Duke led by star-studded freshman class (Yahoo Sports)

In this Saturday, Oct. 25, 2014, photo, Duke's Jahlil Okafor reacts during an NCAA college basketball scrimmage at Cameron Indoor Stadium in Durham, N.C. With a lineup stacked with four blue-chip freshmen talented enough to jump to the NBA after one year, these Blue Devils look an awful lot like some recent Kentucky teams. (AP Photo/Gerry Broome)

A year after a freshman carried Duke, the Blue Devils are doubling down – and then some – on first-year players. How well those four immediate-impact recruits adjust to the college game will determine whether Duke claims its fifth national title or whether the Blue Devils are a candidate to be knocked out of the NCAA tournament early – as they were by Mercer in Parker’s only season in Durham. Three of those freshmen – Okafor, Jones and Winslow – are penciled into vital roles, and Allen also should contribute.


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Duke led by star-studded freshman class

Freshman class led by Okafor, Jones to be key to Duke’s pursuit of 5th national title

      
 

 

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Bruce Pearl crashed an Auburn marketing class

“Our team is working really hard to try to make some progress on the court,” he said.

      
 

 

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Syracuse Basketball Recruiting: Make-or-Break Players for 2015 Class

The 2014-15 Syracuse basketball season hasn’t even started yet, but there is already buzz about the potential of the 2015-16 Orange team.

Over the summer, head coach Jim Boeheim said his 2015 recruiting class is his best ever. Boeheim already has four commits in the ESPN 100, and Boeheim said, “We’re getting another, but I can’t talk about that.” The four players Boeheim already has locked up are Malachi Richardson, Moustapha Diagne, Tyler Lydon and Franklin Howard. 

Each player is rated as a 4-star prospect by both ESPN and 247Sports. In addition, each player is in the Top 75 of the ESPN 100, with Richardson the highest-ranked player at No. 19. So yeah, it’s a pretty strong class already.

But Boeheim says he will be landing another player, which would make this class even better. As it stands right now, the class is already impressive, but one player could really put it over the top.

Thomas Bryant is a 5-star player, according to both ESPN and 247Sports, and he seems to be the most likely candidate to land in Syracuse next fall. Bryant is a hometown kid; he hails from nearby Rochester and was a high school teammate of current Syracuse center Chinonso Obokoh.

Landing Bryant would be the cherry on top of an already appetizing recruiting sundae. By 2015, the Orange will be in desperate need of big men. Rakeem Christmas is in his last year, DaJuan Coleman is still a question mark and Obokoh is unproven.

Bryant is just the player Boeheim needs to bolster his front line. The 6’10″ center is skilled around the basket, and he even shows a decent-looking jump shot. Suiting him up next to Richardson, Trevor Cooney and the rest of Syracuse’s returning players could provide a big boost to the offense.

Speaking of Richardson, he looks like he can be an immediate contributor for the Orange. With or without Bryant, Richardson is the other player who can make the 2015 class.

First of all, Richardson’s flat-top game is on point. But Richardson’s coiffure isn’t the only impressive aspect of the 6’6″ swingman.

One thing that immediately jumps out: Richardson can fill it up. He can score from the three-point line and get to the rim, and his size can be a problem if he is checked by an opposing guard. He can give Cooney a much-needed running mate on the perimeter, and he shapes up to be a more versatile shooter than Cooney is.

Most of Cooney‘s game is predicated on spotting up, catching and shooting. Perhaps that had something to do with the other featured offensive players around him, but Cooney has yet to create his own shot consistently. Richardson can spot up, but he can also get his shot off the dribble or coming off a screen.

The 2015-16 Orange roster is going to be loaded. If all of this year’s players who are eligible to return do so, Boeheim can go 10 deep with several upperclassmen and only two sophomores (Kaleb Joseph and Chris McCullough, should they both return). 

So there may not be a truckload of minutes for Richardson or Bryant (if he chooses Syracuse). But if Syracuse struggles offensively again this year, the door will be open for Richardson to come in and light it up early.

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Virginia Basketball Recruiting: Make-or-Break Players for 2015 Class

The 2016 season is shaping to be a banner year for the Virginia Cavaliers on the recruiting trail. Just this week, the Hoos landed a big commitment when Kyle Guy, a 6’2″ sharpshooting point guard from Indiana, per ESPN, pledged to Virginia. 

