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#pounditSunday, September 20, 2020

10 most impressive freshmen this college basketball season

Zion Williamson

The period between Christmas and New Years acts as a handy moment to redefine the college basketball season. Conference play for nearly every league kicks off, meaning we can really start to assess which teams are fighting for top seeds, which have a shot at an at-large tournament bid, and which are in some serious need of a turnaround.

College basketball’s increase in newcomers has been one of the main reasons it takes a few months to sort out all of those details. Transfers, both those moving as a graduate or those who looked for a new path as undergrads, are everywhere in college hoops. The rising importance of freshmen has been an even more crucial change.

One-and-done freshmen, or those who think they have a chance at a shot at the NBA this spring, are major players in the basketball landscape. Even freshmen with uncertain professional prospects are entering college more physically and mentally ready to play than ever before.

By now, it’s clear which first-year players will be factors in March and which need time to sort things out. Here is a look at 10 freshmen who have impressed this season so far:

10. Talen Horton-Tucker, Iowa State

Iowa State has been riddled by both injuries and suspensions early in the season, leaving coach Steve Prohm with a short bench to date. It has mattered far less than many expected thanks to the emergence of freshman Talen Horton-Tucker.

The freshman is a do-everything glue guy for the Cyclones, standing only 6-foot-4, but a solid 240 pounds. Though Horton-Tucker is averaging 14.8 points per game, it’s his all-around game that has impressed. He is adding 11.5 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and 3.1 steals per 100 possessions. Even as a freshman, he’s been arguably the most efficient player on the floor for Iowa State.

In just his fifth collegiate game, Horton-Tucker posted 26 points, 14 rebounds, and 6 assists against Illinois at the Maui Invitational. If Prohm and his staff didn’t have Horton-Tucker at the forefront of their gameplans before that performance, they do now.

9. Devon Dotson, Kansas

Freshmen point guards have a mixed history of success. Even when they shine, there are errors to look past and overcome. Even Trae Young, while leading the nation in scoring and assists, caught flack for his high level of turnovers. It’s rare to see first-year ball-handlers display a high basketball IQ and make few mistakes.

Dotson has been a steadying presence for the undefeated Jayhawks. He initiates the offense, pushes the ball in transition, and finds teammates in areas where they can score. When he does attack the basket, Dotson has been remarkably smart about when and where to shoot the ball. That discerning attitude has led him to 52 percent shooting from the field, 43 percent from outside the arc, and 81 percent from the free throw line.

Although Dotson’s box score lines won’t make your eyes pop out of your head, he has been one of the key reasons Kansas spent time atop the polls this December.

8. Bol Bol, Oregon

There may not be another player on Earth with Bol Bol’s skillset. I don’t just mean a college basketball player – I mean anyone.

Bol, whose father Manute played in the NBA, is 7-foot-2, with a wingspan of 7-foot-8. He’s one of the nation’s best rim protectors, averaging more than 5 blocks per 100 possessions and posting the 14th-best block rate among major conference players.

Bol’s offensive game is what truly sets him apart. He is scoring 21 points per game, pouring in buckets from all over the floor. Despite his size, Bol is shooting 2.8 three-point attempts per 40 minutes, and sinking 52 percent (!) of those attempts. In the 26 years searchable on Sports Reference, Bol is one of only two players listed as a forward or center to shoot at least 2.5 threes per game and make more than half those shots. (The only other player to qualify for those thresholds, Toledo’s Luke Knapke is also doing so this season).

A stretch-five is not unheard of in 2018’s basketball landscape, yet no one in college basketball plays that role as effectively as Bol Bol. He’s not perfect and still raw, figuring things out in many respects. On the season, Bol has twice as many turnovers as assists and can look lost in certain situations.

Once he feels more comfortable on the court, his talent can lead him to great heights.

7. Luguentz Dort, Arizona State

While we’re on a run of giving high compliments to players with fun sounding names, let’s talk about the Canadian combo guard that’s making waves down in the desert. Dort plays like a 19-year-old Dwyane Wade, injected with about 20 extra pounds of muscle.

Though he stands just 6-foot-4, Dort is taking more than half of his field goals at the rim, per Hoop-Math.com. That aggressive nature leads to eight free throw attempts per game for Dort. Playing for former Duke point guard Bobby Hurley, Dort has been the driving force of the Sun Devils offense.

At times, the freshman has had a bit of tunnel vision and a tendency to force the issue. When things are going his way, that feels like proactive offensive basketball. When things start to slip out of control, Dort can struggle to get efficient shots at the basket. His ability to stay within himself and attack the right opportunities will decide how successful Arizona State can be this season. Even with Dort shooting just 3-for-14, the Sun Devils were able to knock off top-ranked Kansas. When he’s making shots, the Arizona State offense gets scary good.

6. Romeo Langford, Indiana

To date, Indiana has only faced one team that sits within the KenPom top 25. The rest of the Hoosiers’ schedule has been challenging, but that one game at Duke felt like a chance for Indiana to make a statement. Just the opposite happened, with the Blue Devils dominating for 40 minutes. Romeo Langford was bottled up by a difficult situation, shooting 3-for-15 from the field.

Aside from that game, most of what we’ve seen from Langford has been intriguing. He’s scored in double-figures every game and made some very exciting flash plays. At other times, Langford has looked like a freshman. He’s shooting almost four threes per game and barely making 20 percent of them, hitting just 10 of 47 long range attempts this season. His assist-to-turnover ratio is only a whisper north of 1-to-1.

The game should slow down as Langford gains experience, yet the gauntlet of a Big Ten schedule is approaching.

