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Top freshmen poised to take over college basketball

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The college basketball world was set ablaze last season upon the arrival of Zion Williamson.

The Duke star entered as one of the most explosive high school players in recent memory, more than matching the hype in his lone season with the Blue Devils. He swept the major national Player of the Year awards while becoming just the third freshman to win the John R. Wooden Award.

Williamson parlayed his talent into being selected first overall by the New Orleans Pelicans in the NBA draft. In this era of the one-and-done rule, it marked the 10th consecutive year that a freshman heard his name called first at the draft.

That brings us to the current season. Asking any player to make a Zion-like impact in their first season is a tall order. Of this year’s freshmen crop, here are 10 players poised to become the next big thing in college basketball.

Cole Anthony, G, North Carolina

Looking for the most-hyped player entering the college ranks? Look no further than Anthony, who has the bloodlines and pedigree to be a household name before he even stepped foot on campus. Anthony is the son of Greg Anthony, who played at UNLV before spending 11 seasons in the NBA. The younger Anthony very well could end up being better than his pops. He starred at famed Oak Hill Academy, nearly averaging a triple-double in his senior season, while later grabbing MVP honors at the McDonald’s All-American Game. UNC head coach Roy Williams already calls Anthony “a different breed” for the way he carries himself. Anthony made a huge splash in his first game, scoring 34 points to set an ACC record for most points by a freshman in a debut.

Anthony Edwards, G, Georgia

Georgia is a football school, but Edwards is aiming to put the basketball team on the map. The Atlanta native’s decision to stay home gave the Bulldogs their most high-profile recruit arguably since Dominique Wilkins. Edwards will attempt to help second-year head coach Tom Crean get Georgia to the NCAA Tournament for the first time in five years. Edwards’ college stay might be a brief one, as he’s projected as a top-three pick in next year’s NBA draft. He’s a combo guard that can score with ease. Oh, and he oozes athleticism, with highlight-reel dunks a mainstay in his repertoire. Edwards already won the fans over in his debut, garnering a standing ovation from the home crowd upon checking out. It likely won’t be the last.

Duke Blue Devils center Vernon Carey Jr. (1) shoots the ball

(Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Vernon Carey Jr., C, Duke

It’ll be mighty difficult for any first-year Duke player to rival the hype that Zion brought to the school. While Carey is a far different player from Zion, he might just be this year’s freshman sensation for the Blue Devils. Carey’s game is actually reminiscent of another former Duke big man, Jahlil Okafor, who was a unanimous All-American and won a national title in his lone season before being selected third overall in the NBA draft. Carey, at 6-foot-10 and 270 pounds, has a similar back-to-the-basket game, but with more range, and will be a load down low. His presence in the paint will help keep opposing defenders honest and allow freshman sharpshooter Matthew Hurt to shine from the outside.

James Wiseman, C, Memphis

Will he play again or not? That’s the biggest question surrounding Wiseman, who was ruled ineligible by the NCAA on Nov. 8 for accepting improper benefits. He then filed an emergency restraining order that allowed him to keep playing before dropping it to now become ineligible once again. The rest of the season without Wiseman would be a huge loss not only for the Tigers but for fans of college basketball. Standing 7-foot-1, Wiseman was the consensus No. 1 ranked player in his class while being named Gatorade National Boys Basketball Player of the Year. He opted to stay home and play for Penny Hardaway, his former AAU coach who happens to be at the center of Wiseman’s eligibility issue. The preseason AP All-American looked like a man against boys with 28 points and 11 rebounds in his debut against South Carolina State. 

Isaiah Stewart, F, Washington

When a coach says a player will be a difference-maker for a program’s culture for “the next 20 years,” that’s some lofty praise. Yet, that’s exactly how Mike Hopkins described the arrival of Stewart, who pairs with fellow five-star freshman Jaden McDaniels in forming a sensational duo in the Northwest. Stewart’s pedigree matches his coach’s hype, as the New York native is the reigning Naismith High School Player of the Year. Sporting a 6-foot-9, 250-pound frame, Stewart plays with a high motor and punishing style in the paint that is a nightmare for opposing defenders. He might already be one of the most dominant big men in Pac-12, and by season’s end, could hold the same distinction for the entire nation.

Tyrese Maxey, G, Kentucky

The latest crop of skilled freshmen has arrived in Kentucky, highlighted by the highly regarded Maxey. He’s a combo guard whose game has hearkened comparisons to former UK greats Tony Delk, Jamal Murray, and Eric Bledsoe. Maxey hasn’t been handed a starting spot yet, but he didn’t take long to make an immediate impact. He guided the Wildcats to a victory over top-ranked Michigan State at the Champions Classic, scoring a game-high 26 points. John Calipari has been notably tough in coaching up previous freshmen. It’s only a matter of time until Maxey’s scoring prowess earns him a spot in the starting rotation.

Scottie Lewis, G, Florida

Electric — on both ends of the court — is the most apt way to describe Lewis. The 6-foot-5 shooting guard has some serious bounce in his step. His high school mixtape is chock-full of chase-down blocks featuring Lewis rising to swat opposing players at the rim. He prides himself on being a strong defender. Lewis previously noting time spent scouting the likes of Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan, and LeBron James for their defensive ability. The intangibles and energy Lewis brings will make him an immediate fan favorite for the Gators. Currently projected as a lottery pick, his game has already garnered the attention of NBA scouts.

Guard Jahmi'us Ramsey #3 of the Texas Tech Red Raiders handles the ball

(Photo by John E. Moore III/Getty Images)

Jahmius Ramsey, G, Texas Tech

What will the national runner-ups do for an encore? It might just be a reload thanks to the arrival of Ramsey, who is the highest-rated recruit in program history. It might just be a reload thanks to the arrival of Ramsey, who is the highest-rated recruit in program history. Ramsey will be counted on as a multifaceted contributor (he scored a team-high 19 points in Tech’s season-opening win). It’s his dunks that could be worth the price of admission alone. The springy guard has a knack for finishing with flair around the rim.

Nico Mannion, G, Arizona

Being in the spotlight is nothing new for him, as the Wildcats’ prized recruit has long been in the spotlight. The Legend of Mannion dates back to when he was the subject of a Sports Illustrated article as a 15-year-old. He’s continued to blossom since that time into one of the top point guard recruits in the country. Mannion comes from strong basketball bloodlines, with both his father and grandfather having played at the University of Utah. He’s a lethal scoring threat with a lot of bounce in his game, averaging 30.4 points as a senior. Mannion joins Josh Green in forming a strong recruiting class, with the AAU teammates bringing built-in chemistry to the floor. Expectations are naturally high for Mannion, but he’s accustomed to it.

Cassius Stanley, G, Duke 

This spot could have been occupied by fellow Duke freshman Matthew Hurt, who we touched upon earlier. But Stanley gets the nod for the upside he possesses at providing some “Did you see that?!” plays. Need evidence? Well, Stanley has already set the school’s official max vertical jump record, besting the mark Zion set a year earlier. The fact that he can jump as high as one of the most prolific dunkers the game has ever seen means some viral-worthy clips are in Stanley’s future. He’ll have ample opportunity to contribute as a Day 1 starter for a Duke squad eyeing its first Final Four appearance since 2014-15.