Ranking the 10 Best NCAA Basketball Freshmen so Far in the 2016-17 Season

Jake Curtis@jakecurtis53Featured ColumnistDecember 13, 2016

Ranking the 10 Best NCAA Basketball Freshmen so Far in the 2016-17 Season

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The 2016-17 freshman class may rival the 2007-08 class (Derrick Rose, Kevin Love, Michael Beasley, O.J. Mayo) and the 2013-14 class (Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle) as the best freshman class in college basketball history.

    That's how it stacks up after the first four weeks.

    Things can change considerably when conference play begins, as some freshmen thrive in those intense situations while others may wilt. Duke freshman Harry Giles, the No. 2-ranked recruit in this freshman class according to Scout, has not played a game as of Dec. 12, and he figures to be among the nation's top freshmen by the time March rolls around.

    A number of freshmen have already emerged as stars. We start with five freshmen who have played well but barely missed making the top 10. Then we count down the top 10 freshmen so far, with a tie for the 10th spot necessitating the mention of 11 players.

    (Statistics are valid through games played Dec. 12.)

Honorable Mention

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    Jonathan Isaac, Florida StateIsaac, who missed three games with a hip-flexor injury, would have made our top 10 had he not been limited to nine points against Florida, the Seminoles' only Top-25 opponent so far.

    Frank Jackson, DukeA starter in five games, Jackson is averaging 13.5 points.

    Charlie Moore, CaliforniaMoore scored 38 points against UC Irvine and is averaging 7.6 points.

    Bam Adebayo, KentuckyAdebayo's 18 points, 13 rebounds and four blocks against UCLA were an indication of things to come for the improving big man.

    Justin Patton, CreightonThe 12.0 points, 80.3 percent field-goal shooting, 6.3 rebounds and 1.4 blocks by the 7-foot Patton are part of the reason the Bluejays are 10-0.

No. 10 (tie) Michael Weathers, Miami-Ohio

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    Michael Weathers is the freshman star you never heard of, and he barely sneaked in as a tie for the No. 10 spot on our list. 

    Weathers was not ranked among the top 100 incoming freshmen by Scout, and he is buried in the Mid-American Conference at Miami of Ohio University. What little publicity he gets comes mainly from the fact his twin brother, Marcus, also plays for the RedHawks.

    Weathers' numbers speak quite eloquently for him.

    He is averaging 20.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists and 1.7 steals per game. Perhaps the most impressive number for the 6'2" Weathers is his 2.0 blocks per game.

    The RedHawks were picked to finish last in their division in the MAC preseason poll, and their 5-5 record, including a loss to Northern Kentucky, would indicate the poll got it right.

    Weathers' production has slipped a bit lately as the caliber of competition has improved, so he might not be on this list at season's end. For now, though, he is the one bright spot on a mediocre Miami team.

No. 10 (tie) Jayson Tatum, Duke

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    Duke forward Jayson Tatum will likely rise in these freshman rankings as the season progresses but with just three college games under his belt, including one as a starter, Tatum barely makes this list at this point.

    Three games are not enough to draw any meaningful conclusions, but his statistics and apparent skill in limited court time demand his inclusion. He is averaging 15.0 points and 7.0 rebounds while hitting two of five three-point shots in just 24.3 minutes per game. His numbers and playing time presumably will increase, although it remains to be seen how Mike Krzyzewski will parcel out minutes when everyone is healthy and the rotation set.

    The Blue Devils have faced only one challenging opponent since Tatum's recovery from a foot injury, and Tatum demonstrated his talent in that game. Against Florida, then ranked 21st, Tatum scored 22 points on 7-of-12 shooting to go along with eight rebounds, two steals, two assists and a block in 29 minutes.

    Krzyzewski said it was Tatum's defense that played a major role in Duke taking control.

    "We actually said that at halftime that his steal and pressure kind of turned the game around," Krzyzewski said, according to a school press release. "I thought that was a big turning point for us and he did it defensively for us.”

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No. 9 Dennis Smith Jr., North Carolina State

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    One of the many outstanding point guards in this season's freshman class, North Carolina State's Dennis Smith Jr. has put up outstanding numbers.

