An Early Check on College Basketball’s Three Key Freshmen

College basketball’s first few weeks provide a chance to gauge what we might be able to expect for the rest of the season. Duke and Kentucky’s surprising upset losses have us all primed for a chaotic year. Even the best match-ups early on have looked sloppy and unbalanced. It’s been tough to tell exactly who has emerged as a title contender and which teams were ranked far too highly in the preseason.

We can, however, start to understand what to expect from our current crop of one-and-dones. Freshman have now played a handful of games, some even getting to face some intriguing competition early on. There is still miles and miles of work left ahead of them to determine their fates at the next level, but we’re also concerned with the footprint they leave on college basketball. Even if Zion Williamson was a great pro prospect, he was also a great college basketball player last season, worthy of the awards and accolades he received, plus he factored heavily into the national title race.

This year, three players stand out with a chance to leave their mark on this season before heading off to the pros. With about a half dozen games played, let’s check in on these young studs and assess how relevant they’ll be to this college basketball season.

Anthony Edwards, Georgia

None of this year’s one-and-done candidates have helped themselves more in the quest to become the top pick in June’s NBA Draft as much as Edwards so far this season. The 6-foot-5 combo guard has stuffed the stat sheet for Tom Crean’s Georgia team (say that five times fast) early this year, posting 20 points, 5.5 rebounds, 3 assists, and 2.5 steals per game this season. Only 10 players since 1993 have finished a season with that stat line (though Bonzi Wells did so in two different seasons in his time at Ball State).

We’ve got a long way to go for Edwards to join that club, but if this week was any indication, he has the talent and the game to do so. Edwards, like many players before him, used the Maui Invitational (apologies to the tournament’s sponsor, but I’m a purist) as a springboard to launch himself into the forefront of the college basketball landscape. This week in the Hawaiian islands, we saw Edwards’ floor and ceiling on full display.

In Georgia’s first game, Edwards managed only 6 points, on 10 field goal attempts, missing all five of his long range attempts. On Tuesday, the famously soft rims at the Lahaina Civic Center were more kind to Edwards, sparking a legendary performance. Georgia trailed Michigan State by as many as 28 points before Edwards got hot and took over the game. He finished with 37 points, 6 rebounds, 2 assists, 4 steals, and 3 blocks. He was everywhere and did everything. This was more than just a display of hot shooting.

He threw one of the best passes we’ve seen so far this college basketball season:

He rose up and made a block at the rim:

And of course, he shot the lights out of the gym.

Edwards dragged Georgia all the way back into the game, closing the Spartan lead to just 2 at one point, before Cassius Winston and company steadied themselves and secured the victory.

For those who weren’t yet familiar with Edwards, this was his coming out party. He’s here to stay, eager to have his Bulldogs compete in the SEC and reach the NCAA Tournament. That’s an uphill climb, but Edwards is capable of almost anything this season.

James Wiseman, Memphis

Another of college basketball’s most talented freshmen has been constantly in the news, yet not for his play in the early-going. Wiseman has been excellent on the court, averaging 20 and 10 per night, but his play has been heavily overshadowed by the on-going saga regarding his NCAA eligibility.

Wiseman was suspended by the NCAA for receiving benefits from current Memphis head coach Penny Hardaway, defied the suspension, sued the NCAA, played despite the NCAA’s ruling, then called off his lawsuit, and accepted a 12 game ban for this season. He’ll miss several key games for Memphis, like tilts with Tennessee, NC State, Wichita State, and with Edwards’ Georgia squad. In the end, his segmented freshman season should provide plenty of game film for NBA evaluators to still consider Wiseman at the top of the draft.

For college basketball’s purposes, his absence clouds Memphis’ range of possibilities. With Wiseman, the Tigers had the nation’s top recruiting class and a real chance to be nationally relevant for the first time since John Calipari’s departure to Kentucky. That’s still on the table, but less likely with Hardaway’s prized recruit slated to miss a third of the season.

If Memphis can “hold serve” while Wiseman sits, his impact upon returning could spurn the Tigers into contention in the American Athletic Conference and have them fighting for a seed in the top quadrant of the NCAA Tournament. Wiseman may be the best athlete in college basketball, with extraordinary agility and leaping ability for his size and an unbelievable build for his age. No big men in the AAC will be able to compete with Wiseman athletically, allowing the freshman center a chance to control games above the rim and find easy buckets in transition.

NBA teams will be more keenly watching how he defends and rebounds in the paint, yet he’s already shown he can do both of those well at the college level. His offensive impact will be the difference between Memphis being a tournament team and a team capable of making a real run through the bracket.

Cole Anthony, North Carolina

Most draft experts agree that the competition to be the top pick in June’s NBA Draft is limited to Edwards, Wiseman, and Anthony, with some bolder individuals considering Australian tourist and Ball family baby child LaMelo Ball as well. While Edwards and Wiseman have both flashed off the screen at times, Anthony has been the most steady to date this season. That may not entice NBA decision makers as much, but it likely means Anthony will have the largest impact of the three on college basketball this season.

That’s due, in part, to the school Anthony chose and the talent surrounding him. Wiseman is on a team full of freshman. Edwards lacks help at Georgia. Although North Carolina lost a ton of talent from last season, Anthony slots into Roy Williams’ system perfectly and has plenty of talented players flanking him in the Tar Heels’ lineup.

Anthony, son of former UNLV star, NBA player, and TV analyst Greg Anthony, has hit the ground running, fully living up to the legacy of the UNC point guards Williams has coached in the past. Coby White set quite a precedent last season, averaging 16 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 4 assists per night.

In the season’s early stages, Anthony has been superior to White across the board. The freshman point guard is contributing 23 points per game, 8 rebounds, and 4.5 assists. It’s notable that Anthony has faced a fairly wimpy schedule so far, yet his best performance came when he dropped 34 points on Notre Dame in the season opener, including six made shots from long range. We’ll learn more about just how good Anthony can be this week as the Heels take part in the (sigh) Bad Boy Mowers Battle 4 Atlantis Tournament. The Thanksgiving week tourney offers Carolina chances to match-up with some of America’s best teams and gives Anthony a chance to make a splash even bigger than Edwards’ explosion in Maui.

Even by December 1, Cole Anthony could become the clear favorite for National Player of the Year and top pick in the NBA Draft.

******

Shane McNichol is the founder, editor, and senior writer at PalestraBack.com. He has also contributed to ESPN.com, Rush The Court, Larry Brown Sports, and USA Today Sports Weekly. Follow him on Twitter @OnTheShaneTrain. You can find every post from this blog on Twitter by following @PalestraBack.

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