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 someday. 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 performance 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 a few easy honorary mentions, Chris Obekpa is an extraordinary shot blocker, and D.J. Johnson, Charles Mitchell, and Shaq Goodwin are amazing offensive rebounders. Archie Goodwin would be on this list if he could just be assured of not having to play out of position at point guard, and Brice Johnson could well be on this list if he'd simply picked a team where he got more minutes. Oh, and, yes, I see you 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 to go on and on. I'll be revisiting these rankings all through the season. For now, as early in the season as it is, here are the nation's top 25 freshmen:
(Who'd I miss? Let me know on Twitter @JohnGasaway.)
1. Anthony Bennett, UNLV
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 to this point in the young season: 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's the only player here who, in a preeminent role for his team, has put up numbers so good they wouldn't be out of place coming from a national Player of the Year. At 6-8 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 threes as well. (He's 6-of-17 thus far.) Whether it's because he's ceded the defensive rebounding entirely to Mike Moser or he simply lacks that particular gene is unclear, 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, thus far, 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 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, UCLA
It's insufficient to the descriptive task at hand 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 nationally 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 LA supremacy.
Adams' possession usage is actually similar to Muhammad's, and, incredibly, 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. Preexisting 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 Bruins), but he draws six fouls per 40 minutes and shoots 91 percent at the line. He's also made 62 percent of his twos and 37 percent of his threes while attempting roughly equal numbers of both.
For now Adams is every bit as invisible to mock draft boards as Nik Stauskas, James Woodard, or John Gasaway, and, frankly, if I were a UCLA fan I'd be ecstatic. Everyone knows that Muhammad's just passing through, but with luck Bruin fans may get multiple seasons' worth of what they've seen in Adams' first eight games.
3. Nik Stauskas, Michigan
Stauskas is merely Michigan's third option on offense, and you may think being rated the No. 3 freshman in the nation is self-evidently disproportionate for a role player. In the abstract I agree wholeheartedly, but exactly how much tribute do we give to a player who's helped his offense to the very limit allowed by the sport itself? Stauskas has an offensive rating (152.8) that's in another zip code entirely from what even the amazing likes of Bennett (127.5) and Adams (122.8) have posted. 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, outside the arc (64 percent), he's Stauskasesque.
His numbers will correct downward from this point forward, but the larger point is that for a second consecutive season John Beliein 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, Duke
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 very 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's been a regular Jordan Taylor, playing near turnover-less ball while hitting 39.5 percent of his threes. Also note that if we can know anything about any freshman after "just" eight games, a freshman who's played the likes of Kentucky, Minnesota, VCU, Louisville, and Ohio State is probably going to give us our best shot. Lastly, let me remark 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, Wisconsin
Gordon Hayward? Robbie Hummel? What's the right comparison for a 6-7 guy who can put the ball on the floor, hit threes, 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 year with a torn ACL, Wisconsin's playing a seven-man rotation where most of the points come from four players: Dekker, Jared Berggren, Ben Brust, and Ryan Evans. The freshman's been able to muscle his way into that circle by sinking 58 percent of his twos and 45 percent of his threes while aggressively looking for his own shot. Dekker's on an All-Big-Ten trajectory if he really does turn out to be 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 just yet. 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, Xavier
No major-conference player on this list, not even Shabazz Muhammad himself, plays a larger role in their offense than near-major Semaj Christon does in the Xavier attack. A slightly taller version (6-3) of the traditional scoring point guard, Christon stays away from threes (he's 2-of-7) but has made 57 percent of his twos. And just like Tu Holloway, his predecessor in the position, Christon's a master at getting to the line, where he's knocked down 81 percent of his freebies. 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 backwards, but Christon's moving Xavier forward.
7. T.J. Warren, NC State
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 last 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 twos as a high-volume scorer is outstanding. (That 69 percent shooting includes Warren's rather un-Warren-like 1-of-5 performance against Connecticut at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday night.) It's all the more surprising 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, Kansas
McLemore's a redshirt, so for a year now we've been hearing rumblings from out of Lawrence all about how McLemore may have been the best NBA prospect on last season's KU team, much less this season's. Well, the rumblings have been largely borne out. McLemore is clearly the Jayhawks' featured scorer, and while his threes aren't falling yet (he's shooting 31 percent), he's been a decided force for good in the KU offense anyway. In a rotation where Elijah Johnson's having turnover problems while he makes the switch to point guard, Self's been fortunate to have a "freshman" who combines high efficiency inside the arc with low-turnover performance.
