College basketball’s 8 best freshmen, ranked by their 2023 NBA Draft potential

The No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft has been a freshman playing college basketball for the last 13 years. The last time the top pick in the draft came from outside of the college ranks was 2006 when the Toronto Raptors selected Italian forward Andrea Bargnani with the first pick.

That makes this season of college hoops something of an oddity: everyone knows French wunderkind Victor Wembanyama is going No. 1, and G League Ignite point guard Scoot Henderson is going No. 2 when the 2023 NBA Draft rolls around. At the moment, Overtime Elite guard Amen Thompson might be the front-runner to go No. 3 overall. The last time the top three picks in the draft all came from outside of college basketball was back in 2001, when Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler, Pau Gasol, and Eddy Curry went with the first four picks.

College basketball might not be the home of the top picks in the draft this season, but NBA fans will still find plenty of future pros in the freshmen class. Our first 2023 NBA mock draft had 15 freshmen going in the first round. With the college season just getting underway, this is our look at eight freshmen NBA fans need to be following in college basketball this year — even if they’re not as exciting as Wemby and Scoot. SB Nation evaluated each of the players on this list at the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Jordan Brand Classic to get a first look at this year’s top incoming college talent.

8. Keyonte George, G, Baylor Bears

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In a draft class loaded with combo guards (Nick Smith, Cason Wallace, Terquavion Smith, and Amari Bailey among them), Keyonte George stands out as perhaps the best pure shooter in the group. While George lacks Nick Smith’s ridiculous flexibility as a scorer and Wallace’s elite defensive aptitude, the Baylor freshman is seemingly able to meet in the middle on both skills to assert himself as a 6’4 guard who can knock down open jumpers and compete defensively with long arms.

George projects as the go-to option for the Baylor offense all year, but the malleability of his game alongside other stars is part of what makes him so appealing. George is an excellent catch-and-shoot threat who can dart around the perimeter and hit jumpers off movement. He can attack a closeout, too, with solid ball handling ability, good burst as a driver, and improving passing ability to find the open man when he doesn’t try to score himself. George isn’t a power athlete at the rim and scouts will want to see if he can finish over length. On the defensive end, George can defend the ball with his physicality and quickness, though he can lose his man at times off the ball. George’s on-ball scoring package and rim finishing could determine his draft ceiling, but for now he looks like one of the safer guard bets in the class to be a productive pro.

7. Brandon Miller, F, Alabama Crimson Tide

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Miller was one of the biggest winners of the postseason All-Star circuit, looking like one of the best long-term prospects in the class when going against his top peers. At 6’8, 200 pounds, he has an ideal frame for a pro wing with a developing dribble, pass, shoot skill set. Miller isn’t a power athlete like the wings who usually go near the top of the lottery, but he’s smooth with the ball and has shown impressive deceleration and body control in the paint. Miller’s passing has popped off the screen in Alabama’s early games: he has the size to pass over the top of most defenders, and the vision to spot teammates all over the floor. His ability to put the ball on the floor, quickly find the open man or go into his pull-up jumper is the foundation for stock as a potential lottery pick.

Miller’s three-point shot is less developed than his floor game, but he knocked down 4-of-5 attempts in Alabama’s win over Liberty with a couple of them coming from NBA range. He has the look of a confident shooter and scouts will be happy to see the attempts from deep even if the early results aren’t amazing. Miller needs to add strength to his frame and tighten his handle, but that can be said for most 18-year-old wing prospects. If the shooting holds, his size and passing is compelling enough to make him a top-10 pick.

6. Jarace Walker, F, Houston Cougars

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Head coach Kelvin Sampson has turned Houston into a modern college basketball powerhouse, but he’s never had an NBA prospect like Jerace Walker before. A long-time standout at IMG Academy, Walker is a 6’8, 240-pound powerhouse who combines massive raw athletic power with impressive perimeter skills for his size. Perhaps the best thing about Walker is that he’s always playing with a high motor, making him a monster on the glass and a factor for every 50/50 ball with such imposing physicality.

There’s more to Walker’s game than just bully ball. He’s a good ball handler and flashes impressive shot-making touch from inside the arc. His spot-up three-point shot is coming around: the release is slow, but he’s showing he can knock down shots if he’s wide open. As Walker’s three ball improves, it will make him even scarier as someone who can attack closeouts. For such a big body, he’s shown the ability to get downhill and change directions on the move, with enough craft to score consistently in the short midrange area. Walker’s defensive translation feels like a bigger question when he has to guard quicker wings on the perimeter, but this is simply a big, powerful athlete with real skill flashes who goes hard on every possession.

5. Kel’el Ware, C, Oregon

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Ware partnered with Nick Smith Jr. to lead North Little Rock High to a state championship in Arkansas before flying to the opposite corner of the country to start his college career at Oregon. Ware joins a deep Ducks front court that already included N’Faly Dante and Nate Bittle as starting caliber centers, but his physical gifts are so immense that it will be hard for head coach Dana Altman to keep him off the floor. Ware looked like the most talented 7-footer in the incoming freshman class during the All-Star circuit, showing off impressive athletic fluidity and tantalizing flashes of skill that can be developed long-term.

Ware’s defense will be his calling card early in his career. He moves well on his feet for someone his size, giving him the versatility to play multiple defensive schemes. His length and shot-blocking skills are suited to play drop, but he can also get to the level of the screen and bother peterimeter shooters. On offense, Ware will be a lob threat on rolls and has the developing signs of a face-up game. He’s already hit one three-pointer early in the season, and looks comfortable at the foul line, too. Ware isn’t in an ideal situation for playing time with Oregon having so many other good bigs, but there’s no doubt his long-term projection is tantalizing.

