by Jeffery Gordon
This past week marked the beginning of summer workouts for most college basketball teams. Players have returned to school, and the next class of freshmen have made their way to their new homes. The 2020 freshman class was extremely impressive, highlighted by Cade Cunningham, Evan Mobley and Jalen Suggs, all of whom are projected top 5 picks in the upcoming NBA draft. The 2021 recruiting class is shaping up to be pretty strong in their own right, highlighted by Chet Holmgren, the Gatorade boys’ National Player of the Year. However, Holmgren is not the only star. The top of the 2021 class is extremely deep as well.
Chet Holmgren is a 7 foot “unicorn” from Minnesota and is signed to play for Mark Few and the defending national runner-up Gonzaga. When I say “unicorn”, I mean a big man who has guard skills and the ability to be dynamic. You might remember a clip of Chet at the Steph Curry Camp a few summers ago where he hit Curry with two behind the backs and blew by for a monstrous dunk?
Holmgren was high school teammates for three years with the aforementioned Suggs at Minnehaha Academy, and is following him to Gonzaga. The strongest aspect of Holmgren’s game is his ability to challenge shots at the rim. With a 7’6 wingspan, he can be an elite shot blocker and shot-blocker and guard smaller players due to his versatility and length. He averaged about 5 blocks per game this past season along with 20.8 PPG, 12.6 RPG, 4.5 APG while shooting 80% from the field. Holmgren is able to block a shot at one end and bring the ball coast to coast for an easy basket. I believe he is best in the open floor and should see benefits playing with another big in Drew Timme. My player comparison would be Kristaps Porzingis, but is a better passer at a young age.
The number two player according to 247 Composite rankings is another big who displays guard skills, Paolo Banchero. At 6’11 250, Banchero is signed to play under Coach K and is a new member of the Duke Brotherhood. Hailing from Seattle, Washington, an underrated grassroots basketball state, Banchero has a strong frame and can play in the post or on the perimeter. He did not play an official high school season due to COVID-19, but he was able to play at the Grind Session World Championship in Phoenix in early March. He averaged 33 PPG, 12 RPG, 3 APG, and 3 BPG over four days there. His ability to be a big-time playmaker was evident on film from the event as he was seen pushing the ball up the floor or initiating the half-court offense.
His shot form appears to be developing nicely off the catch and pulling up. He can make defenders pay when going under ball screens, which makes him such a hard matchup given his size and explosiveness to the basket. Banchero will be seen at the free-throw line given his playmaking ability from the perimeter and downhill attack. Defensively, he isn’t quite the rim protector that Holmgren is, but his lateral speed allows him to rotate nicely and can guard multiple positions. His athleticism is through the roof and makes up for his smaller wingspan in comparison to Holmgren when it comes to challenging his opponents at the basket. With the return of Mark Williams to Duke, Banchero will play alongside another big, which is similar to Holmgren, and will help on the defensive end. I know that this is a pretty common comparison, but I have to go with PJ Washington given their similar frames and talents on the offensive side of the ball.
The No. 1 freshman class in the country resides in Ann Arbor with Juwan Howard and the Michigan Wolverines. It is headlined by Caleb Houstan, a Geico Nationals champion who has played with the top players in America at Montverde Academy and should be one of the best shooters in college basketball this upcoming season. At 6’8, Houstan is the perfect stretch 4 given his ability to shoot the ball so well. When defenders close out late, he can put the ball on the deck and make them pay. He may not necessarily wow you with his athleticism or playmaking ability, but he does a lot right on the floor in terms of his spacing and IQ. A player comparison for Houstan would be Cam Johnson of the Phoenix Suns.
Joining Houstan at Michigan is big man Moussa Diabate from IMG Academy who brings high-level high school basketball experience to Juwan Howard and his staff. At 6’10, Diabate is a long big who does a great job running the floor and plays best in transition. He also has a nice post-game and can finish with either hand around the rim. As a shot blocker, Diabate was able to keep Holmgren in check during an exhibition game against Minnehaha Academy. Holmgren shot 0-4 from three and had trouble finishing around the basket when guarded by a similar-sized defender in Diabate. He plays with a ton of energy and is an elite rebounder with his long frame. Diabate reminds me a lot of Mo Bamba with their length and ability to rim run. Look for Coach Howard and Michigan to remain one of the recruiting giants for years to come.
A recruit that I am really interested in who is not necessarily getting a lot of attention is New Jersey guard Jaylen Blakes from Blair Academy.
Blakes, who is one of Paolo Banchero’s teammates at Duke, is a 6’2 point guard with a strong feel for the game. He is a very high volume scorer who is not afraid to challenge bigs at the rim. When defenders give him too much space he has a very nice jumper with range. His change of pace stands out when you watch him and allows him to be so lethal in PnR situations. On the defensive end, he has quick hands and his frame allows him to effectively stay in front of defenders. I compare him to Jeff Teague because of their ability to be a high-volume scorer.
The class of 2021 should produce some nice NBA players, but a lot of great college players. Players such as Patrick Baldwin Jr, Peyton Watson, and Jabari Smith are other names to keep your eyes on. I am not as high on this class as I was with the freshman class of 2020, but I would love to be proven wrong.