College Basketball: 40 Breakthrough Players for the 2011-12 Season

Todd HawkinsCorrespondent IJuly 25, 2011

College Basketball: 40 Breakthrough Players for the 2011-12 Season

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    Every college hoops season is chock-full of surprises, from the role player who evolves into a key contributor to the guy who seems to completely come out of nowhere to make an impact for his team.

    Last season, we witnessed Kentucky's Josh Harrellson, Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor, Louisville's Preston Knowles and Peyton Siva, North Carolina's John Henson, Vanderbilt's Festus Ezeli and John Jenkins, Texas A&M's Khris Middleton, Maryland's Jordan Williams and Providence's Marshon Brooks—just to name a few—all have breakthrough seasons for their respective schools.

    For the upcoming 2011-12 season, I've listed 40 potential players primed to see a significant statistical increase in production from their 2010-11 campaigns.

Deshaun Thomas, Ohio State

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    Previously blocked from playing time during his freshman season by David Lighty, the left-handed 6’6” combo forward is ready to pick up where his predecessor left off.

    Thomas showed flashes of what’s to come after posting 11 games of at least 13 or more points throughout the 2010-11 season.

    In just 14 minutes of action per game, the Fort Wayne, Ind. native averaged 7.5 points and 3.5 rebounds while shooting 47.5 percent from the floor.

    Thomas’ versatile offensive repertoire should fit in perfectly with the Buckeyes as the third scoring option behind William Buford and Jared Sullinger.

    Thomas can score facing up, with his back to the basket and out on the perimeter.

    The dynamic sophomore should see his minutes, scoring and rebounding production nearly double next season at Ohio State.

Patric Young, Florida

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    At 19 years old, the 6’10” forward-center is currently the most physically gifted big man in the country at the collegiate level.

    Young has a chiseled frame, freakish athleticism and rare explosiveness, making him a force to be reckoned with both on the glass and at the defensive end.

    In 17.8 minutes of action per game for the Gators last season, the Jacksonville native averaged 3.4 points and 3.8 rebounds on 55.6 percent shooting.  

    This summer, Young participated in the Under-19 FIBA World Championships, connecting on 72 percent from the field (mostly dunks) on his way to 9.7 points and 6.8 rebounds in 19 minutes per contest for team USA.

    If you haven't already, I’d strongly suggest checking out Young's highlight reel of rim-rattling dunks from the tournament, which FIBA compiled on YouTube. The kid knows how to flush it down with authority, that's for sure.

    Now that Vernon Macklin, Alex Tyus and Chandler Parsons have exhausted their eligibility, Young will be the most important player on the floor for a guard-heavy Gator squad.

    If Young can continue polishing his back-to-the-basket game this summer, SEC teams are in for a world of hurt in 2011-12.

Thomas Robinson, Kansas

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    In just 14.6 minutes per game, the 6’9” power forward averaged 7.6 points and 6.4 rebounds on 60 percent shooting for the Jayhawks last season.

    Obviously, that’s ridiculously efficient production in such a short period of time on the court. 

    Robinson's per 40-minute rebounding average was higher than Kenneth Faried's, who led the nation in rebounding during his senior season at Morehead State.

    The lack of playing time in which Robinson received just goes to show how stacked the Jayhawks were last season.

    Robinson’s strength, athleticism and leaping ability—combined with his tenacious attitude— are the tools that make him a prolific rebounder.

    His relentlessness on the glass and high-energy motor should keep the Jayhawks in the Big 12 hunt this season.

    After playing behind the Morris twins since he's been at Kansas, Robinson is ready to burst onto the scene with a full-time gig.

    Given the hand he was dealt last season (losing his maternal grandparents and mother within a month), there’s not a guy I want to see succeed more than Robinson.

Terrence Ross, Washington

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    Despite the last-minute rejection of Kentucky forward Terrence Jones last spring, head coach Lorenzo Romar was still able to snag Jones’ highly rated friend and high school teammate, Washington native Terrence Ross.

    With Matthew Bryan-Amaning and Isaiah Thomas moving on to the NBA, the 6’6” athletic wing should step into a major role for the Huskies in 2011-12.

    Given his ability to play multiple positions on the floor, Ross will be the most versatile player on roster next season.

    The 20-year-old sophomore possesses a sweet stroke with unlimited range to match his ideal size on the wing. But most importantly, he has an array of ways to create his own shot, proving he’s much more than just a catch-and-shoot type player.

