In October the North Carolina players and coaches gathered in
the Tar Heels' locker room to conduct their annual vote on which
freshman would shoulder the Green Bag, the trainer's duffel that
one freshman is assigned to carry back and forth between the bus
and the locker room on every road trip. Lined up as though they
were facing a firing squad, North Carolina's three freshmen were
told to close their eyes as coach Bill Guthridge pointed at each
one and asked for a show of hands. When Guthridge pointed at
Joseph Forte, the freshman shooting guard couldn't help but
peek--and laugh. Every voter's hand was raised. "After a close
race," Guthridge announced, "the winner is Joseph Forte!"
While freshman hazing may be alive and well off the court,
first-year players are clearly no longer second-class citizens
on the playing floor--not after Nov. 28, when the plebes took
over the academy. That was the night freshman forward Drew
Gooden of Kansas was named Most Valuable Player at the Great
Alaska Shootout, joining Forte (MVP of the Maui Invitational)
and Arizona freshman shooting guard Gilbert Arenas (MVP of the
Chase NIT) in an unprecedented rookie sweep. To put that in
historical context, only one freshman (Kentucky's Chris Mills,
at the 1988 Alaska Shootout) had won any of the 49 MVP awards
previously given at the three tournaments.
As Arenas, Forte, Gooden and many other young hotshots around
the country are making abundantly plain, freshmen are skipping
the age-old rites of passage like never before, forgoing
pine-splintered apprenticeships and angling for instant jackpots
like a bunch of snot-nosed Internet entrepreneurs. "In his era
Dean Smith said the best thing about freshmen was that they
became sophomores," says high school recruiting expert Bob
Gibbons. "Today, the best thing about freshmen is that they have
an immediate impact on your program."
Why are freshmen having so much success so early in the season?
The common perception is that the exodus of college players to
the NBA has given freshmen greater opportunities to play, but
that's only one reason. Duke has been forced to try to replace
departed underclassmen William Avery, Elton Brand and Corey
Maggette with freshmen, but the Blue Devils are exceptions.
Arenas, Forte and Gooden aren't getting a single minute of extra
playing time because of other players' premature defection to
the pros. "The answer everybody gives is that the top players
are leaving early for the NBA, but that's still only 20 guys a
year," argues Kansas coach Roy Williams, who overstates the
number--last spring only 14 underclassmen went in the draft. "I
don't think it's that big a deal."
Just as important are various other reasons that reveal the
changing face of the game and explain why freshmen are arriving
in college better equipped to make a name for themselves:
--The precocity factor. Now that recruiting reaches all the way
down to grade school, some players and their families are making
life-altering decisions as soon as the kids hit puberty. Take
the baby-faced, 6'4" Forte, whose 17.3 points a game led the No.
7-ranked Tar Heels through Sunday. As a 6'2" eighth-grader in
Smyrna, Ga., Forte was so talented that he became the center of
an epochal recruiting battle over which high school he would
attend. The one in his district, Campbell High, threatened to
petition the board of education if Forte went to any other area
school, and 95 coaches applied for Campbell's vacant coaching
position, presumably to latch onto Forte's upwardly mobile
Convinced that the maelstrom was making her son dangerously
cocky, Forte's mother, Wanda Hightower, a salesperson for
Hewlett-Packard, arranged a job transfer and moved with Joseph
and his brother, Jason, to Washington, D.C., so Joseph could be
groomed by legendary coach Morgan Wootten at DeMatha High in
nearby Hyattsville, Md. "I figured that at DeMatha Joseph could
develop his talent to the best of his ability and that Coach
Wootten would keep his head level," says Hightower. "I also knew
that [playing there] would give him great exposure for college."
"My mom had enough faith in Coach Wootten to uproot her whole
life and go to D.C.," Joseph says. "That was a lot of insight on
Although Forte was a USA Today All-America as a senior at
DeMatha, he was overshadowed by his teammate Keith Bogans, now a
freshman at Kentucky, and nobody predicted that Forte would take
over the Tar Heels' scoring burden so soon. Yet Forte provided a
hint of what was to come during a chat with center Brendan
Haywood during a preseason workout. "Joe's out there shooting
jumpers, and I said, 'Can you keep the double team off me?'"
Haywood recalls. "Real confidently he stepped back, hit a three
and said, 'Yeah.'"