Guy, a 4-star recruit, per 247Sports (subscription required), joins fellow 4-star Ty Jerome in the class of 2016.

But what about 2015?

This year’s squad has just one scholarship senior, Darion Atkins, and he will likely come off the bench. So there aren’t many openings for newcomers in 2015.

The Cavaliers currently have one commitment: Jarred Reuter, a 6’8″, 235-pound power forward from New Hampshire. 

Virginia will be loaded with perimeter players the next season. Malcolm Brogdon, London Perrantes, Justin Anderson, B.J. Stith, Devon Hall and Marial Shayok all have at least two years of eligibility remaining. So adding perimeter players in this recruiting class is not a high priority.

Center Mike Tobey is a junior, and his backup, freshman Jack Salt, is a freshman. The Hoos would prefer to add another big man to the 2015 class. 

Here are three players who could make or break Virginia’s 2015 recruiting class.

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Ohio State Basketball Recruiting: Make or Break Players for 2015 Class

Let’s be perfectly honest—Thad Matta and his Ohio State basketball program would be absolutely fine if it didn’t land another recruit from now until national signing day.

That may not be what fans who are always looking for the next star or a No.1 class want to hear, but the Buckeyes currently have the No. 7 class in the country, according to 247Sports, for 2015 and just landed the No. 8 class in 2014, according to 247Sports. Between the 2014 and 2015 groups alone, the Buckeyes have eight different players.

That is a lot of young incoming talent, and that’s not even mentioning Marc Loving and Trevor Thompson, who will both have multiple years of eligibility remaining after the 2014-15 basketball season is over.

Yes, the Buckeyes have some seniors this year, including Shannon Scott, Sam Thompson and Amir Williams, but between Loving, Thompson, D’Angelo Russell, Jae’Sean Tate, Keita Bates-Diop, Kam Williams, David Bell and the four 2015 commits, the immediate future looks rather bright.

With that in mind, it is hard to justify the idea that a remaining prospect or two could “make or break” the 2015 class.

However, you could make the argument that losing out on Carlton Bragg, Esa Ahmad and Luke Kennard was a significant blow. Kennard is a 5-star shooting guard, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, who committed to Duke, Ahmad is a 4-star power forward who committed to West Virginia and Bragg is a 5-star power forward and potential superstar who will go elsewhere as well.

That is some significant in-state talent leaving Ohio’s borders, which is difficult for Buckeyes fans to see after Ohio natives Trey Burke and Adreian Payne made life particularly difficult for them in the Big Ten the past few years.

Ibby Ahmad, Esa’s father, discussed the decision, via Bill Landis of Cleveland.com, “[Ohio State] wasn’t there as long as Maryland and West Virginia, but when they did come on they showed a lot of love. Ohio State came in, gave it their shot.”

Matta may have lost out on that significant in-state talent, but he has responded with a potentially dominant class that includes two Texans, a Georgian and one Ohioan. It is more important that he keeps those verbal pledges intact than actually signing anyone else at this point, especially since Mickey Mitchell already de-committed once before joining the group again.

Shooting guard Austin Grandstaff, center Daniel Giddens, point guard A.J. Harris and small forward Mitchell are all 4-star prospects, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, and give Matta an elite option at basically every position on the floor. Sure, there’s no power forward, but there are a number of versatile young guys already on the roster who could take care of that if needed.

These four recruits are the ideal complement to each other because Harris is always looking to set up teammates to score, Grandstaff can light it up from behind the three-point line, Mitchell can both shoot and slash to the rim and Giddens is capable of anchoring a defense down low with his strength, rebounding ability and shot-blocking athleticism.

Pairing this class with the loaded 2014 group down the road should have Buckeyes fans thrilled about the future.

Even though Matta’s class can’t really be “broken” if he strikes out on any remaining outside prospects, there are a few remaining players who would solidify this class as one of the nation’s best.

However, it is important to note that it is looking all the more likely that Matta and his coaching staff may be done adding 2015 commits. At one point or another, they were in on the recruitment of Ivan Rabb, Jaylen Brown, Cheick Diallo, Thomas Bryant and Isaiah Briscoe.