    Last season as a freshman, Ross averaged eight points and 2.8 rebounds on 44.3 percent shooting from the field. He connected on 44 of his 125 three-point attempts (35.2 percent).

    Ross elevated his game in the postseason, averaging 13 points over the final five games for the Huskies.

    Look for the dynamic sophomore to carry over last season’s momentum into a breakout campaign as go-to guy for the Huskies.

J'Covan Brown, Texas

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    J'Covan Brown has all the tools to be a prolific scorer at the collegiate level, but hasn't quite fully tapped into his potential for head coach Rick Barnes.

    After shooting 35.4 percent from the floor and 28.8 percent from beyond the arc as a freshman in 2009-10, Brown showed more consistency last season by improving his shot selection.

    As a sophomore, the 6’1” shooting guard averaged 10.4 points on 40.6 percent shooting while connecting at a much-improved 38.5 percent clip from long range.

    Brown seemed to finally turn the corner at the end of last season, posting back-to-back scoring games of 21 and 23 in the NCAA tournament.

    The Texas native will look to carry over last season’s tournament performances and pair up with incoming freshman point guard Myck Kabongo to lead the Horns into the 2011-12 season.

    With Jordan Hamilton, Tristan Thompson and Corey Joseph moving on to the NBA, there's not a better time to break out for the junior guard.

Dion Waiters, Syracuse

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    The ongoing battle of wills between Dion Waiters and head coach Jim Beoheim seemed likely to drive the two apart at season’s end.

    But Orange fans breathed a sigh of relief after the 6'4" shooting guard confirmed on Twitter in late April his return to Syracuse. 

    As a freshman in 2010-11, Waiters averaged 6.6 points, 1.6 rebounds, 1.5 assists and 1.1 steals while shooting 41.1 percent from the field.

    The highly rated Philly native was stuck in the doghouse for much of the season and found himself behind Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche for playing time in the backcourt, seeing just over 16 minutes per game.

    Heading into 2011-12, Waiters is arguably the most talented player on roster behind swingman Kris Joseph.

    If he and Beoheim can put their issues to bed, the strong Waiters should have a breakout sophomore season and help carry the Orange deeper into March.

Devin Booker, Clemson

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    The younger brother of former Clemson standout and current Washington Wizard forward Trevor Booker, Devin finally emerged from his brother’s shadow with his improved play for the Tigers last season.

    After an underachieving freshman campaign, the 6’8” 245-pound forward utilized his size, explosiveness and athleticism to begin blossoming into the versatile player many have expected him to become.

    In just over 24 minutes of action per contest, Booker averaged 8.1 points and 5.5 rebounds.

    Other than being an athletic big body that runs the floor well, rebounds and defends, Booker continues to improve his offensive skill set.

    Last season during ACC play, Booker displayed a solid back-to-the-basket game, including hook shots with both hands. And like his brother, he's shown the ability to knock it down out on the perimeter.

    With former Clemson standout Jerai Grant on his way out after playing his final season for the Tigers, Booker will join fellow junior forward Milton Jennings in anchoring down the front line for second-year head coach Brad Brownell.

Charles Abouo, BYU

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    Overshadowed by the play of Jimmer Fredette last season, Abouo came on strong down the stretch for the Cougars while Brandon Davies served his suspension.

    The more games he played, the more confidence Abouo seemed to gain on the court.

    His strength, athleticism and ability to guard multiple positions combined with his knack for the basketball is what makes Abouo such a solid rebounder and defender.

    Heading into 2011-12, the 6’5” slasher appears be the most well-rounded, versatile player for head coach Dave Rose.

    Abouo, known more for his unselfishness on the offensive end, will be depended on to step into an expanded scoring role for the Cougars now that the backcourt tandem of Jackson Emory and Fredette has moved on.

    Given his ability to blow by defenders to the bucket and hit open shots from the perimeter, Abouo should do just fine making the transition from glue guy to shouldering a good portion of the offensive load along with Noah Hartsock and Davies.

    Look for Abouo to nearly double his scoring average (7.2 points per game) from last season.

Richard Solomon, California

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    Last season, it was Solomon's high school teammate, Allen Crabbe, who broke onto the scene for head coach Mike Montgomery.

    With center Markhuri Sanders-Frison exhausting his eligibility, it opens the door wide open for Solomon to provide a tremendous boost in the frontcourt.

    The 6’10” sophomore center arrived to Cal as a tall, lanky kid with a ton of potential.

