This story appears in ESPN The Magazine's Nov. 24 The State of Football Issue. Subscribe today!
EVEN THE CASUAL fan already knows a thing or two about the three freshman bigs who topped this year's recruiting rankings. Jahlil Okafor can score on the block. Myles Turner swats shots with abandon. Cliff Alexander grabs boards by the bushel. But there are other, more subtle, traits that they bring to their teams -- the kind that coaches love and you should too. So watch closely in the coming weeks. These are the skills that can elevate a team.
Weight: 270 pounds
ESPN RecruitingNation Rank: 1
Subtle Skill: Passing
Duke plans to run its offense through Okafor, who could end up as the best interior scorer in college basketball. But it's easier to disrupt a big man in college than in the NBA -- the lane is more crowded without a defensive three-second rule, and young bigs tend to struggle against double-teams. Not Okafor. His unselfishness, court awareness and touch allow him to recognize help quickly and find the open man. With Duke's bevy of perimeter shooters and athletic wings, that should spur an offense that flows seamlessly from the inside out.
Assistant coach Jon Scheyer
"Jah has a great feel for the game. He can see over the top of double-teams while also being poised. And when Jah is such a willing passer, it opens everything up."
Weight: 240 pounds
ESPN RecruitingNation Rank: 2
Subtle Skill: Defensive Communication
Turner's size and athleticism alone should make him an effective defender. But big men also need to control a defense verbally, reading plays from the baseline and barking out corresponding instructions. This is an area where freshmen tend to struggle, as they are hesitant to talk. Turner is different. In preseason practices, he was a chatterbox on D, alerting his teammates to sets and actions and calling out switches. In other words, the Longhorns won't sacrifice any cohesion with Turner on the floor in place of veteran Cameron Ridley.
Assistant coach Chris Ogden
"The bigs are essentially the quarterbacks of a defense because they see it all. They're behind it. You're always screaming at bigs to talk. He gets it, and it's rare."
Weight: 240 pounds
ESPN RecruitingNation Rank: 3
Subtle Skill: Midrange Jump Shot
As a long-armed wide-body, Alexander is built to thrive in the post. But he is also a surprisingly skilled shooter out to 15 feet, a talent that should help elevate the Jayhawks' high-low offense. Alexander's range will give Kansas the proper spacing to feed power forward Perry Ellis on the block against smaller defenders; if Alexander's man sags off to help, the freshman will punish him by knocking down a jumper. That alignment should provide an excellent counter to the standard set that features Ellis at the high post and Alexander inside.
Assistant coach Jerrance Howard
"His Dad told me that Cliff could shoot. You didn't really see it in games, because he was so dominant down low, but then we saw him practice. He can really shoot."