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Men's college hoops' top 10 freshmen: Sharife Cooper is climbing NBA draft boards

Krysten Peek
·11-min read

March is just around the corner and as expected, this freshmen class has been playing exceptionally well. LSU’s Cameron Thomas is second overall in points per game with 22.3 points — trailing Player of the Year front runner Luka Garza, who leads men’s college basketball with 26.4 points per game. Sharife Cooper has made a statement after sitting out 11 games due to eligibility issues. He’s averaging 21 points in seven games and is the fastest guard in the NCAA.

Here’s a look at Yahoo Sports’ top 10 freshmen and their NBA comparisons heading into the last month before postseason tournaments.

1. Cade Cunningham, Oklahoma State

18.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 3.8 apg

The potential No. 1 NBA draft pick had to sit out two games due to COVID-19 protocols and hadn’t played a game since an upset win over No. 6 Kansas on Jan. 12 when Cunningham finished with 18 points and seven rebounds. His first game back against Arkansas was everything you would expect from a top draft pick. The 6-foot-8 point guard was the floor general for the Pokes, dishing out five assists, grabbing seven boards and finishing with 21 points in a 81-77 win.

Cunningham ranks in the 94 percentile in iso situations and scores 1.28 points per possession, according to Synergy Sports. His only downfall is that he’s a little too unselfish at times and was trying to bully his way to the rim early in the season. In the last month, Cunningham is starting to take over games when he needs to and is using his change of speed to create separation and finish with a mid-range jumper instead of trying to get to the rim every time.

NBA comp: A mix between Jason Kidd and Grant Hill

2. Evan Mobley, USC

16.8 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 2.9 bpg

The Trojans lost dynamic rim protector Onyeka Okongwu to the NBA last year and gained an even better rim protector in Mobley. The California native is 7-foot with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and leads the Pac-12 in blocks (47) and rebounds (142).

Mobley was the only Pac-12 player and the only freshman named to the Naismith Defensive Player of the Year watchlist as the accolades for his impressive season continue to grow. Offensively he’s recorded seven double-doubles this year and is more advanced in the pick-and-pop situation than No. 2 pick James Wiseman and other one-and-done centers. Mobley is quietly dominating the Pac-12 as the best rim protector in this upcoming draft class.

NBA comp: Chris Bosh

USC's Evan Mobley blocks a shot by Oregon State's Ethan Thompson (5) on Jan. 28. (John McCoy/Getty Images)
USC's Evan Mobley blocks a shot by Oregon State's Ethan Thompson (5) on Jan. 28. (John McCoy/Getty Images)

3. Sharife Cooper, Auburn

21 ppg, 8.3 apg, 4.8 rpg

The hashtag #freerife started circulating on social media early in the college basketball season after Cooper’s eligibility was being reviewed by the NCAA. It took 11 games for the former five-star to finally hit the court and most NBA scouts didn’t know what to expect from the 6-foot point guard.

“Usually with freshmen there’s a learning curve to the speed and pace of the college game,” one NBA scout told Yahoo Sports. “With Cooper he looks like he’s been playing the college game for four years with how comfortable and confident he is on the court.”

Cooper has scored double figures in every game he’s played in and has been the high-scorer in half of Auburn’s games this season. He is the fastest point guard in college basketball and can change speed with ease once he gets in the lane.

In an upset win over No. 12 Missouri, Cooper got to the free throw line 11 times and finished with 28 points. The most impressive stat of his short season is that he’s averaging 8.1 assists per game. He doesn’t favor the right or left hand, making it hard for defenders to stay in front and is rated “excellent” (above 85%) in driving right and driving left on offense, according to Synergy Sports.

NBA comp: Collin Sexton

Auburn's Sharife Cooper drives to the basket in the second half against Arkansas on Jan. 20. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Auburn's Sharife Cooper drives to the basket in the second half against Arkansas on Jan. 20. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

4. Jalen Suggs, Gonzaga

13.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.5 apg

Suggs is the most consistent freshman point guard this season. He doesn’t have the size like Cunningham and isn’t as fast as Cooper, but he is the best passer in the open court thanks to his quarterback playing days in high school.

Gonzaga is the No. 1 team in the nation and a heavy favorite to make the Final Four in Indianapolis. Suggs joins a seasoned team led by sharpshooter Corey Kispert and returning power forward Drew Timme. Suggs came in right away and found his role, taking over games when needed — including a 27-point performance in a win over No. 3 Iowa — and taking a backseat when other players got hot.

“I think we have great team chemistry,” Suggs said after the Iowa win. “The guys really help me learn a lot and we all like each other so that definitely makes a difference.”

On the defensive side, Suggs leads the West Coast Conference in steals with 34 total and is also fifth in the conference in assists. The 6-foot-4 point guard has a solid all-around game and is a projected top-five draft pick.

NBA comp: Chris Paul

Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Jalen Suggs (1) shoots against Pepperdine during a game. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)
Gonzaga Bulldogs guard Jalen Suggs (1) shoots against Pepperdine during a game. (Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports)

5. Jalen Johnson, Duke

12.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 2.4 apg

Johnson sat out a month due to a foot injury he suffered in December. The initial ruling was that he would be out indefinitely but that all changed in early January. Johnson played limited minutes in his first game back but looked like his old self in his second game against Pitt, scoring 24 points (8-for-15 from the field) and grabbing 16 rebounds in 33 minutes in a win over Pitt.

This has been a disappointing season for Duke, which has gone 2-4 in the last month and are in the middle of the pack in the ACC. There was a spark of light when Johnson had arguably the best dunk of the year in transition against Clemson’s PJ Hall last Saturday. “I knew I was going to put him in the rim,” Johnson said after the game. “I had a head start and I figured I’d put him in the rim one time.”