Considering all five of those players are 5-star recruits, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, landing even one of them would be a significant boost to the 2015 class. Still, they are all listed as “cooled” on Ohio State on 247Sports and will in all likelihood be taking their collective talents elsewhere.

Of course, if any of them came knocking on Matta’s door saying he wanted in, the coach would be happy to take him. But Ohio State is likely turning its attention toward laying the foundation for the future with the 2016 class already.

The Buckeyes are targeting small forward Braxton Blackwell, point guard Kobi Simmons and center Derek Funderburk, which would give them some depth across different positions yet again.

It is also worth keeping an eye on prospects like Tyus Battle, V.J. King, Mario Kegler and Omari Spellman, who are all listed as potential Ohio State targets for 2016 on 247Sports. Buckeyes fans should be quite encouraged that every single one of the 2016 prospects mentioned here is either a 4- or 5-star recruit, so it is clear Matta is looking for a dominant class for a third straight year.

Ultimately, it is difficult to say a given player or two will make or break the Buckeyes’ 2015 class because it appears to be as close to set in stone as it can be at this time of year. Ohio State landed an impressive 2014 group and has another formidable one coming down the pipeline next season. 

Now it’s time for the Buckeyes to turn their attention toward even more 4- and 5-star prospects in 2016.

 

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Villanova Basketball: Jalen Brunson Is Make-or-Break Player in Class of 2015

With the new basketball season on the horizon, the Villanova Wildcats are in a good position in regards to recruiting for the class of 2015. 

Tim Delaney, Donte DiVincenzo and Jalen Brunson will all become Wildcats starting with the 2015-16 season. 

Many top players are still available, but the Wildcats have not been seriously linked with any of them in quite some time.

Since the Brunson commitment, the Wildcats have not been very active on the class of 2015 front, and it doesn’t look like that will change anytime soon. 

The one name that was associated with Villanova during the summer was Isaiah Briscoe, but it looks like he has his sights set on joining another program. 

Briscoe will cut his list of prospective schools down to three, per USA Today’s Jason Jordan, and Villanova is expected to be nowhere near the list, with St. John’s being one of the front-runners. 

He was the main guard the Wildcats were having a look at before the Brunson commitment, but he was not considered a main target after Villanova earned the signature of the guard from Illinois. 

After Briscoe, the other potential members of the class of 2015 are players who are not consistently looking at Villanova. 

According to 247Sports, only two other players are listed as interested in offers from the Wildcats, which makes things look bleak for the rest of the recruiting window. 

Despite the lack of interest from other potential players, Villanova is in great hands with Brunson joining the program.

In many ways, Brunson is the make-or-break stud in the class of 2015 for the Wildcats, as he is a player who can make an impact from the first day he steps on campus. 

Brunson has the potential to elevate the program to a higher level during his time there, whether it be for three or four years. 

With all due respect to Ryan Arcidiacono, the Wildcats haven’t had a player like that since Scottie Reynolds, who was the heart and soul of the team from 2006 to 2010. 

Before Reynolds, Villanova had athletes like Randy Foye and Allen Ray lead the way from the guard position. 

As we saw last season with Villanova, the team played fine during the regular season, but once it faced tougher opposition in the postseason, it crumbled under pressure and was eliminated in the third round of the NCAA tournament.

Brunson will take the guard position to the next level at Villanova, which means he should make every player around him better as well.

If a Brunson-led Villanova team can go far in March each year, he will mean more to the program, as more high-quality recruits will be attracted to the program even though the Wildcats play in the lowly Big East. 

There will always be players who overlook Villanova for higher-profile teams in bigger conferences, but if Brunson proves that he can take the Wildcats far in the postseason, it will allow a few of those players to take a serious look at the program. 

With on- and off-court success in front of them when Brunson arrives, the Wildcats have no need to find another make-or-break recruit for the class of 2015 because they have already found him. 

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Duke Basketball Recruiting: Make-or-Break Players for 2015 Class

The Duke basketball program landed the No. 1 recruiting class in the country in 2014, according to 247Sports, and there is a very real chance that the rich will get richer in 2015. Mike Krzyzewski and company are one or two elite players away from bringing in yet another loaded class.

