We here at CBS Sports have once again teamed up with the United States Basketball Writers Association and its Integris Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year Award, meaning our weekly feature on the best freshman in the country will work hand in hand with the Tisdale committee and the USBWA. The winner of the award will be announced in March, while a ceremony for all USBWA honors will take place in early April. Each week we will provide a look at the best freshman for the previous week, followed by our top 10 overall Frosh Watch as we see them at this point in the season.
Freshman of the Week: Dennis Smith Jr., NC State
This was one of the toughest weeks so far this season to decide on FOTW. Smith wins it narrowly over the likes of Creighton's Justin Patton, Minnesota's Amir Coffey, Kansas' Josh Jackson, Kentucky's De'Aaron Fox and UCLA's Lonzo Ball. A really nice week for the first-year players in this sport.
Yes, Smith and his NC State teammates got absolutely steamrolled by North Carolina on Sunday, losing by 51 and sending a blast of panic through State fans hot enough to melt the snow that blanketed the Triangle. But from an individual standpoint, Smith had a big week. NC State's had just two triple-doubles in its history, the second coming last week when Smith put up one of the best single-game stat lines we've see this season: 27 points, 11 boards, 11 assists and five steals on 56-percent shooting in State's 104-78 win over Virginia Tech.
Combo that line with what he did against UNC, and Smith's week averaged at: 19.0 points, 8.0 rebounds, 8.0 assists and 4.0 steals. The triple-double vs. Va. Tech was his moment of arrival. It also landed him freshman of the week in the ACC for the second time this season.
His trip-dub was the first in ACC history to come by a freshman vs. an in-league team. There have been 29 triple-doubles in ACC history. Smith is top-five in the ACC in scoring and is tops in assists (averages below). The performance was good enough to vault him in the overall Frosh Watch standings, too.
Here are the top 10 freshmen performers in college basketball. And a rule to remind readers: Players must have played in at least 51 percent of their team's games to qualify for the Watch. So Jayson Tatum, who has played exactly 50 percent (eight of Duke's 16 games), is just shy of qualifying. He'll be under consideration next week, and he'll have a good chance at cracking the top 10 if he plays to his averages against Florida State and Louisville.
Last week: No. 9
17.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.7 steals, 53.8 2-pt%, 38.3 3-pt %, 119.1 ORtg
Ponds will be thriving on a team that won't even make the NIT this season. Since our last update, the Johnnies played three times and were downed at home by Creighton (a 13-point loss), Xavier (a 15-point road loss) and then throttled by 28 at Georgetown on Monday night. But I'll remind you that the Frosh Watch is not connected in any way to team success. Freshman of the Year is based off statistical prowess combined with who you've played against. It's not about "value" or similar criteria that's used for national player of the year-type awards. Ponds has gone up against and will continue to be challenged by really good teams. Even if SJU winds up as a bottom-two team in the Big East, he'll have a chance to be a top-10 freshman in America this season.
Last week: No. 10
14.3 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.6 blocks, 75.0 2-pt%, 131.8 ORtg
Patton, who is no longer under the radar for those who follow college hoops, is coming off his strongest week. He went for 25/9/4 in Creighton's win over St. John's; he went for 20 points, six boards and three blocks in the Jays' win over Providence, earning Big East Freshman of the Week for the third time.Both those victories came on the road, too. Patton is getting better by the week, and Creighton is a Final Four contender because of it.
The intriguing big man averaged 22.5 points, 7.5 rebounds and 2.0 blocks vs. SJU and PC. And now he's a legitimate NBA prospect. Is he getting so good that he'll leave after this season? It's seemingly on the table. Next thing I'm waiting for from Patton is a 15-and-15 game. I think he'll have one before the season's done. The last time a Creighton player went for 20 points or more in two straight games? His name's Doug McDermott.
Big-time game on Wednesday, as Creighton welcomes in Butler at 8 p.m. ET on FS1.
Last week: No. 8
15.9 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 52.7 2-pt%, 45.6 3-pt%, 84.2 FT%, 132.2 ORtg
Arizona is still very much under the radar, even though the Wildcats have been ranked since the preseason and are riding a nine-game winning streak. Last week, Markkanen averaged 16.5 points and 7.5 rebounds in Arizona's home wins over Colorado and Utah. Markkanen, who I foolishly thought would outpace Markelle Fultz to Pac-12 Freshman of the Year (still plausible, but let's be real), isn't going to threaten for top-five status so long as his steals, assists and blocks are so low.
It's not that it's a bad thing, it's just that, when you look around at this stacked freshman class, there are a lot of guys who are two-way players and dudes who are able to fill a stat sheet in a lot of ways. Markkanen should be a lottery pick, but he's still got to fill out his game.
That ORtg is still gorgeous, though. Second only to T.J. Leaf among all freshmen in America!
7. Josh Jackson, Kansas
Last week: No. 7
15.3 PPG, 6.6 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.5 steals, 1.5 blocks, 56.8 2-pt%, 111.2 ORtg
It's a joy to watch Jackson play, even though he's got some bumps to his game that he needs to iron out. Sometimes, he just cares too much. Not a bad thing, but it has gotten him into foul trouble and caused Bill Self to use a shorter leash from time to time. Last week, Kansas went 2-0 with wins over Kansas State and Texas Tech at home. Jackson averaged 19.5 points and 9.5 rebounds on 53-percent shooting.
