A little over a month into the season, Joe Jackson gives 5 freshman that he has enjoyed watching in the Big Ten.
It feels like there is a ton of talented freshman in the Big Ten this season, and more are getting significant minutes than ever. Purdue’s starting backcourt are both freshman, Illinois has a trio of freshman guards they rely on, Indiana is starting a freshman guard, and Michigan has a freshman that could be a first round pick, just to name a few.
What I want to do here is highlight 5 freshman that have stood out to me and that I have enjoyed watching. Before anyone gets mad, these are not who I think have been the five “best” freshman, although I do think a couple on this list will end up on the Big Ten Freshman Team. These are 5 freshman that I have just really enjoyed watching. There will be one of these every few weeks, so if your favorite freshman does not end up on this one, they may end up on another one.
Side note – These stats are accurate as of December 21st.
In no particular order, let’s get into the first freshman.
Connor Essegian – Wisconsin
Essegian has been one of the best shooters in the Big Ten. He is currently 24/52 from 3, good for 46.2%. On the season he is averaging 10.6 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.0 assists per game. He also has not missed a free throw yet.
He has provided something that Wisconsin has lacked this season, movement shooting. Chucky Hepburn has been on fire from 3, but a lot of his shots are self created or standstill. Both are super important, but he is not going to be running off screens to catch and shoot.
Max Klesmit has done it some, but the volume has not been there as he is averaging 1 make on 2.5 attempts per game.
Essegian has been such a huge boost off the ball. He has the ability to run off multiple screens, get set quickly, and get the shot up over a closing defense. Per Synergy Sports, Essegian has taken 48 catch and shoot attempts this season and has a 1.354 PPP on those, good for the 87th percentile. It does not matter if he is contested or open, he has been knocking down shots.
So far, he has been better off movement than stand still. He has taken 29 jumpers when being standstill, and he has averaged 1.103 PPP. He has taken 21 shots while running off screens, and he has averaged 1.333 PPP, a big increase.
This clip above shows Essegian curling off a big after passing. He then sets a cross screen as decoy for Wahl to go to the opposite block, and then Essegian immediately gets a down screen for an open three.
He has such a quick release that it is tough for any defense to recover against him. He also has the capability of not needing to be fully on balance in order to be in rhythm.
He has also shown that he can play in crunch time. The closing lineup for Wisconsin as of late has often featured Essegian paired with Hepburn and Klesmit in the backcourt. He plays an undersized 3, but his movement on offense allows him to burn defenses with movement.
Essegian is also one of those players that seems to thrive in crunch time. He had a career high 17 points against Kansas, and he hit a couple big shots late in regulation to help force OT. There is a swagger to him that is not teachable. There are a ton of great freshman in the Big Ten, but I would not be shocked to see Essegian get on the Big Ten Freshman Team at the end of the season.
As teams gets better scouting reports on Essegian, they are going to try and force him to the rim. It will be interesting to see whether he can add that development to his game.
Fletcher Loyer – Purdue
If the season ended today, Loyer is either #1 or #2 for the Big Ten Freshman of the Year. He has won freshman of the week twice, and there is an argument that he should’ve been awarded a third.
He is averaging 13.2 points, 2.9 assists, and only 0.76 turnovers per game. He has been able to score in a multitude of ways, highlighted by a career high 22 points against Nebraska. Purdue struggled offensively, and in his first road Big Ten game, Loyer took over. He hit multiple pull ups and got to the rim too.
Loyer came into Purdue known as a shooter. What is funny is he has honestly struggled shooting the ball. He is 23/72 from 3 which is 31.9 percent. That number is going to rise for the reigning high school 3 point contest champion.
Although his shot has not fallen, he has shown that he can score in multiple ways. Purdue loves running “Chicago” action, which is a pindown directly into a handoff. He then can shoot, get a pull up, get to the rim, or dish to someone else.
This clip above shows Loyer in that Chicago action. He gets the handoff and takes off, dunking over Nebraska. It was shocking and a heck of a first dunk in college.
He also has really excelled moving without the ball. He puts himself in position to be able to score. Teams have really tried taken away the 3 ball from him, and he has countered with attacking closeouts hard. Whether it is a pull up, which he is 8/21 from 3 on pull up 3s, or getting to the rim, Loyer is fearless.
The clip above highlights both of those points. Loyer lifts from the corner to the top of the key, putting himself in position to get the ball. Once he does, Nebraska closed out hard, and Loyer attacked it. He got to the push shot and had a nice finish through contact.
He has also been one of the better passers on the team, and he may be the best post entry passer on the team. That may not seem like a big deal, but watch college players try throwing the ball into the post. It isn’t always great.
