One day in the 1950s, a young boy in southern California was riding with his parents in their car when a song came on the radio. The boy liked what he heard and his parents told him it was by a group called The Four Freshmen.
The boy was Brian Wilson, and a few years later he started his own group, The Beach Boys, that featured tight vocal harmonies just like the ones that had drawn him to the sound coming from the car radio. For his new group Wilson enlisted the voices of not only his two younger brothers but also that of his cousin.
Proving once and for all that Disney is always right and there really is a “circle of life,” that cousin turned out to be Mike Love. You may know Love only vaguely as a bearded and somewhat litigious fellow who seems to be forever suing a dwindling group of surviving band mates. Nevertheless, Love also happens to have a nephew, Kevin, who today features very prominently in a latter-day version of The Four Freshmen.
Maybe next year’s crop of amazing first-year college basketball players will for reasons as yet inscrutable be labeled “Parliament” and I’ll start this piece with a biographical exegesis on Bootsy Collins. We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. For now, let’s approach this year’s quartet alphabetically. Ladies and gentlemen, The Four Freshmen:
Michael Beasley, Kansas State
Beasley and Kevin Durant were born within 105 days of each other in Washington, D.C., and they’re both 6’9” McDonald’s All-Americans who chose to play for Big 12 teams on a strictly one-and-done basis. Fine, I’ll bite. Kevin Durant vs. Michael Beasley: how does that look so far in the young season? Surprisingly close, actually.
For all their surface similarities, there are differences. Durant was and is a true inside-outside dual threat, while more than 85 percent of Beasley’s attempts are twos. Yet Beasley’s been so effective inside the arc that he’s the more efficient scorer of the two thus far. Sure, Beasley’s efficiency will decline as the season goes on, true road games accumulate, scouting improves, etc. Even so, it’s been an auspicious debut for the one-year Wildcat.
As for defense, Beasley’s posted a defensive rebound percentage that would make Bill Russell envious. Part of that, of course, is simply outstanding work turned in by Beasley. As my indefatigable colleague Ken Pomeroy has already pointed out, however, another part of that is the total lack of rebounding displayed by his relatively diminutive teammates. Durant, conversely, posted an outstanding defensive rebound percentage while battling for each rebound with no less a high-energy beast than Damion James.
Most importantly for their respective legacies, Durant burnished his legend by playing for an incredible offensive team. Not so Beasley. Depending on how you look at it, Beasley’s either not going to be as fortunate or as catalytic: K-State is averaging less than a point per possession on the young season. While the ‘Cats crash the offensive glass, they cough the ball up about 23 percent of the time, and their shooting has ranged from average to horrific, up to and including a nationally-televised 3-for-20 performance on their threes against Notre Dame in Madison Square Garden. Beasley will make some NBA GM very happy in a matter of months. His current team, however, may hinder his ascension to Durantian heights during his one and only year of college ball.
Eric Gordon, Indiana
In the Hoosiers’ win on Monday night over Tennessee State, Gordon suffered what the Indianapolis Star terms a “soft tissue bruise below his left hip.” If he’s able to return in time for Saturday’s game against Kentucky, that will be very good news for Kelvin Sampson. Not only does the Indiana offense go through Gordon, the freshman from Indianapolis is in fact far and away his team’s most efficient scorer. While teammate D.J. White is about as effective from the floor, the freshman is of course far superior to the senior at the free-throw line—a place Gordon visits often.
As the season progresses, Gordon’s three-point percentage (which now stands at an even 50) may fall a little more than, say, Beasley’s two-point percentage. No problem for the Hoosiers there: Gordon’s 84 percent free-throw shooting suggests his three-point percentage won’t fall too far. Not to mention that as long as Gordon is getting to the line, he’s helping his offense.
Helping his offense is all Gordon does. Unlike Beasley (or Love), Gordon’s contributions are strictly limited to one side of the ball. That’s not to say he coasts on D, merely that his particular role is simply to stay in good position and get a hand up in his man’s face when a shot goes up. Aside from that, he records no steals or defensive boards beyond what simple happenstance bestows.
