Sunday, April 21 2024
LEXINGTON, KENTUCKY - JANUARY 09: Reed Sheppard #15 and Rob Dillingham #0 of the Kentucky Wildcats defend Sean East II #55 of the Missouri Tigers in the second half at Rupp Arena on January 09, 2024 in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Reed Sheppard (No. 15) and Rob Dillingham (No. 0) of the Kentucky Wildcats defend Sean East II of Missouri at Rupp Arena on Jan. 9, 2024, in Lexington, Kentucky. (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Conference play has started in college basketball and teams have started to find their rhythm with different lineups and player personnel. Kentucky had the No. 1 recruiting class entering the season with top-10 freshmen Justin Edwards, Aaron Bradshaw and D.J. Wagner. However, it’s been the consistent guard play of two other freshmen, Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard, that has helped Kentucky climb to No. 6 in the AP Top 25 poll.

Baylor lost Keyonte George to the NBA when he was selected No. 16 by the Utah Jazz but have reloaded with dynamic perimeter shooter Ja’Kobe Walter and added some rim protection with 7-foot center Yves Missi. Both players have been great, with Walter projecting as a top 5 pick in the upcoming NBA Draft.

There are a few other freshmen garnering the attention of NBA scouts and executives. Yahoo Sports takes a look at eight instant-impact freshmen of this college basketball season.

Rob Dillingham and Reed Sheppard

Kentucky

The Wildcats beat a defensively tough Missouri team Tuesday night, and Dillingham put on an offensive clinic, finishing with 20 points (6-of-12 from the field), three rebounds and two steals. He’s finding more confidence in his 3-point shot, shooting 44.4% from deep and 48.3% in catch-and-shoot situations, according to Synergy Sports. Dillingham is one of the fastest guards with the ball in his hands, so the defense has to respect his first step, but now that he’s added a consistent outside jumper, teams can’t give him any room. Dillingham is one of the best passers in the SEC, averaging 4.1 assists per game, and can finish through contact. Coming into the season, NBA scouts questioned his size and how well he could create separation off the dribble, but he’s proven that he’s a two-way threat as a primary ball-handler and projects as a lottery pick.

Sheppard has a high IQ and just plays the right way. There’s no hesitation in his 3-point shot, and he’s shooting 53.6% on four attempts per game. He’s able to space the floor with Dillingham in the backcourt and makes the extra pass when the defense collapses. Sheppard is the type of player who wins 50-50 balls and defensively he’s everywhere, averaging 2.5 steals per game.

Ja’Kobe Walter and Yves Missi

Baylor

Baylor has one of America’s best perimeter offenses because of how deep and skilled it is at guard. Langston Love returned for his sophomore season, and the Bears added fifth-year guard RayJ Dennis out of Toledo. The way both players attack the seams has opened up pockets for Walter to consistently knock down 3-point shots. The 6-foot-5 guard is leading Baylor in scoring, averaging 15.3 points per game and shooting 40% from behind the arc. He excels at catch-and-shoot 3s and has shown improvement off the dribble, both with his left and right hand.

Missi is such a raw talent yet he has tremendous upside. In a close loss to Duke, Missi had five blocks on Kyle Filipowski and five offensive rebounds. He leads Baylor in rebounding (6.3 per game) and blocks (1.8 per game), and has great hands, particularly running in transition and catching the ball through traffic, turning the ball over only three times in his last three games.

Jared McCain

Duke

McCain was asked to step up when sophomore guard Tyrese Proctor suffered an ankle injury early in December. His minutes increased from during the first half of the season to 34 per game after Proctor’s injury. McCain has always been a player to never shy away from big moments or big shots, and as he settled into a new system at Duke, his confidence and consistency has improved and he’s become a vital addition to the No. 11 team in the country. One of McCain’s best games was at sold-out Madison Square Garden against Baylor. McCain hit three big 3s and finished with 21 points and three assists in a 78-70 win. In a draft class that is wide open, McCain is showing scouts that he can play under pressure at the highest level and produce.

Oregon forward Kwame Evans Jr., dribbles the ball against Washington during an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024, in Seattle. Oregon won 76-74. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)Oregon forward Kwame Evans Jr., dribbles the ball against Washington during an NCAA college basketball game, Thursday, Jan. 4, 2024, in Seattle. Oregon won 76-74. (AP Photo/Stephen Brashear)

Kwame (KJ) Evans Jr.

Oregon

Evans has been a little up and down in his first year at Oregon, but when he’s on, he’s one of the best players on the court and is now in the starting lineup. He has great size at the wing at 6-9 and has brought much-needed defensive length. His best game this season came in an 82-74 win over USC. Evans finished with a season-high 22 points (3-of-4 from 3-point range), plus eight rebounds and five steals. In the game before that, he recorded six blocks. The Ducks are currently first in the Pac-12 and what Evans is bringing and adding defensively is generating easy transition buckets by deflecting passes and shooting the gap consistently.

Kanaan Carlyle and Andrej Stojaković

Stanford

Both freshmen are coming off the bench for the Cardinal but have strung together some big games recently. Carlyle, a 6-3 guard, averaged 19 points over a three-game stretch. Carlyle was named the Associated Press National Player of the Week and the Pac-12 Freshman of the Week after he scored 28 points Dec. 31 in an upset over No. 4 Arizona. He’s started to emerge as more of a playmaker in the last few games, dishing out nine total assists in Stanford’s last two outings.

Stojaković, the son of 13-year NBA veteran Peja Stojaković, entered his freshman year as a top high school recruit. Andrej was a McDonald’s All American and played in the Nike Hoop Summit — two of the top honors for high school seniors. He has a natural feel for the game but needed time to adjust to the pace and physicality of the college game. In the win over Arizona, he had 16 points, five rebounds and three assists off the bench in 24 minutes.

Other freshmen to keep tabs on

Colorado wing Cody Williams has been out with a left wrist injury since Dec. 4, but head coach Tad Boyle is hopeful Williams could return for Wednesday night’s game against Cal. Prior to his injury, Williams was finding his place offensively and had posted back-to-back 21-point games. Williams is the younger brother of Oklahoma City Thunder wing Jalen Williams and is a projected lottery pick in the upcoming draft.

USC’s Isaiah Collier was the No. 1 recruit coming into the season, and Bronny James has returned to the court after cardiac arrest and undergoing surgery in August. USC can’t seem to find any flow offensively, and Collier continues to struggle with his outside shot. He’s one of the strongest guards at the rim and has found his teammates for open shots as of late — averaging 4.8 assists in his last six games — when the defense brings help or hedges on ball screens. James is finding his 3-point shot after missing so much time and continues to be most effective on the defensive side. In limited minutes on the court, he’s been very productive, averaging 12.5 points and three assists in just 18 minutes over a two-game stretch to start the new year.

Source: Yahoo Sports

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