One Question Each of College Basketball's Top 20 Players Must Answer in 2014
The offseason is usually a time for optimism, but the biggest stars in college basketball know that it’s also a time for facing and addressing weaknesses. As much preparation as players can (and will) do in the summer, some questions can only be answered on the floor when the season tips off in November.
One such unknown is the offensive ability of Ohio State defensive ace Aaron Craft. Will his senior year be the time he finally becomes a scoring threat, or will the Buckeyes have to look elsewhere as they try to replace Deshaun Thomas’ point totals in the starting lineup?
Herein, a closer look at Craft’s potential as a scorer, along with the biggest question mark facing the rest of the 20 biggest stars in the country heading into 2013-14.
20. Julius Randle, Kentucky
Is he ready to guard SEC big men?
Julius Randle is the best scoring weapon in the freshman class, joining a roster that doesn’t have a go-to point producer. That means the youngster is in for a lot of minutes, and half that time will be with the ball in the other team’s hands.
Randle is a wonderful rebounder but only a competent defender. He has the size (6’9”, 225 lbs) to avoid being overpowered, but there’s going to be a learning curve against stronger, more experienced interior scorers.
19. Chane Behanan, Louisville
Can he become an impact player on offense?
In two seasons as a starter, Chane Behanan has established himself as a stalwart rebounder and a tireless defender. He’s also shown all the offensive finesse of a Sherman tank at the Monaco Grand Prix.
With Montrezl Harrell likely to step into the starting lineup, Louisville will already be ahead of the game when it comes to interior scoring.
Nevertheless, if Behanan can add a softer shooting touch to his bruising offensive rebounding game, the team’s point totals and his own 9.8 point per game average will be the healthier for it.
18. Kendall Williams, New Mexico
Has he learned when not to shoot?
When Kendall Williams is in a zone, he’s as dangerous as any scorer in college basketball.
Unfortunately for the Lobos, for every 46-point outburst (as he had against Colorado State), Williams is a good bet to provide a corresponding collapse (five points on 1-for-9 shooting against UNLV).
With center Alex Kirk ready to step into the lead offensive role in Albuquerque, Williams doesn’t need to force things when his shot isn’t falling.
Whether he can dial back his aggressiveness on off-nights will go a long way toward determining how far New Mexico can go in the 2014 postseason.
17. Davante Gardner, Marquette
How many minutes can he handle?
As a sixth man, Davante Gardner was one of Marquette’s best players in 2012-13. As he moves into a starting role, though, there are reasons to be concerned about the big man’s conditioning.
At 6’8”, 290 lbs, Gardner has a lot of weight to carry up and down the court, and a major increase over last year’s 21.5 minutes per game will be a definite challenge.
He’s the best player on Buzz Williams’ roster, and he needs to be a leader, but that will only be possible if he can stay on the floor without losing the edge his massive power gives him in the low post.
16. Jerian Grant, Notre Dame
How much will Jack Cooley’s departure hurt?
With star center Cooley lost to graduation, the Notre Dame offense is entirely in Jerian Grant’s hands.
The rising senior has filled up stat sheets leading a balanced Irish attack over the last two years, but now he’ll have to adjust to life without a low-post presence.
Already ND’s leading scorer at 13.3 points per game, Grant will have to carry an even bigger load in Cooley’s absence.
If he can keep creating shots for himself and backcourt mate Eric Atkins without Cooley occupying the defense, he’ll make the Irish a serious threat in their ACC debut.
15. Alex Kirk, New Mexico
Is he ready for the spotlight?
Alex Kirk entered 2012-13 as one member of Kendall Williams’ solid supporting cast. He enters 2013-14 as the frontrunner for MWC Player of the Year and a legitimate part of the Wooden Award conversation.
The seven-foot rising junior has all the tools to be a dominant college center, and his confidence grew palpably over the course of last season.
