This is an extraordinary year for freshman players in the ACC.
Dennis Smith of N.C. State averages 19 points, leads the conference in assists and is considered a high first-round NBA draft pick if he’s a one-and-done. Florida State’s Jonathan Isaac average 13.1 points and 7.8 rebounds and was named NCAA Player of the Week earlier this season. Duke’s Jayson Tatum, one of three freshman stars, scored 19 in the second half against North Carolina on Thursday and averages 15.
Two of the most impactful freshmen will go head-to-head at 5:30 p.m. on Saturday when Boston College, led by Ky Bowman, comes to Georgia Tech, which features Josh Okogie. It would not be a stretch to stay that neither team would be overachieving like it has this season without the help of their freshmen stars.
“There lot of good freshmen in this league,” Georgia Tech head coach Josh Pastner said. “A lot of high level guys. This league is a monster. Those freshmen are really good, and a few of them could be first-round draft picks.”
Boston College was picked to finish last in the ACC. That may still happen, but the Eagles are 9-16 overall and 2-10 in the conference. They didn’t win a conference game a year ago.
Part of the difference can be attributed to Bowman, a 6-foot-1 guard from North Carolina. He averages 13.5 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2.9 assists. He’s shooting 44 percent on 3-pointers and 49 percent overall.
“The young man is putting up great numbers,” Pastner said.
Georgia Tech (14-10, 5-6 ACC) has gotten a spark from Okogie, who has teamed up with center Ben Lammers to lead the team’s offense. Okogie averages a team-leading 15.4 points and has two 30-point games. He has shown the ability to get to the basket and draw fouls. He has made 122 free throws, almost two times more than anyone else on the team.
“He’s a high character young man, a great work ethic; he does his job and wants to get better,” Pastner said. “He’s just got to stay consistent. That’s a big thing.”
Okogie had eight points against Notre Dame but played well in the second half. He scored 12 points at Clemson and 23 at Wake Forest. He has scored in double figures in 19 of 24 games.
Pastner singled out senior Quinton Stephens on Tuesday for getting the team emotionally ready to play against Division II Tusculum. The Yellow Jackets came out energized and played hard, which Pastner attributed to Stephens.
“I really put it on him to make sure the guys were ready to play,” Pastner said. “We were going to have to generate our own energy and play the right way. Quinton had his group, his teammates, ready to play. So Quinton deserves a of credit on that.”
Stephens has been the surprise of the year for his effort on the glass. In his three previous seasons under head coach Brian Gregory, his role was to stand outside and shoot 3-pointers. This year he’s expected to be a rebounder, as well as keep the opposition honest from the outside. He has produced double-figure rebounds in four of his past six conference games.
The biggest question heading into Saturday’s game with Boston College is the health of point guard Josh Heath. He stepped on an opponent’s foot near the end of the Tusculum game and trainers had his leg elevated and iced. HE may be a game-time decision.
If Heath can’t play, the Yellow Jackets must hope that Justin Moore, who has missed two games with an abdominal issue, will be able to play.