It’s awards season! At Rock M Nation, we aspire to myopically cover and track the SEC, whether it’s with preseason previews, The Watch, or game previews. With the conference tournament starting this week, we decided it was time to hand out some plaudits.
If we’re honest, the SEC’s crop of youth lacked a little pizzazz, especially with Missouri’s Michael Porter Jr. sitting out all but two minutes of the regular season.
Kentucky's class was mortal, and the registrar’s office is going to be stunned when only three Cats exit Lexington. LSU’s Tremont Waters showed a knack for late-game theatrics. Collin Sexton likely needs a deep-tissue massage, a chiropractor to realign vertebrae, and a pujari to tend to his psyche after carrying Alabama around for long stretches. And in Columbia, MU fans learned that development is not linear and that the median time for Jeremiah Tilmon to earn his first whistle was usually in the game’s first 150 seconds.
Sam Snelling and I spent exactly two minutes discussing our SEC all-freshman team. We’re fortunate to be of like minds, but the options this season were relatively scant. And in a conference defined by one-and-done talent at UK, this year’s conference race was dominated by teams who thrived with a collective approach and — gasp! — solid player development.
While this year’s group of young backs lacked star power, at least half of them are rated among the top-20 ($) NBA draft prospects, making it financially prudent to move on. The remaining four, though, figure to be catalysts for their rosters next season and help the SEC, which finished the year as the nation’s fourth-best conference, get even deeper.
Without further ado, here is your SEC all-freshman team.
Collin Sexton, PG, Alabama
After nearly eight minutes of playing 3-on-5 against Minnesota, Sexton made a simple request of Golden Gophers coach Richard Pitino.
“Call a timeout?” Sexton said.
Pitino smirked. He also declined.
It’s an apt metaphor for Sexton’s debut and likely lone campaign in Tuscaloosa, one where his usage — 19.3 possessions per game — trailed only Yante Maten’s. A common misconception is to assume Sexton lives to facilitate. Sure, his assist rate during SEC play ranked fifth, but Sexton is a scorer and swashbuckling slasher to his core.
Crimson Tide coach Avery Johnson built his offense around Sexton with a simple premise: attack and score in the first seven ticks of a possession. By default, it meant setting high ball screens for Sexton and letting him work, with the freshman ranking behind only Waters for usage in high pick-and-rolls. And Sexton could chew up opponents, averaging better than 0.939 PPP — a brand of attack more efficient than Oklahoma’s Trae Young, St. John’s Shamorie Ponds, Notre Dame’s Matt Ferrell, Penn State’ Tony Carr and Butler’s Kamar Baldwin.
The drawback? Sexton’s whirling dervish act could render John Petty, Braxton Key and Dazon Ingram spectators. And his evolving sense as a distributor could leave bigs like Donta Hall malnourished on post dump-offs. At the same time, his compatriots could be flaky, falling into ruts of poor shooting and stilted movement.
Defensively, no one would make the mistake of calling Sexton a stopper, but he’s solidly middle-class — 0.817 PPP allowed — in the SEC. He also owns enough athleticism and bravado to take pride in becoming a capable defender.
Tremont Waters, PG, LSU
Waters’ game is all about feel, so it made sense back in November that he’d be a tad angsty about how the ball felt in his palm. And just last weekend, LSU’s lead guard thought something was amiss against Mississippi State. So, he pointedly asked officials to swap out what he perceived a deflated instrument.
Where Sexton colors his game with bold strokes, Waters’ is a master of subtler flourishes. Both use high pick-and-rolls as their platform, but Waters’ shifts gears and probes gaps and more prone to floaters and runners arced over post defenders. You could divine Waters’ intention to facilitate if he rejected a pick, slithered right and into a gap. That didn’t mean you could stop him from generating a quality shot, with Waters leading the SEC in efficiency among high-usage passers out of those setups.
Shrinking from the moment in crunch time wasn’t a problem, either, against Texas A&M, Missouri or South Carolina, outings where Waters hit shots to put LSU in front or not the score during the waning moments.
Still, his jump shot — evidenced by a 29.7-percent clip from 3-point range in SEC play — needs to become a reliable weapon. On the defensive end, Waters’s 5-foot-11 statute will always be a slight issue, especially when fighting through side pick-and-rolls. Shoring up his overall defensive game might mean narrowing his penchant for risk, even if his turnover rate suffers.
What can’t be denied, though, is coach Will Wade has the necessity for his offense to hum — one that will only benefit from a top-five recruiting class making its way to Baton Rouge next season.
Nick Weatherspoon, CG, Mississippi State
Late in his freshman season, everything locked into place for the other Weatherspoon on State’s roster.
Until the middle of January, inconsistency at point guard held back Ben Howland’s group. Lamar Peters, an All-Freshmen pick last year, was erratic, forcing State to put the ball in the freshman’s hands. And while Weatherspoon is phenomenal out of pick-and-rolls, his modus operandi is attacking the rim. Toss in poor outside shooting from the Bulldogs, and State’s offense ground to a halt as opponents clogged up the middle.
