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February 14, 2013
The Nation's Top 25 Freshmen

by John Gasaway


This marks the third version of my Top 25 Freshmen list (feel free to have a look at versions 1.0, and 2.0), and by now any first-year stars who were going to run into the proverbial freshman "wall" should have already done so. We've sorted out who's legit from who was just a flash in the pan, and it's probably no mistake that this list has started to resemble some mock draft projections a little more closely.

More closely, but not entirely. This list is still all about college production, and that's not always the same thing as pro potential. These are not the freshmen who will have the best NBA careers. These are the freshmen who, in my judgment, have helped their college teams the most this season.

Allow me to state at the top that Kentucky's Nerlens Noel would of course be on this list -- and very highly ranked -- if he were healthy and available to John Calipari. Noel's knee injury is a huge blow to the Wildcats, who were quietly but assuredly rounding into form as yet another outstanding Calipari-brand defense. Get well, young man, and quickly. Your heroic 12-block game at Ole Miss was one of the season's more memorable efforts, to say the least.

Speaking of memorable efforts, I give you the nation's top 25 freshmen:

1. Ben McLemore, G, Kansas Jayhawks
I can't help feeling McLemore's not being celebrated quite enough, but I think I see what the problem is. First there's the small matter of the team McLemore plays for. That team wins the Big 12 annually, and has since 2005. But Kansas may not win the Big 12 this season. Whatever occurs from here on out, there is the brute fact that we've arrived at mid-February saying that KU might not win the conference. That's unusual, and it mitigates against any spontaneous outbursts of joy on behalf of any one particular player.

Second, McLemore's just too nice. I mean as a player, not as a person (though I'm sure he's a nice person as well). Kevin Durant was and is an extremely nice person, goodness knows, but once he was on the floor for Texas he was quite willing to become Allen Iverson and take every shot in sight. I bet Bill Self wishes McLemore could acquire that gene -- every shot the freshman takes is good news for Kansas.

Fans of the college game love to roll their eyes and chuckle about the silly NBA and their allegedly foolhardy ways when it comes to talent evaluation. But say this for the professionals. With McLemore they're seeing through the "down" season for Kansas (ha -- if this is "down" it must be nice to be a Jayhawk) and through the niceness, and rating KU's star as a top-three pick this summer. I'll second that appraisal, because shot for shot McLemore's one of the most effective pure scorers I've yet come across. His shooting percentages have actually gone up in Big 12 play even as his workload as the team's featured scorer has remained steadily heavy. I can't answer for his team, nor can I explain his inconvenient habit of sharing the ball with less effective teammates. But McLemore is still the nation's top freshman.
Previous ranking: 1

2. Anthony Bennett, F, UNLV Rebels
Bennett poses a problem of context. To put it bluntly, UNLV is having a mildly disappointing season. The Rebels were expected to contend with San Diego State for the Mountain West title, and instead Dave Rice's team is trailing both New Mexico and Colorado State. And to be even more specific, the problem has been on offense, where UNLV is scoring just 0.98 points per trip in MWC play, good for No. 5 in a nine-team league.

So I guess all we can say in a situation such as this is just imagine how bad things would be without Anthony Bennett. As a team the Rebels' main enemy is turnovers, but for the most part Bennett's been commendably trustworthy with the rock. (For the most part. But let's not have any repeats of the Nevada or Boise State games.) His amazing season totals have ticked down very slightly in conference play (particularly from the perimeter), but at the end of the day this is still a freshman who's taking 30 percent of his team's shots during his minutes against Mountain West opponents, and who has drained 57 percent of his twos over that same stretch. Bennett has come up huge for Rice, and if every Rebel were meeting expectations as well as their star teammate, this team would be in a better position.
Previous ranking: 2

3. Marcus Smart, G, Oklahoma State Cowboys
It is clear to me now that Marcus Smart reads every word I write. (Hello! How are things in Stillwater?) If I say that Smart's shots aren't going in often enough, he promptly rips off a remorseless streak of pitiless accuracy. If I say he is ripping off a remorseless streak of pitiless accuracy, he charges right out and hangs a 4-of-21 effort on the scoreboard just to be funny.

In light of this dynamic I have reached what I think is the proper attitude toward Smart's performance. He attains average results in terms of accuracy (48 percent on his twos, and 31 percent on his threes in Big 12 action) by alternating excellent shooting with terrible shooting. So be it.