He’s a force of nature on offense, pure and simple, meaning Gordon alone won’t cure all ills for a team that already had an outstanding offense and a so-so defense. Still, a deadly shooter who’s also able to create contact and get to the line represents the synthesis of that which is usually antithetical—and the result is undeniably stellar. Gordon assumes as large a role in his offense as Beasley does in his, and Gordon’s level of overall offensive efficiency is virtually identical to Beasley’s: stratospheric.
Kevin Love, UCLA
Among the four freshmen, Love’s situation is unique—and not just because he has an uncle in The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. The other three first-year sensations have in effect been handed the ball by their respective coaches and told to go out and carry their offenses. Love, conversely, is but one component—albeit a vital one—of a team that has serious designs on a national championship. He doesn’t even take the most shots on his team, instead deferring to Josh Shipp.
Nevertheless, Love is of course a huge part of the Bruins’ offense. He has performed superbly. In fact, strictly speaking he has the highest offensive rating of any of the Four Freshmen. Naturally, that’s a dubious honorific on two counts: Love plays a smaller role in his offense than do any of the other three freshmen, and it is just early December, anyway. Still, the fact that Love makes 61 percent of his twos, gets to the line even more often than Gordon, and hits 73 percent of his free throws—all while taking even better care of the ball than did the famously trustworthy Durant—suggests that Love is indeed the real deal. (Though it’s true Rick Barnes was able to make Love a relative non-factor thanks to a well-deployed 2-3 zone.) And that’s speaking strictly of offense.
On defense the picture is equally promising. So far this season Love has hauled in about 28 percent of opponents’ misses while he’s on the floor. That’s not as good as Beasley’s 32 percent, but Love’s teammates are a little more active on the defensive glass than are non-Beasley K-State players. (One oddity: Love doesn’t block shots. Yes, a lot of that can be traced to a don’t-leave-your-feet gospel laid down by Ben Howland, but, good grief, Love’s block percentage is actually lower than Gordon’s.)
More importantly, defensive rebounding is to Howland in any year what scoring has been to Kelvin Sampson since landing in Bloomington: it’s how his teams plan to win. Love may not shoot as much as his teammate Shipp or as much as his fellow highly-touted freshmen, but he’s just as vital to his team. He is the man on the defensive boards in Westwood.
O.J. Mayo, USC
Mayo is far and away the least efficient scorer of this foursome. In fact, viewed purely on the early returns, Mayo doesn’t even belong in this discussion. It’s not that his shooting has been bad per se—actually it’s pretty close to that of Durant last year. It’s just that Mayo plays a larger role in his offense than even stars like Beasley, Gordon, or Love, and yet he’s much less efficient than all of the above. He makes fewer shots and records more turnovers than the other three. That’s an unfortunate combination.
There are, however, a couple of potential saving graces to Mayo’s game. He shoots about as many threes as Gordon and, like the Hoosier guard, Mayo is clearly a gifted shooter. Though he’s made a relatively normal 38 percent of his threes thus far, Mayo’s 78 percent shooting at the line suggests that his perimeter shooting may improve. Also note that while none of the Four Freshmen record assists, Mayo and Love are at least the tallest midgets in this particular circus, occasionally dishing the ball to teammates in a position to score.
That being said, arguably the most striking thing about Mayo is simply that he’s at USC, of all places. Like Beasley, Mayo’s a highly-touted scorer who finds himself playing for a team that looks like it won’t be very good at scoring points. The Trojans turn the ball over on 24 percent of their possessions, they don’t hit the offensive glass, and they don’t shoot all that well. All of which adds up to a middling offense. The Southern Cal defense, on the other hand, has been superb. If coverage were allotted according to which player is most directly responsible for his team’s main strength, you’d be hearing much less about Mayo and much more about Taj Gibson.
There you have it, the big four. Then again, maybe we should be talking about four different freshmen entirely. Say, Matt Howard, Kyle Singler, Derrick Rose, and DeJuan Blair. Alright, then. I hereby dub them “Parliament.”
Born in Cincinnati in 1951, William “Bootsy” Collins displayed considerable musical talent from an early age….
John Gasaway is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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