public really realizes just how good Smith was last season. Indeed, I remain convinced that Smith's struggles in the Final Four and his very visible Russdiciulous fugue state in Louisville's five-overtime loss to Notre Dame in February -- as well as how much of his value came on the defensive end -- essentially turned a significant portion of the casual college hoops viewing public (and voting media) off to the idea that Smith might well have had the best individual season in the college game. But for as good as Trey Burke was, that idea is worth considering, because at the very least it helps us put expectations for Smith's senior season in context. He could still improve as an outside shooter; there are still some rough edges to sand off here. But this may finally be the season Russdiculous the Endearing Crazy Sideshow gets the last laugh.

Doug McDermott, Creighton: Triple duh. When McDermott decided he wanted to return to college for his senior season, he became the earliest and most obvious All-American lock of the offseason. The nation's second-leading scorer last season (23.2 ppg), McDermott has already been selected to two straight AP All-American first teams. If he manages to replicate his prodigious, hyper-efficient scoring output again in 2013-14, he will earn a third, which would make him just the sixth player in the past 40 years to do so.

The other five, in case you're wondering, are as follows: Patrick Ewing, Wayman Tisdale, Ralph Sampson, David Thompson and Bill Walton. Not bad for a kid whose own dad didn't recruit him out of high school, huh? (We can joke about it now. Things have worked out OK, I'd say.)

Andrew Wiggins, TBA: And now we can begin the controversial portions of the proceedings. I can picture the angry emails already, feel the pixelated rants floating across my laptop as I type: "How can a kid be a preseason All-American if he hasn't even picked a school? Remember when Barnes was a preseason AA and flopped?! He is dragging out his recruitment so clearly he is selfish, also U R DUMB!!!!!111," rinse, repeat, ad infinitum.

Sorry folks: I don't care if the kid hasn't picked a school. I don't care where he decides to play. I don't care if you want to compare him to the last athletic small forward considered an All-American before he ever played a minute of college basketball (Barnes), because the two dudes are … you know, not the same person. I don't care about any of that. What I care about is that there is not a recruiting analyst, NBA scout, college coach or even fellow prospect who doesn't think Wiggins is the real deal -- an immediate Player-of-the-Year candidate, multiple future NBA All-Star and a Kevin Durant-ian franchise-changer. Everyone believes. Everyone.

And if that weren't enough, we also have this handy thing called YouTube. I know what I saw. Wherever he plays, he's going to be a force. End of story.

(Frankly, the only real debate here is whether Wiggins will embrace the nickname "Ender," which a reader suggested in a live chat last week, and which might the nerdiest, most awesome basketball nickname ever. Just think about it, Andrew. This could be a keeper.)

Mitch McGary, Michigan: Small sample size or sign of more to come? That is the defining question about McGary's sophomore season to come after McGary turned down likely NBA riches to stay in Ann Arbor. The goals are straightforward: Win a Big Ten title and, in doing so, replicate that immense March performance for a full 35-game stretch.

Anyone who saw McGary this spring can get with his placement here, because he really was a star. In six tournament games, McGary finished with an offensive rating of 125.7, shot 40-of-59 from the field, grabbed 64 rebounds, ripped 12 steals (including five in one game against Florida) and generally dominated the interior pretty much any time he was in the game. And yes, McGary's minutes went up in March thanks to a Jordan Morgan injury, but it's easy to forget that as recently as Michigan's final regular-season game, McGary picked up four fouls in just eight minutes and spent most of the game on the bench. His March didn't come out of nowhere -- McGary was the second-rated prospect in the 2012 class as recently as his final season in high school -- but it was a surprise to anyone who watched the Big Ten all season.

So: Small sample size? Or the real deal?

Me? I'm going with the latter. But anything is possible.

Second Team

[+] EnlargeGary Harris
Scott W. Grau/Icon SMIIf Gary Harris is healthy, he'll make a big impact as a soph.