5. Cam Reddish, Duke

No player in basketball history has faced what Reddish is currently going through. Thanks to the top three ranked recruits choosing the same school for the first time in history, Reddish is the first ever top three recruit to be the third-most heralded player in his own freshman class.

At times, Reddish has truly looked like an elite prospect. He has scored 20 or more points three times and made 10 of his first 21 three-point attempts as a Blue Devil.

At other times, Reddish has felt like an afterthought behind two players still to come on this list. He has scored in single-figures on four separate occasions. He came to college billed as a knockdown shooter, and it showed early on, as Reddish shot over 43 percent from long range in his first 8 games. In Duke’s last four games, Reddish is just 5-for-29 from outside the arc, a dismal 19 percent. In two of those games, Reddish failed to reach the free throw line and twice in that four-game span, he failed to score a two-point basket.

Reddish was supposed to be a good shooter, among other things. Playing alongside a superteam has limited him and made him only a shooter, and one who has been streaky at times. His development as a slasher and creator is one of the most important things when determining Duke’s ceiling this season.

4. Coby White, North Carolina

If his 33-point outburst against Texas didn’t catch your eye, surely you’ve taken note of Coby White by now. The freshman point guard was the catalyst of the Tar Heels’ crucial win over Gonzaga, not to mention, he’s hard to miss thanks to the giant afro he sports on the court.

White has taken to Roy Williams’ up-tempo style like a fish to water, driving the high-powered Carolina offense. To date, White is the only freshman in college basketball making more than 40 percent from long range while taking more than 5 hrees per game and adding more than 3.5 assists per game. Those are some specific benchmarks but they speak to how successful White has been as both a scorer and a creator for his teammates.

3. RJ Barrett, Duke

Last year, Trae Young did absolutely everything for Oklahoma. He was both criticized and defended for his abnormally high usage rate. It led to bad shots and turnovers, but also amazing plays and got him drafted in the top five picks of the NBA Draft.

Last year, Young attempted 28.5 field goals per 100 possessions. This year, RJ Barrett is averaging 32.5 field goal attempts per 100 possessions. He is one of just five players in college basketball attempting more than 19 field goals per game. Most of the time, that’s been a good thing for Duke. Barrett is incredibly skilled and athletically gifted. He is averaging 23 points and 7 rebounds per game.

Barrett has also hampered Duke at times by looking to the rim a little too frequently. At the end of Duke’s only loss (to Gonzaga), Barrett shot the ball five times in the game’s final minute while the rest of the team managed just two shots combined, including none by Zion Williamson.

A player like Barrett shooting too much is a problem only Duke could have, yet it has been one of the only definable issues with Duke so far this season. Barrett is shooting nearly 20 times per game, converting under 50 percent from the field and under 32 percent from outside the arc. In fact, Barrett has missed his last 11 three-point attempts (and made just 3 of his last 29 long range attempts).

RJ Barrett is a spectacular basketball player on a very good basketball team. He is at his best, though, when he is not only looking to score, but using his teammates’ skills to his advantage. When Barrett stares down the rim, he is overlooking how effective the offense can be when he uses his scoring ability and court vision to create wide open shots for the Blue Devils, for him or a teammate.

2. Ignas Brazdeikis, Michigan

Last March, if you’d told us that one of the teams in the national championship game started the season 12-0 and that streak included three blowout wins over top 20 teams, I think we’d all believe you. I tend to think we’d all assume it was Villanova, but even if we guessed Michigan started this season so efficiently, no one could have guessed a freshman would be leading them in scoring

For Ignas Brazdeikis to be playing like the best player on arguably college basketball’s best team this season has been nothing short of shocking. The Canadian freshman has been a seamless fit into John Beilein’s motion offense, hitting threes and attacking the glass with a swagger not seen at Michigan since the days of the Fab Five.

Michigan lost three starters from last season’s national runner-up, and Brazdeikis has been able to recreate much of what those players brought to the table. He stretches and confounds defenses like Moritz Wagner. He slashes to the bucket like Muhammad-Ali Abdur-Rahkman, and he shoots like Duncan Robinson.

If he can continue to play at this level, Michigan is the team to beat in the Big Ten.

1. Zion Williamson, Duke

My argument about RJ Barrett being a little shot-heavy earlier in this post is predicated heavily on the fact that Barrett shares a lineup with Zion Williamson. College basketball hasn’t seen a physical marvel like Williamson since at least Anthony Davis or Blake Griffin, both of whom won National Player of the Year honors.

Due to Williamson’s skill set, it makes sense that he doesn’t necessarily need to lead Duke in field goal attempts. His profile works with the ball, but also attacking the offensive glass, cutting without the ball, as a screener, or simply pushing the envelope in transition. That being said, Williamson shouldn’t be attempting eight fewer field goals per game than any teammate. Barrett is taking 37 percent of Duke’s shots when he’s on the floor (12th-most in Division I), while Williamson shoots just 26 percent of the team’s looks when on the court. That needs to balance out for Duke to be at their peak offensively.

Williamson is too talented and efficient for that to be the case. He is shooting 65 percent from the field, though that stat is dragged down by Williamson’s struggles from outside the arc, where he hits under 20 percent of his shots. Inside the arc, Williamson is a runaway freight train unable to be stopped. He leads college basketball in 2-point shooting percentage among players with at least 100 attempts. Williamson is also drawing 6.4 fouls per 40 minutes. Getting him more chances in transition or in the flow of the offense will open up more shots and better scoring opportunities for Barrett, Reddish, and the rest of the Blue Devils.

Shane McNichol covers college basketball and the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. He also blogs about basketball at Palestra Back and has contributed to Rush The Court, ESPN.com, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain.

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