Three weeks ago, we conducted a study entitled the Freshman Realism Project, which analyzed the production of the past four classes of top 100 recruits. The point was to establish a realistic set of expectations for elite freshmen, because no group in college basketball faces more wildly unrealistic expectations. The data yielded a few important truths: freshman impact has been on the decline since 2007-08; it's unfair to expect any freshman ranked outside the top 10 by recruiting services to have a go-to-guy role; and it's wrong to expect any freshman outside the top 20 to play even half of his team's available minutes. Those aren't exactly exciting revelations, but they're the wide-angle, statistical reality of the past four seasons.
Is there any common link between the freshmen that do exceed expectations, though? Not statistically; they come from such varied high school settings that it would be difficult to project anything based on prep numbers. I believe the formula for early success is based on something more nebulous: the concept of fit. Meaning: Did the player, during the recruiting process, choose a school with a system that best fit his style of play -- and a personnel situation that allowed him to thrive immediately? And did the college coach correctly identify which recruits would fit the system and fit into the framework of the existing roster?
The best 2010-11 case study in Freshmen Who Fit is Tobias Harris, the starting power forward for 6-0 Tennessee. He's averaging 16.7 points and 5.8 rebounds for the Vols while playing a team-high 26.8 minutes per game. He's 6-foot-8 and 226 pounds, but rather than being relegated only to the block, he's being used in a versatile point-forward role: as a press-break ballhandler when Tennessee's guards are being hounded; a perimeter playmaker who's drawing a team-high 7.2 fouls per 40 minutes against mismatched opposing bigs; an occasional three-point shooter (he's 6-of-8 on the season); and a low-post operator who has a wide array of offensive moves.
(The visual evidence: His first two scoring plays in the Vols' biggest win to date, over Villanova in the NIT Season Tip-Off finals on Nov. 26. In the three frames below, Harris picks for Cam Tatum , pops to the left wing , and drives on Corey Stokes for a leaning bucket :
In this next image -- also from the game's first four minutes -- Harris gets a favorable iso on the right wing against Antonio Pena , drives left toward the free-throw line , then spins back to the right and blows by Pena to draw a blocking foul :
That's not the way your typical rookie four-man operates.)
It's no fluke that Harris, a former five-star prospect, is working out well for the Vols. Coach Bruce Pearl envisioned Harris filling the point-forward spot that Tyler Smith once had in the team's Flex Offense; and Harris and his father, Torrel, targeted Tennessee because of what they saw on film of ex-Vols such as Smith and Dane Bradshaw. "One of the main things my dad and I did in the recruiting process," Tobias said, "was look specifically at what schools let their 4 men create, and let them play in a way that fit my game."
Torrel, a former basketball agent who worked with Hall of Famer George Gervin, trained his youngest three children -- Tobias, Tyler (who signed with N.C. State for 2011) and Tesia (who's on the women's team at St. John's) -- to be point forwards, and gave them pointed advice on choosing a college. "A lot of people pick schools for hype," Torrel said. "The worst thing you can do is pick a school because of hype, just so your friends can say, 'Oh, that's big-time.' Kids do that all the time. But what if there's no way you can play your game at that school? If you had picked the school that was tailor-made for your game, then you could have had a great basketball career."
Torrel said he was wary of coaches who would give lip-service to using point forwards -- "but then, as soon as Tobias got there, they would've probably said, 'Well, he can rebound, post up well, so we'll put him in the post, because that's what works with our system.'" He was hands-on in the recruiting process and told Tobias to approach it analytically, by considering playing styles and roster construction along with his opinion of the campus setting. Torrel recounted his thoughts about seven of the schools Tobias seriously considered -- UConn, Georgia Tech, Notre Dame, Syracuse, Maryland, West Virginia and Tennessee:
• On UConn, Georgia Tech and Notre Dame: "We liked UConn as a school, but when it came down to it, I think they would've tried to put him on the block. ... I think Notre Dame -- because they didn't have many big men -- would've done that too. ... And I didn't really think Georgia Tech would use him as a real point forward, either."
