Predicting the Best 6th Men in College Basketball in 2014-15 Season
The top college basketball programs stay at the top because they offer an overall experience strong enough to make players accept bench minutes when said ballers could be stars at other schools.
Some players manage to shine in those reserve roles, making themselves invaluable at the end of games even as they sit at the opening tipoff. A great sixth man broadens a coach's options exponentially, giving him roster flexibility that can transform a team from also-ran to contender.
These 10 players—plus five freshmen landing in great spots to contribute immediately—could serve as great weapons off their teams' bench.
If they don't just go ahead and crack the starting five, that is.
Players presented in alphabetical order by school.
Honorable Mentions: Freshmen in Superb Situations
Justise Winslow, Duke
The Blue Devils have plenty of perimeter options, and coach Mike Krzyzewski could easily go ahead and start Winslow from day one. What seems more likely, though, is a three-guard look with Quinn Cook, Rasheed Sulaimon and Tyus Jones. This would leave Coach K free to insert Winslow against any perimeter player who gets off to a hot start, since the athletic Texan can defend multiple positions.
Brandone Francis, Florida
Francis arrives in Gainesville with plenty of fanfare, and he could push his way into a three-guard lineup. Otherwise, he'll serve as a more versatile complement to outside sniper Michael Frazier, who's simply too pure a shooter to shunt to the pine.
Domantas Sabonis, Gonzaga
A Hall of Famer's son, Sabonis joins Gonzaga fresh off of logging 10 minutes per game in the Spanish professional leagues, sort of an unpaid internship. At 6'10" and approximately 210 pounds, he's not going to be spending much time backing up center Przemek Karnowski, but he can certainly caddy at the 4 for sharpshooting Kentucky transfer Kyle Wiltjer.
Theo Pinson, North Carolina
Pinson may be the most natural small forward on the Carolina roster, capable of impacting games on either end of the floor. He may come off the bench, however, if Isaiah Hicks' experience or Justin Jackson's shooting stroke wins one of them a starting role.
Malik Pope, San Diego State
The Aztecs have a strong stable of athletes at the forward spots, with the likes of Winston Shepard, J.J. O'Brien and Dakarai Allen demanding a chunk of minutes. Pope's a tremendous athlete with some range on his shot, too good to leave on the bench for long. Just don't expect him to surpass veterans Shepard and O'Brien for a starting role immediately.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona
It seems a bit of a cheat to tap Rondae Hollis-Jefferson for a piece like this, because he's already proven himself a very capable sixth man. He was sometimes the only Arizona reserve to play significant time in a freshman campaign that saw him average 25.3 minutes per game.
Besides, with two starting spots open, it stands to reason that RHJ is in line for one of them, right? Eh, not so fast, my friend.
Hollis-Jefferson may find himself once again stuck behind a more skilled teammate. Last year it was classmate Aaron Gordon and the more experienced Brandon Ashley, whose late-season injury opened the door for RHJ to find a greater role.
This season, California freshman sensation Stanley Johnson may stand in Hollis-Jefferson's way. Johnson may be the most pro-ready talent in the 2014 freshman class, capable of controlling games as a scorer, ball-handler or defender. Hollis-Jefferson has the latter skill mastered, but is still developing as an offensive player.
If Johnson slides into the backcourt, a move he's capable of making, Hollis-Jefferson should have the small forward position to himself. If not, another season of 25-30 MPG should get him noticed by plenty of college hoop media and pro scouts, whether he's starting games or merely finishing them.
Aaron Cosby, Illinois
Illinois enters the 2014-15 season missing two of last season's three most effective three-point shooters. That's the bad news. The good news is that there is no shortage of guards capable of replacing the production of Jon Ekey and Joseph Bertrand.
Seton Hall transfer Aaron Cosby will figure into the crowded point guard battle, along with senior Tracy Abrams and Oregon State refugee Ahmad Starks. A 40 percent three-point shooter as a sophomore in 2012-13, Cosby's also a solid creator off the dribble, able to get points in the paint or at the foul line.
