College Basketball Stars Blessed with Perfect Sidekicks for 2014-15 Season
Having great players is a first step to a great college basketball team, but having players who fit well together can be just as valuable. Having the right people around a star can make all the difference in whether his postseason ends in Doug McDermott tears or Shabazz Napier grins.
One of next year’s top performers will be Napier’s former right-hand man, Ryan Boatright. As the undersized guard steps into the lead role at UConn, he’ll benefit immensely from having oversized center Amida Brimah patrolling the paint behind him.
Herein is a closer look at the long and the short of UConn’s pairing, along with the rest of the best-matched one-two punches in college hoops for 2014-15.
Kevin Pangos and Przemek Karnowski (Gonzaga)
For the first time in his Gonzaga career, Kevin Pangos (standing) won’t be deferring to anybody. The rising senior combo guard has far more scoring punch than any other Bulldog, and the transition dynamo is also going to be Mark Few's go-to option in the half court.
Defensively, though, Pangos has never been anything special, so he’ll be happy to have towering Przemek Karnowski (seated) backing him up again.
The 7’1” rising junior is mostly a rebounder and rim protector, but he won’t mind getting an occasional low-post basket after Pangos has spread out the defense.
Isaac Hamilton and Kevon Looney (UCLA)
UCLA lost playmaker Kyle Anderson and scorer Jordan Adams to the NBA draft, but Isaac Hamilton—who sat last season as a de facto transfer from UTEP—has the talent to fill both roles.
The fleet-footed guard will take a lot more shots than he sets up, though, so it’s a good thing he’ll have one of the Pac-12’s best offensive rebounders to clean up after him.
Freshman Kevon Looney is a high-energy power forward with Kevin Love-like potential on the glass. He’s not a back-to-the-basket scorer at this stage, but he’s got ample athletic ability to dunk home a few Hamilton assists.
Caris LeVert and Zak Irvin (Michigan)
Caris LeVert (at right) is poised to become the Big Ten's best all-around offensive weapon next season.
The 6’6” guard boasts the deadeye jump shot common to so many Wolverines, but he’s also a terrific slasher who can attack the spread-out defenses that John Beilein’s system creates.
Of course, once he slices into the paint, he’ll need another marksman on the outside to provide a drive-and-kick option.
That’s where rising sophomore Zak Irvin comes in, in his capacity as the only player on Michigan’s roster whose long-range shot is even more dangerous than LeVert’s own.
Kenny Chery and Rico Gathers (Baylor)
Making Baylor fans forget Pierre Jackson was too big a job even for Kenny Chery, but the JUCO transfer enjoyed an impressive debut season at the Division I level.
Now the main man on a depleted Bears roster, he’s got scoring and passing ability to spare but can run into trouble with his streaky jump shot.
Of course, on next year’s Baylor squad, a missed shot will be among the team’s best offensive options. Bruising power forward Rico Gathers can’t do much against a set defense, but his peerless offensive-rebounding ability lets him dominate on putbacks.
Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet (Wichita State)
Fred VanVleet was already one of the best point guards in the country in 2013-14, but he’s the kind of pass-first playmaker who’s always going to defer to someone else in the flow of the offense.
That leaves plenty of room for classmate Ron Baker to step in and replace Cleanthony Early as the Shockers’ No. 1 scoring threat.
Baker is a fine three-point shooter, but he can score from anywhere on the floor with VanVleet setting him up. Conversely, VanVleet’s own impressive jump shot will let Baker show off his solid passing skills.
Rashad Vaughn and Goodluck Okonoboh (UNLV)
Rashad Vaughn has as balanced—not to mention as explosive—a game as any guard in the 2014 freshman class. The 6’6” Minnesotan can score, defend and even rebound pretty well, but even he needs help inside to take care of opposing big men.
Fortunately for him, classmate Goodluck Okonoboh is ready to leap to the top of the Mountain West’s shot-blocking charts.