I think these following stats really exemplify Loyer’s ability to pass and control the ball, something I had questions about coming into the season. He has the second highest usage percentage on the team, meaning he takes up the second most possessions while on the court for Purdue. He is third on the team in assists rate. He assists on 21% of Purdue’s scores while on the floor, so he is creating plays for others in addition to himself. He has the lowest turnover percentage on the team, and one of the best in the entire country. So although he has had the ball a lot, he is consistently making good decisions.
Pharrel Payne – Minnesota
It has not been a great start to the season for Minnesota as they are the only Big Ten teams with a season long record that is below .500. However, I think they do have a really bright spot in freshman big man Pharrel Payne.
He is currently averaging 8.1 points, 5.4 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks per game while shooting 72.5% from 2. He’s scoring, rebounding, and blocking shots. What else do you want from a freshman big man.
Per Kenpom, Payne has an offensive rebound percent of 8.7 and a defensive rebound percent of 17.9. Both qualify him to be ranked nationally.
Payne has also protected the rim very well. He has a block percentage of 6.1, which is the 113th best in the country. He had 4 blocks against Purdue.
Payne did a good job in the clip above of being physical with Reed, another freshman, and timing up the jump well. He bodied with Reed and then was able to meet him up top to block the shot. The instincts and physicality seem to be there.
He is somewhat raw on the offensive end. He has struggled posting up, but I think that will come with time. He has been pretty good as a roll man, averaging 1.2 points per possession on rolls per Synergy Sports. Part of that is thanks to Ta’Lon Cooper who has been one of the best facilitators in the conference.
There is not a ton of action run for Payne, but he knows how to set himself up for success.
In the clip above, Samuels dribbles into a handoff with Battle. Battle drives and finds Payne positioned in the dunker spot. Payne is able to get the and-1, finishing through the contact with Dickinson.
That was not anything self created, but he was still able to get a good bucket, and that has helped him start the season 37/51 from 2.
One area he will need to improve is free throw shooting as he is 15/33 from the line so far.
Jett Howard – Michigan
No freshman had a bigger opening splash than Jett Howard. He had 21 points and 5 assists in Michigan’s opening game against Purdue Fort Wayne. Some of the shots he has hit have been super tough.
Howard is averaging 15.5 points, 2.5 assists, and 2.4 rebounds per game. He is 26/65 from 3 (40%) and 27/43 from 2 (62.8%).
Howard has had confidence from day one in his shot. He has taken (and made) some tough movement 3s. At 6’8, it is tougher for defenses to contest his shot, especially when he is moving. Per Synergy Sports, he is averaging 1.556 PPP in transiton, 1.224 PPP on catch and shoot attempts, and 1.286 PPP on pull ups.
He has the ability to shoot on the run, self create, or shoot of off a standstill shot. Defenses have to be ready for all of it which makes him super tough to game plan against. If a team sells out on the 3, Howard is willing to put the ball on the ground and get to the paint. If defenses leave him open, he is going to knock down the shot.
In the clip above, Michigan has a baseline out of bounds play. Howard comes off of two screens, and his man goes under, but he recovered very well. Howard is a couple feet behind the line with a tight closeout from Virginia. It didn’t matter though. Howard has so much confidence in his shot that once he was open a little bit, it was going to be put up. And he has the talent to match.
He has also done a really good job not turning over the ball. He only has 10 turnovers on the season, and a turnover rate of 8.7%.
One area that will need to improve for him is the defense. He has gotten beat off ball on defense much more than he should so far this season.
Derek Simpson – Rutgers
He is the freshman on the list that the production has not been consistent, but the flashes have been awesome.
Simpson is averaging 7.6 points, 1.7 assists, and 1.2 steals per game in 22.5 minutes. He has not had great efficiency however. He is shooting 33.3% from 3 and 36.2% from 2. Obviously, I would like to see those numbers go up.
No matter what though, I can’t deny some of the flashes that Simpson has shown. He is going to get Geo Baker comparisons because of wearing number 0, but they really are pretty accurate. Simpson is another guy that can really create his shot. He has good athleticism and solid defensive instincts.
For example, Simpson went on a personal 7-0 run against Indiana. That run really broke the game open and allowed Rutgers to pull the upset.
He has self creation juice that has been really needed for a Rutgers team that has struggled to score the ball.
This clip above was part of the 7-0 run Simpson had by himself. Ball gets swung around to Simpson on the wing and he gets to a sick step back 2. He has shown he can create his own shots, and he can do it when Rutgers needs it.
He is also pretty athletic and solid on defense.
In the clip above, Simpson is able to read the pass and get the steal. He then shows off a little bounce on the other end with the fastbreak slam.
Simpson is far from a finished progress, and I hope to see the facilitating take a jump at some point. He has been just really fun for me to watch, and I always keep an eye out for him when I watch Rutgers.
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[…] If you’re favorite didn’t make this list, go check out part 1 here. […]