The 10 Most Underrated Stars in College Basketball for the 2013-14 Season
Countless college basketball players—many of whom have yet to play a game—are already brand names unto themselves. We know names like Marcus Smart, Doug McDermott, Andrew Wiggins and Jabari Parker.
How about the likes of Ryan Watkins, Roberto Nelson and Chris Udofia?
If none of those names ring a bell, this article is for you.
With nearly 4,500 players in college basketball, they can't all be stars. These 10, however, are producers whose anonymity is particularly unjust. Whether they toil in the shadow of more lauded teammates, play in minor conferences or are simply on losing teams, there may be reasons their names aren't widely known.
That still doesn't make it fair, however. These players deserve a little bit more acclaim than they get, and some will have the chance to earn it this season.
All advanced statistics via StatSheet.com unless otherwise noted.
10. Brandon Young, DePaul
There are warts in DePaul guard Brandon Young's game, to be sure. His shot selection is often shaky, and his defensive effort waxes and wanes.
Still, he and fellow senior-to-be Cleveland Melvin are about all the Blue Demons have had over the past three seasons. The program still faces an uphill struggle in the new, slimmer Big East, and fortunes will rise as far as Young and Melvin take them.
Young has spent three seasons as the primary ball-handler for DePaul, ranking in the Big East's top 10 in assists each of the past two. Despite that responsibility, he's never sniffed even an honorable mention All-Conference selection.
In addition, Young sat sixth in the conference in scoring last season at 16.7 PPG, as he and Melvin formed the Big East's second most prolific tandem behind Providence's Bryce Cotton and Kadeem Batts.
With the arrival of ESPN 100 freshman Billy Garrett Jr., Young should be freed to play off the ball much more frequently this year. It may damage his raw numbers, but Blue Demon fans hope that more capable teammates will aid his efficiency.
9. Daniel Mullings, New Mexico State
The stitched together remains of the Western Athletic Conference don't get much national press anymore, and what it gets usually features an element of surprise that the league still exists at all.
New Mexico State is the closest thing the WAC has to a flagship program, and much of its press coverage centers around the novelty factor of 7'5", 355-pound center Sim Bhullar. While Bhullar is the NCAA's biggest athlete, he's not even his team's best player.
Junior guard Daniel Mullings led the Aggies in scoring last season at 13.8 points per game. In addition, he led the WAC at 2.3 steals a night, topped his team with 91 total assists on the season and added 5.2 rebounds per game. His 6'2", 170-pound frame makes the latter figure perhaps the most impressive.
Mullings started strong, carding three 20-point games in NMSU's first eight. That included a 21-point, 11-rebound effort in a win over Southern Miss.
Likewise, he had his moments late, like putting up 23 points, eight boards and four steals to deal WAC regular-season co-champ Louisiana Tech its first league loss March 7.
With fellow top scorers Bandja Sy and Tyrone Watson gone, the Aggies are officially Mullings' team. Look for him to make a legitimate charge at WAC Player of the Year honors.
8. Roberto Nelson, Oregon State
Roberto Nelson blossomed last season. The 6'3" guard finished fifth in the Pac-12 at 17.8 points per game, leading an Oregon State team that boasted four double-figure scorers in all. Despite the talent up top, OSU's lack of depth doomed it to a 4-14 conference finish and a share of the basement.
Owing to the team's lack of success, Nelson's efforts resulted in no more than an All-Pac-12 honorable mention.
That level of recognition is especially underwhelming when Nelson's conference numbers are isolated. Unlike most scorers on major-conference doormats who feast on weak, early foes, Nelson led the entire Pac-12 with 19.1 PPG in conference games.
No Beaver had led the league in conference scoring since newly minted Hall of Famer Gary Payton back in 1990.
Eight of Nelson's 12 games of 20-plus points came against Pac-12 opponents. Unfortunately, the only win in those games was over fellow doormat Utah.
This season, Nelson could see even more shots. Forward Joe Burton exhausted his eligibility, and point guard Ahmad Starks transferred to Illinois. The Beavers may need an NCAA tournament trip to save coach Craig Robinson's job.
If they're going to get one, Nelson may have to rank among the nation's top scorers and not just the Pac-12's.
7. Ryan Watkins, Boise State
Boise State is the only school from last season's NCAA tournament to return all five of its starters. Much of the excitement about that fact revolves around prolific guard duo Anthony Drmic and Derrick Marks, the nation's seventh-highest scoring duo last year.
While the perimeter is where the Broncos generate their highlights, 6'9" forward Ryan Watkins has proven capable of doing the heavy lifting.
After starting 37 games over his first two seasons, Watkins was a constant presence in the first unit last year and made the most of his time. He ranked in the top 30 nationwide in effective field goal percentage (eFG%) and true shooting percentage (TS%), along with finishing second in the country in offensive rebounding percentage.
Watkins' raw averages of 8.4 points and 6.8 rebounds don't leap off the page screaming, but when BSU needed their big man to make things happen, he delivered. In back-to-back December wins over LSU and Idaho, Watkins carded a combined 29 points and 24 rebounds against decorated post players Johnny O'Bryant and Kyle Barone.
While Boise stumbled to a 2-4 start in the Mountain West, it wasn't for lack of effort from Watkins. He put up consecutive double-doubles against New Mexico, Air Force and Fresno State.
The Broncos are one of the few MWC teams that aren't in some sort of transition entering this season, and expectations are higher than they've ever been in Boise. Watkins' stats may not improve drastically, but opponents forget about him at their own perils.
6. Jerrell Wright, La Salle
The La Salle Explorers, like First Four opponent Boise State, return the majority of last season's rotation. Of the seven-man rotation, only leading scorer Ramon Galloway does not return, which should result in additional opportunities for the other six.
Forward Jerrell Wright should certainly see more chances. As La Salle's primary interior operator, Wright enjoyed a strong run as the Explorers reached the Sweet 16 for the first time since the 1950s, when All-American forward Tom Gola was leading the school to a pair of national finals and a championship.
Wright averaged 14.5 points and 5.8 rebounds in La Salle's four tournament games, including an epic evening against Kansas State.
Despite only being a 62 percent career foul shooter, Wright made 9-of-10 in that game en route to 21 points and eight rebounds. No one else could score over the final eight minutes, resulting in Wright scoring La Salle's final seven points from the line in a tense two-point win.
For the season, Wright finished in the Atlantic 10's top 12 in eFG%, TS%, offensive rebounding percentage (OR%) and defensive rebounding percentage (DR%). All of those efficiency metrics stamp Wright as a player who could become a leading candidate for All-A10 first team honors if given enough opportunities.
5. Billy Baron, Canisius
It's easy to dismiss Billy Baron as a mercenary coach's kid who can't cut the whistle strings, following his dad Jim around from Rhode Island to Canisius after leaving Virginia back in 2011.
While the Barons' season together at URI wasn't all that successful, their joint debut at Canisius was much stronger. The Golden Griffins won 20 games for only the second time since the John Beilein era of the early '90s, and Billy notched honors that have been equally long in coming for a Canisius player.
Billy became the Griffs' first member of the All-MAAC first team since Darren Fenn reached that level in 1999-00. Billy's 584 points were the most any Griffin had scored in 28 years. He finished third in the MAAC in scoring and led the league in assists.
Most importantly for Canisius fans, the Griffs won their first postseason games since reaching the semifinals of the 1995 NIT. CC fell by one point to Evansville in the third round of the CIT, and it took Aces sharpshooter Colt Ryan scoring 20 of UE's final 21 points to secure the victory.
Billy's fellow shooting threats Harold Washington and Isaac Sosa have departed, leaving him as the undisputed top option. Expect him to enter the season as the favorite for MAAC Player of the Year, but it will take an elusive NCAA trip—another feat last done under Beilein—to put the coach's son on the stage he's earned.
4. Elfrid Payton, Louisiana-Lafayette
Heading into the FIBA U19 World Championships, Elfrid Payton's name stood out, but maybe not for the right reasons. Surrounded by stars from national powers like Louisville, Oklahoma State and Duke, a Louisiana-Lafayette player resembles a Ford Fiesta parked in a lot full of Bentleys and Escalades.
By the time the championships were over, however, Payton proved that he belonged. He started all nine of USA's games, shot 57 percent from the floor and finished second in the tournament with 21 steals.
That summer run followed up a season in which Payton led the Sun Belt in both assists and steals. His 6.0 steal percentage ranked 11th in the nation, and his assist percentage (33.6) came in 50th nationwide.
