Spring grassroots season is officially upon us, which means the college basketball coaches of America are already out on the road recruiting for the class of 2017. That does not mean the class of 2016 is entirely tied up. In Marques Bolden and Jarrett Allen, there are still two five-star big men on the market capable of making an immediate impact next season.
Both are from Texas, both were named McDonald's All-Americans and both played in the Nike Hoops Summit. Only one of them is about to choose between the sport's two premier programs to decide the country's No. 1 recruiting class (at least, according to 247 Sports).
Duke and Kentucky are going down to the wire for Bolden, a 6'10 center with long arms (7'6 wingspan!) and soft hands. Bolden is considered the best low post scorer in the class of 2016, and there's a good chance he would start from day one at either school, despite the fact that both teams are already stacked in the front court.
Think Jahlil Okafor Light in terms of skill set. Bolden is like a blast from the past, a skilled big who does his damage with his back to the basket. Surround that type of player with the right personnel and it can have a devastating impact on college basketball.
Which begs the question: would Bolden fit better in Lexington or Durham?
The case for Duke
Duke commit Harry Giles and Bolden at USA Basketball camp (via Paul Biancardi)
C Marques Bolden (freshman) / Chase Jeter (sophomore)
PF Harry Giles (freshman) / Amile Jefferson (senior)
SF Jayson Tatum (freshman) / Matt Jones (senior)
SG Grayson Allen (junior) / Luke Kennard (sophomore)
PG Frank Jackson (freshman) / Jones
Mike Krzyzewski has some tough lineup choices in front of him. Does he really want to start four freshman? Matt Jones and Amile Jefferson are very good veteran role players who have played with a half-decade of one-and-dones, from Jabari Parker to Okafor and Justise Winslow to Brandon Ingram to Tatum and Giles next year.
Getting everyone to buy in -- from his five-star freshmen to his upperclassmen -- is going to be Coach K's biggest challenge. There are only so many shots and so many minutes to go around on a team this deep and talented.
Bolden's commitment would further complicate matters. On one hand, Coach K proved he can build a championship team around a skilled low post scorer when the Blue Devils won it all in 2015 with Okafor as the hub of everything. On the other hand, Coach K typically prefers only playing one traditional big man at a time -- and Duke already has the more highly touted Giles slotted for big minutes in the front court.
Giles isn't the back to the basket scorer Bolden is, but he's much more athletic. Giles is also recovering from the second torn ACL of his career, so Bolden would be great insurance for Duke if Giles doesn't bounce back from that injury immediately.
All of this would amount to a great problem for Duke to have. The question is if it's a good problem for Bolden.
The case for Kentucky
Bolden with Kentucky commit De'Aaron Fox
C Marques Bolden (freshman) / Isaac Humphries (sophomore) / Tai Wynyard (sophomore)
PF Bam Adebayo (freshman) / Derek Willis (senior) / Sacha Killeya-Jones (freshman)
SF Wenyen Gabriel (freshman) / Charles Matthews (sophomore)
SG Malik Monk (freshman) / Dominique Hawkins (senior)
PG De'Aaron Fox (freshman) / Isaiah Briscoe (sophomore)
Again: John Calipari loves his five-star freshmen, but is he really going to roll with an all-freshman starting lineup? If Briscoe returns to school, it will be fascinating to see if he gets the nominal small forward spot like last year or if that goes to Gabriel, an athletic 6'9 freshman who would likely be best used at the four.
It gets even more interesting up front. Derek Willis' shooting was critical for the Wildcats last season. If Calipari starts Adebayo at the five and Willis at the four, how many minutes could Bolden really expect to see with some many other talented front court options on the bench?
What Kentucky really needs is a small forward who can shoot. This has been a blindspot for Calipari in recruiting for a few seasons, dating back (at least) since UK had to shoehorn Trey Lyles into the three next to Karl-Anthony Towns and Willie Cauley-Stein in 2015.
There isn't a player like that left on the board after Terrance Ferguson picked Arizona last week. Instead, Calipari will just have to stockpile big men again. And make no mistake: he'd have the best collection of bigs in the country with Bolden.
Bolden can't go wrong either way. Duke and Kentucky are the two top teams in the country with or without him. That's part of what makes this decision so compelling: the No. 16 player in the class of 2016 (according to Rivals) should be able to walk and start at most programs. That's possible but not promised at both of his options.
In the end, we'll give the edge to Duke if only because Coach K showed he knows how to optimize the talents of a skilled low post scorer when Okafor was in school. Kentucky should be fine either way.
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