Throughout the past decade or so, some of the most dominant forces in college basketball have been freshmen. From Kevin Durant to Anthony Davis to Jahlil Okafor, rookies drastically influence the sport year in and year out.
We’re only about a week into the 2015-16 season, but it’s pretty clear that there are some remarkable freshmen in this year’s crop that will play a role in how March shakes out.
Note: this list is subject to (probably several) changes this year. For instance, a quick spoiler alert: Skal Labissiere will almost certainly be on this list in the future, but based on what we’ve seen thus far, he’s not this time. Expect that to change in the coming weeks.
9) Isaiah Briscoe, Kentucky
Everyone is talking about Tyler Ulis and Jamal Murray after Kentucky’s statement win over Duke, and rightfully so. They were both phenomenal. But Biscoe turned in a magnificent performance, too, all while dealing with a leg injury and a mouth guard dangling from his mouth the entire game.
The guy clearly knows how to play through obstacles. But in regards to basketball things that are actually relevant -- Briscoe is an all-around force for the Wildcats. He’s a perfect third wheel to Ulis and Murray on offense, as he feasts on broken down defenses and cutting opportunities that present themselves playing with two expert passers. Briscoe is averaging 11.5 points per game on 52.6 percent shooting through two games.
Defensively, Briscoe is no third wheel. Grayson Allen went 2-for-11 against Kentucky, and while Wildcat bigs had a lot to do with that, so did Briscoe. His ability to dart around screens is uncanny, and he gave Allen fits all night with his strength and length.
8) Henry Ellenson, Marquette
Marquette got upset by Belmont in its season opener, and Ellenson is only shooting a tick above 40 percent on the year. Still, he’s nearly averaging 20 points, 10 rebounds and 11 free throw attempts per game. If the 6-10 freshman can continue to draw fouls, expect his offensive efficiency to spike to the point where he’s averaging upwards of 20 points per game on a Golden Eagles team that needs him to score.
7) Caleb Swanigan, Purdue
Here’s what’s not surprising about Swanigan: he’s averaging a double-double. The 275-pounder was expected to be a presence on the glass, and he’s been just that, snaring 10 rebounds per game in 26 minutes of action.
Here’s what is surprising: Swanigan is shooting a respectable 36 percent from 3-point range through three games. That’s big for a Purdue offense that has a tendency to struggle with spacing; the Boilermakers have won their games by an average of 34.7 points per game this season. Matt Painter’s squad has mostly been without starting center A.J. Hammons, too, who was generally considered Purdue’s best player last season.
Early on, Swanigan looks like the real deal.
6) Dedric Lawson, Memphis
Lawson terrorized Ryan Spangler and Oklahoma's frontcourt in the Tigers’ tight loss against the Sooners, scoring 22 points and grabbing 15 rebounds in 27 minutes of burn. Had he stayed out of foul trouble, Memphis probably would have upset the No. 8 team in the country.
Lawson is an absolute menace on the offensive glass, as 10 of his rebounds came on Tiger misses. The diaper dandy also blocked three shots in the game, and he and Shaq Goodwin have the potential to form a fearsome duo in the Memphis frontcourt.
5) Antonio Blakeney, LSU
Look -- I could probably score 10 points per game receiving passes from Ben Simmons, but that doesn’t discount how good Blakeney has been thus far. He’s averaging 18 points and 6.5 rebounds per game for the Tigers while shooting 44 percent from behind the arc.
Simmons is a superstar, but he doesn’t necessarily have the alpha dog mentality we’re accustomed to seeing from transcendent players. Blakeney could lead LSU in scoring this season; he’s a good shooter who is capable of exploiting defenses once Simmons breaks them down. He looks like a solid secondary playmaker, too, as he tallied four assists in LSU’s win over Kennesaw State.
4) Tyler Dorsey, Oregon
Joseph Young was great for Oregon last season, but Dorsey is making his departure seem less and less important each time he takes the floor. The rookie point guard does a bit of everything -- he averages 16 points, 5.5 rebounds and five assists per game and has a robust shooting slash line of .533/.600/.769.
At 6-4, he has excellent size at the point guard position, and Dana Altman leverages that by using Dorsey at the top of zone defenses or by having him shadow the opponent’s point guard in man-to-man looks.
It’s only been two games, so I get it. We're dealing with a very small sample size. But Oregon’s offensive rating is 108.5, and with Dorsey on the floor, the number jumps to 130. That would rank the Ducks first in the nation among power conference teams.
In conclusion, consider this an open request to Coach Altman to play Dorsey 40 minutes per game. I’m only half kidding.
3) Jamal Murray, Kentucky
Murray is a one-man wrecking crew on offense. This says it better than I possibly could:
Murray is a point guard at heart, but early on, it looks like he and Ulis are going to mesh perfectly in the Wildcats' backcourt. Though Labissiere was the more highly-touted recruit, Murray could have more of an impact on Kentucky’s national title hopes than any player on its roster.
2) Dwayne Bacon, Florida State
It’s easy to overlook Bacon since he doesn’t play for a Kentucky or Duke type, but his numbers are impossible to ignore.
Through two games, Bacon is averaging two less points than minutes played per game. Wow. The Seminole wing has 50 points in 54 minutes this season, and he’s shooting almost 60 percent from the floor. Bacon is chipping in 8.5 rebounds per game, to boot.
Xavier Rathan-Mayes is a very good player for the Noles, but he was miscast as the top dog last season. Playing second fiddle to Bacon, Rathan-Mayes has been outstanding. Again, small sample size, but he’s averaging eight assists per game (up from 4.3 last season) and making more than half of his shots.
Both numbers will come down as FSU faces stiffer competition, but because of Bacon’s stardom, expect Rathan-Mayes and the rest of the Seminoles to flourish.
1) Ben Simmons, LSU
Watching Simmons, you just get the feeling that he can do whatever he wants whenever he feels like doing it. His stats are amazing -- 16.5 points, 11 rebounds, 5.5 assists, two blocks and two steals per game.
But the numbers aren’t even the most impressive thing about Simmons. The guy is essentially a point center who can guard all five positions on defense while doubling as the most electric playmaker in college basketball on offense. Words don’t do it justice.
As I mentioned earlier, this list is going to change quite a bit throughout the season. But something tells me Simmons is going to stay at No. 1 for quite a while.
Just missed: Jaylen Brown (California), Ivan Rabb (California) Allonzo Trier (Arizona), Skal Labissiere (Kentucky), Brandon Ingram (Duke), Deyonta Davis (Michigan State), Jalen Coleman-Lands (Illinois), Jalen Brunson (Villanova)