Ranking the 10 Best Bench Players in College Basketball in 2013-14

Jake CurtisFeatured ColumnistDecember 5, 2013

Ranking the 10 Best Bench Players in College Basketball in 2013-14

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    Baylor's Brady Heslip and Louisville's Luke Hancock
    Baylor's Brady Heslip and Louisville's Luke HancockRobert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

    It is no coincidence that many of the highest-ranked teams have the best bench players in college basketball. Kentucky, Kansas, Syracuse, Louisville and others have stars on their rosters who are not on the floor when the game begins.

    Some of the top bench players at the moment may be starters when the postseason rolls around. Coaches are still toying with their lineups, trying to figure out the most productive use of starters and reserves.

    However, several players have emerged as the top bench players in the country. We start off with six players who deserve honorable mention, then begin our countdown of the 10 top bench players in the country.

    We took some liberties with one slot, applying it to a team rather than an individual.

Honorable Mention

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    Oklahoma State's Phil Forte
    Oklahoma State's Phil ForteSam Greenwood/Getty Images

    Six bench players who deserve honorable mention:

    Phil Forte, Oklahoma State: 13.6 points, 56.1 percent 3-point shooting.

    Michael Frazier II, Florida: 13.5 points, 53.3 percent 3-point shooting. Frazier would have made out top 10, but he started the Gators' most recent game.

    Michael Dixon, Memphis: 11.3 points, 55.6 percent 3-point shooting.

    Ethan Wragge, Creighton: 12.1 points, 50.8 percent 3-point shooting. Wragge started the Bluejays' last game.

    Coron Williams, Wake Forest: 12.1 points

    Shawn Lester, Charlotte: 15.0 points, 5.1 rebounds, both of which lead the team.

10. Brady Heslip, Baylor

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    Kevin Jairaj-USA TODAY Sports

    Brady Heslip was a starter for Baylor each of the past two seasons, providing a needed perimeter threat. However, after averaging 10.2 points on 45.5 percent three-point shooting as a sophomore, his production slipped to 8.6 points on 38.6 percent shooting from beyond the arc last season.

    It was assumed he would retain his starting spot in the backcourt this season as a senior, but coach Scott Drew has opted to bring Heslip off the bench, with positive results.

    Heslip does not possess a wide array of basketball skills. His one major contribution is his ability to shoot the three-point shot, and that one asset provides a spark off the bench.

    This season he typically enters games within the first five minutes, and though his playing time is down to 21.6 minutes a game, his scoring average is up to 12.3 points, second on the team. More significant is that his three-point percentage is up to 50 percent. That's a major statistic for a player who has taken 42 three-pointers and just nine two-point shots this season.

    Heslip played the sixth-man role effectively while playing for Canada in the World University Games over the summer. It has carried over at Baylor.

9. Ian Miller, Florida State

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    Brace Hemmelgarn-USA TODAY Sport

    Florida State senior guard Ian Miller leads the team in scoring (15.3 points per game), assists (3.9 per game) and minutes played (29.6) even though he did not start any of the Seminoles' first eight games.

    The Seminoles (5-3) have played a difficult schedule that included games against Minnesota, Michigan, Virginia Commonwealth and Florida. Miller was productive in all four of those contests. He had 22 points, seven rebounds and four assists in the 18-point upset of then-No. 10 VCU, and he averaged 16 points and five assists in the other three.

    Miller was a major part of Florida State's surprising run to the regular-season Atlantic Coast Conference title in 2012, when he averaged 10.3 points. However, his production slipped to 5.3 points last season, when he shot just 32.7 percent from the floor.

    Always known as a shooter who can put up big numbers, Miller has improved his shooting percentage to 49.3 percent this season.

    Florida State's hopes of getting back to the NCAA tournament rest with Miller's ability to provide a consistent offensive spark off the bench.



8. Luke Hancock, Louisville

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    Robert Deutsch-USA TODAY Sports

    Luke Hancock earned his place on the list with his work in last season's Final Four.

    His numbers coming off the bench for No. 7 Louisville this season are modest. The 6'6" senior forward is averaging just 8.9 points on 30.5 percent shooting from the floor while playing 16.7 minutes a game. In the one significant game the Cardinals have played so far, Hancock scored 10 points in the loss to North Carolina, although he was just 1-for-8 from the field.

