The One and Done revolution has taken college basketball by storm. Since 2007, 47 out of 75 top 5 NBA draft picks have been college freshmen. Those 47 players provide us with an interesting sample size for how far a college team can go with a freshman as its best player. Fabulous freshman taking over the storylines during the regular season. But in the tournament, experienced guards and 3 point shooting teams with depth have cut down the nets.
Most of the one and done have experienced moderate tournament success. Usually winning a couple of games. But, only 9 out of the 47 top 5 one and done have reached the final four in their lone college season. Before Jalen Suggs took Gonzaga to the national title game last year, it had been six years since a top 5 one-and-done pick took his team to the final four.
This dangerous precedent brings us to the precipice of the NCAA tournament. Star freshmen Chet Holmgren, Jabari Smith, and Paolo Banchero are dominating the headlines and early NBA mock drafts. Holmgren, Smith, and Banchero are the projected top 3 picks in this year’s draft. They will have a unique opportunity to make March memories as they each play for teams that have been ranked #1 at some point this year and will be top 2 seeds in next week’s bracket. Auburn, Gonzaga, and Duke have the pieces around them, but their stars need to take them to the promised land.
The only ones to cut down the nets were Michael Kidd Gilchrist, Anthony Davis, who conveniently played together, and Jahlil Okafor in 2015. There have been multiple other college pairings of top 5 one and done’s. Greg Oden and Mike Conley reached the 2007 national championship game. John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins made the elite eight. The aforementioned Davis and MKG pair cut down the nets. Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins suffered an early exit in the round of 32. And Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett were eliminated in the elite eight.
So even if you have 2 top picks, you better hope you have more than enough talent around them, or expect that one of them can perform at the level of Anthony Davis, who is one of the greatest college players we have ever seen. This year, we should add another data point to this duos conversation as Duke freshmen AJ Griffin and Paolo Banchero are both projected top 5 picks.
Can the trend be reversed?
Our years of watching college basketball have taught us that it takes much more than just one good player to win at this level. Luckily for Chet, Jabari, and Paolo, there is tons of talent around them.
Standing 6 foot 10, Jabari Smith has been an assassin for Bruce Pearl’s Auburn Tigers. Smith can take any shot he wants simply by shooting over smaller defenders. Even with defenders in his air space, Smith has no problem rising and hitting tough shots over them. The only concern with Smith related to the NCAA tournament is that Auburn hasn’t used him enough. Auburn has looked to other players in clutch situations this year despite Jabari’s ability to make difficult shots. And it has usually been costly. In addition, Auburn still hasn’t worked out the offensive hierarchy between Smith and KD Johnson, which could come back to haunt them in March. Ultimately, Smith’s shotmaking ability gives Auburn instant offense, making it very difficult for other teams to make runs. Defensively, the length and shot-blocking ability of Smith and Walker Kessler makes it nearly impossible to score on Auburn inside.
Being 7 feet tall and 195 pounds there were some concerns about his frame. But, Chet Holmgren has transitioned to the collegiate level just fine. All concerns about his defense have to be alleviated after he has averaged 3.6 blocks a game this year. Chet has shown an ability to initiate offense off the dribble. He has the uncanny ability to attack the rim from the top of the key and create his threes off the dribble for a seven-footer. You can question the competition in the WCC. But, it’s impossible to play better than Holmgren is right now, shooting 62% from the floor and 43% from 3. Drew Timme’s presence is huge for Gonzaga. He can defensively take on stronger big men, allowing Chet to roam around and clean up blocked shots. Andrew Nembhard provides the Zags with the veteran guard presence needed to make a deep run.
Coach K is one of the greatest coaches of all time, but he hasn’t done a great job adjusting to the one-and-done era. In 2018-19 Duke with Zion, RJ, and Cam Reddish opened the year with a 118-84 beatdown of Kentucky. But by the time March came around, it was clear that we were dealing with a worse version of the Duke team than we saw in November. How could a young team with one of the greatest coaches of all time get worse throughout a season? For whatever reason, K hasn’t been able to get his team to play its best basketball at the most critical points of the season, and they have often peaked too early.
This year Paolo Banchero opened up his season with an awe-inspiring performance against Kentucky and hasn’t really matched it since. However, projected top 5 draft pick AJ Griffin should alleviate some pressure on Banchero’s championship run. Griffin and Banchero give Duke an inside-out presence. Paolo can get downhill and attack at the rim and in the mid-range. Griffin stretches the floor by hitting 48% of his threes. Duke has not been peaking at the right time, but a run in the ACC tournament could get them on the right track. Duke has looked like the best team in the country at times this year.