That willingness to penetrate can also lead to some turnovers, as Cosby showed in committing nearly three per game. Ball-security issues will likely see the 6'3" Cosby slotted in as the backup shooting guard behind sophomore Kendrick Nunn, but his ability to play either backcourt spot will ensure that he'll be off the bench quickly.
If Cosby's stroke is as pure as it was when he was a Pirate, he'll be a dangerous weapon for an Illinois offense that struggled to connect from the arc last year.
Jamari Traylor, Kansas
Early NBA draft entries and transfers have so radically altered the Kansas basketball roster that the 2014-15 Jayhawks will feature only three scholarship upperclassmen. Unfortunately for junior power forward Jamari Traylor, classmate Perry Ellis and Arkansas transfer Hunter Mickelson both play the same position.
All three will see extensive time alongside and in relief of one another while also working with elite freshman Cliff Alexander. Traylor, however, may have the inside track on Mickelson for the first minutes off of coach Bill Self's bench.
Traylor has continued to improve almost daily over his two seasons in Lawrence, averaging 4.8 points and 4.1 rebounds in 16 minutes per game last year. Most of his best games came against weaker competition—see his 17 points and 14 rebounds against Eastern Kentucky in the NCAA tournament—but he's also the same guy who pulled down five offensive rebounds against Texas in February.
Traylor also ripped 22 boards in 50 combined minutes in early-season tilts against Florida, Colorado and Georgetown, so don't discount his ability to produce against the big boys.
Nino Williams, Kansas State
Nino Williams supplanted Shane Southwell in Kansas State's starting lineup by the 2013-14 season's end, but he may once again fill the sixth-man role as a senior.
Williams occasionally put up spectacular games last year, particularly against Baylor (35 points, 18 rebounds in two meetings). Consistency, however, was not a strong suit.
Sometimes, Williams didn't even stay around long enough to contribute to the Wildcats' cause. In four different games, Williams committed four or more fouls in 12 or fewer minutes.
Despite his 6'5" frame, Williams is one of the Big 12's best offensive rebounders, and he can provide sneaky scoring with his reliable mid-range shot. Sophomore Wesley Iwundu and senior Thomas Gipson should hold down the forward spots for K-State, however.
Until Williams proves consistently able to contain the aggression that put him on the bench so often, it might be hard for coach Bruce Weber to trust him with 30 minutes per game.
Whoever Kentucky's Sixth Man Is
Yes, that slide title is serious. If you can confidently predict how Kentucky coach John Calipari's McDonald's All-American-laden rotation will shake out, particularly in the frontcourt, chances are good that you'll be wrong. And so will I, but here goes.
The Wildcats' forward and center positions are loaded with guys who can either protect the rim on defense or spread the floor on offense. Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee are strong at the former, while freshmen Trey Lyles and Karl Towns can do the latter.
Junior Alex Poythress, meanwhile, struggles with both. If he can get his perimeter stroke back in order—remember, he made 42 percent of his limited threes as a freshman—he can punch his ticket to the NBA as a small forward.
A personal prediction: Lyles starts at power forward, Cauley-Stein reclaims his center position and Calipari turns up the fire under Poythress by starting freshman swingman Devin Booker next to the returning Harrison twins.
As for who's first off the bench, take your pick. It'll change from day to day, but whoever it is, he'd probably be an All-American for anyone else in the nation. Expect Poythress to see first crack as Calipari tries to showcase the longest-serving McDonald's All-American of his tenure at UK.
Leslee Smith, Nebraska
Former SMU Mustang Leslee Smith had a solid first season at Nebraska, playing an important role in getting the Huskers to their first NCAA tournament since 1998. As coach Tim Miles' team tries to produce a worthy encore, Smith will once again be an important piece of the rotation.
Smith and Florida expatriate Walter Pitchford were Nebraska's only true big men last season, and Miles split the minutes nearly down the middle between the two.
While Pitchford spent more time on the perimeter showing off his three-point shooting range, Smith made his living crashing the glass. His 4.8 rebounds per game tied for second on the team, and he ranked in the Big Ten's top 10 in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentage, according to StatSheet.com. Scoring was more the problem, as Smith only produced 29 points in the Huskers' final 13 games.
