The role of the freshman in college basketball has evolved a number of times. There was an age when first-year players couldn’t even suit up in the games, and now squads like Kentucky have fallen into the habit of stacking Final Four banners on the backs of freshmen-dominated groups.
Since the nation’s best 18-year-olds are no longer allowed to head straight to the NBA a la LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, the quality of freshmen players is arguably the best it has ever been.
There is certainly a chance that some freshmen could find themselves in conference or even national player of the year races in 2013-14.
Read on to see the 10 most likely candidates while keeping in mind that this isn’t necessarily a list of the top 10 freshmen, just the ones in the best position to put up gaudy individual stats (hence why the Harrison brothers, who will split stats and votes, aren’t on here).
At this point, Andrew Wiggins may not commit at all until opening day and the nation will get to see which team he joins at halftime.
In all seriousness, whichever squad Wiggins chooses will get one of the best high-school players since some guy named LeBron James laced it up in Ohio. He has great size for the small forward position (listed at 6’8” and 205 pounds on Scout) and has the athleticism to pair with it.
Smaller defenders won’t be able to stop his drive or post up, while bigger opponents won’t be able to stay between him and the basket. His jump shot is also effective and should improve to the point where he is even a threat from behind the three-point arc as he continues to develop.
If Wiggins joins Florida State, he will put up gaudy numbers and give the players at blue bloods Duke and North Carolina a run for the conference player of the year. If he heads to Kentucky, he will lead a squad that will be on the national radar all season, which will only help his cause for postseason awards.
Any time Duke plays a game, it draws national headlines in the college basketball world, so if there is a dominant freshman lacing it up for Coach K, it will certainly turn heads.
Jabari Parker will assume that alpha-dog freshman role in 2013-14 and look to lead a team that loses a number of key pieces. Seth Curry, Mason Plumlee and Ryan Kelly are no longer on campus, and critical returnees Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon are going to need some help.
Parker, along with incoming transfer Rodney Hood, will play significant minutes right away in Durham. Parker is incredibly athletic and can score from almost anywhere on the floor. He is lengthy and quick, which will allow him to find the basket against a variety of defenders.
Those same traits will help him on the defensive side of the ball, and if he plays as important of a role as he is expected to on a Duke team that contends for an ACC crown, he should be in the player of the year races come season's end.
John Calipari has spent the offseason racking up one of the most impressive recruiting classes in the history of college basketball.
While Andrew Wiggins would be the crown jewel of the group if he decides to come to Lexington, Julius Randle will give Kentucky the type of low-post presence it hasn’t enjoyed since Anthony Davis.
Randle stands at 6’8” according to Scout, but he is incredibly strong for his size. He is capable of muscling his way through contact and shouldn’t have much of an issue scoring down low against the majority of the SEC’s big men.
Randle also has a face-up game that will allow him to drive around defenders and continues to improve on his shooting. However, his defense and rebounding, which are both top-notch, is what will benefit the Wildcats the most after a tumultuous season filled with lapses and poor effort.
While the Harrison brothers make the highlight plays on the perimeter and Wiggins (if he chooses Kentucky) draws most of the attention, Randle will do enough dirty work down low to draw national praise by the season’s end.
While many people are focusing on all the talent that Arizona lost this offseason (Mark Lyons and Solomon Hill to start), Sean Miller and his squad have turned their attention to the ability of the incoming players.
Aaron Gordon is the headliner of a loaded recruiting class for the Wildcats, and his play will go a long way toward determining if they are a Pac-12 championship team or a middling NCAA tournament seed.
If Gordon puts together the type of season that his talent warrants, he will be in the conference player of the year discussions by March.
Gordon is an excellent defender and will give opponents trouble with his quickness and wingspan. He will use that length and athleticism to crash the boards and cash in on easy transition opportunities going the other direction.
Gordon could work on his perimeter shooting a bit, but an effective mid-range game will keep defenders honest. If he leads Arizona to a Pac-12 title, postseason awards could be in store.
Florida is going to give Kentucky a run for its money in the SEC and contend for another Elite Eight appearance despite the loss of its top scorers because of a loaded frontline. The Gators will outmuscle most of their opponents and crash the glass hard, which at the college level, often leads to wins.
Chris Walker is a primary reason for that mindset.
