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 Week: Dennis Smith, Jr., NC State
This was, by far, the most stacked week of accomplishments by freshmen in college basketball we've had all season. It was an embarrassment of riches in terms of first-year players putting on shows.
Most notably, Smith beats out the likes of Florida State's Jonathan Isaac, Texas' Jarrett Allen and Arizona's Lauri Markkanen. All of those guys put on multiple outstanding showings. But Smith lifted NC State to its first win at Duke in 22 years, and threw his name, definitively, once and for all, into the conversation for No. 1 overall pick in the NBA Draft. His career-high 32 points, which officially put Duke into a tailspin, put the capper on my decision.
Smith played three times since last Tuesday's Frosh Watch, averaging 19.3 points, 8.3 assists, 4.6 rebounds, 2.0 steals and didn't have a game with more than three turnovers. State went 2-1, beating Pitt and Duke but losing to Wake Forest. In the Duke win, Smith was the spark and catalyzed a most unlikely comeback. This would be a hard stat to track, but how many times has Duke lost a game at Cameron in which it led by as many as nine points with seven minutes remaining?
Has it even happened five times since Mike Krzyzewski took over?
But Coach K wasn't on the sidelines on Monday. NC State trailed 68-59 with seven minutes to go, then hit Duke in the cheeks with a 20-5 run. Smith scored or assisted on 16 straight State points in that run. This is the sick pass that was the best highlight from the game.
Some pass by Dennis Smith, Jr. Some slam by Abdul-Malik Abu. pic.twitter.com/YO30Njlvna— Matt Norlander (@MattNorlander) January 24, 2017
What's forgotten: Smith had six points for State to close out the first half, which kept the Wolfpack close enough heading into the break.
If you missed it, the USBWA released its official midseason freshman watch list on Monday. It is not in order, and naturally, it corresponds with the Frosh Watch for the most part. Twelve freshmen were list. Alphabetically, they are: Lonzo Ball, De'Aaron Fox, Markelle Fultz, Jonathan Isaac, Josh Jackson, T.J. Leaf, Lauri Markkanen, Malik Monk, Justin Patton, Shamorie Ponds, Dennis Smith, Jr., Jayson Tatum.
Here are the top 10 freshman performers in college basketball this season.
10. Jonathan Isaac, Florida State
Last week: N/R
13.3 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 1.5 blocks, 63.2 2-pt%, 38.5 3-pt %, 123.0 ORtg
Team success is not a guiding force nor a mandate for placement on the Frosh Watch, but in certain weeks with close calls, in can be a tiebreaker. Isaac was in the top 10 of the Watch at the start of the season, and now he's back on the list after more than a month away. FSU's dazzling 6-foot-10 prospect had himself a great week (18.5 ppg, 10.0 rpb, 4.5 bpg), and if you saw what he did in the Noles' win over Notre Dame last Wednesday, you know he's got lottery-pick potential.
Isaac dipped after missing three games in early December, and then continued to float off the radar with an 8.0-points-per-game average for that month. But now he's going on three straight games with a double-double and five straight shooting at least 55 percent from the field. Florida State (18-2), which plays at Georgia Tech on Wednesday night, is also now in contention for a No. 1 seed.
Last week: No. 9
13.7 PPG, 6.5 RPG, 1.6 blocks, 74.0 2-pt%, 128.5 ORtg
Patton's standing on this list is on some shaky ground. Now we'll see what he can do without All-American candidate Mo Watson, Jr. out there to facilitate him. He had 11 points, four rebounds and four fouls in CU's home loss to Marquette over the weekend. For this week, he's holding at No. 9. Patton is No. 2 in points average at Creighton. He's No. 1 in rebounds and blocks. His 72 percent field-goal mark is fifth-best in college basketball. This is in good portion because 50 of his 111 2-pointers have been dunks.
8. Josh Jackson, Kansas
Last week: No. 7
15.1 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 3.1 APG, 1.7 steals, 54.3 2-pt%, 106.5 ORtg
This is where you draw the line for true contenders for national Freshman of the Year. The guys listed at nine and 10 are having great seasons, and there's another five-to-seven freshmen still within striking distance. But at this point, essentially 20 games into the regular season, only eight true contenders remain. To be real, that's a much deeper pool than most seasons. Usually you're at just four or five freshman who really have a chance come late January.
That Josh Jackson is eighth -- and a deserving eighth -- is just nuts. With what he's done, with that well-rounded stat line, he'd be a top-three FOY candidate in most seasons. He has been continually effective on defense, but Jackson hasn't shot above 50 percent from the field since Jan. 3's K-State game.
Last week: No. 8
17.1 PPG, 7.4 RPG, 54.3 2-pt%, 50.0 3-pt%, 83.5 FT%, 136.7 ORtg
The Arizona sharpshooter nearly took home FOTW. He pushed the Wildcats to a huge road win over UCLA on Saturday. But it wasn't just that game in which Markkanen shined. The Pac-12's selection for Player of the Week had a 20.5-point and 7.5-rebound average on 64-percent shooting, including 8-of-10 from 3-point range this past week.
Here's what he did late to close out Arizona State. And yes, it was a significant week for U of A because both the team's wins came on the road. Knock off uber-talented UCLA after sweeping the leg on your hated rival? Can't get much better than that. Arizona's knocked off Cal, Stanford, USC and UCLA all on the road for the first time in 14 years.
