Ranking the Best Freshmen in College Basketball in 2017-18

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreHoopsCollege Basketball National Lead WriterFebruary 21, 2018

Ranking the Best Freshmen in College Basketball in 2017-18

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    John Froschauer/Associated Press

    If you were holding a draft for college basketball players and building a college team, which freshmen would go No. 1?

    That's how this list was built. Taking into account ability and performance to date of this historically awesome freshman class, I tried to channel college coaches and predict who they would want.

    In most years, the three players at the top (Deandre Ayton, Trae Young and Marvin Bagley) would be no-brainer selections. Trying to judge them against one another is not an easy task.

    There are also some great freshmen who did not make this top 10 list, and to give an idea at the depth of this class, take a look at the quality of the honorable mention list. Last year's freshman class—and the NBA draft class it produced—was thought to be historically great. This one might turn out to be even better.

                 

    Honorable mention: Lindell Wigginton, Iowa State; Gary Trent Jr., Duke; Zhaire Smith, Texas Tech; Jarrett Culver, Texas Tech; Tremont Waters, LSU; Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kentucky; Omari Spellman, Villanova; Jontay Porter, Missouri; Kris Wilkes, UCLA; Troy Brown, Oregon; Daejon Davis, Stanford; Cameron Krutwig, Loyola-Chicago; Kellan Grady, Davidson; David Jenkins Jr., South Dakota State; Loudon Love, Wright State; RJ Cole, Howard

    Editor's note: All advanced stats, unless otherwise noted, come from KenPom.com.

10. Daniel Gafford, Arkansas

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    Wesley Hitt/Getty Images

    Notable stats: 11.7 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.0 BPG, 62.3 FG%, 117.5 offensive rating

    Daniel Gafford has been one of the best performers in the freshman class who wasn't in the 5-star tier. The Arkansas center is a terrific athlete at his size (6'11") and one of the best rim runners in college basketball. He attempts 89.3 percent of his shots at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com.

    Gafford has been excellent lately during the Razorbacks' four-game winning streak, averaging 15.8 points on 73.5 percent shooting. That has him moving up draft boards. Come June, he's likely to be a first-round pick.

9. Kevin Knox, Kentucky

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Notable stats: 15.1 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 35.2 3-PT%, 108.5 offensive rating

    John Calipari's freshmen are not as talented as we're used to seeing roll through Lexington, and so Kevin Knox may not be appreciated as much as he should be. Most years, he'd be a quality complementary piece for the 'Cats.

    As the primary scorer this year, Knox has been up and down. He's carried the Wildcats on some nights, like when he put up 34 points in a win at West Virginia. When he's struggled offensively, usually UK has as well.

    Considering he's playing out of position—he plays small forward and would likely be best as a stretch 4—and is not surrounded by much shooting, he's had a solid freshman year.

8. Brandon McCoy, UNLV

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    Loren Orr/Getty Images

    Notable stats: 17.0 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 52.0 FT rate, 71.7 FT%

    Brandon McCoy is more of an old-school, low-post scorer than the other big men on this list. He uses his frame and post moves to do his damage below the rim and has quietly put together a great season.

    In addition to the impressive numbers, McCoy has helped UNLV return to relevancy. The Runnin' Rebels are 19-8 overall and 8-6 in the Mountain West after going 11-21 and 4-14 a year ago in coach Marvin Menzies' first year.

    McCoy's signature performance came in December against Arizona when he put up 33 points and 10 rebounds in a 91-88 overtime loss.

7. Jaren Jackson Jr., Michigan State

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    Michael Hickey/Getty Images

    Notable stats: 11.6 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 3.3 BPG, 43.8 3-PT%, 60.2 2-PT%, 79.0 FT%, 118.3 offensive rating

    An argument could be made for moving Jaren Jackson Jr. up this list based on his talent and productivity when he's on the floor. He doesn't play as many minutes (22.0), and his usage rate isn't as high as his fellow star freshmen, but that's mostly a result of playing on one of the most talented rosters in the country.

    Defensively, the only freshman who rivals Jackson's value is Mo Bamba. Jackson has a higher block rate (14.9) than Bamba and also is more comfortable defending out on the perimeter.

    Offensively, Jackson is the rare stretch 4 who can also score from the blocks. His high efficiency marks could be the product of not being asked to do a lot. It'd be fun to see him stick around as a sophomore and see what he looks like as a star on the college level, but considering he's a projected lottery pick, that's not likely.

6. Wendell Carter Jr., Duke

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Notable stats: 14.4 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 1.9 APG, 2.2 BPG, 48.6 3-PT%, 60.1 2-PT%, 124.6 offensive rating

    If it weren't for Marvin Bagley, Wendell Carter Jr. would probably be the Duke freshman in the All-American conversation. Carter has played sidekick to Bagley, but he's been an awesome Robin.

    His efficiency numbers are better than his low-post buddy's. His footwork on the blocks is advanced for his age, and he's also able to step out and hit a jumper. Defensively, he has his struggles, but he's a dominant offensive player.