Before we look at some prospects that the Blue Devils are pursuing, it is worth summarizing where Duke stands moving forward, because that always shapes the direction of any recruiting class.

For one, Quinn Cook is the only scholarship senior on the roster this season, so there may not be that many scholarships available for next year. Yes, Jahlil Okafor is likely to go pro, and Tyus Jones, Justise Winslow and perhaps even Rasheed Sulaimon could follow suit, but there is plenty of talented youth in Durham.

The Blue Devils may not have the numbers available to land a four- or five-man group in the 2015 cycle, depending on those eventual NBA decisions. The good news about the loaded 2014 class, though, is that there isn’t an absolute pressing need to land a top-notch 2015 group.

Still, Krzyzewski already boasts the No. 13-rated class for 2015, per 247Sports, thanks to two high-profile commitments from Luke Kennard and Chase Jeter. Both are 5-star prospects, according to 247Sports’ composite rankings, and play different positions. Kennard is a perimeter scorer at shooting guard, while Jeter is a lockdown defender at the rim and low-post threat at power forward/center.

The thing that immediately jumps out about Kennard is his ability to drain it from behind the three-point line, but he is also a solid passer and can attack the rim off the dribble with impressive ball-handling skills.

As for Jeter, his jump hook may be his best offensive weapon, but he can hit from mid-range and has soft touch at the rim. It is not difficult to envision a pick-and-roll game with Kennard and Jeter developing down the line in Durham.

Jeter is also incredibly athletic and quick enough to get out in transition, protect the rim with blocked shots and control the glass.

Ultimately, just hanging on to Kennard and Jeter alone would “make” the Blue Devils’ class considering how much young talent is already on campus. Even if you are to assume that Okafor is gone after his freshman season, pairing Kennard and Jeter with Jones, Sulaimon, Amile Jefferson, Winslow, Grayson Allen, Semi Ojeleye and Matt Jones would be a problem for the rest of the ACC.

Jeter would naturally slide into Okafor’s newly available spot too, so losing Okafor to the draft would not be nearly as crippling of a blow as some would expect.

The only way to “break” this class is by somehow losing Kennard and Jeter, which is not going to happen.

However, there are a few other potential targets who would really “make” this class something special.

Brandon Ingram, Ivan Rabb and Diamond Stone are all listed as top targets or high choices for Duke on 247Sports. All three of these guys are 5-star prospects, so even landing one would officially put the ACC on notice since the Blue Devils already have two 5-stars in tow for 2015.

It is worth mentioning that both Rabb and Stone are listed as “cool” on Duke right now, so things may be trending slightly in the wrong direction.

This quote from 2015 prospect Carlton Bragg, via Adam Zagoria of Zagsblog and SNY.tv, is also worrisome when it comes to Duke’s chances at Ingram: “Brandon Ingram and Jaylen Brown, we’re thinking about packaging.”

With so much youth on the roster and two commits already, Duke really doesn’t have the scholarship numbers to land that trio and continue recruiting. More importantly, Bragg is not tied to Duke at all and could end up as part of Kansas or Kentucky’s 2015 class. If he took Ingram with him, that would be a problem for the Blue Devils. 

However, Bragg is not the only recruit interested in playing with Ingram, as Adam Rowe of 247Sports passed along:

Krzyzewski certainly has his work cut out for him if he wants to land Ingram because programs like Kentucky, UCLA, Kansas and North Carolina are also in on his recruitment. Of course, if the Blue Devils did get Ingram, the additional bonus would be keeping him away from the rival Tar Heels.

It is no wonder why so many blueblood programs want Ingram. He can hit from the outside or attack the basket and is versatile enough to play anything from shooting guard to an athletic power forward. Pairing him with Winslow at Duke would be a nightmare for opposing ball-handlers because of all that athleticism and length guarding on the wing.

As for Rabb, he is also an athletic forward, but he will likely play closer to the basket than Ingram. Rabb is a formidable rebounder and shot-blocker who would help Duke shore up some of the interior defensive problems it had last season and contribute in the scoring department down low.

Finally, Stone is a powerful scorer on the blocks who has everything from a hook shot to drop step in his arsenal. If needed, he can step outside and drill the occasional three-pointer as well and will be a solid rebounder.