With Allonzo Trier back in the lineup, the expectation is that he'll be Arizona's best player. But that might not be the case. Markkanen's led Zona in scoring 11 times this season, and he's already getting "unicorn" status, meaning he's a player truly unlike any other in college basketball. You're likely to start hearing more about how he's the best 3-point-shooting 7-footer in college hoops history. In fact, Draft Express' Jonathan Givony sent out this info on Monday:
Is Lauri Markkanen the best shooting 7-footer in NCAA history? He's definitely making that case. Will crack #1 in 3-pointers made soon. pic.twitter.com/jPrKyZM9kS— Jonathan Givony (@DraftExpress) January 23, 2017
That's impressive, but also, you'll want to look closely at that list. Most of those players amounted to nothing in the pros, though Frank Kaminksy is still finding his way with the Charlotte Hornets. Markkanen could wind up being different, but as for now I'm more than OK with watching him make it rain and continue to be a matchup nightmare for college foes.
Last week: No. 6
21.7 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 59.3 2-pt% 41.4 3-pt%, 125.2 ORtg
The only freshman with a higher PPG average than Monk is Markelle Fultz. He's still threatening Dajuan Wagner, who averaged 21.2 points in 2001-02, as the highest-scoring freshman ever under John Calipari. He's also likely to break the SEC's freshman 3-pointers-made mark, which was set by UK's Jamal Murray last year (113).
Monk is the most reliable, consistent spot-up shooter in college basketball. More than a third of his points come by way of the spot-up shot. That's higher than anyone else.
5. T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Last week: No. 4
16.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.8 APG, 67.0 2-pt%, 48.8 3-pt%, 132.0 ORtg
Leaf got taken to school by Markkanen. It was a game that probably shut the door on the argument for any NBA general managers waffling between the two. But that doesn't mean Leaf isn't a lottery pick come June, and it doesn't mean Leaf hasn't had a better freshman season on the whole than Markkanen so far. Because he has. He's a better distributor and more consistent shooter from 2-point range. But he takes a step back this week after averaging a "mere" 15.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists. For Leaf, this is just below average. Incredible how deep this freshman class is.
4. De'Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Last week: No. 3
16.2 PPG, 6.0 APG, 4.8 RPG, 1.6 steals, 55.1 2-pt %, 32.5 assist rate, 115.3 ORtg
Fox joins Lonzo Ball, Markelle Fultz, Monk, Leaf and Markkanen as players not only on the Tisdale watch list, but the Oscar Robertson Player of the Year watch list. Six freshman in that conversation is wild. There are 19 players on the list. Fox and Monk are the only players from the SEC on either list.
What Fox has done has been tremendous. Then-sophomore Tyler Ulis, for my money, was a top-five player in college basketball last year. I don't think there's even a debate. And now Fox has come in and taken control of the team and performed at an elite level. Barring injury (and Fox apparently is day-to-day after an ankle tweak in Kentucky's easy win over South Carolina on Saturday), Fox will be at worst a Second Team All-American. Fox is averaging 2.8 assists for every one turnover, and he's tracking to have a better assist average than Ulis did in 2015-16.
If that happens, Fox will break Kentucky's single-season record for assists.
3. Dennis Smith, Jr., NC State
Last week: No. 5
19.5 PPG, 6.5 APG, 4.4 RPG, 2.2 steals, 50.0 2-pt%, 37.6 3-pt%, 113.5 ORtg
Smith is now the first two-time recipient of Freshman of the Week this season. He leads the ACC in steals, is a top-four scorer in the league and ranks top-30 nationally in assist rate.
Here's a look at what Smith did against Duke. All 32 of his points.
Get a closer look at Smith's production in the past 10 games. This does not include what he did against Duke. Smith has been steadily moving up the freshman rankings, with some complaints or curiosities from other fan bases. Now, you'll question no more.
2. Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Last week: No. 2
14.9 PPG, 8.2 APG, 5.6 RPG, 69.0 2-pt%, 43.6 3-pt%, 133.1 ORtg
Holding strong in the 2 slot yet again. He's the only player in America averaging better than 15.0 points, 8.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds. Heck, no player is averaging at least 10 points, seven dimes and four boards -- except Ball.
UCLA has just one game this week, but it's a big one. The Bruins play at rival USC on Wednesday night. In order to keep their Pac-12 title hopes realistically alive, they'll need to win that game. USC is 17-4, with all four losses coming in league play.
Last week: No. 1.
23.4 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 6.1 APG, 1.7 steals, 51.9 2-pt%, 41.7 3-pt%, 118.0 ORtg
Fultz had another tremendous week, going for 37 points, eight assists, five boards, three blocks and three steals against Colorado, in OT. Then he had 30 points, seven rebounds and four assists against Utah. Both games at home ... and both losses. It's just amazing. Washington is now 9-10. I mean, look at this lack of defense. Hideous.
Seriously - look at this Washington defense LOLOLOLOL pic.twitter.com/DmEhbtYMnc— Mark Armstrong (@ArmstrongABC11) January 22, 2017
Still, Fultz is putting up numbers that are better than anyone in the freshman class. In some ways, they're better than anyone in college basketball. It's not his fault his team is awful. Fultz isn't without his flaws or blame -- he has too many turnovers -- but he's also being asked to play 35 minutes per game and carry a team that has no interest in playing defense.
Previous FOTW winners: