Posted: Thursday November 18, 2010 10:45AM ; Updated: Friday November 19, 2010 9:07AM
Luke Winn
Luke Winn>INSIDE COLLEGE BASKETBALL

Freshman Realism Project: What is the true impact of an elite recruit?

Story Highlights

Elite freshmen annually face wildly unrealistic expectations in college basketball

Freshman statistical impact has been on the decline for the past two years

Don't expect instant success from freshman-heavy Memphis or 'Cuse's Fab Melo

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Joe Jackson
Joe Jackson headlines Josh Pastner's celebrated group of freshmen at Memphis.
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

A certain college hoops marathon began early Tuesday morning in Memphis, where the AP poll's most freshman-dependent team narrowly avoided being upset by the ACC's worst squad from last season. Of the four headliners from the Tigers' top-ranked recruiting class, one was the leading scorer (highly entertaining point guard Joe Jackson), one was underwhelming (shooting guard Will Barton), one fouled out in 14 minutes (power forward Tarik Black), and one had been kicked off the team three days earlier (small forward Jelan Kendrick).

The sellout crowd of 17,873 was eager to see a crop of rookies they'd been frothing over for at least a year. I imagine that some of those same Memphis fans were among those who commented on my first 2010-11 rankings, which were posted on the morning after the Duke-Butler national title game in April. I put the Tigers at No. 24, which seemed reasonable. But some of their diehards were adamant that any designation other than top-15, or even top-10, was inappropriate. Nearly all of them said something along the lines of: "Haven't you heard about these kids Josh Pastner recruited?"

The nationally televised unveiling of Memphis' freshman was exciting, but it inspired me to revisit a file that I started last season, code-named the Freshman Realism Project. And so I spent much of the rest of ESPN's marathon making my eyes bleed by updating an Excel database of every top-100-RSCI recruit's true-freshman-year production, covering the classes of 2006, 2007, 2008 and 2009.

The goal was to use that data to establish a realistic set of expectations for elite freshmen, because no group in college basketball faces more wildly unrealistic expectations than elite freshmen. And the truth is that freshman statistical impact has been on the decline for the past two years. Examine the following chart:

Average Impact of Top-100 RSCI Recruits, 2006-2009
Freshman Class %Mins Played %Possessions Used OffensiveRating
2006-07 45.7 20.6 102.6
2007-08 51.2 22.2 101.8
2008-09 43.1 20.3 99.0
2009-10 41.0 19.6 98.9

If we focus only on top-20 recruits, the decline from the Derrick Rose-Mike Beasley-Kevin Love class is much steeper. Despite all the attention on John Wall and his fellow Kentucky classmates -- who mostly exceeded expectations -- the Class of 2009 was markedly worse in aggregate than the two that preceded it:

Average Impact of Top-20 RSCI Recruits, 2006-2009
Freshman Class %Mins Played %Possessions Used OffensiveRating
2006-07 56.1 22.9 107.5
2007-08 72.0 25.9 109.4
2008-09 62.0 21.6 105.2
2009-10 52.0 20.4 101.3

I use kenpom.com's tempo-free stats -- percent of minutes played, percent of possessions used, and offensive rating -- because they're a more level evaluation tool across all of Division I than raw numbers are. For context, these were the '09-10 statistical profiles of the four upperclassmen on SI's preseason All-America team from last week:

SI's Preseason All-Americas' '09-10 Impact
Player, Team %Mins Played %Possessions Used OffensiveRating
Jimmer Fredette, BYU 77.9 26.3 118.8
Jacob Pullen, Kansas State 73.0 32.3 120.0
Kyle Singler, Duke 89.8 24.2 116.2
Nolan Smith, Duke 84.3 23.8 114.2

Now, here's what my database suggests a responsible fan can expect from recruits out of each top 100 rankings bracket in their true freshmen seasons (for reference with the Memphis players, Barton is No. 10 in the RSCI, Jackson is 16, and Black is 59):

Average Impact of RSCI Top-100 Recruits by Ranking Brackets, 2006-2009
RSCI Rank %Minutes Played %Possessions Used Offensive Rating
1-10s 68.7 24.6 109.0
11-20s 52.7 21.0 103.0
21-30s 44.5 21.5 102.1
31-40s 49.1 21.9 98.7
41-50s 42.0 19.7 98.0
51-60s 41.2 20.4 99.2
61-70s 30.5 17.9 100.9
71-80s 46.2 19.8 98.6
81-90s 35.0 19.6 97.8
91-100s 36.9 18.7 95.9

That means the following expectations should be considered UNreasonable:

• That anyone outside the top 20 will appear in more than half his team's minutes or be much higher than a point-per-possession player.