4. Cam Whitmore, F, Villanova Wildcats

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Cam Whitmore was long considered a five-star recruit during a standout prep career in Maryland, but his strong play on the All-Star circuit and dominance during the FIBA Americas U18 Championships in the summer suddenly has him getting hyped as a potential top-five pick. No one in this class has a better combination of size, speed, and power. At 6’6, 240 pounds, Whitmore plays basketball like a middle linebacker with a 40-inch vertical: he relentlessly attacks the rim on drives, in transition, and as an offensive rebounder, using his big frame and incredible leaping ability to consistently finish at and above the rim. If Whitmore has a runway and time to load up, there aren’t many rim protectors who are going to be powerful enough to deny him a bucket.

Whitmore’s three-point shot will be his biggest swing skill. At the moment, he projects as a low volume shooter who can hit them at a decent clip if he’s wide open on a spot-up. His defense will also be worth monitoring: is he too bulky to stick with wings darting around screens on the perimeter? Is he better used as a weak-side rim protector inside? There hasn’t been a freshman freight train in college hoops like this since Zion Williamson. His debut has been delayed because of a surgically-repaired thumb, but his immense physicality gives him a great chance to be an instant-impact freshman when he eventually takes the floor.

3. Dariq Whitehead, G, Duke Blue Devils

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Dariq Whitehead is the latest star from Florida prep powerhouse Montverde Academy, going from a sidekick alongside older stars Cade Cunningham, Scottie Barnes, and Moses Moody early in his high school career to the team’s leading man as a senior. Now Whitehead is poised to be the first freshman star of the post-Coach K era at Duke. The 6’5 combo guard has the right mix of open floor athleticism, halfcourt skill, and defensive upside to demand looks in the top-10 or even the top-five of the 2023 draft.

Whitehead has impressive speed as a ball handler in transition, and a quick first step against a set defense. He’s a very good leaper when he gets into the paint, showing the ability to rise off one foot or two for finishes above the rim. Whitehead is also a heady passer, one that’s developing his live dribble chops while already possession the ‘connective’ traits as a quick ball-mover that coaches love to see. Whitehead should also be a plus on the defensive end, using a 6’8 wingspan and big frame to harass smaller ball handlers. The swing skill is again the three-point shot, but Whitehead certainly has the confidence to take it often off the dribble. When it goes in, there’s a convincing argument that Whitehead is the second most complete guard in the draft behind Henderson. Pro scouts will want to see good shot selection and fewer variances in accuracy when he lets it fire from deep. If the jumper is falling, Whitehead is one of the most well-rounded players in this year’s class.

2. Cason Wallace, G, Kentucky Wildcats

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Cason Wallace is next in the long line of great guards to come out of Texas (Marcus Smart, Tyrese Maxey, Jimmy Butler, etc.) playing with an undeniable nasty streak. He’s also the next freshman star for John Calipari at Kentucky. At 6’4, 195 pounds, Wallace is a lockdown defender at the point of attack who is going to stockpile steals, deflections, and blocks against overmatched opposing guards all season. He’s incredibly difficult to screen and he’s seemingly never out of a play on the defensive end with tremendous closing speed and the length to challenge shots from a variety of angles. He has the strength to take on bigger assignments on switches, and will also make an impact as a roaming off-ball defender. His intensity on the defensive end will draw comparisons to Smart and Jrue Holiday, but he should have real offensive utility in the NBA, too.

Wallace can switch between either guard role on offense. He’s a good enough driver to bend defenses by getting into the paint and kicking out to teammates. He also has connective traits as a floor spacing shooter and quick ball-mover around the perimeter. Just how reliable he’ll be as an outside shooter will be a question mark for Wallace, but Kentucky will feel comfortable letting him take the open ones. There aren’t many players in this draft class who will pack the box score the way Wallace does on an every night basis. The Wildcats will still feel like the veteran team we saw last year, but now they have a stud freshman guard to serve as the proverbial head of the snake.

1. Nick Smith Jr., G, Arkansas Razorbacks

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Nick Smith Jr. is a lightning-quick 6’4 guard who sky-rocketed up the class rankings as a high school senior, going from a four-star recruit ranked in the late 30s to the No. 1 player in the country, according to 247 Sports. He decided to stay home and play for his in-state Arkansas Razorbacks, where he’s the crown jewel of a class that includes two other McDonald’s All-Americans with legitimate aspirations to be one-and-done first round picks in Jordan Walsh and Anthony Black. Unfortunately, Smith has been sidelined to start the year for the Razorbacks with what the program is calling “right knee management.”

When Smith does take the court, he’s expected to be the most electric freshman scorer in college basketball who projects as a dynamic offensive threat both on- and off-the-ball. Smith is a fast and shifty ball handler who can burn his initial defender and collapse the defense by getting into the paint. He’s has great flexibility and body control in tight spaces, with soft touch on floaters and the creativity to get off his shot from a variety of angles. Smith also has deep range on his jumper out to the NBA line, whether he’s pulling up off the dribble or spotting up. Smith looks good playing off the ball, showing the ability to space the floor, attack closeouts, and run late shot-clock actions in the mold of professional scorers like Jordan Poole and Jordan Clarkson. There are some intriguing passing flashes here, too. He could be a killer in the pick-and-roll as he continues to hone his playmaking. Smith lacks the bulk to finish through contact in the paint, and he’s never really had the elite leaping ability to finish above the rim. His best NBA fit might come next to a bigger primary initiator, but for now, Smith should be one of the best scorers and best shot creators in the class.

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