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Freshman 15: Preseason NCAA Freshman of the Year Award Watch List

The 2013-2014 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 were Zach LaVine (No. 13), James Young (No. 17), and Tyler Ennis (No. 18).

Will the 2014-2015 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. I’ve compiled a list of 15 hopeful freshman that have a solid shot at winning this upcoming season’s INTEGRIS Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year award. Let’s start with the favorite.

Jahlil Okafor, Duke – 6’11”, 272 pounds

If it weren’t for Emmanuel Mudiay (who chose to play overseas for a year in lieu 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 a force in the interior 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.

As of now, Okafor is strictly a back-to-the-basket player. He needs to develop a consistent mid-range jumpshot in order 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 Wildcats head coach Sean Miller wants to do, Johnson could find himself as the starting shooting guard. Johnson’s versatility allows him to play multiple positions, but if he starts at the 2, then he is going to need to be a floor spacer.

It will be interesting to see how Johnson and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson play next to each other, as they have very similar size and play-style.

Cliff Alexander, Kansas – 6’8”, 250 pounds

Kansas fans might think they’re having deja vu when they watch their team this season. Alexander will remind a lot of people of Thomas Robinson, former All-American and top-five NBA draft pick.

Alexander 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 a very skilled rim protector and help-defender.

Even though Alexander is super athletic and explosive, he is still raw offensively. He will need to become a better ball handler in order to help create better looks for himself. Still, 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 to be the starting small forward at Kansas, and should take some of the pressure to score off of sophomore guard Wayne Selden, Jr.

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 difficult to defend.

He has the size and length (7’2” wingspan) to be a solid defender, he just has to will himself to commit to becoming a two-way player. Oubre should light up the scoreboard every night for the Jayhawks.

Rashad Vaughn, UNLV – 6’5”, 203 pounds

Last year’s main crew of Runnin’ Rebels is gone, and last season’s 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 guard/combo guard in high school with Findlay Prep. Off the ball, Vaughn is a great shooter with deep range, and his stellar court vision makes him a threat with the ball in his hands.

He’s more of a shooter than a creator, so that will have to improve as he helps his young UNLV team find an identity and get back to the NCAA Tournament.

Karl-Anthony Towns, Kentucky – 7’0”, 248 pounds

It was genuinely hard for me 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 the Kentucky Wildcats’ roster. With nine future draft picks on this team alone, is anyone really going to stand out above the rest?

If anyone does, I’m expecting it to be Towns because he’s such a special player. At 7’0”, Towns is incredibly mobile and athletic.His ability to run in transition is going to make him a threat to score at all times. Offensively, Towns is already polished. He has a nice touch around the basket, and he can stretch defenses all the way out to the college three-point line with his range.

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 in high basketball IQ. Jackson is going to be a floor general that just happens to play small forward – he’s a bit like former UCLA Bruin, current San Antonio Spur 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 jumpshot and great court vision. He’s basically that fundamentally sound old guy that finds his way into a pick-up basketball game against a bunch of younger, more athletic athletes.

Don’t get me wrong, though; Jackson has plenty of ability to finish well above the rim on offense. Some of Jackson’s potential downfalls, though, are his skinny frame and whether or not 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 a huge void that Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine are leaving in UCLA’s lineup. Looney should come in as an automatic starter and go-to scorer to help this young Bruins team fight in the Pac 12.

Looney can play at both small forward and power forward. He has the size and length to be an excellent two-way player, and his explosiveness makes him a great finisher around the rim on offense. Looney also has great ball handling skills for his size, giving him the ability to stretch his defender out to the three-point line and create his own shot. It will be interesting to see how Looney fits in 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 can see a lot of similarities to Chris Paul (or at least I can). Both guards are built similarly, both have outstanding court vision, both are able to (fairly easily) break down defenders off the dribble, and both excel in the pick and roll.

Duke is going to benefit greatly 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 at the next level. Just like Paul, once again, Jones is 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 the Okafor (the favorite).

Theo Pinson, North Carolina – 6’6”, 192 pounds

Pinson is so explosive it’s almost scary. His mixtapes of impressive dunk after dunk will blow you away. Therein lies the problem, though. A lot of the mixtape dunks he was able to produce in high school will go away when he faces better defenders and teams in the ACC. Though he has nice range on his jumper, he will have to develop an entire offensive repertoire in order to become a better floor-spacer and offense-creator.

Where Pinson will be able to shine is on defense. If he can hone in his out-of-this-world athleticism and apply that to his already great size and length, he will be able to be a perimeter defense nightmare for any opposing team. Much like Tyus Jones, Pinson is on the outside looking in for the Freshman of the Year Award due to another freshman he happens to play alongside.

Myles Turner, Texas – 6’11.5”, 242 pounds

Texas will start the year as a top 10 team in the NCAA, and that comes as no surprise with the return of last season’s main core. As Turner figures to slide into the starting center spot, his transition should be easier than some on this list since he’s playing with an experienced roster.

His size and 7’4” wingspan give him 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 by stronger players. He lacks elite strength but is able to stretch the floor with shooting range all the way out to the three-point line. Still, he needs to develop a better post-game to help 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 “the man” on that team, Russell will now get his own shot.

With Aaron Craft gone, the Ohio State backcourt is going to be in need of scoring. This is where Russell is really going to shine, as he should be the team’s go-to scorer from day one. Russell has unlimited range and prototypical size for an NBA shooting guard. It will be interesting to see how Russell develops this season, but for now, he’s certainly on the outside looking in for this award.

Darkhorse 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 their second-leading scorer from a season ago in DeAndre Daniels. Hamilton will come in from the beginning and help Ryan Boatright lead this team. He’s an explosive, two-way player that 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 Gators head coach Billy Donovan plays him. He could very well be this team’s 6th man, or he could start at small forward. It all depends on where Dorian Finney-Smith and Chris Walker lineup on opening night.

Isaac Copeland, Georgetown – 6’9”, 220 pounds

Copeland already has the size and frame to be a force, and his elite athleticism and range on his jumpshot are going to make him even tougher to stop. Copeland is coming into a unique situation with the Hoyas, as last season wasn’t exactly “great” for Georgetown standards. The team will look to him  to help bring them back where they belong – the NCAA Tournament.

 

This is an extremely talented freshman class, and while Okafor might be the favorite to take home the Wayman Tisdale Freshman of the Year Award trophy, he’s going to have a lot of competition along the way.

Alex Joseph

Digital Marketer by day, hoops writer and live-tweeter by night. Follow me on Twitter for Mighty Ducks references.