Freshman Classes Having the Biggest Impact on College Basketball in 2017-18
Led by Marvin Bagley III, the Duke Blue Devils have the freshman class making the biggest positive impact on the 2017-18 men's college basketball season. They are followed closely by the Oklahoma Sooners and the Kentucky Wildcats in what has been a scintillating season for first-year players.
You might be thinking to yourself, "Well, no kidding Duke and Kentucky have the best classes. They always sign the best recruits."
That's an excellent point, but teams who fare well in the recruiting rankings and teams who have dominant freshmen aren't always in the same section of the nation's Venn diagram. After all, Oklahoma was No. 32 in the 247Sports team recruiting rankings before landing near the top of this list, and Missouri isn't even worthy of an honorable mention, despite sitting at No. 4 in the 247Sports rankings.
The following classes are ranked by a combination of statistical dominance and national relevance with a slight bias toward relevance. In other words, a freshman class averaging 25 points per game for Final Four contender would rank more favorably than one averaging 30 points per game for a bubble team.
Statistics current through the start of play on January 30.
Eric Williams Jr., Tydus Verhoeven
With Williams nearly averaging a double-double (15.1 PPG, 9.7 RPG) and Verhoeven averaging almost five blocks per 40 minutes, Duquesne might win 20 games for the first time since 2008-09. But even "Duquesne's best in a decade" doesn't register on the national radar.
Troy Brown, Victor Bailey, Kenny Wooten
Tough call to leave Oregon on the cutting-room floor. However, neither Brown nor the Ducks have been quite as good as advertised before the season began. Wooten making his mark as one of the top shot-blockers in the entire country was almost enough to get them a spot, though.
Daejon Davis, Oscar Da Silva, Kezie Okpala, Isaac White
Head coach Jerod Haase has something special brewing in Palo Alto. Though Okpala wasn't eligible until the 13th game of the season, each of these four freshmen is averaging at least 6.0 points per game played. Unfortunately, the team is 11-11, so it's hard to make the case that this class is having a huge impact at a national level.
Brandon McCoy, Tervell Beck, Amauri Hardy
UNLV is back in a big way after a few lackluster seasons. McCoy is the biggest reason why, as he is averaging 17.5 points and 9.8 rebounds per game. If the Rebels were closer to the bubble or if Beck and/or Hardy were doing more on a nightly basis, this would be one of the nine most noteworthy freshman classes.
Deandre Ayton, Brandon Randolph, Ira Lee, Alex Barcello, Emmanuel Akot
This was supposed to be one of the best freshman classes in the entire country. Instead, it has been Ayton and a bunch of guys who barely deserve to get off the bench. There isn't an explicit rule that a team needs at least two freshmen averaging better than 5.0 points per game in order to qualify, but this class as a whole doesn't really compare to the ones that do contain multiple key contributors.
9. Miami Hurricanes
Lonnie Walker IV: 10.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.1 SPG, 37.2% 3PT
Chris Lykes: 7.7 PPG, 2.0 APG, 36.3% 3PT
It took both of these freshmen a little while to get going, but Walker and Lykes have been two of Miami's most important assets in ACC play.
Through eight conference games, Walker is leading the Hurricanes in scoring at 14.3 points per game, shooting just a shade under 40 percent from three-point range.
This is more or less what was expected from him coming out of high school. However, a torn meniscus suffered over the summer kept Walker from immediately becoming a scoring machine. It took until mid-January, but he's finally looking confident and dominant. He may still emerge as the top shooting guard in this year's draft class should he decide to take the one-and-done route.
And though Lykes has not yet replaced Ja'Quan Newton in the starting lineup, the freshman has effectively supplanted the senior as Miami's primary point guard. Lykes is averaging 9.6 points and 3.0 assists in ACC play while Newton's averages are 5.6 and 2.9 in similar playing time.
Lykes and Walker are also two of the better ball-hawking defenders on the team, each averaging roughly 1.7 steals per 40 minutes.
They will be more important than ever with Miami announcing Tuesday morning that Bruce Brown Jr. is expected to miss the next six weeks following surgery for a foot injury.
8. Arizona State Sun Devils
Romello White: 11.8 PPG, 7.3 RPG
Remy Martin: 9.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG, 2.7 APG, 1.2 SPG, 40.5% 3PT
Vitaliy Shibel: 2.5 PPG, 2.0 RPG
Kimani Lawrence (eight games): 2.1 PPG, 1.5 RPG
The most incredible part of Arizona State starting the season 12-0 is that it did so without what was supposed to be its top freshman.
247Sports had Lawrence rated as head coach Bobby Hurley's top enrollee in this year's class.