Still, he’s going to be the best player on one of the best mid-major teams in college hoops, and that’s a role not everyone is ready to play.
14. Jabari Parker, Duke
Can he fill Duke’s leadership vacuum?
After riding a trio of top-notch seniors to last year’s Elite Eight, Duke will be a very young team in 2013-14.
Celebrated freshman Jabari Parker is set to be the best all-around player on the Blue Devils roster, but he’ll need to do even more for Duke to succeed in a tough ACC.
Standout PG Quinn Cook—as a rising junior, the most experienced of Duke’s likely starters—isn’t the kind of player who can put the team on his shoulders in crunch time on a regular basis.
Parker has that potential, but as a true freshman on a roster with plenty of proven talent, he’ll need to assert himself early to maximize the Blue Devils’ chances.
13. Isaiah Austin, Baylor
What position does he want to play?
At 7’1”, 220 lbs, Isaiah Austin has the potential to be the best center in college hoops. His 13 points, 8.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game as a freshman all speak to his ability to control the middle with his daunting length and astonishing agility.
However, Austin also showed a preference for lurking at the three-point line on offense, flashing his impressive ball-handling skills and mediocre (.333) long-range shooting.
That small forward-like role is probably the most efficient way for the slender Austin to impress NBA scouts, but the more time he spends as a traditional low-post center, the better off Baylor will be.
12. Shabazz Napier, UConn
How much better can he make his teammates?
In two seasons as a starter, Shabazz Napier has been one of the most effective point guards in college basketball. His teams, though, have managed just 20 wins in each of those seasons, finishing well back in the Big East pack.
As the Huskies join the AAC, Napier heads into his senior year as the leader of a decidedly flawed roster.
With an undersized backcourt and only one impact forward (DeAndre Daniels), Napier will need a minor miracle to get his team out of the round of 64 in March, regardless of what kind of numbers he puts up in his own right.
11. Glenn Robinson III, Michigan
How much has he learned about playing power forward?
The biggest obstacle Glenn Robinson III had to overcome as a freshman was his own team’s roster. The undersized Wolverines had to play Robinson at PF, where he was routinely facing bigger, heavier and stronger opponents.
John Beilein will be short on interior talent again in 2013-14, leaving Robinson facing his second straight year of slugging it out on the boards as often as he dazzles with his explosiveness from the wing.
Now that he knows what he’s up against, though, his superior quickness and athleticism should shine through more effectively, even in the physical Big Ten.
10. Andrew Harrison, Kentucky
Will the pressure of national title contention get to him?
Even before he’s ever stepped on a college court, Andrew Harrison has very few holes in his game.
However, the true freshman PG is going to be asked to take the reins of a team with serious championship potential, and that’s a situation no high schooler has ever experienced.
The scrutiny that comes with the Kentucky jersey will be magnified for Harrison, who will be asked to turn the weakest position of last year’s Wildcats into a strength.
There’s no question that he has the athleticism and talent to succeed, but when it comes down to the final minute of a tight game, he’ll have to demonstrate that he has the heart, too.
9. James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina
Is this the year he moves up to superstar status?
As a sophomore, James Michael McAdoo was already the best player on a 25-win North Carolina squad. As a junior, he could become the best player in the country.
McAdoo’s athleticism and shooting touch give him as high a ceiling as any player in college hoops, but he only managed to make the all-ACC second team last year.
If he finds an extra gear and starts taking over games with regularity, North Carolina will be in the national title picture in short order.
8. Aaron Craft, Ohio State
Will he show some aggressiveness as a scorer?
Iowa State learned to its chagrin last March how dangerous Aaron Craft can be as a jump shooter. What Ohio State would love to see is for Craft to start taking some of those shots before the final sixty seconds of the game clock.
The Buckeyes spent much of last season looking for a second scorer behind Deshaun Thomas, and now Thomas is off to the NBA.