    Nonetheless, his reputation as one of the nation's best reserves was established last April when he became the first non-starter in history to be named Most Outstanding Player of the Final Four.

    Hancock hit all five of his three-point attempts while scoring 22 points in the Cardinals' victory over Michigan in the national championship game. That came two days after Hancock scored 20 points while going 3-for-5 on three-pointers in the semifinal win over Wichita State.

    That proved Hancock can come off the bench and produce on the biggest stage at the biggest moments. We can expect him to be a major factor in key Louisville games later in this season.





7. Joel Embiid, Kansas

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    Denny Medley-USA TODAY Sports

    NBADraft.net projects Kansas freshman Joel Embiid to be the second overall pick in the next NBA draft. That's the kind of talent Bill Self has coming off his bench.

    Embiid, a 7'0" center, is averaging just 17.7 minutes a game through seven games, but is still producing 9.1 points, a team-leading 7.0 rebounds and 2.3 blocks, all while shooting 67.5 percent from the floor.  

    The 19-year-old Embiid began playing basketball just three years ago, but his game is remarkably polished considering his limited experience. Although he scored just two points against Duke in his second college game, he deftly handled double-teams and handed out five assists.

    Embiid figures to improve as the season goes on, and he is already a dominant shot-blocker. He blocked seven shots in his most recent game, a surprisingly close 67-63 victory over UTEP on Nov. 30.

    Embiid could break into Kansas' starting lineup at some point this season, but with Perry Ellis, Andrew Wiggins and Tarik Black manning the Jayhawks' frontcourt, he may come off the bench for all of his first, and perhaps only, season at Kansas.




6. Brice Johnson, North Carolina

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    Mark L. Baer-USA TODAY Sports

    Brice Johnson was not much of a factor as a North Carolina freshman last season, when he averaged 5.4 points and 3.2 rebounds.

    However, he added 23 pounds to his slight 6'9" frame in the offseason, increasing his weight from 187 pounds to 210.

    Despite coming off the bench in all seven games this season, Johnson is second on the team in scoring at 13.6 points a game and leads the team in both rebounding (7.0) and blocked shots (1.6) while shooting 62.5 percent.

    Johnson is now strong enough to hold his position in the paint against elite teams. He had 14 points, six rebounds and two blocks in 25 minutes in the upset of No. 1 Michigan State. Johnson also had the two biggest baskets of the game, scoring on consecutive possessions after the Spartans had tied the game midway through the second half.

    In the Tar Heels' upset victory over Louisville, Johnson scored 13 points on 6-of-7 shooting, with five rebounds and two blocks in just 21 minutes.


5. Kentucky Reserves

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    Willie Cauley-Stein
    Willie Cauley-SteinMark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

    Lumping the Kentucky reserves into one spot on our list is a bit of a cop-out. However, it's virtually impossible to pick one player from the vast amount of talent that comes off the Wildcats' bench.

    Willie Cauley-Stein and Marcus Lee have shared a starting frontcourt spot this season, with one coming off the bench while the other starts. Cauley-Stein started Kentucky's most recent game, Dec. 1 against Providence, so, technically, he is no longer a bench player. He is averaging 9.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 3.9 blocks per game despite coming off the bench in half of the Wildcats' first eight games. Lee's playing time has slipped to 8.0 minutes a game.

    Freshman center Dakari Johnson and sophomore forward Alex Poythress have not started any games this season, providing scoring punch and rebounding despite their limited playing time.

    Poythress was the team's second-leading scorer as a starter last season, when he averaged 11.2 points. This season he's averaging 5.4 points and 6.8 rebounds in less than 19 minutes of court time. Johnson was the nation's No. 7 overall recruit in the class of 2013, according to ESPN.com. But with Julius Randle and Cauley-Stein ahead of him, he manages fewer than 11 minutes of playing time and 5.1 points and 4.1 boards a game.

    Cauley-Stein, Lee, Johnson and Poythress all figure to be playing in the NBA in the next year or two. 

    projects Lee, Cauley-Stein and Johnson to be first-round selections in 2015. Both NBADraft.net and DraftExpress.com expect Poythress to be an early second-round pick in 2014.

    That's an enormous amount of talent to have coming off the bench.


