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January 7, 2009
The Nation's Top 25 Freshmen
(So Far)

by John Gasaway

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By now you've of course heard that this year's freshman class is terrible. No Roses! No Beasleys! No Mayos!

No kidding. It's true that no freshman this year has combined advance hype, prominence in his team's offense, and scoring efficiency the way Beasley did last year (and Kevin Durant did in 2006-07).

The problem with a lot of reportage in this vein, however, is that it starts from last year's McDonald's All-American team. While there are indeed stories to be told there, it's also true that there are a few hundred freshmen in the country who weren't so recognized.

So my take on this freshman class is a little different. I'm not going to start with a ritual nod toward DeMar DeRozan's slow start. (Though I guess I kind of just did.) Seriously, someone does have to explain DeRozan to me. I'm not really sure what we're supposed to see there even when he does well. He appears to be a strange wing, one that neither shoots threes nor rebounds.

Instead I've asked simply: which freshmen have played the best? Answering that question leaves a lot of McDonald's honorees out of the mix.

Mind you, I'm not doubting the obvious talents or future career prospects of, say, a Tyreke Evans (drowning in his own misses at Memphis in roughly the same fashion that Manny Harris did last year at Michigan). I'm just saying that to me these look like the 25 best seasons so far, irrespective of prior reputations.

One last note. The specter of freshmen getting minutes and using possessions is largely a power-conference luxury (though Tom Crean and Indiana might disagree with the "luxury" part this season). Still, when you're talking about 270 teams outside the "major" conferences, there are indeed a number of productive freshmen you may not have seen yet. Let this be your introduction.

Now, let's count them down….

25. Kevin Foster, Santa Clara. Congratulations to Foster, who kicks off this distinguished list for two reasons. First, he's performed quite well as a combo guard while carrying a load for the Broncos on offense that is second only to that shouldered by mighty senior John Bryant. (Note, for example, that Foster takes very good care of the ball on a team that struggles mightily in that area.) Second and much more importantly, I went to high school with a Kevin Foster.

24. Samardo Samuels, Louisville. Much was expected of Samuels and he's struggled at times, particularly with turnovers. Say this for the freshman, though: he draws a ton of fouls and shoots an adequate 73 percent from the line.

23. Mike Rosario, Rutgers. Judged alongside his fellow elite freshmen, Rosario hasn't been particularly efficient in his scoring. Then again, compared to the recent past in Piscataway, he's practically the second coming of Kevin Love. Between Rosario and Gregory Echenique (who narrowly missed making this list), the future suddenly looks a lot better for Fred Hill's team.

22. Travis Taylor, Monmouth. With Taylor and Mike Myers Keitt, the Hawks' offense is more freshman-centric than that of just about any other mid-major. Of the two new arrivals, Taylor is the more efficient, at least when he's not shooting free throws.

21. Jeffery Taylor, Vanderbilt. My consecutive Taylor streak continues with Jeffery, who would move up about six or seven spaces on this list if he'd just stop shooting threes (he's 4-of-26). Other than that he's been superb, taking on a featured role in the Commodores' offense that's almost exactly equal to A.J. Ogilvy's, making 59 percent of his twos and serving as his team's best offensive rebounder.

20. Darryl Bryant, West Virginia. Over the past month Truck Bryant has stepped in at the point for the injured Joe Mazzulla and steered the Mountaineers quite capably, albeit with a few too many turnovers.

19. Sylven Landesberg, Virginia. Functions as "the man" in the offense of an ACC team, takes care of the ball, draws fouls with regularity and makes 80 percent of his free throws.

18. Kemba Walker, Connecticut. On paper, Walker's turnover rate is alarming. In reality he's given hints of smoothing out that wrinkle, coughing the ball up just once over his last 38 minutes. Continued improvement here would move Walker way up this list.

17. Yancy Gates, Cincinnati. Strangely under-hyped, Gates has taken on a featured role for his offense (he's even more likely to shoot during his minutes than Deonta Vaughn is) and scored very efficiently, thanks in large part to voracious offensive rebounding. You'd think we would have heard more about such a freshman playing for a Big East team.

16. Matt Gatens, Iowa. Forget freshmen. Has there been a better pure shooter in the entire nation, in any class, so far this season than Gatens? He's made 54 percent of his threes and 97 percent of his free throws. If basketball were H-O-R-S-E, Gatens would be the number 1 overall pick this June. (Also note that the Hawkeyes are the slowest-paced team in the nation, so ignore Gatens' per-game stats entirely. Please.)