LSU's Anthony Hickey and Texas A&M's Alex Caruso are the only major-conference players with higher steal rates than Smart's. And OSU's freshman draws better than six fouls a game while making three in every four attempts at the line. Opposing coaches rave about his skills and his leadership, the NBA's all set to make Travis Ford's big and physical point guard a lottery pick, and I will not rain on this parade. Indeed, in many respects Smart may turn out to be an even better fit for a team at the next level, one where high-scoring teammates will take the jump shots off his plate and allow him to focus on what he does best -- defense, facilitating, and drawing fouls.
Previous ranking: 4

4. Gary Harris, G, Michigan State Spartans
Harris has often had one health-related issue or another clinging to him throughout his freshman season, which is fairly amazing since his actual performance has been anything but anemic. His current struggle is with back spasms, but judging from his 17-point, three-steal effort in the Spartans' 75-52 win over Michigan in East Lansing, the freshman is mending nicely.

When healthy Harris functions as a 3-point gunner -- more than half his attempts in Big Ten play have come from beyond the arc -- but because he's also his team's best perimeter defender, and he's doing his gunning for a coach who's never been known as a proponent of the long ball, the freshman does create some perceptual confusion. Well, let's clear that up right now. Against conference opponents Harris has scored his points the same way Nik Stauskas was scoring his back in November and December, by making more than 50 percent of his threes.

As a team Michigan State still doesn't shoot many threes, but their accuracy on the ones they do attempt is actually the strength of this offense in Big Ten play. That strength is attributable primarily to Harris, plus he customarily guards the opposing team's best perimeter scorer. He's one important freshman for Izzo.
Previous ranking: 7

5. Shabazz Muhammad, G/F, UCLA Bruins
Muhammad is a pure scorer with a bright NBA future -- he'll be a top-five pick this summer should he choose to avail himself of the opportunity -- but his season totals are more impressive than what Pac-12 opponents have seen from him. In conference play he's connected on 39 percent of his occasional threes and 44 percent of his frequent twos, while his visits to the line have become less frequent. To be sure, that's still a very good three-point percentage (his season mark is 43 percent), and if anything Muhammad should consider firing up a few more attempts from long range.

And when it comes to Ben Howland's illustrious freshman, that's pretty much the entire tale right there. In a rotation with Larry Drew II and Kyle Anderson, Muhammad certainly isn't expected to record assists, nor is he required to do much on the boards beyond grabbing a few offensive rebounds. No, Muhammad's role is to make shots from the field, and he's filled that role pretty well considering the tremendous possession load he carries for the Bruins. Still, I can help feeling his most indelible moments are still to come, likely at the next level.
Previous ranking: 3

6. Isaiah Austin, C, Baylor Bears
I have Austin ranked as the No. 6 freshman in the nation, but he's likely to go as high if not higher than that in this summer's NBA draft. At 7-1, Austin plays like a wing and is comfortable on both sides of the arc, but additionally his rebounding numbers have improved steadily throughout the season. (Yes, the 19-20 points-rebounds double-double against Oklahoma was a big help there.) He and Pierre Jackson carry the bulk of the offense for Baylor, and Austin has proven himself more than capable of pulling his weight alongside the Big 12 preseason player of the year. His block rate is nothing special for a seven-footer, but Big 12 opponents have found it very difficult to make twos against a frontcourt comprised of Austin and Cory Jefferson.
Previous ranking: 14

7. Jahii Carson, G, Arizona State Wildcats
The Sun Devils have made a dramatic season-to-season improvement in turnover rate, to the point where in Pac-12 play Herb Sendek's team ranks behind only UCLA in its ability to hang on to the ball. A lot of the credit there goes to Carson, who's been the starter at point guard since day one. At 5-10 the freshman's been surprisingly productive inside the arc (sinking better than half his twos), and his 32-point effort (on 13-of-19 shooting) in a losing cause at Washington earlier this month showed just how much damage he's capable of inflicting on opponents. Carson won't win any three-point contests, but the bottom line here is that ASU's offense is vastly improved over last season.
Previous ranking: 18

8. Chris Obekpa, C, St. John's Red Storm
It's mid-February and Obekpa is still holding on to the nation's highest block rate, having swatted away better than 16 percent of opponents' attempted twos during his minutes. Better still from Steve Lavin's perspective, his freshman is blocking all those shots while averaging just three fouls per 40 minutes in conference play (though Obekpa did foul out at home in a mere 13 minutes against Connecticut last week). Indeed it's not too much to say that the Red Storm defense goes as Obekpa goes. The numbers for SJU on that side of the ball are unexceptional across the board with two exceptions: two-point defense, and a lack of fouling. Obekpa has helped both of those numbers along.
Previous ranking: 12