4. Davante Gardner, Marquette

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    Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

    Marquette forward Davante Gardner was the Big East Sixth Man of the Year last season, and he has a head start on winning that award again this season.

    He managed to average 11.5 points and 4.8 rebounds while playing just 21.5 minutes a game last season. Those numbers, put up on a Marquette team that did not score many points, earned him a place on the second-team all-conference squad.

    He was a major reason Marquette made it to the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament.

    The stout, 6'8" Gardner spent his offseason losing weight and getting in better condition, hoping to increase his playing time as a senior, according to FoxSports.com. He is still coming off the bench, but he is averaging 24.3 minutes a game while leading the team in both scoring (14.0 points per game) and rebounding (7.0 per game).

    He had 18 points and 13 rebounds in a two-point loss to Arizona State on Nov. 25, and he added 20 points and nine boards in a Nov. 29 victory over George Washington.

    The Golden Eagles are just 5-3 after being ranked No. 17 in the preseason Associated Press poll. Their record would be worse without Gardner, who is Marquette's best player even though he has not started a game since his sophomore season.


3. Zach LaVine, UCLA

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    Stephen R. Sylvanie-USA TODAY Sp

    UCLA guard Zach LaVine is one of the biggest surprises of this season's freshman class. 

    Rated the nation's No. 50 overall recruit in the class of 2013 by ESPN.com, LaVine has shown enough in his first season of college ball that NBADraft.net projects that he will be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NBA draft. 

    LaVine has a lot to prove before that becomes a reality, especially since the Bruins have not yet faced a ranked opponent this season.

    However, after LaVine hit 13 of 20 three-point shots while averaging 18.2 points over the Bruins' last four games, people started to take notice.

    He has not started any of UCLA's first eight games, but is averaging 14.4 points for the season, which is second on the team. He has made 62.3 percent of his shots, including 55.9 percent of his three-pointers.

    LaVine's athleticism and dunks have been as impressive as his outside shooting. He and fellow freshman Bryce Alford have provided energy and offensive firepower off the bench, as noted by the Los Angeles Times.

    LaVine has helped the Bruins start 8-0 and earn a No. 18 ranking, although a better gauge of UCLA and LaVine will come in the Dec. 7 game at Missouri and the Dec. 19 matchup against Duke.


2. Marshall Henderson, Mississippi

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    Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sports

    For now, at least, guard Marshall Henderson is not a starter, providing Mississippi with a formidable offensive weapon off the bench.

    Henderson was suspended for the first regular-season game and will have to sit out the Rebels' first two Southeastern Conference games after police found him with small amounts of marijuana and cocaine during a traffic stop this past summer, according to ESPN.com.

    He has come off the bench in all five games he has played this season and is averaging 15.2 points. That's a far cry from the 20.1 points he averaged last season. but it's pretty good for a player averaging just 22.4 minutes a game.

    The flamboyant and excitable Henderson had 19 points in 22 minutes in the Rebels' 79-76 victory over Penn State on Nov. 30, which improved Mississippi's record to 6-0.

    Henderson may return to the starting lineup at some point this season, but coach Andy Kennedy said on Nov. 29 that Henderson will continue to come off the bench for the time being, CBSSports.com reported.


1. Jerami Grant, Syracuse

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    Mark Konezny-USA TODAY Sports

    Syracuse forward Jerami Grant was a disappointment last season as a freshman, when he started nine games but averaged just 3.9 points, 3.0 rebounds and 14.3 minutes. He was not a significant factor in the Orange's run to the Final Four.

    Coach Jim Boeheim decided before this season that Grant would be the team's sixth man, and Grant has flourished in the role.

    Despite coming off the bench in all seven games he has played this season, Grant is averaging 13.0 points and a team-high 6.0 rebounds. The 6'8" Grant is combining his considerable athleticism with an aggressiveness on the offensive end that is quickly turning him into a star. He is a major reason the Orange are unbeaten and ranked No. 4.

    ESPN.com's Eamonn Brennan dubbed Grant "Boeheim's ace in the hole" after the sophomore scored 19 points on consecutive days in Maui in victories over Cal and Baylor.

    Grant's length and agility also fit nicely in Boeheim's zone defense.

    NBADraft.net is projecting Grant to be the 12th overall pick in the 2014 NBA draft. That's a nice commodity to have coming off the bench.