Want more? Beware the music, but check below for just some of what Jackson's done this season. With Kansas' schedule about to get really tough over the next three weeks, you're going to see and hear a lot more about this guy. He still has a chance to be the best freshman in the country, even though he's ranked No. 7 now, as we're just halfway through the season.
Josh Jackson is the real deal. pic.twitter.com/3EkwnNIZwl— Jayhawk Video (@JayhawkVideo) December 26, 2016
Last week: No. 5
21.9 PPG, 2.5 RPG, 2.1 APG, 60.9 2-pt% 41.5 3-pt%, 127.1 ORtg
It was surprising to see Monk put up a below-average game on Saturday vs. Arkansas, which was the program so many wanted him to go to. Monk, of course, grew up in Arkansas, and until Kentucky put a huge priority on him, he was expected to stay home and be a Razorback. In UK's 97-71 win over Arkansas, Monk had 12 points, three assists and four fouls. The 12-point performance was the lowest for Monk since UK's season-opener.
In UK's laughably dominant 100-58 win over A&M on Tuesday, Monk scored 26 points, but here's where and why he has poor chances at winning national Freshman of the Year: just one rebound, no assists, one block and one steal in that game. Monk is a brilliant scorer and tantalizing shooter, but his all-around game isn't something Kentucky requires. As long as he keeps putting up 20-plus, though, he'll remain in the top 10.
5. Dennis Smith Jr., NC State
Last week: No. 6
19.1 PPG, 6.4 APG, 4.2 RPG, 2.2 steals, 50.0 2-pt%, 38.4 3-pt%, 112.1 ORtg
We covered Smith's season and most recent week above. So what's next? At Boston College on Wednesday, then home vs. Georgia Tech on Sunday. Smith will have two opportunities to go ham, as both those teams lack the athletes in the backcourt to handle him. But what I'd like to see more of: consistent effort on defense. Smith has the ability to be a top-level defender, but he's not shown that throughout this season. He's not bad, or even a liability, but if Smith puts it all together and really commits without the ball, then he enters into the conversation for No. 1 overall pick.
4. T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Last week: No. 4
17.4 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.9 APG, 69.3 2-pt%, 48.6 3-pt%, 134.3 ORtg
A couple of double-doubles, so another really nice week for Leaf, who continues to be a clear-cut top-five freshman in America. He had 18 and 11 in the Cal win, then went for 15 points, 10 rebounds and six assists in the simple victory over Stanford. Leaf is so consistent it's scary. Only four times in 17 games this season has he had a field goal percentage under 60, and only one of those games (vs. Nebraska on Nov. 25) was under 50 percent.
3. De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Last week: No. 3
16.3 PPG, 6.7 APG, 5.1 RPG, 1.8 steals, 51.9 2-pt %, 33.2 assist rate, 113.9 ORtg
Fox is routinely putting up all-around stat lines that are helping build his case to be a top-five pick in June's draft. The only problem is his lack of a jump shot and an inability to shoot 3-pointers (he's an oddly absymal 12.9 percent from 3 this season). Despite this, he's won SEC's Freshman of the Week four times.
Last week, Kentucky beat Texas A&M and Arkansas, and Fox averaged 21.0 points, 6.0 assists and 5.5 rebounds. He shot 60 percent from the field, too. He just narrowly missed out vs. Smith for FOTW. It was basically a coin flip; Smith's triple-double performance (like Fox's earlier this season) was too impressive to pass on. Fox scored a career-high 27 vs. Arkansas.
Kentucky, the No. 1 team at KenPom.com, plays at Vanderbilt on Tuesday, then hosts Auburn on Saturday. My stab at the combined margin of victory for those two games: 45 points. You taking the over or the under?
2. Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Last week: No. 2
14.7 PPG, 8.0 APG, 5.6 RPG, 66.2 2-pt%, 43.2 3-pt%, 131.0 ORtg
Ball had a good week, going for 21 points against Stanford on Sunday night and 14 against Cal on Thursday. He averaged 7.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and 3.0 steals in those games. He was 12 of 22 from the field, 5 of 12 from 3 and averaged 36 minutes. So yeah, with a line like that, he's going to just barely outpace Fox for No. 2.
Some more casual, 30-foot bombs from Ball. Wait until he's doing this in March and becoming one of the biggest facets of the viewing experience for the country.
Last week: No. 1.
22.1 PPG, 5.9 RPG, 6.4 APG, 1.7 steals, 51.9 2-pt%, 43.5 3-pt%, 119.4 ORtg
For the first time in almost a month, Fultz's position in the No. 1 spot has lost noticeable ground. Washington went 1-1 last week, and Fultz put up -- for him -- stat lines that would register as "just OK." In the ugly 83-61 loss to Oregon, Fultz had 22 points, four assists, two rebounds, two steals and four turnovers. He was 1-of-5 from deep. In the win over Oregon State, he went for 20 points, five assists and three rebounds.
UW didn't need him at his best in that game. I think one thing is now for certain: Whereas Ben Simmons ran away with Freshman of the Year honors a year ago, Fultz cannot and will not be able to do that this year. He's still No. 1 for now, and this being the halfway point of the season, he'd have to be the pick for Freshman of the Year. But conference play changes a lot. I'm interested to see how Fultz plays while in the bottom half of the Pac-12.
The bucket didn't count but, uh, yeah, the GMs won't care about that. We're nearly at the point where Fultz, at the absolute worst, will be the No. 3 pick.
Previous FOTW winners: