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College Basketball

Harrell, Kaminsky lead list of top 20 big men for 2014-15

From left to right, Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, Kentucky's Dakari Johnson and Louisville's Montrezl Harrell. Photo: Getty Images

From left to right, Wisconsin's Frank Kaminsky, Kentucky's Dakari Johnson and Louisville's Montrezl Harrell.

Positions in college basketball can be difficult to determine. It’s not uncommon to see a 6-foot-8 center or a 6-3 wing. What’s the difference between a 7-foot center and a 7-foot power forward? Yes, we’re writing about you, Karl Towns, Dakari Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein. Is Dez Wells bringing the ball up the floor or posting up in the paint? Will Ryan Boatright be a point guard or a shooting guard?

Instead of organizing these lists as positions 1-5, we’ve decided to group them as bigs, wings and guards. Our aim was to include the best players in college basketball, and accordingly, we didn’t consider at all how players would project to the NBA.

In this list of bigs, you’ll find four Kentucky Wildcats, a frontrunner for national player of the year awards and perhaps the most underrated player in all of college basketball.

Best Returners
  •  
    Height: 7-0
    Weight: 240
    Class: Junior

    Cauley-Stein’s decision to return to college basketball was surprising for a couple of reasons: First, he was projected as a first-round pick by most outlets. Second, he’s going to have to battle for playing time in Kentucky’s crowded “7-foot-and-over” club. Cauley-Stein is much better known for his defensive prowess (his 12.3 block percentage was 12th in the country last season) than his offensive skills (he averaged fewer than five shots and fewer than 7 points a game), and he should use this next year in Lexington to refine his offense in the company of other elite big men. After all, there are three other Kentucky players on this list alone. If he can stand out among that group, he may also work himself into the Lottery.
     

  •  
    Height: 6-8
    Weight: 225
    Class: Junior
     

    Despite his height, Ellis is one of the most efficient paint scorers in this group. He shoots 54.9 percent from the floor overall, but, according to hoop-math.com, he shoots 54.3 percent of his shots at the rim, where he converts at a 65.1 percent clip. He was overshadowed last season by all-world talents in Joel Embiid and Andrew Wiggins, who both went in the top 3 of the NBA draft – but Ellis will have Kansas right back in thick of the Big 12 and national championship races. In fact, not having those two players around should give Ellis more opportunities to show his athleticism. Wiggins and Embiid combined to take 50.2 percent of the teams possessions, leaving plenty of space for Ellis to step up this season.

  • Shawn Long
    Louisiana-Lafayette
    Height: 6-9
    Weight: 245
    Class: Junior
     
    Long is perhaps the most pure power forward on this list. Last season, he averaged a double-double, with 18.6 points and 10.4 rebounds per game. He finished sixth in the country with 18 double-doubles and was named to the All-Sun Belt Conference team. He's also a dominant defender, boasting a block percentage of 9.1 last season, good for 54th in the country. He and Elfrid Payton were the driving forces behind the Ragin Cajuns' run to the NCAA tournament. With Payton gone, the team will look to Long for production and leadership.

  •  
    Height: 6-8
    Weight: 240
    Class: Junior
     
    Harrell’s decision to put off the NBA for his junior year was one of the most surprising announcements of the offseason. Any doubts the Cardinals had about Harrell’s ability to carry the load in the post heading into last season were put to rest when he averaged 14 points and 8.4 rebounds per game – finishing just outside of the top 100 in KenPom.com’s offensive rebounding percentage. He returned to school to improve his weaknesses, the most glaring of which is his 46 percent free-throw shooting. A more consistent mid-range jumper would make Harrell even more dangerous.
     

  •  
    Height: 6-9
    Weight: 210
    Class: Junior
     
    Because of James Michael McAdoo’s decision to stay in Chapel Hill last season, Johnson found himself coming off the bench as a sophomore– but he didn’t waste the time he was given. He averaged 10.3 points and 6.1 rebounds in less than 20 minutes per game. With McAdoo now gone, Johnson will be given an expanded role this season, and the Tar Heels will look to him and Marcus Paige to carry their offensive production.

