College basketball is back in full swing, and its freshmen class after one week of action appears to be fabulous. The top players are thus far delivering big-time production, and many of the top teams are weaponizing them to make a difference early on.
Nowhere is that more evident than at Duke, where No. 2 overall recruit Paolo Banchero and fellow five-star freshman Trevor Keels have been unleashed out of the gate in its 3-0 start to the season. Banchero is averaging 19.3 points and 8.7 boards per game and Keels, averaging 13.7 points per game, looks like a difference-making complementary piece.
Memphis, like Duke, is also letting its young guns run free with no restrictions and reaping the benefits. Former No. 1 recruits Emoni Bates and Jalen Duren — both still only 17 years old — are averaging 16.5 points and 12.5 points per game, respectively, through two games. The Tigers are 2-0 and torching opponents on offense to the tune of 89.5 points per game.
Other freshmen outside the typical five-star structure have stepped up early in the season, too, including Nebraska’s Bryce McGowens, Creighton’s Ryan Nembhard and Jason Roche at The Citadel. So as we digest the opening week that was in college hoops, let’s take a spin through the sport with a look at some of the best debut weeks across the newbie landscape.
1. Paolo Banchero | Duke
Rare are the occasions when a player makes a debut so impressive, it requires a re-assessment of that players’ team and their potential. Banchero is the exception. He’s averaging 19.3 points and 8.7 rebounds per game in his first three outings — all three of which were wins. And against Kentucky in the season-opener he looked every bit the part of a future No. 1 pick, pouring in 22 points, seven rebounds and a pair of steals — all while battling cramps — in 31 minutes of play.
2. Bryce McGowens | Nebraska
A season-opening loss to Western Illinois is a ding for Nebraska and a not-so-promising sign for its prospects this season, but you can’t hang that on Bryce McGowens. He scored 25 on Western Illinois then followed it up with 29 points in a bounceback win over Sam Houston State. Looks the part of a true No. 1 scorer for Fred Hoiberg and the Cornhuskers.
3. Patrick Baldwin Jr. | Milwaukee
He’s played in only one game thus far for Milwaukee, but Patrick Baldwin Jr. was sure electric in that appearance as he went for 19 points, 11 rebounds and four assists in a 77-71 loss to Eastern Kentucky. Baldwin struggled a touch shooting it consistently — he was 7 of 20 from the floor and 2 of 9 from 3-point range — but better days are ahead (and they seem like they’re already pretty, pretty, pretty good).
4. Kennedy Chandler | Tennessee
Tennessee’s five-star point guard addition has already carved himself out quite a role early on. In two blowout wins for the Vols he scored 20 then 16 points and combined for 10 assists in those two outings to only four turnovers . . . all in 48 minutes of action. Chandler’s scoring prowess and vision will make him a mainstay in our season-long Frosh Watch rankings.
5. Emoni Bates | Memphis
Memphis coach Penny Hardaway hinted in the preseason that Bates, a 6-foot-9 wing, may play on the ball as point guard at times with the Tigers. That wasn’t for show. Bates is handling the ball and bringing it up the court a lot, and he’s second on the team in assists through two games while leading the team at 16.0 points per game. At just 17 years old he’s already flashed — a lot — the type of pro-style shot-making that has long intrigued scouts.
6. Harrison Ingram | Stanford
File the name away for future (and heck, current) reference. Ingram’s been a revelation for Stanford and looks like a star. The 6-8 wing leads the team in scoring averaging 18.0 points per game through three games, and on Monday he posted a gaudy 19 points, 11 rebounds and six assists in a win over San Jose State.
7. Jabari Smith | Auburn
Smith played only 21 minutes in his season debut against Morehead State, a 77-54 win for Auburn, but against Louisiana-Monroe on Friday, Bruce Pearl unleashed him for 29 minutes of play — during which Smith rewarded his coach with 23 points, 10 rebounds, two blocks, two assists and four steals. Holy box-sheet stuffer.
8. Jalen Duren | Memphis
The comparisons to Bam Adebayo are, at least so far, pretty apt. Duren’s a relentless big who does a little of everything. He’s already recorded eight blocks in two games and is averaging 12.5 points and 8.0 boards in that span to boot in only 49 minutes of action.
9. Ryan Nembhard | Creighton
Creighton has started its season with two blowout wins over inferior competition and in the process, Nembhard, a former four-star recruit, has quickly emerged as a force. He leads the team with 12 assists and is second on the team, behind only Alex O’Connell, with 26 combined points. He’s already secured the lead guard spot and holds the keys to unlocking Creighton’s potential this season.
10. Chet Holmgren | Gonzaga
Gonzaga has a loaded roster led by Drew Timme so Holmgren hasn’t been asked to produce at a high level for the No. 1 Bulldogs. And yet Holmgren has indeed produced at a high level, operating as one of the best shot-blockers in the country. He’s averaging nine points, eight boards and four blocks (!!) through three games, bolstered by a seven-block showing against Dixie State in his career debut a week ago.
11. Jason Roche | The Citadel
Only one college offered Roche out of high school — The Citadel — and now they are being rewarded accordingly. Roche is averaging 19.3 points and 6.3 rebounds per game out of the gate, picking up where he left off in high school when he averaged 23 points and six rebounds per game. We’ll see if he can keep this pace up but he was one of the best shooters on the EYBL circuit and already looks like one of the most productive mid-major products in the country.
12. Trevor Keels | Duke
Against Campbell and Army the last two games, Keels has averaged only eight points, four rebounds and 2.5 assists. But he’s holding steady here just outside the top 10 and worthy of acknowledgment after a breakout in the Champions Classic where he went for 25 points. All preseason long Keels was consistently getting buzz as a potential star and his Lu Dort-like frame and style of play looks like it could be a real difference-maker for the top-10 Blue Devils.
13. Caleb Houstan | Michigan
Juwan Howard has a knack for finding plug-and-play freshmen and Houstan is just the latest example. He scored 13 and 11 points against Buffalo and Prairie View A&M to open the season, respectively, and it appears he’s already locked in a starting role on the wing replacing Franz Wagner and Chaundee Brown.
14. Taran Armstrong | Cal Baptist
Armstrong is the only freshman in the sport who ranks top-10 in the country in assists per game. He’s dished out 17 dimes in two games — both wins for Cal Baptist — and is adding 12 points and five boards per game to boot.
15. Aminu Mohammed | Georgetown
Georgetown lost to Dartmouth — Dartmouth! — in its opener over the weekend. But Mohammed turned in 17 points and 6 six boards in the effort. He was one of the lower-rated five-stars in the 2021 class but appears to already be a key cog for the Hoyas.