Posted on June 7, 2022
The 2021 Conference recruiting Class produced several surprises.
Highly-regarded players such as Nate Bittle, Enoch Boakye, and Jackson Grant fell short of expectations, while Harrison Ingram and Mouhamed Gueye arguably exceeded their hype.
And somewhat out of nowhere, Lazar Stefanovic and Glenn Taylor Jr. emerged on the scene.
Even though Peyton Watson bolted for the NBA after his single year in the league, the lion’s share of the class returns for the 2022-23 season, providing an opportunity to rank the returning players from the class.
So without further ado, I present The Top Returning Freshman in the Pac-12 as I see them today.
1. Harrison Ingram, Forward, StanfordThe numbers don’t lie. Harrison Ingram is built different.
Leading the way among the returning freshmen in several offensive and defensive categories, the Stanford forward made the surprising decision to forego the NBA Draft and return to school.
The reigning Pac-12 Freshman of the Year is poised to have an even stronger sophomore campaign, and likely ends up as a lottery pick in the 2023 Draft.
2. Mouhamed Gueye, Forward, WSUA native of Senegal, Mouhamed Gueye’s status as a returning freshman in the Pac-12 has been resolved.
After testing the waters in the NBA Draft and transfer portal, the forward returned to Washington State on June 7th.
Former teammate Noah Williams had made a pitch for Gueye to join him at Washington, and there were whispers of potential interest with UCLA floating around as well.
Now that he’s back with WSU, the 6-foot-11 forward is undoubtedly one of the top returning freshmen in the league.
3. K.J. Simpson, Guard, ColoradoHands down the truth, K.J. Simpson is elite. Saddled behind Keeshawn Barthelemy for part of the season, the reins to the program have been handed over to K.J.
His ability to penetrate, drive, and finish around the rim is unmatched among the returning freshmen.
And with an edge to his game, Tad Boyle has himself a program-building guard in Simpson.
Averaging 21.1 minutes per game last year, the Buffs’ 2022-23 season will rise and fall with his play.
4. Lazar Stefanovic, Guard, UtahThe heart and soul of Utah basketball and the future of the program, Lazar Stefanovic is one of the top returning freshmen in the league.
A two-time winner of the Conference’s Freshman of the Week Award, the Utes’ success in 2022-23 will largely rest on the Serbian’s shoulders.
Stefanovic is a strong ball-handler and a willing passer who has all the tools Craig Smith could ask for in a point guard.
And with the experience of 18 starts in his first year, the future appears to be bright in Salt Lake City.
5. Glenn Taylor Jr., Forward, Oregon StateAs the lone bright spot in Oregon State’s 3-28 season, Glenn Taylor Jr. is a legitimate weapon.
His career-high in the Pac-12 Tournament indicates that he turns it up a notch when the lights are brightest, signifying his leadership and professional future.
His high mark in minutes played was partially due to OSU’s roster situation, but the experience he gained will serve him well during his sophomore year.
And with the departure of Jarod Lucas to Nevada, the primary scoring duties will fall directly into Taylor’s lap.
6. Reese Dixon-Waters, Guard, USCThe 6-foot-5 freshman guard came on towards the end of the year. His steal at the end of the UCLA game at the Galen Center and his performance in the NCAA Tournament were the highlights of his season.
But his sophomore year promises to be more impactful.
Still behind Boogie Ellis and Drew Peterson in the rotation, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Dixon-Waters start several games in 2022-23 and have the largest “sophomore jump” on this list.
7. Adama Bal, Guard, ArizonaTommy Lloyd’s secret weapon, Adama Bal is geared up for a monster sophomore season.
Entering his freshman year as a 17-year-old, the Frenchman didn’t crack the rotation until the very end of the season.
A workaholic dedicated to his craft, Bal was consistently seen getting up shots after home games when McKale Center cleared out.
His contribution in the Pac-12 Championship helped tip the scales in Arizona’s favor, while his non-appearance in the Sweet 16 matchup against Houston was a coaching mistake.
8. Maxime Raynaud, Forward, StanfordWith one of the most unique skill sets in the entire Pac-12 regardless of class, Frechman Maxime Raynaud is oozing with potential.
At 7-foot-1, the forward is a consistent three-point shooter who can spread the floor and create matchup nightmares.
Mix in his consistency inside the arc, and Jerod Haase has himself an under-the-radar weapon.
If Raynaud makes a jump in his second year, Stanford will be significantly better than expected.
9. Sam Alajiki, Forward, CalHailing from Ireland, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward had a positive freshman season.
An efficient shooter, Alajiki is a legitimate threat from three and has the size and strength to score within the arc.
Only averaging 12.5 minutes per game, his ceiling appears to be high and his development in 2022-23 figures to play a substantial role in the trajectory of Cal’s program.
Alajiki ended the year on a down-slide but should be back to form by the start of the year.
10. Enoch Boakye, Center, Arizona StateA defensive specialist in his first season, Enoch Boakye has the potential to develop into an NBA-caliber player.
His minutes waned in the final part of the year, totaling just 44 total minutes over the last six games. And during that stretch, he attempted just one shot and scored zero points.
But with a full offseason to develop his offensive game, the 6-foot-10, 240-pound Canadian should make a jump during his sophomore year.
Honorable Mention: Isa Silva, Guard, StanfordIsa Silva’s three-point shooting was elite in his first season. Knocking down half of his attempts from beyond the arc, his shooting garnered him appearances in 32 games.
But his playing time was too uneven to develop properly, with some games posting 20+ minutes and a handful of others less than 10.
Taking better care of the ball during his sophomore year should keep his playing time more consistent, and could even lead to starts if his three-ball remains hot.
Honorable Mention: Julian Hammond III, Guard, ColoradoCarving out a role as the season wore on, Julian Hammond III is a dead-eye, but occasionally streaky, three-point shooter.
His nine points in the quarterfinal game of the Pac-12 Tournament against Arizona tied his second-highest scoring output of the season, while his career-high of 14 was set against Washington at the CU Events Center.
From February onward, there was only one game where he played less than 10 minutes. Hammond’s contribution in 2022-23 will be pivotal to Colorado’s expectation of returning to the NCAA Tournament.
Honorable Mention: Nate Bittle, Center, OregonThere’s no sugar-coating it, Nate Bittle had the most underwhelming year of the top-rated Pac-12 freshmen in the Class of 2021.
Expected to at least be in the rotation, his 6.9 minutes per game were a far cry from his potential.
His sophomore year should be a different story, though, with both Franck Kepnang and Isaac Johnson transferring out.
Even in the limited minutes, his efficiency from the field, rebounding, and shot-blocking are all positive signs for 2022-23.
*Not considered due to injury: Will McClendon
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