Questions are exploding like fireworks over Montlake after Federal Way High star Jaden McDaniels announced he’s joining forces with fellow five-star prep standout Isaiah Stewart at Washington next season.
Excitement is understandably brimming for UW men’s basketball fans and we’ll try to provide some perspective about what it all means for the Huskies.
Why all the fuss over these two kids?
It’s the first time Washington has ever signed two top-10 recruits in the same year. By 247Sports’ composite rating, Stewart is No. 3 in the country and McDaniels is No. 8.
These types of powerhouse pairings happen regularly at blue-blood programs like Duke and Kentucky, but they’re extremely rare in the Pac-12.
Since Rivals began its top 150 recruits database in 2003, only two Pac-12 teams have signed two top-10 prospects in the same class.
California did it in 2015 with Jaylen Brown, No. 3, and Ivan Rabb, No. 7.
The Golden Bears finished 23-11, including a 12-6 mark in the Pac-12 for fourth place in the regular season. Cal was a No. 4 seed in the NCAA tournament and suffered a 77-66 upset defeat against Hawaii in the first round.
Brown was the third overall choice in the 2016 NBA draft while Rabb had a tougher transition to college basketball and returned for his sophomore season.
In 2012, UCLA assembled a powerhouse recruiting class led by No. 1 overall prospect Shabazz Muhammad and No. 3 recruit Kyle Anderson.
It was a season filled with highs and lows for the Bruins, who won the Pac-12 regular-season title and lost in the conference tournament title game before an upset defeat in the first round of the NCAA tournament.
Muhammad lived up to the hype and averaged 17.9 points and 5.2 assists during his one and only season at UCLA. He was selected No. 14 overall in the 2013 NBA draft. Anderson played two years with the Bruins and was the No. 30 selection in the draft, taken by San Antonio.
Are the Huskies better than they were last season?
The short answer: Not yet.
But Washington certainly has the potential to exceed the team that dominated the Pac-12 last season en route to a conference regular-season title, advanced to the second round of the NCAA tournament, swept the conference’s major postseason awards and finished 27-9, including 15-3 in conference.
You can make a strong argument that the Huskies have made significant upgrades at several positions considering the additions of Stewart and McDaniels, who are both considered NBA lottery picks next summer.
The Huskies also add Kentucky transfer Quade Green, a former five-star prospect. And two post players who redshirted last season, Bryan Penn-Johnson and Nate Roberts, will make their collegiate debuts.
The only proven commodity is leading returning scorer Nahziah Carter, who averaged 8.1 points last season as a sophomore guard.
Meanwhile, forwards Hameir Wright and Sam Timmins and guards Jamal Bey and Elijah Hardy are looking to expand their roles.
It’s understandable to be enamored with the high-profile newcomers, but let’s not forget UW’s departing seniors (Matisse Thybulle, Noah Dickerson, David Crisp and Dominic Green) and sophomore star Jaylen Nowell, who resurrected a program that bottomed out to a 9-22 finish two years ago.
“We got to know that group, see them take their lumps, overcome a lot of adversity and finally see it pay off with an amazing season,” former UW star Donald Watts said. “That team got to grow old together, but that’s not what next year is about at all.
“If last year was a slow burn, then next year is microwave cooking. … This team may have more talent, but they don’t have age and experience, which is underrated in college basketball. These kids coming in have to get used to the college game and do it very quickly.”
What’s the starting lineup?
This is a tricky question because the starters for the season opener might not be the same group when the Pac-12 season begins.
Coach Mike Hopkins and his staff can begin experimenting with the lineup during practices ahead of Washington’s trip to Italy in August that includes four exhibitions against Italian Series A teams.
It can’t be overstated that the Huskies are a young team – Timmins is the only senior – and as such there are potentially several moving pieces as players mature and realize their potential.
With that in mind, here’s a stab at the starting lineup.
Point guard: The Huskies are petitioning the NCAA for a waiver that would allow Green to play the entire season. If denied, he’s not eligible until January due to NCAA transfer rules. Until Green is available, Hardy likely takes over. He averaged just 1.2 points and failed to tally an assist while appearing in just 11 games as a freshman last season. His development might have been stunted after suffering a hand injury in November. Green was averaging 8.0 points, 1.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 2.3 turnovers, 1.0 steals and 17.8 minutes in nine games as a backup last season before leaving Kentucky. Tsohonis is a combo guard who is capable of running the offense.
