A year ago around this time of year, the buzz of college basketball centered around a freshman from Melbourne, Australia, named Benjamin David Simmons.
Simmons never got a chance to show off his skills in the NCAA Tournament – LSU missed the tournament with a 19-14 record. But the 6-foot-10 ball-handling forward averaged 19.2 points, 11.8 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 2.0 steals per game. He was praised by no less than Magic Johnson as the best overall college basketball talent since LeBron James.
Simmons is off in the NBA now, biding his time until he returns to health as the No. 1 overall pick of the Philadelphia 76ers
That leaves a substantial void in the NCAA College basketball ranks for the honor of best freshman in the country. As conference play begins to ramp up in the push towards March Madness; here’s a look at who could take Simmons’ place at the top of the charts.
Lonzo Ball, UCLA
Talk about a workhorse, Ball is averaging 35.1 minutes per game for the 14-1 Bruins, shooting 52.5 percent from the field and 43.4 percent from the arc. He feels up a stat line the way coaches dream about, averaging 14.3 points, 5.7 rebounds. 8.1 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.0 blocks per game. After the Bruins’ first loss of the season versus Oregon after Christmas, he was brilliant with 23 points, seven assists, six rebounds, and two blocks in a bounce-back win over Oregon State.
De’Aaron Fox, Kentucky
The rare perimeter player who doesn’t live and die by the three-pointer, he showed just how special a player he can be a week before Christmas when he racked up a double-double of 24 points and 10 assists in the Wildcats’ wild 103-100 win over North Carolina.
Markelle Fultz, Washington
He’s not getting a lot of time on SportsCenter because of the Huskies’ late starts and a 7-6 record, but there’s no doubt he’s fun to watch, averaging 22.3 points, 6.7 assists, and 6.4 rebounds per game, along with 1-½ blocks and steals per contests. He might be the closest to Simmons in that his team might not make the Big Dance, but he’s just missed a couple of triple-doubles already.
T.J. Leaf, UCLA
It’s hard to make your mark when you’re a UCLA big man — two guys named Alcindor and Walton sort of own space. But the 6-foot, 10-inch forward T.J. Leaf has proven to be a high-percentage workhorse so far in 2016-2017, averaging 17.5 points and 8.9 rebounds to date, and shooting 65.7 percent from the field.
Malik Monk, Kentucky
Wildcat point guard Fox probably won’t win SEC Freshman of the Year honors because he’s not even the best first-year man on his team. That honor goes to Malik Monk through the first couple of months of the season. Averaging 22 points per game in a little more than 29 minutes, he’s shooting 50.5 percent from the field and 41.5 percent from the free-thrown line. He blew the minds of the nation the week before Christmas when he dropped 47 points on No. 7 North Carolina, hitting 18 of 28 shots from the field and 8 of 12 from the three-point line.