NCAA Breakout Players Watch List

NCAA Breakout Players Watch List
Oct 16, 2004, 03:27 am
By Wade Smith

As the college season approaches, the discussions begin over who is due to break out, who is set for a flop, and so on. The following list shall be my contribution to those nascent debates. I have limited the scope of my projections to returning players. I have observed each of the following players often and so have a good handle on what to expect from them. Any attempt to project the performances of incoming freshmen, on the other hand, would be more or less guesswork on my part, based upon conclusions from second and third hand observations.

The Wisconsin homer in me compels me to begin with Alando Tucker. He is a physical freak, strong as an ox—an ox who stands at 6'5" and boasts a 40" vertical leap (or 38", depending on who you believe, but either figure speaks to his tremendous athleticism), and seeing as he was granted a redshirt for last year, he potentially has three good years ahead of him. His post game is already pretty good (the height is a limiting factor, but not nearly as much as you might expect), and if he can develop a good jumper, and possibly a little better ball handling, he could become one of the elite players in the Big 10. I expect the jumper to develop because he must realize that if he wants to play in the NBA he needs a consistent stroke. On a bit of a side note, now that Wisconsin's in-state recruiting is picking up (already landing them Brian Butch and Devin Harris, for two examples) their fears of seeing the Caron Butler/Dwyane Wade/Reece Gaines types slip through their hands have been eased. I just love what Bo Ryan has done for the program; it almost makes me forget about Dick Bennett.

You can pick and choose virtually any names from Maryland's roster and have a good chance of finding a potential breakout star. John Gilchrist certainly showed the nation what he can do in the ACC Tournament last year. He still makes some horrible decisions on the court, but it's safe to assume Gary Williams will not allow that to continue for long. Ekene Ibekwe, meanwhile, showed enough flashes that I can think of no closer comparison for his kind of game than Kevin Garnett. If he stays four years, unlike other Maryland big men with potential but little experience—I am looking at you, Mr. Wilcox—he could be a top-echelon NCAA player and a very high draft pick. Mike Jones is another name you might pick. If you don't follow the ACC, you probably won't recognize it, but Jones has a ton of talent. He is 6'5" and built very well, has a tremendous outside shot (NBA-range, high school consistency), and has the athleticism to match (not freakishly so, but certainly capable). He was disappointing last year, although only Gary Williams knows why his playing time was so limited. Outside of that group, there are a few other Maryland players with pretty good potential, but these are the ones who stand out to me. It certainly will be an exciting season for Maryland fans, who will be hoping the group can stay together for the next two years and bring back some memories of the Blake/Dixon/Baxter teams.

Moving southwest a little, I expect to see J.R. Giddens follow up his impressive freshman season with a great sophomore campaign. He is one of those guys who just seem to have all the tools, but more importantly he apparently knows how to use them. He's a sensational athlete, very good ball-handler, and a deadly three-point shooter. It's going to be a rough transition for Kansas if this is his last year there, which is distinctly possible. Losing him, Keith Langford, Aaron Miles, and Wayne Simien all in one year would be devastating. Little Padgett would inherit a huge burden to carry on his shoulders if Giddens does go.

Staying inside the Big 12, P.J. Tucker down at Texas looks to be another terrific sophomore. He is only 6'5", but is still a remarkable inside player. He should be able to follow up his very good freshman campaign (10 ppg, 7 rpg), especially if he improves his mid-range shot to keep the defenders honest. Tucker will be counted on to fulfill his star promise now that Ivey, Mouton, Boddicker, and Thomas are gone. (As an aside, it was a real shame that Thomas had the senior year he did, for he was an animal his junior year; just an incredible rebounder). Those guys had become an excellent group of college players. Texas' recruiting class should ease the pressure on Tucker a bit.

In Connecticut, there is a pair of players waiting to break out. The obvious one is Charlie Villanueva (hah, sorry Kansas). Despite his genuine resemblance to the Frankenstein monster, he has a rather nice-looking game. He could stand to add a little extra weight, but even now that is not a huge detriment to his post game. He is a good jump shooter, although not so much from three-point range. He gets a reputation as a good passer, but I don't see it at all. He might make a highlight here or there, but purely as a solid passer he doesn't impress me. Nonetheless, big men aren't expected to be great passers, even if they aren't traditional big men. He is a good defender, an especially good shot-blocker. Between him and Josh Boone, lay-ups against UCONN will be sparse. Neither Villanueva nor Boone is a replacement for Emeka Okafor's blocks, but that's an unfair standard by which to judge anyone. Speaking of Boone, he is also a promising young talent for Jim Calhoun, but his offensive game seems to be quite raw. That is true of almost all freshmen, but it was especially so for Boone. That's not to say he can't be a good offensive player, it's just that I see his time to shine still being a year or so away. Already we can expect Boone to be a force on defense and the boards this year, and with the talent around him that should be just fine.

