Even if they’re deep and highly regarded, all freshman classes in men’s college basketball aren’t created equal.
Some are ready to contribute right away. Some not so much.
As freshmen at the University of Wisconsin four years ago, Nigel Hayes and Bronson Koenig, the cornerstones of a heralded five-man recruiting class, were the top two reserves on an NCAA Final Four team.
Another promising five-man freshman group arrived in 2015, but two years later the class of Brevin Pritzl, Khalil Iverson, Charles Thomas, Alex Illikainen and Andy Van Vliet is still waiting to make its mark.
So where will this year’s much-anticipated freshman class of 6-foot-3 Brad Davison, 6-4 Kobe King and 6-10 Nate Reuvers fall on that scale?
Early indications are it will help immediately, if not sooner.
“They love to work and they came in ready to work,” said redshirt junior forward Ethan Happ, UW’s only returning starter. “I think this group could be a little more advanced than some of the groups we’ve had in the past. I know Nigel’s group was a good one, but I think based on what we lost, there’s definitely going to be some minutes for the freshmen.”
Perhaps for all three freshmen.
For one thing, the opportunity is there. After losing four starters — Hayes and Koenig among them — from a team that reached back-to-back Sweet 16s, the Badgers have plenty of available minutes and roles, something they will begin to sort out during a five-game, 12-day trip to New Zealand and Australia (the first game is Tuesday).
Second, the talent is there. Reuvers and Davison are consensus top 100 players in their class and King probably would have been had he not injured his wrist in the 2016 WIAA state tournament and missed time during a crucial evaluation period.
Finally, the maturity is there. Reuvers is tall and thin but Davison and King already have Big Ten bodies. More important, the three have been through 10 summer practices in preparation for UW’s overseas trip and will get to play five games with their new teammates in the next two weeks. Both are rare bonuses for a group of freshmen.
With so much uncertainty in terms of playing time and so many candidates on the roster, UW’s practices have been extremely spirited. Much of that is due to the freshmen, who have put the veteran players on notice that they very well could be part of coach Greg Gard’s rotation this season.
“Reuvers, Davison and King physically are maybe a notch ahead of the average freshman that’s walked through the door,” Gard said. “In addition, they’re three really good players. I think that’s been something that’s really jumped out to us as a staff. If you walked in and watched us play and you didn’t know who was who and I asked you who the freshmen were, you probably wouldn’t point to one of those three. It’s been big in terms of what they walked in the door with but also how they’ve grown in the last six to eight weeks. They’ve really taken steps, specifically Reuvers. I’ve really been impressed with how he’s grown. For a big guy that size that can still get stronger and will get stronger, he’s really grown a lot in the last couple weeks.”
Reuvers looks like another in a long line of highly skilled big men UW has had over the past 15 years. He’s mobile, athletic and can stretch defenses with his outside shooting. He’s thin, but he’s been holding his own during UW’s practices. Happ called Reuvers “sneaky strong” and said “he’s not going to be intimidated by anyone.”
As a point guard, the sturdy Davison brings toughness, leadership and an excellent shooting touch. There’s some Josh Gasser in both his game and his attitude, but Gasser’s offensive skills weren’t as polished as Davison’s at the same point in their careers.
King is a wing player who can shoot the 3-point shot or slash to the basket. His rare athleticism has people around the program buzzing and he’s already shown that he’s a winner by leading La Crosse Central to a WIAA state title in March.
Of the three, Davison appears to be the most college-ready while Reuvers and King have the most long-term potential.
“They’re good, they’re really good,” said Pritzl, a redshirt sophomore guard. “They’re all smart. They make a lot of the right plays. They don’t let themselves get beat down. They play the game the way it should be played and that makes it a lot easier for them to fit into the offense and fit into the scheme. It allows them to play much better than my group did when we came in. We were all nervous, we didn’t really know what we were doing. But they’re so smart and they’re mature in their play that they just fit in seamlessly.”
The extra practices this summer were a big help in that regard. The five games in New Zealand and Australia should continue the process.
“The guys are great,” sophomore guard D’Mitrik Trice said. “They’re working hard and getting better each and every day. I think they’re making a really big step in their development. I see all of them playing sometime this year, getting out there and getting their feet wet. From what I’ve seen, they’re holding their own and playing really well.”
Well enough to make an impact as freshmen. Heck, you could argue that they already have.