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January 17, 2013
The Nation' Top 25 Freshmen

by John Gasaway


Last month I unveiled my first Top 25 Freshmen rankings of 2012-13, and as soon as my picks appeared they were universally hailed and accepted as the unquestioned truth. I get that a lot.

No, wait, what I meant to say was "as soon as my picks appeared I was asked a lot of questions about Marcus Smart." Happily for my purposes, Oklahoma State's star point guard furnishes me with the perfect opportunity to revisit what this list is supposed to accomplish.

When I first started doing these rankings a few seasons ago, I thought it'd be interesting to take a ruthlessly performance-based and hype-free look at freshmen, that most hyped of all basketball demographics. The niche I've tried to carve out is somewhere in between what we hear about these stars before they arrive on campus (we all know who the McDonald's All-Americans are) and where we sequence these prospects before they're drafted (we all know who the likely lottery picks are).

The question I set out to answer with my rankings each season is separate from recruiting rankings and mock drafts. It is this: Which freshmen have helped their teams the most?

In the case of Marcus Smart in early December of 2012, he was improving Oklahoma State appreciably, which is why I ranked him the No. 14 freshman in the country. On the other hand, he was also missing a ton of shots, which is why he wasn't ranked even higher. Smart's overall performance (excellent) wasn't yet at the same level as his ability (unbelievable).

What about now? Read on. Here are my updated rankings for the nation's top 25 freshmen:

(Who did I miss? Let me know on Twitter: @JohnGasaway.)

1. Ben McLemore, G, Kansas Jayhawks
We have a new No. 1, as McLemore makes the leap all the way from No. 8 last month to the top spot. That's what happens when you have quite possibly the best single game of any Division I player this season, namely McLemore's 33-point effort against Iowa State in Lawrence. Not only did the freshman make 10 of 12 shots from the field, he more or less single-handedly put the Jayhawks in position to record the victory with his game-tying three at the end of regulation. (KU won in overtime, 97-89.)

McLemore's a standout freshman in many ways, including demographically. He sat out all of last season after being ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA, and even if he had played as a freshman in 2011-12 he would have been fairly old for his class. Now he's downright ancient compared to his peers: McLemore will turn 21 next month.

Just don't feel sorry for KU's old codger. McLemore brings volume together with efficiency on offense in a way that few players can match, let alone freshmen. He's also the only freshman in the country who functions as the featured scorer for a team that will likely earn a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. That degree of importance to Kansas explains why Jayhawk fans fell silent when the freshman rolled his ankle in the closing minutes of the team's win over Baylor.

Here's hoping McLemore's back up on his feet and dancing in no time. I have a feeling one season is all the college game is going to get when it comes to being dazzled by McLemore.

2. Anthony Bennett, F, UNLV Rebels
Don't read Bennett's fall from No. 1 last month to No. 2 today as a negative verdict on his performance. On the contrary, the Rebels' star has continued to put UNLV on his back, particularly on offense. (Six players on Dave Rice's roster are averaging between seven and 10 points a game. Bennett averages 20.) McLemore's ascendance has been exceptional, but Bennett is right there with the young Jayhawk. With any luck these two special freshmen could develop an Oden-Durant kind of friendly rivalry.

Bennett is that rare force of nature in the paint, the one who also has three-point range. He doesn't shoot from beyond the arc very often (about three times a game), but when he does he hits the shot 41 percent of the time. That being said, Bennett's specialty is destroying opposing teams on the interior, a feat he accomplishes by hitting 61 percent of his twos and drawing seven fouls per 40 minutes.

UNLV's strength is its defense, but without Bennett that strength would be neutralized by a suddenly and markedly less efficient offense. The Rebel freshman is as indispensable to his team as any player on this list.

3. Shabazz Muhammad, G/F, UCLA Bruins
Where in the world did the Shabazz buzz go? Last season, all during the offseason, and right up until the time he became eligible in November, all I heard about was Shabazz Muhammad and what a great player he was going to be. But now that he's actually, you know, playing, the hype has been silenced.

Well, I'm here to rectify this strange injustice with some much deserved praise. No major-conference freshman uses more possessions for his offense than Muhammad does, and the Bruins' offense is a measurably more effective unit because their star is carrying that heavy load so effectively. Ben Howland's freshman has made 45 percent of his threes, and he saps the aggressiveness of opposing defenses by drawing six fouls per 40 minutes. As a team UCLA hasn't quite lived up to its top-15 preseason ranking, but with Muhammad in the fold the Bruins may yet meet or exceed that goal.