As long as Duke holds onto its current elite commitments, it is difficult to envision this class “breaking” at all. Still, if the Blue Devils ultimately want to rank among the nation’s best for the second consecutive year, they will need to land at least one more player.

If more than just Okafor leaves for the NBA, that would also give the Blue Devils some stability moving forward.

It’s a fairly safe bet at this point that Duke will have a top-notch recruiting class. After all, Krzyzewski already has two 5-star prospects before the season starts, and the winning that is sure to happen on the floor this year will likely make an impression on others on the recruiting trail. 

Duke is far more likely to “make” its recruiting class in the coming months than “break” it.

 

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Michigan State Basketball Recruiting: Make or Break Players for 2015 Class

With the 2014-15 season looming just under one month away, it is becoming more pivotal for Michigan State to secure some of its top recruits for security purposes. For the 2015 class, one make-or-break target remains within Tom Izzo‘s sights: Caleb Swanigan.

He’s the key, and also the player who would likely propel that class into a top-5 group nationally. Currently, MSU has three commitments. Deyonta Davis (ranked as a 5-star recruit by 247sports.com), Matt McQuaid (4-star) and Kyle Ahrens (three-star).

All three of those high school seniors have the abilities to impact games right away.

Davis is a disciplined, lanky and skilled post player whose game strongly resembles Adreian Payne’s. McQuaid and Ahrens are similar because both guys rely on their outside jumpers to impact games, though both are quick enough to enter the lane and finish.

Currently, it’s a big-time class. 247sports.com has rated MSU‘s 2015 group as the 11th best in the nation. And if Swanigan signs on, he and his AAU teammate Davis could potentially form the next great frontcourt in East Lansing.

Unfortunately, Swanigan‘s decision continues to hang in the balance. He has been undecided for several months now, refusing to give any clear indicators of where he intends to play.

And MSU needs his skill set. Any team would happily allow a 6’8″, 275-pound beast with great awareness and fantastic touch on its squad.

But MSU needs it.

Branden Dawson is the lone returning starter from an Elite Eight team with an excellent frontcourt. He will be called upon to shoulder a considerable amount of the scoring and rebounding responsibilities. Due to his age, however, that onus will only last for another year.

Upon his graduation, MSU will look to find answers. Maybe Matt Costello and Gavin Schilling will prove themselves to be capable big men this season, but neither player has Davis’ or Swanigan‘s potential.

Davis will likely step in immediately, although he needs to add bulk to his frame. Swanigan is only growing and improving. He is cut from the Derrick Nix-Zach Randolph mold, two former Spartan greats, dominating with size and skill around the rim.

Those are the types of skills Izzo will be yearning for in a year from now. ESPN’s No. 8 ranked player in the country is a must-have.

After Swanigan, the interest level of the remaining targets shrinks considerably.

Two remaining prospects are guard Hyron Edwards and and dual-sport athlete Khari Willis.

Edwards is a dynamic combo guard from East Illinois. He plays with a tremendous tempo and can enter the lane at will. His jump shot is still improving, but he can make open looks.

Michigan State has not extended an offer to Edwards yet, but it appears to be interested. The 6’1″ guard’s recruiting profile is immersed with Big Ten foes, so if Izzo missed out, he may end up paying for it.

Willis, on the other hand, holds a more interesting situation. The 6-footer has already signed on to play football for Mark Dantonio and the Spartans as a cornerback.

He’s pretty good on the court, too. According to Rich McGowan of highschoolsports.mlive.com, Izzo candidly acknowledged he “loves two-sport guys,” which opens the possibility to Willis playing in front of the Breslin crowd.

While that would be a sensational storyline, it wouldn’t be as plausible. From a depth and personnel standpoint, MSU is already loaded with fantastic guards. Willis is lesser developed than Lourawls Nairn, the point guard of the future for State, but plays similarly.

Nairn will only be a sophomore when Willis arrives in East Lansing, and an abundance of combo guards will also be vying for playing time. That includes Bryn Forbes and Eron Harris, two established transfers from Division I schools.

That type of depth and skill essentially eliminates other guards from the recruiting discussion. That is, unless the player is a top-notch prospect.

So, the remaining outlook for the class of 2015 remains how it has been for the last several months: all-in for Swanigan.

