The Nations Best Freshmen


Jan 2, 2002
[h=1]The nation's best freshmen[/h][h=3]UNLV's Bennett heads ranking of the top 25 freshmen in college basketball[/h]
By John Gasaway | Basketball Prospectus

For the past few seasons, I've been coming up with a performance-based ranking of the nation's top 25 freshmen every January -- and then leaving it at that. This season I've decided to do something a little different. This first ranking is just the start of a series where I'll be asking the question anew: Who are the nation's top 25 freshmen right now?

First, a word about these rankings. This is not a mock draft, and these players aren't ranked according to their projected ability to perform in the NBA. In fact my Nos. 16 and 19 are currently listed as Nos. 1 and 2 atop a lot of mock draft boards, and that's fine. I'm interested in college performances to date, as opposed to pro potential.

The problem with ranking a mere 25 freshmen, of course, is that you miss a horde of outstanding players. Just to touch on a few easy honorable mentions: Chris Obekpa of St. John's is an extraordinary shot-blocker, and D.J. Johnson (Kansas State), Charles Mitchell (Maryland) and Shaq Goodwin (Memphis) are amazing offensive rebounders. Kentucky's Archie Goodwin would be on this list if he didn't have to play out of position at point guard, and North Carolina's Brice Johnson might have been on this list if he'd simply picked a team where he got more minutes.
Oh, and yes, there's Stony Brook's Jameel Warney. I could go on (Texas A&M's Alex Caruso, Georgia State's R.J. Hunter) and on (Gonzaga's Przemek Karnowski, Pitt's James Robinson) and on (Georgia Tech's Marcus Georges-Hunt, Harvard's Siyani Chambers).

But there's no need. I'll be revisiting these rankings throughout the season. For now, as early as it is, here are the nation's top 25 freshmen:

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


1. Anthony Bennett, F, UNLV Rebels
What are the chances that the one recruit John Calipari doesn't get turns out to be the best freshman in the country? That's pretty much what has taken place. Bennett had Kentucky in his final three (along with Oregon), but in the end he chose to play for Dave Rice at UNLV.

This list is fairly brimming with elite talents who are off to amazing starts, but Bennett is the only player here who has put up numbers so good, they wouldn't be out of place coming from a national player of the year. At 6-foot-8, he's shown he can score whether he's in the post or facing the basket, and before it's over, he may prove he can make 3s as well. (He's 6-of-17 so far.) Whether it's because he has ceded the defensive rebounding entirely to Mike Moser, or he simply lacks that particular focus, but at the other end of the floor, Bennett is already a monster on the offensive glass. He also blocks shots and has done so with zero foul trouble (he's yet to pick up a fourth foul in a game).

If we're not careful, Bennett has the potential to sow rampant categorical confusion. You'll hear accurate praise pinned to his athleticism, but while he may be a freak, he's at least a fundamentally sound one. Bennett draws an incredible eight fouls per 40 minutes and is shooting 76 percent at the free throw line.

Even among the most elite recruits, it's surprisingly rare to see a freshman be physically dominant from the very start of the season the way, say, Michael Beasley was. Bennett may add another case history to this file before he's finished. It's early, but right now he's overpowering people.


2. Jordan Adams, G, UCLA Bruins
It's insufficient to say merely that Adams was the "fourth-ranked" recruit in this year's class of amazing UCLA freshmen. Adams was not only rated below Shabazz Muhammad (No. 2 in the ESPN 100), Kyle Anderson (No. 5), and Tony Parker (No. 26), he was rated far below those first two guys, at No. 41. And look what happened. As a team, the Bruins have disappointed many observers, but if every UCLA player outperformed expectations the way Adams has, I'd bet on these guys to beat the Lakers in a showdown for L.A. supremacy.

Adams' possession usage is actually similar to Muhammad's, and he's even taken a slighter higher percentage of the Bruins' shots during his minutes than Muhammad has during his time on the floor. So the numbers that have resulted need to be seen in context. Pre-existing player rankings notwithstanding, Adams has achieved outstanding efficiency not as a sidekick, but rather as the "two" or possibly even the "one" in a one-two Muhammad-Adams punch. Adams is a 6-5 wing who doesn't do assists (neither does Muhammad -- "The ball stops here" would make a great T-shirt for both), but he draws six fouls per 40 minutes and shoots 91 percent at the line. He also has made 62 percent of his 2s and 37 percent of his 3s while attempting roughly equal numbers of both.

