Every year college basketball programs try to attract top recruits who can make an immediate impact on the team. Everyone wants the next Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, or Carmelo Anthony to play for their program and carry them into the NCAA tourney. An incoming freshman with exceptional talent can benefit a program immensely, even if it is “one and done.” Just ask John Calipari how useful a freshman can be. He owes much of his success to freshmen like Derrick Rose, Tyreke Evans, John Wall and Anthony Davis. Although early, the 2013 freshman class has some studs making their names known and opposing teams praying they’re one and dones.
Forward Anthony Bennett of UNLV is without question the best freshman at this point. The first McDonald’s All-American to join the Runnin’ Rebels in decades has created a new show in a city known for its entertainment. The freshman already has NBA size standing at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds, and his play makes him a consideration as an early lottery pick if he chooses to leave for the NBA after this season. Bennett uses every bit of his size to bully defenders in the paint on his way to 19.9 points per game while shooting 56.1 percent and collecting nine rebounds a game. While Bennett seems capable of getting to the basket at will, his game is far more versatile. His seven-foot wingspan gives him the ability to match-up against any opponent and his 1.5 blocks per game demonstrates his ability to protect the paint. While it would seem his game has to be lacking in some facet, the guy even shoots the three-ball at 38 percent. Bennett’s far more than your typical college player, hell he’s even more than two collegiate players at times (see video below).
Bennett’s 19-plus points per game and 9-plus rebound average have him in the company of Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Michael Beasley, so it’s safe to say he should be on the National Player of the Year watch. With a player of Bennett’s caliber to watch, UNLV fans should pack the Thomas & Mack Center all season long. While currently ranked 24 in the AP and 19 in the USA Today, the return of 2012 Mountain West Newcomer of the Year Mike Moser and the sure development of Bennett will make this team scary in March. Bennett may be the savior of Sin City and the Runnin’ Rebels have the potential to make a deep run in the NCAA tourney.
While Bennett is far above anyone other freshman this year, consideration must be given to guard Ben McLemore. It’s a pretty big deal when a freshman leads No. 6 Kansas in scoring. McLemore is averaging a team-leading 15.8 points per game with 5.5 rebounds per game and 2.2 assists per game. All it takes to recognize his talent is to watch his clutch performance against Iowa State. The freshman put up 33 points, including a perfect 6-for-6 from the 3-point line. He stepped up big by knocking down the game-tying three with only a second left. Whenever you have a freshman step up in such big moments, it can’t go unnoticed. From highlight plays that show his ability to elevate higher than kids at a Wiz Khalifa concert, to his ability to come up big during big games, McLemore can’t be ignored. If the freshman can successfully carry his team to a top seed in the NCAA tourney and continue at the pace he’s going, he will overtake Bennett for top freshman honors and further improve his draft stock.
Another top freshman guard is Oklahoma State’s Marcus Smart. The young point guard averages 14.3 points, 6.1 rebounds, and 4.9 assists per game. The Cowboys have lost two of their last three games and need to snap out of the funk they’re in. As a major contributor to their offense, Smart’s stats show his importance to the team. The guy fills up a stat sheet like a young Jason Kidd. He’s a top two contributor in assists, points, and rebounds. While certainly a top freshman, I have a hard time comparing him to the level of Bennett and McLemore. With the college basketball only half-way through, anything can change. While I don’t see Smart capable of overcoming Bennett for top freshman honors, he definitely must be considered in the top-3 freshman.
The last freshman consideration is UCLA’s forward Shabazz Muhammad. While Muhammad began with a rocky start due to potential NCAA violations of amateurism, he seems to be trying to live up to the preseason hype. Post #FreeShabazz, is averaging 19.6 points per game and 5.2 rebounds per game. With UCLA about to hit the road in the Pac-12, Shabazz better be ready to be heckled by fans for his possible violations and lead UCLA to match the early expectations everyone had for it. If Shabazz can stay on the court and continue to play at the level he’s been at the past couple games, he’ll move up in these rankings (he’s averaged 19.5 points and 8 rebounds over his past two). Shabazz has some big shoes to step into (probably Adidas), and if he fails match the hype, his status as the number one pick may slip. The potential to go either way is there, it will just be up to him to determine which direction he goes in.
Jahaii Carson, Arizona State (16.7ppg, 3.1rpg, 5.4apg)
Nerlens Noel, Kentucky (10.3ppg, 9.3rpg, 3.5bpg)
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