The Most Exciting Players to Watch in the 2015-16 NCAA Basketball Season
College football has begun, and the excitement from that long-awaited season has taken over most sports fans' attention. But there's plenty of thrills to be had in college basketball, too, and with just over two months left until the 2015-16 campaign begins, it's never too early to be looking ahead to what's in store.
And if you're looking for excitement, look no further than some of the flashiest and most athletic players set to hit the hard court this season.
This list puts an emphasis on animation, enthusiasm and vigor, which may or may not come from the game's best players. We've picked out the game's most exhilarating players, the ones best known for big dunks, flashy ball-handling and streaky shooting.
Check out our choices for college basketball's most exciting players for 2015-16, listed alphabetically. If you think we missed someone, let us know in the comments section.
Grayson Allen, Duke
We didn't get to see much of Grayson Allen during his freshman year, at least until the Final Four. That's when the entire country got to see what Duke regularly witnessed in practice all season, as well as what opponents had to deal with when the 6'5" guard would get some minutes...and promptly turn into a whirling dervish.
Allen was instant excitement and energy off the bench, and while in many cases that would translate into him taking shots far too soon and often, it also meant he wasn't going to hold anything back. The Blue Devils' unofficial leader in floor burns per 40 minutes, Allen wasn't afraid to throw himself all over the place to keep a play alive.
Duke needed a spark against Michigan State and Wisconsin in Indianapolis, and Allen provided it. He only averaged 4.4 points per game but had 25 (on 7-of-14 shooting and 10-of-11 from the line) during those two contests. He had 16 points in the title-game win over Wisconsin.
"After Wisconsin had gone up nine, I needed to bring life and energy," Allen told Gene Frenette the Florida Times-Union. "I didn't think about taking over the scoring part of the game. We have a lot of guys that can score. I'm thinking I need to get us fired up so we could score. I got the openings that Coach [Mike Krzyzewski] has been telling me to take all year. It was just part of my aggressiveness and energy to attack the basket."
Allen also has an impressive vertical leap, which he showed off when winning the dunk contest prior to the 2014 McDonald's All American Game.
Bryce Alford, UCLA
Before this past season, Bryce Alford was best known for being the son of UCLA coach Steve Alford, whom he followed from New Mexico after he switched jobs following the 2012-13 season. But now Bryce Alford has his own reputation, one that's made him become known as one of the most lights-out shooters when he gets hot.
But that's also meant he doesn't stop shooting, even when the three-pointers aren't falling.
In 2014-15 the 6'3" sophomore scored 15.4 points per game and shot 39.1 percent from outside for the Bruins, making 93 threes. He had six games with at least five made long shots, including a 9-of-11 performance in UCLA's second-round NCAA tournament win over SMU.
That game infamously ended with SMU being called for goaltending on a last-second three-point try from Alford.
However, Alford also had some very cold days from the perimeter, such as an 0-of-9 effort in a January loss at Colorado that was in the midst of a streak of 17 consecutive missed threes over a four-game span.
Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet, Wichita State
We're cheating here a little bit by listing two on one slide, but if you think about it, Ron Baker and Fred VanVleet are almost like a two-headed player with how they've worked together the past three seasons at Wichita State.
And there's no denying their energy, enthusiasm and effort have been contagious, as they regularly rile up opposing fans on the road and have been extremely essential to what the Shockers have accomplished during their time in the program.
Wichita has gone 95-15 since Gregg Marshall brought Baker in from Hays, Kansas, and grabbed VanVleet out of Rockford, Illinois, with a Final Four appearance, an unbeaten regular season and a rise to Gonzaga levels when it comes to non-power programs. The Shockers were good before they arrived, but now they're an elite program.
We get one more year of these senior guards, who have combined for 2,205 points, 719 rebounds, 697 assists and 280 steals.
Amida Brimah, Connecticut
Amida Brimah is still a long way away from being a finished product in terms of being an all-around basketball player, one who could be more than a niche contributor in the pros. That's why the 7'0" junior is still at Connecticut and hasn't made the jump to the NBA yet, but that's a great thing for the Huskies and for college basketball in general.