The other player at UCONN who is primed to break out is Rashad Anderson. This guy is a pure shooter, similar to Duke's J.J. Redick. He is insane when on, and he was on often last year. Now that Ben Gordon is gone, the starting two spot should be his, and I fully expect him to score 18 PPG, maybe even more. Ball-handling isn't a strength, and his mid-range game isn't on par with his three-point game, but the same can be said about J.J. Redick (Redick is more willing to pump and drive, though; I don't see much of that from Anderson), and teams still fear him.

In Oklahoma (at Oklahoma State, to be precise), Joey Graham is another name you might be hearing. He produced some real highlights in the NCAA Tournament, punctuating a solid campaign. He is a post player who can hit some jumpers and even occasionally stretch out to three-point range. He is somewhat an enigma in that he is definitely a capable athlete and is tall enough to play either forward spot, but he blocks an alarmingly small number of shots and is not a great rebounder either. Odds are the shot-blocking instincts simply aren't there, but rebounding is something he can and must do. Even if he sees a minimal increase in that category, it will compliment his solid game at both ends of the floor nicely. I don't think he is as likely to break out as the other players on this list, but he has a chance, and so I throw his name into the mix for consideration.

At Pitt, Chris Taft is a good bet to make the All-Big East team. He is a legitimate big man who has no delusions about playing outside. He already put up 10 and 7.5 during his freshman year, and as he matures, the offense should go through him more and more often. One concern is that he weighs only 230 pounds at 6'10", and adding 10-20 pounds to that frame might do him well, especially as a true post. He is an able shot-blocker, good for maybe 2 a game. His passing is actually decent for a pure post; you have to like the fact that he broke even on his assist-to-turnover ratio as a freshman. You can tell he's really disciplined for his age. He doesn't force shots that even seniors do, as evidenced by his 56% shooting from the field last season. He'll have some worthy competition in the Big East, which brings us to Torin Francis.

Torin Francis is another pure post in the Big East, and he possesses an even better body than Taft does. Using all 6'11" and 250 pounds of him, he knows how to bang. He's another guy you won't see shooting jumpers. Thanks in large part to Notre Dame's constant supply of quality guards, he's always had room to operate in the post. However, it certainly would benefit him to extend his range a little; seeing him shoot from more than a few feet outside the lane has been a rarity in my experiences. Besides his offensive abilities, he's a tremendous rebounder and a very good shot-blocker. He's no Ben Wallace, but he should be good for 10 boards and 2+ blocks when healthy. Of course, being healthy isn't a given for Francis. He has had some real back issues, and those always produce a cringe when talking about college players. If he can fight through that, he is a good candidate to enter the draft following the season. NBA scouts must love his size and post game. One thing he really needs to improve is his passing. He is just flat out bad, and he obviously can't cope when defenses collapse on him. His assist-to-turnover ratio was a pretty dismal 1:2.2, and I'm assuming that will be a point of emphasis for his Notre Dame coaches. He is already a good player, but he still has a lot of room to grow, much more than most college players of similar production levels.

Going to Ohio, we find James White of Cincinnati. He is a massive enigma. He has almost every tool in the shed: prototype shooting guard height (skinny, though), great ball-handling, great passing, great mid-range game, and he can actually post despite being 190 pounds. White is probably the best athlete in college basketball (top five, anyway). The only thing he needs to improve is his long-range game, and even that shouldn't be a major flaw. I just don't know why he isn't a fantastic player. He has character issues, but those had never seemed to carry onto the court coming into college, and there are no blatant signs that that's the problem now. One thing he does seem to lack is consistent effort, but even when he isn't giving 100%, he is still one of the best players on the court. Bob Huggins always seems to get the most out of his players—he always has very good teams until March, despite never being an NBA factory—I hope he can do that with White. Are there signs indicating White is going to break out? Honestly, not really. He may end his career at Cincinnati as he began, a giant question mark, and just fade into obscurity, but with his talent that would practically be a crime. The only reason I put him on this list is that if he can fix what must be head issues, he'll be great. However, the clock is ticking on his college career, so he had better shape up.