4. Marcus Smart, G, Oklahoma State Cowboys
When I rated Smart as the No. 14 freshman in the nation, he had made 45 percent of his twos and 23 percent of his threes. Apparently he read my piece and decided No. 14 was a little low, because since that day his shooting percentages from inside and outside the arc are 57 and 35 percent, respectively. Smart's season-long accuracy from the field still looks low, but that particular vestige of November is being wiped away steadily.

Add in the fact that Smart's not only a very good point guard but also an outstanding defender with one of D-I's highest steal rates, and you have quite possibly the most complete player on this entire list. Once upon a time there might have been a good eyes-vs.-analytics dispute brewing here, a la Miguel Cabrera, but Smart has officially brought any such hostilities to a close. The numbers are now backing up what the eyes were saying all along.

5. Glenn Robinson III, F, Michigan Wolverines
The most impressive aspect of Robinson's performance is that he's been able to sustain the high level of effectiveness he displayed out of the gate. Here we are a few games into the Big Ten season, and the 6-6 freshman is still turning heads with games like his 20-point (7-of-11) effort against Iowa. Of course it surely helps that he plays alongside guys like Trey Burke, Tim Hardaway, and Nik Stauskas (see below). But Robinson's an outstanding offensive option in his own right, as well as a very good defender. Above all else he's trustworthy. By my count Robinson's been on the floor for 874 possessions this season, and in that time he's committed just 21 turnovers.

6. T.J. Warren, F, North Carolina State Woifpack
For the sake of analytic convenience, Warren can be described to Big Ten fans as "functionally identical to Glenn Robinson," and Robinson can be portrayed in the same way -- "T.J. Warren's doppelganger" -- to ACC types. I put Robinson one spot above Warren simply because he gets more minutes, but both guys are preternaturally accurate from both sides of the arc as supporting players on teams with veteran stars. The key difference is that Warren only attempts about one three per game, preferring instead to prove that the mid-range jumper is alive and well. You might think a player making 69 percent of his twos is recording a long series of dunks, but Warren actually attempts -- and makes -- two-point jumpers. Call him the master of a lost art.

7.Gary Harris, G, Michigan State Spartans
Harris is a creature of superlatives. He's the Spartans' leading scorer, their most efficient source of offense, their least likely producer of turnovers, and, not least, Tom Izzo's best perimeter defender. At a time of increasing hoops specialization, Harris excels across the board, up to and including the fact that he's equally likely to shoot a three or a two. Only thing: I'm keeping a close eye on Harris, who's shooting just 2-of-17 inside the arc over his last three games.

8. Jordan Adams, G, UCLA Bruins
That's right, Ben Howland has two of the best eight freshmen in the country in Muhammad and Jordan Adams. I've ranked the former higher than the latter here, but I'll freely admit that Adams turned in what might be the most notable statistical feat recorded by any UCLA player this season. Against Stanford at Pauley Pavilion earlier this month, Adams recorded no fewer than seven steals in just 27 minutes, a performance that proved to be very timely in a game the Bruins won by just eight points. Ordinarily, however, Adams distinguishes himself on offense, where he's proven himself to be reliable both in the field and at the line (82 percent) as a high-volume second option alongside Muhammad.

9. Nerlens Noel, F, Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky fans are right to be worried about their team -- the Wildcats are, after all, 11-5 -- but the case can be made that Noel individually has been pretty much what we expected, and then some. The freshman's an excellent shot blocker who for the most part stays out of foul trouble. (He's yet to pick up a fourth foul in calendar 2013.) What we couldn't have foreseen, though, was that Noel would record so many steals, or that he would do so with such consistency: Calipari's 6-10 star has notched at least two steals now in seven consecutive games. Even amid the struggles UK still has a very good defense, and a large part of the credit there goes to Noel.

10. Josh Scott, F, Colorado Buffaloes
Colorado features Askia Booker on offense, and in that context Scott is just one supporting player among many Buffaloes -- a very effective supporting player. So effective, in fact, that it's worth asking whether CU might benefit from taking just a few of those possessions away from the overburdened Booker and sending them Scott's way. The 6-10 freshman has certainly proven himself capable to this point: Scott has hit 62 percent of his twos in Pac-12 play.

