10 Under-the-Radar Freshmen Who Could Exceed Expectations

Erik Schultz@eschultz530Correspondent INovember 16, 2012

10 Under-the-Radar Freshmen Who Could Exceed Expectations

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    While players like Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bradley Beal enjoyed outstanding freshman seasons, they were each simply living up to the deserved high expectations set upon them heading into college. 

    Meanwhile, Michigan's Trey Burke may have been as good as anybody else in the 2011 freshman class.  Burke, however, came into Ann Arbor a bit under the radar.  He was not a top-50 recruit, and not very far inside the top 100. 

    Burke is the biggest example, but many other players outplayed their projections upon entering the college game last season. 

    Here's a look at 10 players who could do it in the 2012-13 season.

Josh Fortune, Providence

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    After landing what some have labeled a top-10 recruiting class, coach Ed Cooley and Providence have been dealt a cruel hand heading into this season. 

    The program’s two prized top-25 recruits, Ricky Ledo and Kris Dunn, have yet to suit up for Providence.  Ledo will not be able to all season, as he was ruled a partial qualifier by the NCAA. (He can practice but not play.)  Dunn, meanwhile, is trying to recover from shoulder surgery over the summer, and may be ready by January, per cbssports.com.

    It is certainly a huge blow to the program’s immediate hopes of moving its way back up the Big East standings.  However, there is another quality freshman that should have a chance to soften the blow just a bit.

    Josh Fortune, a 6’5” guard from Virginia, came to Providence figuring to be behind both Ledo and Dunn—each a guard as well—on the Friars’ depth chart. 

    Now, with star guard Vincent Council also out (hamstring injury) to start the season, it appears the setbacks have led to some good Fortune, at least from Josh’s standpoint.

    In just three games, Fortune has shown pretty solid progress in adjusting to the college game.  He appears to have benefited from having junior Bryce Cotton, currently the team’s lone healthy guard with significant experience, playing alongside him. 

    After a respectable seven-point, six-assist (with no turnovers) effort in his second game against Bryant, Fortune looked even better against a quality UMass team.  His 12 points on 5-of-8 shooting (again with no turnovers) helped the Friars nearly pull out a win in the first round of the Puerto Rico Tip Off. 

    Fortune’s early contributions have been just what the doctor ordered for Providence.  If he can continue his solid play, the Friars may be able to tread water until Council, and eventually Dunn, return to the lineup. 

    Who knows, maybe Fortune will even hold off Dunn for one of those starting spots.

Chris Obekpa, St. John's

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    Despite a very strong and extensive class of newcomers in 2011, St. John’s entered this season with uncertainty about its frontcourt.  A big reason for that was the departure of 6’9” Moe Harkless, who went on to the NBA after just one season. 

    Some of that uncertainty may have been alleviated, however, thanks to the debut of Chris Obekpa.

    A wiry 6’8” forward, Obekpa nearly averaged a triple-double in his senior season in high school (12 points, 13 rebounds, and nine blocks).  The expectations were rightly pretty high for him entering the St. John’s program this fall.  It seems as though Obekpa is ready to meet and perhaps exceed those expectations, and he may do it much quicker than anyone would have anticipated.

    In his very first collegiate game on Tuesday, he didn’t stray very far from any of those dominant high school numbers.  Obekpa finished with seven points, 11 boards and an incredibly impressive eight blocks in the Red Storm’s win over Detroit.

    If this level of play continues into the Big East portion of St. John’s schedule, Obekpa could very well follow Harkless as a first-round NBA draft pick.  Before that, he could prove to be one of the key pieces that helps the Red Storm get back to the NCAA Tournament.

Charles Mitchell, Maryland

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    Mitchell is one of four quality freshmen in Maryland’s first recruiting class—one ranked in the Top 20—under coach Mark Turgeon.  It is the first of what figure to be many strong incoming classes for him and the Terps.

    While the other three recruits—center Shaq Cleare, forward Jake Layman and point guard Seth Allen—all received a fair amount of hype entering the season, Mitchell, from Georgia, came to College Park a little more quietly.  However, with his bullish 6’8” 260-pound frame, and tenacity around the basket, Mitchell has made the most noise of any of the four thus far.

    Mitchell made an impressive statement on an impressive stage last week, in the Terps’ opener against Kentucky in Brooklyn.  In just 16 minutes against the Wildcats, Mitchell pulled down 10 rebounds, including six on the offensive end.  Mitchell followed that up with a nine-rebound performance in a win over Morehead State.

    His ability to battle—and more often than not prevail—against the multitude of super-talented big men that Kentucky possesses gives Coach Turgeon plenty of reason to give Mitchell extensive minutes every game.  It’s possible he will even take minutes from Cleare—the much more prized recruit. 

    More importantly, the early showings indicate what Mitchell is capable of in his first year at Maryland, and beyond.  If he can mix his effort and toughness with a little refinement on the offensive end, Mitchell could be one of the ACC’s better big men down the road.