    His 18.3 points per game combined with his 5.0 assists, 3.7 rebounds and 1.7 steals compare favorably with the best in the country. Smith struggled a bit in his first two games, collecting 23 points on 6-of-22 shooting in the two games combined. In the seven games since then, though, Smith has averaged 20.3 points on 43 percent shooting.

    Two things prevent him from being ranked higher: He is shooting just 23.6 percent from three-point range, and the Wolfpack's competition has not been great.

    Smith was productive in North Carolina State's only game against a ranked opponent, putting up 21 points and seven assists against just two turnovers in a 112-94 loss to a Creighton team currently ranked No. 10.

    In the Wolfpack's only other game against a quality opponent, Smith had less success, scoring 12 points with seven rebounds, three assists and four turnovers in an 88-74 road loss to Illinois. In both games, Smith made less than half of his shots, going a combined 10-of-27 from the field.

    The Wolfpack are 7-2, with several close wins against inferior teams. Unless the Wolfpack perform better than expected in the Atlantic Coast Conference, Smith may go somewhat unnoticed.

    Smith's best game came in a two-point win over Loyola-Chicago, when Smith collected 30 points, six rebounds, seven assists and three steals against two turnovers.

    ''Dennis Smith was phenomenal,'' Loyola coach Porter Moser said, per Associated Press (h/t Salisbury Post). ''He was like (Russell) Westbrook the way he was that quick and that athletic. I mean, he's all that and more than advertised.''

No. 8 Lauri Markkanen, Arizona

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    Lauri Markkanen is the only foreign player on this list, and it was more difficult to predict how the 7-foot Finnish player would do in American collegiate basketball. ESPN gave him a scouting grade of 96, which would have put him among the top 10 recruits in the country.

    Markkanen has lived up to his billing and more. It's a good thing because with the Allonzo Trier's eligibility issues, the season-ending injury to Ray Smith and the recent ankle injury to guard Parker Jackson-Cartwright, the Wildcats desperately need Markkanen's skills.

    He leads the team in scoring at 16.8 points per game and rebounding at 7.1 per contest. What sets him apart, however, is that he leads the team in three-point shooting at 47.7 percent and in three-pointers made with 21. That outside shooting excellence is an attribute you typically don't get with a 7-footer.

    After Markkanen scored 26 points in Arizona's 12-point victory over Cal State Bakersfield in the second game of the season, coach Sean Miller made a bold proclamation.

    "Lauri's one of the best players in college basketball," Sean Miller said, according to the Associated Press account (h/t AZCentral.com). "He is. He's a monster."

    The reason Markkanen was not ranked higher on this list is because he has not played his best against the best competition. The Wildcats have faced three top-flight opponents, Michigan State, Butler and Gonzaga, and Markkanen scored no more than 15 points in any of them and shot less than 50 percent from the field in all three.

No. 7 Miles Bridges, Michigan State

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    Miles Bridges' value to Michigan State was demonstrated in the three games he missed with an ankle injury. The Spartans won all three games but struggled to a four-point win at home against Oral Roberts (2-8) and did not blow out Tennessee Tech (4-7) at home as anticipated in an eight-point victory.

    Perhaps more indicative of Bridges' importance is that he had his worst game against Kentucky, collecting just six points on 2-of-11 shooting while committing nine turnovers. He did have 12 rebounds and three blocks, but his offensive struggles led directly to the Spartans scoring just 48 points in a 21-point loss.

    Bridges is expected to be sidelined until Big Ten play begins Dec. 27 against Minnesota, according to mlive.com, so Tom Izzo will try to survive two more home games against overmatched opponents without his best player.

    Bridges leads the Spartans in both scoring (16.6 ppg) and rebounding (8.8 rpg) while also adding 1.5 blocks per contest.

    More impressive to fans are his highlight-reel dunks and displays of athleticism. He has flare, but it is not wasted motion. Former Michigan State star Magic Johnson called Bridges a "superstar" a few games into this season, per mlive.com, and the versatile 6'7" swingman has demonstrated he might be just that. 

No. 6 Josh Jackson, Kansas

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    As Scout's No. 1-ranked recruit in a strong freshman class, Kansas forward Josh Jackson has a lot to live up to. He has been a solid performer for the No. 3-ranked Jayhawks, but he has been less than spectacular.

