By Tomas Rios
Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins is The Next LeBron James, if you believe in ridiculous, untrue things. Wiggins wasn't even the first player from this already legendary class of freshmen to be dubbed The Next LeBron James. That non-distinction goes to Duke's Jabari Parker, who made the cover of Sports Illustrated on the basis of being "the best high school player since LeBron James"-- that was just 18 months ago. In the year-and-a-half since he has been usurped by Wiggins, maybe, it's hard to keep track of something that won't happen. Obviously, there is no The Next LeBron James.
Consider the NBA that both Parker and Wiggins will soon be playing in. Last season saw Kevin Durant become the sixth member of the mythic 50-40-90 club, Chris Paul further credential himself as an all-time point God and Stephen Curry emerge as the living embodiment of the heat check. The present season has already seen Kevin Love and Anthony Davis offer newly definitive interpretations of their unique neo-power forward styles. And still, not a sensible soul would argue that LeBron James is anything less than the best basketball player alive. Consecutive titles and four MVP awards in five years are singular distinctions in the current NBA. Whatever LeBron debate once existed is now the sports discourse equivalent of a rotting carcass left only for the most desperate scavengers.
Expecting Wiggins or Parker or anyone else to match LeBron is smeared with the same dire hopelessness that accompanied the search for The Next Michael Jordan. The search targeted everyone from Grant Hill to Vince Carter to Harold Miner(?!) and roughly equalized the narrative pointlessness of watching an incorrigible corgi chase its chubby little tail, because the likes of Jordan and James are recognized as great to the point of anomaly. Greatness of that caliber is unique to the individual and much of the reason why LeBron James is LeBron James and not, say, The Next Michael Jordan. If any other player from this era transcends comparison, it won't be because they reminded anyone of LeBron James.
This obsession with projecting the future of 18-year-olds is easy fodder for talking heads who trade in polarization, but little more when measured against the present. Shifting your flimsy microscope from one prospect to the next is a fine way to spend a day in the forest and see only a few trees, but it's a short-sighted move since college basketball is now rather suddenly worth paying broad attention to again.
Interest as measured by both ratings and attendance are down in college basketball for obvious reasons. Save for hardcore fans with a bound-by-blood allegiance to specific programs, it's hard to get excited about watching the best pro prospects make a glorified collegiate pitstop thanks to the workforce manipulation done in collusion between the NCAA and NBA. The process of watching an elite college player's career is essentially the middleman phase of a money laundering operation, the phase that's done in plain view. Investment in any sport typically demands some degree of cynicism as basic sanity maintenance, but collegiate basketball asks for an awful lot. This season is already the first in some time to justify the exchange.
The 2013 freshman class forms the core of what will be the deepest NBA draft since at least 2003 -- y'know, just the draft that produced LeBron, Carmelo Anthony, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, that's all. Unlike that crew, this one is primarily concentrated among Duke, Kentucky and Kansas, elite programs that are routinely on national television and will be contenders come March Madness. This simply doesn't happen in college basketball anymore, and that is as good a reason as any to ignore what happens next and focus on what is actually happening. Unless of course, you're the kind of person that goes to the Grand Canyon and wonders what it will look like tomorrow. Which would be a shame, since no collegiate team has played more than three games, and we're already at the point where it's an open question if Wiggins or Parker are even the best players in this class.
Kentucky freshman power forward Julius Randle is the somewhat unexpected interloper, but his 6'9", 250 pound frame and dominant low-post game make for a combination that is virtually unheard of from an 18-year-old. Watch Randle beast on double-teams, finish with either hand. Then again, Wiggins is the physical ideal for the modern NBA wing player and has the sort of athleticism that entitles him to plays no one else can make. Oh, and Parker is the most polished and versatile NBA prospect since maybe Kevin Durant, who I'm told is doing alright as a professional. This isn't even taking into account the fact that their team's second best players all rate out as lottery picks. Again, this never happens.
Appreciating this class of players is perhaps best done by watching them play rather than joining the echo chamber of psychoanalytical hot takes done via box scores and YouTube clips. If nothing else, it's nice to see these dudes do something other than NBA Jam the souls of terrified seventh graders. Imagining what Parker, Wiggins and Randle will be doing next year is only natural, but it's a piss-poor substitute for enjoying the present.