Per Doug Haller of AZ Central, Lawrence averaged 11.3 points and 5.3 rebounds in ASU's exhibition games before suffering a foot fracture. The injury caused the forward to miss the first 13 games of the season, and it doesn't look like he's going to be able to make up for the time lost. He has played just three minutes in each of Arizona State's last two games.
The Sun Devils were able to thrive without him, though.
For the most part, it was seniors Tra Holder, Shannon Evans II and Kodi Justice leading the way, but they never would have been able to do so without White and Martin. The latter was the star of Arizona State's season-defining road win over Kansas, while the former averaged 14.9 points and 8.6 rebounds in nonconference play.
Evans, Holder and Justice coming back to Earth with their collective three-point stroke is the biggest reason Arizona State has struggled to maintain its dominance in Pac-12 play, but White's drop to 8.0 points and 5.7 rebounds in league play is also a significant contributing factor. If he can get back on track, the Sun Devils could resurface as a Final Four contender.
7. Texas Longhorns
Mohamed Bamba: 13.1 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 4.3 BPG
Matt Coleman: 7.7 PPG, 4.9 APG, 2.9 RPG
Jericho Sims: 4.1 PPG, 3.2 RPG
Jase Febres: 3.7 PPG, 1.4 RPG
Mohamed Bamba has been incredible.
For a while, there were people questioning his motor on the offensive end. (How can a guy this big with three-point range possibly average just 9.2 field-goal attempts per game?) But Bamba has averaged 15.8 points, 12.1 rebounds and 4.6 blocks over his last 10 games, including going for 22, 15 and eight in a loss to Kansas, as well as 25, 15 and four in a recent win over Mississippi.
NBA draft experts have spent most of the past two months debating whether Marvin Bagley III, Deandre Ayton, Luka Doncic or even Trae Young deserves to be taken with the No. 1 overall pick this June, but it's hard to believe Bamba hasn't been a bigger part of that conversation.
However, Texas only checks in at No. 7 because his supporting cast of freshmen hasn't been anywhere near as strong as the "other" freshmen on our top five teams. Also, Texas has not been ranked in the AP Top 25 at any point this season, limiting the national impact of this group.
That isn't to say the three non-Bamba freshmen listed above have been disappointing. Far from it. Matt Coleman has been starting all season and is a rock at point guard. Jericho Sims has gotten a few starts and has shown a lot of potential, albeit rarely in consecutive games. And Jase Febres is starting to emerge as a go-to shooter, hitting 12 three-pointers in his last seven games.
It's just hard to stack up against the half-dozen teams with multiple freshmen averaging at least 10 points per game. This quartet should help pace the Longhorns to the NCAA tournament, though.
6. UCLA Bruins
Kris Wilkes: 13.8 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 34.7% 3PT
Jaylen Hands: 11.2 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 3.1 APG, 37.8% 3PT
Chris Smith: 4.4 PPG, 2.0 RPG
Before the season began, UCLA was a near-lock for a spot in the top five on this list. In addition to the three guys listed above, Cody Riley, Jalen Hill and maybe even LiAngelo Ball were expected to play major parts as freshmen on a top-25 team. Instead, those three guys made international news for shoplifting in China, Ball fled to Lithuania and neither Riley nor Hill was permitted to return to the court this season.
Still, the three freshmen who have been allowed to play have been solid for a bubbly Bruins squad.
Aaron Holiday and Thomas Welsh have been the stars of this team, but Wilkes and Hands aren't far behind.
The ability of Hands to either shoot, drive or dish is a big reason UCLA's offense works so well. It's not exactly a carbon copy of Lonzo Ball and Bryce Alford, but he and Holiday pair nicely as dual combo guards. Hands had a career-high 10 assists in UCLA's most recent game, a 16-point blowout of a Stanford team that has been causing problems for everyone in Pac-12 play.
Meanwhile, Wilkes has settled in nicely as stretch 4, putting up numbers similar to what Dillon Brooks (Oregon) and Trevon Bluiett (Xavier) have done in recent years. He's not the type to pop off for 30 points in a game, but he has been a reliable source of both points and rebounds on a nightly basis.
In UCLA's marquee victory over Kentucky, Hands and Wilkes combined for 34 points on 25 shots and were the two most efficient players in the game.
5. Texas Tech Red Raiders
Zhaire Smith: 10.0 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.0 BPG
Jarrett Culver: 10.6 PPG, 4.1 RPG, 1.4 APG, 1.4 SPG, 38.6% 3PT
Davide Moretti: 4.2 PPG, 1.2 APG, 1.0 RPG, 0.7 SPG
Six of the other eight teams in our top nine had a top-10 recruiting class, making it no surprise whatsoever that they appear on the list. One of other teams was ranked No. 32, but it had a 5-star stud in Trae Young. No major surprise there, either. And while Arizona State only ranked No. 22, that didn't include redshirt freshman Romello White, who was a top-100 recruit last year. We didn't see the Sun Devils freshmen coming, but maybe we should have.
