This season of college basketball has been highlighted by a variety of star freshmen. The players who were highly touted coming out of high school have truly made their mark on college basketball this year.
While players such as Washington’s Markelle Fultz, UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, Kentucky’s Malik Monk and Kansas’ Josh Jackson have all shown their superiority as one-and-done college players, they certainly are not the only spectacular freshman that the game has seen this season.
Several undervalued freshman have shined marvelously while playing away from the national spotlight. You wouldn’t recognize them as high rated recruits—or any sort of NBA Draft prospects this year—but these five college basketball freshman have played at a level this season that undoubtedly deserves your attention.
Josh Okogie has led what has been a resounding resurgence for the Georgia Tech men’s basketball program this season. The Yellow Jackets have a record of 16-11 under new head coach Josh Pastner. The team is right in the middle of the pack in the ACC, the country’s most prolific conference, and are on the verge of making the NCAA Tournament for the first time since Derrick Favors was enrolled.
Leading the charge has been freshman two-guard Josh Okogie, who is as big and tough as you’ll find at the position. A product of Shiloh High School in Snellville, Georgia, Okogie is averaging 15.3 points and 5 rebounds per game. The most impressive thing about the Yellow Jacket phenom is his tendency to show up big against some of the country’s highest ranked teams.
Beginning with a 26-point outing in an upset over the North Carolina Tar Heels, Okogie has gone on to score 27 against Dennis Smith Jr. and North Carolina State, 35 in an upset against Florida State, a buzzer-beating, game-winning layup over Notre Dame, and 23 against a resurgent Wake Forest squad.
Okogie already has the Georgia Tech freshman scoring record for a single game with 38 against Tulane. That marked the third time an ACC freshman has ever scored that many points in a game. He is leading this Georgia Tech team to a promising future, and we can expect Okogie to become a true star in the ACC throughout the rest of his Yellow Jacket career.
Having one freshman putting up outstanding numbers is one thing, but having two rookies playing at a high level isn’t common by any means. That is a luxury that Chris Mullin and his St. John’s teams have enjoyed this season. Though it’s a massive improvement from their previous record of 8-24, the Red Storm are a measly 12-15 on the season. However, they hold two valuable pieces to build around in Marcus LoVett and Shamorie Ponds.
This dynamic duo of St. John’s has proven to be one of college basketball’s elite backcourt. Both LoVett and Ponds are top-10 scorers among Division-1 freshmen; both are averaging over 17 points per game. They nearly match the historically good freshman duo of Kentucky’s Malik Monk and DeAaron Fox in terms of scoring.
Similar to Okogie, the duo of LoVett and Ponds have put out some impressive scoring performances against some of the better teams in college basketball. LoVett has had huge games: 31 points against Minnesota, 20 against Michigan State, 9 assists against Syracuse, 23 points against both Creighton and Villanova, 32 against Xavier, 22 against Seton Hall and 26 against Providence.
Right on the opposite side of LoVett, Shamorie Ponds has had outings of 23 points against Minnesota, 18 against VCU, 21 against Syracuse, 26 against Butler, 21 and 23 against Xavier, 22 against Providence and 18 against Butler. Along with Ponds’ offensive outings, he has had an astonishing 8 games with 4 steals.
These two are young and can flat-out score. When one happens to be off, the other can step right in and deliver. When both are on, St. John’s is a force that is difficult for opposing teams to handle. Chris Mullin has this St. John’s team primed for legitimacy down the road and with these two at the helm, you can expect to hear a lot about the Red Storm in the near future.
Coming into this season, the best player named Justin Jackson was undoubtedly North Carolina’s outstanding junior small forward. While that Justin Jackson has been phenomenal, it is hard to look past this Maryland freshman that just so happens to have the same name.
This 6-foot-7, 225-poind forward was a four-star recruit coming out of Canada and has flourished alongside Melo Trimble, leading the Terrapins to a 22-5 season record. Jackson has a long and lean body and an offensive ability that perfectly matches his physical traits.
Jackson’s face up game is incredibly efficient, and his masterful body control allows him high proficiency when it comes to driving to the rim. When he’s at the rim, he has one of the softest touches in the country, which allows him to hit floaters and finish layups through tight traffic. He’s a terrific slasher, but it is also worth noting that Jackson is shooting 45 percent from three-point range on the season.
He may not have the most glamorous season averages, but Jackson has had a couple of games in which he has shown signs of greatness. Particularly, in a two-game stretch to end the month of January, Jackson put up 28 points and 10 rebounds against Minnesota and then 22 points with 12 rebounds against Ohio State. While inconsistencies have bugged Jackson throughout his freshman season, this is a player who has all the potential in the world with his current skill set.
Justin Patton is one of the most slept-on players in all of college basketball and has been marvelous for Creighton all season long. A 7-foot scoring machine at the center position, Patton has bolted himself to potential lottery status in the 2017 NBA Draft.
Patton possesses spectacular athleticism and is incredibly mobile on his feet. He also runs the floor incredibly well and knows how to set himself up near the rim to get easy scoring opportunities. In Patton’s skill set also lies superb passing ability and a solid jump shot. While the monstrous scoring numbers aren’t there, the consistency is; Patton has only recorded three games with under 10 points this season.
Patton still needs to further himself as a rebounder but despite that flaw, he has been one of the best under-the-radar players in college basketball. While he could be a one-and-done player and wind up as a first-round pick in this year’s draft, a second collegiate season could transform Patton into one of the best players in the country. The tools are there for Patton to blossom into something special.