20 College Basketball Players Set for Breakout 2014-15 Seasons

Thad Novak@@ThadNovakCorrespondent IApril 15, 2014

20 College Basketball Players Set for Breakout 2014-15 Seasons

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    Twelve months ago, most college basketball fans hadn’t even heard of Frank Kaminsky. Now, they’re all hoping for their team to find the next Frank Kaminsky after the Wisconsin center went from anonymous as a sophomore to the top scorer of a Final Four team as a junior.

    Among the players positioned to make a similar leap in 2014-15 is Virginia forward Anthony Gill. A valuable reserve on the 2013-14 ACC champs, Gill is in line to take over Akil Mitchell’s starting job and become a household name next season.

    Read on for more on Gill and 19 more lesser-known names who are primed to explode in 2014-15. The prospects are ranked by a combination of how likely they are to reach their full potential and how good they stand to become if they do.

20. Damarcus Harrison, Clemson

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    Clemson’s punishing defense was a product of five players in perfect synch, but its sputtering offense only had two players to count on. In 2014-15, Damarcus Harrison should add a third legitimate weapon to the Tigers’ arsenal.

    The 6’4” senior-to-be is the most effective three-point shooter (at .350) on a team in desperate need of a deep threat.

    With classmates K.J. McDaniels and Rod Hall also back, Harrison will have both an interior scorer to draw the defense and an experienced point guard to set up his long-range tries.

19. Rysheed Jordan, St. John’s

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    Kathy Willens

    Rysheed Jordan was tagged as a savior before he even arrived at St. John’s, a 5-star point guard who was supposed to be the missing piece to Steve Lavin’s offense.

    Jordan was far from a disaster, but he wasn’t Tyler Ennis, either, and the Red Storm wobbled to another 20-win season without an NCAA tournament berth.

    Now that he’s got a year of Big East experience behind him, though, look for Jordan to take a big step as both an offensive weapon and a leader this season.

    He’ll have plenty of help from the likely return of top scorer D’Angelo Harrison, though helping Chris Obekpa (now expected to return as a junior) become a useful offensive player is probably beyond even Jordan's abilities.

18. Michael Gbinije, Syracuse

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    One of Syracuse’s best weapons last season was a deep bench, but almost all of that depth was in the frontcourt.

    When Jim Boeheim needed a sub on the perimeter, Michael Gbinije was his only option, and the Duke transfer came through with some outstanding games (including eight points in the NCAA tournament loss to Dayton).

    With the Orange losing three of their top four scorers, offense is going to be at a premium next season.

    Look for Gbinije’s energy and versatility to earn him a massive increase in minutes and a central role in the attack (whether he starts or, like Dion Waiters a few years ago, does his damage off the bench).

17. Naz Long, Iowa State

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    The addition of UNLV transfer Bryce Dejean-Jones guarantees that the Iowa State offense will maintain its typical blistering pace next season.

    However, Melvin Ejim’s departure leaves a lot of points to be replaced, and no Cyclone is in a better position to grab a portion of them than Naz Long.

    The 6’4” junior-to-be scored just 7.1 points per game last season, but he’s already established his bona fides as a marksman with .400 long-range shooting on 160 tries.

    With both Dejean-Jones and smooth-passing forward Georges Niang setting him up, look for Long to go from secondary scorer to primary weapon next season.

16. Stefan Nastic, Stanford

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    When Stanford went with a big lineup in the NCAA tournament, Stefan Nastic responded by thriving as a focal point of the offense.

    The 6’11” Canadian, who averaged 7.4 points a game in the regular season, poured in 11.7 points per contest on .778 shooting in Stanford’s surprising trip to the Sweet 16.

    With Josh Huestis and Dwight Powell both graduating, Nastic’s share of the offense is only going to get bigger next season.

    And, with 2013-14 revelation Chasson Randle back for his own senior year, defenses won’t be able to double-team his towering classmate with impunity.

15. Shannon Scott, Ohio State

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    Shannon Scott spent his junior year yo-yoing in and out of Ohio State’s starting lineup. Now that Aaron Craft’s eternal college career has ended, though, Scott will be the man in charge of keeping Ohio State’s offense from falling off the map altogether.

    The rising senior has put up as many as 3.8 assists per game while caddying for Craft, and he’s as close as the Buckeyes could ask for to Craft’s unequaled defensive prowess.

