As much as it seems freshmen have dominated college basketball the last several years, only two of the last ten Naismith Award winners have been freshmen (Kevin Durant in 2007, and Anthony Davis in 2012).
So as we begin to preview the 2014-15 men’s college basketball season, which is filled with remarkably talented rookies, I wanted to take a quick look at some of the returning college players who I think will be contenders to the Naismith Award next Spring.
Frank Kaminsky, Senior, Wisconsin
13.9 PPG, 6.3 RPG, 53% FG
It’s not likely that we’re going to see a Bo Ryan coached player take home National Player of the Year honors, but Frank Kaminsky proved in last season’s NCAA Tournament how valuable he can be, and should continue to do so in the 2014-15 season for Wisconsin. The near seven-footer can score from just about anywhere on the court, which was best exemplified by his 38-percent three point shooting last season, but he needs to do a better job using his ball skills his senior season, as he’s capable of improving on his 1.7 blocks per game. We saw Kaminsky take a giant leap from his sophomore to junior seasons, and I think we see him take another step forward this Winter.
Georges Niang, Junior, Iowa State
16.7 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.6 APG
As he proved last season on a team with stars like DeAndre Kane and Melvin Ejim, Georges Niang has the perfect skill set for Fred Hoiberg’s offense. A willing and capable passer who thrives in the midrange and has overlooked explosiveness, Niang will be asked to facilitate a lot more offense his junior season, something he thrives at both from bringing the ball up the court and out of the post. Niang’s inside outside game is about as dangerous as any power forward in the country, and coming off of a foot injury that stopped his Cyclones run short this past season, I expect big things out of him in his final campaign.
Marcus Paige, Junior, North Carolina
17.5 PPG, 4.2 APG, 3.2 RPG
I know because we’re talking about North Carolina I can expect to hear the sound of 100 mini violins, but few players did more with less in the 2013-14 season than point guard Marcus Paige. An equal threat to pull up from three (39-percent) or take his man off the dribble, Paige shot .o90% better as a sophomore than he did as a freshman, which when paired with his improved ball protection, unquestionably makes Paige one of the best point guards in the country approaching the 2014-15 season. Paige’s major progress last season helped second year players like Brice Johnson and J.P. Tokoto develop nicely along his side, and with some highly coveted freshmen in Justin Jackson and Theo Pinson on the wing with him this season, and a slimmed down Kennedy Meeks, I think Paige will be one of the games best players.
Fred VanVleet, Junior,Wichita State
11.6 PPG, 5.4 APG, 3.9 RPG
Fred VanVleet’s numbers – advanced metrics withstanding (he had a 34.6% assist rate with an 11.6% turnover rate!) – last season weren’t exactly dazzling, but there’s no question that he was the catalyst for the best story in college basketball. VanVleet’s ability to take over games as both a scorer and facilitator left him with the third best offensive rating (134.9) in the country last season (92.2 D-Rating, for those wondering), and although he’ll definitely miss Cleanthony Early, having both Ron Baker and Tekele Cotton back with him for another season leads me to believe that we’ll be seeing Wichita State in the thick of things next March.
Montrezl Harrell, Junior, Louisville
14.0 PPG, 8.4 RPG, 61% FG
Few players had more impressive breakout campaigns in my eyes last season than Louisville big Montrezl Harrell, who led his conference in rebounds and field goal percentage, establishing himself as one of the most feared front court players in the nation. Harrell gets up and down the court like a wing, and despite only measuring 6-foot-8 (however, I must add that Draft Express is reporting that he measured 6’10 in June), Harrell has a 7-foot-3 wingspan that keeps the opposition modest in terms of attacking his paint. Harrell has great hands, imposing length, scary strength, and like the rest of the players on this list, if he’s able to make any kind of progress next season like he did last season, we can expect to see another deep tournament run for Louisville, and to see their prized big go in the Draft Lottery next June.
Honorable mention: Branden Dawson, Senior, Michigan State
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Sophomore, Arizona
Perry Ellis, Junior, Kansas
Caris LeVert, Sophomore, Michigan
Juwan Staten, Senior, West Virginia