Freshmen are at the head of the class this season

UCLA guard Lonzo Ball, front, picks up a loose ball as Colorado guard Deleon Brown pursues during the first half of an NCAA college basketball game late Thursday, Jan. 12, 2017, in Boulder, Colo. (AP Photo/David Zalubowski)
UCLA guard Lonzo Ball is a difference-maker.

The oddities of genetics can be baffling. There is no plausible reason why this year’s freshman class of basketball players seems to exceed any others in memory.

Teachers see this from year to year. Entire classes are smarter or better-mannered, the entire group different from the one the year before. It can be the same with athletic talent.

Draft Express, a website specializing in the NBA Draft, projects that 10 of the first 12 picks this year will be players who are freshmen in college. One of the others is an 18-year-old from France, Frank Ntilikina. It’s an amazing group.


The preseason hype about which ones stood out above the rest has proven to be fairly accurate. The best ones are Lonzo Ball and T.J. Leaf of UCLA, Malik Monk and D’Aaron Fox of Kentucky, Josh Jackson of Kansas, Markelle Fultz of Washington, and Dennis Smith of North Carolina State.

Get Sports Headlines in your inbox:
The most recent sports headlines delivered to your inbox every morning.
Thank you for signing up! Sign up for more newsletters here

Ball, to me, is the biggest difference-maker. He is second in the nation in assists at 8.0, and makes all of his teammates better without having to constantly have the ball in his hands. You can clearly see the difference when he is out of the game; the Bruins slip quite a bit.

The others are almost as good: Leaf with well-honed fundamentals; Monk a natural and sometimes unstoppable scorer; Fox as quick a player as I’ve ever seen; Jackson with a great basketball IQ, especially defensively; Fultz with the ability to control games with his ballhandling and scoring; and Smith, who can affect the game in many different ways.

Duke has a talented trio in Jayson Tatum, Frank Jackson, and Harry Giles. Giles at one time was seen as the possible overall No. 1 pick, but knee surgery has slowed him.

The amazing thing is that they are not the only ones. A night doesn’t go by without a freshman with obvious talent flashing across my TV screen — players such as Zach Collins of Gonzaga, Payton Pritchard of Oregon, Maryland’s Anthony Cowan and Justin Jackson, and a Sully’s Court favorite, Virginia’s Kyle Guy.


There’s also Harvard’s Bryce Aiken and Chris Lewis, and even Boston College’s Ky Bowman.

They’re all really good. But one word of caution to Celtics fans: None of them is LeBron James, so that Nets pick isn’t going to put an instant All-Star in your lineup. Chances are, the Celtics will get a really talented player who could eventually be an All-Star.

Games I’d like to see this weekend (with freshman mentions where appropriate):


Syracuse at Notre Dame: The Orange have improved immensely since losing at BC. Their confounding 2-3 zone seems to be bothering teams again (despite a loss at North Carolina). ND is an outstanding passing team and will need all of its skill if the Orange continue to play the zone as well as they have.

Louisville at Florida State: As far as I’m concerned, Florida State is going to win the rest of its home games, even against a good defensive opponent like the Cardinals. Florida State freshman Jonathan Isaac is really mobile for a big man.


Marquette at Creighton: The Bluejays have lost stellar point guard Maurice Watson Jr. for the season with a torn ACL. Let’s see how they adapt against a decent opponent. Creighton’s Justin Patton is a 7-foot redshirt freshman who has come out of nowhere to be a key contributor.

Michigan State at Indiana: Sparty’s season has been adversely affected by injuries. Indy’s season has been adversely affected by disappointing play. Pick your poison. Michigan State freshman Miles Bridges was hyped preseason but has been slowed by injuries.

Arizona at UCLA: This will be a good test for the Bruins. Here’s the scary news for opponents: On a telecast last week, Bill Raftery said he thinks they’re getting better defensively.

Wisconsin at Minnesota: The Badgers were lucky to beat Michigan at home, but I’m not sure the young Gophers are capable of enough consistent play to win this. Minnesota freshman Amir Coffey is 6-8, mobile, and aggressive; his potential is unlimited.

South Carolina at Kentucky: Coach Cal is really earning his money. Did you see the move he made the other night when things got a little tight at Mississippi State? He turned to freshman point guard Fox and gave him some simple instructions. ‘‘We just said, ‘Here you go, De’Aaron, go and do your thing,’ ’’ Calipari said. Did he get that from John Wooden? There are so many good freshmen, Cal couldn’t get them all. He does have two really good ones in Fox and Monk, plus big man Bam Adebayo also will be a first-round NBA pick.

West Virginia at Kansas State: Both teams are coming off surprising games. West Virginia lost at home to Oklahoma while Kansas State won at Oklahoma State. That makes this a tough call.

Baylor at TCU: This could be another landmark victory for overachieving TCU.


George Mason at Richmond: Both teams are playing above projections. Mason guard Marquise Moore has to be seen to be believed. At 6-2, he is averaging 10.8 rebounds (10th in the nation) plus 18.1 ppg and 3.8 apg. He could be the A10 Player of the Year.

La Salle at VCU: The Explorers are a bunch of renegade transfers who have suddenly meshed. Meanwhile, VCU is coming off a home loss to Fordham. A10 is weird.

Siena at Manhattan: Just to get a chance to see what Siena coach Jimmy Patsos (a Sully’s Court favorite) will do. A few years ago at BC, he left his bench and went up into the stands when he was unhappy with the officiating. Earlier this week, Siena and Rider got into a shoving match that resulted in ejections. Rider coach Kevin Baggett was so incensed that he and his team did not shake hands with opponents after the game. Undeterred, Patsos walked along the sidelines pretending to shake hands with people. Check out the video and story on the Albany Times-Union site.

Joe Sullivan can be reached at Follow him on Twitter @GlobeSullivan