That leaves Texas Tech as the oddball, getting excellent contributions from a freshman class that ranked 40th nationally.
Both Zhaire Smith and Jarrett Culver were 3-star recruits. Smith was barely regarded as a top-200 guy. Culver didn't even rank in the top 300. Yet, they are both averaging double figures for the Red Raiders, who are in the running for a spot on the top three seed lines in the NCAA tournament.
Both Smith and Culver are shooting better than 60 percent on two-point attempts. They have also been two of the best defensive weapons for a team renowned for its defense.
Here's a fun fact about Texas Tech's duo: Per Sports Reference, there are only seven freshmen in the country averaging at least 10 points per game with a box plus/minus of 10 or greater—Trae Young, Marvin Bagley III, Wendell Carter Jr., Jaren Jackson Jr., Mo Bamba and these two Red Raiders. That's five 5-star, surefire lottery picks and a pair of 3-star guys no one saw coming.
Davide Moretti is also worth mentioning here, though he has struggled mightily in his last 10 games. But for a team that desperately needs some three-point shooting, this shooting guard could be a key piece in the tournament if he starts to turn things around.
4. Alabama Crimson Tide
Collin Sexton: 18.5 PPG, 3.4 RPG, 3.3 APG, 1.1 SPG, 35.9% 3PT
John Petty: 11.8 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.0 APG, 38.7% 3PT
Herb Jones: 5.4 PPG, 4.0 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.5 SPG, 42.9% 3PT
Alex Reese: 3.8 PPG, 2.9 RPG
Galin Smith: 2.8 PPG, 2.2 RPG
If you've been too wrapped up in Trae Young hysteria to pay attention to other freshman point guards, you've been missing out on a great one in Collin Sexton. Although, it would mean you got to watch the game between Alabama and Oklahoma in which Sexton outplayed Young in a head-to-head battle.
Prior to that game, Sexton had been struggling. He missed a pair of games with an abdominal injury and didn't play well at all in the two games before or first game after that absence, scoring a combined total of 27 points on 37 field-goal attempts with nine assists and 12 turnovers in those three games. But he was unreal in his first 14 contests, including the famous 40-point explosion against Minnesota (back when Minnesota was good).
But Alabama's freshman class is much more than just the one phenom who everyone knew was going to be special.
The Crimson Tide also have John Petty, who is averaging nearly three made three-pointers per game with his gorgeous, high-arcing stroke. Then there's Herb Jones, who is finally starting to harness some of his untapped potential. When it starts to really click for him, he could be a lottery pick in a future draft. And though Alex Reese and Galin Smith are only making a minor impact, they have been crucial pieces at the back end of Alabama's 10-man rotation.
There's no chance Sexton sticks around for a second year, but did you know Alabama has not played a single senior in its last nine games? The Crimson Tide could be extremely good next year with a healthy Braxton Key, a hopefully more consistent version of Jones and the addition of Texas transfer Tevin Mack.
3. Oklahoma Sooners
Trae Young: 29.6 PPG, 9.6 APG, 4.1 RPG, 2.0 SPG, 40.2% 3PT
Brady Manek: 11.3 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 41.5% 3PT
Figuring out where to rank Oklahoma on this list was the biggest conundrum.
On the one hand, the Sooners only have two freshmen making a legitimate impact while Kentucky and Duke each have four first-year guys scoring in double figures. Based on sheer volume of impact, we're trying to compare two freshmen averaging 40 points per game to larger collections of freshmen averaging better than 66 points per game. That's not a fair fight.
On the other hand, Trae Young's individual impact on the game at a national level as a freshman is greater than any I can recall. Maybe Michael Beasley was a bigger deal a decade ago at Kansas State, but it's hard to compare popularity between a current player and one who played before Twitter took off.
Though Young has taken a slight step back from averaging 30 points and 10 assists per game, he's still leading the nation in both categories.
Because of Young, every single Oklahoma game is a must-watch affair—which is almost never something you would say about a team that has spent most of the season ranked outside the AP Top 10. Case in point, Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons were awesome freshmen in recent years, but you weren't setting alarms on your phone to make sure you watched every Washington and LSU game.