Over the last six weeks, Peter settled just enough to move Weatherspoon off the ball — a move he desperately needed.
He’s always been a strong and physical wing, but the ability of Mississippi State to play in transition plays right into his skillset. He averages 1.333 PPP when pushing the ball on fast breaks and 1.273 when he gets to the rim out of high pick-and-rolls. He’s also a sound perimeter defender and stellar at closing out on shooters.
What comes next is adding a reliable jumper. Quinndary Weatherspoon, Nick’s elder brother, punishes defenders by pulling up at the elbow for jumpers or and pitches the ball out. Mimicking his brother’s diversity would also change how defenses orient themselves to slow down Nick.
At the macro level, State’s ability to take the next step hinges on Weatherspoon’s game evolving and Peters providing stability. Along with Quinndary Weatherspoon, Howland’s starting backcourt would be comprised of three former All-Freshmen honorees. Aric Holman can stretch defenses as a spot-up combo forward and roll man. Meanwhile, Abdul Ado quietly became one of the SEC’s best post defenders. Toss in a top-15 recruiting class and Howland has the makings of an upstart contender in Starkville.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, CG, Kentucky
In most locales, the arrival of the nation’s No. 31 prospect would be heralded as program altering.
Not so in Lexington.
But go peak at Gilgeous-Alexander’s page ($) on KenPom. Take a look a look across time at how his freshman season stacks up to those in the past. Who do you see? Evan Turner. Jrue Holiday. Tyshawn Taylor. Those players stuck around and became vital cogs. In the case of Taylor, it ended four years later playing for a national title.
SGA, as he’s now been dubbed, will only have this spring.
Standing 6-foot-6 with a 6-11 wingspan, he straddles the line between point guard and wing. Over the course of the season, though, he evolved into the Wildcats starting point guard, putting off his inevitable transition to a secondary ballhandler and a defender who can switch positions one through four.
And like every other guard on this list, his natural habitat and hunting ground is the high ball-screen.
Where teammate Hamidou Diallo is explosive, Gilgeous-Alexander relies on a finely-calibrated internal gyroscope to play on balance, with fluidity and extension at the rim. His efficiency slumped in recent weeks, but Gilgeous-Alexander still converted 55.7 percent of his shots the rim, while free-throw rate ranked inside the top-20 during SEC play.
His height is a boon as a passer, too, letting him see over the top of defenders who might otherwise obstruct a field of view. His 1.022 PPP on pick-and-roll passouts is stellar, but he’s not a natural creator. Yet Kentucky will live that in a year where, at least until recently, it’s half-court offense has been defined by poor spacing and off-ball movement.
Where his size has loomed large is on the defensive end. Per Synergy Sports, Gilgeous Alexander is among the SEC’s top-five defenders for pick-and-rolls (0.594 PPP), isolation (0.704 PPP) and spot-ups (0.692 PPP) — all while ranking just behind Florida’s Chris Chiozza in steals.
Ability to create offense? A solid distributor? A reliable on-ball defender?
Yeah. That’ll get the attention of NBA scouts, and give UK what’s desperately lacked at times this season.
Kevin Knox, CF, Kentucky
A year away.
Watching Kevin Knox, you can’t help but wonder what another year of development would do for his repertoire. The combo forward has sound mechanics on his jumper, even if he’s only shooting 34.0 percent from deep in SEC play. He’s shown hints of being able to knock down catch-and-shoot jumpers (50.0 EFG%) and coming off screens (41.7 EFG%) in the halfcourt.
That development, though, will take place in an NBA practice facility.
What Knox does have going for him is the ability make things happen off the bounce. He’s got a nice floater, and his pull-up jumper (0.933 PPP) hints that better shooting days are ahead. But for a player with his size and length, he was pretty pedestrian as a finisher at the rim, and that’s where UK could wind up in a bind.
If Knox’s perimeter stroke wasn’t dialed in and teams packed the middle of the floor, making it hard for him to get to his floater off the dribble, he could go missing for the Wildcats. That created the downstream effect of increasing to onus on Gilgeous-Alexander to be a creative dynamo out of high pick-and-rolls.
Over the past seven games of the regular season, though, his production steadied, pumping in 18.6 points, 3.9 rebounds and shooting 40.0 percent from the 3-point arc. No, it hasn’t allayed all concerns about Knox’s ability to create his own shot or become a reliable deep threat. But it’s a lot closer to the version of a three-level scorer that scouts find tantalizing.
Jontay Porter, CF, Missouri
Back in October, expectations for Porter the Younger were modest.
He was in college a year early. His body needed both sculpting and maturation. He faced questions about whether his defense was a liability. And for those who didn’t watch him chew up foes on the EYBL circuit, the initial inclination was to tell him to get down to the low block.
Now? Mizzou fans are hoping, and perhaps begging, Jontay doesn’t decamp to the NBA with his older brother. Porter’s also become a talisman: if he scores more than 10 points, the Tigers own a 15-1 record.