In the 23 seasons from 1972-73, when the NCAA made freshmen
eligible, through 1994-95, only eight North Carolina freshmen
started their first games. Seven more, including Forte, have
done so in the last five seasons, though none of the others has
gotten off to a faster start than Forte. Unspooling his lethal
jumper from all points of the floor, Forte scored 24 points in
his college debut, against Southern Cal. That was the most
points ever scored in a game by a Tar Heel freshman--including
Michael Jordan. If Forte can stay close to his current pace, he
could become the most prolific freshman scorer in school
history, outdoing the rookie seasons of Sam Perkins (14.9 points
per game), Jordan (13.5) and James Worthy (12.5). "It's a little
ridiculous," Forte says of the comparisons. "Those are great
players, and just because they didn't come out of the gate as
fast as I did, it doesn't mean I'll do what they did."
--The battle-tested factor. Thanks to the AAU and summer-camp
circuits, today's top high schoolers play year-round against the
best competition in major arenas all over the country--sometimes
all over the globe. "Freshmen can make the adjustment so much
easier now because they're so much more worldly," says Williams.
"Twenty-five years ago you'd find kids who had never been out of
their home state, and now I'm recruiting kids who have been to
Paris and Hawaii."
Gooden, a smooth 6'9" slasher who was the No. 5-ranked Jayhawks'
second-leading scorer (11.5 points a game) and top rebounder
(8.0) through Sunday despite coming off the bench, was just such
a youthful globetrotter. In high school Gooden made
basketball-related journeys to such far-flung locales as The
Hague, and once you've hooped at the World Court, the world's
courts are a cinch. When the Jayhawks opened the season with
three games in as many days in Alaska, Gooden was ready. "The
travel wasn't any problem," he says. "In the summers I've always
played three or four games a day in AAU ball. We'd go from Vegas
to New Jersey to L.A. and back to Vegas again. You're basically
away from home for two months playing basketball."
In the process, of course, you're able to gauge yourself against
the top players in your class. Kansas freshman forward Nick
Collison, who was averaging 6.7 rebounds a game, credits his
unflappability to having played the last two years on USA
Basketball's Junior World Championship team that competed in the
Dominican Republic and in Portugal. "Playing against quicker,
faster, bigger guys has helped a lot, and so has playing for
college coaches the past two summers," Collison says. "They ran
the practices just like college practices, so I was ready for
the intensity when I got here."
--The PG-rating factor. Each year more and more top prospects
gain maturity and experience by spending postgraduate seasons at
prep schools, either by choice or because of academic
shortcomings. For example, Cincinnati's 6'10" freshman guard,
DerMarr Johnson, had slipped from No. 1 to No. 30 in one
recruiting newsletter two years ago; then he shipped out for a
postgrad year at Maine Central Institute. "It was the longest,
hardest year he's ever had, but he went to practice every day
with a purpose," says UNLV assistant coach Max Good, who was
Johnson's coach at MCI. Bulked up with 30 pounds of extra
muscle, Johnson has rediscovered his mojo and was the
second-leading scorer for the top-ranked Bearcats, averaging
13.8 points a game.
--The who's-recruiting-whom factor. Top prospects are so skilled
at finding programs where they can play right away that they
could have fall-back careers as recruiting experts. "Nothing
escapes them," says Oklahoma coach Kelvin Sampson. "They have
media guides from everywhere, they dial up the Internet, and
they find out whom coaches are recruiting. Even if they don't do
that, other coaches tell them. They know exactly where they can
play right away."
One freshman who refused to be an understudy is SirValiant
Brown, George Washington's fun-and-gun freshman point guard who
was second in the nation in scoring through Sunday with 26.3
points a game. The son of Camelot aficionados Robbie and
Marcela--the middle name of SirValiant's brother Cody is
SirLancelot--Brown has done everything for GW so far this season
except pull a sword from a stone, pouring in 33 points on two
occasions (though also amassing a heap of turnovers). Naturally,
the main reason he picked the Colonials was that guard Shawnta
Rogers graduated last year. "I couldn't sit down for three
years," says Brown. "Who would want to do that, unless you ain't
SirValiant may be proving himself worthy, but that hardly means
all freshmen are as ready for the college game as they think.
Because more players are having early success, the expectations
of many others are laughably overblown. "Now the kids think that
if you can't go to the NBA after one or two years of college,
you aren't any good," says Villanova coach Steve Lappas.
