In the past 20 years, the college game has seen a sea change. In the old days, when the best players stuck around to be seniors, you got excited about a recruiting class because you would get to watch that group grow together for a period of years. Now, you get excited because you may get to see a great young talent for a year before he goes to the NBA.
The length of time a star stays has changed, but so has the quality of player. The truth is, the best high school players, generally, are better and more talented now than ever. They are more athletic, more skilled and superior players. Yet college basketball is not as good as it was 20 years ago, because these ubertalented players don't stick around for very long.
Because these young players are really good, they are also the difference between winning and losing in today's game. A top freshman class can make more of an impact now than ever. Yet, they are not perfect.
Here are seven of the best incoming freshmen in the nation, their strengths and some things they need to improve to become complete players and make the biggest impact for their teams.
It's still up in the air whether Muhammad will be eligible to play for UCLA this season, and as of now it doesn't look that promising. But if he does clear the NCAA's amateurism hurdles, Muhammad is the nation's best incoming player and could very well be the nation's best overall player also. I played against his father, Ron Holmes, at USC, and he was a good scorer. His left-handed son is also a great scorer who is perhaps the best transition player in the country.
Muhammad attacks the basket with great athleticism and is an excellent finisher. He is primarily a midrange player who has a hunger to score. From his athletic frame to his scoring mentality, everything about Muhammad screams "future NBA player."
To be complete: To be a truly complete player, Muhammad needs to refine his perimeter shot by improving his range, consistency and his speed in getting shots off rather than attacking a close-out. Muhammad can go left against almost anyone, but to be complete, he needs to bring his right hand to the level of his left. Of course, Manu Ginobili is a lefty who always goes left, too. You don't need to go right if you can go left whenever you want.
McGary is big, strong, talented and has good passing instincts. In John Beilein's system, McGary will be able to work out of the high post, but he will also add a dimension Michigan hasn't had: a reliable low-post scorer.
He is a left-handed beast who simply overpowers people around the rim and on the low box, yet he can step away and hit an open jumper. McGary is a big-time rebounder who pursues the ball and is unafraid to bang bodies. He is an excellent high-post passer and is a hungry player who gives his all, and does it all the time. He will be a difference-maker at Michigan and will give the Wolverines an edge.
To be complete: McGary needs to refine his post moves, which he will do at Michigan. In high school, he was a power player who could bully his way to the rim to score, get fouled or both. In college, he will have to establish a reliable move over both shoulders and counter moves. He also needs to improve his ability to change ends with greater speed.
Poythress is a big-time athlete who excels in the open court. A long-armed player who can really run, Poythress is at his best getting to the rim, and he can finish after absorbing a bump. In fact, Poythress delivers the punishment rather than absorbs it. He is a good shooter, but he's most impressive when taking the ball to the hole. He makes it look easy but can also rattle the rim with tremendous force.
As a rebounder, Poythress is a beast on the boards. He pursues the ball out of his area, which is the mark of a great rebounder, and he can guard multiple spots. A high-character person and player, Poythress will remind some people of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist because of how hard he plays and his ability to cause matchup problems, although he is not as good yet.
To be complete: Poythress is not yet a finished product and needs to tighten up his perimeter shooting and refine his overall perimeter skills. He also needs to develop more of a reliable low-post game. If he does, he can be Kentucky's best player.
A scoring guard with long arms and smoothness to his game, Sulaimon has a good first step and can get to the basket. With his quickness and athleticism, he can either get to the basket or pull up and hit a jumper, and he plays with a very aggressive mindset. Sulaimon plays with fire and can shoot the ball from deep or midrange.
While his defense has been questioned, Sulaimon can really guard the ball and has the tools to be an outstanding defender because he is athletic enough to stay in front of super-quick guards, and he can apply pressure on the ball at the point of attack.
To be complete: Like most freshmen, Sulaimon needs to mature physically and emotionally. Billy Donovan, who coached him in USA Basketball, said Sulaimon needed to relax more and not put so much pressure on himself. He is a combo guard, but he needs to improve his point guard skills to be able to initiate offense and provide more versatility. As a shooter, he is a little bit streaky and can become a more consistent perimeter threat.
Kyle Anderson, UCLA
Anderson is a sleek, long-armed point guard in a big man's body. Despite his thin 6-foot-8 frame, Anderson may be the best passer coming into college this season. He's a good athlete, but he is not explosive or a highlight reel -- he simply knows how to play. He uses subtle fakes and changes speeds.
While not nearly Magic Johnson, Anderson can be compared to Magic in the narrow category that his athleticism doesn't define him as a player. Anderson can make open shots up to the 3-point line and is a good cutter who can be put into the post where he can score or find people. Simply put, Anderson can see the entire floor, and he takes pride in moving the ball.
To be complete: Anderson is still too thin and needs to get stronger physically. In addition, he needs to extend his shooting range to be more reliable beyond the 3-point line. He has been criticized for not playing hard all the time, but he is such a smooth performer that he sometimes gives the impression that he is not giving everything all the time. I think he'll be fine in that area.
Smart is a competitor and a winning player. He has a unique versatility that allows him to be plugged in almost anywhere on the court, and he will do the job and do it well. Smart is as complete of a player as you will find coming into college this year and has good strength, quickness and scoring ability.
While he is versatile, his best position may be the point, where he will have the ball in his hands more often and his leadership ability is more likely to take over. He is strong, tough and smart, and he can see the floor as a willing passer and takes pride in being a defensive stopper.
To be complete: Smart needs to improve his perimeter shooting to be a more consistent threat. But that is the only part of his game that is keeping him from being complete right now. Smart is the closest player to being defined as complete in this year's freshman class.
A long-armed and skilled big man, Scott is a true 6-10 and has the ability to score, rebound and pass. He can run the floor and plays hard. With his versatility and size, Scott will be able to combine with Andre Roberson to help Colorado control the glass and limit opponents to one shot and also secure extra chances on the offensive end.
Scott shows a good feel in the post and understands the game. His calling card has been his knack for scoring in the post with his sound, fundamental moves. He can rebound the ball, and he has good feet. Scott won't be a surprise to Tad Boyle at Colorado. He was a great "get" for the Buffs.
To be complete: Scott, like most incoming big men, needs to get stronger and improve his lower base so he can better hold position and not be moved off of his spots in the post. He is very good with his back to the basket, but he still needs to improve his face-up game and his ability to consistently hit open jumpers to 18 feet.