Porter’s build and game are different, too. He’s a little softer in build and average athletically, but he owns tremendous spatial awareness and vision. It’s what allows Porter to succeed on the glass and wall up as a low-post defender. If he sticks around, it’s natural to imagine him spending the offseason trying to sculpt his build and improve his lateral agility — a liability right now when he’s asked to defend pick-and-rolls.
But let’s be honest: Porter’s offensive game is advanced for his age. Need proof? Try a 21.2 assist rate during SEC play, which ranks 16th in the conference. When Porter sets up shop on the left block, his passouts produce 1.096 PPP and high-quality shots (55.1 EFG%) for his teammates.
Just look at last week’s road trip to Vanderbilt, when the Commodores made the mistake of sending cross-lane double teams. Unless Porter works to his left shoulder, it’s safer to assume the result of a post-entry play is going to be a kick out to a weakside shooter or cutter.
Porter’s scoring touch is multifaceted. Put him in a pick-and-pop at the top of the key? He’ll knock down a 3-ball almost half the time. Spot him up in a corner, and he’ll drill a 3-pointer on 40 percent of his attempts. You can also use him as a cutter if teams send two bodies to fellow bigs Jeremiah Tilmon and Kevin Puryear. Finally, Porter can break a zone by getting to the elbow area to face-up, drive or take a one-dribble post-up to get to a left-handed floater.
Defensively, he ranks in fifth in the conference for guarding post-ups, while ranking 12th with a 5.7 block percentage. Finally, Porter ranks third in defensive rebound rate.
Analytics love Porter, whose production belies his age. The question now is whether he’ll stick around a year, anchoring a frontcourt with Tilmon that could be the SEC’s best next season.
Daniel Gafford, Post, Arkansas
The assault started early. Whether it’s successful remains to be seen.
Will Gafford detach a rim at some point? He’s certainly made every attempt. Along the way, he’s provided the Razorbacks sorely needed post production to balance out arguably the SEC’s top guard duo of Daryl Macon and Jaylen Barford.
In Arkansas’ system, big men bust their hump to earn their keep. Rim runs are a staple, and if you don’t have the footspeed and stride, you’re not going to get much to call your own. This season, Gafford’s averaged 1.6 PPP when he’s the first guy slicing down the middle of the floor, ranking 46th nationally.
But his speed and springs also made him deadly when Arkansas paired him with Macon in the two-man game, converting 86.7 percent of his shots as a dive-cutter out high pick-and-rolls. Not only does that generate quality looks for Gafford, but it forces opponents to keep more men inside the arc, letting spot-up shooters like Barford or C.J. Jones bomb away.
The work ethic also translated to the backboards, where Gafford finished with a 12.2 offensive rebound rate and fourth in the SEC. He’s also a more than capable shot blocker (11.7 block percentage) and the third-best post-up defender (0.593) in the conference.
If there’s an area you can nitpick, it’s Gafford’s low-post game, which is, to put politely, a work in progress. That being said, there’s a lot to like about his athleticism, motor and willingness to do the dirty work. Becoming a consistent scorer on post-up sand knocking down the occasional face-up jumper would be a natural progression.
It remains to be seen whether that happens on The Hill. Gafford’s quickly ascended NBA draft boards and garnered attention after a quick pledge to Arkansas quickly turned off the spotlight that comes with a high-profile commitment.
Since returning to Fayetteville, Mike Anderson’s churned out Bobby Portis and Moses Kingsley. In Gafford, it looks like he has another building block in the paint.
Jeremiah Tilmon, Post, Missouri
Potential put Tilmon on this list.
Every fourth game, the East St. Louis native showcases all of his wares at once, and it leaves MU fans thinking a breakthrough is on the horizon. Only Tilmon reverts back to form an outing later and Mizzou fans content themselves with brief glimpses.
When Tilmon’s on the floor, the Tigers can rest easy knowing his motor won’t throttle down. In fact, it sometimes runs too hot. But you can live with Tilmon’s lapses into overexuberance when he rates among the SEC’s top 15 in offensive rebound percentage and block rate. Given that Tilmon was critiqued for his work ethic in high school, those numbers alone are a testament to a personality makeover after just a year under the guidance of Cuonzo Martin.
Now Martin just needs to extract consistent offensive production.
Tilmon’s not only blessed with phenomenal athleticism but tremendous footwork, particularly working toward the baseline and stepping through double teams toward the rim. But when he takes a direct post feed, it’s almost automatic he’ll work to the middle of the floor and a hook shot. You can see that MU tries to establish his confidence by hunting post-ups on the right block early on — a move teams started countering by sending hard doubles Tilmon’s direction.
Tilmon, though, can subsist as a cutter (1.111 PPP) and on offensive putbacks (1.233 PPP), which alleviates pressures to run plays for him without worrying about whether his effort will wane. He’s also shown phenomenal feel rolling and cutting out of ball screens near the top of the key, which allows Tilmon to use his footspeed and athleticism in space.