Michael Frazier, Florida

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    Scottie Wilbekin, penciled in as the starting point guard heading into his junior season, was suspended by coach Billy Donovan less than two weeks prior to the start of the season.  As a result, Donovan has to shuffle his backcourt around, including moving senior Kenny Boynton from shooting guard—a spot he has grown very comfortable with in his previous three years—to the point. 

    With Wilbekin out, Mike Rosario moves into the starting lineup as the 2-guard.  Because of that, Florida’s bench is now thinner—and extremely young.  At the moment, the Gators’ bench boasts a grand total of eight career minutes of experience prior to this season.  The one reserve with any experience, Casey Prather, is currently sidelined with a concussion. 

    As a result the door has swung wide open for two Florida freshmen—Braxton Ogbueze and Michael Frazier.  Ogbueze—a top 50 recruit—was expected to contribute early on anyway, as a backup point guard.  To say the same about Frazier may have been a bit of a stretch.

    A 6’4” shooting guard, Frazier came in to Gainesville at the one position with significant depth.  Boynton, Rosario and Prather all figured to see time at the 2-spot.  Now, with only Rosario there at the moment, Frazier is forced into action. 

    In just his second collegiate game, Frazier made a significant impact for Florida.  Against Wisconsin, he came up with eight points and five rebounds in 19 minutes off the bench.  Frazier hit all three of his shots, including two threes, so he certainly wasn’t just in to gun up shots.

    Frazier’s early showing should alleviate some of the concern Donovan had about his backcourt depth.  Even with the likely return of Prather, expect the freshman to continue getting decent minutes.  Donovan knows he will need Frazier to gain experience, so he can play an even bigger role next year when Boynton and Rosario depart.

George Marshall, Wisconsin

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    With all of the pronounced departures from last year’s elite teams—Kentucky, North Carolina, Syracuse and so on—perhaps no individual loss meant more to his respective team than that of Jordan Taylor to Wisconsin.

    Taylor was an outstanding point guard for each of his four years under Bo Ryan at Wisconsin.  In his final collegiate game, he came within inches of leading the Badgers past the aforementioned Syracuse and into the Elite Eight. 

    Eight months later, Taylor is gone.  The plan throughout those months was to have sophomore Josh Gasser take over the point, hoping the drop-off in scoring ability and most importantly, leadership, would be manageable.  However, that plan was compromised when Gasser tore his ACL just two weeks before the season.

    Now, Ryan has turned to an option seemingly unheard of in his time at Wisconsin—starting a freshman at point guard.  That’s now what the plan seems to be, with George Marshall getting the opportunity.

    Marshall, a freshman from Chicago, certainly did not sign with Wisconsin expecting to be in this role so quickly.  He knew Taylor would be gone—meaning a chance for decent minutes off the bench—but figured to spend the next year or two learning Ryan’s swing offense, then stepping into the starting role when ready.  Remember, not even Taylor started in his freshman season.

    Instead, Marshall has seen 57 minutes of action over Wisconsin’s first two games.  While certainly not spectacular, he has done a modest job on the floor.  Like any freshman in this situation, Marshall has limited his shots and minimized the mistakes.  He has just three turnovers in the two games—the second of which came against a solid defensive team in Florida—while taking only five shots in each game.

    As the season goes deeper, it is worth watching Marshall’s progress in Madison.  It will be a process, but Marshall’s trial-by-fire could pay huge dividends later on.

Nik Stauskas, Michigan

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    After landing Trey Burke, the centerpiece of its 2011 recruiting class, 2012 proved to be an even better year on the recruiting trial for Michigan.  John Beilein has brought in two top-30 recruits, Mitch McGary and Glenn Robinson III.  Those two will join up with Burke, Jordan Morgan and another NBA player’s son—Tim Hardaway Jr.—to give the Wolverines arguably its most talented team since the mid-1990s.

    The third piece of this year’s class may not be quite as noticeable in the aforementioned pool of talent, but he seems ready to make an immediate impact in Ann Arbor.  Nik Stauskas, a sharp-shooter from Ontario, has already stepped up in a big way for Michigan.

    In just two games, Stauskas has already scored 26 points, hitting six three-pointers.  While the competition hasn’t been the fiercest of foes—IUPUI and Cleveland State—it has to be quite encouraging to Coach Beilein to see his specialist make meaningful contributions so quickly.

    Going forward, Stauskas could be the player who fills the void left by Zack Novak, who knocked down 52 threes as a senior last season.  It may take a while for Stauskas to contribute in some of the other ways Novak did throughout his Wolverine career.  However, his ability to enter games at any time and provide instant offense could be a key to ultimately meeting the incredibly high expectations placed on this year’s Michigan team.

Stefan Jankovic, Missouri

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    After losing four of five starters from last year’s 30-5 team, a mass of highly touted transfers have come in to try and ease Missouri’s transition from the Big 12 to the SEC. 

    Alex Oriakhi (from UConn), Earnest Ross (from Auburn) and Keion Bell (from Pepperdine) all have already played large roles in Missouri’s first two wins of the season, and each must continue to do so if the Tigers are to have any chance at approaching the 30-win mark again. 

    These transfers are at the forefront of the wave of change in Columbia, but a certain freshman is making it known he plans to be a big part of that wave as well.  Stefan Jankovic, with his size and early success, could be carving out a key role on this year’s Missouri team.

