Hopes running high for junior class

To illustrate just how loaded the Class of 2016 appears to be at the top, look no further than the fact that Malik Monk, of all people, is not a top four prospect.

Malik Monk, who arguably was the most dazzling performer at this past summer's Peach Jam. Monk, who already has generated buzz throughout his home state of Arkansas and has captivated fans of the Razorbacks who view him as a signature recruit.

So that's the player we rank No. 5. At the top, Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles appear to have created a little — and I mean, only a little — separation from everyone else.

Their summers proceeded very differently. Tatum at times was nothing short of a hoops madman, demonstrating genuinely superlative skills for a 6-7 wing that place him among the most talented players in that size range of anyone 20-years-old or younger.

Our No. 1 from last year, Giles, on the other hand, spent most of the travel season recovering from major knee surgery following a devastating knee injury last summer. He arguably should not have taken the court in the spring — at least, that was the opinion I held along with some college coaches who are active in his recruitment — but became more comfortable as the weeks wore on.

Giles' confidence in his knee continues to grow

By the time he took the court at USA Basketball in late July, he had begun to once again look like he may reclaim the throne he abdicated following the injury and an uncertain rate of recovery.

Whether Giles can catch Tatum remains to be seen — is Tatum the true successor to No. 1, or merely a steward during Giles' convalescence? — but at this juncture those two appear to be the 2016 class' ringleaders.

At No. 3, Detroit native (now prepping in California) Josh Jackson retains an elite cachet of his own. Unlike Nike representatives like Tatum and Giles, Jackson sometimes receives slightly less publicity due to the fact that he competes off the Nike circuit.

Jackson certainly doesn't lack for attention, mind you, as even his high school transfer to Prolific in Napa has been covered exhaustively. And understandably so: He, like Tatum, is a huge wing who possesses immense long-term ability. If he can become a better jump shooter, he easily could prove us wrong about the apparent tier difference between the top two guys and himself at No. 3.

And then, at No. 4, we have the guy most often termed a "freak" by fans watching him for the first time: Thon Maker. And of course they mean that entirely a compliment, as Maker's quickness and hand-eye coordination defy what's typically viewed as possible for a player who stands seven-feet tall.

Maker would be considered quick even by the standards of someone 6-6, and at his height he could become a marvelous defensive specialist in the NBA. But he mostly impresses onlookers with his surprising (if reckless) ballhandling along with the occasional three-ball from the top of the key.

His challenge is to become stronger — he's very wispily built — which may prove difficult given his frame. He also must enhance his scoring comfort from higher percentage areas than he does at present. Still, lateral movement and end-to-end speed of that magnitude don't frequently present themselves in a prospect that size, and thus discounting his future would be foolish.

Now, back to Monk. Albeit perhaps the only player among the top five who would not be considered jumbo skilled relative to his position, he's certainly every bit the electric producer for a 6-4 shooting guard. His combination of quickness, ballhandling and finishing above the rim may be tops in the class, even superior to the few guys ranked ahead of him.

But 2016's excellence extends beyond the initial quintet. Nos. 6, 7 and 8 all are point guards, and not surprisingly we struggled to determine the pecking order. Derryck Thornton holds a minuscule edge for now based on some terrific summer performances and the best playmaking of the three. He's the most true floor general of the group.

Explosive scorer Dennis Smith is next and has become one of the most scintillating shot-creators at the lead guard spot. He has improved markedly over the past 12 months and now, at a legitimate 6-2, possesses top-notch physical attributes across the board for future hoops glory.

Standing 6-5, combo guard Kobi Simmons holds elite size for point guard (we list him as a PG/SG, but you could argue he's a SG/PG) and played brilliantly in Las Vegas to close the July live evaluation period.

Frankly, we regarded our top eight with a general consensus. There were disagreements about the order of the top eight, of course, but the class becomes far murkier starting at No. 9.

All we know for certain is that recruitniks have a great deal to look forward from this class over the next 18 months.


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