    The biggest news for OSU fans, though, is that Scott has shown at least some instinct for calling his own number—as the tentative Craft rarely did—along with the skill as a penetrator to become a significant factor as a scorer next year.

14. Joshua Smith, Georgetown

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    Before academic troubles cost him the second semester, Joshua Smith showed impressive promise at Georgetown.

    Despite his bulk (6’10”, 350 pounds), the UCLA transfer was fitting in admirably with John Thompson III’s Princeton offense, scoring 11.5 points per game on .655 shooting.

    Assuming he can stay on the court next season, the punishing center will have every chance to dominate in the same vein as ex-Hoyas Roy Hibbert and Greg Monroe.

    D’Vauntes Smith-Rivera blossomed into a star in Smith’s absence, and he’ll lead a loaded offense (also featuring an impressive recruiting class) that should give its top big man plenty of opportunities for both scoring and offensive rebounding.

13. Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame

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    Gerry Broome

    The whole Fighting Irish roster will be happy to put a nightmarish 2013-14 behind them, but few more so than Demetrius Jackson.

    The ballyhooed freshman never found his footing, whether he was coming off the bench or thrust into a starting job (temporarily) following Jerian Grant’s midseason departure.

    With Grant expected back for next year, Jackson will be in prime position to fill Eric Atkins’ vacant spot alongside the high-scoring floor general.

    With sniper Pat Connaughton also returning to bolster the offense, Jackson will have plenty of opportunities to penetrate or show off his own shooting stroke (.417 from long range) in addition to setting up his teammates.

12. Dwayne Polee II, San Diego State

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    San Diego State’s ironclad defense will have little trouble surviving the graduations of Xavier Thames and Josh Davis, but the offense is another matter.

    The Aztecs’ impressive recruiting class will help, but the biggest new weapon for 2014-15 will be an old weapon in a bigger role.

    Dwayne Polee II was SDSU’s third-leading scorer in just 17.9 minutes per game last season.

    His phenomenal three-point shooting helped put the Aztecs in the Sweet 16, and after finishing the year with five straight double-digit scoring nights, he’s ready to be a lot more than Thames’ right-hand man.

11. Dominic Artis, Oregon

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    Oregon is losing a lot of talent to graduation, but the deep Ducks offense won’t be grounded that easily. With Joseph Young returning for his senior season, there will be points aplenty, and point guard Dominic Artis will be there to set up a big chunk of them.

    Rising junior Artis saw an early-season suspension (and Johnathan Loyd’s terrific senior year) sidetrack his development after a promising freshman campaign.

    With Loyd gone, look for Artis to surpass his mentor in both scoring and assists while setting up Young and Damyean Dotson on the outside.

10. Kris Dunn, Providence

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    What should have been a great sophomore year for Kris Dunn ended after four games when his reinjured right shoulder forced him to undergo surgery.

    As a recruit, Dunn was ranked higher than Yogi Ferrell or Ryan Arcidiacono, and in 2014-15, he’ll finally get a chance to show what all the fuss was about.

    A classic pass-first point guard, Dunn will have scoring talent inside (LaDontae Henton) and out (Josh Fortune) to feed.

    He’s also a physical defender at 6’3” and 197 pounds, a trait that will serve him well in matching up with the Big East’s dangerous crop of point guards.

9. Darius Carter, Wichita State

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    Cleanthony Early, the heart of Wichita State’s frontcourt, is gone after two phenomenal seasons. Darius Carter isn’t going to be Cleanthony Early, but he is set up to be a top-flight forward on a legitimate national title contender.

    The 6’7”, 235-pound Carter doesn’t have Early’s perimeter game, but he’s a low-post grinder who averaged 7.9 points and 4.5 rebounds a night off the bench last season.

    With defenses spread out to stop veteran guards Fred VanVleet and Ron Baker, Carter will get plenty of one-on-one looks and putbacks, giving him every chance to match Early's outstanding production despite the difference in their playing styles.

8. Jabari Bird, California

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    If Jabari Bird hadn’t suffered an ankle injury just prior to the start of Pac-12 play, he’d likely have been too good as a freshman to qualify for this list.

    However, the injury triggered a massive scoring slump that didn’t lift until the NIT, when he finished the year with a combined 39 points against Arkansas and SMU.

    At his best, the explosive Bird looked like the kind of talent a coach can build a backcourt around.