For now, Adams is every bit as invisible to mock draft boards as Nik Stauskas or James Woodard. Frankly, if I were a UCLA fan, I'd be ecstatic. Everyone knows that Muhammad's just passing through, but with any luck, Bruins fans may get multiple seasons' worth of what they've seen in Adams' first eight games.


3. Nik Stauskas, G, Michigan Wolverines
Stauskas is merely Michigan's third option on offense, and you may think being rated the No. 3 freshman in the nation is disproportionate for a role player. In the abstract, I agree wholeheartedly, but exactly how much tribute do we give to a player who has helped his team's offense to the very limit allowed by the sport itself? Stauskas has an offensive rating (152.8) that's in another zip code, even better than that of Bennett (127.5) and Adams (122.8). He is a normal carbon-based player in only one facet of the game: Stauskas inside the arc with the clock running is a mere mortal. But if he's at the line (89 percent) or, heaven help the opponent, 3-point range (64 percent), he's Stauskasesque.

His numbers will correct downward, but the larger point is that for a second consecutive season, John Beilein has a freshman who arrived in Ann Arbor as a lightly regarded recruit, and who then promptly began stomping on opponents like Mothra. (Last time the freshman in question was named Trey Burke, who for his part has called Stauskas "probably the best shooter I've played with.") Whether this keeps happening because of Beilein, the freshmen, the guys doing the rankings, or some combination of all of the above, remains to be seen. But if you're a Michigan fan, what a great mystery to have to unravel.


4. Rasheed Sulaimon, G, Duke Blue Devils
If you've seen Sulaimon play, you know he already projects that veteran sense of reliability that very few sophomores have, much less freshmen. In Sulaimon's case it turns out that this "sense" is more than just an act. Mike Kryzyzewski's rotation in the backcourt already features two players, Quinn Cook and Tyler Thornton, who this season have committed a lot of turnovers relative to their different number of touches. (With Cook this is a bit of a surprise; with Thornton it's something of a recurring theme.) If, as one would expect of a freshman, Sulaimon had exacerbated this issue, it could have become a real problem for the Blue Devils. Instead the 6-4 wing has been a regular Jordan Taylor, playing near turnover-less ball while hitting 39.5 percent of his 3s.
Let me note here that any 18-year-old who can perform at such a high level after (allegedly) being cursed at by Lil Wayne is one cool customer.


5. Sam Dekker, F, Wisconsin Badgers
Gordon Hayward? Robbie Hummel? What's the right comparison for a 6-7 guy who can put the ball on the floor, hit 3s, and find the open man? Dekker comes off the bench for Bo Ryan and averages 20 minutes a game, which you could argue is a little low for being this high on the list. Then again, not many freshmen averaging 20 minutes have been called a "phenomenon." With point guard Josh Gasser out for the season with a torn ACL, Wisconsin is playing a seven-man rotation where most of the points come from four players: Dekker, Jared Berggren, Ben Brust and Ryan Evans. The freshman has been able to muscle his way into that circle by sinking 58 percent of his 2s and 45 percent of his 3s.

Dekker is on an All-Big Ten trajectory if he remains this accurate from both sides of the arc, though his 13-of-22 start at the foul line suggests we should hold off on declaring him the next perimeter sensation. In any event, I hope Dekker's candidacies for various honors during and after the season aren't hurt by well-meaning voters looking at traditional per-game stats. Such stats are especially misleading with regard to a player who logs limited minutes for one of Division I's slowest-paced teams.


6. Semaj Christon, G, Xavier Musketeers
No major-conference player on this list, not even Shabazz Muhammad himself, plays a larger role in his offense than near-major Semaj Christon does in the Xavier attack. A slightly taller (6-3) version of the traditional scoring point guard, Christon stays away from 3s (he's 2-of-7) but has made 57 percent of his 2s. And just like Tu Holloway, his predecessor at the position, Christon's a master at getting to the line, where he's knocked down 81 percent of his free throws.

