We here at CBS Sports have once again teamed up with the United States Basketball Writers Association and its 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 moving forward we will provide, first, a look at the best freshman for the previous week, followed by our top 10 overall freshman rankings as we see them to that point in the season.
Freshman of the Week: T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Our first Freshman of the Week is a no-brainer. Leaf played the best game of his college career on Saturday, helping UCLA knock off Kentucky -- at Rupp Arena, where the Cats hadn't lost since 2015 and have only lost five times in the John Calipari era. Calipari said in the postgame that Leaf killed his team, and that Leaf was the most important player on the floor for the Bruins.
Calipari is right.
But beyond the Kentucky game, Leaf averaged 17.5 points, 11.5 rebounds, 1.5 blocks and shot 16 for 24 (66.6 percent) from the field in UCLA's two games last week. No freshman in America was better on the whole, especially when you consider the Kentucky win. It's the most impressive victory this season by any team in the country.
Watch him go to work. This is one for the NBA draft submission tape.
TJ Leaf ladies and gentlemen. Just a reminder that he originally committed to Arizona pic.twitter.com/wBILYVdI4Q— Drew Shiller (@DrewShiller) December 3, 2016
Leaf's emergence has made UCLA -- now ranked No. 2 -- all the more dangerous. Lonzo Ball has gotten the majority of the pub, but check the numbers. Leaf's production and overall importance is creeping up on his teammate's.
UCLA's current No. 2 national ranking is the highest for the program since the 2006-07 season, when the Bruins made the Final Four. For the first time in almost a decade, there are legitimate hopes that can happen again. Leaf and UCLA play at home vs. Michigan this Saturday.
Now, on to the Frosh Watch! It's such a loaded class of freshmen this season, we'll be counting down the top 10 every week. The list is arranged by production and statistics but with a broader lens of looking at the level of competition each player has faced, how much help they do (or don't) have around them, and is taken as a look at the season as whole, not just knee-jerk reactions on a week-by-week basis. Team success is only a minor factor; it doesn't have nearly as much importance as it does in a Player of the Year race, which is linked to team success. (Remember, LSU was mediocre last year and Ben Simmons still ran away with the FOY award, while he wasn't even close to winning national POY.)
Line: 15.1 points, 7.3 rebounds, 1.1 blocks, 58.8 FG%, 44.4 3-pt %
A tremendous prospect, and one of the most underrated freshman in America to this point because he hasn't been on TV all that much. FSU hasn't played a daunting schedule, but it is 7-1, and Isaac's been flourishing. He's a slender 6-foot-10 hybrid forward with the range of a condor. Plus, he steps out and shoots from deep. Just not fair. Isaac is hitting 68 percent of his 2s. Lottery pick.
9. Dennis Smith, Jr., NC State
Line: 18.3 points, 4.9 assists, 3.6 rebounds, 1.4 steals, 40.9 FG%, 26.5 3-pt%
Smith has been very good, but his team unfortunately has lost to the two best opponents it's played ( Creighton and Illinois). What's more: The Wolfpack don't play a legitimate opponent again until the first game of ACC play (at Miami) on New Year's Eve. Smith will be able to bulk up his numbers even more, but he won't have a chance at cracking the top five on this list until 2017, when the competition becomes more difficult. On the whole, Smith is a terrific player and someone who I think has a good chance at winding up as the best point guard in this class.
8. Malik Monk, Kentucky
Line: 19.9 points, 2.9 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.4 steals, 48.4 FG% 39.7 3-pt%
Don't go nuts, Kentucky fans. Monk's scoring, yes, but check his field goal percentage vs. other players on this list. And I'll emphasize just how deep and good this freshman class is. There were 18 players legitimately considered for the top 10. Monk comes in at No. 8 because his rebounds and assists line is lower than everyone listed above him. He's good enough overall to threaten for top three within a couple of weeks, if he continues to wow on offense and starts getting more active around the rim. Like John Calipari, I would like to see Monk show more aggressiveness in drawing fouls.
