While the Colorado Buffaloes boast the most experienced basketball team in the Pac-12 Conference, the league nonetheless is witnessing a youth movement.
One month into the 2019-20 season, it is clear that outside the Buffs and Oregon, which is led by senior point guard Payton Pritchard, the remainder of the league contenders likely will go as far as their youngsters are able to carry them.
While Pac-12 freshmen landed in the top two spots in the 2017 NBA draft in Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball, and former Arizona standout DeAndre Ayton followed suit a year later, last year’s crop of Pac-12 one-and-dones failed to make much of an impact.
USC’s Kevin Porter was the only league freshman to get selected in the first round of the 2019 draft, but he averaged just 9.5 points in 21 games for the Trojans. Second-round pick KZ Okpala toiled in anonymity for a Stanford squad that finished 8-10 in the league. Bol Bol hardly played for Oregon due to a foot injury. Louis King enjoyed a solid season for the Ducks as a complementary player, but he went undrafted. UCLA big man Moses Brown also went undrafted.
This year, several Pac-12 rookies could land in the first round of the NBA draft, including the Arizona trio of Nico Mannion, Zeke Nnaji, and Josh Green; Washington’s Jaden McDaniels and Isaiah Stewart; and USC forward Onyeka Okongwu.
Mannion on Monday was named the Pac-12 freshman of the week after earning MVP honors at the Wooden Legacy tournament. He averaged 16.3 points and 7.3 assists in three games while posting the first double-double of his career (16 points, 11 assists) in a win against Pepperdine in which he also knocked down the winning jumper in the waning seconds.
Mannion is leading the Pac-12 with 5.8 assists per game while posting an assist-to-turnover rate of 2.5. Nnaji begins the week ranked eighth in the nation in field goal percentage at .734. Through Washington’s first six games, Stewart and McDaniels had accounted for nearly 45 percent of the Huskies’ points and 34 percent of the team’s rebounds. Okongwu is leading USC in scoring (16.8) and rebounding (8.4).
And that list of rookie standouts doesn’t even include Oregon 7-footer N’Faly Dante, who won’t be eligible until the Ducks’ big road showdown at No. 4 Michigan on Dec. 14. That’s a wealth of young talent that might pass through the CU Events Center just once this winter before moving on (Arizona doesn’t visit CU this year).
“Nico does a good job of getting everybody involved, finding everybody. So does Jamal,” Arizona senior Dylan Smith told reporters after Arizona’s win last week against Wake Forest. “They take care of the ball. It’s easy to play with these guys. I just play basketball.”
The Pac-12 remains well-represented in the bottom half of the weekly AP top 25.
While the Buffs moved up one spot to No. 20 in the latest poll released Monday, Oregon’s narrow losses to national powers Gonzaga (in overtime) and North Carolina cost the 13th-ranked Ducks two spots in the poll. Arizona’s win at Wooden Legacy — the Wildcats’ first nonconference tournament championship since 2014 — gave UA the mantle of the Pac-12’s highest-ranked team at No. 12. Washington slid one spot forward to No. 22.
Arizona State guard Remy Martin was named the overall Pac-12 player of the week after he poured in a career-high 33 points in a comeback win against Princeton. Martin finished 13-for-23 from the field and either scored or assisted on each of the Sun Devils’ final 24 points. That run included an assist on Khalid Thomas’ winning 3-pointer with 3.2 seconds left.
Outside the Buffs’ top-20 showdown Saturday at No. 2 Kansas, the league’s game of the week figures to be No. 12 Arizona’s visit to No. 18 Baylor Saturday morning (10 a.m. MT, ESPNU). No. 22 Washington also hosts No. 9 Gonzaga on Sunday (5 p.m. MT, ESPN2)…Arizona is off to its first 9-0 start since 2014.