Best of all, he has an assist rate that Kendall Marshall would be proud to claim as his own. Not many point guards can be both a Marshall-variety facilitator and a Holloway-style creator, but that's the path Christon could be headed down. In the Musketeers' 63-57 win at Purdue on Saturday, he put up 25 points on 8-of-12 shooting from the field and went 8-of-8 at the line. His first name may be a more common moniker spelled backward, but Christon's moving Xavier forward.


7. T.J. Warren, F, North Carolina State Wolfpack
Warren simply hasn't missed in the early going, a fact that Mark Gottfried has recognized by giving his budding star starts in each of the Wolfpack's past two games. The 6-8 freshman has the luxury of playing alongside established stars like C.J. Leslie and Richard Howell, but in any setting making 69 percent of your 2s as a high-volume scorer is remarkable. (That 69 percent shooting includes Warren's rather un-Warren-like 1-of-5 performance Tuesday night against Connecticut at Madison Square Garden.) It's all the more remarkable when you reflect that to this point Warren has been shuttled back and forth between the small and power forward positions, often to compensate for foul trouble incurred by Leslie and/or Howell. Then again, if his 43 percent shooting at the line persists, opponents will be correctly eager to foul Warren late in close games -- or any other time.


8. Ben McLemore, G, Kansas Jayhawks
McLemore's a redshirt, so for a year now we've been hearing rumblings out of Lawrence about how McLemore may have been the best NBA prospect on last season's KU team, much less this season's. Well, the rumblings largely have been borne out. McLemore is clearly the Jayhawks' featured scorer, and while his 3s aren't falling yet (he's shooting 31 percent), he's been a decided force for good anyway. In a rotation where Elijah Johnson is having turnover problems while he makes the switch to point guard, Self has been fortunate to have a "freshman" who combines high efficiency inside the arc with low-turnover performance.


9. Glenn Robinson III, F, Michigan Wolverines
I've already classed Stauskas as Michigan's "third option" on offense (see No. 3). Well, call Robinson the co-third option, because both freshmen account for roughly equal shares of the Wolverines' shot attempts during their respective minutes. Robinson is a 6-6 wing who favors 2s over 3s by about a 3-to-1 margin, and from a player who is hitting on 60 percent of his attempts inside the arc, that's a wise shot distribution. Like Stauskas, he lacerates opposing defenses that are already trying to contend with the likes of Burke and Tim Hardaway.


10. Alex Poythress, F, Kentucky Wildcats
I'm not endorsing Poythress' foul-plagued no-show at Notre Dame (1-of-1, three points), but on balance, the highly decorated Kentucky freshman has played in a manner befitting a highly decorated Kentucky freshman. Only at UK, amid the (rightful) worries triggered by a 5-3 start, could a freshman featured scorer drain 70 percent of his 2s and receive this little notice. Poythress is also getting it done on the offensive glass, but keep an eye on the turnovers. He was on the floor for 111 possessions the past two games and gave the ball away 10 times.


11. Jahii Carson, G, Arizona State Sun Devils
Herb Sendek says he has Arizona State playing at a markedly faster pace this season because of Carson, which, if you think about it, is fairly amazing. For years, this dynamic has worked in the other direction, as coaches have held forth knowingly about how their freshman point guard "needs to learn" how to play at the "right" (invariably slower) speed. The truth of the matter is the sassy new-look Sun Devils offense still isn't all that great. I'm just not sure that can be laid at the 5-10 Carson's door. He's been as good as advertised, hitting 43 percent of his 3s and treating the free throw line like a points ATM.


12. James Woodard, G, Tulsa Golden Hurricane
As a 6-4 scoring point guard, Woodard can be summed up for today's busy fans as the C-USA version of Semaj Christon. On paper Woodard is hitting 38 percent of his 3s. In truth, that's a somewhat dubious figure, one that's still being propped up nearly a month after he went 5-of-6 from 3-point range against a non-Division I opponent in the first game of his career. But for a freshman point guard to make better than 62 percent of his 2s while taking 29 percent of an offense's shots during his minutes is noteworthy.

Now the full disclosure: Wichita State notwithstanding, Danny Manning's team hasn't played the toughest of schedules. I'll be watching to see what Woodard and the Golden Hurricane can do in upcoming games against the likes of Creighton and Florida State.