    Whoever replaces Mike Montgomery on the Golden Bears bench, he’ll have a healthy and experienced Bird to take on just that role following Justin Cobbs’ graduation.

7. Deonte Burton, Marquette

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    Buzz Williams is gone to Virginia Tech, but the program he’s built at Marquette is too strong to have to suffer through a repeat of last year’s 17-15 debacle.

    New coach Steve Wojciechowski has a wealth of perimeter talent to work with, none of it with more potential than Deonte Burton.

    As a freshman, the 6’4” swingman battled his way into a spot in the Golden Eagles’ rotation, scoring 6.9 points in just 12.6 minutes per game.

    With the offseason to add range to his iffy jump shot, Burton—who also averaged 1.1 steals per contest—looks ready to become a worthy successor to ex-Marquette standout (and current Chicago Bull) Jimmy Butler on the wing.

6. Rico Gathers, Baylor

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    Baylor is guaranteed to lose Cory Jefferson to graduation and may lose Isaiah Austin to the NBA to boot. Even so, the Bears are a sure bet to have at least one intimidating presence on their front line thanks to former sixth man Rico Gathers.

    The heir apparent to Jefferson’s starting job, Gathers is one of the nation’s strongest players at 6’8”, 270 pounds. He was already among the top offensive rebounders in a deep frontcourt, and with more touches on offense, he’ll bash his way to plenty of points, too. 

5. Terrence Samuel, UConn

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    Filling Shabazz Napier’s shoes at UConn is an impossible task, but somebody is going to get his starting job.

    Prior to last season, Omar Calhoun looked like the heir apparent, but after a terrific postseason, rising sophomore Terrence Samuel appears set to join Ryan Boatright in the backcourt.

    With senior-to-be Boatright setting him up, Samuel’s postseason flashes of offensive potential (11 points off the bench against Villanova, 10 against Iowa State) should turn into a steady supply of points for the Huskies.

    Even better, the 6’4” youngster will provide physical defense to complement the quickness of the undersized Boatright.

4. Anthony Gill, Virginia

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    Even Virginia’s crushing defense needs some offensive support eventually, and when Tony Bennett was hurting for points last season, he brought in Anthony Gill.

    In just 19.8 minutes off the Cavaliers bench, Gill averaged 8.6 points per game, the third-highest figure for this slowdown attack.

    With Akil Mitchell lost to graduation, the 6’8”, 230-pound Gill is set to grab his starting job. He’s already got the rebounding punch (4.0 boards a night) to go with his scoring, and he’ll give the UVA offense an inside presence it couldn't count on having in 2013-14.

3. Wayne Selden Jr., Kansas

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    Wayne Selden Jr. was Kansas’ forgotten All-American (McDonald’s, that is) in 2013-14. While Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid lived in the headlines, Selden hung around as a valuable but underappreciated starter for the Big 12 champs.

    With his celebrated classmates gone, Selden is ready to step into a major role of his own, even as a new crop of elite freshmen arrives in Lawrence.

    Expect him to provide the same kind of scoring and defensive toughness that Doron Lamb brought to Kentucky’s freshman-heavy national champs in 2011-12.

2. Terry Rozier, Louisville

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    Montrezl Harrell’s return ensures that Louisville will have an effective interior offense next season. Terry Rozier’s development ensures that Harrell will have someone to get him the ball.

    JUCO standout Chris Jones proved to be more valuable as a 2-guard than he did running the point last season, meaning that rising sophomore Rozier will be playing on the ball in place of the graduated Russ Smith.

    Even in limited action off the Cards’ bench, Rozier has already shown the ample scoring punch (including .371 long-range shooting) and outstanding ball security (3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio) that he'll bring as Rick Pitino's latest elite floor leader.

1. Chris Walker, Florida

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    Unless Jabari Parker does come back to Duke, there won’t be a returning player in college hoops with more star potential than Chris Walker.

    A jump-out-of-the-gym athlete, the 6’10” forward flashed his potential as a dunker and shot-blocker even in a mere 87 minutes of playing time in a freshman season truncated by eligibility concerns.

    With Florida losing a combined 470 pounds of muscle up front in the form of Patric Young and Will Yeguete, a starting spot is Walker’s for the taking.

    He’ll have promising classmate Kasey Hill to set him up and sniper Michael Frazier II to spread the floor, and by season’s end, he could easily have the SEC’s Player of the Year award in the bag.