Most teams are now a few games into conference play, and with more than half of the season complete we now have a better idea who the contenders are, who the player of the year candidates are and who the top freshman are.
There is a long list of players that could be considered among the best freshmen in the country. There is Anthony Bennett, Shabazz Muhammad, Nerlens Noel, Jahii Carson, Marcus Smart, and Isaiah Austin, but the name that seems to have emerged as the favorite over the past month is Ben McLemore.
McLemore, a redshirt freshman for Kansas, averages 16.4 points per game, 5.4 rebounds and 2.1 assists, and has the prettiest jump shot in college basketball. A a 20-year-old from St. Louis, he wasn't viewed as a major recruit on the national level until the summer before his senior year of high school, when he joined the same AAU team as Bradley Beal in St. Louis.
McLemore had one of the best games by any player in college basketball this season on Jan. 9 when he scored 33 points on just 12 shots from the field and going 6-of-6 from three-point range.
The St. Louis native scores fewer points per game than Anthony Bennett (18.5), Shabazz Muhammad (17.9) and Jahii Carson (17.3), but the difference is McLemore scores his on 16.4 points on 10.9 shots per game, which is lower than Bennett (11.5), Carson (12.9) or Muhammad (13.3).
Kansas is the only team in the running for a No. 1 seed right now, with a freshman that serves as the team's go-to scorer.
That's no reason to count Kansas out as a title contender, as the 6'5" guard has proven to be an efficient scorer so far while shooting 51 percent and a three-point percentage of .444. The freshman is also surrounded by seniors in the Jayhawk starting lineup, with four of them being fifth-year seniors.
The biggest issue for McLemore has been his aggressiveness in the Jayhawks offense.
"I've got to do a better job getting myself open," McLemore said after the game at Texas on Saturday. "And creating for myself."
Kansas seniors Elijah Johnson and Travis Releford have mostly been responsible for getting McLemore open shots, but the freshman is good enough to create those looks on his own, though his ball-handling could be improved. It doesn't hurt that McLemore's catch-and-shoot ability has been compared to that of Ray Allen.
Ben’s talent level is off the charts,” Kansas Coach Bill Self told Andy Katz before the season began. “He’s good. I mean, he’s as talented as just about anybody we’ve had come through there. Now he doesn’t know how to plug himself into a game yet...He doesn’t know how to plug himself in and he’s so unselfish, but he’s a Brandon Rush type.
The crowd at Allen Fieldhouse buzzes with anticipation every time McLemore catches the ball in transition and they stand to get a glimpse of his leaping ability. When his dunks come without expectation, the Fieldhouse goes into a frenzy. He's a high-flyer and a solid finisher at the rim.
There are few guards at the college level with the scoring ability of McLemore. Shabazz Muhammad is the only other freshman in that category. However, Muhammad forces far more bad shots and does not give the same effort on defense as McLemore.
McLemore is not a great defender, but he steals the ball on average 1.3 times per game and blocks almost one shot (0.9) per game. His potential as a defender is great, and he appears to be improving at it this season.
Ben should be as good as anybody we’ve ever had at stealing us extra possessions," Self said during the summer. "I think he’ll be the best defender we’ve ever had. I also think he’s as athletic as anybody we’ve ever had, and he can shoot. Fitting in the pieces and getting him to understand how to play, he’s not quite there, obviously. If he keeps improving at the same rate, he’ll make a lot of money.
With a 6'7" wingspan and quick reactions, McLemore has shown the potential to jump into passing lanes and cause turnovers, starting the fast-break, which is probably the most fun aspect of McLemore's game to watch.
There are a few very impressive freshmen in college basketball this season, but McLemore has the ability to take over a game on the offensive and defensive ends like no other.
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