Top NBA Draft Prospects: The 10 Best Freshmen
Part 1: The five who will impact the top of the 2023 NBA Lottery
College freshmen have dominated the top of NBA draft classes in recent years, with Paolo Banchero being the 13th consecutive one-and-done prospect to be the first player to shake hands with the commissioner on draft night.
You have to go all the way back to 2009 — when the LA Clippers selected Blake Griffin out of Oklahoma — to find the last non-freshman selected with the first pick.
The streak of college diaper dandies drafted first is expected to end in 2023 with France’s Victor Wembanyama the heavy favorite to be the top choice and Scoot Henderson from the G League Ignite considered the biggest threat to challenge as the top prospect.
Led by Wembanyama, Henderson and the highly touted, freakishly athletic twins Amen and Ausar Thompson, who are playing in the Overtime Elite league, next year's group could be the most unique class in NBA history — with the possibility that four of the top five picks come from outside of college basketball.
Still, most NBA prospects continue to choose the traditional route of playing NCAA basketball, and this freshman class is expected to dominate the 2023 draft beyond the four likely lottery picks mentioned above.
Here are my top five incoming freshman NBA prospects, with prospects 6 to 10 coming soon:
1. Keyonte George
I live in the Dallas area, so I’ve been following George’s progression since his freshman season at Lewisville High School, where he averaged 21 points per game and was named district player of the year in one of Texas’ largest classes.
Listed as a shooting guard, George is a big-time scorer with an effortless shooting stroke who can fill it up and collect buckets on three levels. His scoring repertoire was on full display last month in his unofficial college debut when he erupted for 32 points on 10-of-18 shooting while knocking down 6-of-12 from deep. Overall, George averaged 22.8 points per game at the GLOBL JAM in Toronto, an international under-23 tournament that featured teams from four countries. George posted multiple 30-point games while leading Baylor — which represented the United States — to the championship game and a silver medal finish.
Though George is considered a shooting guard, he’s shown promise as a pick-and-roll ball handler and playmaker. If he can continue to make strides as a distributor and find a balance between scoring and making plays for others, I believe he has a chance to be a top-5 pick next June.
2. Nick Smith
Smith headlines a loaded Arkansas recruiting class that features three McDonald’s All-Americans, and Smith and Anthony Black will make up arguably the best backcourt in the nation.
Several scouts believe Smith is the top NBA prospect in college basketball due to his size, length and scoring instincts. Listed at 6’5” with a reported 6’9” wingspan, the Little Rock native is comfortable playing either guard spot and is a smooth and crafty scorer who plays at his own pace. He’s at his best when creating off the dribble and getting to his sweet spots, where he has an effective pull-up jumper or can finish with an array of floaters and runners around the basket.
In my opinion, Smith is a good, fluid athlete who lacks the ideal burst and explosiveness some teams covet in a lead guard. A related concern is that he prefers to shoot floaters as opposed to finishing at the rim.
3. Cam Whitmore
Whitmore is fresh off leading Team USA to a gold medal at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship in June, where he took home MVP honors after posting 30 points and 12 rebounds in the championship game.
Blessed with an NBA-ready 6’7”, 225-lb. frame, Whitmore epitomizes positionless basketball, as he can play both forward spots and create mismatches across the floor. He’s a powerful, explosive athlete who plays with great energy and a chip on his shoulder. Although he’s an improving shooter from long range, Whitmore does most of his damage in the paint, where he scores by attacking the offensive glass or as a transition finisher and punishing downhill slasher.
Whitmore is young for his class, having turned 18 in July, and his combination of size, athleticism, motor and shooting should make him a lock for the top half of the lottery.
His poor free-throw shooting and his tendency to play out of control are his biggest areas for improvement. If he can address those concerns and add a midrange game and soft-touch finish package around the rim, the sky's the limit.
4. Dereck Lively II
Lively was considered the top high school prospect in the class of 2022 and headlines the first Duke recruiting class in the post-Coach K era.
Last summer Lively and 2022 lottery pick Jalen Duren formed a supersized frontcourt and led their squad Team Final to a 35-3 record en route to the Nike EYBL Peach Jam title. Lively served as the team’s top rim protector, leading in blocks at 3.7 per contest.
With his size, length, frame and defensive presence, Lively reminds me of a young Tyson Chandler. On offense, Lively is a vertical lob threat who provides gravity as a roll man and has decent touch around the rim, and he’s shown promise as a passer and floor spacer. While that’s similar to Chandler when he was the No. 1 player in the high school class of 2001, Chandler never fulfilled his offensive potential in the NBA. But on the other end he made his mark as an anchor who was named to three All-Defensive teams and was voted the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2012.
On offense, I’d like to see Lively play more physically and aggressively to establish position in the post. He’s easily pushed out to the perimeter and prefers to face up and play with finesse instead of using his size to his advantage. He often bails the defense out by settling for jumpers and avoiding contact.
5. Kal’el Ware
Ware should make plenty of noise in his freshman season. Like Lively, he has outstanding physical tools and length. Ware’s broad shoulders and strong lower body suggest he could easily pack 20 pounds onto his 7-foot frame.
Ware impressed NBA scouts at the McDonald’s All-American Game and the Nike Hoop Summit this spring and continued to turn heads at the FIBA U18 Americas Championship last month. Ware was named to the All-Tournament team after averaging 15.7 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.8 blocks and leading Team USA to the gold medal.
Ware has good touch around the rim and an active motor — he’s relentless on the glass. He fits the bill as your rim-running vertical lob threat on offense and rim protector on defense.
I’m looking forward to tracking Ware’s development this season. He has trended in the right direction — he rose steadily up recruiting rankings — and could be the first college star selected in next year's draft. He’s a little unpolished, as he lacks counter moves in the post and a left hand. And while it’s not a must-have in his arsenal, it would be beneficial for him to extend his shooting range.
Part 2: Players 6 to 10 … coming soon
Top NBA Draft Prospects: The 10 Best Freshmen