TEN NAMES YOU NEED TO KNOW: Here are the ten best freshmen in the sport.
1. Ben Simmons, LSU: A native of Australia, Simmons has been getting huge national buzz already as a potential Player of the Year candidate this preseason. As one of college basketball’s most versatile players this season, Simmons has a chance to put up regular triple-doubles while leading LSU to a bunch of wins. The 6-foot-10 Simmons can rebound, handle the ball in the open floor and pass with elite vision. If there’s any part of his game that remains a question mark, it’s his perimeter jumper — which has always been workable but inconsistent.
2. Skal Labissiere, Kentucky: Perhaps the most talented freshman of this class, the 6-foot-11 Labissiere has a ton of upside and could dominate stretches on both ends of the floor this season. A native of Haiti, Labissiere can defend the rim and rebound and he’s also a dynamic offensive threat who can score from a number of positions on the floor. When Kentucky’s guards run high ball screens with Labissiere this season, he should have the ability to score rolling to the basket or finding space for his jumper. Handling the strength of older and more experienced opposing big men might be Labissiere’s biggest obstacle this season.
3. Jamal Murray, Kentucky: If Labissiere is Kentucky’s most talented freshman, then Murray could be the most productive this season. The Canadian guard looked like a potential superstar during portions of this summer in the Pan-Am Games, especially when he went for 22 points in the fourth quarter and overtime alone against the United States. At 6-foot-5, Murray has great size for a lead guard and his pull-up jumper is deadly. His vision is also solid and he spend the summer playing with and against professionals and top college players in high-stakes international settings. If Murray finds good balance within Kentucky’s deep perimeter attack, he could have a huge year.
4. Brandon Ingram, Duke: Duke was able to keep Ingram from leaving the state of North Carolina and they’re hoping the Kinston native can be their next superstar wing forward. Ingram won’t be nearly as physically developed as players like Jabari Parker and Justise Winslow as freshmen, but he’s got an offensive arsenal that more than makes up for it. At 6-foot-9, Ingram can spray jumpers from nearly anywhere on the floor and he has the mentality of a cold-blooded scorer. With an advanced pull-up game and improving toughness going to the rim, Ingram became a three-level scorer later in his high school career. If his frail body can handle the day-to-day rigors of college basketball, Ingram will have a big year.
5. Jaylen Brown, Cal: It was a surprising commitment when the 6-foot-6 Brown decided to leave Georgia and head out west, but the Golden Bears are happy to put him on the floor immediately. A big and physical wing who can attack the basket or the glass, Brown improved his perimeter jumper and handle as high school went along. A gifted scorer, Brown is a load to handle in the open floor with a full head of steam and he’s the type of player who could have some poster dunks this season thanks to his brute strength at the rim. If the perimeter jumper is consistently going down, Brown is going to be a force.
6. Henry Ellenson, Marquette: Underrated nationally coming into the season after missing the senior all-star games with injury, Ellenson is a new-breed big man who has open-floor skill and an ability to space the floor. The Wisconsin native stayed home to play with his brother Wally at Marquette and now the Golden Eagles have a 6-foot-10 freshman who can handle like a guard and hit 3-pointers to stretch the floor. With Ellenson teaming with junior big man Luke Fischer, Marquette instantly has one of the most intriguing front courts in America entering the season and Ellenson’s skill level makes him a tough cover.
7. Cheick Diallo, Kansas: If the NCAA deems him eligible, Kansas will get a gigantic lift from the high-motor big man. A star during the senior all-star circuit this spring, Diallo rebounds and defends the rim with the best of them and he’s also improving as an offensive player. At his best in transition, the 6-foot-9 Diallo runs the floor like a guard and has the length around the rim to erase shots that many others couldn’t get to. Diallo’s warrior-like mentality should help raise the level of play for the Jayhawks when he’s on the floor. The question is: when will that be?
