Southeastern Conference play starts Saturday with Kentucky at Alabama among five games on the slate, and this will be the first opportunity that many basketball fans take to see some of the league’s top newcomers.
So far, four SEC teams — including UK — have freshmen leading them in scoring, and the conference’s top first-year players feature a mix of highly touted five-star recruits and lesser-known prospects making a big immediate impact.
The top two teams in the league, however, are winning games without the help of freshmen. No. 3 Tennessee has the top two scorers in the league — upperclassmen Grant Williams and Admiral Schofield — and the only freshman that has played for the Volunteers so far this season is Brock Jancek, who has zero points in six total minutes.
Upperclassman guards Bryce Brown and Jared Harper lead No. 12 Auburn in points per game, and the highest-scoring Tigers freshman so far is Myles Parker, who has just five points in 20 minutes of playing time. The next SEC team in the national rankings — No. 13 Kentucky — has received plenty of contributions from new players this season, as usual.
UK’s Keldon Johnson is the league’s top freshman scorer so far, averaging a team-high 16.4 points per game, good enough for sixth in the SEC. A McDonald’s All-American and the No. 13 overall recruit in the 2018 class, according to the 247Sports rankings, Johnson has scored at least nine points in all 12 of UK’s games this season, double digits in 11 of them and has a career-high of 27 points (against Tennessee State on Nov. 23).
The SEC’s second-leading scorer among freshmen is Arkansas guard Isaiah Joe, who was just the No. 171 overall prospect in the 2018 class, according to the composite rankings. Joe is seventh in the league with a scoring average of 15.8 points per game — second among Razorbacks to sophomore star Daniel Gafford — and is the only SEC freshman other than Johnson to rank among the top 250 players nationally in points per game. He also leads the SEC with 46 three-pointers and is shooting 45.5 percent from behind the arc. Joe, an Arkansas native, committed to the Razorbacks before his junior year of high school over scholarship offers from Alabama and Arkansas Little Rock.
One of UK’s Saturday opponents, Alabama guard Kira Lewis, is tied for 10th in the league in scoring with a team-high 15.0 points per game and took a recruiting visit to Lexington this past summer before committing to the Crimson Tide in August.
Other freshmen in the top 25 in SEC scoring are Vanderbilt’s Simi Shittu (14th with a team-high 14.4 points per game), South Carolina’s AJ Lawson (17th with a team-high 13.8 points per game), UK’s Tyler Herro (21st with 13.3 points per game) and Louisiana State’s Naz Reid (24th with 12.6 points per game).
Shittu and Reid — both McDonald’s All-Americans — were once on UK’s recruiting radar, while Lawson, a native of Canada, was ranked by 247Sports as the No. 49 recruit in 2018.
▪ Shittu is the top freshman rebounder in the league, averaging 7.8 boards per game for the Commodores, good enough for seventh in the SEC and making him the only first-year player among the top 10 on that list. (UK’s Johnson is 24th in the league and fifth among freshmen with 5.5 rebounds per game).
▪ Florida freshman Andrew Nembhard, a native of Canada, is fifth in the SEC and the leading freshman with 5.8 assists per game. He was the No. 23 recruit in the 247Sports composite rankings. (UK’s Ashton Hagans is tied for 16th among all players in the SEC with 3.1 assists per game).
▪ Despite playing just 21.1 minutes per game this season, Hagans leads SEC freshmen with 1.8 steals per game — good enough for fifth overall in the league — and tied a program high with eight steals in UK’s victory over North Carolina.
▪ No SEC freshman ranks among the top 10 shot-blockers in the league. Arkansas forward Reggie Chaney — the No. 158 overall prospect in the 2018 class — is the best first-year player in that category with 1.8 blocks per game, tied for 11th in the league.
▪ UK’s EJ Montgomery was the top-ranked freshman coming into the SEC this season — No. 9 nationally, according to the 247Sports composite rankings — but he’s gotten off to a relatively slow start. Montgomery is averaging 5.1 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16.1 minutes per game, and has played 12 or fewer minutes in each of UK’s last four games.
▪ Darius Garland was the No. 14 overall recruit in the 2018 class and led Vanderbilt in scoring with 16.2 points per game before being sidelined with a season-ending knee injury early in the season.
▪ UK’s Johnson is the only two-time winner of the SEC Freshman of the Week award this season. Herro and Hagans have earned the award once each. Other winners: South Carolina’s Lawson, Florida’s Nembhard, Alabama’s Lewis and Vanderbilt’s Garland (in Week 1).
▪ ESPN’s latest list of the Top 100 NBA Draft prospects for this year includes six SEC freshmen: Darius Garland (No. 10), Keldon Johnson (No. 13), Tyler Herro (No. 38), Simi Shittu (No. 45), Naz Reid (No. 46) and AJ Lawson (No. 50).
Top scoring freshman for each SEC team
*-Leads team; ^-Part of 2017 class; All rankings from 247Sports composite