• That anyone outside the top 10 will use possessions at the rate of a "go-to" guy, or score with All-America-level efficiency.

From the database, I chose two "baseline" players for each rankings bracket -- guys whose stats were closest to the four-year production average. The point of the chart below: Be happy if your top-10 shooting guard (say, Barton) outperforms Xavier Henry's freshman numbers at Kansas (13.4 ppg, 27.5 mpg, 112.7 offensive rating), not Eric Gordon's freshman numbers at Indiana. Or be happy that your 59th-ranked power forward (say, Black) outperforms Rick Jackson's freshman numbers at Syracuse (3.7 points, 12.9 minutes, 98.5 offensive rating) rather than J.J. Hickson's freshman numbers at N.C. State.

"Baseline" Comparison Players for Each RSCI Bracket, 2006-2009
Group Year(Rk.) Player School Pos. %Mins %Poss ORating
Top 10s 2006(4) Spencer Hawes Washington BIG 69.2 24.9 108.6
2009(6) Xavier Henry Kansas WING 68.3 22.1 112.7
11-20s 2008(16) Kemba Walker UConn PG 61.5 20.0 106.8
2008(11) Scotty Hopson Tennessee WING 58.3 19.3 102.8
21-30s 2006(22) Duke Crews Tennessee BIG 49.0 22.7 101.8
2009(22) Jordan Hamilton Texas WING 49.2 23.8 105.7
31-40s 2006(34) Raymar Morgan Mich. St. WING 55.1 25.4 96.5
2009(39) Ari Stewart Wake Forest WING 41.7 22.4 94.8
41-50s 2007(47) JaJuan Johnson Purdue BIG 41.1 18.9 98.3
2008(50) Sean Mosley Maryland WING 48.5 18.5 93.6
51-60s 2006(55) Doug Wiggins UConn PG 44.0 21.6 99.9
2007(56) Rick Jackson Syracuse BIG 32.2 16.6 98.5
61-70s 2008(67) Markieff Morris Kansas BIG 38.9 19.3 97.3
2009(62) Kenny Hall Tennessee BIG 29.3 16.6 103.4
71-80s 2007(78) Jeremy Price Georgia BIG 53.6 21.8 97.4
2006(80) Adrian Oliver Washington PG 52.0 15.4 97.8
81-90s 2008(82) David Loubeau Texas A&M BIG 33.7 21.7 99.3
2008(88) Leonard Washington USC WING 38.2 19.5 106.1
91-100s 2008(98) Devoe Joseph Minnesota PG 41.6 20.7 87.2
2006(95) Jeremy Mayfield UAB BIG 41.1 19.5 86.7

In order to create bigger samples for identifying positional trends, I put players into one of three groups -- point guards, wings or bigs. The primary finding from this is how rapidly post players' impact drops off outside the top 10, 20, 30 and 40. The charts below show how minute percentage and possession-usage percentage flow by position through the top 100:

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I've focused on Memphis thus far because of its multitude of freshmen, but the lessons above are relevant for rookies all over the country. In a SI Preview Twitter chat on Wednesday, one of the questions I was asked was, "How long do we have to wait for Fab Melo to become a factor?"

Melo is Syracuse's 7-foot Brazilian freshman; he was ranked No. 14 in the RSCI for the Class of 2010. Through three games, he's averaging 15.3 minutes, 2.7 points and 2.7 rebounds -- figures that are below the baseline for 10-20-ranked recruits, and glaringly low for someone who Orange coach Jim Boeheim was touting as a potential Big East Freshman of the Year.

But the charts above show how low the odds are to find an immediate, high-impact big man outside the top 10. Melo would hardly be the first 10-30-ranked big underwhelm in Year 1. Only the small crew of hyper-elite bigs seem to be locks to produce at an award-worthy rate as freshmen. And who are those guys this year? One is Enes Kanter (RSCI: 7), who's been ruled ineligible at Kentucky; we're unlikely to be able to add any Kanter stats to the database next season. The other is Ohio State's Jared Sullinger (RSCI: 2), who just scored 26 points and grabbed 10 rebounds in a huge nonconference win over Florida on Tuesday.

Filing from that game, SI's Seth Davis wrote, "The most impressive aspect of Sullinger's performance was just how unimpressed he was by it." Ohio State, its fans, the punditry, and the database all expected Sullinger to be an instant force -- and apparently, so did he. It was a rare case where everyone was being realistic.

 
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