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Penn State Basketball Preview: Which True Freshman Will Have Biggest Impact?

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The first of two highly touted recruiting classes finally hits the floor for Pat Chambers in a few weeks. What can we expect out of their anticipated freshman campaigns?

David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

Not many people are anticipating the upcoming Penn State basketball season, but at the very least, this year promises to bring the debut of the touted 2015 recruiting class. These freshmen wouldn't serve as an attraction at some of basketball's better programs, but for Penn State, they're a huge deal.

It's finally time to stop admiring the stars and rankings and focus on what these kids can bring to the team. With only 11 scholarship players on a squad that lost more than 55 percent of its possession minutes, Josh Reaves, Mike Watkins and Deividas "Davis" Zemgulis will have ample opportunity to make an instant impact.

Significant interest has been placed into Reaves' and Watkins' developments, as both arrive as Chambers' highest-rated recruits per their 247Sports Composite rankings. However, that relative achievement for Penn State does not mean they should be immediately compared to D'Angelo Russell or Noah Vonleh. Neither recruit fits the mold of a one-and-done player, so what's a reasonable prediction for their freshman seasons?

Both players finished just outside the top-100 rankings and yielded composite ratings of .9412 for Watkins and .9360 for Reaves. To find valid comparisons, we identified similarly-ranked players in the Big Ten and reviewed how they fared in their first collegiate season. Below is the sample of all current Big Ten players from the 2012-2014 classes that were rated between .9200 and .9500 by the 247Sports Composite rankings. The table shows how they performed in their true freshman seasons with player stats from the always insightful KenPom.com (be sure to re-up that subscription, folks).

Player School 247
Rating
247
Rank
Class Min% ORtg Poss% Shot% eFG% Notes
DJ Wilson Michigan 0.9211 123 2014 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
Medical RS due to knee injury.
•Played 24 minutes in 5 games prior to injury
Vincent Edwards Purdue 0.9214 122 2014 64.7 115.8 18.4 19.2 54.6
8.8 PPG 4.8 RPG as FR
•19th ranked SO by DraftExpress
•3-time Big Ten FRotW
Lourawls Nairn Michigan State 0.9365 104 2014 47.2 89.8 12.0 8.5 33.5
2.2 PPG 2.4 APG as FR
•Started last 15 games for Spartans including Final Four run
Jared Nickens Maryland 0.9438 93 2014 47.8 113.4 15.0 22.1 52.9
6.1 PPG 39.0 3P% as FR
•Chose MD over PSU and Wake Forest
•Made at least 3+ 3PM in 7 games
Vic Law Northwestern 0.9492 89 2014 59.8 94.8 19.9 19.1 45.8
7.0 PPG 4.8 RPG as FR
•Chicago native
•Highest ranked recruit in NW history
Bryson Scott Purdue 0.9423 96 2013 38.3 91.4 25.8 23.1 37.4
•Playing time decreased as SO
•Transferred to IPFW in 2015
Bronson Koenig Wisconsin 0.9302 111 2013 37.5 114.0 13.6 15.2 53.9
3.5 PPG 1.1 APG as FR
•8.7 PPG 40.7 3P% as SO
•Preseason All-Big Ten as JR
Kenny Kaminski Michigan State 0.9462 98 2012 N/A N/A N/A N/A N/A
•RS due to shoulder injury as FR
•Shot 49.4 3P% as RS FR
•Transferred to Ohio in 2014
Denzel Valentine Michigan State 0.9313 105 2012 52.0 93.9 18.7 15.5 49.7
•5.0 PPG 4.1 RPG as FR
•14.5 PPG 6.3 RPG 4.3 APG as JR
•Preseason All-Big Ten as SR

This sample helps perfectly illustrate the mixed bag of results that recruiting rankings annually provide, but the takeaway here is the likelihood that both PSU recruits turn out to be quality players. Valentine and Koenig are currently some of the league's best, while Law and Edwards are poised for breakout sophomore seasons. Not every recruit was a slam dunk, as Scott struggled to fill Purdue's PG void in two seasons and Kaminski got kicked off the team by Tom Izzo, but the majority have become valuable contributors for the league's best programs.

It's important to note that everyone in this group was given a legitimate opportunity to contribute early, with the exception of Kaminski and Wilson who were injured. There's no reason to believe Penn State won't give similar minutes to Reaves and Wakins right out of the gate. That fact shouldn't be ignored at a program that has rarely, if ever, been able to rely on true freshman in the rotation.

It's a safe bet that Reaves will play the most minutes out of the three freshmen. The Virginia native has developed in the toughest leagues the prep and AAU levels have to offer. Reaves played several years on the Nike EYBL circuit with Team Takeover, won a WCAC title with Paul VI in 2014, and was a starter on Oak Hill's 47-1 team last season. By the way, he spent both summer sessions in State College, an unheard of commitment for a true freshman. He's as close to Big Ten-ready as you could expect anyone to be straight out of high school.

Reaves brings an enticing physical presence to the Lions' perimeter. His 6'4" frame possesses great length and terrific athleticism that should help wreak havoc in opponents' passing lanes. He will be expected to replace the departed Geno Thorpe as the Lions' peskiest on-ball defender. His offensive game needs some time to come along, as he has never embraced a scorer's role in his high school career, but it should not come as a surprise if Reaves joins Shep Garner in the starting backcourt.

The playing time of Watkins may be the most controversial storyline for Penn State this season. The raw big man has physical tools that's been missing in the Lions' frontcourt for years, but he's undoubtedly going to take time to develop. Penn State has an experienced front-line that Chambers trusts on defense, but Jordan Dickerson, Donovon Jack and Brandon Taylor have not provided an offensive presence in the post.

If Watkins can catch and finish down low with some regularity, Chambers may be forced to relinquish some of the seniors' minutes to the Philadelphia native. But at the start of the season, Watkins is simply expected to be a tenacious rebounder and defender off the bench as he eases into his career at Penn State.

The last member of the freshman class is Zemgulis, who arrived without the glitz and glamour of his fellow 4-star classmates. The Lithuanian import has only been playing American basketball for two years and did not hail from one of the sport's biggest prep factories. He was lightly recruited out of St. Mary Ryken in Maryland and brings too few credentials to indicate that he can play right away. Defensively, Zemgulis is expected to have a steep learning curve that could delay any serious playing time until he gains the trust of the coaching staff.

However, Zemgulis' shooting ability, if it's as legit as many have said, could prove itself a vital asset that Penn State can't afford to keep off the court. The Lions have never had a 40 percent 3-point shooter under Chambers. If the sharpshooter's quick release proves to be a reliable weapon, he will find himself taking more and more of Ross Travis' vacated minutes on the wing as the season goes along. Ideally, he could eventually become the sniper Jared Nickens was for Maryland last year, but it's only fair to be more patient with Zemgulis as he continues to learn the American game at its highest collegiate level.