Freshmen Orientation: Mountain West Conference
With freshmen unpacking their bags and getting settled into college, we wanted to take a deeper look at the incoming classes in college hoops. In this edition of FRESHMEN ORIENTATION, we take a look at the best players, the impressive classes, the guys who could be the talk of the league, HoopSeen hoopers and more.
Let’s get into the Mountain West.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Who are the top players at every position coming into the Mountain West Conference straight from high school? These are our staff picks.
PG Donovan Dent, New Mexico
SG Jack Payne, Colorado State
SF JoJo Hunter, Fresno State
PF Elijah Saunders, San Diego State
C Caden Powell, Wyoming
BIG MAN ON CAMPUS
Let’s get right to it - New Mexico guard Donovan Dent has the potential to be the Player of the Year in the Mountain West. He is one of the best mid-major rookies in all of college hoops, a proven big stage winner and a guard who left high school on an upward trajectory. Expectations should be incredibly high with him.
He’s piloted one of the best high school programs in the country. Dent had a monster senior season at Corona Centennial in Southern California. Over the course of his career, he’s battled against Jared McCain (Duke) and Kylan Boswell (Arizona) in practice at Centennial. They played anyone anywhere and any time, stockpiling thick-skinned experience at the highest level at the prep ranks.
Dent has thrived and improved along the way at this level. Now pair that with the way Richard Pitino uses his guards. This is a match made in hoops heaven.
I’d even go so far as to say Dent could go down as one of the all-time great Lobos. High praise? Yes. Big expectations? You know it.
THREE CLASSES THAT WE LOVE
Now that we’ve covered Dent, his value and his potential as the Player of the Year in the league, he’s not on an island with the rest of the freshmen coming to Albuquerque. Dent will have plenty of talent to work with during his tenure.
Joining him from Southern Calfornia is Quinton Webb, a 6-foot-6 wing forward from Etiwanda HS. Webb is a multipostinal forward with a good sense of where to be at the right time. He was one of the best players in Southern California over the last two seasons at the prep level. He also logged big minutes on the powerful Compton Magic team. Webb is the perfect kind of running man to pair with Dent.
On the wing, the Lobos have a terrific shooter in 6-foo-7 wing Braden Appelhans. He can spray it from all spots on the floor and playing with an up-tempo guard in an up-tempo style, Appelhans should have plenty of clean looks from the corners. He has big-shot ability.
San Diego State
It should come as no surprise that the Aztecs make this space. The powerhouse has as good of a 1-2 punch in the freshman ranks than any team in the entire league.
Big man Elijah Saunders has All-Conference and instant starter potential. He was a nationally-recruited player that drew interest from every power conference in college hoops. Saunders also considered Miami, Notre Dame, South Carolina and Virginia Tech. He’s big and strong and effective in the paint. You get grown man strength from him from day one.
Saunders helped Sunnyslope win a state title when he was a junior in the state of Arizona. Expectations for him should be high from the get go.
Miles Byrd is the other half of the impressive freshmen duo for the Aztecs. He’s filed away in the “got a chance to be really good” category. The 6-foot-6 wing could still very much be a late-bloomer on the hardwood. Byrd reminds me of former Mountain West Player of the Year Chandler Hutchison.
High praise, no doubt. But when you see the lefty from Stockton in action, you can see why. He’s going to need to bulk up and get stronger and San Diego State has proven themselves as a program that develops players quite well. A lot to like here.
if you’ve been paying attention, Leon Rice has become quite a sleeper school for prospects during his tenure at Boise State.
As the aforementioned Hutchison, Rice has helped develop the likes of Emmanuel Akot, Abu Kigab, Derrick Alston Jr., Justinian Jessup, the aforementioned Hutchison, and others into pro situations.
The Broncos landed a big one in AZ Compass forward Sadraque NgaNga. The native of Angola had a high profile in his prep career but injuries and COVID put him on the shelf for a couple of years. The talent is undeniably there. He’s a sharp-shooting forward who can be a threat from three and in the paint. At Compass, he battled against countless high-major big men and had coaching that should have him properly prepared for a good run in Boise. This freshman season will be a key one to essentially welcome him back to full strength. Keep an eye on him as a sophomore and beyond.
With two years away from high school already under his belt, in-state guard Jace Whiting finally joines the team after a LDS mission to Finland. The 6-foot-2 guard from Burley can absolutely sling it from three and should contribute on the wing as a high percentage scorer. Whiting should be a nice secret weapon for Rice & Co.
HI, MY NAME IS…
Every season in every conference in college hoops there is a player that signed late, the headlines slipped under the recruiting radar and a player sneaks into a situation that could be really good in time.
There are a number of reasons for this. In the 2022 class, the ripple effect of the COVID seasons really put a dent into the recruitment of so many class of 2022 high school graduates. That could benefit programs that do their deep dive homework.
For Colorado State, they may have scored big with guard Tavi Jackson out of Las Vegas (NV) HS. He signed with the Rams late in the spring - after playing in the first April NCAA Live Period. Jackson is a hard-playing, athletic and competitive guard. He has the potential to become a defensive stopper for head coach Niko Medved.
Jackson had a monster closing to his high school career in Las Vegas. Because of the COVID year, he hid from the big picture eye of recruiters. Don’t be surprised if he emerges as one of the better surprises from the class in the Mountain West.
His new running mate, Jack Payne, isn’t too shabby either. The Boise, Idaho guard is ohe best athletes in the Pacific Northwest. Payne helped start up new prep power Owyhee and won 24 games last season. He’s going to fit in perfectly with Niko Medved’s system and be a fan favorite in Fort Collins.
THREE MORE CLASSES THAT WE LIKE
The Bulldogs won a big recruiting pull when local product JoJo Hunter decided to stay put and be a Bulldog. A nationally-rated wing with bounce and bullishness, Hunter could end up being his team’s best player by the time his career is over in college. Clearly, there is all-league potential here and he should see the floor quite a bit early on.
It shouldn’t come as a big surprise that Nevada head coach Steve Alford will have some dudes coming to Reno.
Chicago guard Trey Pettigrew has some all-gas, no-brakes qualities to his game and could emerge as one of the best signings in the league. He’s wired to get buckets and plays at a fun pace. There is, however, some boom or bust quality to him, too.
Las Vegas forward Darrion Williams comes to Reno after a stellar season at Bishop Gorman. The 6-foot-6 do-whatever forward really moved into the role of the best role guy on his championship-level team. That mindset will serve him well at the college level.
Caden Powell, a long and lean Texas big man will be a player ot chart at Wyoming over the next four years. The 6-foot-10 five man does a nice job of playing vertical around the cup on both sides of the ball. The Cowboys won 25 games last year and leaned on another big man, Graham Ike. That’s good news for the development of Powell.
In-state guard Nathanial Talich gives the Cowboys a perimeter threat and some winning pedigree. He has already shown an ability to be a threat from the wing.