College Basketball Players Who Haven't Scratched the Surface of Their Talent
First impressions are huge, but they're not everything. College basketball is a great example of this, as some of the best players in the country this past season didn't get their careers off monster starts.
Had they, frankly, they'd have left for the NBA a lot sooner.
National player of the year Buddy Hield averaged 7.8 points per game and shot only 23.8 percent from three-point range as a freshman, but by the time he was a senior he was unstoppable on offense. Denzel Valentine didn't average double figures in scoring until he was a sophomore, yet during the 2016-17 season he was a nightly triple-double threat. And Taurean Prince only played 6.4 minutes per game in his first college season.
What do all those players have in common? Each showed great promise and upside when they began college but it took a while before they showed their true ability. And each ended up as first-round draft picks by the time their careers were over.
Quite a few talented, NBA-worthy players made the smart decision to remain in school for 2016-17 including some who we've really yet to see much from. Don't expect this dormancy to continue, though.
Deng Adel, Louisville
Deng Adel was one of three top-50 players Louisville signed for 2015-16 but saw the least playing time of that trio last season. His 12.1 minutes per game were ninth-most among Cardinals who were available all year, despite getting eight starts as a true freshman, as a knee injury suffered early on slowed his progress.
Five of those starts came in Louisville's final five contests, as coach Rick Pitino looked toward the future knowing that a self-imposed ACC and NCAA tournament ban would make for a longer than expected offseason. In those five starts, the 6'7” Adel started strong with back-to-back 12-point games but couldn't maintain that level as he managed only 12 points in 54 minutes in his last three starts.
Fast forward about five months and Adel is seeing his stock soar. He recently participated in the Adidas Nations event in Los Angeles and according to DraftExpress he graded out as the best college player in the mix in terms of Estimated Wins Added.
"Adel has the physical tools to be an impactful college player, something that will earn him some NBA looks," DraftExpress' Julian Applebome wrote. "He still has a great deal of room for growth, as he learns how to play the game under control, and at a high level consistently."
Adel will battle with incoming freshman V.J. King for the starting small forward spot but may be more valuable as a sixth man.
OG Anunoby, Indiana
A quick scan of 2017 mock NBA drafts like the one from DraftExpress includes the usual suspects: lots of highly touted incoming freshmen and international players, along with a smattering of notable college prospects who opted to return to school. California sophomore forward Ivan Rabb is the highest-rated of that third subset, but the next-best one isn't nearly as well-known on a national scale.
OG Anunoby appeared in all but one of Indiana's 35 games last season but it was usually only for small stretches. He averaged 4.9 points, 2.6 rebounds and 13.7 minutes per game, not becoming a consistent part of the Hoosiers' playing rotation until January.
What the 6'8” Anunoby lacked in raw statistics he made up for in effort and athleticism, as Bleacher Report's Kerry Miller noted bringing a "wow factor" that the rest of Indiana's lineup was lacking.
"Now that we've seen what he can do in small chunks, the expectation/hope is that he'll contribute at a higher capacity and frequency with Yogi Ferrell and Troy Williams out of the picture," Miller wrote. "If he does, Indiana has a good chance of repeating as Big Ten champs."
Carlton Bragg, Kansas
Since Joel Embiid's stellar freshman year in 2013-14, Kansas has been searching in vain for that next great big man. Coach Bill Self has recruited several promising frontcourt prospects to Lawrence since then but most haven't panned out, at least in terms of collegiate production.
We'll never know what Cliff Alexander or Cheick Diallo would be able to do with a little more seasoning, since each left college after one season. Carlton Bragg could have taken the same route after a lightly used freshman year in 2015-16, but by sticking around he puts himself in position to have a much more significant role with the Jayhawks.
The No. 24 player in the 2015 class and the sixth-best power forward, Bragg averaged 8.9 minutes per game, but extrapolated over a full 40 he'd have averaged 17 points and 11.1 rebounds thanks to 56.1 percent shooting and a 13.6 percent offensive rebounding rate that was second-best on the team. And that was while playing at 6'9” and 220 pounds, while this summer he's looking closer to 6'11” according to KUSports.com's Tom Keegan.
It'll again be a crowded frontcourt with senior Landen Lucas back and 7'0", 270-pound freshman Udoka Azubuike also in the mix. Bragg won't suddenly see his minutes jump to 25 or 30 per game but he will get more opportunities to show how he has progressed.
Jalen Brunson, Villanova
Villanova is the reigning NCAA champion thanks to a balanced lineup that saw four players average 10 or more points per game and seven log 20 or more minutes. And that was with arguably the most talented player on the roster playing a relatively minor role.
Jalen Brunson started 36 of 39 games for the Wildcats, including the final 26, but as essentially the third option in a three-man backcourt he was more a complementary player than one who was turned to in big situations. His 9.6 points per game and 38.3 percent three-point shooting were solid, if not spectacular, but with so many veterans on the court he wasn't asked to do much.
