Before looking at our youngest class and their top 5, it's worth looking back on the top 5 from our 2023 class and seeing how their freshman seasons played out. Collin Kuhl of Holly Springs was (semi-notoriously) a reserve player on the Hawks JV team as a freshman. Sam Martin of Apex averaged 4p, 4r, & 1b for a 3-win Cougars team. Micah Jones of Holly Springs was the starting PG for Cardinal Gibbons averaging 12p for a Crusaders team that just missed the playoffs. Ethan Montague of Enloe didn't record a varsity point for his first two years of high school. Finally, Jake Hart of Fuquay-Varina was the starting PG for the Bengals JV team, averaging 3p, 3r, 4a, & 3s en route to an 11-9 record.
The reason for bringing up the 2023 class is to point out that all five players had very different starts to their high school careers and all five ended up highly ranked, regardless of how they started out. It obviously bodes well to be a great varsity player as a freshman but that doesn't mean that not being a great varsity player so young is a bad thing.
With all that being said, here are the top five 2026s in the triangle.
Like always, you can view the complete rankings here.
(1) 6'7' Cole Cloer (Orange)
This ranking should come with the least amount of controversy, with Cloer having a legitimate claim as the top player in the state, even more so to the top spot in the triangle. He has a good foundation of physical tools with good size, length, and frame. His athleticism specifically jumps out as it seems to improve with each viewing. Outside of the obvious physical tools, Cloer is an elite shooter at his size with the feel and ball skills to round him out well. He can shoot out of a variety of actions and does so with great mechanics and confidence. He's also very comfortable as a playmaker, able to break down defenses with his handle and create advantages on his own. As a passer, he's more than willing to find his teammates and has shown flashes of incredible vision and feel. The most underrated aspect of his game is his defensive versatility. He's a gifted rim protector thanks to his length, instincts, verticality, and overall toughness. Predominantly guarding on the wing, the type of rim protection ceiling he possesses is intriguing and can help unlock his full upside in due time.
(2) 6'1' Aiden Smalls (Cardinal Gibbons)
Smalls enjoyed one of the most productive freshman seasons in the state, leading all 4A freshmen in points and assists while being second in steals and fourth in rebounds. His floor is high, and his athletic tools combined with his feel give him a potentially scary ceiling. He has a strong frame which allows him to play bigger than his height. That size combined with the speed, burst, and overall quickness makes Smalls a nightmare for opposing guards. While he's already a good athlete, there's good reason to believe he'll continue to grow into an upper-echelon level one given how high his floor is right now. He's a gifted finisher around the rim thanks to his aggressiveness, touch, and body control. There's some real reason for optimism with his shooting potential, something that could really swing his trajectory onto an even higher path. He's confident enough to shoot threes (from a wide range of difficulty) at a high rate and his mechanics are solid. There's no reason to believe he won't consistently improve upon his freshman-year shooting splits.
(3) 6'6' Aidan Rousseau (Cary Academy)
On an incredibly balanced and talented WCBA team, Rousseau emerged as the focal point throughout the summer. This emergence coupled with WCBA being a top 3-5 2026 team in NC, made for a somewhat loud welcoming to the statewide scene. His inside-out scoring ability mixed with a high motor and unselfish approach makes him the ideal forward for modern offenses. He has incredibly technical footwork on the interior and utilizes a wide variety of fakes to create space for himself. He's a high-level finisher, with both the strength and touch to finish through and around contact. A big stepping stone in his development will be his shooting, specifically at volume. So far, all signs point to positive as his mechanics are smooth and repeatable with a high release. He's comfortable collecting himself and shooting out of pick-and-pops as well as the occasional C&S from the corners. The development of his outside game (along with his overall athleticism) will play a big part in what position he's able to play in the future, if he works as a small-ball five, an inside-out four, or a big wing.
(4) 6'5' Michael Phillips II (Grace Christian)
Phillips is the only player within the top 10 that hasn't really started building his high school profile. His production, growth, and flashes have come from playing 17u this spring and summer with Harvest Development Academy. Phillips has gone from a high-energy, versatile defender to a legitimate two-way weapon. His shot-making and creation skills have improved exponentially in the past 6 months, arriving at a point now where he's a consistent 20+ point threat while playing two grades up. What immediately stands out about him is his projectable defensive versatility. It's going to be incredibly difficult to find a more toolsy defender in this class over the next few years as Phillips seemingly has it all. He's ridiculously long and wiry, plays with infectious energy, and has great instincts. He can block shots and wall up like a big while also sliding his feet like a guard. Offensively, he's becoming a full-fledged scoring weapon that can play with or without the ball. He's a smooth shot-maker with an improving handle and great mechanics. There's a lot of variability in how his high school season can go but if the right things click, he can be one of the most productive players in this class.
(5) 6'8' Mason Robinson (Orange)
Robinson has been a consistently steady presence that has progressively improved over the past year. He has a high IQ and feel for the game while having pretty much every physical tool you could ask for. He's tall, long, strong, laterally quick, and has vertical pop. With those tools and instincts, it's only expected that the most intriguing thing about Robinson is the rim protection and overall defensive upside. He's already a high-level shot contester that understands how to defend without fouling and how to position himself for rebounds. He does a lot of little things on the defensive end well, specifically in transition and post-up situations. Offensively, his touch around the rim is incredibly solid, especially for a player that's still figuring out how athletic he really is. He's reliable when it comes to contact finishes and short floaters, hooks, and even the occasional short-range jumper. It's also a note to make that Robinson is a surprisingly good passer for his age and size. He can consistently get the ball out when doubled and does a good job of hitting shooters, cutters, and dump-offs when he gets it in the mid/high post.