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These Freshmen Might Be The Next Big Names In Women’s College Basketball

We are approximately a third of the way through the 2021-22 NCAA women’s basketball season, and it is clear that the talented freshman crop lacks a top end of superstars that powered last season’s contenders.

Last year at this time, UConn’s Paige Bueckers and Iowa’s Caitlin Clark were staking their claims as two of the best players in the country. We haven’t seen performances so far this season quite at that level. But we shouldn’t be surprised: Bueckers’s 12.9 win shares was second only to Elena Delle Donne’s 16.2 among freshmen since 2009-10, the first year of records on HerHoopStats. In the past five years, only two freshmen have recorded at least 10 win shares: Bueckers and Aliyah Boston of South Carolina.

So that cannot be the standard. And it doesn’t need to be. Throughout the country, we’re seeing impact freshmen who are on the path to becoming critical parts of their teams. They’re doing the work to establish themselves, even if All-American status might still be a year away. Let’s take a tour.

This season’s leader in win shares so far is Aneesah Morrow of DePaul with 4.1 through her first 13 games, and she’s getting there as a strong 6-foot-1 wing with an old-school, two-way game.

She’s been a consistent scorer and rebounder — 18.7 points and 12.2 rebounds per game so far — but her biggest separator is how she affects opposing teams on the defensive end. She boasts a block percentage of 7.1, indicating that she plays well above her height, and a 4.8 steal percentage that reads more like a point guard’s propensity for thefts.

The Big East honored Morrow with its first five Freshman of the Week awards, something not even Bueckers managed last season. Morrow also helped the Blue Demons beat Kentucky earlier this month with a signature performance against likely 2022 WNBA lottery pick Rhyne Howard. Morrow tallied 18 points and 17 boards while limiting Howard to just 12 points.

Staying in the Midwest, behind Morrow in win shares is Notre Dame’s Sonia Citron, a long 6-foot-1 guard who has 3.4 win shares already this season.

Despite coming off the bench for 11 of her first 12 games, Citron is a clear leader for this Irish team, averaging 12.3 points and 5.6 rebounds per game. She’s a stat-stuffer, compiling steals, assists and blocks in bunches, and she’s already flashed dominance. In Notre Dame’s 76-71 win over Michigan State earlier this month, she had as close to a perfect game as any player this season: 29 points on just 12 shots, five rebounds, three assists and a steal, without a single turnover in 27:36 of play.

Citron is not the only impact freshman for Niele Ivey’s group — thanks to early enrollment, we got a sneak preview of 5-foot-10 freshman guard Olivia Miles last season as well. In this, her true freshman year, she’s averaging 12.0 points per game to go with 7.0 rebounds — another big guard who helps make Notre Dame a dangerous team.

In the Big 12, a pair of floor generals are making their mark early on as well, but in very different ways. Third on the list of win shares to date among freshmen is 6-foot-1 Kansas State point guard Serena Sundell, who is making a living by feeding the dominant big Ayoka Lee.

Sundell is averaging 10.3 points per game to go along with her 5.1 assists, and she’s feasting on Lee double-teams, hitting 38.1 percent of her threes so far this season. But with her length and quick release, she doesn’t need a double of her teammate to lead to an open look from deep.

Meanwhile, Rori Harmon, listed by Texas at just 5-foot-6, has helped Vic Schaefer’s Longhorns author early-season signature wins over both Stanford and Texas A&M. Harmon’s calling card is defense, but she’s been an excellent distributor so far, scoring 11.3 points and dishing out 5.4 assists per game. More significantly, despite playing the pressure defensive schemes used by Schaefer, she hasn’t made tired, freshman mistakes with the ball at the other end. Her assist percentage is a robust 36.8, and she’s limited her turnover percentage to just 13.4. For comparison, Sabrina Ionescu’s numbers in those two metrics her freshman year were 33.2 and 16.9 percent, respectively.

Out west, two early standouts have both topped 2.5 win shares already: Utah’s Jenna Johnson and Cal’s Jayda Curry. Johnson is a 6-foot-2 stretch big, capable of knocking down threes (38.9 percent so far) but extremely efficient around the rim as well.

Court chart showing field-goal percentage by zone on a basketball court for Jenna Johnson, a freshman at Utah

As for Curry, she’s earned Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors three times already, averaging 20.3 points per game in the process for the 8-2 Bears.

Other freshmen to keep an eye on include the impressive Brooklynn Miles/Sara Puckett duo for Kellie Harper at Tennessee, Phillipina Kyei at Oregon, Shayeann Day-Wilson at Duke, Mathilda Ekh at Michigan State, Shyanne Sellers at Maryland, Temira Poindexter at Tulsa, Jada Walker at Kentucky, Cecilia Collins at Bucknell and Lauryn Pendleton at Arkansas State.

These freshmen aren’t worried about the stars that came before them. They’re too busy making names for themselves right now.

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Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.