With some capable post support this season—Georgetown transfer Moses Ayegba and freshman Jacob Hammond should both see minutes—Miles could opt for a more conventional two-big lineup, playing Smith and Pitchford side by side. But in that case, who does he bench?
Yeoman senior David Rivers? Big Ten scoring champ Terran Petteway? The latter is certainly not happening, though the former might. Either way, expect more playing time for Smith if he can make himself a more consistent offensive presence.
Kameron Williams, Ohio State
A bout with mononucleosis cost Kameron Williams a freshman season in which he would have been a sorely needed perimeter threat. Ohio State shot a mere 32.4 percent as a team from three-point range, good (?) for ninth in the Big Ten.
Heading into the 2014-15 campaign, the Buckeyes' shooting need is even more acute. Coach Thad Matta welcomes McDonald's All-American D'Angelo Russell, who may be the best pure scorer in the class of 2014, but Williams will provide support at either guard spot.
Even while the Buckeyes struggled to put points on the board, Matta refused to burn Williams' redshirt after the player recovered from his illness. He told Cleveland.com's Doug Lesmerises that to do so would be "selfish," per Lesmerises' tweet.
With a fully healthy Williams joining Russell and senior Shannon Scott, the Buckeye backcourt should be much more potent offensively than it has been since William Buford departed in 2012.
Keith Frazier, SMU
It takes a coach with the gravitas of Larry Brown to convince a McDonald's All-American—his program's first ever, no less—to not only accept a bench role as a freshman, but return for a sophomore season that likely promises more of the same.
Dallas product Keith Frazier stayed home to help Brown put the Mustangs on the map, and in the end he did. Just not to the extent he might have liked. Frazier averaged 5.4 points per game in 14.8 minutes a night, neither figure constituting a typical Burger Boy's debut season.
With top freshman Emmanuel Mudiay joining veteran Nic Moore in this season's backcourt, Frazier's still unlikely to become a starter. However, his strong finish to last season—11 of 18 three-pointers over the Mustangs' final eight games—suggests that he can certainly provide a capable scoring threat off the bench.
At 6'5", he won't be a liability alongside the similarly built Mudiay in a three-guard look, and the touted pair should join with Moore to give the Mustangs one of the nation's most dangerous backcourts.
Kris Jenkins, Villanova
On a veteran Villanova team, freshmen Josh Hart and Kris Jenkins found enough moments of glory to engender optimism for their encore seasons. Coach Jay Wright will likely promote Hart to the starting lineup, leaving the burly Jenkins to provide instant offense from the bench once more.
Jenkins struggled with his consistency as a freshman, but over the Cats' final 11 games, he was at least reliable from the three-point arc. He sank 16 of 32 shots (50 percent for the math majors out there) over that span, salvaging a season that started with promise—12 points in the Battle 4 Atlantis title game against Iowa—but bogged down during Big East play.
At 255 pounds, Jenkins is best suited for a power forward role, especially considering his occasional struggles to defend quicker wings. In that position, expect him to provide capable support to All-Big East performer JayVaughn Pinkston.
Bronson Koenig, Wisconsin
Above, we see Wisconsin guard Bronson Koenig getting to the basket against the lengthy and athletic defense of the Kentucky Wildcats. Koenig introduced himself to the nation with his 11-point performance against UK at the Final Four, and like his team, he's well positioned to capitalize on last season's success.
Depending on how Badger coach Bo Ryan wants to construct his lineup, either Koenig or classmate Nigel Hayes will fill the starting role vacated by sharpshooter Ben Brust. This writer considers Hayes the more likely fit, as his mid-range-and-in game complement the perimeter forays of center Frank Kaminsky.
With Koenig coming off the bench, he can contribute at either guard spot. His 32.8 percent three-point production is underwhelming, but he can get hot. Just ask Minnesota, which was blasted out of the Big Ten tournament partially on the basis of Koenig's perfect shooting night (14 points on five shots, including four triples).
Koenig's shot will need to become more efficient, especially if junior Sam Dekker has another perplexing season of play that qualifies as solid, yet still beneath his considerable talents. But even if Koenig's consistency doesn't improve, don't expect him to wait until the season's final weekend to have a heroic outburst like the one against Kentucky.
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