Shooting guard: If Hopkins tries to recreate the havoc Thybulle caused at the top of UW’s 2-3 zone defense, then Bey seems like the perfect option to replace the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year. At 6 feet 6, Bey is long and athletic. Last season, Hopkins routinely praised Bey’s development, which didn’t always show up in his production. He averaged just 1.0 points and 6.2 minutes in 30 games. Bey appears to have a bright future, but he’ll possibly have to contend with Battle for playing time.
Small forward: Assuming Nowell doesn’t return, then it’s not difficult to imagine Carter taking over his spot because they share similar traits. Carter is a better explosive athlete with an impressive clip of highlight dunks, but unlike his sharp-shooting predecessor Nowell, he struggled shooting free throws (63.7%) and three-pointers (31.0%) last season.
Power forward: At 6-10 and 185 pounds, McDaniels isn’t a prototypical post player. Offensively, he’s more of a shooting guard with exceptional size and a diverse skill set that’s off the charts. He’s adept at scoring on the perimeter, pulling up for mid-range jumpers and attacking the basket. Wright is an impressive shot-blocker and off-ball defender, but McDaniels is too good to keep out of the lineup. Plus, his 6-11 wingspan is ideally suited to the back of UW’s zone.
Center: Stewart will remind UW fans of former Husky great Jon Brockman because he’s tough, physical and relentless on both ends of the floor. Rivals basketball analyst Eric Bossi said: “He’s a better Noah Dickerson. He can equal the production that Dickerson had as a freshman. That’s a fair expectation.” As a junior, Dickerson averaged 15.5 points and 8.4 rebounds during his best year at UW when he was voted All-Pac-12. Penn-Johnson and Timmins also provide depth off the bench.
Can Washington win with one-and-done stars?
The Huskies’ history in this department is dismal.
Most recently, UW bottomed out to a 9-22 finish that included a 2-16 record in the Pac-12 during its one season with Markelle Fultz in 2016-17.
Fultz averaged 23.2 points, 5.9 assists and 5.7 rebounds as a freshman and was taken No. 1 overall in the 2017 NBA draft.
The previous season, Marquese Chriss and Dejounte Murray led Washington to a 19-15 record and a 9-9 conference record during their one-year tenures with the Huskies.
Chriss was taken No. 8 overall and Murray was the 28th selection in the 2016 draft.
Tony Wroten (2011-12) and Spencer Hawes (2006-07) each spent just one year at UW before bolting for the NBA.
Wroten, who averaged 16.0 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists, helped Washington to the NIT Final Four and a 24-11 record.
Meanwhile, Hawes and the Huskies missed the postseason in 2006-07 after the team finished 19-13 and 8-10 in the conference. The 7-foot star became UW’s first freshman selected in the NBA draft and was the No. 10 overall choice in 2007.
Washington has never advanced to the NCAA tournament with a so-called one-and-done star.
What does the addition of Stewart and McDaniels mean for Jaylen Nowell?
Probably not a thing.
Since entering the NBA draft, Nowell has repeatedly said he’s intent on turning pro and forgoing his final two years of eligibility.
Still, UW fans are holding out hope that the sophomore star who led the Huskies in scoring the past two seasons will have a sudden change of heart and return to Washington.
A new NCAA rule allows players like Nowell who participated in the NBA combine the option of going back to school after the June 20 draft.
However, Nowell reportedly performed well at the combine last week and most mock drafts project him as a second-round selection.
“He’s going to be the kind of guy who is going to be in that league a long time and his stock is going to grow because he’s a well-rounded individual who is going to work hard, grind and be a true professional,” Watts said. “If he’s a second-round pick, the money, the opportunity and just being a professional is where he should be.”
Watts cited a NBC Sports report that noted 91 of the 132 college players selected in the second round of the previous six NBA drafts – or 68.9 percent – received at least a one-year guaranteed contract.
This season, the NBA’s minimum salary is $838,464.
Furthermore, the NBC Sports report gave evidence that a growing number of second-round choices are receiving two-year guaranteed deals topping out at over $2 million.
“If he falls into that kind of situation — even though it’s the second round — then he should stay where he’s at,” Watts said. “I get how fans here may fantasize about Jaylen, Jaden, Stewart and Naz. Man, that would look good on the court.
“But from everything I’m hearing, Jaylen has moved on to the NBA.”
Is it possible to fast forward to the 2019-20 season?
For his next amazing feat, maybe Hopkins will invent time travel.
Until then, we’ll have to wait six months until the start of the college basketball season in November.