9. T.J. Warren, F, North Carolina State Wolfpack
Warren raised a minor stir last month by retweeting a disparaging comment made by ex-NC State player Thomas De Thaey with regard to head coach Mark Gottfried. At the time I pledged to ding Warren for his maladroit use of social media. Well, here you go: Warren is lower down on this list than he was previously, but in truth this has more to do with what he does on the court than what he does on his phone. It's not so much that Warren's shooting "just" 53 percent inside the arc in ACC play (for the season he's hitting an incredible 63 percent). Gottfried or any coach will take that from a freshman. But Warren alternates big games with nonexistent ones. On three separate occasions during the conference season he's failed to make a single shot from the floor. His performance is as mercurial as his tweets are impetuous.
Previous ranking: 6

10. Nik Stauskas, G, Michigan Wolverines
Against Big Ten opponents Stauskas has functioned as a very good dual-threat wing, one who still displays a rough 3-to-2 preference for attempting threes over twos but is effective from both sides of that line. Beilein's freshman started the season with an incredible and predictably unsustainable display of accuracy, but it's not like the makes have gone away entirely. When your three-point shooting still clocks in at 48 percent in mid-February, you qualify as a season-long perimeter threat. At this writing Stauskas is coming off one of his poorer defensive showings, however, allowing Michigan State's Gary Harris to hit 5-of-9 threes in the Spartans' easy win over the Wolverines in East Lansing.
Previous ranking: 11

11. Josh Scott, F, Colorado Buffaloes
I keep coming back here every few weeks and singing Scott's praises, but for some reason the word's still not getting out. Maybe it's category trouble. People can accept the idea of a 6-10 scorer who doesn't partake of defensive rebounds (that's Andre Roberson's gig), but it just seems like that kind of player should be a perimeter threat. Instead, Scott scores his points inside, as seen in this weekend's 17-point effort (on 7-of-10 shooting) against Oregon State. Mainly he takes care of the ball. In Pac-12 play Scott's been on the floor for 547 offensive possessions and has committed just 13 turnovers.
Previous ranking: 10

12. Sam Dekker, F, Wisconsin Badgers
I've referred to Dekker as "underutilized," but I don't mean to imply that Bo Ryan should simply hand the offense to his freshman. It's just that Dekker's shots do tend to go in, from both sides of the arc. And most teams can benefit from the presence of a 6-7 freshman who can make shots. Note however that, at least at this point, Dekker is a specialist. Scoring from the field is what he does, and that's pretty much it. He's good at it.
Previous ranking: 15

13. Rasheed Sulaimon, G, Duke Blue Devils
In a rotation that no longer has Ryan Kelly's scoring, Sulaimon has functioned as a reliable three-point threat alongside the equally accurate likes of Seth Curry and Quinn Cook. And Duke needs threes from all of the above. The Blue Devils are more or less indistinguishable from their ACC opponents in terms of production inside the arc and at the line. Mike Kryzyzewski's team has outscored the league by being far more productive than their opponents from beyond the arc, and Sulaimon's 40 percent shooting from out there (on 93 attempts) has been a big help.
Previous ranking: 20

14. Damyean Dotson, G, Oregon Ducks
The Ducks have had an up and down Pac-12 season, to say the least, jumping out to a 7-0 start before stumbling to their current 9-3 mark. Through it all, however, Dotson's been a steady presence, hitting better than half his twos and carrying a substantial portion of the UO offense. Dotson still shoots too many threes (he's a 31 percent shooter from out there), and Dana Altman is well aware of that particular issue, but apparently that's just Damyean being Damyean.
Previous ranking: 13

15. Yogi Ferrell, G, Indiana Hoosiers
Statistically speaking, Ferrell is still a pass-always point guard, but this is misleading. If you've watched Indiana's games you know the freshman's actually aggressive on offense, and in fact he likely leads Division I in aggressive drives to the tin that lead either directly or indirectly to an assist. The Hoosiers may well have the best offense in the nation, and the fact that it's being led by a freshman point guard is of no particular concern to anyone. That's the highest compliment to be paid to Ferrell.
Previous ranking: 16

16. Georges Niang, F, Iowa State Cyclones
Fred Hoiberg has Iowa State atop the Big 12 in terms of offensive efficiency, thanks in large part to accurate and frequent shooting from the perimeter. Niang's been known to hit an occasional three himself, but for the most part he provides the Cyclones with the balance they need on the interior. For the season he's hit 59 percent of his twos, a rate that's remained rock-steady in Big 12 play.
Previous ranking: NR

17. Jordan Adams, G, UCLA Bruins
If you were naming the players, and not just freshmen, who had the strongest first month of the season, you wouldn't be able to list many names before you got to Adams. While Shabazz Muhammad ironed out his eligibility issues with the NCAA, Adams proved to be an incredibly effective featured scorer, one who made a smooth transition to co-featured scorer when Muhammad came on board. And while Adams' effectiveness on offense has taken a hit in Pac-12 play, the silver lining has been continued strong play on defense, including 12 steals over his last 225 defensive possessions.
Previous ranking: 8

