Underhyped CBB Players You Should Start Paying Attention to ASAP
Hofstra's Justin Wright-Foreman isn't a household name, but he is one of college basketball's many minor-conference players putting up numbers that deserve more attention.
As fun as it is to watch guys like Zion Williamson, Grant Williams and Rui Hachimura whenever possible, minor-conference heroes need our love too. The goal of this piece is to help you feel like you're ahead of the curve when some of these stars from smaller schools bust everyone's bracket, make an impact in the NBA or both.
The only qualification for being on this list is that the player cannot be from one of the seven major conferences—yes, we're including the AAC as major, at least temporarily—nor from Gonzaga, since everyone knows about the Bulldogs.
Also, we're excluding Detroit's Antoine Davis, because I'll have an entire piece dedicated to him later this week. Rather than highlighting that scoring machine twice, we're going with 10 other guys.
Players in the top 10 are listed in alphabetical order by last name. Statistics are current through the start of play Jan. 21.
Yoeli Childs, BYU
2018-19 Stats: 22.3 PPG, 9.6 RPG, 2.3 APG, 1.0 BPG
MVP Performance: 31 points, 11 rebounds, two assists vs. Utah
Do you remember Jock Landale?
The big man from Saint Mary's was the breakout star of the 2016-17 season. After two years of limited playing time, the Aussie got a full-time starting job as a junior and did not disappoint, leading the Gaels to 28 wins and a No. 7 seed in the NCAA tournament. He was even more dominant as a senior, becoming a borderline National Player of the Year candidate while averaging 21.1 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 1.0 blocks per game.
We all went ga-ga over Landale for those two years, but curiously, nobody is talking about Yoeli Childs, who's putting up similar numbers in the same conference this year.
One area where Childs is undeniably superior to Landale is his range. BYU's center is shooting 33.3 percent from three-point range while averaging three attempts per game. Because of that bonus element in his arsenal, maybe a better recent comparison for Childs would be Utah's Kyle Kuzma.
Regardless of which comp you prefer, the moral of the story is that Childs has been almost unstoppable. He has 11 double-doubles and has scored in double figures in every game this season. He has put up at least 20 points in 11 of his last 14 contests.
The biggest reason Childs has been dominating in obscurity is that BYU is in the middle of arguably its worst season since 2004-05. But with home games against Saint Mary's and Gonzaga coming up in the next 10 days, he'll have an opportunity to make a big impression.
Chris Clemons (Campbell) and Mike Daum (South Dakota State)
Chris Clemons: 29.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.5 SPG
Mike Daum: 24.2 PPG, 10.9 RPG, 1.7 APG
What could a 5'9" combo guard from North Carolina and a 6'9" stretch 5 from South Dakota possibly have in common to justify putting them together in one section?
Barring injury or a significant slump, both of these minor-conference stars should finish the season with more than 3,000 career points—a plateau that has only been reached eight times in men's college basketball history.
Of the two, Chris Clemons is more certain to hit that milestone. Campbell's pint-sized scoring machine is leading the nation in points per game and has never met a shot he didn't like. According to KenPom.com, Clemons has ranked top-seven in the nation in both percentage of possessions used and percentage of shots taken while on the floor in three consecutive seasons. He has scored at least 40 points more times this season (twice) than he has been held below 20 points (once).
Even if Campbell gets eliminated in the first round of the Big South tournament and does not play in any postseason event, Clemons is on pace to finish his career with 3,137 points. That would put him in sixth place on the all-time scoring list, just 13 points behind Doug McDermott.
Daum could be more of a photo finish, as he is on pace to finish South Dakota State's first game of the Summit League tournament with 3,006 career points. But as the clear-cut best team in that conference, the Jackrabbits are expected to win that tournament and play in the NCAA tournament, giving Daum at least three additional games—at which point he would be on pace for 3,079 points, putting him behind Clemons in seventh place among career scoring leaders.
