NCAA Basketball: Projecting the most impactful freshmen from the 2022 class

Incoming freshmen are among the most impactful players in NCAA basketball. Given their respective talent levels and program fit, here are some of the 2022-23 freshmen to watch.

The transfer portal has changed the landscape of NCAA basketball recruiting. As a result, most headlines center around high-profile transfers for the opening months of each offseason. Yet, incoming freshmen are still among the most exciting players to watch in the sport. Even if they spend only one year at the collegiate level, elite freshmen are difference-makers who can change the trajectory of a given season.

For differing reasons, many freshmen are thrust into huge roles across the country. The most notable are those arriving on campuses with five stars attached to their names. These heralded prospects face high expectations to be immediate stars at the college level before taking their talents to the NBA. Some lower-rated recruits also crack rotations either due to being underrated out of high school or their team’s positional need – or both. Whatever the situation, freshmen are the lesser-proven mystery boxes of NCAA basketball.

—Biggest transfer portal winners so far
—Most important players for the ’22-23 season
—Most underrated transfer additions for ’22-23

It is still early in the 2022 offseason, but why not consider who might be some of the most influential freshmen next season? Rankings are far from the be-all-end-all, but recruiting experts often accurately project the top college players and NBA Draft prospects. As a result, many of these expected influencers for next season are among the top-rated players in the recruiting class. Their reasons for inclusion, though, range from needing to adapt to being role players on already-strong rosters to being tasked with immediately filling the superstar role.

Without any further ado, though, let’s dive in. Below are 15 impact freshmen (no more than one from each team) to keep your eye on this coming season.

Nick Smith, Arkansas

Arkansas head coach Eric Musselman is one of the premier figures in college basketball regarding the transfer portal. The Razorbacks reload better than anyone with transfer additions, but they also added a heavy dose of incoming freshman talent this season. Coach Musselman secured the No. 2 overall recruiting class in the nation, headlined by a trio of five-star recruits joining the mix. While Anthony Black and Jordan Walsh will both fill prominent roles, Nick Smith is the freshman garnering the most attention heading into the season.

Smith, a 6-4 guard, was rated as 247Sports’ top overall player in this recruiting class. The in-state product is a do-it-all performer in the backcourt; he can score at all three levels, distribute for teammates, and brings consistent energy defensively. Smith will be tasked with filling the void departed by JD Notae. This season will mark the second straight in which Arkansas must replace an All-American. Smith is seeking to propel the Razorbacks to new heights and become the second one-and-done player in program history.

Arkansas has an incredible collection of talent for this coming season, and the hype around the program is at an all-time high. The Razorbacks have reached the Elite Eight in back-to-back seasons and have arguably their most talent-rich roster. The bar is exceptionally high for a recruit of Smith’s prestige, but if he can live up to it, this is a national title contender. Smith posted 27 points and hit five 3-pointers in 24 minutes at the Jordan Brand Classic.

Arkansas has a solid case to be the preseason No. 1 team in the country for next season, especially if Jaylin Williams elects to return to school.

Keyonte George, Baylor

Baylor has blossomed into a national powerhouse over the last three seasons with a combined 81-13 overall record. Head coach Scott Drew also boasts a national championship during this stretch. Roster turnover is striking in Waco, but the program appears likely to remain near the top of the national ranks. At the core of this optimism is continued success on the recruiting trail. Coach Drew is bringing in the No. 27 overall recruiting class in the nation for next season, with five-star guard Keyonte George leading the group.

Arguably the best pure scorer in this year’s recruiting class, George should provide instant offense in the starting lineup. He gets it done at all three levels and has proven his status as a top 10 recruit at several high-profile events over the past year. He was named MVP of the Iverson Classic with a 22-point performance. George also added 13 points in the McDonald’s All-America game and eight in the Nike Hoop Summit. With how much attention his scoring gets, George’s defensive acumen also goes underrated. He should be a one-and-done as a two-way scoring guard.

George is likely to instantly join a starting lineup that will also feature returnees Adam Flagler and LJ Cryer. This tremendous backcourt trio — coupled with losing frontcourt pieces Matthew Mayer and Jeremy Sochan this offseason — will turn Baylor into a more guard-oriented unit. Baylor will look different next season, but there should still be a top 25 ranking next to its name throughout the campaign. George’s scoring prowess will make him one of the most oft-discussed first-year players in the country.