What Brimah does have going for him, though, is a killer knack for protecting the rim and swatting away plenty of shots that come his way.
In two seasons, Brimah has 213 blocked shots, including a Division I-best 121 in 2014-15. His career average is 2.8 blocks per game, but considering he's averaged less than 21 minutes per contest, that rate is even more impressive, and it explains why the Huskies held opponents to 42.8 percent two-point shooting. That ranked 25th in the country.
John Brown, High Point
High Point isn't a very well-known team among the 351 that play at the Division I level, but the Panthers feature one of the game's fiercest dunkers. So says ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, who mentioned (h/t DailyUpperDecker.com) John Brown in February.
"For him to pick me No. 1, that's a statement," Brown told Ryan Fagan of Sporting News. "I've just got to try and live up to it now."
Brown is far more than a great dunker, though. The 6'8" forward enters his senior year at High Point having led the team in scoring (19.3), rebounding (6.0) and blocks (1.0) per game as well as in field-goal shooting (55 percent). He has 1,680 points for his career, and Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller ranks him as the fourth-most likely to reach 2,000 career points this season.
It would be nice for Brown to get to end his career with an NCAA tourney appearance, something that has never happened for the Panthers despite being Big South regular-season champions the past three years.
Kris Dunn, Providence
When this past season ended and numerous underclassmen made their future plans known, one of the biggest surprises as far as players choosing to come back to school was Kris Dunn. The Providence point guard had put forth an amazing junior year, ranking fifth in the country in assists and fourth in steals, while helping the Friars to a 22-win season.
Dunn opted to return despite being projected as a possible first-round draft pick in 2015, and the NBA's temporary loss is our gain since it means another year of watching his fast hands dish out dimes and slap the rock away from opponents.
Last season Dunn had seven games with at least 10 assists—including as part of a triple-double of 27 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists against Purdue—and 10 games with at least four swipes.
Rico Gathers, Baylor
Rico Gathers plays basketball, but not like most people play the sport. Instead, he takes more of a football-like approach, which isn't surprising when you hear that Baylor football coach Art Briles has wanted the 6'8", 275-pound senior forward to put on a helmet and pads for the Bears.
"Briles—who calls him "Pretty Ricky" because of his reluctance to play football—views him as a tight end," Bleacher Report's Jason King wrote. "But Gathers would prefer to play defensive end because that position commands a higher paycheck in the NFL."
For now, though, he's focusing on being one of the most physical post players in his current sport. Last season Gathers ranked fourth in the country in rebounding, at 11.6 per game, and his 164 offensive rebounds were second-best. That included a massive 25-point, 28-board effort against NAIA school Huston-Tillotson in January, one of eight games in which he had at least 15 rebounds.
Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
Despite being known far more as a football school, Oklahoma has produced some very notable basketball players such as Alvan Adams, Mookie Blaylock and Blake Griffin. None might be as beloved as the heart and soul of the current Sooners team, senior guard Buddy Hield.
"You can literally tell when he walks into the office," Oklahoma assistant coach Steve Henson told CBS Sports' Sam Vecenie. "The whole place lights up. Same thing in the locker room, training room, anywhere he goes. He just has a very infectious personality and puts people in a good mood. It's a terrific thing, and that's just who he is every single day.”
This demeanor has translated into great success the past two years, when Hield has averaged 16.5 and 17.4 points per game, respectively. He was the Big 12 Player of the Year as a junior, helping Oklahoma into the Sweet 16, doing so with a smile almost the entire way.
Derrick Jones, UNLV
UNLV hasn't been lacking in big-name recruits the past few seasons, with last year's team featuring big-chip prospects such as Dwayne Morgan and Rashad Vaughn and the upcoming Runnin' Rebels bringing in the 10th-best class for 2015, according to 247Sports. Derrick Jones isn't the top name in that group, but the 6'6" wing might be the most explosive.
Jones will be asked to do more than make dunks from just inside the free-throw line (see above), but at this point it's what will get UNLV fans riled up in anticipation of a bounce-back season after the Rebels failed to make the NCAA tournament this past year.
Shawn Long, Louisiana-Lafayette
Maybe routinely hitting double digits in points and rebounds isn't as exciting as a massive dunk or a no-look pass, but when it produces wins on a regular basis, why knock it for style points?
Shawn Long is exciting in his own right, in that he is a double-double magnet. In three years with Louisiana-Lafayette, the 6'11", 246-pound senior has 52 double-doubles, most of any active player in Division I, per his online bio. He's played 101 games, so more than half the time he's scoring 10 or more points and pulling down 10 or more boards.
For his career, Long has averaged 16.8 points and 10.3 rebounds, while shooting 49.6 percent overall and 36 percent from three-point range. The Ragin' Cajuns have gone 58-46 during Long's career and 45-26 the past two seasons.
Damon Lynn, NJIT
A basketball nomad in a sea of college conferences, NJIT spent the past two seasons as an independent program after the ramshackle Great West folded up in 2013. But that didn't deter Damon Lynn from joining the Highlanders, and the move has paid off for him and his team.
Following a year in which NJIT made a major national splash by winning at Michigan and then finished with a run to the CollegeInsider.com Tournament semifinals in March, NJIT earned an invite to the Atlantic Sun Conference for 2015-16. That means not only more opportunities for the program to get attention, but also more opportunities for Lynn to show off his love of the three-point shot against a more balanced schedule.
Last year Lynn led the nation in three-point attempts, taking a whopping 350 in 33 games. That's 43 more than any other player in the country, and his 126 makes were two short of Eastern Washington star Tyler Harvey.
The 5'11" junior guard has 233 career threes, and last season he had 10 games with at least five triples. He needed at least 10 tries in all of those games, and he took as many as 18 (making four) in a game.
While the shots didn't always fall, when they did they produced great results for Lynn and NJIT. In the win over Michigan he was 6-of-10 from outside.
Jamal Murray, Kentucky
Canada has become a hotspot for big-name talent in basketball, and these stars from the north have made a big impact in the college game on their brief stop there before heading into the NBA. Andrew Wiggins, Anthony Bennett, Nik Stauskas, Sim Bhullar, Kelly Olynyk and Olivier Hanlan are among the top Canadian players of late, but the hottest thing from that traditionally cold country might be Jamal Murray.
Murray, who will play for Kentucky this season as a 6'4" shooting guard, exploded onto the scene in the spring and throughout the summer. He scored 30 points at the Nike Hoop Summit in April. Then after switching from the 2016 class to 2015 and choosing the Wildcats, he was a key piece of Canada's silver-medal-winning team at the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto.
Murray was likely to be a part of Canada's roster for Olympic qualifying had he not had to begin classes at Kentucky in order to be eligible for the 2015-16 season. Expect him to have a major impact on what Kentucky does this year as it tries to remain near the top despite having seven players turn pro and six get taken in the NBA draft.
Malik Newman, Mississippi State
Ohio State's D'Angelo Russell was the country's highest-scoring freshman last season, at 19.3 points per game. Malik Newman may blow that number out of the water if he plays at Mississippi State with the same explosiveness on offense as he's done in high school and on the travel and all-star circuit.
Newman, a 6'3" guard, averaged 29.7 points per game for Callaway High School in Mississippi as a senior. He's a veteran of Team USA, scoring 21 points in the FIBA World Championship U17 gold-medal game in 2014 and averaging 16.2 points per game for the FIBA Americas U16 team in 2013.
His signing by new coach Ben Howland was a major coup for Mississippi State, which didn't have a player score more than 11.3 per game during a 13-19 season in 2014-15. The Bulldogs haven't had a winning record since 2011-12, and Howland is sure to let Newman loose on offense.
