At a mere four days shy of Christmas, Cooper Flagg is poised to celebrate his 17th birthday, solidifying his status as a true anomaly in today’s basketball landscape. It’s a rarity for young athletes to graduate high school at such an early age, and even more so for those who excel at an elite level in the sport. Despite the trend of players opting to “reclassify” for an earlier entry into college, most still find themselves on campus well before their 18th birthday.
Given Flagg’s unique circumstances, it’s highly likely that he’ll become one of the youngest first-round draft picks in NBA history. At around 18 years and 185 days, he’ll be three days younger than LeBron James was when he was selected as the No. 1 overall pick in 2003. Furthermore, there’s a strong possibility that Flagg will hold the distinction of being the youngest first-rounder with a year of college under his belt.
This upcoming year of collegiate play will unfold at Duke, where Flagg is expected to be the crown jewel of yet another exceptional recruiting class. As the consensus No. 1 player in the 2024 class according to various scouting sources, Flagg opted for the Blue Devils over the reigning NCAA champions, Connecticut. He joins a roster that already boasts five-star talents in Isaiah Evans and Kon Knueppel.
While Flagg’s age sets him apart, it’s ultimately his remarkable talent that truly defines him. Considered the most promising American basketball prospect in over a decade, his prowess isn’t solely attributed to the extra time he has to develop. Flagg’s skillset places him in a league of his own, akin to the caliber of talent seen when Anthony Davis entered Kentucky in 2011.
Flagg’s ascent to prominence was apparent when he secured a spot on the USA Basketball team for the FIBA U17 World Cup at the tender age of 15. In the gold medal showdown against Spain, Flagg delivered an astounding performance with 10 points, 17 rebounds, and four blocks. Throughout the tournament, he showcased his shooting proficiency with a 42.9 percent success rate from beyond the arc and led the team in rebounds with an average of 10 per game. His impact on the court was second only to point guard Jeremy Fears, boasting an average plus-minus of +24.
Hailing from Newport, Maine, the 6-foot-8 small forward made the move to Florida to play under the guidance of Kevin Boyle at Montverde Academy after completing his freshman year of high school. In a preseason event televised by ESPN, Flagg demonstrated his offensive prowess, showcasing an impressive command of the game without making it about individual accolades. Defensively, he displayed agility in covering multiple positions and exhibited a remarkable ability to block shots, especially considering his size.
While the potential for Flagg’s future in the game appears boundless, it’s important to acknowledge that truly magical players are needed to surpass the legacy of LeBron James. The game’s greatest player should not be the standard by which all others are measured. Progress for American basketball would be marked by Flagg’s ability to consistently convert his potential into dominant performances, much like what was once expected from the nation’s top young talent.
Historically, players like Magic Johnson, Isiah Thomas, Patrick Ewing, and later on, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, and Kobe Bryant, routinely transformed from top prospects into basketball luminaries. Not achieving this level of greatness was the exception, not the rule.
However, this paradigm has shifted in recent years. Many of the most impactful American players in the NBA are now in their 30s, including luminaries like Steph Curry, LeBron James, James Harden, and Kawhi Leonard.
Over the past five seasons, the influence of elite American prospects on the NBA has waned. Of the 75 spots on the All-NBA teams from 2019-2023, only 30 were filled by players who came through American high schools and colleges since 2010. Moreover, only 19 of those 30 positions were occupied by players who left high school as five-star prospects. Players who were once overlooked or rated lower, such as Damian Lillard, Ja Morant, and Jimmy Butler, have now emerged as dominant forces in the league.
The rise of European-developed players in the NBA is evident, with talents like Giannis Antetokounmpo and Nikola Jokic making significant contributions. While they may not have been immediate sensations, they have become vital pillars of the league. However, given that the United States produces the largest number of NBA players, it should continue to lead in cultivating top-tier talent.
Regrettably, players like Jayson Tatum, who have shown remarkable growth since their college days, have become increasingly rare. Assigning blame to factors like “AAU” is tempting, but it’s worth noting that LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, and James Harden, all passed through the same system of summer tournaments.
For nearly a decade, a substantial number of top-10 players have either failed to reach the anticipated heights or have struggled to establish themselves as stars. It’s crucial to recognize that falling short of superstardom does not equate to failure. Players like Marvin Bagley and Josh Jackson have earned significant earnings in their careers, even if they didn’t reach the pinnacle of their potential.
In the case of Cooper Flagg, he represents a unique convergence of age and extraordinary talent. His journey in the world of basketball promises to be one of great intrigue and potential, as he stands poised to make a significant impact on the sport at a remarkably young age.