7. Josh Jackson, Kansas
Line: 14.0 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 1.8 steals, 50.6 FG%, 27.8 3-pt%
Adapting well. Tremendous player on both ends who looks like the No. 2 option on a potential Final Four team. Frank Mason III, a senior, is ahead of Jackson at the moment in terms of Player of the Year talk because, well, Mason's been better. But Jackson's been consistent in scoring in double figures, getting to the glass, and plus, he's really fun to watch. A true, modern, two-way wing. Jackson's biggest issue is foul trouble. Kansas has played eight games, and in only two of them has Jackson had two fouls or less. He fouled out against Duke with plenty of time left in the game, but fortunately for KU, Mason hit the winning shot.
Line: 16.6 points, 8.8 rebounds, 2.0 assists, 1.5 blocks, 47.7 FG%, 38.5 3-pt%
Bridges is one of three freshmen in America averaging more than 16 points and eight rebounds -- and I could make the argument he's been asked to do more for his team than any freshman not named Fultz. With that in mind, Bridges at No. 6 is fair. He's also on the pine for a couple more weeks due to an ankle injury, so his standing is likely to drop as we get closer to Christmas. But while Michigan State has been up and down to start due to an unreal travel schedule, a very hard slate of opponents and a thin roster, Bridges has been fairly terrific. I wrote last week, though, why using him exclusively as a No. 1 option is ultimately not the best strategy for the Spartans.
5. T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Line: 17.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 1.3 blocks, 67.4 FG%
Here's more on the kid: He's been a double-figure scorer in every UCLA game, his field goal percentage is No. 2 in the Pac-12, and he's among the best rebounders in the conference. His effective field goal percentage (which properly weights 3-pointers) is at a ridiculous 72.1 percent. Leaf hasn't been getting a ton of run until the past few days, but he's damn good.
Line: 17.8 points. 7.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists, 50 FG%, 42.9 3-pt%,, 88.6 FT%
Arizona's been twisting in the wind with Allonzo Trier's cloaked eligibility status. But amid all that, Markkanen's looked terrific. His ORtg at KenPom is 138.9, which is just RIDICULOUS for a dude that's about 7 feet tall and is stepping back and taking five 3-pointers per game. Without Markkanen, Arizona's not even in the discussion as a top-four Pac-12 team. He's a reliable shooter and is learning more and more with each game. He'll challenge Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball for best freshman in the Pac-12.
3. Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Line: 14.6 points, 9.3 assists, 5.0 rebounds, 1.4, steals, 55.4 FG%, 43.5 3-pt%
Ball's been all over NBA scouts' radars. He's one of the three or four most watchable players in the sport. And here's what's wild: He doesn't need to score in order to be a national FOY candidate. Ball's 9.3 assists clip is No. 1 in the nation. The way he plays woos people, as it should, but he's top three because of his solid all-around numbers. He's doing this despite being a lesser athlete than most others on this list.
2. De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Line: 15.9 points, 7.8 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 1.9 steals, 50.0 FG%
Fox is the only player listed who's notched a triple-double. His speed is incredible. He outplayed Ball in the loss to UCLA Prior to that, he had 11 boards and 10 dimes in the blowout against Arizona State. Here's why he's a threat to stay in the top five all season: Fox's 3-point shooting has been awful. It's not going to stay awful. He's 3 of 19 from beyond the arc, a 16-percent clip. My guess is that creeps up to 30 percent by year's end.
1. Markelle Fultz, Washington
Line: 22.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 6.6 assists, 2.1 steals, 1.4 blocks, 54 FG%, 38.1 from 3
Fultz has to be No. 1. Washington isn't that good so far, but his numbers are ridiculous. He's essentially carrying the team. He's averaging more points than any freshman in America, and with his rebound and assist rate above six per game, he's a triple-double threat (still waiting for his first, though). Plus, he plays really good defense and is a dependable 3-point shooter. The race between Fultz, Fox and Ball is close, but Fultz has a little room to spare at this point in the season. He has a big-time game against Gonzaga on Wednesday night.