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Ranking the Best Freshmen in College Basketball in 2016-17


Ranking the Best Freshmen in College Basketball in 2016-17

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Freshmen continue to make a major impact in college basketball in 2016-17, and the best of that bunch will dominate the early picks of the upcoming NBA draft. According to Draft Express the top nine NBA prospects are current freshmen, and many more are expected to be taken throughout the first round.

    We first ranked this season’s top freshmen in a Bleacher Report story published in mid-December. Some of the players have risen in our eyes since then and some have dropped a bit. Each ranked player’s previous ranking is included with his slide to show which way he is trending.

    Also provided with each selection are the player’s ranking as a pro prospect, as provided by Draft Express, and the player’s projected NBA draft selection, as determined by Chad Ford of ESPN and presented in a Bleacher Report article by Joe Pantorno.

    It should be noted, however, that a player’s NBA prospects do not necessarily correlate with a player’s impact as a college player.

    We ranked 25 freshmen, starting with 10 listed in an honorable-mention category before counting down the top 15 freshmen. This list could be amended again when the season concludes.

     

    (Records and statistics include games played through Feb. 15.)

     

Honorable Mention (16 Through 25)

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    Mel Evans/Associated Press

    Counting down 11 players who just missed making our top 15:

     

    25. (tie) Keith Braxton, St. Francis (Pa.)

    25. (tie) Tony Carr, Penn State

    24. Frank Jackson, Duke

    23. Charlie Moore, California

    22. Nick Ward, Michigan State

    21. Kobi Simmons, Arizona

    20. Amir Coffey, Minnesota

    19. Rawle Alkins, Arizona

    18. Shamorie Ponds, St. John’s

    17. Marcus LoVett, St. John’s

    16. Michael Weathers, Miami-Ohio

     

15. Bam Adebayo, Kentucky

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    James Crisp/Associated Press

    Previous ranking: Honorable mention

    Points: 12.2

    Rebounds: 7.1

    Blocks: 1.6

    Field-goal percentage: 60.3

    Three-point percentage: 0

    ESPN NBA draft projection: Undrafted in first round

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 24

     

    The fact that Bam Adebayo barely made the top 15 tells you just how good this freshman class is.

    Though somewhat overshadowed by the presence of two other highly rated Kentucky freshmen, Adebayo has managed to carve out a niche for himself as the Wildcats’ main inside threat. Coach John Calipari wants his guards to get Adebayo the ball in the post more often, as he indicated in his comments following the loss to Tennessee.

    “We wouldn’t throw Bam the ball until at halftime I said, ‘That’s it. You either throw him the ball or you’re coming out,'” Calipari said, according to Jon Hale of the Louisville Courier-Journal

    Afterall, Adebayo is making 60.3 percent of his shots and was 7-of-8 while scoring 21 points against the Volunteers.

    The coaches would like him to develop more of a mean streak.

    “I think he’s too nice and too unselfish,” assistant coach Kenny Payne said in the Courier-Journal story. “I really do. I think that if he had a little bit of DeMarcus Cousins’ mentality, he changes the dynamics of this team. Every game I’m telling him, ‘Take over the game for us. Dominate the game for us.’”

    Rating the nation’s 11th-best recruit by Scout.com, Adebayo has not become a consistent dominant force yet. He failed to score more than nine points in three of his past four games.

14. Jarrett Allen, Texas

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    Chris Covatta/Getty Images

    Previous ranking: Unranked

    Points: 13.2

    Rebounds: 8.5

    Blocks: 1.5

    Field-goal percentage: 57.3

    Three-point percentage: 0

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 17th overall pick

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 18

     

    Because of Texas’ disappointing season, Jarrett Allen does not get much national exposure. But he is having an outstanding season and seems to be getting better as we approach March.

    In his first four games of this season, Allen averaged 8.8 points on 51.9 percent shooting and 7.3 rebounds, and except for a game against Northwestern, that was against mediocre competition. In the past five games, all against Big 12 competition, Allen is averaging 18.6 points on 63.1 percent shooting and 9.2 rebounds.