The last time two players finished the same season with at least 2,800 career points was in 1993, when Tennessee's Allan Houston (2,801) and Mississippi Valley State's Alphonso Ford (3,165) each did it. There has never been a season in which two players reached 3,000 points. As a result, Clemons and Daum should be forever linked in college basketball history—even though they couldn't be much less similar.
Jordan Ford, Saint Mary's
2018-19 Stats: 22.3 PPG, 2.9 APG, 2.4 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 45.5% 3PT
MVP Performance: 35 points, four steals, three assists vs. Utah Valley
Saint Mary's lost just about everything from last season. Jock Landale, three-point sniper Calvin Hermanson, point guard Emmett Naar and key backups Cullen Neal and Evan Fitzner all moved on, leaving behind Jordan Ford, Tanner Krebs and not much else. The Gaels easily could have had a rebuilding year for the first time in a decade.
Ford had other ideas, and Saint Mary's is a top-40 team on KenPom for the fourth consecutive year as a result. The Gaels are 13-7, and all 13 of their wins have come by a double-digit margin, including blowouts of BYU and New Mexico State. If just one of the close losses away from home against Mississippi State, LSU or San Francisco had instead been a win, they'd be in the at-large conversation.
Ford's scoring average has doubled from 11.1 to 22.3, and he has incredibly become more efficient in spite of a drastic uptick in volume. He shot 50.8 percent from the field on 8.2 field-goal attempts per game as a sophomore, but those numbers are 51.6 and 15.5, respectively, more than halfway through his junior campaign.
Ford has scored at least 16 points in 14 consecutive games, shooting 37-of-71 (52.1 percent) from three-point range during that stretch, quietly carrying a team without a true point guard or a dominant big man.
Circle Feb. 9 and March 2 on your calendars, as those are the days when Ford gets to take on Gonzaga. If he can lead the Gaels to an upset in either of those games, maybe some of the NBA draft boards will begin to take notice.
Brandon Gilbeck, Western Illinois
2018-19 Stats: 9.3 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 3.9 BPG
MVP Performance: 19 rebounds, nine points, nine blocks at Eastern Illinois
Not all heroes wear capes, and not all minor-conference studs average 20 points per game.
In the case of Brandon Gilbeck, we're not even talking about a guy who puts up double digits on most nights. But the 7'0" senior is one of the best shot-blockers in the country, averaging 3.9 rejections per game and 6.1 per 40 minutes.
Gilbeck has blocked multiple shots in 15 consecutive games and has already recorded at least five blocks seven times this season. He had seven blocks and nine rebounds in just 18 minutes in the season opener against Creighton, plus the incredible performance against Eastern Illinois listed above.
He was an above-average rebounder and rim-protector in each of the previous two seasons and is on pace to finish his career with more than 300 blocks, but he has kicked it up a notch in both departments for his final campaign.
It hasn't done the Leathernecks much good, unfortunately. They are 7-13, including five losses to teams outside the KenPom top 300. But it's not Gilbeck's fault that Western Illinois is atrocious at defending the three-point arc and forcing turnovers. Credit to him for continuing to work hard in the paint in spite of the team's struggles.
Cameron Jackson, Wofford
2018-19 Stats: 15.0 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 2.2 APG, 1.5 SPG, 1.1 BPG
MVP Performance: 23 points, 10 rebounds, four assists, three steals at VMI
Most college basketball fans probably know about Wofford three-point aficionado Fletcher Magee, but the most important player to the Terriers' success has been frontcourt phenom Cameron Jackson.
The per-game statistics don't do justice to his impact, but that's because he's only playing 22 minutes per game. At a per-40-minutes or per-possession level, Jackson has been one of the most valuable players in the country.
He's a minor-conference version of Michigan State's Nick Ward. The similarly built Spartan has career per-40-minutes statistics on par with what Jackson is doing this season—and we have all often wondered why Ward doesn't play closer to 30 minutes per game, given the major impact he has while on the court.
