NCAA Basketball Players We Can't Wait to See as Top Scoring Options in 2014-15
Every season, college basketball teams lose talent, from the leading scorer all the way down to the towel-waving walk-on who becomes a sentimental crowd favorite.
When one of the stars departs, coaches earn their money by accurately projecting which players can step up and be a quality replacement. Like any other handicapping of the potential of 18- to 21-year-olds, it's an inexact science.
These 10 players haven't always been their teams' top scoring options yet, but they all appear to have the right stuff to do so. Some of the names are more familiar than others right now, but if their teams are winning, expect all of these guys to become household names at some point in the 2014-15 season.
Ron Baker, Wichita State
Wichita State's historic undefeated run was primarily led by forward Cleanthony Early with able support from a strong backcourt trio. Those three guards—Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton—return, and they'll need to come out smoking while coach Gregg Marshall explores his front-line options.
Baker was second to Early in scoring at 13.1 points per game (PPG) last season, and he got points wherever he wanted them. Hoop-Math.com showed Baker's shooting percentages at 64.6/45.8/38.4 at the rim, on mid-range jumpers and from three-point land, respectively.
Baker's reliance on the three-pointer paints him as the traditional shooting guard, but he needed only five triples to score 66 points in a three-game, early-season run against DePaul, BYU and Saint Louis. Two of those three would become NCAA tournament teams (no points for guessing the scrubs). Before that, Baker had also poured in 21 against Tulsa, another eventual tourney team.
Even when the unbeaten string came to an end, Baker was still producing more than any Shocker, save Early. His 20 points against Kentucky made him and Early (31 points in a star-quality performance) the only WSU players to score more than six against the lengthy, athletic Wildcats.
There are a lot of shots available with Early's departure. Baker can be the most versatile threat on the Shockers roster if he finds his way to the basket more often. Not bad for a guy who first showed up as a preferred walk-on.
Perry Ellis, Kansas
Perry Ellis may have produced the quietest 13.5 points and 6.7 rebounds in all of college basketball last season.
Of course, even a Rolling Stones concert gets drowned out when a jumbo jet is landing behind the stage. While Ellis seemingly toiled undercover of the night, wild horses couldn't stop the avalanche of hype for expected NBA lottery picks Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. Ellis' production was essential to the Jayhawks' 10th straight Big 12 regular-season championship.
This year, the Jayhawks will have two more expected one-and-done freshmen join the roster in wing Kelly Oubre and power forward Cliff Alexander. Ellis will be sharing the post with Alexander, but expect the junior to get the first look on most offensive sets.
Ellis knocked down 42 percent of his two-point jumpers, per Hoop-Math, and even made eight threes on 17 attempts to boot. His 24 points against Duke, 21 against New Mexico and combined 50 in KU's second and third meetings with Iowa State showed that Ellis could produce against strong competition.
Now, he simply needs to be that assertive every night. If he is, he can contend for Big 12 Player of the Year, and the rest of the conference will once again be crying, "Gimme Shelter."
Dorian Finney-Smith, Florida
The Florida Gators could easily be a more talented team in 2014-15 than the group that finally broke through and got coach Billy Donovan back to the Final Four. They just won't be nearly as experienced without four senior starters.
While sophomore Chris Walker could explode after a freshman year lost to eligibility issues and a limited role, his frontcourt mate, Dorian Finney-Smith, may get the first chance to shoulder UF's scoring load.
Finney-Smith won the SEC's Sixth Man of the Year award after averaging 8.7 points and a team-leading 6.7 rebounds per game. He managed all of this while shooting an absurdly low 43.7 percent on two-point attempts and 29.3 percent on threes.
If DFS can improve his efficiency, he's capable of being one of the SEC's most versatile scorers. Even if he can't, he's still a strong offensive rebounder who can get plenty of points on putbacks. Another poor shooting season, however, will put more of the onus on Walker and shooting guard Michael Frazier, who must expand his game beyond that of a three-point specialist.
Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Louisville's fans breathed a major sigh of relief when burly forward Montrezl Harrell bypassed the NBA draft to come back for his junior season. His return will alter the entire focus of a Cardinals offense that no longer has Russ Smith around to create something on every play.
Harrell finished last season in All-American fashion, averaging 17.2 points and nine rebounds over the Cards' last 11 games, putting up six double-doubles in that span. He combined for 60 and 35 in three meetings with eventual national champion UConn.
Chris Jones and Terry Rozier should be expected to start in Louisville's backcourt, and neither was as effective with his shot as the departed Smith. All that means, however, is a bigger haul of offensive rebounds for Harrell, who led the American at 3.2 per game.
The largest hurdle between Harrell and a major splash in the Cards' new ACC home will be his foul shooting. A mere 46.4 percent certainly qualifies as "foul," and if he can't make major improvements, opponents will be hammering him all game long and twice in pregame layup lines.
Caris LeVert, Michigan
For the second straight year, Michigan has a pair of stars departing. Big Ten Player of the Year Nik Stauskas and sidekick Glenn Robinson III are both headed to the NBA along with center Mitch McGary and his fleeting glimpses of star quality.
Michigan did well last season without backcourt studs Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr., and next season could be more of the same if rising junior Caris LeVert continues his rapid improvement.
LeVert blossomed into an All-Big Ten second-teamer last year, improving from 2.3 to 12.9 PPG. Another 10-point improvement is highly unlikely, but LeVert should still be considered a contender to bring Michigan its third straight Big Ten POY award.
LeVert may be a happy medium between Stauskas' perimeter game (40.8 percent from three) and Robinson's ability to finish at the rim (75.0 percent at close range, per Hoop-Math). He won't have to shake the "just a gunner" stigma that Stauskas carried into last season, but he will have to prove he can adapt to All-Big Ten—if not All-American—expectations.
