Early Grades for College Basketball's Top Freshmen in the 2018-19 Season

Kerry Miller@@kerrancejamesCollege Basketball National AnalystNovember 28, 2018

Early Grades for College Basketball's Top Freshmen in the 2018-19 Season

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    RJ Barrett (5) and Zion Williamson (1)
    RJ Barrett (5) and Zion Williamson (1)Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Duke's freshmen have taken the college basketball world by storm, but do RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson all deserve an "A" on their report cards for the first three weeks of the season?

    Spoiler Alert: No. No they do not.

    It's still too early to truly judge these first-year phenoms. Each one has only played around six games, which is roughly one-sixth of the whole season.

    But this one goes out to all the high school teachers who insisted on sending progress reports home to parents after one quiz, three homework assignments and no exams. You knew that wasn't an appropriate sample size, but you did it anyway.

    The following players are listed in ascending order in the 247Sports composite rankings, excluding No. 8 Anfernee Simons, who went straight to the NBA.

    It's important to note that preseason expectations were taken into consideration. If No. 1 RJ Barrett and No. 10 Quentin Grimes were putting up the exact same stats, Grimes would get a much better grade, since we weren't expecting nearly as much from him right away.

    But they aren't putting up identical stats, and they're both going to be disappointed with their grades.


    Statistics and analysis are current through the start of play on Tuesday, November 27.

Quentin Grimes, Kansas

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    Stats: 9.0 PPG, 3.4 APG, 2.8 RPG, 47.4% 3PT

    Quentin Grimes shot out of the gate in spectacular fashion, draining six threes in the first 25 minutes of the season opener against Michigan State. In the blink of an eye, he became one of the early favorites to win the Wooden Award.

    Since that blistering-hot start, though, Grimes is just 7-of-22 (31.8 percent) from the field and 3-of-9 (33.3 percent) from three-point range across four games. And he did virtually nothing in Kansas' two most recent games in the NIT Season Tip-Off against Marquette and Tennessee. Grimes made just one of his seven field-goal attempts at the Barclays Center, averaging 4.0 points and 4.0 rebounds with no assists and four turnovers.

    There's room for both freshmen in the starting lineup, but it's pretty clear at this point that Devon Dotson is the more valuable member of the KU backcourt. There is, of course, plenty of time to change that. However, it has been an inauspicious first few weeks for Grimes, who entered the season as a top-three guard on the vast majority of NBA draft boards.

    At least he had his best performance in the game that everyone was watching. That alone is worth a full letter grade, if not more.

    Grade: C+

EJ Montgomery, Kentucky

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    Andy Lyons/Getty Images

    Stats: 6.7 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.8 BPG

    Kentucky's odds of winning the national championship skyrocketed when John Calipari snagged Reid Travis on the transfer market, but that acquisition has had an adverse effect on EJ Montgomery.

    The highest-rated recruit for the Wildcats is now just one part of a four-man frontcourt. And for the most part, he has been rather invisible. Montgomery has started the fewest number of games (one) of that quartet, and he has yet to record more than 10 points or seven rebounds in a game.

    Part of the problem is Kentucky's three-point shooting. Unless/until Tyler Herro, Immanuel Quickley and Keldon Johnson can force opponents to respect their perimeter jumpereach one is shooting below 30 percentit's going to be tough for Montgomery to find space to operate in the paint. At least all those misses give him a chance to showcase his strength as an offensive rebounder, though.

    Whereas top recruits from yesteryear like De'Aaron Fox, Bam Adebayo, Malik Monk, Hamidou Diallo and Kevin Knox immediately became team leaders, Montgomery is more of an energy guy off the bench whose most noteworthy contributions come as a rim protector. (He has multiple blocks in five of six games.)

    Thus far, he has been much more Skal Labissiere than Karl-Anthony Towns.

    Grade: D+

Romeo Langford, Indiana

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    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    Stats: 18.5 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.0 SPG, 26.1% 3PT

    Romeo Langford is exactly what Indiana has been missing for the past two seasons: a bucket-getter.

    Yogi Ferrell was like that, but he played his last game in 2016. James Blackmon was like that before his knee injury, but he wasn't quite the same after he came back. OG Anunoby probably would have become that type of player if not for his own injury problems. But at long last, Langford is a guy whom Indiana can just hand the ball and watch do his thing.

    Billed as one of the best perimeter shooters in this year's class, we haven't seen that side of his game yet. Langford has attempted at least three three-pointers in each Indiana game, but his success rate is well below what was to be expected.

    That hasn't stopped him from scoring, though. Langford is shooting 63.5 percent from inside the arc and averaging just under seven free-throw attempts per game. His ability and willingness to get to the rim will pay off in a big way once the deep ball starts falling.