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Why Elfrid Payton Could Emerge as the Biggest Surprise of the NBA Rookie Class

Who’s that guy with all the hair? 

Soon enough, everyone will be able to identify Elfrid Payton without a second thought, recognizing his impassioned defensive play, long and lanky frame and undeniable potential for the Orlando Magic. Even if he’s now a more nondescript member of the star-studded rookie class set to begin its NBA journey when the season kicks off at the end of October, he won’t function as such for long. 

Other first-year players have drawn more attention, sure.

Andrew Wiggins was the subject of nonstop speculation before he was pulled out of trading purgatory and sent to the Minnesota Timberwolves. Any big-time prospect from Duke is bound to receive plenty of coverage, and Jabari Parker was no exception to the rule. Between Julius Randle, Doug McDermott, Dante Exum, Marcus Smart and plenty others, the list goes on and on.

Nonetheless, the small-school point guard is poised to emerge as one of the biggest surprises in this crop of NBA rookies. 

 

College Experience

The transition from college basketball (or an international league) is always a tough one, but it can be even more daunting for players who aren’t as far removed from running the show on their high-school squads.

One-and-done point guards typically have a lot of appeal for NBA teams due to their vast reserves of untapped potential and the potential for them to remain on a squad longer before moving out of their athletic primes. 

However, lately we’ve seen a few small-school point guards enjoy an easier transition, largely because they benefited from their increased levels of experience. Playing for the Louisiana-Lafayette Ragin‘ Cajuns may not have given Payton as much high-level work as guys who went to schools in power conferences, but staying for years makes his learning curve a bit less extreme.

In the five draft classes prior to this current one, there were 14 point guards selected in the lottery. Three of those floor generals were seniors (C.J. McCollum, Damian Lillard, Jimmer Fredette), two were juniors (Kemba Walker, Stephen Curry), four were sophomores (Trey Burke, Michael Carter-Williams, Kendall Marshall, Jonny Flynn), three were freshmen (Kyrie Irving, Brandon Knight, John Wall) and two came from international teams (Ricky Rubio and Brandon Jennings). 

For the sake of this graph, we’re going to throw the international products out of the mix but take a gander at how everyone else fared during their respective rookie seasons: 

It should be the juniors and seniors who impress you the most.

While the freshmen’s numbers are comparable—and in some cases better—that last group of columns is quite telling. They were drafted much earlier in the proceedings, so it stands to reason they’re going to be good players.

It’s the older point guards who are outperforming their draft slots and thus emerging as steals and surprises. 

The best example in recent years is Damian Lillard, who came out of Weber State, was selected at No. 6 by the Portland Trail Blazers and went on to thrive during his first go-round at the professional level. That’s the model Payton will be hoping to follow when he starts suiting up during the regular season for the Magic. 

As a junior, the floppy-haired point guard built upon a strong sophomore campaign, averaging 19.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, 5.9 assists, 2.3 steals and 0.6 blocks per game. He also shot 50.9 percent from the field and earned a 25.2 player efficiency rating, per Sports-Reference.com

But the numbers aren’t all that important, especially since many of them came against severely overmatched competition. The larger benefit comes from his additional experience learning how to run an offense and settle in as a key defensive stopper. 

“When I sat back and watched him play, I just said to myself, ‘Wow, that’s a NBA player.’ A lot of times you can’t see that in college players,” Lillard himself explained to NBA.com’s John Denton about Payton. “Some of them have all of the hype, but you just can’t see pro potential in them. But with Elfrid, I knew he would be good at the NBA level.”

Of course, not every upperclassman goes on to excel at the next level. It’s far easier to make that transition without skipping too many beats when you have at least one premier skill at your disposal. 

 

Defense, Defense, Defense

If you haven’t watched Payton play in college, during summer league or in one of his early preseason games, you’ll inevitably be blown away by how big he is the first time you lay eyes on him in live action. 

The point guard’s 6’4″ frame already allows him to see over most defenders and rotate to work against multiple positions when he’s on the less-glamorous end, and that’s not even the most impressive physical tool at his disposal. His wingspan measured in at an impressive 6’8″ at the draft combine, and those long arms will help him constantly pester whoever he’s guarding. 

