One of the most popular posts for any college basketball writer is the Top Freshmen article. I suspect it's because freshmen allow us to dream in ways that seniors do not. A senior is a known quantity with a short shelf life. Freshmen? They are but beginning to find their potential. So a good freshman today can mean an All-American senior in four years.
But while freshman performance is quite a good thing, and it does say something about a player's potential, it does not say everything. Take Caleb Swanigan. Biggie stands a very good chance to win Big Ten Player of the Year this season, and he probably is the frontrunner at this point. But last year? Swanigan was a mess.
Sure, there were bright spots, like the fact that he was a willing participant in the offense, and a fantastic rebounder, even then. But he also insisted on shooting 3s at a high clip, despite not making very many (25%). He also did not do much on defense, aside from the aforementioned rebounding, and his free throw rate was nothing to write home about as well. Couple that with his turnover problems (which still persist, it should be mentioned), and it was quite a bit of negative on his ledger. Ultimately, were I making a top-5 freshman list last season (in fact, I probably did on Twitter at some point), Swanigan almost surely would not be on it.
That said, he would have been atop my "sophomore breakout" list, for a couple of reasons. As I wrote about in Basketball Prospectus once upon a time (and as others, including Dan Hanner, have written about as well), there are a number of factors that weigh heavily in favor of a player's breaking out. First and foremost is high school ranking, which of course boded well for Biggie (RSCI #16). Second, the ability to consume possessions as a freshman indicates a player is likely to remain an offensive focal point as he ages. Third, there are some quirks I found, such as taller players with a propensity to shoot a lot of 3s, even if they aren't making a whole heck of a lot of them. All of those were firmly in Swanigan's favor, so even for the Mom's Basement Fan that Never Watches a Game, this was an easy call.
This very long-winded preface is intended mostly as a call to temper the "disrepeck!" feedback. This isn't a post about potential, or even what I think will happen next year. It's about who I think has and will continue to have the best freshman seasons in the Big Ten this year.
The Michigan State center has hit a rough couple of games against Ohio State and Minnesota (18 points on 6-15 shooting, 12 rebounds, 6 turnovers, 9 fouls), but he's still atop this list. His usage (33.1 on the season) is otherwordly, ranking higher than any other power conference player on the season. Usually, when a player is taking such a large role, his efficiency suffers. And at first glance, that appears to be taking a toll on Ward as well.
But a closer look reveals that perhaps the only thing hindering Ward is himself. He's shooting 55 percent from 2, his rebounding is excellent by any measure, and he's actually leading the Big Ten in block percentage in conference play (that's no easy task in a conference that features Reggie Lynch. Also, Ward, even after the weight loss, is a hefty 6-8, 250.).
His foul rate is a little on the high side, but well within the normal range of "freshman big." What's dragging his efficiency down, however, is the fact that he goes to the foul line a ton, where he has shot a miserable 54 percent in conference play. It's Hack-A-Shaq.
Thing is, Ward is not burdened by the demands of the low usage rates of his teammates when he's at the foul line. He's not receiving extra defensive attention there, or forced to get a shot up with a dwindling shot clock. If he improves that percentage up to 70 percent or so, suddenly he's in the Player of the Year conversation.
And he might win more than one of those before he's done in East Lansing. I don't know a ton about NBA scouts, but I hear they like their centers to stand taller than 6-8. And make no mistake about it, Ward is a center. He gets his shots in the lane and he rarely attempts jumpshots. Whether this is fair/right/smart/etc., I have no idea. But given the volume of GM drool that accumulates when a player standing 85 inches or more with a modicum of guard skills, I have to assume something of the opposite happens when a player on the other end of the spectrum is under evaluation. So, Ward may well become a regular in East Lansing. Scary for the rest of the Big Ten.
Kevin Huerter & Anthony Cowan
There will be Terps on this list.