    As his freshman season progressed, Solomon steadily improved his play in the post, showing good hands, nimble feet and a soft shooting touch around the basket.

    The Los Angeles native averaged 5.6 points and 4.4 rebounds in a reserve role for the Golden Bears last season.

    He still has a long ways to go filling out physically, but thrives on his superior length and athleticism which helped make his presence felt on the defensive end (27 blocks).

    Solomon was invited to try out for the USA Under-19 team, but wasn't able to make the final roster. Next up is California's European tour this summer, which should greatly benefit him.

    In 2011-12, look for Solomon to slide into the starting lineup alongside Harper Kamp and double his scoring and rebounding production from last season.

Gerald Robinson, Georgia

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    Last season, Robinson was one of the more unheralded players not only for the Bulldogs, but in the SEC.

    The Nashville native quietly averaged 12.2 points on 44.2 percent shooting from the field, along with 2.7 rebounds and four assists per game.

    With the early departures of Trey Thompkins and Travis Leslie to the NBA, the 6’1” guard is more than capable of taking on the role of go-to guy.

    His senior season for Georgia will be a lot similar to one of his first two seasons at Tennessee State, where he scored more than 1,000 points before deciding to bring his game to Athens.

    The combo guard is one of the quickest players in the country with the rock, which helps him shred opposing defenses and make jaw-dropping plays.

    Head coach Mark Fox’s triangle offense demands two primary ball-handlers, a style that allows returning senior point guard Dustin Ware and Robinson to play off each other’s abilities.

    In 2011-12, don’t be surprised if the senior guard increases his scoring average to around 17 to 20 points per game and makes a push for first-team All-SEC honors.

Solomon Hill, Arizona

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    Solomon Hill arrived to Tucson as the highest rated player in Miller’s 2009 class (No. 27 overall per Rivals.com), which also included Derrick Williams.

    Hill is a do-it-all 6’6” combo forward who, during his first two seasons playing for Miller, has been used more as a point forward.

    The Los Angeles native has strong handles, which he utilizes to break defenders down off the dribble.

    Despite being a bit undersized to play on the block, Hill’s big frame allows him to bang with the best on the glass. He’s also a crafty passer and was often able to feed the ball inside to Derrick Williams from the wing in the halfcourt offense.

    During his freshman season, Hill’s production rapidly declined after hitting the ground running when teams came to the realization that he lacked a perimeter shot. Defenders would simply give Hill space to prevent from being blown by off the dribble and force him into shooting.

    That summer, he put in countless gym hours working on his perimeter shot, which ultimately paid off.

    Last season as a sophomore, Hill posted 14 double-figure scoring games, nearly double his output as a freshman. He connected on 17 three-pointers (35.4 percent) compared to just four (22.4 percent) as a freshman and also raised his free-throw percentage from 70.5 to 78 percent.

    Overall, he averaged eight points on 48.6 percent shooting from the field, 4.7 rebounds and 1.7 assists.

    Hill should see an expanded role in the offense with Derrick Williams moving on to the NBA.

Renardo Sidney, Mississippi State

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    Renardo Sidney is showing the willingness to better himself this summer by working out with former NBA player John Lucas, regarded as one of the world’s best resources for basketball training and development.

    After spending nearly two months in Houston with Lucas, Sidney has lost 23 pounds and plans on losing 20 more before the season begins.

    The 6'10" forward-center admitted to tipping the scales at as much as 320 pounds last season, a long ways away from his listed weight of 270 by the Mississippi State media guide. 

    Sidney drew negative attention to himself for taking plays off throughout the season, a direct result of his weight and attitude. He also grabbed national headlines for his fistfight with Elgin Bailey in the stands of a Hawaii gymnasium during the Maui Invitational.

    And on top of all that, it's been recently reported that the junior big man would not accompany the team on a summer exhibition trip to Europe. Stansbury would not elaborate on the issue, which of course, is currently raising more questions regarding Sidney's character.

    But for now, at least he's in good hands with Lucas.

    It's apparent he has a long ways to go to shed his negative image, and by getting into great shape, he shouldn't feel the need to take plays off next season.

    Keep in mind, this is a kid who posted 14.2 points and 7.6 rebounds while not even being anywhere near game shape.

    Bottom line—Sidney will be as good as he wants to be—it’s that simple.

Dominic Cheek, Villanova

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    Dom Cheek’s first two seasons in a Villanova uniform haven’t quite gone the way he and fans had envisioned, considering he came into the program as a highly rated shooting guard prospect with big-time expectations.