18. Glenn Robinson III, F, Michigan Wolverines
If you'd been locked in a closet since Halloween and I showed you Robinson's season totals for the first time today, you'd be amazed by what a productive and efficient first 25 games he's had. But while on paper John Beilein's freshman still looks fantastic, in truth GRIII has has had a very rough February, one in which he's shot 32 percent on his twos. That still leaves 21 prior games where Robinson was very good and often better, of course, but his recent travails certainly bear monitoring. In the Wolverines' blowout loss at Michigan State, Beilein went so far as to use two Michigan bigs on the floor at the same time, at Robinson's expense.
Previous ranking: 5

19. Dominic Artis, G, Oregon Ducks
Congratulations to Artis, the first player ever to make my Top 25 Freshmen list through the bold expedient of not playing. On paper Dana Altman's floor general is just another promising but somewhat inefficient undersized freshman point guard. Stop me if this profile sounds familiar: Artis shoots way too many twos for someone who's connecting just 42 percent of the time inside the arc, and he's a little too turnover-prone. Throw a stick at the top third of Division I and you'll hit a dozen or more of those, right?

But say this for Artis, when he suffered a foot injury at the end of January the Oregon offense collapsed in his absence. In Pac-12 games where Artis hasn't played, UO has eked out a meager 0.90 points per trip, mainly because they've given the ball away on a whopping 28 percent of their possessions. It appears Artis' true value to his team cannot be measured by Artis' stats alone.
Previous ranking: NR

20. R.J. Hunter, G, Georgia State Panthers
When I included Hunter on my most recent freshman rankings, I predictably received some "Who's that?" type of responses. Hunter must have sensed what I was hearing, because he promptly went out and recorded one of the best single-game performances of any player on this list. Against Old Dominion, Hunter went off for 38 points thanks to 10-of-15 shooting from beyond the arc. No, this is not the strongest ODU team we've seen by any means, but Hunter's been both productive and efficient all season long for his father, head coach Ron Hunter. The younger Hunter also has a healthy steal rate, which is important because this defense absolutely needs every takeaway it can get.
Previous ranking: 21

21. Brandon Ashley, F, Arizona Wildcats
Arizona's a very good rebounding team at both ends of the floor, and Ashley has certainly done his part there. All season long Sean Miller's freshman has been a consistent presence on the defensive glass in particular, pulling down 23 percent of opponents' missed shots during his minutes. Ashley isn't called upon to carry much of the scoring load in a rotation with veterans like Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill, but he's been efficient within his role and has given every indication he can contribute effectively when needed.
Previous ranking: 19

22. Siyani Chambers, G, Harvard Crimson
Chambers is a little turnover-prone, and he's not the last word in efficiency inside the arc either. In other words, he's a freshman point guard. There's still a lot to like here, even with the occasional giveaway or missed shot. Tommy Amaker's freshman has been a consistent perimeter threat all season, one that draws about four fouls per 40 minutes and shoots 84 percent at the line. The Crimson backcourt has a solid foundation for the foreseeable future.
Previous ranking: 24

23. Danuel House, F, Houston Cougars
I had already planned on including House in my latest top 25, but if I hadn't the game the freshman just had against UTEP might have persuaded me. In the Cougars' 79-61 win over the Miners, House scored 19 points on just six shots (he was 6-of-8 at the line) to go along with four assists and two steals. House has been outstanding all season long at drawing fouls. The UH defense is not going to be confused with Florida's anytime soon, but with their freshman star getting to the line so often maybe the Cougars can just outgun their opponents.
Previous ranking: NR

24. Kellen Dunham, G, Butler Bulldogs
The Bulldogs appear to be in something of a funk at 7-3 in the A-10, but don't blame Dunham. He's been a machine, albeit a machine in a supporting role. Possibly the best pure shooter on this list, Dunham is draining 37 percent of his threes, and 92 percent of his free throws.
Previous ranking: 22

25. Archie Goodwin, G, Kentucky Wildcats
Time once again for our latest episode from "He'll Be a Better Pro Theater." I've heard some skepticism and even incredulity over Goodwin being projected as a borderline lottery pick for 2013, and I can see where that's coming from. Nominally a shooting guard, Goodwin doesn't really, you know, shoot all that well. John Calipari's freshman has displayed little if any perimeter range, and he's more or less average statistically in terms of accuracy inside the arc. But he's 6-5, and say this for Goodwin, he attacks. (Sometimes to a fault.) For the season he's drawing six fouls per 40 minutes, meaning that low offensive rating he sports has a lot to do with the fact that he's shooting just 66 percent at the line. I don't know what UK will be able to piece together in their post-Noel incarnation, but I do know that Goodwin will have as much to say on that subject as any Wildcat.
Previous ranking: NR

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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