13. Brandon Ashley, F, Arizona Wildcats
Sean Miller is not lacking for highly rated freshmen this season (namely Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett), but in the early going Ashley has been the best of that bunch. In the third game of his career he recorded a 20-10 double-double (against Long Beach State), and he has combined rebounding (at both ends), shot-blocking, and drawing fouls in a way that few players can pull off. The best part for Wildcats fans is that Ashley does all of the above without fouling. For now, he plays a supporting role on offense alongside Nick Johnson, Solomon Hill and Mark Lyons, but Ashley is a freshman to watch on an Arizona team that we always knew would have plenty of those.


14. Marcus Smart, G, Oklahoma State Cowboys
After coaching the United States' FIBA U-18 team last summer, Florida's Billy Donovan told anyone who would listen that Marcus Smart was a special player, and Smart certainly has lived up to Donovan's hype. The freshman already has asserted himself as the third Cowboy -- along with Le'Bryan Nash and Markel Brown -- who's on the floor more or less all game, every game. And continuing with our theme of big point guards, Smart is the biggest of the lot at 6-4 and 225 pounds. That size gives him the distinction of having not only a great assist rate, but also a pretty decent defensive rebounding percentage. His best contributions on offense by far have come from the aforementioned assists and at the free throw line, because he's yet to show perimeter range and is shooting just 46 percent inside the arc.


15. Gary Harris, G, Michigan State Spartans
Harris suffered a shoulder injury in the first minute of his fourth game, so we haven't seen much of him, and it's also hard to know whether he's entirely healthy now that he's returned. But in the glimpses we've had, Harris has been the kind of player Tom Izzo or any other coach would gladly take five of. On defense, Harris guards the opposing team's best perimeter player, and on offense he personally accounts for a (far) higher percentage of Michigan State's shots during his minutes than any other Spartan. It's easy to say Harris' 62 percent shooting inside the arc is a big boost for the offense (and it is), but the freshman's most valuable quality may be that he, unlike many of his teammates, doesn't turn the ball over.


16. Shabazz Muhammad, G/F, UCLA Bruins
After missing the start of the season while the NCAA investigated his eligibility, Muhammad has played five games. If you want to pooh-pooh and say it's too early to know anything definitive about the future lottery pick, feel free, but I've got a list to make. Muhammad is here because he's been moderately to highly effective as the co-featured scorer (see No. 2) for a team that still may turn out to be good. He's used a star's share of the possessions right from the get-go, already draws six fouls per 40 minutes, and has made 73 percent of his free throws. The NBA loves him because of his "electrifying athleticism." I like him because he's already shown he can carry a huge load on offense and still be a net benefit to his team. Freshmen who can make that claim are always rare, so you had best believe the hype on Muhammad.


17. Josh Scott, F, Colorado Buffaloes
While the 6-10 Scott has apparently signed a pledge not to take any defensive rebounds away from 6-7 teammate Andre Roberson, the freshman is at least allowed to be impressive on the offensive glass. Remarkably for a player of his size and age, Scott also minimizes turnovers while carrying a large share of the offense in the paint (though a few more makes would be nice). But Scott's specialty (speaking of unusual abilities for a freshman) is simply drawing more fouls than he commits, and he's shooting 77 percent at the line. The freshman came up big when his team needed him last week, recording an 18-12 double-double in the Buffaloes' 85-80 double-overtime win over surprisingly feisty Texas Southern.


18. Yogi Ferrell, G, Indiana Hoosiers
Meet this list's only pass-first point guard. On a team that already had Cody Zeller, Christian Watford, and Jordan Hulls before he arrived, Ferrell doesn't have to supply any additional scoring punch. All Ferrell has to do is facilitate and take care of the ball in Tom Crean's up-tempo offense. That's exactly what he's done.

In fact, aside from a four-turnover effort against North Dakota State, Ferrell hasn't turned the ball over more than twice in any game. (Which is fairly amazing, because to the naked eye, Ferrell often appears to leave his feet with the ball but without a clear plan. But, hey, numbers don't lie.) That, plus 89 percent foul shooting, gets you a spot in the top 25.