    Allen is now demonstrating why he was ranked the 15th-best recruit in the class by Scout.com, although the Longhorns still lost three of those last five games.

    After averaging 19.5 points and 14.5 rebounds against Kansas and Baylor, Allen was named the Big 12 newcomer of the week on Jan. 23.

    “I think he was highly motivated, but you’ve got to give him credit in that he’s made major progress in terms of his consistency,” Texas coach Shaka Smart told the Austin American-Statesman after Allen’s 22-point, 19-rebound performance in the Jan. 21 game against Kansas. “In terms of maximum effort on plays, he’s made great growth. The great thing is he still has tremendous room for more growth. I can’t say enough about his progress.”

    Texas lost both those games, however.

    Allen still has an occasional stinker, such as his four-point game in the loss to Georgia on Jan. 28. His 0-of-7 free-throw shooting in the Feb. 11 loss to Oklahoma State pointed out a shortcoming.

13. Robert Williams, Texas A&M

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    Ron Irby/Associated Press

    Previous ranking: Unranked

    Points: 11.6

    Rebounds: 7.4

    Blocks: 2.5

    Field-goal percentage: 56.8

    Three-point percentage: 0

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 16th overall pick

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 12

     

    It is possible you have never heard of Robert Williams, but NBA scouts sure have. 

    His scoring average is nothing to brag about, and if you saw his performance in the 14-point loss to Vanderbilt on Jan. 31, when Williams was limited to four points and six rebounds, you would wonder what all the fuss is about.

    However, in the three games since then Williams has scored 18 points each time, matching his career high, while averaging 11.3 rebounds in that stretch. But here’s the kicker: The 6’9″ Williams blocked 11 shots in that three-game run of brilliance.

    For the season, Williams is averaging 2.54 blocks per game, which ranks 18th in the country.

    “From what I see, I wouldn’t be shocked if he was a lottery pick,” Aggies coach Billy Kennedy said, according to Ben Baby of the Dallas Morning News. “He’s got that kind of talent and that kind of ability.”

    That’s quite an improvement for a player who was not even a starter until the 14th game of the season. He seems to be getting better every game. His most impressive performance came in the Aggies’ most recent game. Although Texas A&M lost that road game to Florida, which is ranked 15th this week, Williams collected 18 points, 12 rebounds, four blocks and three steals.

    His 56.8 percent shooting indicates he takes high-percentage shots, although he does have one glaring weakness: the lack of an outside shot. Williams is 0 of 13 from 3-point range, and there is no way to dress that up to make it presentable. 

12. Justin Patton, Creighton

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    Previous ranking: Honorable mention

    Points: 13.7

    Rebounds: 6.3

    Blocks: 1.7

    Field-goal percentage: 70.0

    Three-point percentage: 50.0

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 13th overall pick

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 13 

     

    Few knew much about Justin Patton when the season began. He had redshirted his first season at Creighton after being the nation’s No. 24 recruit, according to Scout. He remained inconspicuous in the first several games of his redshirt freshman season too, but a five-game stretch over late December and early January caused people, especially NBA people, to take notice.

    Patton averaged 19.6 points on 69.3 percent shooting in that five-game span, with all but one the games being against Big East competition.

    “He doesn’t turn 20 until next summer,” Creighton coach Greg McDermott said in a Jan. 9 Omaha World-Herald story by Tom Shatel. “He’s still a puppy. His progress has been incredible. He’s playing at a very high level right now. It’s been fun to be part of.”

    When Creighton point guard Maurice Watkins Jr. went down with a season-ending knee injury in the first half of the Jan. 21 game against Xavier, much of the spotlight shifted to Patton.

    Although the Bluejays lost their first two games without Watkins, Patton and his teammates have done enough since then to keep Creighton afloat in the Big East race.

    Patton is a smooth, agile, speedy 7′ center who does things most 7-footers can’t. That and the fact that he has improved so much from his junior year in high school are why the pros like him so much. The number that jumps out at you is his 70 percent field-goal shooting, which ranks third in the nation.