  •  
    Kentucky
    Height: 7-0
    Weight: 255
    Class: Sophomore
     
    In theory, Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein are an ideal pair: Cauley-Stein is a defensive giant while Johnson has a reputation as a scorer. Unfortunately, Johnson was slow to adjust to the college game, and – along with the rest of his Kentucky team – didn’t begin to blossom until the NCAA tournament. He scored in double figures twice during the Wildcats’ six-game run, as many times as he had in their 34 previous games. He’ll need to be much more aggressive if he wants to stay entrenched in the Wildcats’ big men rotation.

  •  
    Height: 7-0
    Weight: 234
    Class: Senior
     
    The early frontrunner for national player of the year awards, Kaminsky is one of the most versatile centers on this list. The 7-footer can drop three-pointers and score with his back to the basket in the post. Last season was a breakthrough for Kaminsky: He averaged 13.9 points and 6.3 rebounds a game compared to 4.2 ppg and 1.8 rpg as a sophomore and 1.8 ppg and 1.4 rpg as a freshman. Kaminsky could have been a first-round NBA draft pick if he’d elected to declare, but he decided instead to return to school to enjoy the college experience for another season – and to add even more to his game. If he can improve his offensive repertoire in the post, be more forceful on the boards and reduce his turnovers, he could lead Wisconsin even further than last year’s Final Four run.

  •  
    Height: 7-1
    Weight: 296
    Class: Junior

    College basketball players typically make their biggest strides between their freshmen and sophomore seasons, and Karnowski certainly did that. He went from 5.4 points and 2.6 boards a game in his first year with the Bulldogs to 10.4 and 7.1, respectively, last season. A big reason for that was his ability to get to the foul line -- he drew, on average, 6.1 fouls per 40 minutes -- but he'll need to convert at a higher clip than the 50 percent he shot a season ago. The Zags are hoping that the Polish center can pair nicely with Kyle Wiltjer, who is more of a face-up player, to give them a frontcourt advantage.

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  • Height: 6-8
    Weight: 235
    Class: Sophomore
     
    The only LSU player anyone outside of Baton Rouge remembers from last season was Johnny O’Bryant, who used 28.8 percent of the Tigers’ possession in route to becoming the 36th player taken in the NBA draft. But Mickey averaged 12.7 points and 3.1 blocks per game for the Tigers, who will lean on him this season to make up for Bryant’s work on the glass and in protecting the rim. Can he be as effective without O’Bryant by his side?

  •  
    Height: 6-8
    Weight: 230
    Class: Junior

    Niang averaged 16.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists and 30.1 minutes per game last season, and if he hadn’t broken his foot in Iowa State’s NCAA tournament-opening win over North Carolina Central, the Cyclones might have reached the Final Four. Niang’s biggest asset is his range: He has a nice enough jump shot to keep perimeter defenders honest, shooting 47.4 percent from the floor and 32.7 percent on 142 three-point attempts. He also has enough post moves to back the ball down against smaller defenders. Niang sometimes plays the 5-spot in Iowa State’s lineup, but his most natural college position is as at power forward.


  •  
    Height: 6-11
    Weight: 242
    Class: Sophomore

    Portis quietly had an excellent freshman season for the Razorbacks, landing on the All-SEC second team. It was quiet mostly because Arkansas finished 22-12 and was bounced in the second round of the NIT. Arkansas returns its top six scorers (Portis was second), and the team is certainly hoping to get over the hump and into the NCAA tournament for the first time under head coach Mike Anderson. According to Anderson, Portis will be the Razorbacks' most valuable player this season, and he's working hard to live up to expectations. “He has a motor that doesn’t stop,” Anderson told SI.com's Seth Davis in late June. “He doesn’t want to be good. He wants to be great.”

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  •  
    Height: 6-10
    Weight: 245
    Class: Junior
     
    Scott stepped up for the Buffaloes last season when Spencer Dinwiddie tore his ACL and was lost for the season in January. Without Dinwiddie, Colorado’s NCAA tournament hopes looked shot, but Scott was a consistent leader throughout the season. He was the only Buffalo named to the All-Pac-12 first team, finishing in the top 10 of the conference in field-goal percentage, rebounding, free-throw percentage, offensive rebounding, blocks and defensive rebounding. The Buffaloes looked to him in big games, and he didn’t disappoint – dropping 17 points and 11 rebounds in a March 5th game against Stanford that helped secure the team’s NCAA tournament bid. The Buffaloes went on to get blown out by Pitt in their first game, which should give Scott plenty of motivation to improve this season.