Cason Wallace, Kentucky

Roster turnover is the name of the game in Lexington. Kentucky head coach John Calipari is very familiar with adjusting to new players each offseason, and that is again the case. After losing TyTy Washington and Kellan Grady this offseason, the Wildcats’ backcourt will look much different next season. Sahvir Wheeler is a key returner, but the rest will be unfamiliar faces. Iowa transfer CJ Fredrick missed last season, and Illinois State transfer Antonio Reeves is also new to the group.

The potential one-and-done in the backcourt, filling the void departed by Washington, is Texas native Cason Wallace.

Five-star recruits always arrive on campuses with the expectations of being difference-makers in at least one area of the game. For Wallace, he is already a stud defensively. He brings the excellent physical and mental characteristics to be a disruptive defender – offensive players always have to be wary of his quick hands, activity in passing lanes, and shot-blocking ability. While not a highlight-reel type of scorer, he is capable of putting up points at all three levels. His pull-up shooting is impressive and a necessary skill for Kentucky’s system.

Wallace is as much of a two-way go-getter as anyone in the class; he will get after opponents on both ends of the floor. Wallace’s ability indicates he will not be in college long. He notched 15 points and three steals in the Jordan Classic this year, shooting 6-for-6 inside the arc.

Wallace will likely start the shooting guard slot alongside Wheeler this season. Those two in tandem will make life hell on opposing ball-handlers.

Cam Whitmore, Villanova

Villanova is entering a transitional phase. First and foremost, head coach Jay Wright retired this offseason. Longtime assistant coach Kyle Neptune feels like a strong candidate to continue the Wildcats’ dominance atop the Big East, but taking over from a legend is no easy task. Additionally, ‘Nova waved goodbye to Jermaine Samuels and two-time Big East Player of the Year Collin Gillespie this offseason. Thankfully, the coaching change did not lead to decommitments from the program’s No. 19 overall recruiting class.

The most notable newcomer heading to Philadelphia this offseason is Cam Whitmore. A five-star wing with a bruising 6-6 build, he will immediately secure a starting position for a preseason top 25 team. Whitmore is a superb athlete who uses his physique to get to the basket and is not afraid of playing above the rim. He also can stretch the floor from distance. With his length, strength, motor and defensive IQ, he is a multifaceted performer that impacts winning.

Whitmore was one of the top performers at key showcase events this spring. He led Team USA in scoring at the Nike Hoop Summit with 19 points (7-for-8 FG) in just 15 minutes of action. Whitmore also posted a game-high 19 points with eight rebounds and five assists in the McDonald’s All-America Game. Some elite freshmen struggle with adapting to the physicality of the college game; Whitmore should not, and he will instantly be one of the top players in the Big East. Even with the coaching change, Villanova should continue to be a powerhouse.

Dariq Whitehead, Duke

Speaking of high-profile programs undergoing coaching changes this offseason, few have acquired as many headlines as Jon Scheyer taking over for Coach K at Duke. Coach Scheyer is tasked with arguably the highest expectations in the country and is bringing in the No. 1 recruiting class to reach that bar. Duke’s four incoming five-star freshmen all have a case to be included in this article, but Dariq Whitehead gets the nod.

The No. 2 overall player in the class by 247Sports composite is fresh off an excellent spring in which he was named the MVP of the McDonald’s All-America Game. Whitehead posted a well-rounded stat line of 13 points, seven rebounds and seven assists en route to taking the prestigious award. He was also excellent at the Nike Hoop Summit with 17 points, five rebounds and four assists. Sandwiched between these two dominant performances, Whitehead guided Montverde Academy to the GEICO National Championship.

Whitehead will arrive in Durham riding a string of excellent, well-rounded performances. He pressures the basket very well while also creating for others and defending at a high level. The biggest key for him will be a continued improvement as a perimeter shooter. When he shoots as well as he did at the Nike Hoop Summit (5-for-7 from three), he is as good as they come.

Whitehead’s partner on the wing is still up in the air. Trevor Keels is weighing whether to stay in the NBA Draft, while Northern Iowa transfer AJ Green is down to the NBA, Iowa State and Duke. Securing one of them will allow Whitehead to play his more natural position and thrive.

Jarace Walker, Houston

Kelvin Sampson-led Houston is on a roll. The Cougars are back-to-back Elite Eight participants, once reaching the Final Four, and are set to compete for another deep run in March. They are widely considered one of the contenders for preseason No. 1 heading into 2022-23. UH has an excellent returning core of guards — especially if Marcus Sasser chooses to come back — and forward J’Wan Roberts inside. While landing a true big via the transfer market would have been a nice bonus, the Cougars are still in great shape.