8. Malik Newman, Mississippi State: Ben Howland is going to put the ball in Newman’s hands right away and the pressure will be on the in-state guard to immediately produce. A natural scorer with deep range on his pull-up jumper, the 6-foot-3 Newman can go on silly scoring runs where he’s pulling up 3-pointers and nailing them in consecutive possessions like Kevin Durant at Rucker Park. Although his efficiency and ability to be a high-level point guard will come into question at times this season, Newman will be one of the best freshman scorers in college basketball.
9. Diamond Stone, Maryland: How happy is Melo Trimble to have a post scorer like Stone entering College Park? The native of Wisconsin is a load to handle on the interior as a post scorer, as he showed moves going over both shoulders in high school. Also a candidate to knock home a 3-pointer when he’s a trailer on a break, Stone can fall in love with his jumper a bit too much, but now he has a ton of talent around him to help him settle into the post. The 6-foot-10 center has good hands, is a productive rebounder and should be a tough cover with Robert Carter also being a post option for the Terps.
10. Stephen Zimmerman, UNLV: Runnin’ Rebels fans are thrilled to keep Zimmerman home and the 6-foot-11 lefty is skilled enough to make an immediate impact. The product of local powerhouse Bishop Gorman is an advanced passer for a big man and he’s also shown an ability to score in a variety of ways. Also a good rebounder and communicator as a back-line defender, Zimmerman’s leadership qualities could be an underrated aspect of him joining the UNLV program. The pressure will be on Zimmerman to help lead UNLV back to the NCAA tournament, but he’s built for the challenge.
FIVE POTENTIAL D’ANGELO RUSSELLS: Here are five guys outside the top ten that could play their way onto an all-american team come the spring
1. Jalen Brunson, Villanova: The son of former NBA veteran Rick Brunson, Jalen was tremendous as the starting point guard of the USA U19 World Championship team and went 40 minutes without a turnover in the gold-medal game to help secure MVP honors. The 6-foot-2 lefty has a tremendous basketball IQ and can hit pull-up jumpers from everywhere.
2. Tyler Dorsey, Oregon: An impressive scorer who regularly put up 40-point games in high school, Dorsey will be asked to help replace Joseph Young. The 6-foot-4 Dorsey’s ability to hit jumpers and get to the basket should immediately translate to the college level.
3. Caleb Swanigan, Purdue: Now that he’s been cleared by the NCAA, the 6-foot-9 Swanigan can focus on being a bruising force alongside centers A.J. Hammons and Isaac Haas. Swanigan is rugged and physical, but he’s also more skilled than he appears.
4. Dwayne Bacon, Florida State: One of the most physically-ready freshmen entering college basketball, the 6-foot-6 wing had a tremendous senior season and should be able to help the Seminoles in the scoring column. Bacon’s athleticism is top notch and he should have some highlights this season.
5. Allonzo Trier, Arizona: With freshman Ray Smith Jr. going down to injury, the 6-foot-3 Trier could be asked to play more minutes for the Wildcats. The Nike EYBL’s first four-year player, Trier is experienced in big games at the high school level and should be an immediate contributor.
MARCH HEROES?: Here are five freshman that could play a big role come March.
1. Jalen Adams, UConn: Kevin Ollie has a ton of perimeter options this season, but the speed of the 6-foot-1 Adams will make him a great change-of-pace guard off the bench in the early season.
2. Aaron Holiday, UCLA: The younger brother of former Bruin Jrue Holiday, Aaron is already starting alongside Bryce Alford this preseason and he’s showed positive signs on the defensive end with his activity.
3. Carlton Bragg, Kansas: The 6-foot-9 Bragg is skilled as a shooter and also physically gifted enough to rebound and score in the post. If Cheick Diallo is not cleared to play, Bragg’s role could expand even further.
4. Ryan Cline, Purdue: In desperate need of perimeter shooting, the Boilers kept this 6-foot-5 sharpshooter in the state of Indiana and he should help the spacing around Purdue’s talented big men.
5. Thomas Bryant, Indiana: Likely to start in the middle for Indiana, the 6-foot-10 Bryant brings a lot of energy and tenacity to the interior. The Hoosiers will count on Bryant to rebound and defend the rim early as his offense continues to grow.