College basketball: Seven players who will return to school and flourish
The 2016 NBA Draft is in the rearview mirror, and professional franchises are set to welcome outstanding former college players to their squads. From four-year stars like Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine to one-and-dones such as Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram, many gifted players recently took their talents to the pro level.
But many did not. This year’s college basketball talent crop is looking richer than ever, and some NBA-ready players opted to stay in school to hone their skills. Those guys are poised for huge 2016-17 campaigns.
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F Ivan Rabb, California
Former Cal forward Jaylen Brown was the third overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, and one could reasonably argue that Rabb was the better player for the Golden Bears last season.
Rabb is wiry, athletic and skilled beyond his years. The big man does it all; he’s a dynamite finisher on the pick-and-roll, he can hit midrange jumpers and when a possession fizzles, he’s able to exploit mismatches in the post. He’s an instinctual defender, too. Rabb swatted 1.7 shots per game last year, and his 95.3 defensive rating was the stingiest among Cal rotation players.
With all of that said, Rabb was the Bears’ fourth-leading scorer last season. That wasn’t due to a lack of efficiency. He shot 61.5 percent from the floor on the year, but with guys like Brown, Ty Wallace and Jordan Mathews in the fold, Rabb wasn’t the focal point of the offense.
That will change this season. All three of those players are gone, and Rabb should see an abundance of action on the offensive end in 2016-17.
C Thomas Bryant, Indiana
Perhaps no player in college basketball improved over the course of last season as much as Bryant did.
At the beginning of the year, Bryant struggled to catch bounce passes and was hopeless in containing ball screens. By the end of 2015-16, Indiana possessions ending in Bryant shot attempts were fruitful, and he even hung with elite point guards such as Tyler Ulis out on the perimeter.
Bryant still has a ways to go, but by returning to school, it’s easy to see him becoming a dominant force in 2016-17. Not many guys can boast a 7-5 wingspan and a relentless motor with sweet touch around the basket. Bryant can.
Big men rely on their point guards for offensive opportunities, and the Hoosiers just lost a great one in Yogi Ferrell. If newcomer Josh Newkirk can provide stability or James Blackmon Jr. improves his playmaking, Bryant will be the main beneficiary. He shot almost 70 percent from the floor last season, and he matured by the game. Expect plenty more of that in his sophomore season.
F Tyler Lydon, Syracuse
Malachi Richardson’s draft stock soared thanks to a memorable NCAA tournament, but watching Syracuse last season, a different Orange freshman stood out as an intriguing prospect. His name is Tyler Lydon.
How many college basketball players can man the middle of Jim Boeheim’s 2-3 zone while shooting better than 40 percent from 3? You can probably count them on one hand. Lydon is one of them.
Lydon won’t need to play center this season with Paschal Chukwu’s arrival from Providence, but his combination of size, shooting and athleticism (Lydon registered 1.1 steals and 1.8 blocks per game last season) are unicorn-esque. His skillset is very similar to former Wisconsin Badger Sam Dekker’s; Dekker was the second-best player on a near national champion in 2015.
With Richardson, Michael Gbinije and Trevor Cooney gone, expect Lydon to flourish this season.
G Edmond Sumner, Xavier
Large point guards that can shoot, see over and break down defenses are all the rage these days. Sumner checks all of those boxes, and a few more after that.
Xavier employs a free-wheeling system that involves just about everyone, and Sumner excels in such a setting. If Chris Mack chose to play spread pick-and-roll and surrounded Sumner and a big man with three shooters, he’d probably thrive in that system, too. He’s that dynamic offensively.
But what has many salivating over Sumner’s potential is his defense. At 6-5 with a long reach and blazing quickness, the sophomore can harass point guards and pester bigger wings on switches.
Now, don’t get carried away. Yes, I’m mostly talking to myself here. Sumner barely cracked 30 percent from distance last season, and he needs to add muscle to take his game to new heights. But his stroke is solid, and the Musketeer guard is still very young. Those attributes should develop over time.
PG Jawun Evans, Oklahoma State
‘Savvy’ isn’t typically a word used to describe freshman point guards. But that’s exactly what Evans was last season for the Cowboys.
Evans isn’t Chris Paul, of course, but his ability to command a possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler is Paul-like. Evans is already one of the best ball screen guards in America; just ask the Oklahoma Sooners, who watched the silky guard torch them for 42 points in January.
Evans made almost half of his 3’s as a freshman, but only attempted 40 shots from distance. Expect a spike in that number this season, as new Oklahoma State coach Brad Underwood should give his star point guard the keys to the offense in Stillwater.
F Jaron Blossomgame, Clemson
It was easy to forget about Blossomgame in the 2015-16 ACC, but he was one of the best players in a loaded conference. As a senior, if the Tigers can get over the hump and make the NCAA tournament, Blossomgame will receive national buzz.
6-7 wings with sweet strokes and off-the-bounce juice don’t grow on trees, but what gets lost with Blossomgame is how excellent he was statistically last season. The then-junior shot 51.3 percent from the floor and sank 44.1 percent of his 3’s, which was good for an absurd true shooting percentage of 61.3.
Blossomgame is already a great player, but with another offseason in the gym, perhaps he can average close to 25 points per game. That will put the college basketball world on notice.
PG Melo Trimble, Maryland
Speaking of dominant pick-and-roll guards, who’s ready for The Melo Show? Trimble is the lone starter returning from last year’s Sweet 16 Terrapins squad, so he’s undoubtedly going to let it fly on the offensive end.
And for that reason, I will be watching plenty of Maryland Terrapins basketball this season. An off guard in a point guard’s frame, Trimble’s primary skill is putting the ball in the hole. It’s not setting up fellow stars, which is what Maryland asked him to do last season.
When Trimble’s at his best, he’s doing stuff like this:
Trimble’s efficiency dropped in just about every offensive category last season, but he’s the unquestioned alpha dog of the 2016-17 Terrapins. Enjoy the ride.