Don't forget, Payton can score, too. His 15.9 PPG finished third in the Belt. If he can improve his free-throw shooting, he'll contend for a 20-point average.
Payton's breakout game came in November at Michigan State, where he scored 20 points and ripped seven steals in outplaying Keith Appling, but the Ragin' Cajuns fell just three points short of the upset.
He put up consecutive double-doubles the following month and fell one rebound short of a triple-double against FIU.
With his top support players—forwards Bryant Mbamalu and Shawn Long—returning, Payton can help the Cajuns contend for the Sun Belt title in 2013-14. He'll have a host of other talented guards to outplay, such as T.J. Price of Western Kentucky and R.J. Hunter at Georgia State.
Still, if he could make Team USA, Sun Belt Player of the Year could be a cinch.
3. Okaro White, Florida State
Florida State forward Okaro White has steadily improved while playing in support of All-ACC guard Michael Snaer. Last season, White finished second on the team in scoring (12.4 PPG) and first in rebounding (5.9), but the Seminoles stumbled into the NIT.
With Snaer gone, it's now White's team to lead. What he'll need is for teammates to come somewhere close to his level of efficiency.
White finished eighth in the ACC with a 117.4 offensive rating, with his TS% coming in fifth. He shot 60 percent from the floor over FSU's final 12 games. White's 17 points and six rebounds helped lead the 'Noles to an upset of Virginia that effectively sealed the Cavs' fate in regard to an NCAA bid. A week later, White put up 24 points in an ACC tournament victory over Clemson.
The push will be a bit more difficult with touted freshman Xavier Rathan-Mayes being ruled ineligible, and White's senior season may end the same way his junior year did, in the aforementioned NIT. White should, however, see some All-ACC recognition now that he's the engine set to make the team go.
2. Myles Mack, Rutgers
Some wins would help tremendously as Rutgers' basketball program seeks to put the Mike Rice era in the rear-view mirror. Even after leaving the 15-member Big East for a one-season stopover in the American Athletic Conference, the Knights may not be equipped to rack many of those precious victories.
Guard Myles Mack will be the major factor in what games RU does win. The 5'9" junior becomes the undisputed star of the team with the departure of backcourt mate Eli Carter to Florida.
Mack's scoring efficiency went through the roof last season, with both his eFG% and TS% jumping by more than 10 percentage points from his freshman year. He came second in the Big East in both categories. While Mack didn't draw a ton of free throw attempts, he ranked 20th in the nation by making 88 percent of the ones he did take.
Such prudent shot selection likely won't be possible this year with no proven support at hand. Mack may, however, threaten the 18-PPG mark—a level which would place him among the elite scorers in both the AAC and next season's home: the Big Ten.
Last season, Mack generated 52 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists in back-to-back losses against DePaul and Villanova. While the losses may depressingly recur, Mack should produce similar numbers on a more frequent basis this season. All-AAC honors should come his way in 2014.
1. Chris Udofia, Denver
The Denver Pioneers can be brutal to watch if you want players to run. Coach Joe Scott's offense was the second slowest in America last season, according to Ken Pomeroy.
Still, DU had the talent to threaten for an NCAA berth, and team leader Chris Udofia is the prime example.
At only 6'6" and 200 pounds, Udofia is still one of the nation's most feared shot-blocking threats. A career two-BPG player, Udofia had only one game with no swats last season. His 9.0 block percentage ranked 64th nationally. Oh, and he swiped 1.6 steals per game last year, too.
On the offensive end, Udofia led the Pioneers in scoring and should see a bigger share of the chances with top wingman Royce O'Neale transferring to Baylor. Udofia's been a steady 50 percent shooter throughout his career and is an improving three-point presence, but he will need greater consistency at the foul line.
Denver's deliberate style will make it difficult for any player to put up gaudy offensive numbers, but Udofia will get his scores by being one of the nation's top defensive playmakers. As he told the Denver Post last January, "Different years, you have different jobs. We have a good bunch of players, and no one has to do it all."
Without O'Neale, Udofia will have to do a bit more, but in a new conference—the Nate Wolters-less Summit League—Denver will still have the horses to contend for its first-ever NCAA bid.
For more from Scott on college basketball, check out The Back Iron.