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: Lauri Markkanen, Arizona
Arizona’s awesome, 7-foot sharpshooter Lauri Markkanen gets his first FOTW honor. It’s well-deserved. After a two-week dry spell, Markkanen was awesome on the road in helping Arizona get to a No. 4 ranking and remain atop the Pac-12 standings with a 14-1 mark.
He averaged 22.5 points and 12.0 rebounds while shooting 16-of-30 from the field and dodging foul trouble. Arizona swept their series with Washington State and Washington in the process. Markannen’s won seven weekly awards so far this season in the Pac-12, which ties the record. The league has tracked such things since 1983.
Markkanen, who was raised in Jyväskylä, Finland, got the first 20-and-10 game of his career on Saturday with Zona’s 76-68 win at Washington. He went for 26 points and 13 snares in that one. It was one of the two best games of his career, most importantly because he didn’t rely on the 3-point shot to get there. Markkanen’s deep-shooting ability is what has put him on NBA draftboards as a potential top-five pick. His skillset and size are perfect for the new-era stretch-and-shoot NBA.
Here are the top 10 freshman performers in college basketball from the start of the season until now.
10. Jayson Tatum, Duke
Last week: N/R
16.4 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 2.0 APG, 48.4 2-pt%, 38.9 3-pt%, 71.4 2-pt%, 87.0 FT%, 110.1 ORtg
With three weeks to go until the final edition of the Frosh Watch, Tatum makes his season debut. In doing so, he bumps Creighton’s Justin Patton from the top 10. Tatum edges out not only Patton, but the dynamic St. John’s freshman duo of Shamorie Ponds and Marcus LoVett, who each are averaging 17.2 points.
His reason for inclusion is based in good part on that second-half one-man rally he put on Virginia last week. Tatum broke Virginia’s spirit with 3-pointer after 3-pointer, scoring a career-high 28. He’s grown into the the type of freshman he was expected to be. Remember, he missed the early part of the season due to a foot injury. Now, having played in 19 of Duke’s 27 games, he’s turned into a 1B option (to Luke Kennard’s 1A). The best news for Duke is that Tatum has developed a habit of playing better in the second half, something Duke will need if it’s to get to the Final Four.
9. Miles Bridges, Michigan State
Last week: No. 9
16.1 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 2.0 APG, 1.7 blocks, 55.2 2-pt%, 40.6 3-pt %, 101.1 ORtg
Bridges had 17 and 11 in Michigan State’s win over Ohio State, then had a solid game (14 points, nine rebounds and three assists) in MSU’s loss at Purdue. Bridges was seen overcome with emotion, crying on the floor as his senior teammate, Eron Harris, was carted off. Harris’ college career is over because of a knee injury. In his absence, Bridges will likely be asked to do even more. Michigan State (16-11) getting to the NCAA Tournament is far from a sure thing. Sparty has its next two games at home, vs. Nebraska and Wisconsin. Winning both of those would put MSU on the precipice of lock status. Bridges’ play could be the determining factor.
Last week: No. 8
15.7 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 53.2 2-pt%, 45.7 3-pt%, 83.9 FT%, 131.2 ORtg
I’ll have something deeper on Markkanen later this week. I’m fascinated by his role with Arizona, and how he’s gotten better as an overall big man as the season’s gone along. I did ask Arizona coach Sean Miller last week about the fact that Markkanen doesn’t block a lot of shots and isn’t considered an elite defensive presence yet, in spite of his frame. Here’s a snippet of what he told me. I’ll have more in the profile later this week. I do think defensive questions will be part of the Markkanen profile, no matter what, as he heads to the NBA -- almost certainly -- in the coming months.
“Lauri has made incredible improvement gains defensively, maybe more so than any other aspect. He’s 7-feet tall. He’s not 6-9 or 6-10. He’s 7-feet tall. He has an incredible offensive arsenal, but the more you’re around Lauri, he’s a tough kid. He has not missed one practice, not one workout, not one game. He plays through bumps and bruises, being sick. Loves the game, but he’s become more adept at knowing where to be defensively. One thing that’s great for him is, he doesn’t guard the other team’s center, and when you don’t guard a center in college basketball, the 4 position is occupied by someone who’s 6-6, who’s more of a wing player. So he’s hard to guard for any type of player that you could think of at the 4, rebounder to a great shooter, and with that it’s been challenging on our end to improve him (defensively) and allow him to do different things.”
7. T.J. Leaf, UCLA
Last week: No. 7
16.7 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 2.6 APG, 66.0 2-pt%, 47.1 3-pt%, 131.7 ORtg
Leaf had just one game in the past week, a 19-point, eight-rebound showing in UCLA’s 102-70 killing of USC. A good 30 minutes worth of work for Leaf, who’s once again flying under the radar. But his status here is legitimately earned. On the season, Leaf is just a tick ahead of Markkanen. Here’s what Leaf has done in the six games against the toughest teams UCLA has played (at Kentucky, a series against Oregon, vs. Michigan, vs. California, at Arizona): 14.8 points, 7.5 rebounds, 2.3 assists on 63.6 percent from 2-point range and 27.3 percent from deep. Not bad numbers, but certainly a tick below what he’s done on the season, and thus, below what he’s done against worse teams. In PER, Leaf’s 27.87 ranks ahead of Markkanen’s 26.18, but both rank in the top four (with Markelle Fultz and Dillon Brooks) in the Pac-12.