Gary Harris, Michigan State: There were times last season when it felt like the touted freshman was struggling, but when you dig in to his performance, most of those times coincided with a nagging shoulder injury Harris battled through for much of the season. Despite that, on the whole he was still very good, an efficient outside shooter who can handle the ball, play in the midrange and finish around the rim, and there's no reason to expect him to be anything less than an impact sophomore in his second season in college hoops. And with a bit more polish and the usual dose of offseason strength training, he could be much, much more.

Cleanthony Early, Wichita State: Trying to reframe Wichita State's Final Four run as predictable would be disingenuous. It wasn't. The Shockers lost five starters last summer. They were a No. 9 seed. They finished 5-5 in their final 10 regular-season games, including a couple of truly ugly losses. Predicting them to get past the various heavyweights in their region -- Gonzaga, Ohio State, New Mexico, Wisconsin -- required a quadruple order of onions.

Having said that, Wichita State was not VCU 2011. The Shockers spent much of the season ranked in the top 25 in both the human polls and the efficiency rankings, and -- and this is the point here -- they always had the kind of physical, athletic talent that made them a high-major wolf in a mid-major sheep's clothing. Case in point: Early. He probably could have played at any number of high-major programs coming out of high school, but he had personal issues to deal with -- he was a "knucklehead" in his high school class, as he put it after the Shockers' Sweet 16 win over La Salle, and the death of his brother played a role in his choice to stay close to his mother at DIII Sullivan County Community College in New York. Now that Early -- one of the most dominant players on the floor in the tournament, an inside-out threat with NBA athleticism and skill -- has put all that behind him, it's fair to expect a big senior season in Wichita.

Jabari Parker, Duke: These days, when you hear the phrase "best prospect since LeBron James," you typically hear it used to describe the aforementioned Wiggins. But it wasn't so long ago that Parker, a Simeon High School star who won four Illinois state titles, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the words "Best," "prospect" and "LeBron James" all prominently featured. Parker was given this mantle as a high school freshman. For four years, his game has been the relentless focus and beaming pride of Chicago's South Side more than any player not named Derrick Rose. Save an injury that kept him off the AAU circuit last summer, he has still failed to disappoint.

Is he as insanely athletic as Wiggins? No. He's not unathletic, but he isn't a freak of nature throwing the ball under his leg during warmup line dunks like it's the easiest thing in the world. (I really can't recommend Wiggins on YouTube any more fervently here.) But Parker might be more skilled, more cerebral, more of an inside-out offensive clinician and ultimately a perfect fit for a Duke team that needs to replace both Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly in its frontcourt.

Adreian Payne, Michigan State: Usually, projecting a senior forward to have a breakout season requires some extenuating personnel circumstances: a swath of players leaving for the pros, a new coach, a new point guard -- that sort of thing. Payne has none of those things. Senior point guard Keith Appling is back. Tom Izzo is still his coach. Michigan State lost just one player -- Derrick Nix -- from last season's team.

What Payne does have is a sudden ability to shoot the ball accurately from deep, which he unveiled midway through the 2012-13 season. Payne made just three 3s before Jan. 28; he finished 16-of-42 on the year, when he essentially became a stretch 4. If you saw Payne in his first two seasons, you saw a raw, athletic guy who rebounded and defended and occasionally scored the odd putback. This past season, we saw a vastly more complete player, a late bloomer adding skills at an alarming rate. The sky is the limit now.

[+] EnlargePatric Young
Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/MCT/Getty ImagesPatric Young should finally get his chance to shine for Florida.

Patric Young, Florida: For three seasons, Young has toiled thanklessly on the low block in Gainesville, Fla., rebounding and defending and rebounding and defending, all the while waiting for Kenny Boynton and Erving Walker and then Mike Rosario to notice the rather large human being with his hand up on the low block. The Gators were very good all the while, mind you. They just weren't built around Young.