    Jackson's numbers are decent: 14.8 points per game, 6.1 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 53.3 percent shooting from the field. His outside shooting (5-of-21 from three-point range) needs some work, but that is not surprising.

    Jackson's biggest problem is that he is somewhat overshadowed by guard Frank Mason III, who is having an outstanding season and is in the running for national player of the year. It's even a close call between Devonte' Graham and Jackson for the honor of being considered the second-best player on the team.

    Jackson started the season more slowly than many of the other highly touted freshmen. He had just nine points on 3-of-11 shooting in the season-opening loss to Indiana. Jackson then had 15 points on 7-of-9 shooting in the second game against Duke, but he played just 18 minutes and fouled out, as Mason hit the game-winning shot.

    But look for Jackson to pick up the pace as the season goes on. In his last two games against Missouri-Kansas City and Nebraska, Jackson scored 19 and 17 points, respectively, and made 15 of 24 shots (62.5 percent).

    "I'm seeing some things that I think the potential is just off the charts," Kansas coach Bill Self said on a video in a Dec. 8 Kansas City Star report. "I think his vision is probably the best thing."

No. 5 T.J. Leaf, UCLA

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    UCLA forward T.J. Leaf has one significant shortcoming: He makes the game look too easy.

    Whether it be a post-up move, dribble drive, follow shot, rebound in traffic or a three-point shot, the 6'10" Leaf performs them all with an efficiency and simplicity that removes any sense of awe. He is the Tim Duncan of college basketball, getting the job done with sound fundamentals and basketball know-how.

    Having Lonzo Ball as a teammate tends to put Leaf in the background, but he is nearly as responsible for UCLA's rise to the No. 2 ranking as the freshman point guard.

    Leaf is second on the team in scoring at 17.6 points per game, just behind Isaac Hamilton's 17.7. Leaf is second in rebounding at 9.3 per game, just behind Thomas Welsh's 9.6. He averages 1.2 blocks, second on the team, and his 10-of-20, 50-percent shooting on three-pointers is also second. He does lead the team in one important category, field-goal percentage, at 67.9 percent which ranks ninth in the country.

    "He can do it all,” Ball told the Los Angeles Times. “He’s a versatile four man, he can stretch the floor, he can bring it up, he can shoot the three, catch lobs, hit free throws, there’s not much that he can’t do.”

    After the Bruins upset Kentucky at Rupp Arena, Ball seemed to get most of the credit but as Aaron Torres of Foxsports.com pointed out after that game, "T.J. Leaf was the big breakout star, finishing with 17 points and 13 rebounds." Leaf also had five assists while hitting seven of 12 shots from the field and one of two three-pointers in that game.

    “He killed us,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said, per the Los Angeles Times.

No. 4 Malik Monk, Kentucky

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    Averaging a team-high 19.4 points for a national-title contender is impressive enough, but doing it while averaging just 28 minutes per game puts Malik Monk in a special class.

    Monk showed what he can do in extended playing time in the Wildcats' two games against stiff competition. In the 21-point win over Michigan State, which was ranked 13th at the time, Monk played 34 minutes and scored 23 points while hitting 7-of-11 three-point shots. In the five-point loss to UCLA, Monk played 36 minutes and collected 24 points while making half of his eight three-point attempts.

    Some early concerns about Monk arose after the first two games when he totaled just 26 points on 3-of-12 three-point shooting against Stephen F. Austin and Canisius. He has averaged 20.0 points and hit 40.9 percent of his long-range shots in the eight games since then, erasing the doubts.

    "Malik has just gotten better each week,” Kentucky coach John Calipari said in late November on the Kentucky website. “He went from being an antsy player to being a comfortable player on the court. So he's still playing fast, but he's never out of control.”

No. 3 Markelle Fultz, Washington

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    If Washington had a decent team, Huskies guard Markelle Fultz would be part of the national player of the year discussion. As it is, he still might be named an All-American this season, which would be a remarkable accomplishment for a player on a team that is 4-5 and doesn't figure to make it to the NCAA tournament.