According to Sports Reference, Duke's Zion Williamson is leading all players in player efficiency rating, win shares per 40 minutes and box plus/minus, but Jackson is second, fourth and eighth, respectively, in those advanced metrics.
Prior to Saturday's game against Furman, he had scored in double figures in every game this season, despite not yet playing more than 28 minutes in any contest. But the scoring is just a small piece of the puzzle, as Jackson is averaging 13.6 rebounds, 4.0 assists and a combined 4.7 blocks and steals per 40 minutes. This center does a little bit of everything, even stepping out for the occasional three-pointer.
John Konchar, Purdue Fort Wayne
2018-19 Stats: 19.2 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 4.9 APG, 1.7 SPG, 39.5% 3PT
MVP Performance: 38 points, eight rebounds, four assists, two steals at North Dakota State
The school's name has gone from IPFW to Fort Wayne to Purdue Fort Wayne, but the staple through all of it has been John Konchar.
The versatile 6'5" senior has averaged at least 13 points, eight rebounds, 2.5 assists and 1.5 steals in each of his four seasons with the Mastodons. Thanks in large part to his career shooting percentages of 42.4 beyond the arc and 63.2 inside it—as well as his propensity for passing—this team has generally had an above-average offense throughout his career.
(Defense has been a much different story for the Mastodons, though.)
During Purdue Fort Wayne's recent six-game winning streak, Konchar averaged 25.0 points, 9.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists while shooting 48.6 percent from three-point range and 71.7 percent on two-point attempts. He was named the KenPom.com game MVP of all six contests.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about Konchar is his durability. He has ranked in the top 75 nationally in percentage of minutes played in all four seasons. He's on pace to play more minutes in his career than Doug McDermott did.
Anthony Lamb, Vermont
2018-19 Stats: 20.6 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 2.2 BPG, 2.1 APG, 36.9% 3PT
MVP Performance: 42 points, six rebounds, three blocks vs. St. Bonaventure
As is often the case, Vermont is driving a freight train through the America East Conference. The Catamounts have won each of their first five league games by a margin of at least 14 points. In fact, they have scored at least 73 points in six straight games and have not allowed more than 62 in any of them.
The conductor of that locomotive is junior forward Anthony Lamb.
Lamb is leading Vermont in points, rebounds and blocks—even though he's only 6'6"—and he ranks second on the roster in assists.
What you have to admire about Lamb is that he brings his A-game when the Catamounts need it most. He had a bit of a dud this past weekend in a blowout win of lowly Binghamton and only put up seven points in a November dismantling of Northern Vermont-Lyndon. However, in 10 games against KenPom top-200 opponents, Lamb has averaged 25.3 points.
In addition to the 42-point performance in the double-overtime win over St. Bonaventure, he had 34 and 37 in close wins over Yale and Harvard, respectively. And in the road losses to Kansas, Louisville and Lipscomb, he did what he could, scoring at least 21 points on 15 field-goal attempts or fewer in each of those contests. He just didn't have enough of a supporting cast to pull off the upsets.
Provided Vermont can win the America East tournament this year, Lamb is one of the names you're going to want to watch out for among the No. 12 and No. 13 seeds in the Big Dance. There aren't many teams in the country that can shut him down, and his shot-blocking presence could be a real X-factor.
Ja Morant, Murray State
2018-19 Stats: 24.3 PPG, 10.6 APG, 5.9 RPG, 1.8 SPG
MVP Performance: 40 points, 11 assists, five steals, three rebounds at SIU-Edwardsville
Ja Morant doesn't belong on this list, because every basketball fan—college or professional—should know about him and should be watching him as often as possible. He might as well be the poster child for ESPN+ since that's the only option for watching the majority of Murray State games. (Thursday's 9 p.m. ET game against Belmont is on ESPNU, though, so make plans accordingly.)
But darn it, he meets the criteria, and I want to talk about his numbers, OK?
Morant is operating at a Trae Young level of absurdity this year—only instead of making highlights by shooting from a mile away, he makes his waves on social media by dunking people into oblivion.