Look for the 6'3” Brunson to be far more involved as a sophomore, stepping into the role previously held by Ryan Arcidiacono as the primary ball-handler. A preview of what could be in store for him came during Villanova's just-completed exhibition tour in Spain, where Brunson scored 15 and 14 points, respectively, in the first two games.
Brunson had 14 or more points six times in 2015-16, the same amount of times he had four or fewer.
P.J. Dozier, South Carolina
P.J. Dozier, South Carolina's first McDonald's All-American since Rolando Howell in 2000, faced extremely lofty expectations as a freshman and came far from meeting them. Though he wasn't solely to blame for the Gamecocks' second-half tailspin, going from 15-0 and a near-lock to make the NCAA tournament to a second-round NIT flameout, his play did have an impact.
The 6'7” guard averaged 6.7 points, 3.0 rebounds and 2.1 assists in 19 minutes per game but his shooting and turnover numbers were woeful. Dozier shot 38.1 percent overall and made just 10 of 47 three-pointers, giving the ball away on 24.9 percent of possessions. It got so bad coach Frank Martin pulled him from the starting lineup down the stretch, with only two starts in South Carolina's final eight games after being in there for each of the first 26.
"I don’t feel like I had a great season," Dozier said, per 247Sports' John Whittle. "My potential is a lot higher. I’m not satisfied with the way my season ended."
Dozier knows he's capable of so much more, and he showed it while attending Steph Curry's camp this summer. Maybe that time working with the two-time reigning NBA MVP will pay off for he and his team in 2016-17.
Tacko Fall, UCF
You can't teach size, but you can help it learn how to be used more effectively. At 7'6” and 300 pounds there's plenty to like about Tacko Fall's game but also quite a bit that still needs work before he reaches his full potential.
Fall's freshman year was relatively low-key, and not just because he played out of the spotlight for a UCF team that was 12-18 overall and eighth in the American Athletic Conference. He averaged 7.4 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.3 blocks per game but was limited to just 17.6 minutes because of a combination of fouls and fatigue.
A native of Senegal, he didn't start playing basketball until moving to the U.S. in 2013 and is still learning the game. Yet he still managed to lead Division I in two-point shooting, at 75 percent, thanks to almost all of his shots coming on dunks or layups.
With an extra offseason of training and development under his belt, along with a new coach—former Stanford coach Johnny Dawkins replaced Donnie Jones in March—it wouldn't be a shock to see Fall…rise as a sophomore.
Terry Larrier, Connecticut
Year: Redshirt sophomore
Every player on this list is a sophomore, but Terry Larrier is the lone one of the redshirt variety. He began his career at VCU but then transferred to Connecticut after one season and had to sit out the 2015-16, putting more distance between the start of his college career and when he can hopefully start making an impact.
Many expected the 6'8” wing to do so with the Rams, as he was the No. 33 overall player in the 2014 recruiting class and arguably Shaka Smart's most promising prospect during his VCU tenure. But Smart gave Larrier only 18.5 minutes per game, during which he averaged 6.6 points and 3.0 rebounds on 34.3 percent shooting that included a 26.2 percent three-point rate.
Larrier left VCU not long after Smart departed to take the Texas job, and this past season while sitting out he got to envision how he might fit into UConn's 2016-17 plans. He should be able to slide into the role that Daniel Hamilton played the previous two seasons, assuming Larrier's shot has improved.
"UConn fans will come to love Terry Larrier," tweeted Corey Evans of Roundball Report, calling him a "perfect stopgap to replace Daniel Hamilton." He should combine with a promising freshman class to get the Huskies back into NCAA title contention after a few subpar seasons.
Chimezie Metu, USC
USC's first NCAA tournament appearance in five years was an accomplishment by committee. The Trojans had five players who averaged double figures and six who logged at least 24 minutes per game. And then there was Chimezie Metu, who was seventh on the Trojans in both scoring and playing time but showed more upside than anyone else above him.
You just had to keep a close watch to see this, since Metu's 18.5 minutes per game didn't get him on the court that often.
"The flashes of NBA potential from Chimezie Metu are getting more frequent," Yahoo! Sports' Jeff Eisenberg tweeted during a Pac-12 tournament game when Metu held his own against Utah's Jakob Poeltl, an eventual first-round draft pick. He only had four points, two rebounds and two blocks that game, but the aptitude was evident.
Look for Metu to take a significant step forward in his sophomore year, and not just because USC's roster took a major hit via transfers and draft departures. Improvement on the offensive end—he shot just 52 percent, rather low for a 6'11” player—is where the Trojans will need to see the most progress.
Follow Brian J. Pedersen on Twitter at @realBJP.