Payton does need to gain strength so he can avoid being pushed around by more physical players, but he’s already working with a nice defensive profile heading into his rookie season. He’s a great athlete, though not necessarily one with elite explosion, and his lateral quickness allows him to stay in front of most players. 

During his final season with the Cajuns, the big floor general was named the Sun Belt’s Defensive Player of the Year, and he also received the Lefty Driesell Award, a prestigious honor awarded to the NCAA’s best defensive stalwart.

How’s that for taking advantage of a small-school schedule?  

His quick feet and size made him a nightmare for opposing point guards, and they also allowed him to switch onto bigger assignments. He even guarded Doug McDermott during the NCAA tournament, which isn’t something most 1-guards would ever be comfortable attempting, much less doing so quite successfully. 

“With Payton as a fascinating foundational prospect alongside Victor Oladipo, there’s a different feeling inside the franchise: relief is coming to the rebuild,” wrote the Orlando Sentinel‘s Brian Schmitz. “For defensive reasons alone, they should pair these piranhas together as if Oladipo and Payton will be their backcourt until 2025.”

He hasn’t looked overmatched during the Magic’s opening trio of preseason games. According to RealGM.com, his defensive rating is a solid 99.6, which puts him right in the middle of the pack for his team—not bad for a point guard gaining his sea legs in a portion of the season that typically features a lot of scoring. 

It’s hard to argue with that sentiment. 

His offense is still coming along, but he has a luxury many rookies don’t. He’s already quite adept in one major niche of the NBA game.

Defense may not be as glamorous as offense, but it helps win games—and championships, as the saying goes. 

 

Immediate Opportunity

Because of that NBA-ready skill, Payton doesn’t figure to spend too much time on the bench throughout his first go-round in the big leagues. In fact, there’s a solid chance he could start on opening night and never relinquish his hold on one of the five premier spots in the lineup, something the Magic were hesitant to let Oladipo do. 

As this excerpt from Denton‘s article shows, the point guard feels like he’s ready for such an opportunity. Perhaps more importantly, so too do his coaches: 

‘You definitely have to be fearless,’ the point guard with the floppy hair said. ‘Me being a point guard you have to be the leader. Guys have to know that you aren’t scared of anything and that you are ready to lead. It’s just part of the job.’

[Orlando head coach Jacque] Vaughn said the Magic are still contemplating just how much to put on the platter of a rookie like Payton, while making sure not to overload him right away. The Magic were extremely patient last season with Oladipo, using him both off the bench and as a starter. Vaughn said that Payton has a different temperament and different skills and that they will challenge him on a daily basis while also taking his youth into account.

‘We have a different team this year, so Elfrid‘s framework could be different than how we approached Vic’s opportunity,’ Vaughn said. ‘But we’ll continue to challenge him with opportunities and see how he deals with them. We’ll give him all that he can handle and see what he does.’

Who else is going to start for this team, though? 

Without Jameer Nelson on the roster anymore, the spot is up for grabs, and Payton’s ceiling is so much higher than either Luke Ridnour or Peyton Siva’s. He’s going to struggle offensively, as he has throughout the preseason, but that shouldn’t prevent a rebuilding team from allowing him to gain chemistry with the starters and learn through a trial by fire. 

He’s beyond his years,” Ridnour told Schmitz about his rookie teammate, sharing a sentiment that seems to be rather commonplace around the Orlando-based organization. “You can tell he’s poised. He makes the right decisions.”

It’s this maturity that should help him handle a large workload right off the bat. 

Payton is already a quality defender who thrives in transition and when he’s able to drive into the teeth of a defense. He has all the physical tools you could ask for from a point guard, and a reliable jumper is one of the few missing weapons in his ever-growing arsenal. 

Maybe he doesn’t have the upside of a Wiggins, Parker or Zach LaVine, but he sure fits into the mold of a long-term starter at the NBA’s deepest position. Even if his name hasn’t come up as often as many of his fellow lottery picks, it will in the future. 

His role with the Magic will give him a head start, as will his defensive chops and experience serving as the leader of a team that advanced to the NCAA tournament, largely as a result of his accolade-earning exploits. 

If all goes according to plan for Orlando, it won’t be long before Payton’s hair is an afterthought, not the opener of so many conversions about him. 

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