Georgia men’s basketball coach Mark Fox sees a few parallels between freshmen of today and first-year players from 30 years ago, his first year at Garden City Community College in Kansas.
But when considering all the differences between 21st century freshmen and late 1980s rookies, well, it’s a whole new ballgame.
“These guys are learning to play with the shot clock for the first time,” said Fox. “I was learning to play with a 3-point line and a shot clock, and everything else. The game was played totally different. And I wasn’t nearly as talented as these guys, either.
“I do remember the enormity of things you had to learn in the college game that as a high school player you didn’t know existed. That can’t be understated; it’s just so much more complex at this level than what they’re used to.”
It would appear several members in Georgia’s Class of 2021 have picked up enough to already make meaningful contributions this season for the Bulldogs (6-1), who host Winthrop (5-3) at 7 p.m. Tuesday in their final game before the university’s exam season begins.
Leading the way for the rookies is 6-foot-8 forward Rayshaun Hammonds, who was the first Georgia freshman to start a season opener since Kentavious Caldwell-Pope did so in 2012. Hammonds is averaging 8.9 points, 6.1 rebounds and nearly 27 minutes per game.
Forward Nicholas Claxton is averaging 13.7 minutes a night with 4.3 points and 4.3 rebounds, and guard Teshaun Hightower has added 3.5 points and 11.5 minutes per game in six games.
Since the Bulldogs have only squashed one opponent (the 79-54 season opener against Bryant), the first-year players are not running out the clock during garbage time, but are playing meaningful minutes. Fox pointed out that in Saturday’s 73-66 victory at Marquette, both Hammonds and Hightower were on the floor at crunch time.
“The other night, we had Teshaun and Rayshaun both in the game late, and both made big free throws and big plays for us as freshmen on the road,” said Fox. “A lot of guys wouldn’t be prepared to do that. These guys may be a little more seasoned than freshmen from previous years, but they still have a lot to learn.”
Claxton, whose father Charles played for Hugh Durham at Georgia in the early 1990s, says he’s not surprised freshmen have made a stand so early.
“I had the confidence coming in that I would be able to contribute right away,” he said. “We’re a pretty strong freshman class, so I did have confidence we could come in and help.”
“With us coming in, it helps,” added Hammonds. “We bring a lot to the table, even though we’re young.”
Talent and confidence aside, the freshmen have been able to distinguish themselves because they immediately bought into the team concept and because they’ve received critical mentoring from older teammates like Yante Maten and Juwan Parker.
“From a talent standpoint, they’re all supremely talented, so you knew coming in they’d fit in right off the bat,” said forward Parker, who recalls getting a couple of starting assignments as a freshman. “But I have been surprised that guys haven’t been fighting the process and have been putting the team first. It’s hard for freshmen coming in from where they were ‘the guy’ and gelling with a bunch of other players who were also ‘the guy.’”
After exams are over, Georgia will play Dec. 16 at Massachusetts and will host Georgia Tech on Dec. 19.