College basketball primer: Which freshman will fill the Zion-sized hole this season?

Zion Williamson of the Duke Blue Devils reacts after his team's 68-67 loss to the Michigan State Spartans in the 2019 NCAA basketball tournament. (Getty)

It’s been a year since most basketball fans were all introduced to Zion Williamson and he took over the entire sport. His dunks were featured on “SportsCenter” every night and he was so unbelievably popular that Jay Bilas and Dan Shulman once mentioned his name 76 times in one half of basketball. (It’s true, I actually counted).

With a fresh batch of newcomers arriving on the scene, we take a look at a group of freshman players that could fill the Zion void this college basketball season.

James Wiseman (Memphis), 7-foot-1

New Memphis coach Penny Hardaway and assistant Mike Miller got it done last year, bringing in a No. 1 recruiting class full of talent. Leading the way is the projected No. 1 NBA draft pick, James Wiseman. Wiseman isn’t NBA ready and isn’t as showy as Williamson but there will be plays this season that will have fans shaking their heads wondering how he did that. The other freshman on the team to keep an eye on is high-flying forward Precious Achiuwa, as well as point guard Boogie Ellis, who might be the best 3-point shooting point guard in college basketball this season. Damion Baugh is a potential one-and-done, as are Lester Quinones and DJ Jeffries. Memphis is a must-watch team this year and could make a deep run in the tournament in March.

Isaiah Stewart (Washington), 6-foot-9

There might not be a single big man in the Pac-12 that’s going to be able to stop Isaiah Stewart in the post this year, leading to easy buckets and probably a few posters because there will be players dumb enough to jump with him. Stewart is built like a brick and runs the floor with ease for a player his size.

Cassius Stanley (Duke), 6-foot-6

If you want a direct comparison from Williamson’s former team, Stanley is it. He recently broke the vertical jump record of 46 inches at Duke, which was set by Williamson last year and his dunks in transition are ridiculous. With Tre Jones’ defense in the backcourt, expect some easy buckets for Stanley that are sure to go viral.

Kahlil Whitney (Kentucky), 6-foot-6

This is the first introduction I had to Whitney walking through a gym at an AAU tournament when he was a junior in high school.

That was two years ago and Whitney has gotten stronger and more confident around the rim. Playing on a Kentucky team that’ll will get a lot of TV time, Whitney’s name is one you’ll hear a lot this season and he will no doubt have some jaw-dropping plays.

Scottie Lewis (Florida), 6-foot-5

Lewis came in second place at the McDonald’s All-American dunk contest last year thanks to Fran Belibi, but he did do a windmill dunk jumping over three people, so there’s that.

Arguably one of the best defenders in college hoops, Lewis gets it done on both ends of the floor with his crazy athleticism and grit for the game. Florida’s entire team will be fun to watch, with freshman Tre Mann at the point, Andrew Nembhard, Keyontae Johnson, Omar Payne and grad transfer Kerry Blackshear Jr.

Top freshman guards:

Anthony Edwards (Georgia), 6-foot-5

Edwards is a projected top-three draft pick and his game reminds me of De’Aaron Fox. His step-back 3-pointer is nothing short of perfection and he finishes with ease in the lane. Anthony was one of the most exciting players to cover in high school and could be the hometown hero Tom Crean and the Bulldogs need this year.

Cole Anthony (North Carolina), 6-foot-3

The son of former NBA player Greg Anthony, Cole will be the main attraction at UNC this year. Anthony is a slasher in the lane and won MVP honors at the McDonald’s All-American game and Nike’s Hoop Summit.

Tyrese Maxey (Kentucky), 6-foot-3

Kentucky has struggled from behind the three the last couple seasons but that will all change this year with the addition of Maxey. The combo guard from Texas has one of the smoothest jumpers in the college game and will let it fly from all over the court.

Nico Mannion (Arizona), 6-foot-3

The international duo in Tucson have already been playing together for over three years so expect great chemistry in the backcourt early on. Mannion, born in Italy, and Quade Green (see below), from Australia, will be the main attraction at Arizona this year and could be the toughest guard combo in college basketball.