    His production in the seven games without Watkins has been about the same as it was when Watkins was creating scoring chances for him. His seven-point effort in the pivotal two-point loss to Xavier on Feb. 4 was disappointing, but he did block five shots in that game.

    Patton and McDermott had agreed before the 2015-16 began that Patton would redshirt his first season at Creighton. It’s the kind of decision that suggests Patton may not turn pro after this season, even though he is virtually assured of being a first-round pick.

     

11. Lauri Markkanen, Arizona

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Previous ranking: 8

    Points: 15.2

    Rebounds: 7.2

    Blocks: 0.4

    Field-goal percentage: 49.4

    Three-point percentage: 47.2

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 8th overall pick

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 7

     

    When NBA scouts look at Lauri Markkanen they see Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis is Latvian, and Markkanen is Finnish, but the package, as far as the NBA is concerned, is much the same.

    The 7’3″ Porzingis has become a star because he does not fit the mold of a 7-footer. Porzingis can hit the three-point shot with regularity, but he can still mix it up inside and collect a lot of rebounds.

    The 7′ Markkanen is similar in that he is an outstanding outside shooter, leading the Pac-12 in three-point shooting percentage at 47.2, while still averaging a team-leading 7.2 rebounds per contest. In Arizona’s team concept, in which five players average double figures in scoring, Markkanen nonetheless leads the team in scoring at 15.2 per game. For good measure, Markkanen is also third in the conference in free-throw shooting at at 82.9 percent.

    Markkanen has slipped three spots from our earlier freshman ranking because his production has declined recently. He has not scored more than eight points in any of his last four games, and was 5 of 25 from the field in that four-game stretch. His performance in the Feb. 4 games against Oregon, when he had four points and three rebounds while missing all three of his three-point attempts, was a major reason the Wildcats got blown out by 27 points that night. 

    “Lauri had a tough night,” Arizona coach Sean Miller told Bruce Pascoe of the Arizona Daily Star after Markkanen scored six points on 1-of-5 shooting in the Feb. 11 win over California. “Thought he competed well. Played really hard. We have to find a way to help him out on offense and in some cases, he has to find a way to do it as well.”

    Markkanen was at his best when Arizona swept UCLA and USC on their trip to Los Angeles on Jan. 19 and 21. He averaged 20.5 points and hit 8 of 10 long-range shots in those two road victories.

10. Jonathan Isaac, Florida State

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    Andres Kudacki/Associated Press

    Previous ranking: Honorable mention

    Points: 12.7

    Rebounds: 7.7

    Blocks: 1.5

    Field-goal percentage: 52.4

    Three-point percentage: 35.4

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 6th overall pick

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 6

     

    Based on the projections of ESPN and Draft Express, NBA folks obviously believe Jonathan Isaac has a chance to be a star at the pro level. Sometimes he demonstrates why the pros think so highly of him, such as his 17-point, 12-rebound game against North Carolina, or his 23-point, 12-rebound., seven-block performance against Notre Dame, or his 19-point, 12-rebound game against Syracuse.

    However, other times he looks like an ordinary freshman, such as his showing against Georgia Tech, when he had just six points on 3-of-10 shooting, or his game against Clemson, when he scored two points on 1-of-4 shooting, or his Feb. 11 showing against Notre Dame, when he collected four points on 2-of-6 shooting and didn’t attempt a free throw.

    Those impressive games are why he is ranked among the top 15 freshmen. Those poor performances are why he is not ranked higher.

    A hip flexor injury that caused him to miss three games in early December set him back a bit, and he continues to be hot and cold. It seems Isaac needs to get into a comfort zone to be productive.

    “He has a tremendous basketball IQ,” Seminoles coach Leonard Hamilton told the Tallahassee Democrat in mid-January. “He’s going to continue get even better as he gets more comfortable.”

    The bottom line is that he is a major reason why a Florida State team that was unranked in preseason is ranked 17th this week and is just a game out of first place in the Atlantic Coast Conference.