11. Nik Stauskas, G, Michigan Wolverines
It's a mark of the incredible start Stauskas had that one can look at his stats today and be forgiven for thinking the freshman is shooting "just" 51 percent on his threes. The presence of Stauskas spotted up on the three-point line has been a big factor in making all those drives by Trey Burke so effective. John Beilein's shooter got some heat from fans for not scoring in Michigan's 56-53 loss at Ohio State, but over the long haul you want Stauskas on your offense. He spaces defenses simply by occupying the right spot.

12. Chris Obekpa, C, St. John's Red Storm
Obekpa's an outstanding shot blocker, and there's a chance he may beat out Jeff Withey for the distinction of posting the highest block percentage in the country. But whether he finishes No. 1 or not, Obekpa is providing a huge boost for the Red Storm defense by recording all those blocks without fouling. Steve Lavin's freshman is averaging just 2.1 fouls per 40 minutes in Big East play.

13. Damyean Dotson, G, Oregon Ducks
He may not realize it yet, but Dotson is a two-point specialist. The freshman continues to try shots from beyond the arc, and he's connected on just 32 percent of his attempts from out there. But give Dotson the ball close to the basket, and the result has most often been two points. Oregon projects to give Arizona its toughest competition in the Pac-12 race, and Dotson's shooting -- frequent and accurate -- should continue to give the Ducks a lift.

14. Isaiah Austin, C, Baylor Bears
Austin may be this season's best example of a player whose clear and unmistakable NBA potential exceeds what he'll be able to provide to his college team during, presumably, his one season in D-I. If I'm an NBA GM, you don't exactly have to beat me over the head to get me to love a 19-year-old seven-footer who shoots 38 percent on his threes and runs the floor like Cody Zeller Jr. But, as chance would have it, Austin plays on a team that, quite rightly, allows ample offensive space for Pierre Jackson to do what he does. (Mainly get to the line.) And while Austin's fair on the boards at both ends of the floor, he's not a shot blocker per se: Marcus Smart has the same block percentage as Austin. There's no doubting the young man's "upside," the only question is to what extent it'll be realized while he's still in Waco.

15. Sam Dekker, F, Wisconsin Badgers
The next time you hear someone give Bo Ryan a backhanded compliment like "He wins even though he's a lousy recruiter!" say two words in response: "Sam Dekker." The freshman from Sheboygan arrived in Madison ranked right up there with the Archie Goodwins and Brandon Ashleys of the world, and he has more than lived up to that hype. Every time I do one of these top 25 rankings, I point out that Dekker's a very good three-point shooter (currently 42 percent) even though he's much less successful at the line (58 percent). Apparently that's just how they represent in Sheboygan. So deal with it: Dekker's a double-threat wing who hits his shots from both sides of the arc.

16. Yogi Ferrell, G, Indiana Hoosiers
A freshman point guard on a national championship contender is a little like a ref. If you're not hearing about him, it's probably a good thing. You don't hear much about Ferrell, because all he does is push the pace and dish the ball to Cody Zeller, Christian Watford, and Will Sheehey. Are opponents getting wise to Ferrell's never-shoot role? Of course. In their 64-59 win over the Hoosiers in Bloomington, Wisconsin effectively dared Ferrell to shoot until he finally did, sinking just his eighth three of the entire season. Tom Crean's point guard will have to work to keep opposing defenses honest, but let me go ahead and toss a bouquet the freshman's way and admit that entering the season I was skeptical of IU's ability to play good defense with a backcourt comprised of Ferrell and Jordan Hulls. That skepticism has proven to be unwarranted. Well done, young man.

17. Alex Poythress, F, Kentucky Wildcats
There's a widespread sense among hoops fans that, given his big reputation when he arrived at UK, Poythress has been something of a disappointment. I can see where that sense comes from: Poythress hasn't scored more than 21 points in a game since the day after Thanksgiving. But let's be specific about that disappointment. The surprise here isn't that Poythress doesn't play very well -- he does. The surprise for me has been simply that he doesn't loom larger. In theory a freshman that makes 66 percent of his twos and 47 percent of his once-a-game threes is doing fine (great, actually). It's good to make your shots, but it was expected additionally that Poythress might do that while scoring more than 10 points a game (his average over the Wildcats' last six outings). Where do you rank an unquestionably talented (Poythress is still projected as a 2013 lottery pick) but inexplicably diffident freshman? I say at No. 19.

