For all the mixtapes, accolades and hype that envelop college freshmen, it really is unknown how a player will react and evolve once he sheds the trappings of high school. Even non-conference play isn’t a true sign — it takes a few road trips and maybe a couple of games playing in front of a hostile, in-state crowd to know how that frosh will contribute.
But then there are some that seem to get the elusive “it,” the ones that even before making their debuts are tabbed by their coaches to play major minutes and soak up usage rates. Below are 10 freshmen who will factor heavily into how their respective teams fare in 2016.
Ivan Rabb and Jaylen Brown, Cal: These two are the core of arguably the greatest recruiting class ever to enroll at California. Rabb spurned offers to leave the state and instead trekked the six or so miles east on I-980 to play for coach Cuonzo Martin, while Brown felt drawn to the glam of playing on the California coast for a team that has the potential to not only win the Pac-12 tournament but dance into April.
Rabb is 6-foot-11 big who mixes ballet-like footwork with a soft touch around the rim and the mid-range areas, an enviable offensive skillset. Brown is an athletic dynamo — standing 6-7, he gets to the rim at will and should lead not only Pac-12 freshmen but the entire conference in free throw attempts. His most notable attribute, however, may be his defense. Brown uses his strength and timing to disrupt opponents, and has the potential to record both assist and block rates above five percent in his first (and likely only) season in Berkeley. The combination of Brown and Rabb along with Tyrone Wallace, Jabari Bird and Jordan Mathews (among others) means Arizona’s hegemony may fade in 2016.
Jalen Brunson, Villanova: Jay Wright will forever be known for his backcourts, and the longtime Villanova coach will simply plug Brunson, a 6-1 guard, into his well-worn and successful game plan. Brunson will pair with Ryan Arcidiacono, Josh Hart and Phil Booth along the perimeter for a 2016 rendition of Nova’s vaunted four-guard lineup, but whereas the Wildcat returnees are known for their perimeter touch and passing, Brunson excels going north-south and penetrating the interior. He has the speed and athleticism to beat defenders off the bounce, and has mastered the skill of creating separation at the end of his drives. He won’t have to carry the offensive load on what is a deep Nova squad, but Brunson should help a team that has historically struggled scoring in the halfcourt when their periemeter shooting flatlines.
Henry Ellenson, Marquette: He doesn’t have the flash of some of the other nine players on this list, but Ellenson, a 6-10 big, will likely have just one season of Big East play. He possesses a smooth mid-range jump shot, which will complement Luke Fischer’s bruising post play, and coach Steve Wojciechowski will often use the two in a variety of inside-out play-calls. Ellenson is also fantastic on the break, excelling at maintaining spacing in the open court and finishing. Wojciechowski has the option to now play more man defense (though their pressuring and swarming 2-3 zone confounded Big East and non-conference opponents) and since Ellenson is both relentless and huge, he should help corral more defensive boards — MU had one of the lowest defensive rebounding percentages in 2015 — which could lead to an uptick in transition attempts.
Skal Labissiere, Kentucky: He isn’t ready to take over games like Karl-Anthony Towns or Anthony Davis, but Labissiere presents coach John Calipari with a fortunate dilemma. How do you best use a 6-11 big with a soft perimeter touch but who will best help the team by dominating on the interior? Like Towns and Davis, Labissiere can step out to the three-point line and convert effortlessly. When Davis was in Lexington, UK often ran dribble handoffs or allowed Davis to go iso from the top of the key. Last season, Towns only needed two dribbles at most before unfurling an efficient attempt at the rim. How Calipari factors in Labissiere’s skillset is still a mystery. His impact defensively, however, is already known (it’ll be big), and for the seventh straight season, Kentucky should rank within Ken Pomeroy’s top 15 for defensive block rate.
Ben Simmons, LSU: There is little Simmons, a 6-10 big equally comfortable running the break or on the perimeter, can’t do. Give Simmons space, and he’ll hit shot after shot until the defender bodies him … at which point Simmons bursts by and finishes through contact at the rim. Or he’ll throw a few spin moves to distract defenders before dropping a perfectly timed pass into the waiting hands of an open teammate. It’s going to a fun season in Baton Rouge.
Donovan Mitchell, Louisville: The wing doesn’t have a consistent jump shot yet, but his athleticism and speed make up for his perimeter shortcomings. Mitchell is the quintessential Rick Pitino wing. He isn’t a shooting black hole, and he doggedly attacks the rim with a relentlessness that stops just short of obsessive. He also has the potential to be a lockdown defender, using that athletic fanaticism to continually frustrate opponents until they yield possession.
Allonzo Trier, Arizona: Despite gracing the cover of the New York Times Magazine as a 13-year-old, everyone seems to have forgotten about the 6-6 Trier. No matter. The guard is one of the best pure scorers entering the college game this season. He can play the 2 or the 3, and coach Sean Miller will benefit from the versatility Trier adds to the Arizona lineup. His range extends well beyond the three-point line, and as a marked man for most of his life, Trier knows how to score even while facing most aggressive pressure defenses. When he drives the rim, Trier already has a master’s degree at drawing contact, and has enough wherewithal to finish the play after being hit. There aren’t many drivers at Arizona, so Trier will act as an escape valve when the defense begins to stall the Wildcats’ numerous shooters.
Thomas Bryant, Indiana: The 6-10 Bryant won’t have to flex his scoring chops often this season. Sure, if he is able to convert a few field goals per game for Indiana, or clean up some misses it’s an added benefit. But the Hoosiers are so offensively deep — Troy Williams, Yogi Ferrell and James Blackmon Jr. are natural bucket-fillers who can go off without hesitation — that Bryant best helps the squad as a rim protector. Indiana can score, but guarding opponents proved challenging a year ago (in Big Ten action, IU’s defensive efficiency ballooned to 1.11 points per possession) and teams were able to score on the interior with ease. Bryant reportedly added nine inches to his vertical this summer, and could be the shot-blocking force IU craves.
Jeremy Hemsley, San Diego State: A sleeper on this list, Hemsley is the guard San Diego State has been looking for ever since Xavier Thames left the school. Hemsley combines blazing speed with an agility that allows him to change direction at ease, and he is the consummate north-south attacking guard who can create his own shot. On a team full of finishers and pick-and-pop options, Hemsley might be the one go-to Aztec when the team needs a bucket, a trip to the free throw, or a momentum shift.
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