     

9. T.J. Leaf, UCLA

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Previous ranking: 5

    Points: 16.6

    Rebounds: 8.8

    Assists: 2.7

    Field-goal percentage: 62.8

    Three-point percentage: 45.8

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 15th overall pick

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 26

     

    T.J. Leaf’s accomplishments often seem to get lost amid the hype surrounding UCLA teammate Lonzo Ball.

    As Gary Parrish of CBSSports.come noted in mid-December,Is it possible for the top scorer on a top-two team to be overshadowed? Apparently, yes. That’s the #LonzoBallEffect. But know this: NBA front offices are monitoring more than one UCLA freshman.”

    Leaf’s numbers are exemplary. The 6’10” forward leads the nation’s No. 6-ranked team in scoring (16.6 ppg), rebounding (8.8 rpg), field-goal percentage (62.8) and three-point shooting percentage (45.8). His numbers are enhanced by the Bruins’ fast-paced style, and his free-throw percentage (65.3) is not great, but the numbers cannot be ignored.

    Leaf has fallen a few notches from his earlier ranking this season, because his statistics have dipped slightly from the 17.6 points and 9.3 rebounds he was averaging in mid-December.

    “This is the first time they’ve ever been scouted by other teams in depth,” UCLA coach Steve Alford told Ben Bolch of the Los Angeles Times in a Jan. 31 story regarding the decline in Leaf’s and Ball’s numbers. “So now teams are starting to focus on different things. TJ gets doubled a little more in the post, teams go zone to take away TJ in the post.”

    Leaf averaged 15.1 points over the past nine games, and he totaled just 20 points in the consecutive losses to Arizona and USC. 

    Leaf is still putting up big numbers against overmatched opponents, however, totaling 52 points and 24 rebounds while making 23 of 31 shots in a road sweep of Washington State and Washington in early February.

     

8. Miles Bridges, Michigan State

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    Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

    Previous ranking: 7

    Points: 16.2

    Rebounds: 8.4

    Blocks: 1.7

    Field-goal percentage: 49.8

    Three-point percentage: 38.9

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 12th overall pick

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 11

     

    One key factor led to Miles Bridges being dropped a spot from the early freshman rankings: Michigan State went 6-1, including wins over Minnesota and Northwestern, in the seven games he missed with an ankle injury. Granted that one loss in that span (to Northeastern) was an embarrassing one, and it might have been avoided if Bridges had played. But the Spartans did not seem to miss Bridges as much as you would expect, considering he is the centerpiece of the team.

    On the other hand, there is one reason to believe Bridges might move back up the freshman ladder by the end of the season: Bridges is playing his best basketball of the season right now, and he may be able to carry Michigan State to the NCAA tournament for the 20th consecutive season.

    An NCAA tournament berth is in jeopardy for the Spartans, who, at 16-10 overall and 8-5 in the Big Ten, are not the national power they were expected to be when they were ranked No. 12 in the preseason Associated Press poll.

    However, they increased their chances of getting to the Big Dance by winning four of their past five games. And Bridges was a key ingredient in that surge.

    He gave the Spartans a chance against Purdue, scoring 33 points and hitting a three-pointer with 4:57 left that got Michigan State withing four points. Michigan State lost that game, but beat Michigan, Iowa, Nebraska and Ohio State in the five games since then. In the past eight games, Bridges averaged 18.6 points and 9.0 rebounds while collecting 14 blocks.

    After the Spartans’ 77-66 victory over Iowa on Feb. 11, Brendan Quinn of Mile.com described Bridges’ role this way:

    Miles Bridges is entering that stratosphere of the player who gets 16 and 10 just by walking in the door. That’s not meant as a slight. It just speaks to how good he is. He quietly went about his business tonight, putting up 16 points, 11 rebounds and 4 blocks in workmanlike fashion. In the first half, when nothing was going right and the Spartans were busy committing 12 turnovers, he kept the Spartans on solid ground with 12 points. In the second half, when his teammates got going, he played the role he needed to play. It was a solid, savvy, all-around effort from the freshman.

