Between the transfer portal giving coaches an avenue to land proven producers and the rise of “super seniors” armed with an extra year of eligibility due to the 2020-21 pandemic, the influence of freshmen in college basketball has waned over the past few years. But even if the not-so-distant “one and done” glory days of Duke’s 2015 national title are evaporating, there is still a place for the diaper dandies in college basketball.
If anything, fewer freshmen in the spotlight makes the ones who do manage to shine seem particularly special. Among those who popped in the 2022-23 season were a pair of forwards in Alabama’ Brandon Miller and Duke’s Kyle Filipowski. Miller led the Crimson Tide to their first-ever No. 1 seed in the NCAA Tournament and became the No. 2 pick in the NBA Draft. Filipowski helped Duke win an ACC Tournament title and chose to return to anchor the Blue Devils again this season.
As we turn our attention to the 2023-24 season, it’s time to take a good look this year’s incoming freshman class. For this week’s edition of the dribble handoff, our writers are identifying which freshman they are most excited to watch in the season ahead.
DJ Wagner, Kentucky
My professional career started at The Commercial Appeal newspaper in Memphis, where I spent my first year helping Zack McMillan on the University of Memphis basketball beat during the 2001-02 season. That year was highlighted by the arrival of five-star freshman Dajuan Wagner, who was expected to make John Calipari’s Tigers Final Four contenders. Now, as I get ready to begin my 23rd season covering the sport, I’m most excited to watch Dajuan’s son, DJ Wagner, play for the same coach at a different school.
Time flies and all that.
It is strange to reach the age where I’m now writing about the children of athletes I previously covered — but it’s also cool to be in this position. I am on the verge of watching a third-generation McDonald’s All-American possibly emerge as the centerpiece of a Kentucky team projected to compete at the top of the SEC. More than two decades ago, Dajuan Wagner was supposed to return Calipari to national prominence after he was fired by the Nets. For a variety of reasons, that did not go as planned. Now, it’s Dajuan Wagner Jr. who has a chance to help Calipari return to the Final Four for the first time since 2015 — and I can’t wait to watch him try to do it. — Gary Parrish
Isaiah Collier, USC
Are you even aware that the Trojans have the top-ranked freshman? Probably not, unless you’re a USC fan or someone who follows college basketball recruiting 12 months a year. It’s been a long time since the No. 1 player in a high school class was flying under the radar this much. That’s in part because the 2023 class is viewed as one of the weakest in the past decade, but it’s also because Collier’s name is overshadowed by fellow USC newbie Bronny James.
With James’ college career uncertain after he suffered a cardiac arrest earlier this month (, which is a nice development), Collier will carry even more on-court burdens than expected. But he’s a heady player with a great set of skills who could turn the Trojans into a contender in their final year of the Pac-12. If he grows alongside veteran Boogie Ellis, USC could field one of the most electric backcourts in college hoops. — Matt Norlander
Justin Edwards, Kentucky
Edwards is the No. 2 in the 2023 class according to 247Sports. That makes him an easy pick for me as I prep for the 2024 NBA Draft.has me even more pumped to watch him playing for Big Blue.
During Kentucky’s trip to Canada, Edwards flashed the talent level of a future No. 1 pick in a. His combination of size, athleticism, scoring and playmaking from the wing position popped in a way that made him look like the potential alpha of Kentucky’s young and remade roster.
Edwards has always been a lethal lefty who can score it from every level, but if he can showcase those skills and shoot, say, 35% from 3-point range on top of everything else he brings to the table, he might be capable of dragging UK to a memorable season. — Kyle Boone
Aday Mara, UCLA
Kentucky’s reliance on freshmen for the 2023-24 season is a well-established storyline at this point. But UCLA will challenge the Wildcats for the title of most freshman-dependent team in the country. With well-established veteran players like Tyger Campbell, Jaime Jaquez, Jaylen Clark and David Singleton finally out of eligibility, this has the makings of a rebuilding season for the Bruins. To help with that rebuild, the Bruins signed seven freshemen, including four international prospects who came along late in the recruiting cycle. Of the bunch, Mara is the most intriguing.
The 7-foot-3 Spaniard is just 18 and is garnering buzz as a potential 2024 NBA lottery pick. Still, he remains somewhat mysterious due to his age, gangly frame and the questionable competition level he’s faced during his young career. Nonetheless, a line of 14 points, 9.1 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 2.7 blocks per contest during Spain’s seven games in the FIBA U18 European Championships this summer provide ample reason for optimism.
If coach Mick Cronin can figure out how to maximize Mara’s enormous frame alongside returning center Adem Bona, it could make UCLA a matchup nightmare. — David Cobb
Jared McCain, Duke
McCain is the highest-ranked player from Duke’s star-studded 2023 recruiting class. He may not start right away because the Blue Devils have two veteran guards returning in Jeremy Roach and Tyrese Proctor, but it’s very likely he’s the first or second player off the bench for a preseason top-five team.
He’s a true spot-up shooter and a great floor spacer as a combo guard. McCain is more of a two-guard than a true point, but his playmaking ability was on display during his prep career. Already a social media star with over 2 million followers on TikTok, he fits in perfectly with the high-profile Duke image. But take away the social media fame and you have a very, very good basketball player that has a chance to contribute to a program looking to reach the Final Four for the first time since 2015. — Cameron Salerno