Prospect Watch: Randle outshining Wiggins early
Last Tuesday was the kind of night that was so special it made Dick Vitale's infectious brand of enthusiastic analysis seem modest.
Three of the best freshmen we've seen in quite some time were on display and the trio -- buoyed by the moment, rather than intimidated by it -- delivered in a way that couldn't have been expected.
But early this season, the one freshman truly delivering on the hype is Kentucky's frontcourt dynamo, Julius Randle. He won't turn 19 until after Thanksgiving, but the frosh from Dallas is already showing the type of talent to potentially unseat Andrew Wiggins as the top NBA prospect of 2014.
In his first game as a college player, Randle scored 23 points and grabbed 15 rebounds in just 26 minutes against UNC Asheville. He was a bucket away from tying the Wildcats' record for most points in a debut and two rebounds away from the best start on the glass.
Against Michigan State's frontcourt, which is arguably the best in the nation, Randle bulldozed his way to 27 points and 13 rebounds, showing versatility as a scorer, passer and driver.
Through four games, the 6-foot-9, 250-pound big man is averaging 20.5 points and 14.3 rebounds. He is making 61.9 percent of his field-goal attempts and proved against a long Spartans front line that he can score in a variety of ways and finish with contact. Foul him, and he can make you pay. To start the year, he got to the free throw line 13, 14, and 15 times and is shooting almost 70 percent from the stripe.
For a burly forward to move the way Randle does prompted ESPN analyst Jay Williams to draw the most favorable comparison of all: LeBron James. As far-fetched as that seems, only a few 18-year-olds are capable of dominating the way Randle has started his collegiate career.
Michigan State coach Tom Izzo offered a different comparison after seeing Randle up close. "He's got a little Chris Webber in him," said Izzo, invoking the former Michigan and NBA-great forward who excelled inside and out.
"What I like is he gritted his teeth, was ornery and nasty, and he wanted to put them on his shoulders," said Izzo.
Branden Dawson, who had the unenvious task of trying to guard Randle, told SI's Michael Rosenberg, "I'm sore all around ... He's strong. I didn't really think he was that strong. He is just tough."
Dawson likely won't be the only one smarting after banging with Randle in the post this season. It's clear Randle has the physical gifts and basketball talent to be a top pick in next year's draft -- he ranks either No. 2 or No. 3 in recent mock drafts on NBADraft.net, CBS Sports and DraftExpress.com -- and stands as one of the select few who could outshine the much ballyhooed Wiggins in 2013-14.
Andrew Wiggins, F, Kansas -- When you're a preseason All-American and Conference Player of the Year, it's hard to live up to all of the expectations. It doesn't help to have Kevin Durant say you're a future Hall of Fame player, either.
But Andrew Wiggins has impressed in just two games as a Jayhawk, perhaps even more than expected. Despite being the class's most sought-after prospect -- ask Boston Celtics fans who were recently chanting "We Want Wiggins" just two weeks into the NBA season -- Wiggins has shown he is more than just a pogo-stick athlete on the court.
He's averaging 19 ppg and shooting almost 60 percent from the field. His 22 points against Jabari Parker and the Blue Devils were the difference in that game and his step-back jumper sealed it late in the second half.
Jabari Parker, F, Duke -- Incredible that a player as good as Parker has to be mentioned third in this group, but that says more about Wiggins and Randle than it does about Duke's superlative freshman forward.
Parker is already reminding the Cameron Crazies of all-time great Grant Hill with his all-around skill, silky shooting and deft feel for the game. Parker went toe-to-toe with Wiggins and more than held his own, finishing with 27 points and nine rebounds against Kansas.
In three games, Parker is averaging 23 points and 8 rebounds, while shooting almost 60 percent from the field and an incredible 11-of-16 from deep.
Of the top players in this draft, no one will play more big games during the regular season than Parker in the ACC, where he'll face some of the stiffer competition in the country.
Marcus Smart, G, Oklahoma State -- A projected top-5 pick had he declared for last year's draft, Smart is the consensus best point guard in the nation. Smart excels at using his big body -- 6-foot-4, 220 pounds -- to ward off defenders and finish at the rim.
His numbers won't be as sexy as the other elite prospects in the draft, but his floor skills, vision, quickness and tenacity make him a lottery-pick talent. Smart, against some pretty weak competition, is averaging just under 14 points and just over three assists, but he already has 12 steals, including an astonishing nine thefts against Utah Valley.
It will be important to watch how Smart plays against the more talented backcourt players of teams like Kansas in the Big-12 before re-assessing his stock.
Aaron Gordon, F, Arizona -- Relegated to late-night television viewing for the most die-hard of college basketball fans, Gordon could become the forgotten man in this draft class, but it won't have much to do with his game.
Gordon's talent as a prep star in San Jose was extraordinary, and he was actually ranked ahead of Parker by Rivals. Sports Illustrated even profiled Gordon before Andrew Wiggins.
Gordon is a rim-rocking forward and at 6-foot 9, has been compared to Blake Griffin for his ferocity attacking the rim. Gordon's response? "I can play point guard," he told Sporting News over the summer.
In the Pac-12, he'll play plenty of his games while much of the East Coast is fast asleep, but checking box scores in the morning won't be enough to do his performances justice. Gordon can affect the game in just about every way imaginable.
He's averaging 14 points nine rebounds and is also a strong shotblocker and excellent passer. He's shooting 58 percent from the field and is 4 of 5 from three-point land. Against San Diego State on the road, Gordon had 16 points, eight rebounds, two blocks, two assists, and three steals.
Gary Harris G, Michigan State -- Even on a loaded team like Michigan State, Harris shines above his talented peers.
The Spartans are currently the best team in the nation and Harris might be the best two-play player. Like Smart, Harris eschewed a date with the lottery in 2013 to play another year in East Lansing, where the Spartans were thrilled to return a player as dynamic as Harris on both ends of the court.
His jump shot is a work in progress, but Harris is a physical guard who can get to the rim and finish with creativity. Harris opened the season with 20 points, 10 rebounds and six assists against McNeese State, and put up 20 again to lift MSU over Kentucky last week.
Right now, he's the best shooting guard in college basketball, and the best off-the-ball prospect in the 2014 class.
Tuesday, Nov. 19: No. 11 Memphis vs. No. 7 Oklahoma State
The first big test for both teams, it's an opportunity to see Marcus Smart face off against the Tigers' electric scorer Joe Jackson. Memphis has a cadre of wing players, all athletic and dynamic with the ball, that will require Smart to play well on both ends of the ball for his team to win. It should be an exciting early-season matchup and a good chance for NBA talent evaluators to see what Smart can do against sound competition.
Friday, Nov. 22: No. 1 Michigan State vs. Virginia Tech
While this may not be the best team Virginia Tech has put on the court of late, it will be an opportunity for the Spartans to bounce back after an embarrassing near-loss to Columbia. Harris could draw the assignment of defending Tech's pair of mercurial -- and that's putting it generously -- offensive wing talents in Adam Smith and Jarell Eddie. Harris is also coming off a 4-of-11 shooting day against Columbia and will look to get back on track against a scuffling Hokie defense.