Predicting the Most Improved College Basketball Players for the 2014-15 Season
College basketball fans usually look to incoming freshmen to revitalize a team over the offseason, but sometimes the key to a big year is hiding in plain sight. Former reserves or little-noticed starters can develop into team leaders, much as Wisconsin’s Frank Kaminsky did in 2013-14 after two anonymous years on the bench.
Next year’s Badgers feature another fine candidate to go from the second unit to a primary role in the offense. Energetic forward Nigel Hayes showed enormous promise as a freshman reserve, and now he’ll get his shot as part of a starting lineup that's bidding for a return to the Final Four.
Read on for more on Hayes’ prospects in Madison, along with 14 more lesser lights from 2013-14 who are set to make huge gains in productivity next season. The highest-ranked players here are the ones who have the farthest to go—that is, the ones with the least starting experience and the worst performance so far.
15. Denzel Valentine, Michigan State
In his first two seasons in East Lansing, Denzel Valentine has done everything but score. The versatile swingman will have to be more aggressive in 2014-15, as Michigan State’s depleted roster leaves the Spartans in need of a new star.
Even with Travis Trice ready to take over the point guard job, it’s the playmaking Valentine who will really make the offense flow next season.
He has the court vision at 6’5” to pick defenders apart from the wing and the three-point shot to punish them for backing off. Adding even a respectable dribble-drive game will make him one of the Big Ten’s top offensive threats.
14. Caris LeVert, Michigan
Last season, Nik Stauskas went from being part of Trey Burke’s supporting cast to becoming a one-of-a-kind offensive leader. Now, one of Stauskas’ lieutenants is ready to make the same transition.
Caris LeVert is a big-time three-point shooter (.408), but it was his ability to create shots off the dribble that opened eyes last season.
He’ll need both skills as the new headliner for a Wolverines backcourt that still features plenty of talent (including sniper Zak Irvin) in Stauskas’ absence.
13. Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke
Although he arrived in Durham as the Blue Devils’ top 2012 recruit, Rasheed Sulaimon has never taken over the team the way predecessor Austin Rivers did.
He won’t be the top dog next season, either—that title is sure to belong to first-year center Jahlil Okafor—but he’s also all but guaranteed to have a career year as a junior.
Always a fiery defender, Sulaimon will be the top perimeter weapon in Duke’s offense next season.
With pass-first point guard Tyus Jones and defensive stopper Justise Winslow arriving as freshmen, the versatile shooting guard will be free to concentrate on raining three-pointers and slashing to the rim.
12. Rodney Purvis, UConn
When Rodney Purvis’ college career started, he was part of a jaw-dropping N.C. State recruiting class headlined by T.J. Warren.
Now, superscorer Warren is off to the NBA, and Purvis (looking for a fresh start in Storrs) has a chance to match his old classmate’s offensive fireworks.
For all his athletic prowess, the 6’4” Purvis was little more than a complementary player in his one season with the Wolfpack.
He’ll get a chance to be the headliner as a Husky, where he’ll have veteran Ryan Boatright to feed him and a wide-open offense to let him attack the basket at will.
11. Jabari Bird, California
Jabari Bird showed immense potential as a freshman with such games as his 7-of-8, 19-point, eight-rebound effort against Arkansas in the NIT. He also disappeared with worrisome regularity, including five straight single-digit scoring nights to close the regular season.
With Justin Cobbs having graduated, Bird is going to be handed the keys to the Cal offense next season, and the bet here is that he’ll be ready to take advantage.
With support from fellow high-flyer Tyrone Wallace and sturdy forward David Kravish, the 6'6" shooting guard should come close to doubling last season’s 8.3 point-per-game average.
10. Stefan Nastic, Stanford
Four Stanford starters scored in double digits last season, and then there was Stefan Nastic. The junior center deferred to Dwight Powell and Josh Huestis in his first year in the starting lineup, but with those veterans gone, he’ll be the main man in the middle.
Considering the show he put on in the NCAA tournament—when his average jumped four points to 11.7 per game—the 6’11” Canadian shouldn’t have much trouble embracing an expanded role in the offense.
He’ll also benefit from having explosive classmate Chasson Randle back to put pressure on the opposition from the outside.
9. Skylar Spencer, San Diego State
Last year’s Aztecs were a great defensive team with a one-man offense. Now that Xavier Thames is gone, one of the leading candidates to grab a share of his shot attempts is rising junior center Skylar Spencer.
Already a first-class shot-blocker, the 6’10” Spencer can jump out of the gym.
