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August 18, 2009, 02:21 PM ET
Are Freshmen Necessary?

by John Gasaway

Today is a happy day. ESPN has posted its first Summer ShootAround preview of a major conference (ACC, natch), meaning our long national nightmare is drawing to a close. Forget hitherto anonymous major-tournament champions who will almost certainly return to anonymity. Never mind the fate of the Nats’ franchise. Ignore Brett Favre. (He makes it hard, I know.) This is important: college hoops is drawing near.

If there’s previewing being done, it goes without saying that the previewers are wondering aloud which ACC freshmen will make the biggest splash: Derrick Favors, John Henson, Ryan Kelly, Michael Snaer, or, as Homer Simpson might say, someone else?   

Any or all of those players may indeed provide a big boost for their team this season. Just remember, though, that if last year is any indication our expectations for freshmen should be, dare I say it, realistic.

Judging from the WWL’s salivating over Favors, Henson, et al. (”dominates the game,” “incredible,” “skill set that separates him from the others”), we are still operating in the interpretive echo left behind by the unreal 2007 recruiting class, a group that by itself accounted for over a third of the NBA’s lottery picks in the last two drafts, to wit: Derrick Rose, Blake Griffin, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo, James Harden, Kevin Love, Jonny Flynn, Eric Gordon, Jerryd Bayless, and Anthony Randolph. Nor are non-lottery ‘07 recruits such as Austin Daye, James Johnson, Jeff Teague, JJ Hickson, and Donte Greene what you’d call chopped liver. Heck, even some of the class’s chopped liver (Kosta Koufos, DeAndre Jordan) is at least gainfully employed. Lastly, note that the ‘07 class also included one DeJuan Blair. I believe with every fiber of my being that Blair will be a 12-time All-Star and first-ballot Hall of Famer before moving on to the U.S. Senate to represent his native Pennsylvania. The NBA, conversely, thinks he’s just another second-rounder. We shall see what we shall see. 

But 2007 was the exception and not the rule. My advice to you is to forget 2007 and instead view this year’s crop of freshmen through more of a 2008 lens. Remember the 2008 class? It was solid, certainly, but how many bona fide season-changing players did that class’s top tier really have?

I’d say two. Here is how Scout.com, for one, ranked last year’s elite freshmen in advance of the season:

1. Brandon Jennings
Jennings, of course, de-committed from the drama club that was/is Arizona (without, it should be noted, having attained academic eligibility) and spent his 2008-09 playing professionally in Europe, where by all accounts he was solid but not spectacular at point guard. He was drafted with the tenth pick by Milwaukee.

2. Jrue Holiday
The young lad from North Hollywood, CA, was superb on D for UCLA last year and showed an ability to finish near the hoop that most 6-3 freshmen don’t possess. But he played an unusually small role in the Bruins’ offense–perhaps, in part, because he was a turnover-prone 31 percent three-point shooter. Mind you, I trust he’ll do fine in the pros (he was drafted with the 17th pick by Philadelphia). Defense and 53 percent two-point shooting are nice indicators for a young guard. My point is simply that the putative second-best recruit in the country didn’t move correspondingly large mountains for his one and only UCLA team.

3. DeMar DeRozan
Nominally a wing, DeRozan didn’t rebound or make threes for USC in 2008-09. You don’t have to do both, of course, but I would have thought one would be nice coming from a SF/SG. To date DeRozan frankly baffles me; I will watch his development (he was drafted with the ninth pick by Toronto) with keen interest.

4. Samardo Samuels
Again, I trust Samuels will be fine medium-term at Louisville and beyond, but my most recent memory here is the freshman being benched in the regional final loss to Michigan State, having gone 0-for-6 from the field. To be fair, as the season progressed he did develop into a formidable weapon in-close on offense. Then again he was unbelievably invisible (this is a typo, right?) on the defensive glass.

5. B.J. Mullens
Said it before, I’ll say it again. Thad Matta’s best play for Mullens last year at Ohio State must have been called “Mongo Go to Rim.”

6. Kemba Walker
I’m bullish on Walker but I’ll concede we’re still early in this conversation, so to speak. He spent the bulk of the year playing a supporting role for a loaded Connecticut team, before taking on some unexpectedly huge minutes in a close regional final against Missouri. All the while Walker looked impossibly quick, even as he exhibited zero range on his shot (hitting a sub-Mendoza 27 percent of his threes).

7. Tyreke Evans
Season-changer. Single-handedly kept Memphis in contention during its season-ending Sweet 16 foul-fest with the aforementioned Tigers from Mizzou.

8. Scotty Hopson
There’s potential here: listed at 6-7, Hopson made 36 percent of his threes while supporting the more prominent likes of Tyler Smith and Wayne Chism at Tennessee.

9. Greg Monroe
Season-changer, albeit one who needs to snag a few more defensive boards for Georgetown.

10. Rashanti Harris
Like Jennings, a DNP. Harris prepped last year at the Patterson School in North Carolina and will debut this fall as a freshman at Georgia State. (Yes, Georgia State.)

Of course, if we look beyond just this class’s top ten players, we do find lead-pipe-cinch NBA prospects like Ed Davis, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Willie Warren. (Not to mention a healthy Tyler Zeller might show us a thing or two this year.) As I said, it’s a solid class.

But over the next few weeks as you read the glowing accounts of what this year’s freshmen are about to accomplish, just remember that even among elite recruits there will likely be more solid contributors than true season-changers.   

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