He’s just 6’9”, but he has the agility and timing to dominate on defense, while Vaughn’s offensive prowess covers for his own lack of measurable scoring ability.
Frank Kaminsky and Nigel Hayes (Wisconsin)
Frank Kaminsky erupted from nearly total anonymity to become one of the nation’s top centers a season ago.
As dangerous as he is when launching three-pointers or blocking shots, though, the spindly 7-footer is nothing special on the glass. He’s also not as aggressive near the basket as Bo Ryan might prefer.
Both of those omissions, however, were addressed very nicely last season whenever Nigel Hayes came off the bench.
The energetic rising sophomore is set to join the Badgers’ starting lineup, where he’ll provide the physicality that last year’s slender frontcourt often lacked.
Jabari Bird and David Kravish (California)
A sprained ankle sidetracked Jabari Bird’s promising freshman year, but the versatile guard is ready to replace Justin Cobbs as the main man in the California Golden Bears’ offense.
Like his predecessor, the explosive Bird will benefit immensely from having David Kravish around to do the dirty work.
Kravish is a classic blue-collar power forward, a first-rate rebounder and shot-blocker who can keep opposing big men from running rampant inside.
He gets his share of points on second-chance opportunities, but he’s not someone who needs a lot of offensive touches, which will let Bird’s combination of jump-shooting and driving ability shine.
Chris Walker and Michael Frazier II (Florida)
With his eligibility problems behind him, Chris Walker is poised to overwhelm the SEC next season. The hyper-athletic 6'10" forward is going to pile up highlights on dunks and blocks while controlling the paint for the Florida Gators.
However, after just 87 minutes of action as a freshman, his post moves are still more than a bit raw.
That’s why he’ll be so glad to have Michael Frazier II—who could easily lead the nation in three-pointers made—punishing defenses that try to double-team him on the block.
Cliff Alexander and Kelly Oubre Jr. (Kansas)
It’s tough to be sure which of Kansas’ awe-inspiring freshmen will be the star and which will be the sidekick, but given Bill Self’s affinity for big men, Cliff Alexander (at right) appears to have the inside track.
The hard-dunking, shot-swatting big man is going to be the Big 12’s most impressive raw athlete, and he knows how to translate those gifts into eye-catching stats on both ends of the floor.
Kelly Oubre Jr., for his part, is a do-it-all small forward whose terrific three-point shot—the Jayhawks’ best—will stretch defenses to create space for Alexander in the post.
And, when opposing wing players start settling for jumpers to avoid the big man inside, Oubre (at left) will get to show off his own gifts as a shot-blocker.
Ryan Boatright and Amida Brimah (UConn)
Renowned as a defensive stopper during UConn’s national title run, Ryan Boatright has plenty of other skills that were overshadowed by Shabazz Napier’s magnificent senior year.
With Napier off to the pros, his former sidekick will become a high-scoring point guard in Napier's own image, including a terrific three-point shot.
For all his virtues, though, Boatright stands just 6’0”, a fact that will make him all the more grateful for the rise of 7’0” Amida Brimah at center.
The Ghanaian shot-blocking ace will smother any scorers who get past Boatright on the perimeter, not to mention providing the Huskies with a substantial presence as a rebounder (not Boatright’s strength).
Jahlil Okafor and Tyus Jones (Duke)
Jabari Parker’s successor as The Next Big Thing at Duke is certainly big enough to handle the job. Jahlil Okafor (middle), the top-rated freshman in the country, per the ESPN 100 rankings, stands 6’10” and 265 pounds, with shot-blocking and post scoring ability to match his massive frame.
He’ll be guaranteed plenty of touches on the block, too, because Tyus Jones—the nation’s top freshman point guard, also according to ESPN, pictured at right with classmate Justise Winslow and Okafor—will be feeding him.
Jones is a pass-first type who won’t begrudge Okafor his shots, and he’s also a playmaking defender who can be extra-aggressive on the outside with the towering center guarding the rim.