In the one-and-done era of college basketball, fans are routinely introduced to a wave of talented freshmen who make an instant impact on their respective teams before turning pro. However, the 2016-17 class is slightly different due to the incredible depth, causing some publications to declare this season as “The Year of the Freshmen.”
Even if you are someone who casually follows college hoops until the madness that is March, the odds are you have probably seen or heard of a freshman doing something spectacular. Seemingly every night, one of these young players delivers a memorable performance with the poise and composure of a seasoned upperclassman.
Now that conference play is in full swing, every game has an increased level of importance as teams fill out their resumes for seeding (or a spot) in the NCAA tournament. We have identified four of the highly-touted freshmen to keep an eye on moving forward, so check out our list and let us know your picks in the comment section.
PG Markelle Fultz, Washington Huskies (7-6 overall, 0-1 Pac-12)
Markelle Fultz entered the college ranks as the early front-runner to be the No. 1 pick in the 2017 NBA draft because he is simply a NBA scout’s dream. Fultz uses his size (6-foot-4 height and 6-foot-10 wingspan) to his advantage on both sides of the ball, giving him the type of versatility that coaches covet. That versatility is reflected in his numbers, as he averages 22.3 points, 6.7 assists and 6.4 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.4 blocks.
Offensively, Fultz has the type of game that is beyond his years. He has an advanced understanding of how to create space and reach desired areas on the court without relying on overwhelming athleticism – and that is not to say he can’t blow by defenders or throw it down at the rim. Instead, he uses ball fakes, step backs and deft footwork to keep defenders off balance.
However, Fultz does have occasional lapses in judgement, resulting in careless turnovers or lackadaisical defense. But considering he has to do the majority of the heavy lifting for the Huskies, it becomes more understandable. It will be interesting to see how he performs against Pac-12 opponents, including a must-see matchup against the next player on our list on Feb. 4.
PG Lonzo Ball, UCLA Bruins (14-1 overall, 1-1 Pac-12)
The Bruins are one of the most entertaining teams in the country due to their free-flowing style of play and sweet shooting from behind the arc. That combination has contributed to UCLA’s offensive output of 93.9 points per game (as opposed to 77.5 last year). The driving force behind the increase in scoring is largely attributed to the presence of Lonzo Ball, a 6-foot-6 point guard with elite vision and passing.
Ball’s ability to facilitate – either in half-court sets or in transition – has drawn comparisons to another Pac-12 (or Pac-10) great: Jason Kidd. If that seems like a lofty comparison, consider that Ball’s current averages of 14.3 points, 8.1 assists and 5.7 rebounds are actually better than Kidd’s (13 points, 7.7 assists and 4.9 rebounds) at the same stage of his collegiate career.
Ball still has to prove that he is able be just as effective when opposing teams are able to control the tempo and make it a half-court game. One of Ball’s most glaring weaknesses is his inability at times to get his shot off due to his unorthodox cross-body release and his complete lack of a midrange game.
PG/SG Malik Monk, Kentucky Wildcats (12-2 overall, 2-0 SEC)
Malik Monk is one of the most lethal scorers in the country. His 47-point eruption against North Carolina in December broke the school’s freshman scoring record and serves as an example as how ignitable he is offensively. Monk is currently averaging 30 points through two games of conference play, eliminating any doubts about his ability get buckets against SEC opponents.
But what makes him so dangerous on the offensive end? Monk has elite athleticism, which makes him a terror in transition and is responsible for a number of highlight-worthy jams. He also has a quick release and the supreme confidence necessary to take any shot at any time.
Monk clearly has the game and mentality of a shooting guard. But he is somewhat undersized for the position, leaving some scouts to wonder if he can slide over to point guard. He still hasn’t shown the ability to consistently make plays for his teammates, but that role on Kentucky is reserved for Isaiah Briscoe and the next player on our list.
PG De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky Wildcats (12-2 overall, 2-0 SEC)
De’Aaron Fox is the perfect complement to Monk, giving the Wildcats the most dynamic backcourt in the nation. Fox’s blazing speed from baseline to baseline has drawn comparisons to a pair of former Kentucky point guards: John Wall and Rajon Rondo.
Fox runs the show offensively, averaging 15.6 points and 6.8 assists. His ability to consistently get in the paint causes havoc and provides opportunities for his teammates to attack scrambling defenses. He is just as impactful defensively due to his lateral quickness and anticipation. His full-court pressure on opposing guards causes them to speed up the tempo, which is exactly how Kentucky wants to play.
The biggest concern about Fox’s game is his poor outside shooting. He is currently shooting a ghastly 13.8 percent (4-29) from behind the arc, and the elite teams in the country will certainly exploit that weakness moving forward. Fortunately, he plays alongside Monk who is not afraid to let it fly as soon as it touches his hands.