5. Mo Bamba, Texas

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    Chris Covatta/Getty Images

    Notable stats: 13.6 PPG, 11.1 RPG, 4.1 BPG, 27.7 3-PT%, 60.0- 2-PT%, 113.9 offensive rating

    Mo Bamba has made the paint in Austin a no-fly zone with his ridiculous length (7'9" wingspan) and shot-blocking instincts.

    With Bamba anchoring UT's defense, the Longhorns rank fifth in adjusted defensive efficiency. He's more of a project on the offensive end, but he has flashed impressive skill for his size. He has range out to the three-point line, he's a good passer, and he has excellent hands. No one in the country is better at finishing off a lob.

    Bamba isn't quite strong enough to be dominant scoring with his back to the basket, but he is capable of scoring from the blocks. He hasn't hit a freshman wall and just seems to get better by the week.

4. Collin Sexton, Alabama

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    Michael Chang/Getty Images

    Notable stats: 18.1 PPG, 3.5 APG , 53.8 FT rate, 77.5 FT%, 32.1 usage rate, 108.9 offensive rating

    Collin Sexton is not at Trae Young usage levels, but he's been asked to do a lot as a freshman point guard. It's understandable why.

    Sexton is a blur with the basketball and has the size (6'3" with a 6'7" wingspan) and athleticism to be a great two-way player. His jump shot is a work in progress, but when he hits it—like he did against Minnesota, when he put up 40 points in a game where Alabama played a portion with just three players—he's unstoppable.

    The Crimson Tide have also had a dominant defense this season, ranking 10th nationally in adjusted efficiency. Sexton deserves some of the credit for that success. He's been effective on that end while shouldering a lot of responsibility on offense, where all he needs is space and the ball to make something happen.

3. Marvin Bagley, Duke

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    Peyton Williams/Getty Images

    Notable stats: 21.2 PPG, 11.4 RPG, 59.6 FG%, 35.4 3-PT%, 122.3 offensive rating

    Marvin Bagley has been a double-double machine. As a 6'11" lefty with pogo-stick legs, there's not much hope for college defenders being able to hang with him—or play at the elevation he does.

    Bagley is a great transition player and is able to initiate breaks as a grab-and-go rebounder, and that skill set is rare. He's also been a better-than-expected back-to-the-basket scorer and a threat from beyond the arc, knocking down 17-of-48 threes.

    Defensively, with his athleticism, he hasn't been as good as you'd think. He struggles guarding on the perimeter. He's not the biggest reason Duke's defense has stunk, but he hasn't been a solution, either.

    The Blue Devils have played well the last three games without him as he sits with a knee injury, but for this team to have a shot at a national title, it will need Bagley.

2. Trae Young, Oklahoma

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    Brett Deering/Getty Images

    Notable stats: 29.0 PPG, 9.2 APG, 4.0 RPG, 36.9 3-PT%, 85.6 FT%, 39.6 usage %, 115.1 offensive rating

    Listing Trae Young No. 2 is not an effort to just be a contrarian.

    Young has been unbelievable this season and made Oklahoma a must-watch team. His performances have probably been put under the microscope too much, but Oklahoma and coach Lon Kruger have created that by how Young has been allowed to play. Young has used a higher percentage of his team's possessions than any player in the country dating back to at least 2003-04, which is when Ken Pomeroy started tracking such data.

    Young is a spectacular talent. His shot-making and playmaking have drawn comparisons to Steph Curry, and they're legitimate. Unleashing Young like this has allowed him to put up amazing numbers and highlights. He has the ultimate green light and freedom to throw some wild passes.

    His usage rate is so high that it's difficult to compare him against any player. But the Big 12 has sort of figured him out, and that's a big reason why Oklahoma has lost six straight games and Young's efficiency numbers have dropped. The fact that OU asks Young to do so much has led to wearing him down and is another reason for his drop in effectiveness.

    Young has been able to maintain his per-game averages during his team's slump, but over the course of the season, he hasn't been as effective in his role as Deandre Ayton is at his.

1. Deandre Ayton, Arizona

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    Young Kwak/Associated Press

    Notable stats: 19.7 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 60.6 FG%, 73.9 FT%, 126.9 offensive rating

    This is the answer you would get if you polled coaches on the freshman they would want to build a team around.

    When Trae Young is rolling, he's a joy to watch, but there have been defenders and defensive schemes that have slowed him down. There's not much anyone can do to slow down Ayton. He is built like a Greek god and has skills to boot.

    If Ayton has a weakness, it's that he hasn't been an elite defender, but he is a more effective defensive player than both Young and Bagley. Like Bagley, he's been an elite rebounder, and he's the most efficient scorer of the three. In fact, Ayton's offensive rating (126.9) ranks third-best nationally among players who have used at least 24 percent of their team's possessions.

    I would listen to arguments that say Young is a better college player, and it's difficult to compare anyone to what Young has done because no one comes close in usage rate. But I side with Ayton because unless you double-team him, it's tough for one man to slow him down. The same can no longer be said about Young.

                 

    C.J. Moore covers college basketball at the national level for Bleacher Report. You can find him on Twitter, @CJMooreHoops.

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