Freshmen Orientation: SEC
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 SEC.
HEAD OF THE CLASS
Who are the top players at every position coming into the Southeastern Conference straight from high school? These are our staff picks.
PG Nick Smith, Arkansas
CG Cason Wallace, Kentucky
SG Brandon Miller, Alabama
SF Julian Phillips, Tennessee
PF GG Jackson, South Carolina
C Shawn Phillips, LSU
BIG MAN ON CAMPUS
Have you ever been to Fayetteville, Arkansas for Razorback game? Have you ever strolled down Dixon Street on game day? Have you? You should. Seriously. It is a terrific college experience.
You’ll probably hear a lot about their game day experience and life in Northwest Arkansas this season. Eric Mussleman and staff reeled in one heck of a class, highlighted by the important in-state player and one of the best incoming freshmen in school history in North Little Rock’s Nick Smith.
He good, y’all.
Smith, the big combo guard, comes in with all of the accolades. He’s a burger All-American. He’s entering on the uptick. He’s an all-star MVP. He picked Arkansas over the bluebloods, including Kentucky. He’s a big deal.
For him to stay at home is a big deal, too. We’ve seen SEC programs land important one-and-done level players quite a bit over the last decade. Now it is Arkansas’s turn. He, and his talented class of 2022 mates, could be a big enough deal to have Arkansas playing in the Final Four this season.
Get Dickson Street ready for that.
WHAT HAD HAPPENED…
Perhaps the biggest recruiting story of 2022 was the flip flop of GG Jackson from North Carolina to South Carolina and a move up in classes so he can compete this fall.
The in-state big man is a modern-day big man with stretch-the-floor capabilities. He’s had the freedom to do just about anything he wanted to and now with the Gamecocks starting a new in the Lamont Paris era, it will be interesting to see what kind of impact Jackson makes in his likely one year in college.
Jackson was a contender for the No. 1 overall spot in the class of 2023. Truth be told, there was a strong chance he would have taken it when it was all said and done.
Suffice it to say, Jackson’s switch was a premier headline in recruiting circles. We don’t see commitment flip flops very often and we almost never see a player leave a blue blood pledge for a school that has been to the NCAA tournament twice in this century and nine times since 1971.
KENTUCKY - ARE THEY EVEN ANY GOOD?
I’m not in love with this current Kentucky freshmen class. We’ve come to expect a different type of freshman in Lexington over the years. This year’s group, as good as they are, don’t have the feel of short-stay students with the Big Blue Nation.
Cason Wallace should be the stud in this group and we know how well guards do under John Calipari at Kentucky. The Texan has elite star potential. He’s wired differently than most and I think he’s going to be an absolute stud.
The rest of the class are all good, no doubt, but I think they serve more in a support role to elite studs than being alpha males.
Finally, good things have come out of the early reports on sleeper and late recruit Adou Thiero. Keep an eye on him. It’s always fun to see a guy rise up amongst more highly touted players.
THREE CLASSES THAT WE LOVE
Woo pig sooie! We may be talking about a new era of elite hoops coming from the University of Arkansas. Let’s dive into their stellar freshmen class.
So, Nick Smith is a big deal. A huge one, as I noted above. But he’s not the only important freshman on the team.
Anthony Black, a well-document favorite at the Grassroots Basketball Association, is a perfect balance to Smith and the rest of the recruiting class. He’s one of the most versatile freshmen in the nation. At 6-foot-7, Black can play multiple positions and, quite frankly, is at his best at the point. Defensively, Black has the potential to become one of the best players in the nation on that side of ball.
The talent is far-reaching with Black. He can tie it all together, he can be a primary creator, a primary scorer, a defensive stopped and a player who has been bottled up and ready for a big challenge. Even though he was an All-American and a top 20 player, I’d argue that we still haven’t seen the best of him yet. Get ready for another level up with Black.
Derrien Ford is a two-time Player of the Year in Arkansas and racked up three state championships. He knows how to score. He knows how to win. To pair him with Smith and Black is almost unfair. Where will he fit into the rest of the backcourt lineup will be a storyline worth paying attention to.
Jordan Walsh is a freaky athlete who flies to the rim and cleans up a lot of shots with putbacks and offensive second chance opportunities. Walsh will fit in perfectly with the brand of basketball that Arkansas wants to play.
The rotation has a shot in the arm and the depth gets better with the addition of guard Barry Dunning, a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Alabama. Joseph Pinion, an in-state 6-foot-5 guard with a knack for scoring.
I love what Nate Oats is doing in Tuscaloosa. This current freshmen class in T Town has some serious headache potential for the rest of the league.
Leading the way is Brandon Miller, a guy who despite his All-American status as a prep star, still feels like a bit of a mystery man. The 6-foot-8 guard wasn’t at a lot of national events, a lot of people nationally didn’t see him in person due to the wild ride that COVID was. Miller will be a player that draws a lot of eyeballs from the pro level. Alabama thinks highly of him and should put him in a position to get a lot of buckets.
Tying all of the talent together is the game management and elite talent of Jaden Bradley. The IMG point guard logged some big minutes against some big teams during his prep career. Road games in the SEC won’t be a problem for the 6-foot-3 guard. He’s battle-tested. Love his size. Love his grit. Love his toughness. There are tools there that would allow him inclusion on potential All-Conference teams.
Texas guard Rylen Griffen comes to Alabama with a major winning pedigree out of Richardson HS. He’s a winner in every sense of the word. Like Bradley, Griffen played a high school schedule that should have him ready for conference play and SEC player match-ups. Griffen is a seasoned vet in that regard. He should have the thick skin to handle the rigors of the road to winning a league title.