     

7. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky

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    Brynn Anderson/Associated Press

    Previous ranking: 2

    Points: 15.6

    Rebounds: 4.2

    Assists: 5.4

    Field-goal percentage: 46.9

    Three-point percentage: 16.7

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 11th overall pick

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 8

     

    De’Aaron Fox is still a blur with the ball. He is still capable of penetrating into the lane almost anytime he wants. He still has the quick hands that can create a steal at any moment. He remains an excellent rebounder for his size. And he is still the man in control of a Kentucky team that has Final Four talent.

    But there are two reasons Fox has made a dramatic fall from the No. 2 freshman in the December rankings to his current No. 7 slot.

    One has to do with the fact that the Wildcats are not dominating the Southeastern Conference as expected, and any team shortcomings reflects on its point guard.

    However, the bigger issue is that Fox cannot shoot and is not getting any better. It was assumed back in December that his perimeter shooting would improve over time. In hasn’t. In fact, it has gotten worse.

    Fox has made just 1 of 9 three-points shots in his past five games and is shooting just 16.7 percent from long range for the season. Fox is still among the best freshmen in the country, as indicated by his top-10 rankings, but it is impossible to put a guard among the top five when his perimeter shooting is so poor.

    Fox’s ball-handling has not been as precise lately either. Over a five-game span from Jan. 24 to Feb. 11 Fox had 15 assists against 12 turnovers, and it is no coincidence Kentucky lost three of those games. He had no assists and three turnovers in the 22-point loss to Florida.

    Coach John Calipari said in a Feb. 13 video provided by the Lexington Herald-Leader that he thought a recent illness sapped Fox of some of his strength during that slump.

    It is also no coincidence that Kentucky beat Tennessee by 15 points on Feb. 14 when Fox had six assists and no turnovers.

     

6. Jayson Tatum, Duke

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    Gerry Broome/Associated Press

    Previous ranking: 10 (tie)

    Points: 16.3

    Rebounds: 7.1

    Blocks: 1.3

    Field-goal percentage: 44.9

    Three-point percentage: 37.3

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 7th overall pick

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 5

     

    Jayson Tatum figured to move up several slots in the freshman rankings, because he had played only three games with the first rankings were posted. Even then it was obvious he was special. Since then he has proved it.

    Tatum’s numbers are good, but not spectacular, and he has had some poor games. What is impressive about Tatum, however, is his ability to play his best against the best competition.

    In his six games against teams that were ranked at the time Duke played them, Tatum is averaging 20.0 points and 8.0 rebounds and has been held under 19 points just once.

    In the Blue Devils’ 84-74 road victory over Notre Dame on Jan. 30, Tatum had 19 points and 14 rebounds

    Tatum followed that up 10 days later with 19 points, five assists, two blocks and nine rebounds in the 86-78 victory North Carolina. His nine rebounds were critical against a Tar Heels team that leads the nation in rebounding margin, and he scored all 19 of his points in the final 16:12 of a game that was tight throughout.

    Tatum then produced his best game of the season on Feb. 15, collecting 28 points while hitting 6-of-7 three-point shots in a 10-point road win against a Virginia team that leads the nation in scoring defense. 

    “That was a big-time performance,” coach Mike Krzyzewski said, according to the Associated Press report. “I mean, jiminy Christmas. It’s why we won for crying out loud.”

     

5. Malik Monk, Kentucky

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    Previous ranking: 4

    Points: 21.7

    Rebounds: 2.5

    Assists: 2.0

    Field-goal percentage: 48.1

    Three-point percentage: 41.9

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 4th overall pick

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 9

     

    Nothing can erase the memory of Malik Monk’s 47-point game in the victory over North Carolina, when he made 8 of 12 three-point shots. That game alone might secure him a spot among the top 15 freshmen this season.

    But he has put up big numbers consistently. Monk has scored 20 points or more 15 times this season and more than 30 three times. He has scored in double figures in every game.

    In the 15-point victory over Tennessee on Feb. 14, the slender 6’3″ guard showed he can rebound too, pulling down eight boards. That was significant because he had just one rebound in the previous three games combined.