Coach Sampson is bringing in a pair of highly touted recruits in Jarace Walker and Terrance Arceneaux. The former is more highly rated, coming in as the No. 10 overall player in the class. Walker is a five-star prospect and is the type of small-ball forward who thrives in Houston’s system. He is listed at 6-7 and boasts a tremendously physical build with broad shoulders. An excellent athlete, he figures to be a strong defender and rebounder. Calling a five-star recruit a “glue guy” feels like an insult, but it isn’t meant to be.

Walker received rave reviews for his performances at the Nike Hoop Summit practices earlier this year. He also put forth strong efforts at GEICO Nationals and the McDonald’s All-America Game. Considering Houston’s reputation as one of the best defensive programs in the nation, Walker’s dedication to making an impact on that end of the floor fits nicely. While not the pure scorer that some other top prospects are, Walker is a stud. He dominates defensively, inside, and on the glass while being an underrated passer.

Houston’s high floor is set by its superb returning backcourt. Walker aids in developing the ceiling as a proper preseason national title contender.

Jalen Hood-Schifino, Indiana

Indiana has been among college basketball’s biggest winners this offseason. The Hoosiers were most notably able to retain their starting frontcourt of Trayce Jackson-Davis and Race Thompson, which could have left to play professionally. They also brought back guard Xavier Johnson and landed five-star forward Malik Reneau. Johnson handling the point with a robust collection of frontcourt talent headlined last season’s Hoosiers.

Now, enter five-star guard Jalen Hood-Schifino to that mix.

Hood-Schifino was committed to IU well before TJD/Thompson announced their returns and Reneau’s commitment, but his addition looks all the more critical now. He might be just the complementary piece to TJD’s stardom to take the Hoosiers to the next level. The Big Ten is expected to experience a down season in 2022-23, which opens the door for Indiana to contend for the title.

A physical 6-5 guard out of Montverde Academy, Hood-Schifino oozes versatility. While most five-stars are known more for their offense, JHS is a top-tier defender. Developing as a perimeter shooter will be essential, especially around IU’s current frontcourt, but he is already deadly in the mid-range and creates well for others. His multi-faceted game was on full display at the Hoophall Classic earlier this year, posting a triple-double (12 pts/11 rebs/13 asts) in a win over DeMatha.

Hood-Schifino could pair with rising sophomore Tamar Bates on the wing in IU’s starting lineup. The prospect of JHS at the “2” further emphasizes the Hoosiers’ overall length this season. Whether IU will have enough shooting is the big question.

Dillon Mitchell, Texas

Chris Beard faced high expectations last season heading into his first at the helm of Texas basketball. And while not everything ran smoothly in Austin, the Longhorns still finished 15th on KenPom and reached the NCAA Tournament. As one of the better coaches in the country at traversing the transfer portal, Coach Beard picked up strong reinforcements this offseason with Jabari Rice and Tyrese Hunter. He is also welcoming the fifth-best recruiting class in the nation.

Leading the way for his recruiting class are a pair of five-stars: Arterio Morris and Dillon Mitchell. Morris, a point guard, might have his role limited by Carr/Hunter on the roster. As a result, Mitchell appears to be the more likely immediate impact. Mitchell is a 6-9 forward coming off a strong spring of a GEICO National Championship and a Jordan Brand Classic MVP award. He posted 19 points and five rebounds on 9-for-10 shooting at the latter event. Mitchell was also a McDonald’s All-American.

In terms of his playing style, Mitchell is one of the most gifted athletes in the recruiting class. He is reportedly a steady riser up the 2023 NBA Draft boards due to his play over the past year. Mitchell needs to improve his perimeter shooting but is a highlight-reel-level finisher and strong rebounder. Above all else, though, he is an elite defender who should fit well with Coach Beard. His vertical athleticism is off the charts and will be a significant contributor for the Longhorns.

JJ Starling, Notre Dame

Blake Wesley blossomed into a likely first-round NBA Draft pick last season while leading Notre Dame to the NCAA Tournament. As a result of his campaign, though, head coach Mike Brey lost his budding star after just one season in South Bend. On the bright side, he landed the highest-rated recruit in program history in the form of JJ Starling to help fill the void.

Starling, a 6-4 five-star prospect out of La Lumiere, will instantly fill a massive role for an offensively oriented unit. Notre Dame ranked 28th nationally in adjusted offensive efficiency and is returning both Dane Goodwin and Cormac Ryan.