Josiah James (Tennessee), 6-foot-6

James, who’s considered the Vols’ first one-and-done player under Rick Barnes, chose Tennessee over blue-blood powerhouse Duke. The skilled lefty has great size for a combo guard and is able to back opponents down in the post for easy turnaround jumpers. James will have a great test early on Nov. 16 against Washington where he’ll match up with Jamal Bey and potential lottery pick Jaden McDaniels.

Top freshman forwards:

Trendon Watford (LSU), 6-foot-9

After losing Naz Reid to the draft, Watford was a must-get player for Will Wade. The Alabama native chose LSU over Memphis and Kentucky and will be putting on a show every game alongside sophomore forward Emmitt Williams. Watford dunks with authority, is aggressive in the lane and is a projected late lottery pick this year.

Jaden McDaniels (Washington), 6-foot-9

McDaniels came on the scene late in his junior year of high school and almost overnight every top school was involved. A long wing with a Kevin Durant-type build, McDaniels is still improving and his ceiling as a prospect is extremely high. His game extends past the 3-point line and he can defend perimeter players with his 6-foot-11 wingspan.

Patrick Williams (FSU), 6-foot-8

There aren’t a lot of flaws to Williams’ game. He’s one of those players that does all the little things perfectly. You could be watching him play and look at his stat line and out of nowhere he has 30 points. He’s a solid shooter from distance for a big and has a great mid-range game.

Vernon Carey Jr. (Duke), 6-foot-10

The big man from Florida chose the Blue Devils over Miami and Michigan State in a recruiting battle that had one team rolling four coaches deep to his little brother’s 14U AAU game. Carey does everything you want as a center. He’s tough on the block, aggressive, rebounds and he makes the right pass out of double teams.

N'Faly Dante (Oregon), 6-foot-10

Dante reclassified and committed to Oregon late this summer after his AAU season was complete. Even though he’s technically a high school senior, Dante will be an instant impact player for the Ducks. At nearly 7-foot, Dante is one of the best rim protectors out there and he’s a point guard’s dream in a set pick-and-roll offense.

Upperclassmen:

Keyontae Johnson (Florida) and Kerry Blackshear Jr. (Florida)

Johnson has always been a player who’s been underrated even dating back to high school. He’s so bouncy and has put on some muscle mass since his freshman year at Florida and with the players around him this year, all signs point to a big year for Johnson. Blackshear Jr. was one of the most sought-after grad transfers this past spring after leaving Virginia Tech and chose Florida over Kentucky and Texas A&M. He scored more than 1,000 points, grabbed 600 boards and averaged 15 points per game during his last season at Virginia Tech. This Florida frontcourt is going to be fun to watch this season.

Quade Green (Washington), 6-foot

The Kentucky transfer had to sit out the second half of last year and was just cleared by the NCAA to play immediately this season. A former McDonald’s All-American, look for Green to lead the Huskies to another Pac-12 title this year.

Obi Toppin (Dayton), 6-foot-9

Toppin led the Flyers in scoring last year with 14.4 points per game and he’s grown six inches since high school. His length and athleticism make him one of the most fun players to watch this season.

Udoka Azubuike (Kansas), 7-foot

After sitting out most of last season with a hand injury, Azubuike’s senior season is set to be a good one. The 7-footer’s shooting percentage was over 70 percent his sophomore and junior year. With Kansas getting Silvio De Sousa back this season too, the Jayhawks will be a tough team to beat in the post.

Jordan Nwora (Louisville), 6-foot-7

Nwora was named the ACC’s most improved player last year and averaged 17 points per game as a sophomore. He’s dangerous in transition and can knock it down from deep. Expect Nwora to split minutes with freshman Samuell Williamson, who is projected to have a breakout year as well.

Bonus:

Shareef O’Neal (UCLA), 6-foot-9

We’re all super curious to see how O’Neal does this year at UCLA after redshirting last year and having open-heart surgery. If his preseason workout videos are any indication, he looks stronger and more motivated to play then he did in high school. The son of Shaquille O’Neal, Shareef is more of a finesse player with a pretty good jumper extended to the 3-point line.

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