LaQuinton Ross and Lenzelle Smith Jr. will be the top options next season, but if Craft adds a few points to his per-game average (a meager 10), OSU will feel a lot better about its offense.
7. C.J. Fair, Syracuse
How well can he create his own shots?
C.J. Fair has made tremendous strides on offense over his three collegiate seasons. Now, the rising senior will have to confront a new challenge: life without a world-class point guard.
Between Scoop Jardine and Michael Carter-Williams, Fair has always had the luxury of an elite distributor to set him up.
Freshman Tyler Ennis isn’t quite ready to play at that level, meaning that Fair’s ability to get open off the ball and score in one-on-one situations will be tested as never before.
6. Adreian Payne, Michigan State
Can he take over as a primary scorer?
As terrific a team as Michigan State was last season, the Spartans’ success owed far more to their defense than their offense.
State’s best chance to inspire fear in opponents on the offensive end is for Adreian Payne to go from 10.5 points per game to being a top-tier scoring threat.
The hyper-athletic Payne is a solid outside shooter and a devastating finisher in the paint (especially when he’s beaten a slower PF off the dribble).
If he can supplant inconsistent Keith Appling as the Spartans’ go-to option, he’ll take a lot of pressure off that still-intimidating defense.
5. Jahii Carson, Arizona State
Is he ready to fly solo?
Jahii Carson was the undisputed leader of the Sun Devils as a redshirt freshman. However, the 5’10” PG had a major safety net last season in the form of senior swingman Carrick Felix.
With Felix gone, Carson is the only serious offensive weapon on Arizona State’s roster.
He’ll have some help from seven-foot senior-to-be Jordan Bachynski, but if Arizona State is going to battle back into the NCAA tournament field, it will be Carson who must carry the vast majority of the load.
4. Andrew Wiggins, Kansas
How strong a defender is he ready to be?
With Andrew Wiggins, Perry Ellis and Naadir Tharpe, Kansas shouldn’t have much trouble putting points on the board next season.
Whether the Jayhawks approach their impressive defensive performances of recent years, though, will depend heavily on Wiggins’ contributions.
Jeff Withey’s departure leaves KU without a leader on that end of the floor, and the multitalented Wiggins is better qualified to assume that mantle than any of Bill Self’s returnees.
If he can set the tone by forcing turnovers and locking down opposing wings, Wiggins will be making a bigger contribution than even his immense scoring potential can match.
3. Doug McDermott, Creighton
Will he become a factor on defense?
With Doug McDermott, scoring is a given. The nation’s No. 3 scorer from 2011-12 and No. 2 scorer a year ago will put 20-plus points on the board without half trying, but he’ll need to do more as a senior.
As Creighton joins the Big East, the Blue Jays are disastrously short on defensive playmakers to match the physical defenders who fill the rosters at Georgetown and Marquette.
McDermott has size (6’8”, 225 lbs) and experience, but whether he has the skill to contribute on D is far from a guarantee.
2. Marcus Smart, Oklahoma State
Can he knock down the three-pointer?
In almost every statistical category, Marcus Smart was among the best guards in college basketball as a freshman. One glaring exception was his dismal .290 three-point shooting (on a substantial 131 attempts).
NBA scouts will keep a very close eye on Smart’s long-range stroke next season, and any improvement will help the Cowboys in the win column, too.
The stud PG can score even without hitting treys, but if he adds that weapon to his arsenal, he’ll be a lock for the No. 1 pick in next June’s draft.
1. Russ Smith, Louisville
Will his decision-making in the half court improve?
Russ Smith spent much of his junior year as Louisville’s only hope for scoring points outside of the transition game. As a senior, though, Smith will need to learn when to let someone else make a play.
Smith’s 18.7 points per game aren’t going to drop off anytime soon, but he doesn’t have to go one-on-five nearly so often.
Transfer Chris Jones and former reserve Montrezl Harrell will boost the Cards’ scoring punch and should help Smith improve on his ugly .414 shooting percentage.