Starling is a score-first off-guard who does most of his damage off the dribble and attacking the basket. With that said, though, he can also stretch the floor from beyond the arc. Good positional length aids him both as a finisher and for disrupting passing lanes on the other end of the floor. He was named a McDonald’s All-American and a Naismith High School Third Team All-American.

Notre Dame also landed Niagara transfer Marcus Hammond, a three-time All-MAAC selection, this offseason. Hammond, Goodwin and Starling will likely start alongside each other in the backcourt with Ryan at the 4. Whether Notre Dame has enough size in the frontcourt is worth questioning – though freshmen Ven-Allen Lubin and Dom Campbell should help – but its guard play should be excellent.

A starring year from Starling could lead to back-to-back first-round draft picks coming out of Notre Dame. That would be a first since 2001-02, and a trend like that could go a long way in acquiring more talent moving forward.

Vince Iwuchuku, USC

USC posted a winning percentage of .542 over its first six seasons under head coach Andy Enfield. However, that number has jumped to .745 over the past three seasons. The difference? Three consecutive seasons ranking in the top seven nationally in 2-point percentage allowed. Coach Enfield has started to secure more and more frontcourt talent with the potential to play at the next level. Onyeka Okongwu was the first big-time land, followed by Evan Mobley. This past season featured a junior-year Isaiah Mobley, who was quite good in his own right.

Now, entering 2022-23, a new name has entered the mix for the Trojans: Vince Iwuchukwu. The 7-foot, in-state prospect is regarded as a five-star talent and will look to continue USC’s interior dominance on the defensive end of the floor. He brings excellent size and length to the center position with the potential to be an excellent shot-blocker.

Iwuchukwu was one of the top performers at this year’s Jordan Brand Classic. He posted 16 points, eight rebounds and four combined steals and blocks in just over 17 minutes of action. He also played for Team World (9 points, 6 rebounds) at the Nike Hoop Summit.

Iwuchukwu is about as high-upside as it gets, and Coach Enfield has developed a reputation for big men. Recent history suggests that Iwuchukwu should be on everyone’s radar to be one of the better bigs in the country. USC will be seeking its third straight official NCAA Tournament appearance.

Fletcher Loyer, Purdue

Purdue is in a bit of a tough spot. The Boilermakers are coming off some of their best seasons in program history but have a sizable hole in their rotation for 2022-23. Not only did Jaden Ivey leave for the NBA, which was expected, but Isaiah Thompson and Eric Hunter Jr. transferred away from the program. After missing on transfer targets Nijel Pack and Tyrese Hunter, head coach Matt Painter is currently without a proven option at point guard.

Diving into Purdue’s recruiting class, Fletcher Loyer appears to be the most likely option to fill considerable minutes in the backcourt. Whether he is tasked with point guard duties or splitting duties with a big playmaker like Ethan Morton, playing time will be available. Loyer, 6-4, averaged 26.9 points and 3.6 assists per game en route to being named Indiana’s Gatorade Player of the Year this past season.

A deadly perimeter shooter and feisty competitor, he will add spacing around a frontcourt that features Zach Edey, Caleb Furst and Trey Kaufmann. However, Loyer is admittedly more of a shooting guard than a true point. And while Loyer is the higher-rated prospect, watch for Braden Smith to be more the important option in Year1. Smith was Indiana’s Mr. Basketball and is an undersized yet productive lead guard.

Either way, at least one of Loyer or Smith will need to play big minutes unless Purdue lands a late transfer.

Jett Howard, Michigan

Michigan is bringing back Hunter Dickinson for this coming season. That reason alone makes the Wolverines a dangerous team. Head coach Juwan Howard also landed a proven point guard to fill the void left by Eli Brooks in Princeton transfer Jaelin Llewellyn. With Caleb Houstan potentially leaving for the NBA this offseason, Coach Howard also needed to find an heir on the perimeter. Well, why not look any further than one of his own heirs? Four-star recruit Jett Howard is making the trip home from IMG Academy to Ann Arbor to play for his father.

Howard is rated as the No. 38 overall prospect by 247Sports Composite, just missing out on earning his fifth star. Nonetheless, he brings an ideal 6-7 frame with the type of versatile game that thrives in the modern era. More specifically, he is an excellent 3-point shooter. Considering the Wolverines rated near the bottom of the country in 3-point attempt rate last season, adding a genuine perimeter threat to space the floor around Dickinson should pay dividends.