• On Syracuse: "[Coach Jim Boeheim] would probably have let Tobias play point forward. But what scared me there was they had already had four guys in a similar position on the wing -- James Southerland, Kris Joseph, C.J. Fair and Mookie Jones -- and we weren't sure Wes Johnson was going to the NBA yet. ... I was like, 'Whoa, that's a lot of guys,' and so I wasn't as high on them as Tobias was. But even he said at the end, 'I can see making it through 1-2 guys, but five? And if I got hurt, and sat out, I'd have to battle through them again.'"
• "So it really came down to Maryland, West Virginia and Tennessee."
• On Maryland: "Gary Williams would have let Tobias run the point forward in his system, the flex. And Tobias liked Gary and Maryland, and knew the school because my oldest son [Torrel Jr.] went there. But Tobias just didn't want to be next to a big city -- in the end he wanted to be in a college town."
• On West Virginia: "I love [Bob] Huggins, and Tobias could've played the point forward there. They showed us the way they used Da'Sean Butler and Devin Ebanks as versatile forwards, and we watched them a lot, and we strongly considered going there. But I think Tobias just would've been going there for Huggins and basketball -- he wouldn't have picked [Morgantown] if he was just a regular student."
• On Tennessee: "What put it over the top was that he liked the school and Knoxville more than West Virginia. But what made us consider it in the first place was that, in my mind, Bruce Pearl's system put a priority on using a point forward like Tobias. And they just lost three forwards from the year before [Smith, J.P. Prince and Wayne Chism all did work on the perimeter], which meant there was an opportunity. That made me even more secure in the feeling that Tobias could go there and play."
Strategic placement -- and a polished, versatile skill set -- helped Harris become one of the nation's highest-impact freshmen this season. He's the captain of my unofficial Freshmen Who Fit Team*, whose starting lineup also includes the following:
(* Freshmen Who Fit aren't necessarily the country's best freshmen -- they're just the ones who fit best into existing lineups/rotations.)
Josh Gasser, SG, Wisconsin: He initially wanted the Badgers more than they wanted him; UW was only interested in having him walk-on, until a late scholarship opened up when Diamond Taylor was booted from school for theft. Gasser arrived in Madison with zero hype -- and proceeded to become just the third freshman ever to start for Bo Ryan. (The other two: Devin Harris and Alando Tucker.) And why does Gasser fit so well? He rarely turns the ball over -- he has a 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio -- and plays the kind of solid, positional defense that usually takes a few years to learn in Ryan's system.
Kyrie Irving, PG, Duke: Any team in the country would've made accommodations to "fit" Irving into its lineup, but he made a smart call by picking the Blue Devils. He's such a mature, talented player that he was ready to help a national championship-caliber team in his (likely) one year in college. Duke had everything but the point guard it needed to repeat as champs, and Coach K has proved he can win a title by building around a dynamic floor general (see Jay Williams, 2001). Had Irving chosen a school with fewer stars, he would've been hounded by junk defenses; with Nolan Smith, Kyle Singler and the Plumlees on the floor, Irving gets to showcase his NBA-ready skills in mostly one-on-one situations.
Doron Lamb, SG/SF, Kentucky: Of the Wildcats' freshmen, point guard Brandon Knight had the most hype coming into the season and power forward Terrence Jones has the most hype right now ... but Lamb may actually be the best fit into coach John Calipari's system. Lamb is a gunner/scorer who needed freedom to shoot as a freshman, and Calipari has allowed that to happen -- mostly because his system works best when he has dangerous long-range guys who can spread the floor. Lamb is 14-of-24 (58.6 percent) from three-point range thus far, earning big minutes despite the fact that his defensive game is still a work in progress.
Evan Smotrycz, PF, Michigan: In order to succeed in Ann Arbor, coach John Beilein needs personnel that best suits his "five-out" or "two-guard" offense -- and one key is a Pittsnogle-esque big man who can knock down threes. Before the 6-9 Smotrycz's arrival, Beilein didn't have any legitimate, oversized shooters on his roster. We're still dealing with a small sample of data, but Smotrycz looks to be a capable (i.e., 35-37 percent) long-range shooter, and he had a team-high 18 points (making 2-of-2 from long range) in the Wolverines' upset of Clemson. Smotrycz gives them their best chance of creating matchup problems with opposing forwards in the Big Ten.