We know all about Duke’s trifecta of spectacular freshmen and guys like Nassir Little, Bol Bol and Romeo Langford. But every year, under-the-radar freshmen pop. Texas Tech’s Zhaire Smith was a prime example last season.
Here are six rookies who could exceed expectations.
PG Ayo Dosunmu, Illinois
Considered a hair below the premiere point guard prospects, Dosunmu could put up huge numbers for the Illini.
He has outstanding positional size. At 6-5 with plus length, Dosunmu should be able to disrupt foes on defense and get to his spots on offense. While a Shai Gilgeous-Alexander comparison is optimistic, nobody saw his breakout freshman season coming. And Dosunmu is in a similar mold – he’s the type of point guard whose long strides allow him to move faster than the guys guarding him, even if he doesn’t have obvious top-end speed at first glance. Dosunmu is an outstanding ball handler whose 3-point shot is emerging.
But perhaps the biggest reason for this prediction is that he’s going to have a huge role in the Illinois offense. The Illini went 14-18 last year and ranked 86th in offensive efficiency; someone has to score. Trent Frazier showed flashes last year, but he barely shot 40 percent from the floor. He’s better suited as a secondary creator.
Dosunmu has the talent to be the driving force of an offense. We saw what kind of success Brad Underwood had with Jawun Evans at Oklahoma State two years ago. If Dosunmu shines, Illinois could be sneaky fun in 2018-19.
G Elijah Weaver, USC
Once upon a time, the term “combo guard” had a negative connotation. It essentially meant you were too small to play shooting guard, but not a good enough of a playmaker to run point.
That’s changed in the age of positionless basketball, and Weaver is a beneficiary. He’s a shot creator who USC can use at the one or the two (Derryck Thornton’s development could be a factor there). Weaver is a smooth lefty with a pretty outside stroke; we’re not saying he’s D’Angelo Russell, but Weaver has probably watched a Russell YouTube clip or two.
Weaver isn’t an elite athlete, but he’s hyper-skilled, has good offensive feel and has nice positional size. That’ll get you pretty far in college basketball. He should have plenty of offensive opportunities with Jordan McLaughlin gone. We’ll see how much Weaver is the primary ball-handler, but if Andy Enfield gives him the keys, he could average something like 15 points per game.
USC had a bunch of talent last year but was never quite able to put it all together. The Trojans lost a lot, but perhaps the puzzle pieces fit better this time around. A breakout freshman season from Weaver would make life a lot easier.
F Khavon Moore, Texas Tech
Chris Beard has rightfully earned a reputation as one of the best player development coaches in the sport. Smith and Jarrett Culver provided much more than anyone thought as freshmen last year. Could Moore be next?
He actually has more hype than either of those guys, but perhaps not enough. He’s skinny. That’s his biggest knock. But the 6-8 Moore is long, athletic and intuitive; he’s a gifted passer who could serve as the focal point of the Texas Tech offense at times this season.
Supreme athletes who have the ability to create offense for others usually don’t exist in one player. Moore has both of those traits, and he should be a plus defender the moment he dons a Red Raider jersey. Beard will certainly coach him up on that end.
Moore could get bullied in the post once in a while, but post-ups are becoming more and more rare these days – especially from non-centers. His jumper could use some work, but his mechanics are fine. If Moore develops a decent outside stroke, he could terrorize the Big 12.
PG Kira Lewis, Alabama
Perhaps Alabama won’t slip as much as we thought in the wake of Collin Sexton’s departure. Lewis isn’t as talented as Sexton, but he’s not far off.
A disclaimer: Lewis might not get off to a rollicking start. He reclassified in August, so he wasn’t with Alabama for most of the summer. He’s slender and needs to try and add as much bulk as he can before the start of the season.
But he could become a factor when SEC play rolls around thanks to his rare combination of athleticism and shooting ability. Lewis can get to the rim at will; he’s a dynamic ball-handler who’s extremely hard to stay in front of. Duck under a screen, and he can launch a pull-up 3. Go over, and you’re probably looking at his jersey number as he goes for one of his fancy near-the-rim finishes.
The SEC is going to be one of the best conferences in the country this season. Alabama likely won’t challenge for the league title. But it can make the tournament again, and if it does, Lewis will probably be a reason why.
F Nate Laszewski, Notre Dame
There are plenty of reasons to like Laszewski this season. First, he’s extremely big and extremely skilled. At 6-10 with a feathery 3-point shot, Laszewski is the prototypical stretch big man who can play either frontcourt spot. He’s the type of guy who gives opposing defenses headaches and creates space for guards to rim rock.
Second, like Beard and a few other coaches mentioned, Mike Brey routinely gets his players to outperform their recruiting rankings. Bonzie Colson and Matt Farrell are recent examples. There are many more.
MORE STORIES: Teams who may have their best rosters ever
Third, well, Colson and Farrell are gone. There are shots to be had in this Fighting Irish offense. Temple Gibbs will likely lead the team in scoring, but after him, it’s anyone’s guess.
Laszewski is a reasonable candidate. He projects as an ideal pick-and-roll dance partner for Gibbs; the latter is fast, the former can shoot the lights out. Switch, and Laszewski will have a smaller defender on him. A key element to his game: whether or not he’s able to punish those switches. Laszewski may struggle in that department to start the season, but should grow more comfortable as it wears on. Laszewski is no stiff, either. He’s not a surefire NBA prospect, but Laszewski projects as an excellent college player who landed in an offensive system that will best utilize his talents.
F Jaedon LeDee, Ohio State
Consider this: Before Chris Holtmann got to Ohio State, Keita Bates-Diop had averaged 11.8 points and 6.4 rebounds in most recent full season. In Holtmann’s first year with the Buckeyes, Bates-Diop averaged 19.8 points and 8.7 rebounds, winning Big Ten Player of the Year honors.
Now, it’s unfair to compare LeDee to Bates-Diop. Then again, nobody saw Bates-Diop’s breakout season coming, and LeDee has a similar profile. He’s a 6-9, 230-pound combo forward with long arms and a smooth jump shot. Sound familiar?
He’ll have opportunities to score for Ohio State, which loses most of its key pieces from last season. Will he put up the same numbers Bates-Diop did last year? No. Could he in his final season in Columbus? Absolutely.
LeDee will probably be a complementary, but vital piece on a surprisingly good Ohio State team with future star potential. That qualifies him for this list.