Howard was left off the McDonald’s All-American list but that did not stop him from posting standout performances over the spring. First and foremost, he was named Co-MVP of the Iverson Classic with a 20-point performance on 9-for-12 shooting. He also notched 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting while adding four assists in the Jordan Brand Classic. Howard is at his best as an off-ball floor-spacer with a quick release.

Regardless of whether Houstan returns to Michigan next season, Howard will play big minutes on the wing. His floor-spacing abilities around Dickinson’s interior stardom could prove pivotal. With a bit more guard skills than other wings on the roster, Howard can provide some off-the-dribble creation if necessary.

Yohan Traore, Auburn

Auburn is bringing back KD Johnson, Zep Jasper and Wendell Green, and it proved last season what it could accomplish when pairing those guards with an elite frontcourt. However, Walker Kessler and Jabari Smith will not be walking through the door next season.

Head coach Bruce Pearl needed to find replacements, inking Morehead State transfer Johni Broome and five-star freshman Yohan Traore to join the party. Broome averaged 3.9 blocks per game last season and will help fill much of the lost rim protection.

Traore, originally an LSU commit, recently signed this spring but is a much-needed addition. While he is not a 3-point shooter like Smith, he does boast an excellent 15-footer that can be utilized in pick-and-pop situations with the returning backcourt. Traore is also a quality finisher and runs the floor well for his 6-10 frame. The latter trait is significant given that the Tigers ranked 42nd nationally in adjusted tempo last season.

Traore participated for Team World at the Nike Hoop Summit. He added four points (1-for-4 FG) and one rebound in 12 minutes.

Auburn had a significant need in its frontcourt to reload and compete atop the SEC for another season. Broome and Traore were incredibly important dominoes to fall in the Tigers’ favor. Head coach Bruce Pearl has a mighty roster with his returning backcourt and frontcourt reinforcements.

Amari Bailey, UCLA

UCLA may lose a few crucial pieces this offseason, but Jaime Jaquez Jr. and Tyger Campbell have set their sights on another year in Westwood. With those two in tow, the Bruins shouldn’t take much of a step back even if Juzang and Bernard both stay in the NBA Draft process, in addition to Peyton Watson. It also doesn’t hurt that head coach Mick Cronin did severe damage on the recruiting trail. He is bringing in the nation’s No. 12 overall recruiting class, which features three top-40 commitments.

The highest-rated is 6-5 combo guard Amari Bailey out of Sierra Canyon, Calif. A talented scorer who uses quality ball-handling to create for himself or others, he should be a dynamic offensive threat at the collegiate level. Bailey also uses his athleticism and positional size to be a plus defender. He was named California’s Mr. Basketball as a junior but was unable to repeat in part because of injuries causing missed games.

A top-10 recruit, Bailey appeared in several major events this spring. His best performance came at the Jordan Brand Classic, where he posted 15 points, four rebounds and six assists. He also played at the Nike Hoop Summit (10 points, five rebounds, four assists) and in the McDonald’s All-American Game (10 points and six rebounds). The expectation should be that Bailey will immediately fill a starting role at the 2-guard next to Tyger Campbell in the backcourt.

Jaxon Kohler, Michigan State

Michigan State head coach Tom Izzo’s aversion to the transfer portal has drawn ire from the fanbase this offseason. Most notably, there is a lack of proven frontcourt talent on the roster following the departures of Julius Marble and Marcus Bingham this offseason. As it stands, forwards Malik Hall and Joey Hauser are the only players over 6-4 with more than 300 career minutes under their belt. While adding a big via the transfer portal is still possible, most options are now off the table.

With that in mind, a lot of pressure falls on incoming freshman Jaxon Kohler to be impactful from Day 1.

Whether he is starting or coming off the bench, Kohler currently feels highly likely to play massive minutes as a freshman. The No. 52 overall player in the recruiting class brings solid size to the frontcourt at 6-9 and impressive footwork offensively. He is a low-post dynamo with various moves and the ability to finish with either hand. He can also stretch the floor as a shooter. Kohler’s defense is more of a question, but his offensive versatility is excellent.

If Coach Izzo’s activity – or, instead, inactivity – in the transfer portal this offseason is any indication, he has a high degree of confidence in Kohler. That presumed confidence appeared warranted with Kohler’s performance at the Iverson Classic this spring. He posted 20 points in a winning effort, plus added some viral fame with a dunk over Tarris Reed. Given MSU’s current depth chart at center, Kohler figures to be one of the more influential freshmen in the country next season. If he proves himself immediately, that will be huge for the Spartans.