This upcoming season, that all changes. Or at least, it probably should. Young had an excellent 2012-13, adding offensive efficiency (including 58.6 percent shooting inside the arc) to his usual diet of rebounds and blocks (he blocked 6.9 shots per 100 possessions). Even with Boynton and Rosario gone, Florida will still be very talented on the wing. Still, this should finally be Young's season.

Third Team

Shabazz Napier, Connecticut: This is the point of this exercise where I could probably be persuaded to go either way on a number of players. For example: It's a safe bet to assume that Andrew Harrison will be just the latest stud point guard to play for John Calipari, and could end up on the first team by the end of the season. But there are only so many spots we can reserve for Kentucky players (or freshmen overall, for that matter) this early in the game, and I'm guessing Napier's senior season at UConn -- wherein the senior will have one more chance to make a real run in the NCAA tournament -- will be that school's best since Kemba Walker was on campus.

Aaron Craft, Ohio State: Arguably more, um, arguable than Napier, but Craft has spent all three seasons at Ohio State as the best perimeter defender in the country, and even if he is his usual competent-but-unspectacular self on the offensive end, there might be some Lifetime Achievement Award recognition at work here. And deservedly so.

Aaron Gordon, Arizona: Had Gordon been born a year earlier, he would almost certainly have been the top player in his class. Instead, he had the misfortune to be a member of the recruiting class of 2013, and thus merely one of nine or 10 players over whom NBA scouts are agog. Gordon joins an Arizona team that had some issues integrating a cadre of freshmen big men last season, but now that Kaleb Tarczewski and Brandon Ashley have had time to settle in, and a real point guard (T.J. McConnell, former Duquesne transfer) has joined up, Gordon should have plenty of opportunity to display his immense talents.

[+] EnlargeJulius Randle
Jonathan Daniel/Getty ImagesIncoming freshman Julius Randle is one of the reasons Kentucky has high expectations for next season.

Julius Randle, Kentucky: Figuring out which of Kentucky's approximately 7,985 McDonald's All-Americans to include on these preseason lists was probably the toughest part of this arrangement. The Harrison Twins are still a great bet, but so is Randle, who is a little bit like Gordon -- a fantastic future pro occasionally overshadowed by Wiggins and Parker, the only two players ranked higher than him in the 2013 ESPN 100. Kentucky is going to be very, very good whether Wiggins decides to play there or not. Randle is going to have a lot to do with that.

Chane Behanan, Louisville: At the risk of getting into a tedious overrated/underrated discussion, the Cardinals forward has been a bit overlooked these past two seasons, right? Peyton Siva was the veteran star, Russ Smith the endearing (but effective) goofball, Gorgui Dieng the rapidly improving big man, Luke Hancock the sudden hero. It is easy to forget that Behanan had 12 rebounds, most of them in the second half, in the national title game, that his timely scoring (based on really solid interior footwork) made him a reliable option whenever the Cardinals needed a post bucket, that Louisville's crushing interior defense wasn't just Dieng's long arms around the rim. Behanan has to get his free throw percentage up (he shot 54.7 percent last season), and it will be interesting to see what he does with Montrezl Harrell on the opposite block. But it's fair to expect a lot.

Honorable mentions: C.J. Fair (Syracuse), Jahii Carson (Arizona State), Dwayne Evans (Saint Louis),Andrew Harrison (Kentucky), Aaron Harrison (Kentucky), Yogi Ferrell (Indiana), Kevin Pangos, Cory Jefferson (Baylor), Isaiah Austin (Baylor), Jordan McRae (Tennessee), Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson (UCLA), Nick Johnson (Arizona), Kasey Hill (Florida), Chris Crawford (Memphis), Alex Kirk (New Mexico), Kendall Williams (New Mexico), Davante Gardner (Marquette), P.J. Hairston (North Carolina), Marshall Henderson (Ole Miss) …

See? So much talent. So few All-American slots. So many months until the start of the 2013-14 season.

Quick -- somebody pull up Ender Wiggins' YouTube highlights!

Ahhhhh. Much better.