Sacramento State coach Tom Abatemarco, who was an assistant at
North Carolina State in the early 1980s, remembers when the
Wolfpack signed Vinny Del Negro and then barely played him for
two seasons. "If that happened today, he'd have transferred,"
says Abatemarco. "You're talking about a 10-year NBA player, and
we made him sit. He was comfortable with that, but he wouldn't
Consequently, coaches create opportunities for freshmen in ways
they didn't always do before. "These days you find reasons to
get players into games that have more to do than with just
whether they can help you win the game," says Lappas.
Still, coaches are a conservative lot, and many of them warn
that the rookies who are playing so well in early December might
have trouble come February. "It will be interesting to see how
many of them can keep it up, because I believe that every
freshman hits the wall, physically and mentally, usually during
the conference part of the schedule," says Marquette coach Tom
Crean. "As the season goes on, you learn which ones can overcome
fatigue and be productive."
No matter what happens, though, it's remarkable how much of an
impact freshmen are having only a year after the NCAA opened
(and closed) serious discussion about making freshmen ineligible
once again. That initiative appears to be dead, but freshmen
have enough to worry about anyway. Moments after Gooden won the
Great Alaska Shootout MVP trophy, senior reserve Terry Nooner
sidled up beside the shivering, overloaded freshman on the way
to the team bus and uttered a greeting that we may start hearing
a lot more often. "Hey, MVP!" he cracked. "Way to carry those
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN Strong upbringing Prepped for greatness since eighth grade, Forte showed no fear while scoring 19 points against Michigan State.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY MANNY MILLAN DerMarr-velous A postgrad year made the Bearcats' Johnson bigger and better suited for college ball.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER Ready for prime time Collison (4), one of two key Jayhawks freshmen, credits his summer play for easing the way into college.
It has been hard to find a top team this season without a
freshman who's making a significant contribution. Each of these
15 first-year players has had an impact that belied his
youthfulness. (All stats through Sunday.)
PLAYER POSITION SKINNY
Gilbert Arenas (Arizona) G
SKINNY Seventeen-year-old Chase NIT MVP is the Wildcats'
third-leading scorer, with 12.8 average, and top foul shooter,
LaVell Blanchard (Michigan) G
[SKINNY] Wolverines use four freshmen, and best is 6'7" shooting
guard who is team's top rebounder (8.6) and second-best scorer
SirValiant Brown (George Washington) G
[SKINNY] Dynamic guard's scoring average is an impressive 26.3,
and he went for 27 in Sunday's upset of No. 24 Maryland.
Nick Collison (Kansas) F
[SKINNY] Tough inside player at 6' 9", has started every game
and averaged 8.7 points and 6.7 rebounds for the 6-0 Jayhawks.
Joseph Forte (North Carolina) G
[SKINNY] This smooth shooting guard is leading the
seventh-ranked Tar Heels in scoring with 17.3 points a game.
Jason Gardner (Arizona) G
[SKINNY] Former Indiana Mr. Basketball is averaging 12.2 points
and a team-high 6.2 assists for the surprising 6-0 Wildcats.
Drew Gooden (Kansas) F
[SKINNY] Jayhawks' sixth man is leading fifth-ranked Kansas in
rebounding (8.0 per game) and is second in scoring (11.5).
Donnell Harvey (Florida) F
[SKINNY] Moved into the starting lineup after three games and is
leading the Gators in rebounding (9.0 per game).
Steven Hunter (DePaul) C
[SKINNY] Seven-footer leads the Blue Demons in blocked shots
(2.5 per game) and is averaging 12.0 points.
Casey Jacobson (Stanford) G-F
[SKINNY] Swingman is averaging 11.0 points and has given the
third-ranked Cardinal a much needed outside-shooting threat.
DerMarr Johnson (Cincinnati) F
[SKINNY] The top-rated high schooler last year is the No. 1
Bearcats' third-leading scorer (13.8 a game).
Jason Kapono (UCLA) G-F
[SKINNY] Sweet-shooting swingman is the Bruins' second-leading
scorer (12.7 a game) while making 57.7% of his field goal tries.
Jason Richardson (Michigan State) F
[SKINNY] Explosive scorer has been a major spark off the
Spartans' bench, averaging 8.0 points and 5.3 rebounds.
Marvin Stone (Kentucky) F-C
[SKINNY] Space eating 6'10", 256-pounder has been a force in the
middle for the Wildcats, averaging 6.5 rebounds.
Jason Williams (Duke) G
[SKINNY] Point guard leads the Blue Devils in assists (5.6 a
game) and three-pointers made (17), and is second in scoring
Today's high schoolers play against top competition all over the
nation--and even all over the world.