15. Alex Young, IUPUI. Something in the Jaguars' DNA apparently compels them to route an inordinate number of shots and possessions through a single player. Now that George Hill is with the San Antonio Spurs, that starring role has fallen to Young, who really needs to give up on the threes (he's 19-of-67) but otherwise has been a no-turnover scoring machine inside the arc.

14. Murphy Holloway, Ole Miss. Holloway wasn't even the highest-rated recruit in his own class at Ole Miss and his minutes initially reflected that. Andy Kennedy's been using Holloway more of late, however, because the freshman functions kind of like a li'l DeJuan Blair: offensive rebounds, made shots, even steals.

13. Darrius Morrow, East Carolina. Morrow had a chance to make a splash over the weekend against undefeated Clemson but fouled out. That outing aside, he's been a force of nature on the offensive boards (and, granted, an adventure at the free throw line).

12. Paul McCoy, Southern Methodist. Few freshmen can match McCoy for sheer scoring efficiency, as the first-year guard's made 47 percent of his threes and, even more remarkably, 57 percent of his twos. He also sports a very healthy steal rate. I hereby nominate McCoy as the (very) early favorite for the 2012 Frances Pomeroy Naismith Award. (His main competition here might be Oklahoma State's Keiton Page.)

11. Seth Curry, Liberty. Forget about his big brother. Seth makes 44 percent of his threes while functioning as the Flames' featured scorer.

10. Shelvin Mack, Butler. As an Acie Law-type scoring point guard, Mack has calmly QB'd the Bulldogs to their surprising start in what was supposed to be a rebuilding year. Don't be fooled by low per-game numbers in, well, everything for Mack or his fellow freshman Gordon Hayward (below). Butler games usually have two, maybe three possessions.

9. Courtney Fortson, Arkansas. The honorific of best freshman point guard is pretty clearly a competition between Mack and Fortson. I'd call it a draw, which is a compliment to both players. Fortson commits too many TOs and is quite literally painful to watch at the free throw line, but his astounding assist rate (currently sixth in the nation) is a remarkable achievement for a player in the January of his first season. He's also weirdly effective on the glass for someone listed under six feet--in the Hogs' upset of Texas, Fortson recorded a 13-10 double-double.

8. Gordon Hayward, Butler. To repeat what I've already observed about Hayward: he's a pure-shooting defensive rebounder. It's a particular profile and pre-back-spasm Robbie Hummel presents a similar case, but the player that really created the mold here was perhaps Daequan Cook, albeit in a much more prominent role than that allotted to Hayward.

7. Ed Davis, North Carolina. It's tough to categorize a highly-decorated freshman who can't get many minutes because his team is even more highly-decorated. Be that as it may, Davis gives every indication of achieving insane results on the defensive glass. He will be the foundation of the Carolina defense next year and then, most likely, move up to the next level.

6. Andrew Nicholson, St. Bonaventure. Far and away the best shot-blocker on this list. Ed Davis comes the closest and he's not that close.

5. Luke Babbitt, Nevada. Against North Carolina on New Year's Eve, Babbitt scored his team's first four points over Tyler Hansbrough. A McDonald's All-American who chose to stay in his hometown of Reno, Babbitt already takes excellent care of the ball and presents an inside-outside threat to opposing defenses.

4. Jrue Holiday, UCLA. It's always nice when a McDonald's All-American who's not a big man shows some interest in D, and Holiday is already recording steals in bunches. He's also made an unheard-of 64 percent of his twos.

3. Al-Farouq Aminu, Wake Forest. Aminu gives the ball away too often, but when he doesn't he's more accurate on his twos than any big man listed here. His per-game scoring average would look much sexier if his team weren't so good--the Deacons have a wealth of options.

2. Willie Warren, Oklahoma. I'm baffled by why we haven't heard more about a McDonald's All-American who averages 16 points a game for a major-conference team with Final Four hopes. Warren's been very good from the perimeter and outstanding inside the arc. He's also displayed a knack for assists that's rare for someone who arrived billed as a high school scoring machine. The Sooners are more than Blake Griffin.

1. Greg Monroe, Georgetown. The jury's still out on Monroe's defensive rebounding, but everything else looks magnificent. With the possible exception of the aforementioned Warren, no freshman in the country brings together heavy usage with high efficiency on offense as well as Monroe. He also combines three things you rarely see in the same player: good passing, shot-blocking, and steals. Monroe's talents make him the hoops equivalent of a Swiss army knife; his air of preternatural and indeed borderline Taoist calm hasn't been seen from a star freshman since Mike Conley. If he just had a little Blake Griffin-variety rebounding fool in him, yikes.

Who'd I miss? Let me know.

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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The Best Point Guard i... (01/06)
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The Best Point Guard i... (01/08)

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