NBA comp: Jayson Tatum

6. Moses Moody, Arkansas

16.4 ppg, 5.5 rpg

Head coach Eric Musselman doesn’t like to start freshmen players and Moody has started every single game this season. That speaks volumes to the type of player the 6-foot-6 guard is.

Moody played high school basketball on the most talented team in recent memory alongside potential first-round picks Cunningham, Scottie Barnes and Day’Ron Sharpe. Montverde Academy went undefeated and beat teams by an average of 30 points per game. Every starter on the team was 6-foot-6 or taller and they could have three lottery picks in this year’s draft.

Moody has put up consistent numbers this year, shooting 52% from the field and 36% from 3-point range. He’s leading the Razorbacks in scoring and is climbing up draft boards with his continued solid play in league action against a tough SEC.

NBA comp: Caris Levert

Arkansas' Moses Moody shoots a 3-point shot during a game against Missouri on Jan. 02, 2021 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)
Arkansas' Moses Moody shoots a 3-point shot during a game against Missouri on Jan. 02, 2021 in Fayetteville, Arkansas. (Wesley Hitt/Getty Images)

7. Cameron Thomas, LSU

22.3 ppg, 2.6 rpg

Thomas came in this year with something to prove after being snubbed as a McDonald’s All American — something that is incomprehensible when you look at what he did at the high school level. He’s the all-time leading scorer with 2,219 points at powerhouse Oak Hill Academy, where stars like Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony, Rajon Rondo, Brandon Jennings and rookie Cole Anthony all played.

Thomas joined a veteran LSU team with Javonte Smart and Trendon Watford, but early in the season it was Thomas who looked like the star player on the team. The 6-foot-4 guard is the leading scorer in the SEC and is averaging 22.3 points per game. He needs to get more consistent from the 3-point line — shooting just 28.3% from deep.

One thing he doesn’t lack is confidence, letting his shots fly from all over the court. Thomas has shot 10 or more 3-pointers in four games this season.

NBA comp: Lou Williams

LSU's Cameron Thomas (24) shoots a 3-pointer while being guarded by Kentucky's Brandon Boston Jr. (3) during the second half of a game at Rupp Arena. (Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)
LSU's Cameron Thomas (24) shoots a 3-pointer while being guarded by Kentucky's Brandon Boston Jr. (3) during the second half of a game at Rupp Arena. (Arden Barnes-USA TODAY Sports)

8. Scottie Barnes, Florida State

10.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 4.1 apg

Barnes is a 6-foot-9, 227-pound point-forward for the Seminoles this year. Ninety percent of the time it’s Barnes bringing up the ball to start the offense and Barnes at the top of the key with his 7-foot-2 wingspan guarding the perimeter.

No other freshman fits the position-less basketball mold quite like Barnes does. He has the footwork and speed to stay in front of guards who are smaller and quicker than him, the length to defend the wing and the size to drop down and bang in the post.

What NBA scouts love most about his game is his passing. “Anytime you have a player that size who sees the court well and can create for others, it’s going to translate well to the NBA,” one NBA executive told Yahoo Sports.

NBA comp: Jabari Parker with better ball handling

Scottie Barnes (4) of Florida State and Samuell Williamson (10) of Louisville battle for a loose ball during a game on Jan. 18, 2021. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Scottie Barnes (4) of Florida State and Samuell Williamson (10) of Louisville battle for a loose ball during a game on Jan. 18, 2021. (Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

9. Josh Christopher, Arizona State

15.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg

Arizona State was an early favorite to win the Pac-12 and make a deep run in the tournament. Point guard Remy Martin hasn’t played nearly as well as expected and an early injury to freshman Marcus Bagley set off a string of losses.

Christopher has been the player NBA scouts expected him to be — tenacious on defense and dangerous in the open court. He ranks in the 91st percentile in transition, scoring 1.4 points per possession.

Christopher is the second-leading freshman scorer in the Pac-12, averaging 15.3 points per game. He also excels in drawing the defender in pick-and-roll situations with the defender hedging or doubling 98% of the time. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard needs to work on his passing, averaging just 1.5 assists per game.

NBA comp: Nick Young

Arizona State guard Josh Christopher (13) dunks against Houston Baptist during a game. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)
Arizona State guard Josh Christopher (13) dunks against Houston Baptist during a game. (Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports)

10. Greg Brown, Texas

11.9 ppg, 8 rpg

Brown fits the mold of past players Shaka Smart has recruited in the frontcourt. He’s 6-foot-9 with a high motor and plays above the rim. Brown is averaging one rebound every 2.68 minutes this season. By comparison, here are other recent Longhorns who went on to be successful in the NBA: Mo Bamba, one rebound every 2.87 minutes; LaMarcus Aldridge, 3.39 minutes; and Jarrett Allen, 3.82 minutes.

Anything under three minutes is extremely impressive and shows just how athletic Brown is. He needs to show some more consistency from the 3-point line — making only 17 out of 56 attempts — but he’s made tremendous strides defensively and is a key part to the most athletic frontcourt in the country playing alongside Kai Jones and Jericho Sims.

NBA Comp: Aaron Gordon

Texas Longhorns forward Greg Brown III (4) makes reverse layup against Indiana during the first half of a game on Nov. 30, 2020. (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)
Texas Longhorns forward Greg Brown III (4) makes reverse layup against Indiana during the first half of a game on Nov. 30, 2020. (Brian Spurlock/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Honorable mention:

Ziaire Williams, Stanford

Jalen Wilson, Kansas

B.J. Boston, Kentucky

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