If there is an upside guy to watch in the SEC it could be 6-foot-10 big man Noah Clowney. The big man from South Carolina’s powerhouse Dorman HS has all of the basketball length that you want to find from a high-level post prospect. Clowney was one of the most coveted big men in the South from the class of 2022. How quickly can he develop and see time for the Tide? When he gets going, he could be an absolute boom of a recruit.
So, how do you keep the pace going when you lose Jabari Smith and Walker Kessler to the NBA? You add a guy like Yohan Traore to the frontline. Guys with Traore’s skillset have fared well with Bruce Pearl. The open style of play should allow the native of France to showcase his floor-stretching ability and shoot out to the wing. Traore is big enough that he could develop into a real problem down low. Truth be told, I have always thought Traore was a bit overrated nationally. I think he has a very high ceiling but I could also see him blending into the rotation.
On the flip side, I do think Chance Westry was also a bit underrated nationally. Of the freshmen, I think Westry has a chance to be the best pro prospect. He’s so talented in the backcourt and can log positive minutes from multiple spots on both sides of the ball. Westry can handle, can create, can pass, can score, can slash and can stop. He played well at AZ Compass Prep with a lot of talent and found ways to be an alpha and be a support guy. I could see Westry really develop into a problem at the college level.
Over the course of his college career, I could see guard Tre Donaldson being on the floor quite a bit. The 6-foot-2 guard is a cerebral court general with toughness that comes from his time as a high-level football player. He’s been around great coaching and comes from an athletic background. Donaldson has been ready for the college game for quite some time. He’ll be a trusted competitor in the Auburn lineup during his career.
THE HOOPSEEN CONNECTION
We loved Daniel Sanford’s addition to Frank Martin's Gamecock program. It was the perfect fit at South Carolina. Sanford’s energy and relentless pursuit of action seemed to go hand in hand with the types of players who have shined under the tutelage of Martin. But things changed and there is a new coaching staff.
Lamont Paris took over the program and Sanford is still the hard-playing, tank-emptying problem as a combo forward. He’s going to shine on the defensive end of the floor. We saw him add value right away last summer in Orlando with Team United.
His inclusion into the lineup helped push his team into the championship game at the Grassroots Summer Championship and into our All-HSA team. A wide variety of mid-majors recruited him but when Frank Martin and USC came a calling with an offer, it was hard to turn down.
TWO BY TWO
I like the sneaky two-man class for a handful of SEC programs.
Mississippi State’s pair of Kimani Hamilton and Martavious Russell are perfect players in Starkville. Hamilton is a hard-playing, physical athlete with big defensive potential. Russell, a stud at our Preview camps in Alabama, is a major slasher with bounce. He’ll have some highlight reels during his tenure in college.
Texas A&M’s pair of Solomon Washington and Jordan Williams is a nice 1-2 punch for Buzz WIlliams and crew. Washington is one of my favorite players in the class of 2022 and fits the profile of a guy who has shined under the tutelage of Williams. He’s a hard-playing dude that wants to be a defensive All-American. Williams is a good four-year point guard in the rotation.
Florida’s pair of Riley Kugel and Denzel Aberdeen know each other very well. They shined on the Southeast Elite squad and won a lot of games together. Both were summer risers and both saw their recruitment skyrocket after the Bob Gibbons Tournament of Champions. Aberdeen committed first and Kugel was headed to Mississippi State. Then Todd Golden got the job and Kugel switched over. The two know each other well and should be nice players to grow with under Golden’s new regime.
RANDOM THINGS YOU SHOULD KNOW
We know Tennessee is going to maximize the quality of talent that is coming to Knoxville. Rick Barnes and his staff do such a great job of levelling up their players. Sure, South Carolina forward Julian Phillips is the absolute prize of the class. He’s terrific. Just terrific. Local guard BJ Edwards is going to log some good minutes, too. But let’s keep a close watch on DJ Jefferson and Tobe Awaka. One of, if not both, could end up being quality recruiting steals in the class.
Down the road in Nashville, the five-man class that Jerry Stackhouse has to work with could be his best class yet since taking over at Vanderbilt. All five players have starter potential at some point in their careers.
The frontline levelled up with Texans Lee Dort and Colin Smith while local forward Malik Dia is a sneaky recruiting steal. The guard play of Paul Lewis and Noah Shelby could be the starting backcourt as upperclassmen. From top to bottom, this is a class that probably won’t draw rave reviews but it probably should. This is a good group to grow with.
Can we talk about the class that LSU put together after they got the job, even as the brand reputation is bailing water out of a boat that was taking on water from the Will Wade fallout? The Bayou Bengals did a nice job of putting together a group with good size and instant play ability.
The tandem of Shawn Phillips and Jalen Reed is sneaky good. I think Phillips has pro potential. He has undeniable size and presence in the middle. Still very much a work in progress but he’ll have the opportunity to get better on the floor. Reed, a 6-foot-10 native of Mississippi, could be the real steal of the league. He’s also on the radar of the next level.
Once committed to Xavier, Tyrell Ward was a major addition and should factor into a big role right away in Baton Rouge. He comes in from DeMatha Catholic, one of the premier programs in high school hoops. He’s a big, long and rangy wing with major upside.
Big man Corneilous Williams, from Mississippi, is an important frontline addition to the team. He’s big, strong and in a perfect spot to play alongside Phillips and Reed in practice every day.
If you’re into rim-benders, Missouri forward Aidan Shaw is going to give ya something to get out of your chair for. He’s fun, y’all.
Keep a close watch on the Ole Miss backcourt of Amaree Abram and TJ Caldwell. They are going to be tough backcourt for years to come. Abram is one of the most underrated guards in the nation.