    Jankovic, a 6’11” Canadian, brings a welcome addition of size, of course.  In addition, he brings the ability to stretch opposing big men out with his ability to knock down long-range shots.  He knocked down both of his three-point shots in his first collegiate game last Saturday.

    Furthermore, Jankovic has begun to show he can contribute in all facets of the game.  In Missouri’s second game, a win over Alcorn State, he provided a little bit of everything in his 22 minutes on the court.  With eight points, five rebounds, four assists, three blocks and two steals, Jankovic’s all-around performance was a welcome surprise.

    Though Oriakhi and Laurence Bowers—back after being out all of 2011-12 with an injury—figure to have a firm grasp on the starting frontcourt positions, Jankovic could see very significant minutes in spelling either of the two.  With a more unique skill set of size, shooting touch and passing ability, Jankovic can help ensure the continuity of winning at Missouri.

Taurean Prince, Baylor

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    When you’re coming in to college alongside a pair of big men in Isaiah Austin—the No. 3 player in the Class of 2012—and Rico Gathers, it’s not too difficult to fly, quite literally, under the radar. 

    That seems to be just fine for Taurean Prince.

    A 6’7” freshman from San Antonio, Prince was almost an afterthought of Baylor’s incoming freshman class.  Having originally committed to Long Island University, Prince figured to see a lot less playing time in Waco than he would have with LIU.  However, he may have earned himself some decent minutes with his play early on for the Bears.

    While averaging a fairly modest 13.5 minutes over his first two collegiate games, Prince has managed to average double figures (10.5) in points while pulling down six rebounds in each game.  Like many recent and current Baylor frontline players, Prince has done a lot of his work right around the basket by getting close looks and drawing fouls.  He has made good on his ability to draw contact, going 7-of-9 at the line thus far.

    The jury is still out as to whether we’ll see a similar level of production from Prince as Baylor gets into the meat of their schedule, most notably Big 12 conference play.  However, he has already earned himself more minutes than expected, and his play with those minutes should give him opportunities to develop in tandem with the Bears’ highly touted front line.

    Austin is all but guaranteed to be a one-and-done player.  With the chance that Gathers—a Top 40 recruit—turns pro after this season as well, Prince could easily end up in the Baylor starting frontcourt this time next year.

Damyean Dotson, Oregon

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    Any time a team brings in a class of seven freshmen, there figures to be some widespread competition for playing time as the season unfolds.

    Dominic Artis—the highest-rated of the freshman crop—has certainly run with his opportunity to start in the Oregon backcourt.  Another player a bit less heralded, Damyean Dotson, seems to be doing just the same with his chance.

    A 6’5” wing player from Houston, Dotson saw extensive minutes in Oregon’s first two games.  He put up 13 points and six rebounds in 30 minutes in the Ducks’ opening-game win over Northern Arizona.  That was followed up with a near identical 12-point, six-board effort in the team’s win over Portland State. And it’s worth noting that Dotson notched three steals in that game as well.

    After two games, Dotson is just half a point behind Artis for the team lead in scoring, while leading the Ducks in rebounding.  Not a huge sample size, but nonetheless a very encouraging sign for a team that lost three of its top four scorers from a year ago. 

    If the early level of production remains consistent as Oregon moves deeper into its non-conference schedule, then Dotson should be a regular starter alongside Artis in what would be a very young but promising backcourt. 

Savon Goodman, UNLV

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    For UNLV, it’s the best recruiting class they’ve seen since the days of Jerry Tarkanian and Larry Johnson. 

    The program landed a potentially dominating power forward—and a top-10 recruit overall—in Anthony Bennett, along with Katin Reinhardt, another top-50 recruit.  Oh, and throw in Khem Birch—one of the top recruits of the 2011 class who originally committed to Pittsburgh—and there is plenty of reason for even more excitement in Las Vegas.

    Neither player wasted much time in their collegiate debuts this week.  Bennett posted a team-high 22 points, while Reinhardt added 14 in UNLV’s season-opening win over Northern Arizona. 

    Meanwhile, another freshman posted in double figures, one that didn’t come to Vegas with the same level of hype and expectation.

    Savon Goodman, a 6’6” shooting guard from Philadelphia, enjoyed a solid first game at UNLV.  He scored 11 points in his 16 minutes of action, while adding five rebounds and two assists to the winning effort. 

    While you could argue that much of Goodman’s playing time and resulting success was the result of a 38-point blowout, the current makeup of UNLV’s roster indicates that he could see a similar level of playing time going forward. 

    Though this incoming freshman class is talented and deep, UNLV did also lose three key players from a year ago in Oscar Bellfield, Chace Stanback and Brice Massamba.  With Bellfield and Stanback both being guards, a window of opportunity may be open for Goodman.   It’s possible he could even see some time alongside fellow freshman Reinhardt, also a 2-guard, if the Rebels want or need to go with a smaller lineup.

    While he likely won’t have the biggest impact of any of the highly touted freshmen, Goodman could certainly make enough of an impact to help UNLV secure a MWC title.