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Big 5 Impressive Freshmen (Dec. 1, 2023)

12/01/2023, 11:15am EST
By Josh Verlin

Josh Verlin (@jmverlin)

The rookies are taking over.

It’s been a strong start to the year for much of the Big 5, and freshmen are playing a big role on just about every team in the city. We wanted to do a roundup of all the impressive rookies who are off to great starts, men and women alike; here are those who are making their mark, in alphabetical order by last name:


St. Joe's freshman Gabby Casey is fifth on the Hawks in scoring. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL File)

Gabby Casey (G | Saint Joseph’s)
The 2023 Catholic League Player of the Year has proven herself a valuable reserve for the Hawks, fifth on the team in scoring (6.8 ppg) despite only playing 11.8 mpg. The 5-foot-9 guard out of Lansdale Catholic has played her best in local matchups, with 16 points in 19 minutes against Penn and 15 in 21 minutes against Temple. She’s 15-of-22 (68.2%) from the floor and 4-7 from deep to start her career, some impressive efficiency.

Mataya Gayle (PG | Penn)
Gayle earned the Quakers’ starting point guard role in the preseason and has shown way, averaging 13.0 ppg, 3.1 apg and 3.0 rpg through seven games. The 5-7 Georgia native poured in 25 points against Siena while going 5-of-8 from deep; she’s also got 13 steals including 10 in the first three games of the season. And she’s proven she’s capable of creating her own shot in late-shot-clock situations.

Aryss Macktoon (SF | La Salle)
Macktoon’s currently sidelined with an undisclosed injury, but in the four games she’s played in (two starts), the 5-10 wing from Maryland has led the Explorers with 10.8 ppg and is second on the team with 5.8 rpg. Macktoon has a ton of length and bounce, and she loves to run rim-to-rim and get free in transition; her best outing so far was 17 points and six boards in the season opener at Coppin State.

Laine McGurk (SG | Drexel)
McGurk, an athletic 5-10 guard out of West Chester Rustin, didn’t play in Drexel’s first game. Since then, she’s been the Dragons’ leading scorer. Through her first four collegiate games, she’s averaging 14.0 ppg on 52.2% shooting, including 6-of-13 (46.2%) from downtown, and she’s done that while only turning it over once in 71 minutes. The high-water mark so far was a 20-point, six-rebound effort in 19 minutes against La Salle.

Nicole Melious (G | La Salle)
Melious has combined with Macktoon to form a 1-2 punch atop the Explorers’ stat sheet. The 5-8 guard from Staten Island is second on her team in scoring (10.3 ppg), taking more shots than anybody else on the team (61), going 11-of-35 (31.4%) from deep. The all-time leading scorer in NYC history went off for 22 points against American and has two other double-digit outings. 

Jaleesa Molina (F | Temple)
A smooth, athletic 6-2 forward from the Netherlands, Molina has jumped right into a big role off the Temple bench, averaging 6.0 ppg and 4.3 rpg in 15 mpg for the Owls. Her best game was her collegiate debut, a 16-point, six-rebound effort against Delaware State, but she had 8 points and 6 boards against Villanova and has three blocks in her last two games plus at least one steal in every outing. 

Abby Sharpe (SG | Penn)
The 6-0 sharpshooter out of Plymouth Whitemarsh scored only two points in her first two college games but found her shot after that, hitting seven of her last eight triples as she’s hit double digits in three of Penn’s last five games. On the season, Sharpe’s averaging 5.1 ppg, good for fifth on the team and tops amongst all reserves, plus 2.1 rpg in 15.1 mpg.

Tristen Taylor (PG | Temple)
Taylor’s getting more comfortable as her freshman year goes on — evidenced by the fact that the 5-6 point guard from Texas went for 21 points and seven rebounds in 34 minutes against Saint Joseph’s, by far her biggest game yet. Coming off the bench in all seven games (17.1 mpg), she’s dished out 15 assists against only six turnovers and is 7-of-15 (46.7%) from deep and 21-of-46 (45.7%) overall.

Maddie Webber (SG | Villanova)
A 5-11 guard from the Pittsburgh area, Webber was just coming into her own, with back-to-back 13-point outings against Temple and Holy Cross and a move into the starting lineup, but a sprained ankle has her sidelined for now. She’ll be one of Villanova’s top secondary scoring options behind Lucy Olsen when she returns at some point in the next few weeks; she’s averaging 7.6 ppg and 3.4 rpg on the season.



Penn freshman Sam Brown is averaging 12.0 ppg after a delayed debut. (Photo: Josh Verlin/CoBL)

Sam Brown (G | Penn)
Brown impressed in the preseason, then missed the first four games of Penn’s season due to a sprained ankle. He turned it on immediately once he returned, with 17 points in his collegiate debut; it took him only three games to move into the starting lineup, and his 12.0 ppg are third on the team, doing so while shooting 50% overall (15-30) and from 3-point range (11-22). The Lower Merion product has only turned it over twice in 113 minutes as well.

Xzayvier Brown (G | Saint Joseph’s)
We knew the Roman Catholic product was good. But who could have seen this start coming? The 6-2 point guard has been fantastic coming out of the gates, averaging 12.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg and 2.9 apg with just six turnovers — four of which came in one game. He was outstanding in SJU’s win over Villanova with 16 points and three assists in 28 minutes, and he’s shooting 32-of-58 (55.2%) overall and 13-of-26 (50.0%) from 3-point range, with four double-digit outings in his last five games 

Christ Essandoko (C | Saint Joseph’s)
A toe injury has limited Essandoko’s availability and effectiveness early on, but the 7-foot center has still had a solid impact when he’s been on the floor, averaging 5.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg and 2.2 apg while showing flashes of the player he can be when healthy. Mobile, talented and energetic, Essandoko put in nine points and 10 boards against Penn and had four assists with two steals against Sacred Heart, plus nine points and nine boards at Kentucky.

Tyler Perkins (G | Penn)
There’s no doubt Penn has its backcourt of the next four years in Brown and Perkins. A 6-4 guard out of the Landon School (Va.), Perkins has immediately become a high-level Division I guard, averaging 16.3 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.5 apg and 2.1 spg through eight games. His high-water mark so far is a 25-point, eight-rebound effort against Belmont (or a 24-point, 14-rebound, 5-assist effort against Bucknell), but his 22-point outing on some tough shot-making against Villanova was an eye-opener, too.

Zion Stanford (SG | Temple)
Temple’s only freshmen, the West Catholic product has instantly become a big part of the Owls’ rotation. Starting one game but playing at least 14 minutes in all six outings, he’s averaging 10.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg and 1.3 apg on .500/.333/.813 splits. He just contributed a season-high 15 points and seven rebounds in Temple’s triple-overtime win over LA Salle, though he (and more than a handful of others) fouled out before it was all over.

Tunde Vahlberg Fasasi (F | La Salle)
The Swedish freshman wing forward has been productive off the bench (17.4 mpg) for the Explorers, averaging 4.1 ppg and 2.4 rpg. At 6-8, Fasasi has the ability to step out and knock down 3-pointers, hitting six so far on 21 attempts (28.6%), with at least a couple rebounds in six of seven outings. We’ve yet to see him really go off, but it seems like that’s only a matter of time.

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