The Freshman 15: Preseason Freshman of the Year Watch List

Posted by Alex Joseph on November 12th, 2014

The 2013-14 NCAA freshman class was packed with stars. Andrew Wiggins, Jabari Parker, Joel Embiid, Aaron Gordon, Julius Randle and Noah Vonleh were all top 10 picks in the 2014 NBA Draft. Not far behind that group were Zach LaVine (No. 13), James Young (No. 17) and Tyler Ennis (No. 18). Will the 2014-15 NCAA freshman class deliver nine first-round draft picks? While it’s doubtful, it’s certainly possible. This is a deep class full of talented players with completely different skill sets. RTC has compiled a list of 15 hopeful freshmen that have a solid shot at winning this upcoming season’s INTEGRIS Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year award.

Let’s start with the player most pundits believe will hold up the trophy at the end of the season.

The Favorite

Duke's Jahlil Okafor is the favorite (left) but the guys on the right (Arizona's Stanley Johnson,

Duke’s Jahlil Okafor is the favorite (left) but the guys on the right (Arizona’s Stanley Johnson, Kansas’ Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre and UNLV’s Rashad Vaughn) will also be right in the mix.

Jahlil Okafor, Duke – 6’11”, 272 pounds: If it weren’t for Emmanuel Mudiay (who chose to play overseas in lieu of a year of college), Okafor might be the consensus No. 1 NBA draft pick in 2015. Okafor has the size and length (7’5” wingspan) to not only be an interior force on offense, but he’s going to be a solid rim-protector on defense. Don’t be fooled by his weight, either. At 272 pounds, Okafor has surprisingly great mobility and athleticism. His ability to run the floor and his soft hands will make him a prime candidate to receive transition lobs on the fast break. As of now, Okafor is strictly a back-to-the-basket player who needs to develop a consistent mid-range jumper to round out his game. He also needs to work on his free throw shooting, as he figures to spend a lot of time there this season.

In the Discussion

  • Stanley Johnson, Arizona – 6’7”, 235 pounds: Johnson might actually be the most complete player in this class. He is a polished, two-way player and an above-average ball-handler for his size. He uses his high motor skills and never-ending energy to produce in transition, absorbing any and all contact as he makes his way to the rim. The knock on Johnson right now is that he needs to become a more consistent shooter and develop more range. Depending on what Arizona head coach Sean Miller wants to do with him, Johnson could find himself as the starting shooting guard in the Wildcats’ lineup. His versatility allows him to play multiple positions, but if he starts at the two, then he is going to need to become a floor-spacer with consistency. It will be interesting to see how Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson play next to each other, as they have very similar size and playing styles.

  • Cliff Alexander, Kansas – 6’8”, 250 pounds: Kansas fans might think they’re experiencing deja vu when they watch their team this season. Alexander will remind a lot of people of Thomas Robinson, a former Jayhawk All-American and top-five NBA Draft pick. He plays undersized for his skill set at 6’8”, but his ridiculous 7’3” wingspan helps make up for it. He is the quintessential high-motor/intensity/effort guy – much like a more skilled Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. He has already developed a solid mid-range jumper, and he is also an adept rim protector and help-defender. Even though Alexander is athletic and explosive, he is still somewhat raw offensively. He will need to become a better ball-handler in order create better looks for himself, but he’s going to be a blast to watch this season; an inevitable fan favorite at Phog Allen Fieldhouse.
  • Kelly Oubre, Kansas – 6’7”, 199 pounds: Say hello to Alexander’s soon-to-be partner-in-crime. Oubre projects as the eventual starting small forward at Kansas, and he should take some of the pressure to score off of sophomore guard Wayne Selden. Oubre is the complete package on offense. He relies on his athletic frame and explosiveness to get to the rim and finish, and he is a streaky three-point shooter with deep range. His high release makes his jumper very difficult to defend. He has the size and length (7’2” wingspan) to become a solid defender, but he will need to commit himself to becoming a two-way player. Oubre should light up the scoreboard on many nights this season for the Jayhawks.
  • Rashad Vaughn, UNLV – 6’5”, 203 pounds: Last year’s main crew of Runnin’ Rebels is gone, and leading scorer Bryce Dejean-Jones has transferred to Iowa State. Vaughn is going to be asked to lead this team from day one, and that puts him in a great position to make a run at the Freshman of the Year Award. Vaughn possesses great size and versatility to play in the backcourt — even though he is a natural shooting guard, he played a lot of point and combo guard in high school at Findlay Prep. Off the ball, Vaughn is a great shooter with deep range, and his stellar court vision makes him a threat anywhere with the ball in his hands. He’s more of a shooter than a creator, though, so that will need to improve as he helps his young UNLV team find an identity and get back to the NCAA Tournament.

    Don't forget about Kentucky's Karl-Anthony Towns (left) or North Carolina's Justin Jackson either.

    Don’t forget about Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns (left) or North Carolina’s Justin Jackson either.

  • Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky – 7’0”, 248 pounds: It was genuinely hard to decide whether to include Towns in the “In the Discussion” category. This is not a knock on his ability; it’s more of a nod to the depth and talent of Kentucky’s roster. With nine future draft picks on this team alone, can one player really stand above the rest? If anyone does, expect it to be Towns because he’s such a special player — an incredibly mobile and athletic seven-footer. Offensively, he is already polished, with a nice touch around the basket and the shooting ability to stretch defenses out to the three-point line. His parallel ability to get out in transition is going to make him a threat to score in bunches. Towns will need to improve on his open-court/man-to-man/perimeter defense, but luckily he’ll be playing next to one of the best help-defenders in college basketball, Willie Cauley-Stein.
  • Justin Jackson, North Carolina – 6’8”, 190 pounds: Jackson may not be the most athletic player on this list, but what he lacks in athleticism, he makes up for in high basketball IQ. As a Tar Heel, he will be a floor general who just happens to play small forward — not unlike former UCLA star, Kyle Anderson. What’s really great about Jackson’s offensive skill set is his patience to make the right play. He has good range on his jumper and even better court vision. He’s basically that fundamentally sound old guy who finds his way into a pick-up basketball game against a bunch of younger, more athletic players. Don’t get me wrong, though; Jackson has plenty of ability to finish well above the rim. Some of Jackson’s potential downfalls, though, are his skinny frame and the question of whether he can effectively guard bigger, stronger forwards.


Outside Looking In

  • Kevon Looney, UCLA – 6’8”, 200 pounds: Looney has a great opportunity to step in and fill the huge void that Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine left in UCLA’s lineup. He should come in as an automatic starter and go-to scorer to help this young Bruins team from day one. The freshman can play both forward positions, with tremendous explosiveness that makes him a great finisher around the rim, and the requisite size and length to become an excellent two-way player. Looney also has excellent ball-handling skills for his size, giving him the ability to bring his defender out to the perimeter to create his own shot. It will be interesting to see how Looney fits in Steve Alford’s lineup next to Tony Parker and fellow freshman, Thomas Welsh.
  • Tyus Jones, Duke – 6’1”, 191 pounds: Jones is the ultimate floor general. When you watch his tape, you see a lot of similarities to the Los Angeles Clippers’ Chris Paul (or at least I can). Both guards are built similarly, possess outstanding court vision, capable of (fairly easily) breaking down defenders off the dribble, and excel in the pick and roll. Duke is going to greatly benefit from Jones running the point, but he will have to become a lockdown defender and a more consistent perimeter threat if he wants to make it to the next level. Just like Paul, Jones is somewhat limited by his size and athleticism. He will also be limited when it comes to winning this award because he happens to be playing on the same team as Okafor (the favorite).
  • Theo Pinson, North Carolina – 6’6”, 192 pounds: Pinson is so explosive it’s almost scary. His mix tapes full of impressive dunk after dunk will blow you away. Therein lies the problem. A lot of the dunks he delivered in high school will disappear when he faces better defenders throughout the ACC. Though he has nice range on his jumper, he will need to develop an entire offensive repertoire in order to become a better floor-spacer and creator. Where Pinson will be able to shine, however, is on defense. If he can lasso his out-of-this-world athleticism and apply that to his already great size and length, he has the tools to become a perimeter defensive nightmare for an opposing team. Much like Tyus Jones, Pinson is on the outside looking in for the Freshman of the Year Award due to another freshman (Jackson) he happens to play alongside.
  • Myles Turner, Texas – 6’11.5”, 242 pounds: Texas will start the year as a top 10 team, and that comes as no surprise with the return of most of last season’s core. As Turner figures to slide into the starting center spot, his transition should be smoother than some on this list because he’s playing with an experienced roster. His size and 7’4” wingspan are the perfect build for an NBA center, but he’ll need to bulk up even more if he wants to keep from being pushed around. He lacks elite strength but can stretch the floor with shooting range that extends to the three-point line. Still, he needs to develop a better post game to balance out his scoring attack.
  • D’Angelo Russell, Ohio State – 6’5”, 180 pounds: Russell is coming off an undefeated season as a high school senior at Montverde, where he played alongside 2015 No. 1 prospect, Ben Simmons. While Simmons was considered “the man” on that team, Russell will get his own shot to lead in Columbus. With Aaron Craft now gone, the Ohio State backcourt is in great need of additional scoring. This is where Russell should shine, as he has an opportunity to step in as the Buckeyes’ go-to scorer from day one. He has unlimited range and prototypical size for an NBA shooting guard, so it will be interesting to track his development this season. For now, though, he’s on the outside looking in for this award.

Dark Horse Candidates

  • Daniel Hamilton, UConn – 6’6”, 175 pounds: Hamilton will start at shooting guard for a UConn team that lost its heart and soul in Shabazz Napier and its second-leading scorer in DeAndre Daniels. Hamilton will need to come in from the beginning and help Ryan Boatright lead this team. He’s an explosive, two-way player who will be putting his name on the map before the season is over.
  • Devin Robinson, Florida – 6’8”, 178 pounds: I really like Devin Robinson’s game – he’s the total package. He’s a nice shooter, a good finisher, a solid defender, and he can really jump out of the gym. It will be interesting to see where Florida head coach Billy Donovan decides to play him. He could very well turn out to be this team’s sixth man, or he could start at the small forward position. It all depends on where veterans Dorian Finney-Smith and Chris Walker are placed on opening night.
  • Isaac Copeland, Georgetown – 6’9”, 220 pounds: Copeland already has the size and frame to become a Big East force, and his elite athleticism and range on his jumper are going to make him even tougher to stop. Copeland is coming into a unique situation with the Hoyas, as last season was a down year by Georgetown standards. The team will look for him to help bring the Hoyas back where they belong – the NCAA Tournament.

This season’s group may not have the star power of last year’s, but it is an extremely talented class. While Okafor might be the incoming favorite to take home the Freshman of the Year trophy, he’s going to have a lot of outstanding competition for the award along the way.

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