Kentucky Basketball: Who Will Be Wildcats' Most Improved Returning Player?

Thad NovakCorrespondent IJuly 29, 2014

ST LOUIS, MO - MARCH 23:  Dakari Johnson #44 of the Kentucky Wildcats drives to the basket against Darius Carter #12 of the Wichita State Shockers during the third round of the 2014 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Scottrade Center on March 23, 2014 in St Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Kentucky basketball has the unaccustomed luxury of getting to develop its young talent this offseason. With three starters and the entire bench returning, John Calipari will get to do more teaching than usual as the veterans look to build on last year’s near miss in the national title game. Some of those returnees, though, are likely to grow up a lot more than others in the time before the 2014-15 season tips off.

The least likely of the bunch to make drastic improvements for the upcoming campaign are the rising juniors, Willie Cauley-Stein and Alex Poythress. Neither made a dramatic leap in his skill set prior to his sophomore year, when players typically show their greatest improvement. In all likelihood, they'll contribute in a similar capacity to last year's, providing a valuable spark off the bench but not expanding their games enough to change their roles.

The rising sophomores provide more promising candidates for major offseason evolution. Dominique Hawkins, who served largely as a defensive caddy for a struggling Andrew Harrison, is well aware that he needs to become more of a scorer to expand his role in the backcourt. However, valuable though Hawkins was a year ago—and likely though he is to raise his game—he lacks the exceptional physical tools of the roster’s many McDonald’s All-Americans, meaning that his ceiling isn’t quite as high.

David J. Phillip/Associated Press

Marcus Lee has the opposite problem, having shown prodigious athleticism, but he missed out on much of the valuable on-court experience Hawkins earned a season ago. The big man is a dark horse to emerge as a star, but the crowding at the center position in Lexington is very much working against him.

That leaves the three returning starters from the national title game: the Harrison twins and Dakari Johnson. All three have good reason to be targeting a jump to the NBA after 2014-15, but they all have weaknesses to address if they want to reach that level.

Andrew Harrison’s defensive woes are the most obvious concern, though his turnovers won’t help him any with pro coaches either. Both are problems for which a year of experience should provide significant relief, and a much-improved point guard isn’t an unrealistic hope for Kentucky fans.

Andrew’s brother, Aaron, didn’t struggle as visibly last year, but his last-second heroics masked the fact that he wasn’t nearly as consistent a shooter (or scorer) during the first 39 minutes of the game clock. The confidence gained from an impressive NCAA tournament will serve him well—as will a better-run offense, courtesy of his twin—and he’s a good bet for a solid, if not dramatic, improvement next year.

For a major eye-opener, though, the best candidate is Johnson. Unlike the other returning players, he was eased into the starting lineup relatively late in the season, meaning that he didn’t have as much time to find a comfort zone in the top job. He’s also the sophomore with the most need to adapt to his own physical development, as the pace of the college game is no easy adjustment for a 7’0”, 265-pound freshman.

Whether he opts to slim down or simply enters the year more accustomed to the demands of his bulk, he’ll be a more effective full-court player now that he knows what he’s up against. His half-court offense was already a strength, and that, too, will be boosted by his experience of starting in high-pressure games against high-level defenses.

On top of all that, he’ll have another full preseason of learning from both Cauley-Stein and Lee (two superlative shot-blockers) as he tries to shore up the weakest area of his game. Practicing with freshman Karl-Anthony Towns, another 7-footer with shot-blocking skills, will give him one more incentive to get his defense up to par and one more role model to help reach that level.

Johnson has the most room to improve of any Wildcat who saw regular playing time in 2013-14. He’s at the right age to make a massive leap in development, and he’s the best candidate on the Kentucky roster to go from good to spectacular next season.