18. Jahii Carson, G, Arizona State Sun Devils
Giving the bulk of your offense to a 5-10 freshman point guard with unproven perimeter range isn't usually a recipe for a great offense, and, sure enough, Arizona State doesn't have a great offense. But you still have to give Carson credit for hitting over half his twos, dishing a high number of assists, and consuming the bulk of opposing defenses' attention. Carson's prominence has created the space in which 6-6 senior Carrick Felix is having a career (and unjustly overlooked) season on offense.

19. Brandon Ashley, F, Arizona Wildcats
Ashley is Sean Miller's workhorse on the defensive glass, hauling in 23 percent of the other teams' misses while he's on the floor. That kind of work on the boards doesn't usually coincide with good free throw shooting, but Ashley's given the Wildcats a nice lift from 15 feet away, drawing five fouls per 40 minutes and hitting 73 percent of his attempts from the line. With options like Mark Lyons, Solomon Hill, and (my choice for national sixth man of the year) Kevin Parrom on hand, Miller doesn't necessarily need Ashley to score more points. But just for future reference there's every indication the freshman will be able to take on a larger role quite capably when that time comes.

20. Rasheed Sulaimon, G, Duke Blue Devils
Sulaimon is struggling through a slump that might fairly be termed nasty, having shot 5-of-22 on his twos in calendar 2013. So his ranking here has dropped a long way from where it was last month (No. 4). Fair enough, but he still merits inclusion as a legitimate three-point threat who never commits turnovers and plays a significant role in the offense for a national title contender. That's an impressive job description for any freshman.

21. R.J. Hunter, G, Georgia State Panthers
Be sad, IUPUI, be very, very sad. If Ron Hunter had stayed on as your head coach, there's a good chance, I suppose, that his son R.J. would be playing for you this season. R.J. is his team's commendably efficient leading scorer and, as a 6-4 shooting guard, its best defensive rebounder, pulling down 19 percent of opponents' misses during his minutes. It's going to be tough sledding for the Panthers this season, but the Hunter family gives GSU fans cause for hope (even if father and son haven't always been on the same page).

22. Kellen Dunham, G, Butler Bulldogs
If you have to have a freshman at the line in a tie game's closing seconds, you could do worse than Dunham, a 93 percent foul shooter. That being said, Brad Stevens' freshman may be the single person most anxious to see Rotnei Clarke return from that sprained neck injury the senior sustained last week. In the Bulldogs' first game without Clarke, Dunham's shooting from the field became more frequent and less accurate, as the freshman shot 2-of-10 on his threes in Butler's 62-47 win over Richmond in Hinkle Fieldhouse.

23. Shaq Goodwin, F, Memphis Tigers
In the tradition of great Memphis offensive rebounders like former Tiger Joey Dorsey, I give you Goodwin. I know what you're thinking, and don't worry. Yes, Goodwin (64 percent) is a better free throw shooter than Dorsey was (42 percent over his career). Plus Josh Pastner's freshman has rebounded a very Dorsey-like 14 percent of his team's misses to this point in the season. Best of all, Goodwin's able to score without those offensive boards, and he's made more than half his twos. The only challenge for Conference USA's reigning Freshman of the Week is simply staying on the floor. He's picked up at least four fouls in almost half the games Memphis has played this season.

24. Siyani Chambers, G, Harvard Crimson
Attention "freshman wall" theorists. If there really is such a thing, one would think Chambers would have to be the player to hit it at some point. Tommy Amaker's point guard plays a higher percentage (94) of his team's minutes than any other freshman in the country. It's fair to say, however, there are no signs of such a wall just yet. Over his last three games Chambers has averaged 17 points per contest, thanks mainly to 10-of-13 shooting on his threes.

25. John Brown, F, High Point Panthers
If he merely sported the highest possession-usage rate of any freshman in the country (which he does -- 32 percent), Brown would be a mere curiosity. But High Point's 6-7 star is top-25-worthy because he's actually been effective in his use of all those possessions, draining better than half his twos and drawing seven fouls per 40 minutes. (Though Brown would be even more effective if he shot better than 69 percent at the line.) And on defense, Brown has a higher steal rate than any player on this list except Marcus Smart. The Panthers' star is a one-man wrecking crew.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact John by clicking here or click here to see John's other articles.

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