    “I shouldn’t be getting no rebounds in a game,” Monk said after the Tennessee game, per John Clay of the Lexington Herald-Leader.  “Coach told me I have to rebound if we’re going to win like we should.”

    His biggest mistake this season occurred when he was on the bench. Late in the game against Florida, Monk was caught smiling when the Florida students serenaded him with “Happy Birthday” on his 19th birthday, according to the Lexington Herald-Leader. However, smiling when your team is on the brink of a 22-point loss is not a good look.

     

     

4. Dennis Smith Jr., North Carolina, State

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    Grant Halverson/Getty Images

    Previous ranking: 9

    Points: 18.7

    Rebounds: 4.4

    Assists: 6.8

    Field-goal percentage: 46.3

    Three-point percentage: 38.3

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 5

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 4

     

    Cool, calm and efficient in any situation, that’s how you describe Dennis Smith Jr. As Matt Norlander of CBSSports.com said in a Feb. 7 article, “His ability to handle the ball in the face of pressure and then to pull up with confidence and coolly sink Js is just awesome.”

    Smith’s all-around skills are evidenced by the fact that he has two triple-doubles this season. He is only the fourth Atlantic Coast Conference player to have two triple-doubles in a season, according to the Charlotte Observer, joining Ralph Sampson of Virginia (1979-80), Derrick Lewis of Maryland (1986-87) and Sharone Wright of Clemson (1992-93).

    Two things make Smith’s accomplishment different. He is the first to get two triple-doubles in the same season against ACC foes, both whom (Syracuse and Virginia Tech) are quality teams who may earn NCAA tournament berths. The other thing is that Smith still has four more regular-season games left plus the ACC tournament to get a third triple-double.

    The issue with Smith is deciding which game was his best. Was it the two-point win over Loyola Chicago, when he scored 30 points and hit two critical free throws with 16 seconds left? Was it the 104-78 victory over Virginia Tech, when Smith contributed 27 points, 11 rebounds, 11 assists and five steals? Was it his 32-point effort while hitting 4 of 6 three-pointers in the victory over Duke? Was it his 13 points, 11 rebounds and 15 assists in the overtime loss to Syracuse?

    Forgotten by now is the fact that his first two college games were major disappointments. Smith totaled 23 points on 6-of-21 shooting (0 of 7 on three-pointers), four rebounds, eight assists in wins over Georgia Southern and St. Francis (N.Y.).

    The one major flaw in Smith’s game is that he has not been able to produce enough wins for the Wolfpack. They have lost six in a row, the last three by wide margins, and reside in 14th place in a 15-team conference with a 3-11 ACC record. It was bad enough to get coach Mark Gottfried fired.

     

3. Markelle Fultz, Washington

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Previous ranking: 2

    Points: 23.2

    Rebounds: 6.0

    Assists: 6.0

    Field-goal percentage: 47.9

    Three-point percentage: 42.1

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 1st overall pick

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 1

     

    Yes, we know that Markelle Fultz’s statistics across the board are better than any other freshman in the country. And, yes, we know how much the pros value Fultz, who is listed as the top prospect by Draft Express and the projected No. 1 overall draft pick by ESPN.

    But we also know that a point guard’s primary responsibility is to win games by doing whatever is required. Whether any other point guard could have coaxed more wins out of Washington’s talent-poor team is debatable. It is also moot. The fact that the Huskies are 9-16 overall and 2-11 in the Pac-12 and have lost  seven straight games reflects on the point guard regardless of the surrounding talent.

    Having said that, we obviously have not docked Fultz many ranking points since he is still No. 3 on our list, ahead of a number of players expected to be lottery picks in the upcoming NBA draft.

    Fultz has missed the past two games with a knee injury, and it is unclear when he will return. Matt Calkins of the Seattle Times discusses what Fultz should do, writing, “… people are wondering if the potential No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft is going to be in the lineup. But some people are also wondering if that would be in Fultz’s best interest.” 