Young also has an impressive (albeit inconsistent) sidekick in Brady Manek. The 6'9" stretch 4 has made at least four three-pointers in six games this season, each of which resulted in a win for the Sooners. Though he permanently resides in Young's shadow, he was a huge reason Oklahoma won games against the likes of Kansas, Wichita State, USC and TCU.
When Manek shows up, the Sooners can beat anyone.
2. Kentucky Wildcats
Kevin Knox: 15.5 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 1.6 APG, 1.0 SPG, 35.4% 3PT
Hamidou Diallo: 12.7 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.0 SPG, 34.7% 3PT
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander: 11.8 PPG, 4.4 APG, 3.8 RPG, 1.7 SPG, 40.7% 3PT
PJ Washington: 10.8 PPG, 5.0 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.1 BPG
Quade Green: 9.7 PPG, 3.2 APG, 1.8 RPG, 37.0% 3PT
Nick Richards: 6.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.2 BPG
Jarred Vanderbilt (four games): 3.3 PPG, 7.3 RPG, 1.3 APG
Though Kentucky hasn't quite been the top-five title contender we were expecting before the season began, only a fool would suggest this freshman class has been disappointing.
Per usual, head coach John Calipari loaded up on 5-star studs. However, this year was the first time he failed to sign one of the top eight recruits in the nation since his 2006 class at Memphis. And instead of a couple of ball-dominant phenoms, he ended up with a cavalcade of role players who are just now starting to jell as a cohesive force.
Despite a shaky start, the Wildcats have six freshmen who can legitimately carry the team in scoring on any given night—four of which have emerged as viable three-point weapons. Kevin Knox is the leader of the bunch and the one who led them to victory at West Virginia this past Saturday, but all six of the leading scorers have had at least one game this season with at least 21 points.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the one who should determine how far this team goes in the NCAA tournament. He has been their anchor in SEC play, averaging* 14.0 points, 4.6 assists, 4.0 rebounds, 1.1 steals and 0.8 blocks per game. In those eight contests, he has led the team in scoring and has nearly three times as many assists as the closest teammate. If he vanishes in March, that would spell trouble for Kentucky.
As long as he's playing well, though, anything is possible. Kentucky has yet to have a single non-freshman start a game this season and it just recently dropped out of the AP Top 25 for the first time in years, but it is well on its way to becoming one of the top candidates to reach the Final Four.
*Prior to Tuesday night's game against Vanderbilt.
1. Duke Blue Devils
Marvin Bagley III: 21.5 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 1.5 APG, 1.0 SPG, 1.1 BPG, 34.1% 3PT
Gary Trent Jr.: 14.7 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.1 SPG, 43.5% 3PT
Wendell Carter Jr.: 14.5 PPG, 9.3 RPG, 1.9 APG, 2.0 BPG, 46.4% 3PT
Trevon Duval: 11.3 PPG, 6.0 APG, 2.0 RPG, 1.6 SPG
Alex O'Connell: 4.4 PPG, 1.5 RPG, 51.6% 3PT
If you prefer Kentucky or Oklahoma in this top spot, that's fine. There's justification for ranking the top three teams in any of the six possible orders.
But we're going with Duke for several reasons.
The first is Duke is ranked No. 4 in the AP poll and remains one of the favorites to win the national championship. Last year's freshman class (aside from Jayson Tatum) failed to live up to expectations, resulting in Duke's downward spiral from "Can anyone beat this team?" to "Is Duke back?" to "What the heck went wrong?" By comparison, this year's 5-star guys have been nothing short of sensational.
The second reason is Duke's top four freshmen are averaging a combined 62.0 points per game. There are three entire teams (Coppin State, Alabama A&M and Mississippi Valley State) who don't score that much, and it's more than Kentucky's five leading scorers are averaging (60.5).
Duke also has a much bigger star leading the way than Kentucky does. Marvin Bagley III is one of the top candidates for the No. 1 pick in the 2018 NBA draft. He is also on the short list of viable candidates for the Wooden Award along with Trae Young and Jalen Brunson. Young and Bagley are dominant in different ways, but Duke's phenom is about as unstoppable as they get.
And with two freshman teammates averaging better than 14 points per game, Bagley has a much stronger supporting cast in his class than Young has. Gary Trent Jr. is shooting 49.3 percent from three-point range in 10 ACC games, and Wendell Carter Jr. is averaging a double-double (15.0 PPG, 10.2 RPG) in that same subset of games.
That trio has been so dominant that Trevon Duval has turned into an afterthought, even though he's arguably the most important player on the team and might be a lottery pick.
Maybe the Blue Devils won't win it all. Heck, given some of their showings against Boston College and North Carolina State, they might not survive the first weekend. But it has been a while since a freshman class was collectively this impressive.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @kerrancejames.