Bringing on star freshmen talent is surely one quick way to improve your roster and set higher team expectations for the new season. But more often than not, development among returning players is what can also truly make an impact.
Whether it’s a case of advancing from a sparsely-used player to key-minute option or from an adequate playmaker to superstar, here are the most improved college basketball players in 2017:
Semi Ojeleye | Southern Methodist
2014-15 stats (sat out ‘15-16): 10.5 mpg, 3.0 ppg, 2.3 rpg, 27.8 FG%
2016-17 stats: 33.2 mpg, 17.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 47.9 FG%
Ojeleye never found his footing at Duke, where he spent his first one and a half seasons as a relative unknown. But in his first season at SMU under coach Larry Brown, the 6-7, 235-pounder has established himself as one of the AAC’s top players.
It’s no coincidence that with Ojeleye’s emergence, the Mustangs are off to a 20-4 start and cracked the AP poll for the first time this season at No. 25 in the recent rankings.
Ben Lammers | Georgia Tech
2015-16 stats: 14.8 mpg, 3.6 ppg, 4.0 rebounds per game, 0.5 apg
2016-17 stats: 34.1 mpg, 14.7 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 2.0 apg
Georgia Tech (14-10) has been one of the most surprising teams across the nation this season, and much of that has to do with the arrival of freshman Josh Okogie (team-leading 15.4 points per game).
But right behind Okogie in scoring is junior center Ben Lammers, who is a couple rebounds short of averaging a double-double this year.
Lammers was a solid post guy for the Yellow Jackets last year, averaging four rebounds and a block per game, but has become a steady scoring option in 2017. He’s taking nine more shots and averaging 10 more points per contest this season while seeing a boost in all the defensive categories that made him valuable last year.
Lammers was a third-string center last season but has ceased his starting opportunity this season. With the duo of Lammers and Okogie, it’s not too crazy to see Georgia Tech making a run in the loaded ACC tournament.
Manu Lecomte | Baylor
2014-15 stats (sat out ’15-16): 22.4 mpg, 7.9 ppg, 1.8 apg, 1.4 rpg
2016-17 stats: 30.4 mpg, 12.5 ppg, 4.3 apg, 1.9 rpg
Unlike the first two names to crack the list, finding minutes was never a problem for Lecomte, who has averaged at least 22 minutes per game in each of his three years. But the point guard’s improved play-making ability has been a welcome addition to the Bears this season.
Lecomte spent his first two seasons at Miami (Fla.), averaging around eight points per game while contributing at both guard positions. At Baylor, he’s been the unquestioned point guard and an offensive leader alongside Johnathan Motley.
Lecomte is up to a modest 12.5 points per game and has increased his shooting percentage by 0.5 this year (43.5 percent), but the major improvement has come in setting up his teammates. He’s dishing the ball out more, hovering around the five assists per game mark all season.
The 5-11 guard has been inconsistent at times, especially in conference play, but his addition to the Bears has been a major reason for their surge to top 10 status.
Tacko Fall | UCF
2015-16 stats: 17.6 mpg, 7.4 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 2.3 bpg
2016-17 stats: 26.3 mpg, 12.4 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 2.4 bpg
There’s no coaching size, and Fall’s got a lot of it at 7-6. But it was obvious that the Senegal native was still raw, as seen by his decent, not eye-popping freshman numbers.
But Fall’s development has been right on par in 2017, as he’s playing stronger in the post, getting more touches and becoming a bigger presence on the glass.
Fall has averaged a double-double for most of the year and scored as much as 31 points in an overtime victory over Miami (Ohio) on Dec. 18. The physical specimen has 10 double doubles this season.
With two more seasons left in his eligibility, it’s fun to think of the player Fall will continue to become.
Luke Kennard | Duke
2015-16 stats: 26.7 mpg, 11.8 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 1.5 apg, 42.1 FG%
2016-17 stats: 34.7 mpg, 19.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 2.6 apg, 53.1 FG%
Kennard had a very good 2016 freshman season, averaging double figure points per game, but his performance wasn’t really talked about entering this season due to the hype surrounding freshmen sensations Jayson Tatum and Harry Giles and the return of de facto leader Grayson Allen.
But if it wasn’t for Kennard’s play this season, Duke would be in serious trouble.
Giles and Tatum each had their share of injury problems to start the year and Allen missed some games as well as preseason No. 1 Duke looked vulnerable for much of the season. With Kennard as their go-to weapon, however, Duke has stayed afloat in the ACC race.
Kennard has a sweet shooting stroke – he’s shooting 45.8 percent from beyond the arc – and isn’t afraid to drive in the lane and draw contact. He’s single-handedly led the Blue Devils past many upset scares, none more apparent than against Wake Forest on Jan. 28 when he exploded for 34 points, including a 3-pointer to take the lead with six seconds left.
The sophomore has taken the reins as Duke’s leader, and its postseason success likely rests on his shoulders.
Caleb Swanigan | Purdue
2015-16 stats: 25.7 mpg, 10.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 1.8 apg, 46.1 FG%
2016-17 stats: 31.9 mpg, 19.1 ppg, 12.8 rpg, 2.8 apg, 54.7 FG%
Swanigan’s life transformation in the past five years has been amazing, but his transformation on the court in the past year has been impressive in itself.
The 6-9 forward stepped in right away as a freshman to put together a solid 10-point, eight-rebound line in 2016, leading to raised expectations this season. And he’s responded.
Swanigan has become a double-double machine, reaching that target 20 times this season – including a current run of six straight games. He’s a prime candidate for the Naismith Trophy this year and has Purdue up to No. 16 in the latest AP poll.
It’s been a collective down year for the Big Ten this season. Riding the play of its emerging superstar in Swanigan, Purdue can easily take control down the stretch.