    He has proven his pro potential. Fultz has scored 30 points or more five times this season, including three straight games in mid-January. He has recorded 10 assists or more three times, and 10 rebounds or more twice. He hasn’t really had a bad game. You could argue Fultz would not have such eye-popping numbers if the Huskies had other weapons to share the load, but Fultz carries the major burden of having to be the team’s only hope for success every time out.

     

2. Josh Jackson, Kansas

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    Peter G. Aiken/Getty Images

    Previous ranking: 6

    Points: 16.5

    Rebounds: 7.2

    Assists: 3.0

    Field-goal percentage: 50.6

    Three-point percentage: 35.3

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 3rd overall pick

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 3

     

    Few are mentioning the fact that Josh Jackson has improved dramatically over the course of the season. 

    The expectations were sky high for Jackson, who was rated the nation’s No. 1 recruit by Scout. He played decently over the first month, but his averages as of mid-December (14.8 points and 6.1 rebounds while making just 5-of-21 from three-point range) were not the numbers that were anticipated.

    Over the past few weeks, however, Jackson has stepped up his game, letting his amazing athleticism take over while improving his outside shooting.

    In his last 13 games, Jackson is averaging 18.4 points and 8.2 rebounds, and over his past seven games, he is averaging 20.4 points and 8.4 rebounds while making 13 of 25 three-point shots (52.0 percent). His free-throw shooting continues to be an issue at just 56.3 percent, but he is even getting better at the line, making 11 of 15 foul shots (73.3 percent) in his last two games.

    Jackson saved Kansas in its one-point road victory over Texas Tech on Feb. 11, collecting 31 points on 12-of-15 shooting, 11 rebounds and four assists with just one turnover. He also came up with a key steal with 46 seconds left and the score tied.

    Coach Bill Self was asked what he liked about Jackson’s performance in that game. “Everything,” Self said in a video of his postgame comments provided by the Kansas City Star.  “He played great, probably his most complete game since he’s been here.”

    Jackson does not lead the Jayhawks in a single significant statistical category, but his play over the past three weeks is a major reason Kansas is in position to claim its 13th straight regular-season conference title.

     

1. Lonzo Ball, UCLA

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    Previous ranking: 1

    Points: 15.4

    Rebounds: 6.0

    Assists: 7.6

    Field-goal percentage: 55.1

    Three-point percentage: 43.2

    ESPN NBA draft projection: 2nd overall pick

    Draft Express NBA prospects ranking: 2

     

    One significant question remains when discussing Lonzo Ball: How in the world can he be making 43.2 percent of his three-pointers with that weird-looking shot of his (pictured above)?

    That is the only uncertainty about Ball, who has been the person most responsible for UCLA’s dramatic improvement from last season. The Bruins went 15-17 last season, when they finished 10th in the Pac-12 with a 6-12 conference mark. This season, UCLA is ranked No. 6 in the country with a 23-3 record and owns wins over Kentucky and Oregon. 

    Certainly the return of several starters and the addition of T.J. Leaf played a role in UCLA’s turnaround, but Ball is the one orchestrating the revival of UCLA basketball. He is doing what a point guard is supposed to do: pull it all together to create the best chance for success.

    Surprisingly Ball has not yet recorded a triple-double, even though he has recorded double-digit totals in assists six times and in rebounds three times. His season high in points is just 24, and the Bruins lost that game to Arizona. However, he has scored at least 17 points nine times, and almost never has a bad game.

    He leads the nation in assists, and has a 3.05 assist-to-turnover ratio. Ball’s field-goal and three-point percentages are nearly as impressive as his ballhandling numbers, but the statistic that best reveals Ball’s impact is Ken Pomery’s offensive efficiency rating. The Bruins lead the country in that metric, and Ball is the primary reason.

    Ball has some defensive deficiencies, as does the entire UCLA squad, and his free-throw shooting is not great (67.1 percent). But what he does the rest of the time more than makes up for those issues.


    Gary Parrish of CBSSports.com and Rob Dauster of NBCSports.com both rank Ball fourth in their latest national player of the year rankings, and he is the only freshman among the top seven in either. Myron Medcalf of ESPN lists Ball as one of eight players who could carry his team to a national title virtually by himself.



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