19. Nerlens Noel, F, Kentucky Wildcats
The ways in which Noel's performance has been inferior to that of a certain previous UK big man and current New Orleans Hornet (or is it Pelican?) have been and will continue to be recited at length. To redress that imbalance, here are two areas where Noel actually comes out on top: steals and assists. Noel is an unusually disruptive defender, one who can block shots but also record takeaways. He's also a surprisingly good passer, considering he's a star who has been hailed as The Man in every offense he's ever played in. Lastly, like his predecessor, Noel is for the most part available, meaning to this point he has largely stayed out of foul trouble. Noel can't surpass what was done at his position last season (no one could), but he's been better than most so far.


20. Kellen Dunham, G, Butler Bulldogs
North Carolina fans remember Dunham as the guy who made 5-of-9 3s against the Tar Heels in Butler's 82-71 win over Roy Williams' team in Maui. I don't know if this will make UNC fans feel better, but aside from that game, Dunham is shooting just 19 percent on his 3s. If he ever starts making shots from out there against teams not named "North Carolina," Dunham will quickly rise on this list, because everything else is borderline amazing. He's missed only one free throw (out of 22 attempts) and committed just three turnovers in seven games, all while hitting 56 percent of his rare 2s.


21. John Brown, F, High Point Panthers
Please salute this list's possession-usage champion, and for a change he's not a point guard. Brown is a 6-7 redshirt freshman who posted a 27-10 double-double against Wake Forest this week. He averages just 23 minutes a game, and while he did foul out once this season (against William and Mary), the limited minutes have come mostly as a matter of choice rather than necessity: Brown hasn't picked up a fourth foul in any other game. As a result, he really seizes the day, making 55 percent of his 2s and drawing fouls (eight per 40 minutes) like there's no tomorrow. An excellent shot-blocker, Brown is also productive on the offensive glass.


22. Damyean Dotson, G, Oregon Ducks
I don't know if Dotson can make 3s. Certainly he thinks he can, because the 6-5 wing has attempted 35 of them in eight games, but connected on just 29 percent. Fortunately for the Ducks, Dotson has offset those misses with 62 percent shooting on his 2s. In Dana Altman's up-tempo scheme, no player averages more than 27 minutes, but Dotson's a starter who leads the team in both minutes and shots. His best showing came the day after Thanksgiving against UNLV, when he scored 19 points in Oregon's 83-79 win (a game in which Anthony Bennett scored 22 for the Rebels).


23. Isaiah Austin, C, Baylor Bears
As a pro prospect, Austin perhaps ranks third behind only Muhammad and Noel among freshmen nationally. He's been pretty good as a college freshman as well, hitting his 2s while serving as a clear second option on offense alongside Pierre Jackson (or maybe a third option alongside Jackson and Cory Jefferson). At 7-1, Austin clearly wants to show he can shoot from outside, but thus far he's made just 31 percent of his attempts from long range. Similarly, it's too early to tell what he can add on the boards. On paper, his rebound percentages aren't all that impressive for a 7-foot lottery pick-to-be, but he's had some games (most notably against Boston College, Colorado, and St. John's) where he met expectations in that regard. Stay tuned.


24. Cameron Biedscheid, F, Notre Dame Fighting Irish
Biedscheid ranks seventh in minutes in Mike Brey's seven-player rotation, so the 6-7 freshman is quite eager in seeking out his shot during his scarce minutes. (No Notre Dame player is more likely to shoot during his minutes than Biedscheid.) To this point he has been accurate from both sides of the arc, and he's taken very good care of the ball. Those characteristics are present throughout the Fighting Irish roster, however, which is good news for fans in South Bend. It also means we'll most likely continue to learn about Biedscheid through brief but impressive glimpses.


25. Lester Wilson, F, East Tennessee State Buccaneers
Wilson had his worst game of the season this week, going 7-of-23 from the field in ETSU's demoralizing 70-45 loss to James Madison. But I expect Wilson to bounce back. Even including that game, he's still shooting 48 percent on his 3s, and doing so as a 20-point per-game freshman scorer for an Atlantic Sun team. Not bad at all; just don't expect any assists from the 6-4 wing. By my count, Wilson has been on the floor for 316 possessions, and he's recorded a grand total of two assists.


Dec 23, 2011
putting Narlens at 19 is truly absurb.

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