Walker is versatile and athletic for his height and will run circles around a number of big men that he faces up against. He is also an excellent rebounder and defender, and his quickness will effectively pair up with Patric Young’s brute strength and toughness.
If Walker can improve his scoring ability, especially on the low post, he could find himself in the player of the year discussions in the SEC. He will have plenty of stiff competition from his own teammates and the 800 McDonald’s All-Americans Kentucky brings in, but he has the talent to play his way into the race.
Indiana lost an All-American team worth of talent this offseason, including the likes of Cody Zeller, Victor Oladipo and Christian Watford. Tom Crean is going to need his impressive freshman class to fill the void, and Noah Vonleh is the headliner of that group.
Vonleh combines a number of different traits from Zeller, Watford and Oladipo into one versatile and athletic player. He is a particularly strong rebounder who will also look to run the floor as soon as he grabs the board.
What's more, he can score the basketball and not just in transition. He can back down smaller defenders, drive around larger ones or even shoot from mid-range if he gets enough space.
Vonleh’s all-around game will propel him into Big Ten player of the year discussions if Indiana bounces back and contends after losing so much talent.
Kansas lost all five of its starters from a year ago and may finally give up its seemingly permanent grip on the Big 12 title. But anyone who bets against the Jayhawks at this point would be foolish.
If Kansas is to defend its conference crown for approximately the 340th year in a row, incoming freshman Wayne Selden will have a lot to do with it.
Selden will likely play the small forward spot in Lawrence, but he is versatile enough to spend time in the backcourt. He is a solid ball handler and can shoot from the outside.
Perhaps the most impressive trait of Selden’s game is his ability to find open teammates and set up scoring opportunities for others. He is not a natural point guard, but he has no issues facilitating like one.
If Kansas were to win the Big 12 again and Selden plays a primary role, he would at least be in the discussions for player of the year in the conference along with the likes of Marcus Smart and others.
While Kentucky fans are preoccupied with every morsel of Andrew Wiggins news they can find, their team’s leading scorer in the 2013-14 season may already be committed.
James Young has flown a bit under the radar this recruiting period (at least as under the radar as 5-star players committing to one of the nation’s top programs can fly), but he is an elite talent that will fit in perfectly with the other players in John Calipari’s class.
The Harrison twins will handle the perimeter, Julius Randle will be banging around down low and Young will lock down the wing spot. He is a premier scorer who will benefit from all the attention that his talented teammates draw and the passing ability of the Harrisons.
Young will knock down open perimeter shots if opponents double down on Randle, and he has the ability to create his own shot by exploding to the rim off the dribble. If Young were to lead Kentucky in scoring and the Wildcats are the best team in the country like many expect, he will be a player of the year candidate.
Louisville won the most recent national championship. Louisville will likely start the season in the preseason top five. Louisville will draw the nation’s attention every time it takes the court. Louisville will also be replacing its All-American-quality point guard Peyton Siva with a freshman.
Louisville may not miss a beat.
Much like Siva, freshman Terry Rozier is driven by his athleticism and overall speed. He uses it to create havoc on defense (something that will fit in well with Rick Pitino’s full-court press heavy system) and turn stops into easy transition baskets going the other way.
Rozier also has shooting range and will put home some three-point shots for the Cardinals. When he is paired with the uber-athletic and dangerous scorer Russ Smith in the backcourt, Pitino’s squad will be tough to stop.
If the Cardinals live up to their preseason hype and admirably attempt to defend their crown, Rozier will get plenty of recognition for his ability to fill in for such a critical departure. In the makeshift American Athletic Conference, that would be good enough to be in the discussion for player of the year (at least in the league).
It’s not every day that a California player finds himself as a part of player of the year articles this early in the offseason, but Jabari Bird is a special prospect.
He is an impressive scorer that will get to the basket on a regular basis in the Pac-12. He also has a solid mid-range jump shot and will look to improve his three-point stroke over the course of the summer and into the season.
In addition to his scoring prowess, Bird is a formidable rebounder especially from the guard position. He will crash the boards on both sides of the ball, which will lead to more scoring chances either through transition looks or put backs. Throw in solid defense thanks to his athleticism, and the Golden Bears have themselves a complete player.
If Bird puts up gaudy numbers for a Cal team that surprises and contends for a conference crown along with Arizona, Bird will garner some discussion for conference player of the year.