Marcus Paige, North Carolina
Marcus Paige didn't have the greatest of seasons in 2014-15, especially compared to his breakout effort the year before, but even when struggling as a whole he showed off his flair for the dramatic. And while that often included hitting a big shot in the final moments, it also featured him going off for an extended period of time in the second half.
This reputation for being "Second Half Marcus" first surfaced as a junior, when the 6'1" guard routinely took over during the final 20 minutes of play and carried North Carolina to several big wins. This didn't happen as much in 2014-15, but he still flashed the late surge on occasion, most notably to help the Tar Heels to a comeback win over Louisville in January.
Trailing by 13 points in the second half, Paige led the charge and then put in the game-winner on a running layup with 8.5 seconds left (see above).
Paige enters his senior year with 1,416 points, putting him in range of being UNC's seventh 2,00-point scorer.
Gary Payton II, Oregon State
Gary Payton II was a rather unheralded player when he joined Oregon State last season, playing for the same school that his father starred at more than 20 years ago. Payton II spent two years at junior college before joining the Beavers, but once he debuted in Division I it was evident he'd inherited his father's dynamic skill set.
The 6'3" guard led OSU in scoring (13.4) and rebounding (7.5) and had just the school's second triple-double in December when he had 10 points, 12 rebounds and 10 assists against Grambling. The other Beaver to do so: Gary Payton Sr.
Ben Simmons, LSU
As if the sight of a 6'10" player serving as his team's "point forward" isn't exciting enough, consider this: Based on how Ben Simmons performed for LSU during the team's exhibition trip to Australia in August, he could be the most hard-to-stop player in college basketball in 2015-16.
Simmons averaged 20.0 points, 9.0 rebounds, 5.4 assists, 3.6 steals and 2.2 blocks per game, shooting 52.2 percent from the field in 35.4 minutes per game. All of those were team bests for the Tigers, who went 3-2 on their Down Under tour.
The Australian-born Simmons was the No. 1 player in the 2015 recruiting class, and he seems intent on proving that ranking was correct by how he's already established that LSU is his team.
Melo Trimble, Maryland
Melo Trimble was one of the country's most exciting freshmen in 2014-15, and combined with senior guard Dez Wells, he provided Maryland with a stellar backcourt that rose the Terps to new levels under coach Mark Turgeon.
Now it's Trimble's team to run, and along with some big-name recruits, the Terps have been ranked No. 1 by ESPN. Based on how he performed when Wells missed time because of injury, and for the season as a whole, Trimble seems capable of being the leader and will do so with plenty of explosiveness.
Last season Trimble averaged a team-high 16.2 points per game, getting 207 points via free throws, thanks to an aggressive approach to the basket that few teams could slow down. The 86 percent foul shooter went to the line at least 10 times in nine games, and he was at least 90 percent from the stripe in 15 of 35 games.
Jalan West, Northwestern State
The reigning national leader in assists per game, at 7.7, Jalan West always knew when to dish the ball to a teammate to help Northwestern State lead the nation in scoring at 84 points per game. But the 5'10" guard also knew when to keep it himself and get the points on his own, as West scored 20 points per game in 2014-15.
West has 1,567 points and 608 assists in his career, and he's always looking for a challenge or competition. To keep himself sharp during the offseason, he challenged school president James Henderson to a game of H.O.R.S.E.
Kyle Wiltjer, Gonzaga
We end our look at college basketball's most exciting players by highlighting one of the biggest breakout stars from 2014-15, someone who used a year away from playing to transform himself into a versatile threat from all over the court.
Kyle Wiltjer was mostly a jump shooter during his two years at Kentucky, and much of that came from the perimeter, despite him being 6'10" as he shied away from contact and being able to use his size on the interior. But after transferring to Gonzaga and sitting out the 2013-14 season (per NCAA transfer rules) he returned to action with a complete game.
"Wiltjer is comfortable inside," ESPN.com's Myron Medcalf wrote in March. "He crashes the boards. And he has a torch from 17 feet and out."
Wiltjer averaged 16.8 points and 6.2 rebounds per game last season, shooting 54 percent overall and 46.6 percent from three-point range.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.