    In 19.4 minutes per contest as a sophomore, Cheek averaged 5.6 points and 3.4 rebounds for the Wildcats.

    Cheek possesses all the raw tools to be a productive wing in the Big East: excellent size, speed, quickness and athleticism.

    The 6'6" junior has extended range and the ability to score off the dribble, but needs to be more assertive on the offensive end as he figures to have more responsibility entrusted in him next season.

    Cheek should see closer to 30 minutes of action in 2011-12 now that Stokes, Fisher and Pena have exhausted their eligibility.

    Even if he doesn’t come around offensively, Cheek’s versatility on the defensive end (can defend guards or forwards) and ability to rebound well from his spot on the perimeter will make him a valuable asset for head coach Jay Wright.

Michael Snaer, Florida State

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    For such a gifted athlete with so many tools at his disposal, Michael Snaer has me scratching my head when he becomes so erratic on the offensive end.

    Defensively, he’s already there.

    The former McDonald's All-American put together another mediocre season at the offensive end, averaging 8.8 points on 40 percent shooting from the field while connecting on 36.8 percent of his three-point attempts as a sophomore.

    Standing 6’4” with a pure perimeter stroke, Snaer has the frame, wingspan, explosiveness, speed, toughness, elevation and the rest of the whole nine yards to become an All-ACC performer at shooting guard.

    Watching him play, I see a confident, high-energy guy with a ton of swagger.

    But he’s almost too overconfident, taking one too many contested and off-balance shots over his first two seasons for the Seminoles.

    If he can play with maturity, poise and improve his shot selection, Snaer will have a breakthrough junior season.

    Remember, Derwin Kitchen and Chris Singleton aren’t walking through that door, so the Noles are depending on the well-rounded guard to be their go-to guy.

Jeremy Lamb, Connecticut

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    Kemba Walker was not only the face of the 2010-11 national champion UConn Huskies, but along with Jimmer Fredette, he was the face of college hoops.

    Now that the torch has been passed, it’s time for swingman Jeremy Lamb to finish writing his own chapter.

    Overshadowed by Walker last season, Lamb was immensely valuable to Calhoun as the No. 2 scoring option and on the defensive side of the ball.

    The 6’5” sophomore-to-be was a model of consistency, finishing the season with 11 consecutive double-digit scoring games.

    Whenever Walker was having an off night, Lamb was there to pick him up. And when both were on, the Huskies were virtually unbeatable.

    Lamb just finished up playing for the United States in the Under-19 FIBA World Championships in Latvia.

    He led the USA in scoring at 16.2 points per game and lit up eventual gold-medal winner Lithuania for 35 points in an overtime win, showing he’s more than capable of being the go-to guy offensively.

    Lamb is currently preparing for the 2011-12 season by working more on creating his own shot, something he didn’t have to rely on much last season playing alongside Walker.

Kendall Williams, New Mexico

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    Kendall Williams is one of the best up-and-coming point guards in the country, and right now, he’s flying under the radar.

    Last season, All-Mountain West senior guard Dairese Gary started at point, but Williams still found his way into the starting lineup as Alford is known for playing with three- or even four-guard lineups.

    Williams is a 6'3" multifaceted offensive player who plays well beyond his years, indicative in his two-to-one assist-to-turnover ratio last season.

    The Mountain West Freshman of the Year averaged 11.6 points, three rebounds, four assists and 1.4 steals for the Lobos in 2010-11.

    He also shot 45.4 percent from the floor and connected at an impressive 42.6 percent clip from beyond the arc.

    Williams is slated as the Lobos’ starting point guard in 2011-12, now that the talented Gary has exhausted his eligibility.

    New Mexico fans received a sneak preview of next season’s team after Gary blew out his knee against BYU in the Mountain West Conference tournament semifinals.

    During the NIT, Williams poured in back-to-back games of 18 points—an encouraging sign of what’s to come.

    Also, watch out for incoming freshman guard Hugh Greenwood, coming in from Australia.

Seth Curry, Duke

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    While all the hype surrounds Austin Rivers' debut at Duke (and rightfully so), redshirt junior Seth Curry is quietly waiting to break out in 2011-12.

    As a redshirt sophomore, the 6'3" combo guard slid into the starting lineup after Kyrie Irving went down with a severe toe injury, reaching double-figure scoring on 16 different occasions.

    On February 9, 2011, Curry dropped a sea