This was supposed to be a rebuilding season for Maryland, with the departure of 4/5ths of the starting lineup. I expected Melo Trimble to be doing a little bit of what Peter Jok is doing, which is carrying a lineup full of wildly inconsistent freshmen to a middling conference finish. But, with Maryland atop the Big Ten standings (my Analytics Club duties compel me to mention they own an 8-1 record in games decided by 6 points or less. My duties also, however, compel me to point out that luck has nothing to do with Maryland's impressive conference-only efficiency margin.), things have clearly played out differently for this group. Three freshmen: Kevin Huerter, Anthony Cowan, and Justin Jackson, are largely why.
All three are very close in performance to date, so picking the best is a little like picking one's favorite color. Right now, at this point, I'd probably give the edge to Huerter. He's Maryland's best perimeter threat, and he actually gives Cowan a run for his money in terms of distribution. Also, I look at Cowan's 56 percent shooting on 2s with some skepticism, given his 6-0 stature. That said, Cowan's conference-leading free throw rate will keep him efficient, and Huerter's performance in that area is very much lacking (just four FTAs in Big Ten play).
Why no Jackson? At this point, the only thing Jackson does better than either Cowan or Huerter is shotblocking, where he's good but not likely to change the scouting report. But, he may well have the highest ceiling of all of them.
I know he's a redshirt, but that's still a freshman. Watkins has been the best player so far on a very surprising Penn State team. To wit, he rebounds at a Swanigan-level rate, owns a higher eFG, blocks more shots than Biggie, and although he doesn't create for teammates, that downside comes with a commensurate turnover rate. The differences between the two players are
- Biggie can shoot and make 3s
- Biggie makes his free throws
- Biggie has a bit higher usage
That's really it. Watkins' game doesn't scream skills like Swanigan's does, but it's overall nearly as effective. Watkins is really Ward's biggest competition.
I expected the addition of Bridges to this list to be relatively easy. It wasn't, and that's entirely because Bridges is a turnover machine—not because he missed a couple of games. He makes his 2s (65%), 3s (50%) and rebounds. He's hit every free throw he's attempted in Big Ten play (granted, just 6).
The problem is that he just turns the ball over a ton. Against Ohio State, Bridges had 6, including 5 in the second half. To be fair, not all of those were his fault, but for the most part, his turnovers are all too easily avoided.
Once Bridges cuts down on the turnovers, he'll be a monster. It's an open question as to whether that happens while he's still in East Lansing.
The last spot on my list, I'm picking Trice over some notable contenders. This might be controversial, because the list of things that Trice does well is rather short ("Shoot 3s"). But he shoots 3s really well (54 percent in conference play). Sure, he has some combo guard skills (which, in Madison, leads one to be labeled a "point guard"), and he's not completely clueless inside the arc. But 3s are what drives his performance.
So, why not some others? Well, Amir Coffey was probably the one I struggled with the most. He might well have a monster season next year, based on his size, skillset, and high school ranking. But for now, his efficiency hovers around "decent" with a lower-than-average usage.
Carsen Edwards has an extremely high usage rate, but it's hard to justify. He's not an effective scorer inside or outside of the arc, and he's not much of a point guard at this point. Given the plethora of alternatives for Matt Painter, it seems prudent to cut back on Edwards' role while he's on the court.
Lamar Stevens was great in non-conference play, but he's struggled against Big Ten opponents. It happens.
Te'Jon Lucas has only recently started to play more, and he shows an outstanding assist rate in conference play (46.8). But his free throw percentage (53% on the season) suggests his reluctance to shoot from the perimeter is not strictly due to his generous nature.
Tyler Cook was tough to leave off this list, given his above-average usage and effectiveness inside the arc. But he's been a mediocre rebounder and defender to this point in the season, and his offense wasn't enough to overcome that.
So there you go, the top freshmen in the Big Ten. I don't know about you, but I kind of expected better (recall that last year, we had the talents of Deyonta Davis, Thomas Bryant, Ethan Happ, OG Anunoby, Jalen Coleman-Lands, Corey Sanders, and Diamond Stone) given how mediocre the conference is overall. While the conference might only lose a player or two from this year's class to early entry, it only lost Davis and Stone from last year.
Overall, this year's freshman class is not providing an abundance of reasons for optimism for the conference in the coming seasons.