Last week: No. 6
21.4 PPG, 2.4 RPG, 2.3 APG, 53.5 2-pt% 41.4 3-pt%, 120.3 ORtg
Credit to Monk, who wasn’t outstanding last week, but did grab a career-best eight rebounds in Kentucky’s win over Tennessee, then followed that up with five assists in the road victory against Georgia. That diversity is what Calipari and UK need from Monk. He’s such an artful player with the ball in his hands, but getting him to play more around the rim, and finding ways to use his offensive weaponry beyond deep 2s and 3s will be critical to giving UK a chance at making the Final Four. Monk averaging 22/2/2 over the next 6-8 games isn’t going to cut it.
5. De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
Last week: No. 5
15.6 PPG, 5.4 APG, 4.2 RPG, 1.6 steals, 51.7 2-pt%, 110.1 ORtg
I really did debate flipping Monk and Fox for the first time this season, but Fox’s play down the stretch in the Georgia game only reinforced what I’ve said all season long: Fox is Kentucky’s most valuable player. Fox is Kentucky’s best player. Monk is Kentucky’s best offensive player and its most exciting player, but UK does not, cannot and will not beat elite opponents if Fox has a bad game. Fox scored nine straight at UGA, making foul shots in the process, and helped secure the win. He’s been so good, and I get the feeling he’s going to be awesome in March. He’s not shown scouts all he can do. Also, whatever’s going on with his hair, I kind of like it. Let’s have it really grow out.
4. Josh Jackson, Kansas
Last week: No. 4
16.5 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 3.0 APG, 1.7 steals, 54.3 2-pt%, 108.1 ORtg
Jackson has won Big 12 Newcomer of the Week for the sixth time this season. He averaged 16.0 points and 6.0 rebounds against West Virginia and Baylor last week. Most importantly, he made six of his eight foul shots in the win over WVU.
Jackson’s shooting is getting tangibly better, and it could be the factor that launches Kansas to the Final Four. On the whole, there’s little to not like about Jackson’s game at this point. If anything, his foul-prone style is really the only thing that sticks out, because the free throw shooting is getting better (he’s missed five of his past 17 shots) But the overall shooting, that’s what stands out to me. In Kansas’ last eight games, Jackson is shooting 54.1 percent from the field and an especially uplifting 53.8 percent from 3. He’s also good late in games. Jackson doesn’t run out of energy. He’s Second Team All-America level right now.
3. Dennis Smith Jr., NC State
Last week: No. 3
18.9 PPG, 6.6 APG, 4.4 RPG, 2.0 steals, 52.1 2-pt%, 37.1 3-pt%, 112.3 ORtg
I pulled something out of my reporting notebook regarding Markkanen above, so I’ll the same with Smith here. I spoke with Smith at length almost two weeks ago in North Carolina, before all the Mark Gottfried stuff played out. I was curious about his background as an athlete. He made the state title game in hoops every year of high school, but baseball was his first organized sport. He loved playing football -- only defense, ironically enough -- but his dad told him he had to give it up after his sophomore year, in an effort to focus purely on basketball and eliminate injury concerns. (Smith would tear his ACL playing basketball at the start of his senior year.)
Smith told me he fought the football thing with his dad.
“I was really upset because I knew my role was going to grow,” he said. “I started at corner my freshman and sophomore years on varsity. I was set to do punt and kick returns. I didn’t even like offense like that, but I might’ve played, just because.”
But he gives up football, and now the one part of his game he’s going to have to convince scouts about is his consistent effort, and/or lack thereof, on defense.
Last week: No. 2
23.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.6 steals, 50.2 2-pt%, 41.3 3-pt%, 114.0 ORtg
I spoke with Fultz last week about his bond with Dennis Smith Jr. The two met when they were placed on the same team while playing on the Adidas circuit. The one thing that stood out to me in my quick convo with Fultz was how he flatly said that college basketball has not been difficult for him. This is a player who was on his JV team as a sophomore, and yet he said that the one-on-one experience has been no different than what it was in high school. He wasn’t being arrogant in this. It was honesty, and he seems relatively shocked by it. Now, clearly, Washington (9-18) is horrid this year. The team is so bad, Lorenzo Romar could well lose his job even though he has Michael Porter Jr. coming to school next year -- and Porter’s dad is already on the staff. But Fultz hasn’t been slowed, and his stock hasn’t taken a hit. He’s still the favorite to go No. 1 in June, and it’s been bizarre to see him thrive while the team around him flails its way to an 11th-place finish in the Pac-12.
1. Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Last week: No. 1
15.4 PPG, 7.6 APG, 6.1 RPG, 1.9 steals, 71.6 2-pt%, 43.0 3-pt%, 130.7 ORtg
For the third straight week, Ball’s created a little more separation at the top of the list. Because Fultz and Smith are not putting up bat-bleep-insane numbers, and their teams are so bad, the race for National Freshman of the Year is nearly sewn up. Josh Jackson has an outside chance to leap over Ball, but it wll take some bad play by Lonzo and a couple 25-plus point games from Josh to make that a reality. Because so many of Ball’s 2-point attempts are within five feet of the hoop, his 2-point rate is ninth-best in college hoops. For a guard, that’s unheard of. Against USC, he had 15 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, in addition to four turnovers. He’s so close to wrapping this up, and he’ll also be UCLA’s first consensus All-American choice since Kevin Love.
Previous FOTW winners:
Dec. 6: T.J. Leaf
Dec. 13: Jayson Tatum
Dec. 20: Malik Monk
Dec. 27: Shamorie Ponds
Jan. 3: Markelle Fultz
Jan. 10: Dennis Smith, Jr.
Jan. 17: Josh Jackson
Jan. 24: Dennis Smith, Jr.
Jan. 31: Miles Bridges
Feb. 7: T.J. Leaf
Feb. 14: Josh Jackson