Continuing the enigma theme is Jawad Williams. I realize that he produces well enough for North Carolina and has his moments of brilliance, but this is another very talented guy who should be a really good college player. I realize part of his relative lack of production is his being on a loaded team, and shots have to be divided, but I'd still like to see more out of him. He has good height for the college four (somewhere between 6'8" and 6'10", depending on who you believe), although he is a tad skinny for post work. He has three point range (not a stellar three man, but certainly good enough to be a constant threat) and good athleticism for his height. He is also a great man-to-man defender (although UNC plays their fair share of zone, so he doesn't always get to stick one man throughout the game) and is supremely tough. He does have his faults. He's not a very good passer, nor a great handler. Probably his biggest issue is his post play. He has the athleticism to succeed in the post, but at this point he is a two dribble, then fade away guy. If he can refine his post moves, he will improve substantially. Part of his problem might be that he isn't a natural four. He fits the mold of a small forward, but Carolina's personnel have simply dictated he must play power forward. This shouldn't be a huge detriment, though. He is a solid rebounder, but not a dominant one. Part of that probably stems from his inconsistency. I don't want to attribute that to lack of desire, because from all accounts he has a tremendous work ethic, and he is willing to make the hustle plays on the floor. He just disappears for stretches, which must infuriate Roy Williams. Despite all that, he still is relatively low on the list of priorities at UNC. Were it a less talented team, Jawad probably would have significantly more pressure to meet his potential than he does. As is, he isn't as critical to the team's success as the Big Three are. But if he does develop, the Tar Heels will be even more imposing.

Departing from the enigma theme, we remain in North Carolina to find Ilian Evtimov. He and Julius Hodge form a pretty damn good one-two punch at NC State, which softens some of the blow of losing Josh Powell two years ago (had Powell stayed, I cannot help but imagine he'd be on some pre-season All-American lists right now; God, I'll never understand that one). Evtimov fits the Euro mold pretty well, even though he finished his high school career in North Carolina. He is a tremendous shooter, although his percentage didn't fully reflect that last year. He is a good ball-handler who can and will drive when given the opportunity. His torn ACL from two years back hinders this a little, but he remains quite capable. He also is a good passer, especially from the small forward position. He's an above-average rebounder, too, although he won't be confused with Shawn Marion anytime soon. On the other hand, he fits the Euro mold in the wrong ways, too. He is only a passable defender. Despite being 6'7 and 230 pounds, he is none too eager to post or to be posted. Regardless of his defensive faults, he remains an exciting offensive player. He was somewhat inconsistent last year. If he can bring his performance to a steady level, 15 points per game is not out of the question. With Marcus Melvin and Scooter Sherril gone, there will be a fair amount of shots to spread among the players, and Evtimov looks to get a good share of those. He might find himself fighting with Tony Bethel for some of them (I watched him at Georgetown and observed him to be a pretty good player, especially when he gets room to shoot). Hodge, Bethel, and Evtimov will give NC State a highly competitive team in the ACC this year, but Evtimov is the one who really can lift them. You already know what you're getting from Bethel and Hodge, but he is the proverbial X-factor.

The last guy I'll mention is Nate Robinson. He made his name known with some incredible highlights last year and his even more incredible decision to declare for the draft (thank goodness he came to his senses). Robinson can be more than just a highlight reel; he can be a college basketball star. His height will really handicap his chances for success in the NBA, but while that is a factor in college, it's one for which he can do much to compensate. Robinson is a great athlete, as many people have already witnessed, but he also brings superb penetration to the table. He is ridiculously fast (think T.J. Ford speed), which explains his arrival at Washington as a football player. He improved his three point shot last year, to the point that it has become a legitimate weapon, and he even showed that he was willing to take (and make) NBA threes. His quickness and handles allow him to get shots almost at will, although he's no gunner. He doesn't seem to take a great deal of midrange shots; his scoring seems to consist in threes and plays at the rim. He finishes remarkably well at the hoop thanks to his athleticism and very solid build. His leaping ability also allows him to garner a handful of boards a game, including some at the offensive end. He is not without faults, of course. His height really hinders him on defense and limits his court vision on offense. He is not a pure point guard by any stretch of the imagination. He averaged just about 3 assists per game last year. To be fair, his assist numbers are somewhat low because he splits some time with other, more natural point guards, but if he has NBA dreams, he simply must become a more prolific playmaker. His assist-to-turnover ratio is a meager 1.4:1, and that speaks as much to his volume of turnovers as it does to his lack of assists. Regardless, Robinson is a truly exciting player who might have All-Pac-10 honors in his future if he can step it up and develop well. Last year he recorded about 15 points, 4 rebounds, and 4 assists per game against uninspiring Pac-10 competition. This year, 16-5-4 should be well within his reach—and it would be nice to see him reach for a higher assist total. I don't expect to see that, though.

This should serve as a varied, if not exhaustive, list of potential breakout stars of college basketball's upcoming season. But hey, you surely must have some disagreements. Who did I miss? Whose inclusions are unmerited? Go ahead and voice your opinions at the /RealGM message boards.

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