    The 6'6" wing has also made solid contributions as a rebounder, posting a double-double against Arkansas. And Langford has been one of Indiana's better defenders. If that three-point percentage were at 35 or better, he'd have the best report card of all.

    Grade: A-

Charles Bassey, Western Kentucky

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    Abbie Parr/Getty Images

    Stats: 14.7 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 2.5 BPG, 1.3 SPG

    Western Kentucky signed a 5-star stud for the second consecutive year. Mitchell Robinson was a great big distraction who never appeared in a college game, but Charles Bassey has been outstanding for the Hilltoppers.

    The big man has been put to the test three times already this season, and he thrived in each one.

    Bassey had 11 points, 12 rebounds and two blocks in the season opener against Washington. Led by Matisse Thybulle, Hameir Wright and Noah Dickerson, the Huskies are one of the best shot-blocking teams in the country. They didn't much bother Bassey.

    Speaking of great shot-blockers, Bassey also had to deal with West Virginia's Sagaba Konate in the semifinals of the Myrtle Beach Invitational, but he more than held his own in that matchup. Hell, he dominated Konate, finishing with 13 points and 15 rebounds while the Mountaineer went for just five and six.

    Two days later, Bassey was handed one very tall task in the form of UCF's 7'6" Tacko Fall. No matter. The Hilltopper had 18 points by halftime and finished with 25 points and 10 rebounds.

    Three double-doubles in three games against elite rim protectors. Western Kentucky won't get much national attention, but this guy is the real deal. Do yourself a favor and try to catch some of his college games before he becomes a top-10 pick in the 2019 NBA draft.

    Grade: A+

Zion Williamson, Duke

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    Darryl Oumi/Getty Images

    Stats: 20.7 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.7 BPG, 2.2 APG, 1.5 SPG

    Come for the highlight-reel dunks. Stay for the efficiency and the defense.

    Zion Williamson has been all that and then some.

    Duke's 6'7" unicorn has grabbed at least three offensive and three defensive rebounds in every game this season. He had five steals in just 18 minutes against San Diego State. He blocked six shots against Army. And in his first three games, Williamson shot 31-of-36 (86.1 percent) from inside the arc.

    Despite a high usage rate, he rarely turns the ball over. Part of that is because he passes the ball surprisingly well (and willingly) for a man his size. If you're an opponent, you want to double-team him because it's next to impossible for one defender to stop him. But if you do it, there's a good chance he's going to find RJ Barrett, Cam Reddish or Jack White on the perimeter for a wide-open three.

    Damned if you double and damned if you don't.

    Add in the ever-present threat to throw down a dunk or block a shot so hard that it feels like it counts for extra points, and Williamson has to be the early front-runner for both the Wooden Award and the No. 1 pick in the 2019 NBA draft.

    Grade: A+

Bol Bol, Oregon

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    Stats: 21.3 PPG, 9.7 RPG, 2.8 BPG, 1.2 SPG, 53.8% 3PT

    Bol Bol was already going to get either an "A" or "A+," and then he exploded for 32 pointsincluding shooting 4-of-6 from downtownand 11 rebounds Monday night. Now, I'm wondering if he should get an "A++."

    (Unfortunately, it wasn't enough for Oregon. Kenny Wooten suffered an injury, Ehab Amin played 30 scoreless minutes and the Ducks blew a 13-point second-half lead in the loss to Texas Southern.)

    The 7'2" center had already proved he could block shots and crash the boards. He had shown a little bit of his heralded three-point range, shooting 3-of-7 in his first five games. But he really spread his 7'8" wings from distance in this game.

    If he continues to show off that perimeter prowess, this freshman is going to be more of a headache for opponents than Frank Kaminsky was when he won the Wooden Award as a senior.

    Seriously, though, how do you stop this guy?

    Syracuse's zone usually neutralizes opposing centers, daring teams to shoot threes rather than feeding the post and having defenders swarm the ball. But Bol destroyed the Orange to the tune of 26 points, nine rebounds, four blocks and three steals. Syracuse has three guys who are 6'10" or taller—Paschal Chukwu, Marek Dolezaj and Bourama Sidibe—and they combined for just four points, seven boards and one block in 46 minutes of dealing with Bol.

    Everyone has been debating whether Zion Williamson or RJ Barrett should go No. 1 overall, but I have a hard time believing anyone will be able to pass on Bol if he keeps this up.

    Grade: A+

Nassir Little, North Carolina

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Stats: 12.9 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 0.9 APG

    Before we begin, let's note first and foremost that it does not matter one bit whether Nassir Little is the fifth starter or the sixth man in this rotation.

