Washington basketball: Huskies have hope in 5-star duo Isaiah Stewart, Jaden McDaniels

MIDDLE VILLAGE, NEW YORK - APRIL 06: Isaiah Stewart #33 of La Lumiere grabs the rebound against IMG Academy in the championship game of the GEICO High School National Tournament at Christ the King High School on April 06, 2019 in Middle Village, New York. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images)
MIDDLE VILLAGE, NEW YORK - APRIL 06: Isaiah Stewart #33 of La Lumiere grabs the rebound against IMG Academy in the championship game of the GEICO High School National Tournament at Christ the King High School on April 06, 2019 in Middle Village, New York. (Photo by Steven Ryan/Getty Images) /

Off a resurgent year, the fate of Washington basketball in the 2019-20 season lies in the young, capable hands of Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels.

When Lorenzo Romar was at the helm of Washington basketball, the Huskies had no problem bringing in 5-star players. But college basketball is a result-oriented business and Romar never capitalized on the talent he brought to Seattle. Over his final five seasons as the head coach, the Huskies failed to win 20 games, including going a dismal 9-22 in his final year.

That’s when Mike Hopkins took over prior to the 2017-18 season and the turnaround has been immediate for Washington. They went 21-13 in his first season at the helm, punching a ticket to the NIT. Building off of that, the Huskies were in the NCAA Tournament field a year ago, making it to the Round of 32 before getting ousted.

What’s clear, however, is Hopkins has spearheaded a turnaround with this program, getting them headed in a consistent direction after Romar had lost the trail. For the 2019-20 season, we shall see how clear that direction is as, with a top-10 recruiting class headlined by the five-star duo of Isaiah Stewart and Jaden McDaniels, if Washington basketball can match young star power with Hopkins’ direction.

The pair of young forwards figure to be a problem right away for any Huskies opponent this season. McDaniels is the more tantalizing of the two in terms of what he could be, though. The 6-foot-9 forward has a long, lengthy frame and plays the game with a smoothness that is uncanny for an 18-year old player.

What will be the question with McDaniels, though, is whether his freakish physical tools and feel for the game immediately translate at the college level. In the best-case scenario, he could be a versatile playmaker on offense with a terrific ability to stretch the floor. But in the worst-case scenario, he’s not physically strong enough to find success as the level of competition is ramped up.

Stewart, on the other hand, is ready-made to succeed right away. He’s a relentless competitor in the post with a 7-foot-4 wingspan on his 6-foot-9, 240-pound frame. Put simply, he’s built to score at will on the interior against almost anyone he’s put up against in college and should have no issue doing that right away.

For that reason, it’s likely Hopkins will feed Stewart in the post to initiate the offense early in the year. That will give the Huskies an immediately consistent option on that end of the floor. However, one of the staples of Washington since the change at head coach took place has been increased effectiveness on defense. And when you’re relying on young players, no matter how physically gifted they are, it can be a question mark.

Such is the case with this team as they enter the 2019-20 season. Stewart and McDaniels, in theory, should form a formidable frontcourt on defense. But the departures in the backcourt leave more questions than answers given the complexity of Hopkins’ defense.

Can Kentucky transfer Quade Green develop into the right point man on defense (and, really, on offense as well) once he becomes eligible at the start of the second semester? Will another top-100 freshman, RaeQuan Battle, or sophomore Elijah Hardy be able to provide the same suffocating pressure on the wings and on the ball that helped Washington thrive last season?

There is no definitive proof that will happen — and also reason to be skeptical that will happen. It’s simply difficult to project new players stepping into such critical roles and maintaining the high level of defense Washington played a season ago. So if you’re projecting a decline in defensive efficiency, then it puts the focus back on the offense.

That puts all the more pressure on Stewart and McDaniels. Stewart will need to be a star right away. If you’re optimistic, though, he has the potential to be that. Again, there may not be a more sure-fire scorer in the freshman class than Stewart due to the combination of his physical tools and the manner in which he plays. He’s going to score at will on the inside — that is if the unproven guards can effectively feed him the rock.

What would push Washington to the next level, though, is McDaniels realizing his potential. As he comes into his likely only year in Seattle, he is a ball of clay that would make college and NBA coaches salivate. But if Hopkins is able to tap into that potential and make the youngster into a versatile complement to Stewart that is also a matchup nightmare in his own right, then there’s something cooking with the Huskies.

The other pieces on this roster like Green, Battle, Hardy and junior forward Nahziah Carter will have their roles to play this season. How they fit on both ends of the floor and adapt to Hopkins’ systems will be vital to Washington reaching their potential. But the top end of their potential undeniably rests in what their two five-star freshmen can deliver as they arrive in the college basketball world.

Should Stewart be as dominant as expected and McDaniels simply remain a ball of clay waiting to be molded, the Huskies will likely be eyeing a fourth-place finish in the Pac-12 and potentially sitting on the bubble for the NCAA Tournament. If McDaniels makes a jump in his progression as a prospect, though, Washington could indeed challenge to win the conference and be a high seed in March Madness.

Point blank, Hopkins has a lot to prove with this highly-touted recruiting class, particularly with how he handles the development of Daniels. Through his first two years with the program, though, he’s acquitted himself quite impressively. So while there may be reason to doubt the Huskies given the variance that this team inherently possesses with their reliance on two freshmen, they are also a hard team to be against with their raw talent and coaching.

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