How have America's top freshmen progressed throughout the season?
Not every elite freshman scores at an elite level right out of the gate
Baylor's Perry Jones and UNC's Harrison Barnes are significantly trending upward
Ohio State's Jared Sullinger has been a steady force from the season's opening tip
The Harrison Barnes Story has moved past its awkward stage -- him struggling at North Carolina after being named preseason first-team All-America, various coaches and pundits blaming it on the media, others blaming it on Larry Drew II not getting Barnes the ball -- and into its feel-good stage. The kid from Ames, Iowa, had a less-than-fantastic first two months of his freshman campaign, but he is trending upward heading into his first (and perhaps last) visit to Cameron Indoor Stadium. A virtuoso performance on Wednesday night at Duke will make everyone forget about that underwhelming November and December.
Not every elite freshman scores at an elite level right out of the gate. Last year's eventual No. 1 NBA draft pick, Kentucky's John Wall, was an immediate star on offense, but the guy selected two spots after him, Georgia Tech's Derrick Favors, took until late February to truly hit his scoring stride. Thus far this season we've done two freshman studies: one on realistic expectations for freshmen based on RSCI rankings, and another on freshmen success as it relates to the concept of "fit." Here, we'll look at offensive progress, or how top freshmen's offensive roles (by percentage of team points scored) change over time.
To visualize the progression of five of the top rookies from the Class of 2009, I plotted their per-game scoring percentage numbers in Excel and then generated trendlines from that data. I chose four players who went on to be lottery picks (Wall and Favors, as well as Kentucky's DeMarcus Cousins and Kansas' Xavier Henry) and one sleeper who passed on the draft (San Diego State's Kawhi Leonard). The results:
The UK duo of Wall and Cousins started out with major offensive roles and merely maintained them over time, with Wall's trendline coming out almost perfectly flat over the 37-game season. Favors' upward trending was second only to that of Leonard's, which is typical to that of a sleeper prospect who has to earn his starring role rather than be handed it from Day 1. Henry became less of a factor for the Jayhawks once Big 12 play started, with Sherron Collins talking the bulk of KU's shots and Marcus Morris emerging as a high-efficiency star.
Two years prior, in what was the Year of the Freshman, Kansas State's Michael Beasley, Oklahoma's Blake Griffin and Memphis' Derrick Rose pushed their way into bigger and bigger scoring roles as the season unfolded. Beasley, amazingly, started the year with a 30-percent role and then progressed toward 40. (Note that the scale of the graph below had to be expanded from the '09 version to fit Beasley's numbers.) Indiana's Eric Gordon was the only elite scorer to decline, in part because of a wrist injury that nagged him through the Big Ten season:
The Class of 2010 has three stars with significant upward trends in their scoring percentages. (See the next graph.) One is Barnes, who has taken on the bulk of the Tar Heels' scoring duties during their rise back into the AP Top 25. Progressing at an even sharper rate is Baylor's Perry Jones III, who has also surpassed Barnes in most 2010 mock drafts, and has a chance to go No. 1 overall. Jones' trendline is close to that of Leonard's from '09, and suggests the Bears' phenom could be ready to have a major March. The Beasley of the 2010 class -- strong start, continued role expansion -- is Jared Sullinger, on whom Ohio State has relied more and more during conference play. Because the Buckeyes have such a strong, veteran supporting cast, Sullinger's scoring share isn't near what Beasley's was in '07-08, but OSU's power forward is likely to make a much bigger impact on the national title race.
Fellow national title contender Texas relies on a sophomore, swingman Jordan Hamilton, to be its scoring star. But the 'Horns have gradually ceded bigger scoring roles to their two elite, Canadian freshmen, power forward Tristan Thompson and combo guard Cory Joseph:
Texas' defense has carried it to first place in the Big 12, but its offense is creeping toward elite status as well, and will only get there if Thompson and Joseph are consistent threats to score when opponents key on Hamilton. The rookies' trendlines suggest they're making steady progress.
Can the same be said for the two freshmen starters at Kentucky, hybrid forward Terrence Jones and point guard Brandon Knight? The chart below plots out the Wildcats, as well as the 1-2 punch at Memphis, point guard Joe Jackson and two-guard Will Barton. What the duos have in common is a criss-crossing pattern: Jones and Knight, as well as Barton and Jackson, have trendlines heading in opposite directions:
Barton's sharp growth into a reliable, double-digit scorer should help Memphis battle for the Conference USA's automatic bid after failing to pick up a top-50 RPI win outside the league. Kentucky's Jones, like Wall in '09-10, started out at an elite level. But the four-man from Portland, Ore., has been slumping in his past six SEC games, resulting in a downward trendline. He doesn't have to be the Wildcats' sole scorer -- Knight, Darius Miller and Doron Lamb are capable, too -- but when Jones is properly exploiting mismatches and taking quality shots on the interior, he tends to post big numbers. His November was vastly superior to Barnes', but that no longer matters: It's hard to envision UK making a deep tournament run unless Jones corrects his trajectory.