9. Glenn Robinson, Michigan
I've already classed Nik Stauskas as Michigan's "third option" on offense (see No. 3, above). 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's a 6-6 wing who favors twos over threes by about a 3-to-1 margin, and from a player that's 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 Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway.
10. Alex Poythress, Kentucky
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 twos 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 over the past two games and gave the ball away 10 times.
11. Jahii Carson, Arizona State
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 if not decades 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. And, to be perfectly fair to decades' worth of coaches, the truth of the matter is the sassy new-look Sun Devil 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 threes and treating the free throw line like a points ATM.
12. James Woodard, Tulsa
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's 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 beyond the arc against a non-D-I opponent in the first game of his career. But for a freshman point guard to make better than 62 percent of his twos while taking 29 percent of an offense's shots during his minutes is noteworthy, to say the least. 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, Arizona
Sean Miller's not lacking for highly rated freshmen this season (namely Kaleb Tarczewski and Grant Jerrett), but in the early going Ashley's 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 for the season Ashley has combined rebounding (at both ends), shot blocking, and drawing fouls in a way that few players can pull off. The best part for Wildcat 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, Oklahoma State
After coaching the FIBA U-18 team for the United States last summer, Billy Donovan told anyone who would listen that Marcus Smart was a special player, and Smart has certainly lived up to Donovan's hype. The freshman's already 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 unique distinction of having not only a great assist rate but also a pretty decent (16.5) defensive rebound percentage. (Smart may also be the only point guard to rank among the nation's top 400 players in block percentage.) His best contributions on offense by far have come from the aforementioned assists and at the free throw line, for he's yet to show perimeter range and is shooting just 46 percent inside the arc.
15. Gary Harris, Michigan State
Harris suffered a shoulder injury in the first minute of his fourth game, so we haven't seen much of him and, anyway, it's 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 MSU'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, UCLA
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's here because he's been moderately to highly effective as the co-featured scorer (see No. 2, above) for a team that may still 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 "length, scoring instincts, aggressiveness and smarts." I like him because he's shown just five games into his college career that 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 best believe the hype on Muhammad.
17. Josh Scott, Colorado
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 Buffs' 85-80 double-overtime win over surprisingly feisty Texas Southern.
18. Yogi Ferrell, Indiana
Meet this list's only pass-first point guard. On a team that already has Cody Zeller, Christian Watford, and Jordan Hulls, Yogi 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 for what will happen next. Hey, numbers don't lie.) That, plus 89 percent foul shooting, gets you a spot in the top 25.
19. Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
The ways in which Noel's performance has been inferior to that of a certain previous UK big man and current New Orleans Hornet 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 in that particular comparison: Steals and assists. Noel's an unusually disruptive defender, one who can not only block shots but also record takeaways. He's also a surprisingly good passer considering he's a star who's 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, Butler
North Carolina fans remember Dunham as the guy who made 5-of-9 threes 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 or worse, but aside from that game Dunham's shooting just 19 percent on his threes. If he ever starts making shots from out there against teams not named "North Carolina," Dunham will quickly rise to the upper reaches of 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 twos.
21. John Brown, High Point
Please salute this list's possession usage champion, and for a change he's not a point guard. Brown's 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 of one contest 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, jacking up shots (he's making 55 percent of his twos) 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, Oregon
I don't know if Dotson can make threes or not. Certainly he thinks he can, because the 6-5 wing has attempted 35 of them in eight games, but he's connected on just 29 percent of those attempts. Fortunately for the Ducks Dotson has offset those misses with 62 percent shooting inside the arc. 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 fellow honoree Anthony Bennett scored 22 for the Rebels).
23. Isaiah Austin, Baylor
As a pro prospect, Austin perhaps ranks third behind only Muhammad and Noel among freshmen nationally. He's been pretty good as a college freshmen as well, hitting his twos 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 seven-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, Notre Dame
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's 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 the medium of brief but on the whole very impressive glimpses.
25. Lester Wilson, East Tennessee State
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 with that game included he's still shooting 48 percent on his threes for the season, and doing so as a 20-point-a-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 this season, and in that time he's recorded a grand total of two assists.
A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider .
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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