Sometimes a trend becomes a hardened tradition. In each of the last 12 NBA drafts, a freshman has been the first overall pick. There’s no reason to believe that won’t continue in 2022.
Several freshmen are entering the 2021-22 men’s college basketball season with expectations brushing the gym ceiling. One of them is likely to be the first name announced by NBA commissioner Adam Silver next June at the 2022 NBA Draft.
The “one-and-done” strategy is embraced by freshmen with NBA aspirations, and schools and coaches have come to accept that the greatest young talent is not going to stick around more than a couple semesters.
Handicapping Possible No. 1 NBA Picks
Odds to win the NCAA Tournament provide some insight into which player may go No. 1 overall. Top draft picks tend to come from top programs. Gonzaga is listed as the favorite to cut down the nets in New Orleans next April, offered at +650 at FanDuel, with Michigan and Texas next at +1200.
- Gonzaga +650
- Michigan +1200
- Texas +1200
- Kansas +1300
- Purdue +1300
- Villanova +1400
- Duke +1500
- UCLA +1500
- Kentucky +1600
- Alabama +2000
- Memphis +2000
Paolo Banchero, Duke
The freshman from Seattle with Italian roots surprised many by committing to Duke, where he is playing under Coach K in his final season. Both Coach K and Banchero will be exiting Cameron Indoor Stadium together next spring, one for retirement, the other for the NBA.
While sportsbooks have yet to hang odds on next year’s NBA Draft, Banchero is the No. 1 pick in several mocks. The 6-foot-10 forward/center has point guard qualities. He sees the floor well, breaks down the defense, and can drain long jump shots. He won’t get a gig as a ‘1’ in the NBA, but he will find himself handling the ball on offense as a rookie. Everyone has “can’t miss” on this guy.
Banchero had 22 points on 7-for-11 shooting and seven rebounds in Duke’s 79-71 season-opening win over Kentucky on Tuesday night.
Caleb Houstan, Michigan
A tall 6-foot-8 with a smooth shot and quick release, Houstan is also an elite defender. He’ll benefit from learning under the coaching of Juwan Howard in Ann Arbor and from playing in big games for the Maize and Blue. A freshman, Houstan projects to be a high-percentage scorer from behind the three-point line in the NBA.
Jalen Duren, Memphis
Duren was ranked as the top player in the 2022 class nationwide before reclassifying and enrolling a year early. He committed to Memphis, where he is playing for former NBA star Penny Hardaway. Duren has grown two inches since last summer and now reportedly rests at just under 7-feet tall. But he’s not a lumbering big man. Duren can handle the ball and has a power inside game that stems from slash-to-the-rim movement without the rock. The aggressive freshman should handle the physical style of the NBA well.
Jaden Hardy, G League Ignite
A product of Coronado High School in Nevada, Hardy will enter next year’s draft out of the NBA’s prep G League. He has a smooth, fluid game reminiscent of Hall of Famer Joe Dumars, and he projects as a shooting guard in the NBA.
Patrick Baldwin Jr., Milwaukee
What’s one of the reasons Kevin Durant is so amazing? It’s the fact that he’s so tall, yet a sharpshooter. Patrick Baldwin Jr. has some of that in him (not saying he’s Durant level). He is 6-foot-11 and only 18 years old as he enters school as a freshman playing under his father at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee in the Horizon League. He won’t get much play on national TV, but Baldwin could be a sneaky pick near or at the top of the 2022 NBA Draft.
Peyton Watson, UCLA
This freshman will have to up his offensive game to go overall No. 1, but Watson has a bright future in the pros. The small forward from Long Beach Poly (CA) is known for his stifling defensive pressure and ball handling. He has a killer short jumper and can finish off the break, which we should see in his brief career as a Bruin.
Jabari Smith Jr., Auburn
Another freshman, Smith will play for the Tigers after a stellar high school career in Georgia. His game is versatile: the 6-foot-10 forward can run the floor, block shots, defend inside, and hit three-pointers. He’s also an excellent ballhandler who has some point guard in him, too.
Chet Holmgren, Gonzaga
Most draft analysts have freshman Holmgren high on their lists for 2022, and his great length and wingspan are reasons why. But I just don’t see it. This kid is over 7-feet tall and looks like he weighs maybe 170. He’s going to get punished in The Association. Maybe he can run out and impact jump shots like he has in high school, but I doubt his game will translate as well to the NBA as many folks think.
AJ Griffin, Duke
How about another Duke freshman? Griffin is a swingman and the son of Adrian Griffin, a long-time NBA player and current Toronto Raptors assistant coach. He can dribble, shoot, and pass with either hand, and he has thick size for a young player. He might have a better upside at the next level than teammate Banchero.
About the NBA Draft
The preference for youngsters hasn’t always been the case. Back in 2009, Oklahoma sophomore Blake Griffin was the No. 1 pick, the last time a non-freshman was chosen first. In the 1980s and even into the 1990s, many seniors and juniors were picked No. 1 overall, choosing to perform at the college level before going off to make their names in the NBA. But there’s so much money at stake now that young players don’t see any reason to stay on campus longer than they need to.
The draft now goes for just two rounds, with teams selecting in the reverse order of their winning percentage in the most recent NBA season. Undrafted players are free to sign with any team. In 2022, only 59 players will be drafted because the Milwaukee Bucks forfeited one of their picks due to violations of league rules.
Among the most successful No. 1 overall NBA draft picks are Lew Alcindor (who changed his name to Kareem Abdul-Jabbar), Magic Johnson, Shaquille O’Neal, Tim Duncan, and LeBron James. All of them are or will be in the Hall of Fame and won multiple championships in the NBA.
The Duke Blue Devils have the most No. 1 picks in the history of the NBA Draft, with Art Heyman (1963), Elton Brand (1999), Kyrie Irving (2011), and Zion Williamson (2019) earning that honor.