One of the great things about college basketball is that every year, new stars are born.
Those newbies are often freshmen – but it’s particularly fun to watch older players transform before our eyes. Last year, Justin Jackson made the leap from “solid starter” to ACC Player of the Year in one offseason. It was partially because he improved, but also a function of North Carolina simply needing him to score more with Brice Johnson and Marcus Paige gone. Jackson delivered.That’s the kind of guy we’re talking about today. Here are some players that could have big years in 2017-18 thanks to increased opportunity.
Note: Only players that are out of eligibility or have declared for the draft and signed with an agent are included as "departures" in this exercise.
Josh Perkins (replacing Nigel Williams-Goss)
Perkins’ offense decreased once Williams-Goss took the point guard reins – his usage rate slipped from 18.8 in 2015-16 to 15.2 in 2016-17 – but he was solid both years. As a redshirt freshman, he averaged 10.1 points on 37.8 percent from 3. Last year, Perkins scored less, but canned 39.9 percent of his 3s. He thrived in his role as Gonzaga’s secondary ball-handler.
In 2017-18, Perkins will be asked to do more. He looks the part; with a strong 6-3, 190-pound build, Perkins is capable of wearing down smaller point guards. Don’t be surprised if Mark Few unlocks his post game next season, like he did with Williams-Goss. Perkins isn’t as quick or as talented of a playmaker as NWG, but he’s a better shooter, and he likely learned a thing or two about passing playing behind one of the best point guards in the country. Perkins still averaged 3.4 dimes last year – a healthy clip for an off-guard. He’ll likely be All-WCC next season.
Malik Newman (replacing Josh Jackson/Frank Mason)
Highly-touted as an incoming freshman, Newman had his ups and downs in his lone year at Mississippi State. He just sat out a season after transferring to Kansas, and it just feels like Bill Self will know exactly how to use a guy with Newman’s talent.
The new Jayhawk shooting guard has a chance to become an electric scorer. Newman drained four or more triples six times as a freshman, including a 7-for-10 outing against Ole Miss. He could stand to improve as a driver – too often as Mississippi State, he’d settle for contested jumpers instead of using his athleticism to get to the rack. In some ways, Newman is a poor man’s Malik Monk.
But that guy could be an awesome college basketball player, especially playing alongside Devonte’ Graham, one of the most consistent cogs in the sport. Newman won’t have to worry about some of the ball-handling responsibilities he was burdened with at Mississippi State (though Kansas would love it if he could play some minutes at the point); he’ll usually just have to concern himself with getting buckets. Newman thrives there.
He should be a joy to watch in Lawrence next season.
Jalen Brunson (replacing Josh Hart)
Brunson won’t magically grow a few inches and play wing now that Hart is gone, but he figures to replace some of his scoring load.
He may not blow you away with athleticism – but Brunson’s a whip smart point guard that is as fundamentally sound as they come. As a sophomore, he posted a true shooting percentage of 65.5. That’s nuts for a player his size – a lot of centers who don’t stray outside of the lane aren’t that efficient on offense.
Naturally, it will be exciting to see what Brunson can do with more shot attempts. His field goals per game increased from seven to 9.4 between his freshman and sophomore seasons; his scoring average rose almost five points as a result. Twenty points per game isn’t out of the question for Brunson as a junior.
Grayson Allen (replacing Luke Kennard)
Weird, but true. Kennard overshadowed Allen on the court last season, but Allen has shown he’s capable of being the first option on a good team. As a sophomore, he averaged 21.6 points per game with pristine efficiency – 46.6 percent from the floor, 41.7 from 3.
It’s no secret that he struggled as a junior, averaging 14.5 points on less than 40 percent from the field in an adversity-riddled season. Allen had a tough time fitting next to Kennard; both are good players, but their games are a tad redundant.
Some players benefit from a clear offensive chain of command. Duke didn’t really have that last season. In 2017-18, Allen will be a focal point – and if he can stave off the nagging injuries, he could post the numbers he did as a sophomore.
We haven’t seen the last of Allen just yet.
Anthony Cowan (replacing Melo Trimble)
Cowan was such a natural as a freshman that he forced the Terps to slot Trimble to the two. A 6-0 jitterbug, Cowan is extremely difficult to contain off the bounce – operating in a spread pick-and-roll system in which he receives most of the ball screens, he could reach another level. That’s likely what Maryland’s offense will look like next season.
Cowan could stand to improve his outside shooting, and most players do between their freshman and sophomore seasons; he shot 32.1 percent from range last year. If Cowan can become a legitimate threat to pull from deep when his defender ducks under a screen, look out.
Last season, Trimble led Maryland in usage rate (28.5); Cowan came in third (20.1). He was more efficient than Trimble, edging him in true shooting percentage. If Cowan’s usage rate surpasses 25, he could be an All-Big Ten point guard.
Marcus Lee (replacing Ivan Rabb)
Lee was solid at Kentucky, but never a focal point of the offense – as a junior he shot 68 percent from the floor but only managed to score 6.4 points per game.
So he transferred to California, where he will try to fill Rabb’s shoes. Lee isn’t the offensive force Rabb is, but he’s a physical specimen that could be even better as a shot-blocker and rebounder. Lee averaged three swats per 40 minutes as a junior.
His back-to-the-basket game leaves some wanting more, but as a pick-and-roll slash man that can gobble up put-back points, he’s excellent. The question: Will California have enough around Lee to showcase his unique gifts, given how he’s not one to create his own shot? Time will tell. But if this guy averages a double-double next season, don’t be shocked.