Dwayne Polee, San Diego State
With All-American point guard Xavier Thames gone, there's a scoring void at the top of the San Diego State lineup, a group that was inconsistent with him around in the first place. Nominally, it appears that rising junior Winston Shepard will be the man who coach Steve Fisher builds around, but senior-to-be Dwayne Polee may be a more versatile bet.
Shepard shot a mere 27.7 percent on shots from mid-range and beyond, according to Hoop-Math. Compare that to Polee's 35.2 percent, which still isn't all that hot. However, Polee was a 39 percent shooter from outside the arc, which should give him first dibs on many of the shots Thames leaves behind.
The team's third-leading scorer in 2013-14 (8.5 PPG) despite playing less than 18 minutes per game, Polee began showing his true capabilities in the postseason. He averaged 14 PPG in the Mountain West and NCAA tournaments, sinking 13 of 24 three-pointers in those six games.
Polee and center Skylar Spencer were the only Aztecs with 100 shot attempts to post effective field-goal percentages north of 50 last season. Unlike Shepard, Polee's jumper already appears to be in good working order, so he should be the best bet to lead the team in scoring—at least early in the season.
Norman Powell, UCLA
UCLA coach Steve Alford isn't finding his cupboard totally bare as he prepares for the 2014-15 season, but he's going to be asked to make a gourmet meal with ingredients that may not be ripe yet.
Freshmen like Isaac Hamilton, Kevon Looney and Thomas Welsh will need to produce from their first moments of playing time, but it's senior-to-be Norman Powell who should provide whatever veteran leadership the team can muster.
Powell nearly doubled his scoring average last season, his first as a full-time starter. He's highly capable of creating his own offense, as Hoop-Math shows that only 43.6 percent of his two-point baskets were assisted. He won't be crippled by the loss of Bruins playmaker Kyle Anderson, but like anyone else, he'll be helped if Hamilton or rising sophomore Bryce Alford can adequately anchor the point guard spot.
The 6'4", 215-pound wing was hard to stop in the paint, converting on more than 67 percent of his shots at the rim. His athleticism will be difficult for Pac-12 defenders to contain as long as he's not fighting double- and triple-teams. Alford and those freshmen can win by getting out of Powell's way, but they'll still need to produce when called on.
Rodney Purvis, UConn
UConn could be preparing for another season with a point guard-dominant offense, as Ryan Boatright is ready to slide into the driver's seat kept warm the last three years by Shabazz Napier. However, Boatright is better served by proving to NBA scouts that he can run an offense than showing that he can score 18-20 PPG.
Coach Kevin Ollie is ready to integrate NC State transfer Rodney Purvis into next season's attack. Ollie lamented the year of waiting in February, calling Purvis a "Ferrari in the garage that I can't drive," according to Neill Ostrout of the Journal Inquirer (Manchester, Conn.).
Purvis' lone season at NC State offered only occasional flashes to suggest he could take control of a game. He shot 38.5 percent from long range but made only four triples over the Wolfpack's final 13 games.
Purvis blamed a poor fit in State coach Mark Gottfried's offense for his transfer. Ollie has had an entire season to work on sliding Purvis into his system, so the player's primary concern will lie in merely separating himself from a crowded backcourt.
Sophomore-to-be Terrence Samuel, junior college transfer Sam Cassell Jr. and freshman Daniel Hamilton will all be vying for minutes on the wing. Whoever stakes a claim to the starting spot could be a threat for All-AAC honors.
Jarvis Summers, Ole Miss
It takes a special kind of player to average 17.3 PPG while sharing the court with human heat check Marshall Henderson, a player who considers the phrase "in-the-gym range" more of a challenge than a descriptor. Ole Miss point guard Jarvis Summers was the Rebels' primary creative force in 2013-14, and he should be on every early short list for 2015 SEC Player of the Year.
Summers improved his effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage by nearly 10 points each over his sophomore season, ranking in the SEC's top 10 in both categories, according to StatSheet.com. He also finished eighth in the conference in scoring and fourth in assists.
The Rebels will need to come down from the Henderson buzz and structure an offense that's not predicated around throwing up hundreds of three-pointers every game. Summers will be the key to stitching everything together between the returnees, junior college imports like Roderick Lawrence and Stefan Moody and D-I transfers like M.J. Rhett.
If all goes well, Ole Miss could make a run up the SEC standings the way Georgia did in 2013-14. If not, they may settle on a cot in the basement, fighting the rats for a dirty blanket. Either way, it'll be a surprise if Summers isn't getting his points.
Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
Remember how irritated all the non-Michigan State fans got about writers giving MSU a pass because injuries were so omnipresent in 2013-14? Here's some proof that those injuries were real: Swingman Denzel Valentine, perhaps the biggest all-out hustler on the entire team, was the only player on the whole roster to play in all 38 games.
This season, coach Tom Izzo has to rebuild on the fly around Valentine, forward Branden Dawson and point guard Travis Trice. Dawson should be a double-double threat every night, but Valentine has triple-double potential. Consider his 11-point, 11-rebound, six-assist, four-steal effort against Penn State last February.
The biggest question that Spartans fans have to ask themselves is how much faith they have in Valentine improving last season's ugly 40.8 percent shooting.
Hoop-Math shows Valentine as a 49.3 percent shooter at the rim in 2013-14, and that's not going to be acceptable for a primary option, especially one who goes 6'5" and 225 pounds. It's not like Valentine's a 5'7" point guard simply trying to get knocked about and go to the foul line.
How well Valentine fares offensively will determine where Michigan State slots into the Big Ten race next season. If he can't score efficiently, who takes up the slack? Kenny Kaminski? Gavin Schilling? Matt Costello? Sparty would be forced into becoming San Diego State East, winning more games 65-63 than 83-75.