If Anthony Bennett goes on to win national freshman of the year honors and muscles his way into the overall player of the year race, the UNLV freshman's performance against Cal on Sunday may be remembered as his launching point.
Bennett had scored in double figures and made an impact on the glass in all seven of the Rebels' previous games, but the 6-foot-8 forward saved his best for a one-point UNLV victory on a national stage. He scored 25 points on 9 of 17 shooting, grabbed 13 rebounds and played solid interior defense, establishing himself as a potential future first-round draft pick next June.
"We know Anthony's going to have a long career at the next level," Dave Rice told the Las Vegas Review-Journal Sunday night. "We're just happy he's here with us as long as he's here."
What's particularly impressive about Bennett is he pairs light feet and soft touch with a powerful frame. He showcased that repeatedly down the stretch against Cal, following a soaring baseline jam with a smooth 12-footer from the opposite side of the floor.
With Mike Moser sidelined for a minimum of a few weeks with a dislocated right elbow and Khem Birch likely needing some time to integrate himself into the frontcourt rotation, UNLV needs Bennett to continue to play at a high level. He has averaged 19.5 points per game so far this season, most among freshmen nationally.
In this one-and-done era of college basketball, it should come as no surprise Bennett isn't the only freshman performing at a high level five weeks into the season. Here's a look at some other freshmen standouts thus far:
First team all-freshman team:
G Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
G Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke
F Ben McLemore, Kansas
F Anthony Bennett, UNLV
F Nerlens Noel, Kentucky
Second team all-freshman team:
Third team all-freshman team:
G Semaj Christon, Xavier
G Jordan Adams, UCLA
G Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA
F T.J. Warren, NC State
F Josh Scott, Colorado
Best shooter: Nik Stauskas, G, Michigan
If Stauskas isn't already the premier shooter in the nation, he at the very least is the best among all freshmen. The 6-foot-6 shooting guard has made 26 of 38 3-pointers and 26 of 29 free throws so far this season, helping him average 13.6 points per game, lead Michigan to an undefeated start and unseat senior Matt Vogrich in the Wolverines' starting lineup. (Others: Grant Mullins, Columbia; Sam Dekker, Wisconsin; Kellen Dunham, Butler)
Best playmaker: Semaj Christon, G, Xavier
With Tu Holloway having graduated and Mark Lyons having transferred, Xavier needed Christon to not only start right away at point guard but also be ready to make an impact. The 6-3 freshman has delivered, scoring an efficient 15.8 points per game and dishing out 5.4 assists (third among freshmen nationally) to help the Musketeers to a 7-2 start in what appeared to be a rebuilding season. (Others: Jahii Carson, Arizona State; Yogi Ferrell, Indiana; Siyani Chambers, Harvard)
Best shot blocker Chris Obekpa, F/C, St. John's
What's amazing about Obekpa's ability to block or alter shots near the rim is he does it without the benefit of amazing size for a big man. The 6-foot-9 freshman used timing and instinct to shatter his own single-game St. John's blocks record with 11 against Fordham on Saturday, upping his average to 4.9 per game, third most in the nation. That has helped him earn 24.4 minutes per game even though his offense is still very raw. (Others: Nerlens Noel, Kentucky)
Best defender: Nerlens Noel, F, Kentucky
There are very few more complete defensive players in the nation in any class than Noel, who may not be quite the intimidating shot blocker Anthony Davis was yet still impacts a game in numerous ways. The 6-foot-10 forward has parlayed his unique combination of imposing size, impressive athleticism and relentless effort into a great stat line so far this season, averaging 9.0 rebounds, 3.6 blocks and 2.7 steals. (Others: Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State; Chris Obekpa, St. John's)
Best mid-major freshman: Siyani Chambers, G, Harvard
Expected to be an understudy at point guard to senior co-captain Brandyn Curry this year, Chambers instead became the instant starter after Curry had to leave the program for the school year as a result of a cheating scandal involving 75 students. Chambers has not only stepped into Curry's spot but also exceeded his production, averaging 11.5 points and five assists while shooting 93.8 percent from the free throw line. (Others: Lester Wilson, East Tennessee State; Michael Kessens, Longwood; John Brown, High Point)
I'd buy a ticket to watch: Jahii Carson, G, Arizona State
The high-flying Carson has brought pace and pizazz to a Sun Devils program lacking in both of those areas in recent years. The 5-foot-10 freshman has been worth the wait after sitting out last year as a result of academic issues, averaging 18.6 points, 5.4 assists and 37.9 percent 3-point shooting to help lead Arizona State to a surprising 7-1 start that includes a solid neutral-court win over Arkansas. (Others: Anthony Bennett, UNLV; Alex Poythress, Kentucky; Ben McLemore, Kansas)
Biggest surprise: Jordan Adams, G, UCLA
The best freshman at UCLA this season hasn't been decorated five-star recruits Shabazz Muhammad or Kyle Anderson or even massive center Tony Parker. Instead it has been the least heralded of the quartet, high-scoring wing Jordan Adams, who has made the biggest impact. Adams, a crafty scorer despite modest athleticism, is averaging a team-high 17.8 points per game and shooting 49 percent from the field. (Others: Nik Stauskas, Michigan; Damyean Dotson, Oregon; James Woodard, Tulsa)
Biggest disappointment: Kyle Anderson, G/F, UCLA
The 6-foot-9 Anderson emerged as an unorthodox-yet-highly successful pass-first point guard in high school, but he has been forced to adjust to playing off ball at UCLA because Ben Howland has elected to have Larry Drew II run his offense. The transition hasn't been easy so far for Anderson, whose top five ranking in the class of 2012 was based largely on his superior passing ability and court vision. Anderson is struggling defensively and is shooting 35.8 percent from the floor and averaging 7.1. points, 7.9 rebounds and 3.3 assists, solid numbers for a freshman but not quite what was expected of him. (Others: Steven Adams, Pittsburgh)
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