    Fultz's statistics lift him above his team's failures. He is averaging 22.8 points per game, 6.9 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 2.1 steals and 1.2 blocks while shooting 48.7 percent on three-pointers. No one in the country can match that overall stat line.

    Certainly, his numbers might be a bit lower if his teammates could contribute more offensively. And Fultz's presumed value will always be minimized to some extent as a result of his team's record.

    However, there is a reason DraftExpress projects Fultz to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NBA draft.

    "My mindset is different from a lot of people," Fultz said to ESPN's C.L. Brown before the season. "You ask people their goal and they'll say to make it to the NBA. My goal isn't just to make it there, it's to be the best that ever played."

    No one is laughing about that statement now.

No. 2 De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky

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    Speed, playmaking and scoring make De'Aaron Fox an ideal point guard for the Kentucky system. He is the best player on a Wildcats team loaded with freshman stars and is perhaps the chief reason Kentucky has a chance to win another national championship this season.

    Fox is averaging 15.1 points, 5.4 rebounds and 6.9 assists, and he recorded the second triple-double in Kentucky history with 14 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists in just 31 minutes against Arizona State on Nov. 28.

    "He’s just a really talented guy, really runs their team extremely well," Arizona State coach Bobby Hurley said of Fox, according to the Louisville Courier-Journal. "Like a lot of great players do, he does a lot of things well on the floor. I’m a big fan of his. I think he’s obviously got a really high ceiling, both this season and beyond.”

    The one aspect Fox must improve before advancing to the NBA is his outside shooting. He has made just three of 21 three-points shots (14.3 percent). However, he does so many other things to help his team that his shooting woes barely matter. It is reminiscent of the freshman season Jason Kidd had at Cal in 1992-93, when he shot just 28 percent from three-point range but did everything else while orchestrating a turnaround for the Cal program.

    Fox won his individual battle with UCLA point guard Lonzo Ball by collecting 20 points and nine assists with just two turnovers against the Bruins. But Ball won the war as UCLA stunned the Wildcats in Rupp Arena.

    Fox's matchup with North Carolina point guard Joel Berry II on Dec. 17 is one to watch carefully, assuming Berry plays.

    Fox is the latest in a line of standout point guards who have played for John Calipari, including Derrick Rose, Brandon Knight, Eric Wall, Eric Bledsoe, Marquis Teague and Tyler Ulis. 

    Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com placed Fox fifth in his national player of the year race rankings published on Dec. 6. 

No. 1 Lonzo Ball, UCLA

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    The one glaring weakness in UCLA's 2015-16 team, which finished in 10th place in the Pac-12 with a 6-12 conference record, was the absence of a playmaking point guard. The team had talent but no one to pull the pieces together on the floor. With no floor general, the Bruins fell apart late in the season, losing their final five games.

    Enter Lonzo Ball.

    The hype surrounding Ball, who was ranked the seventh-best recruit in the nation by Scout, seemed almost impossible to live up to.

    But he surpassed expectations.

    After the Bruins knocked off then-No. 1 Kentucky at Rupp Arena, CBSSports.com's Gary Parrish listed Ball as the leader in the national player of the year race.

    It's easy to see why. His statistics are impressive: 15.0 points per game, 5.2 rebounds, 8.8 assists (which rank second in the country), 56.0 percent shooting overall, 45.3 percent three-point shooting with his funky-looking shot and a 3.3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio.

    What is not noticed is the effect he has on his teammates. No longer saddled with playmaking responsibilities while benefiting from Lonzo's passing, Isaac Hamilton (17.7 points per game) and Bryce Drew (15.6 points) have become offensive stars.

    Certainly, the addition of freshman forward T.J. Leaf has helped the Bruins considerably as well. However, the point guard position has more influence on a team's success than any other position, and it is obvious why a UCLA team that went 15-17 last season is currently undefeated and ranked No. 2.

    Coach Steve Alford described the Ball phenomenon during a Nov. 30 interview on CBS Sports Radio’s The Doug Gottlieb Show:

    If you like basketball, you just want to go watch him play. He’s part of showtime. He’s part of playing the game at a really accelerated pace. He sees plays. We always talk about how good guards can see one play ahead; I swear Lonzo sees them two and three plays ahead. He just finds people. He’s got great length, great speed.