This marks the third version of my top 25 freshmen list (feel free to have a look at versions 1.0, and 2.0), and by now any first-year stars who were going to run into the proverbial freshman "wall" should have already done so. We've sorted out who's legit from who was just a flash in the pan, and it's probably no mistake that this list has started to resemble some mock draft projections a little more closely.
More closely, but not entirely. This list is still all about college production, and that's not always the same thing as pro potential. These are not the freshmen who will (necessarily) have the best NBA careers. These are the freshmen who, in my judgment, have helped their college teams the most this season.
Allow me to state at the top that Kentucky's Nerlens Noel would of course be on this list -- and very highly ranked -- if he were healthy and available to John Calipari. Noel's knee injury is a huge blow to the Wildcats, who were quietly but assuredly rounding into form as yet another outstanding Calipari-brand defense. Get well, young man, and quickly. Your heroic 12-block game at Ole Miss was one of the season's more memorable efforts, to say the least.
Speaking of memorable efforts, I give you the nation's top 25 freshmen:
1. Ben McLemore, G, Kansas Jayhawks
I can't help but feel McLemore is not being celebrated quite enough, but I think I see what the problem is. First, there's the small matter of the team McLemore plays for. That team wins the Big 12 annually, and has since 2005. But Kansas may not win the Big 12 this season. Whatever occurs from here on out, there is the brutal fact that we've arrived at mid-February saying that KU might not win the conference. That's unusual, and it mitigates against any spontaneous outbursts of joy on behalf of any one particular player.
Second, McLemore is just too nice. I mean as a player, not as a person (though I have no reason to believe he isn't a nice person as well). Kevin Durant was and is an extremely nice person, goodness knows, but once he was on the floor for Texas he was quite willing to become Allen Iverson and take every shot in sight. I bet Bill Self wishes McLemore could acquire that gene -- every shot the freshman takes is good news for Kansas.
Fans of the college game love to roll their eyes and chuckle about the silly NBA and its allegedly foolhardy ways when it comes to talent evaluation. But say this for the professionals: With McLemore, they're seeing through the "down" season for Kansas (and if this is "down," it must be nice to be a Jayhawk) and through the niceness, and rating KU's star as a top-three pick this summer. I'll second that appraisal, because shot for shot, McLemore is one of the most effective pure scorers I've come across. His shooting percentages have actually gone up in Big 12 play, even as his workload as the team's featured scorer has remained heavy. I can't answer for his team, nor can I explain his inconvenient habit of sharing the ball with less effective teammates. But McLemore is still the nation's top freshman.
Previous ranking: 1
2. Anthony Bennett, F, UNLV Rebels
Bennett poses a problem of context. To put it bluntly, UNLV is having a mildly disappointing season. The Rebels were expected to contend with San Diego State for the Mountain West title, and instead Dave Rice's team is trailing both New Mexico and Colorado State. And to be even more specific, the problem has been on offense, where UNLV is scoring just 0.98 points per trip in MWC play, good for No. 5 in a nine-team league.
So I guess all we can say in a situation such as this is just imagine how bad things would be without Bennett. As a team the Rebels' main enemy is turnovers, but for the most part Bennett has been commendably trustworthy with the rock. (For the most part. But let's not have any repeats of the Nevada or Boise State games.)
His amazing season totals have ticked down very slightly in conference play (particularly from the perimeter), but at the end of the day, this is still a freshman who is taking 30 percent of his team's shots during his minutes against Mountain West opponents, and has drained 57 percent of his 2s over that same stretch. Bennett has come up huge for Rice, and if every Rebel were meeting expectations as well as their star teammate, this team would be in a better position.
Previous ranking: 2
It is clear to me now that Smart reads every word I write. (Hello! How are things in Stillwater?) If I say that Smart's shots aren't going in often enough, he promptly rips off a remorseless streak of pitiless accuracy. If I say he is ripping off a remorseless streak of pitiless accuracy, he charges right out and hangs a 4-of-21 effort on the scoreboard just to be funny.