He has been the KenPom.com game MVP in 13 of 17 contests, including once in a losing effort against Alabama. He has six games with at least 23 points and 11 assists, which is the same number of times every other player in the country has combined to accomplish that this season. Even Young only put up 23 and 11 three times last year, and there was a point when we thought the Sooner might average 30 and 10.
Morant scored a career-high 40 points over the weekend, more than half of which came from the charity stripe where he hit all 21 of his attempts. Three players have gone 20-of-20 in the past nine seasons, but Morant was the first to be perfect on more than 20 free-throw attempts. Oh, he had 11 assists and five steals too.
Morant also had a triple-double earlier this season, putting up 29 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists against Missouri State, but that was just one of his many ridiculous performances.
Depending on how the NBA draft lottery shakes out, Morant could be the No. 1 pick in June. It'll be hard for any franchise to pass up Zion Williamson or RJ Barrett for Morant, but he might be worth it.
Matt Rafferty, Furman
2018-19 Stats: 17.7 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 4.1 APG, 2.5 SPG, 1.3 BPG
MVP Performance: 15 points, 17 rebounds, four blocks, three assists, two steals at Villanova
Two of the most surprising upsets in the first two weeks of the season were Furman's road wins over Loyola-Chicago and Villanova—two of the teams that reached the 2018 Final Four. Matt Rafferty was the heart and soul of both wins for the Paladins.
In each contest, he filled up the stat sheet without making a mistake. He had a combined 33 points, 24 rebounds, seven assists, six blocks and four steals with zero turnovers. He did most of his damage early against the Wildcats, but against the Ramblers, Rafferty gave Furman the lead with one minute to go and assisted on the game-winning bucket with two seconds left.
The Paladins center is more than a two-hit wonder, though. He has been putting up strong numbers all season long, currently sitting on nine double-doubles. The big man also has nine games with at least five assists, two games with four blocks and an active streak of 10 games with multiple steals.
Rafferty leads Furman in all five categories: points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks.
Furman's 12-0 start to the season has gone belly up with losses in four of the last seven games, but don't blame this guy. Rafferty was still the KenPom.com game MVP in the losses to East Tennessee State and Wofford, and he had a darn fine showing in the loss to UNC Greensboro (22 points, 10 rebounds, five assists, two steals).
Justin Wright-Foreman, Hofstra
2018-19 Stats: 26.2 PPG, 4.9 RPG, 3.4 APG, 40.6% 3PT
MVP Performance: 37 points, six assists, five rebounds vs. Cal State Fullerton
Justin Wright-Foreman was an honorable mention on this list one year ago, just missing the top 10 due to his inefficiency. He averaged 24.4 points per game, but he did so on 19.0 shots, shooting 44.9 percent from the field.
He has been much more efficient this season, and Hofstra is a serious Cinderella candidate because of it. Wright-Foreman is shooting 50.1 percent from the field, 40.6 percent from three-point range and a stone-cold 88.0 percent from the free-throw line—a huge reason why Hofstra leads the nation in free-throw percentage and has won 14 consecutive games.
Wright-Foreman has improved that efficiency while maintaining one of the heaviest workloads in the country. Per KenPom, he ranks seventh in the nation in percentage of minutes played and is 18th in percentage of shots taken while on the floor.
He is showing no signs of slowing down. Wright-Foreman is actually averaging 41.5 minutes over his last six games because he played all 55 minutes of the triple-overtime win over William & Mary earlier this month. It was his third consecutive game with at least 34 points and his fifth such scoring performance of the year.
It should be noted that Hofstra is a bad defensive team, partially because Wright-Foreman exerts almost no effort on that end of the floor. But it keeps him out of foul trouble and he conserves energy for offense, so it's not such a bad thing in the grand scheme of Hofstra's winning formula.
Kerry Miller covers men's college basketball and college football for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter: @kerrancejames.