  •  
    Height: 7-0
    Weight: 235
    Class: Junior

    Nothing about Tarzcewski or his game is particularly flashy, but the Wildcats offer plenty of flash in the frontcourt to compensate. Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Brandon Ashley can put their athleticism on display as Tarzcewski does the dirty work: creating space, setting up screens and snagging rebounds. He showed marked improvement from his freshman to his sophomore seasons, and there’s no reason not to expect a similar increase in productivity this year. He has always had the size and mobility of an NBA first-round pick, but only last year did he begin putting together a consistent offensive game – his true shooting percentage was top 50 in the country at season’s end. One thing to watch this season will be how well he defends without Aaron Gordon – one of the best defenders in the nation last season – by his side.


  •  
    Height: 6-10
    Weight: 220
    Class: Sophomore
     
    After missing much of last season due to eligibility issues, Walker looks like he has been bulking up in the offseason and is ready to contribute right away for Florida. For now, Florida fans are still banking on the potential that they saw in Walker as a McDonald’s All-American and a slam-dunk champion. It was his speed and athleticism, after all, that made him a higher-ranked recruit than NBA first-round picks Noah Vonleh and James Young. If the improvement on the court is as drastic as Walker's gains in the weight room, Florida could be back in contention in the SEC. Walker will have to hold his own against powerful frontcourts throughout the conference. If he can, he won’t be in Gainesville for much longer.

  •  
    Height: 6-7
    Weight: 240
    Class: Junior
     
    Is Williams the most underrated player in college basketball? Consider this: At 6-foot-7, he finished in the top 20 in offensive and defensive rebounding percentage and in the top 50 in block percentage and offensive rating. Williams will have all the motivation he needs to continue dominating this season: Another strong year could be the difference between a shot at the NBA and a career overseas.

Best Freshmen
 
  •  
    Cliff Alexander
    Kansas
    Height: 6-9
    Weight: 254
     
     
    In high school, Alexander lived around the rim. And his tenacity, particularly in crashing the boards, will be his best feature as a freshman for Kansas. Will he be able to make Jayhawks fans forget about Joel Embiid? Probably not, but he will be able to pair nicely with Perry Ellis to help Kansas clean up down low.

  •  
    Trey Lyles
    Kentucky
    Height: 6-10
    Weight: 255
     
     
    Lyles has been on the national recruiting radar since his freshman year of high school – and he’s continued to prove that he belongs near the top of his class. A product of Arsenal Technical (Ind.) High School, Lyles was a McDonald’s All-American and Indiana’s Mr. Basketball as a senior. Coaches and scouts have praised him for his high basketball IQ and elite ability to pass out of the post. He’s a face-up player who has been compared to Lakers forward Carl Boozer because of his knack for knocking down mid-range jumpers.

  •  
    Jahlil Okafor
    Duke
    Height: 6-11
    Weight: 270
     
     
    Okafor could be Kaminsky’s stiffest competition for national player of the year honors. He'll offer a different style of play for Duke this season; last year, the Blue Devils often put 6-8 Jabari Parker at the 5-spot because of their lack of size. Okafor excelled as a high school player in Chicago and nationally, earning co-MVP honors in both the McDonald’s All-American Game and Jordan Brand Classic.

  •  
    Karl Towns
    Kentucky
    Height: 7-0
    Weight: 250
     

    Towns will face serious competition for playing time at Kentucky, but he’s used to it: He spent part of the summer playing for the Dominican Republic senior national team. He’s not an overly confident player, but he’ll be able to grow without the weight of the team on his shoulders. Towns is tall and long and an excellent shooter, and he’ll provide a different kind of big man for Kentucky, if only for a year.

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  •  
    Myles Turner
    Texas
    Height: 7-0
    Weight: 240
     
     
    Turner joins last season’s breakout big man Jonathan Holmes and rim-protector Cameron Ridley to give the Longhorns a frontcourt that will challenge Kansas’ as the best in the Big 12. Post-centric basketball isn’t Rick Barnes’ preferred style of play, but he’ll use the many tools he has down there to help Texas take another step forward in the Big 12. Turner is both an elite rim protector and an excellent three-point shooter, which should help him earn plenty of playing time right away.

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