His career .600 field-goal percentage owes a great deal to his dunking prowess, but if his offseason efforts pay off with any kind of a back-to-the-basket game, he’ll leave his old single-digit scoring averages in the dust.
8. Anthony Gill, Virginia
Instant-offense subs don’t often come in 6’8” packages, but Anthony Gill defied convention as Virginia’s top reserve in 2013-14. The agile forward produced more than his share of rallies for the inconsistent offense of the ACC champs.
Now that Akil Mitchell has graduated, Gill will bring his aggressive approach to the starting lineup. He'll need to carry a hefty share of the Cavaliers' slow-paced attack, but having London Perrantes back to run the offense will help his cause.
7. Rico Gathers, Baylor
Baylor football coach Art Briles wishes he had linebackers as strong as 6’8”, 270-pound Rico Gathers.
The titanic forward has spent his first two seasons buried on the bench in a deep frontcourt, but he’s still managed to make a name as one of the most devastating offensive rebounders in the country.
With the Bears losing three of their four double-digit scorers from a year ago, Gathers will finally get his chance to be a primary option inside.
Gather is not the most artistic of scorers, but returning point guard Kenny Chery will create some easy looks to supplement his massive quantities of second-chance points.
6. Nigel Hayes, Wisconsin
Big Ten favorite Wisconsin features four returning starters from a Final Four squad. The front-runner to fill the fifth spot in that stacked lineup is power forward Nigel Hayes, last year’s top reserve.
As a freshman, he provided a physicality and energy that the rest of the Badgers didn’t always show, especially on the glass.
He’ll make for a devastating inside-outside combination with jump-shooting center Frank Kaminsky, whom Hayes will very likely overtake for the team lead in rebounding.
5. Terry Rozier, Louisville
Terry Rozier draws the thankless task of replacing the iconic Russ Smith in Louisville’s starting five. Fortunately for the Ohio-born sophomore, he has the talent to start writing his own legend soon enough.
Rozier provided impressive scoring off the bench last season, much as Smith once did prior to cracking the starting lineup.
The rising sophomore’s blend of three-point shooting and aggressive dribble penetration will provide a nice complement to the skills of fellow backcourt returnee Chris Jones and mobile big man Montrezl Harrell.
4. Darius Carter, Wichita State
Wichita State’s high expectations for 2014-15 are based primarily on the perimeter stars—Fred VanVleet, Ron Baker, et al.—coming back from last year’s 35-1 squad.
Even so, the Shockers' hopes will rest just as heavily on Darius Carter, the lone forward who looks equipped to make an impact in Cleanthony Early’s absence.
As a junior, the 6’7” Carter provided stalwart rebounding while spelling the dynamic Early. He has the muscle to serve as a legitimate low-post scorer too, especially in the Missouri Valley.
With the perimeter scorers drawing the defense, the former JUCO standout should become a Division I star next year.
3. Josh Oglesby, Iowa
Even on an Iowa team that boasted one of the country’s deepest offenses, the loss of Roy Devyn Marble to the NBA will be felt. His likely replacement in the starting lineup is also the Hawkeye who is best positioned to replace his perimeter scoring: Josh Oglesby.
Oglesby has seen plenty of action in three years on the bench, but it wasn’t until last season that he finally found his three-point stroke (.403 on 77 attempts).
He’ll get plenty of good looks, from beyond the arc and elsewhere, with Mike Gesell back to run the point and Aaron White drawing double-teams inside.
2. Demetrius Jackson, Notre Dame
Demetrius Jackson was far from the only high-rated point guard recruit who struggled as a freshman last season.
He was, however, the only one who had to endure the midseason disappearance of his team’s best player (Jerian Grant, kayoed by academic troubles).
With Grant set to return to the helm next season, Notre Dame’s offense should be back on track, and that’s good news for presumptive starter Jackson.
The 6’1” sharpshooter can step right into Eric Atkins’ old spot in the lineup, and it won’t be a surprise if he puts up numbers at least as good as the ones the Irish were accustomed to getting from Atkins.
1. Chris Walker, Florida
Chris Walker barely stepped on the court for Florida last season, when he couldn’t even play until February thanks to a series of eligibility hurdles. As a sophomore, he will be a favorite to succeed now-graduated Gator Scottie Wilbekin as SEC Player of the Year.
The 6’10” Walker is a supreme athlete, as he showed with short bursts of shot blocking and dunking prowess last season.
With a full offseason and preseason to polish his raw offensive moves, he’ll be ready to outmaneuver the few defenders he can’t beat with pure quickness and leaping ability.