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Original Issue

The Next Big Things

Is this year's freshman class the best in history? These seven sublime newcomers with diverse talents make a convincing case

The Wingman
Brandan Wright

In the firsthalf of his first game as a Tar Heel--a 110--79 exhibition win over St.Augustine's of Raleigh, N.C., on Nov. 1--Wright made like Mr. Fantastic. TarHeels guard-forward Marcus Ginyard lobbed a pass behind Wright, who was soaringin off the fast break. He reached up with his left hand, snatched the ball andflushed it in one motion. Not much has been out of reach for Wright, aNashville native whose most impressive numbers aren't the 22.4 points or 5.1blocks he averaged as a senior at Brentwood Academy, or his three TennesseeDivision II Mr. Basketball awards, or his four state titles--it's his 7'4"wingspan. "His extension does shock you," says North Carolina coach RoyWilliams. "You don't realize [how long he is] until you're playing againsthim." Williams will get maximum use out of those lanky limbs when the TarHeels press; Wright will be their last line of defense. Says Ginyard of facingWright in practice, "Once you [jump] and then you see his arms come out,you're like, Oh, God, what do I do now?"

The Rejecter
Hasheem Thabeet

A toweringspecimen from Tanzania by way of Houston's Cypress Christian School, Thabeet isalready drawing comparisons with another accomplished shot-swatter of Africandescent: Dikembe Mutombo, the Zaire native who has parlayed his ability toprotect the basket into a 15-year NBA career. "In his first year Hasheemcould make the biggest impact of any player I've ever had," says Huskiescoach Jim Calhoun. Wearing size 18 shoes and 4XL shorts, Thabeet blocked a shoton the opening possession in UConn's 75--59 exhibition victory over AmericanInternational on Nov. 1 and finished with seven rejections in 20 minutes. Nomatter that his shooting range doesn't extend beyond 13 feet and he's stillvery raw. "We'll work on his offensive game," says sophomore guardCraig Austrie, "but he's going to intimidate a lot of people down low.Everyone's going to have to think twice before coming down the lane."

The Throwback
Spencer Hawes

This summerHawes asked Washington head coach Lorenzo Romar to put together a video ofelite big men for him to study. While sitting out the first month of practicefollowing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee, he watched the 15-minutehomage to sublime post play, starring Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton andKevin McHale, more than 30 times. It's not surprising that Hawes would turn tosuch classic centers for instruction. (His 6'9" uncle, Steve Hawes, facedall three icons in his 10-year NBA career.) Spencer's fundamentally soundgame--which now includes a Kareem skyhook--is surprisingly polished for afreshman, and studying McHale's footwork, Walton's post passing and Jabbar'spatience will only enhance it. "A lot of people hear old school and thinkof it as a knock," says Hawes, who averaged 19.9 points and 11.3 reboundsat Seattle Prep last year. "I embrace it."

Kevin Durant

Ask him whoTexas's best shooters are, and Durant pulls the trigger quickly. "A.J.Abrams, D.J. Augustin, J.D. Lewis," he says. "I see myself as a goodshooter, but those guys are on another level." None of them, however, aretaller than 6'1". Durant, a co-MVP of the McDonald's All-American Game lastMarch after scoring a game-high 25 points, is amazingly skilled for someonewho's 6'9". And while he may give the Longhorns guards their props asmarksmen, there is little doubt that he believes he's as deadeye as anyone inthe land. Durant refused to leave one practice this fall until he had matchedLewis's output of 14 three-pointers in a one-minute drill. Given his smoothstroke and ability to connect from anywhere on the court (he hit 43% fromthree-point range during his junior year at Oak Hill Academy in Mouth ofWilson, Va.), Durant is a shooter opponents will want to keep holstered."It's no different if you're covered or if you get a wide-open shot,"he says. "If you give it the right touch, it's going in."

The HighFlyer
Chase Budinger

He has beenhyped as the finest player from San Diego since Bill Walton. Arizona coach LuteOlson compares him with Sean Elliott, the signature player of Olson's 24 yearsin Tucson, noting his superior long-range shooting, ball handling, athleticismand unselfishness. And no less an authority than Michael Jordan raved to Olsonabout the redhead with the 42-inch vertical leap ("Man, I love thatkid") after guarding him at his Flight School camp last summer. Budingereschewed volleyball--a sport in which he was named the national player of theyear while a senior at La Costa Canyon High in Carlsbad, Calif.--to play forthe Wildcats, and he'll add a new dimension to their up-tempo attack. Juniorguard Jawann McClellan (below, flanked by forwards Fendi Onobun, left, andJordan Hill) is already impressed: "He's one of those players who's alwaysin the right spot at the right time."

The Thinker
Thaddeus Young

Like theequations on the blackboard behind him--including those for the optimumtrajectory for a basketball shot (top left) and the approximate torque on a rimif a 200-pounder were hanging on it (next to his left elbow)--Young is complex."I have a really [active] mind," he says. "I'm always thinkingabout a lot of different stuff at once." Young is best at figuring out waysto score. As a senior at Memphis's Mitchell High, he averaged 26.9 points byusing a combination of post moves, dribble drives off the wing and speed thatallows him to get down the court in fewer than five steps. Young was also aNational Honor Society member and carried a 4.3 grade point average in highschool. "He asks very smart questions; that's where he's beenimpressive," Yellow Jackets coach Paul Hewitt says. "He's constantlysaying, 'I've got a lot more to learn.' I tell him, 'You do, but not as much asyou think.'"

The Colossus
Greg Oden

Before heunderwent surgery on his right wrist last June, Oden asked Buckeyes coach ThadMatta, "If this doesn't go well, can I redshirt?" "Yeah,"replied Matta, struggling to keep a straight face. "I'll keep a spot openfor you." All of college basketball is eagerly anticipating the arrival ofOden, a low-post behemoth who won two consecutive national high school playerof the year awards at Indianapolis's Lawrence North High and would have beenthe No. 1 pick in the NBA draft last June had he been eligible. Although hehasn't played since his surgery (he's expected to return in January), Oden hascontinued to beef up his game. Already skilled at blocking shots andrebounding, he strengthened his left hand on offense by working on a hook shotand added 22 pounds of muscle--which means he's likely to be even more of aforce on both ends of the floor. Says Matta, "He can stay five years if hewants."

Find more photos of the next generation of breakout big men


Photographs by Joe McNally