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Talented Pac-12 frosh likely won't stay long

It’s the Year of the Freshman in the Pac-12 Conference. Too bad only a handful will become sophomores.

Not since Kevin Love, James Harden, O.J. Mayo, Jerryd Bayless and Ty Abbott roamed the hardwood nine years ago has the Pac-12 featured so many high-end freshmen.

Enjoy them while they’re here.

UCLA’s Lonzo Ball and Washington’s Markelle Fultz both have been projected as possible No. 1 overall picks in the 2017 NBA draft. They’re as good as gone come March.

The Bruins’ TJ Leaf also could easily be done after one college season based on his ability to shoot 3-pointers, beat defenders down low and … hit the 5-iron?

Leaf claimed during a video segment played on the Pauley Pavilion scoreboard that he was a world-class golfer. It was a joke from someone who is 6-foot-10 and doesn’t have the custom clubs he needs to play seriously.

“I’m pretty terrible,” he recently acknowledged, “but I really enjoy it.”

It’s comforting to know there’s something he actually can’t do. Leaf won the Pac-12 player-of-the-week award twice in a three-week span this month, giving the No. 2-ranked Bruins three winners in four weeks after Ball also claimed the award.

Pac-12 freshmen have captured the weekly honor four times before January, a total last surpassed when Love and Harden’s class won it a record seven times during the 2007-08 season.

“It obviously has been a very good freshman class,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said Tuesday.

It’s hard to imagine these freshmen being any more fabulous. Newbies lead the conference in five of 13 individual categories — scoring, field-goal percentage, assists, assist-to-turnover ratio and minutes played.

Four of the top nine scorers in the Pac-12 are freshmen, including Fultz (22.0 points per game), Leaf (17.5), California’s Charlie Moore (16.1) and Arizona’s Lauri Markkanen (16.1).

Ball is averaging 8.3 assists per game, a pace that would break a school record for the program that produced Russell Westbrook, Baron Davis, Tyus Edney, Pooh Richardson and Darren Collison. Ball already set one UCLA freshman record with 13 assists in a game against UC Riverside, a total matched by only one other Pac-12 player this season — Payton Pritchard, Oregon’s freshman point guard.

Freshmen are literally running the show in the Pac-12, with half of the conference’s teams starting freshman point guards. Fultz has shown the ability to do a lot of everything, becoming the only player in the nation to lead his team with highs of 35 points, 14 rebounds and 10 assists in different games.

When upperclassmen have fallen off, freshmen have provided the seasoning their teams needed. Arizona’s top three scorers are all freshmen, Markkanen, Rawle Alkins and Kobi Simmons keeping the No. 18 Wildcats from falling out of the rankings amid several injuries and the ineligibility of star sophomore Allonzo Trier.

Moore scored 38 points in a victory over UC Irvine, a Cal freshman record and the most points by any freshman in the country this season. The output came with teammates Ivan Rabb and Jabari Bird sidelined by injuries.

“I don’t know if he would have scored the ball at that level if those two guys would have been healthy early,” Golden Bears coach Cuonzo Martin said Tuesday during a conference call with reporters, “but since they were out we needed him to score the ball. He just kind of put on display his ability to make baskets.”

That’s something Pac-12 freshmen have done with ease. Washington State point guard Malachi Flynn scored 27 points against Utah Valley and Oregon State point guard JaQuori McLaughlin’s 23 points represented more than half of the Beavers’ output during a 53-45 loss to Portland.

USC freshman guards Jonah Mathews and De’Anthony Melton combined for 42 points in a recent victory over Wyoming and UCLA’s Ike Anigbogu showed he could master the power play with a monstrous put-back dunk against Kentucky and an array of out-of-nowhere blocks.

Those who would like to see the Pac-12’s top freshmen stay a second year received no help from the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement. There were no changes to the rule that allows players to declare for the draft after one year of college or when they turn 19, though both NBA team owners and the National Basketball Players Association have agreed to keep discussing the issue.

“Would I like to maybe see it a little differently?” Alford said. “Yeah, I always like guys staying in college a little bit just to get maturity to not just their game but the social aspect and what they’ve got to deal with. But I’m also one of those that I’m never going to hold someone back when that opportunity presents itself to go make a really good living playing a game you love, so I’m always going to be good whatever those rules” are.

The way things are going, most of these guys will be gone in a flash.