    Marvin Williams was one heck of a reserve as a freshman for the Tar Heels back in 2004-05 before becoming the No. 2 pick that summer. More recently, guys like Tyler Zeller, P.J. Hairston, Brice Johnson, Isaiah Hicks and Tony Bradley made excellent contributions off the bench early in their careers. So can we just go ahead and trust that Roy Williams knows how to put together a rotation and get good use out of his young energy guys?

    Now that that's settled, I'm not sure what to make of Little yet.

    He had some excellent performances against Elon and St. Francis, averaging 20.0 points and 7.0 rebounds in just 18.0 minutes against those lowly foes. But against Texas, UCLA and Stanford, he was just OK, averaging 11.0 points and 5.0 rebounds in 21.7 minutes of action.

    There have been flashes of greatness, though.

    Little threw down a statement dunk midway through the second half against UCLA, after which the Bruins were unable to regain the lead. That may have been his breakout moment, because he played well the rest of the way after that. We'll see if he can keep it going for UNC's upcoming games against Michigan, Gonzaga and Kentucky.

    Grade: B-

Cam Reddish, Duke

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    Marco Garcia/Associated Press

    Stats: 15.7 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 1.7 APG, 1.8 SPG, 43.2% 3PT

    For better or worse, Cam Reddish has been exactly as advertised in high school: a gifted player who can absolutely take over a game for five minutes before completely vanishing for the next 10. He has these bursts in which it feels like he could score 50 if he wanted to, but then you forget he's even on the court.

    Against Army, Reddish drained his first three shots and had nine points barely five minutes into the game. But he made just one of his next 11 field-goal attemptsa dunk after grabbing the offensive rebound from one of his own misses. It was a similar story in the season opener against Kentucky. He hit a pair of threes in the first four minutes and didn't score again until three media timeouts later.

    And those were the good games in which he scored a combined 47 points. In both the loss to Gonzaga and the close call against Auburn, Reddish didn't even attempt a field goal in the final eight minutes.

    To his credit, part of the problem is he's a little overaggressive on defense and gets into foul trouble. He has committed at least three fouls in five of six games, and he was limited to 12 minutes by a minor groin injury in the sixth game. Because of that, he has only played more than 26 minutes in a game once so far, which might be keeping him from finding a rhythm.

    Still, he's shooting better than 43 percent while averaging 12.7 three-point attempts per 40 minutes. Factor in the steals on defense and the near-perfect free-throw shooting (17-of-18), and this three-and-D wing is going to be highly coveted on draft night. However, we would like to see a little bit more of an overall impact—as well as a more consistent onefrom the No. 2 recruit in the class.

    Grade: B+

RJ Barrett, Duke

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    Marco Garcia/Associated Press

    Stats: 22.8 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 4.0 APG, 31.6% 3PT

    From a volume perspective, RJ Barrett's numbers look great. If he keeps it up, he'll join Markelle Fultz as the only freshmen in the past 27 seasons to average at least 20 points, five rebounds and four assists per game.

    Efficiency is a different story, though, as it is taking Barrett 20.8 field-goal attempts to score those 22.8 points. In addition to the mediocre three-point percentage noted above, he's shooting just 44.8 percent from inside the arc and 62.2 percent from the free-throw line.

    That's not great, to say the least.

    And when the Blue Devils needed him the most at the end of the Maui Invitational championship against Gonzaga, he got absolutely stuffed at the rim on three straight possessions and missed all five of his field-goal attempts in the final minute. Plus, on Gonzaga's game-winning bucket, Barrett got switched onto Rui Hachimura and barely even tried to stop him from scoring.

    It was a thoroughly unimpressive crunch-time performance, and it came not 24 hours after a close game against Auburn in which Barrett shot 1-of-5 from the field with four turnovers over the final 11 minutes.

    If Barrett hadn't been the No. 1 overall recruit, we wouldn't be so critical of his inefficiency and his late-game performances. But compared to how well Marvin Bagley III, Jahlil Okafor and Ben Simmons played immediately in November in recent years, it has been a disappointing start for Barrett.

    According to the advanced statistics on Sports Reference, Barrett ranks fourth among Blue Devils in player efficiency rating, seventh in win shares per 40 minutes and ninth in box plus/minus. If that doesn't change in a big way, it's going to be a tough pill to swallow for any team considering taking him with the No. 1 pick.

    Grade: D


    All recruiting rankings courtesy of 247Sports. Advanced stats from KenPom.com and Sports Reference.

    Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter, @kerrancejames.


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