Being considered a top junior in college basketball these days often begs further explanation. Are they highly-touted players who still haven't shown enough to leave for the NBA? Are they emerging talents who are starting to come into their own? Or have they been held back by injury, roster depth or other factors, and will only now be given a chance to showcase their full talent?
No matter what the explanation, every player in this group of rising juniors will play a significant role for his team this season. Here are SI’s 10 juniors poised to make the biggest impacts in 2015-16.
1. Kris Dunn, guard, Providence
Dunn was considered a potential lottery pick after last season but chose to return to the Friars. Serious injuries to his right shoulder forced him to miss the first nine games of his freshman year, and allowed him to take a medical red-shirt in 2013-14 after re-injuring it. Last season, however, the former McDonald’s All-American showed how good he is when healthy, averaging 15.6 points and 7.5 assists. Explosive to the rim and adept in pick-and-rolls, Dunn couples a pro body with strong two-way skills and should continue to prove himself a tough on-ball defender. With his ability to influence the game on both ends, Dunn should lead Providence back to the NCAA tournament while reaffirming his draft stock in the process.
2. Demetrius Jackson, guard, Notre Dame
With All-America point guard Jerian Grant off to the pros, Jackson now bears full responsibility as lead ball-handler for the Fighting Irish. Following up a strong sophomore campaign (12.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, 3.1 assists and a team-high 42.9% from three-point range) and standout postseason, he appears up to the task. Jackson will be relied upon to keep Notre Dame's offense among the best in the nation, and with forward Zach Auguste and a host of others returning, the departures of Grant and swingman Pat Connaughton may not be as rough for the Irish to overcome as one might think. It’ll be up to their point guard to make the transition work, and an All-American type campaign may not be out of the question.
3. Nigel Hayes, forward, Wisconsin
Stenographers at Wisconsin press conferences no longer need to spell "Kaminsky" and "Dekker," and as a result, the Badgers’ path back to March will be more complicated. Coach Bo Ryan will look to the 6'8" Hayes, who burst onto the national stage last March by testing stenographers' typing skills before games and starring on the court during games, to fill the void created by the loss of Wooden Award winner Frank Kaminsky and fellow first-round NBA draft pick Sam Dekker. Now the face of his team, Hayes will need to elevate all facets of his production after averaging 12.4 points and 6.2 rebounds a year ago. He remains one of the Big Ten’s most skilled post players, and he also made 39.6% of his threes last year after not attempting a single shot from beyond the arc as a freshman, but the affable Hayes will be asked to carry a far bigger offensive load this season. Fellow junior Bronson Koenig must provide also substantial help.
4. Damian Jones, forward/center, Vanderbilt
The 7-foot Jones continues to improve his skill level, but he remains a work in progress, still more of an athlete than a ballplayer at times. The Commodores boast a gifted backcourt led by Wade Baldwin IV and Riley LaChance to help shoulder the load, but Jones will need to make another leap if they are to make a surprising run in the SEC. After averaging a strong 14.2 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.9 blocks last season—all improvements over his impressive freshman season—it’s a critical year for Jones, who could play his way into the Lottery with some tangible improvement. Yes, he’s still a project, but no project may be more important to his team this season.
5. Kennedy Meeks, center, North Carolina
Meeks came to Chapel Hill in the summer of 2013 weighing north of 300 pounds, and after playing at 270 last year he has reportedly continued to slim down and reshape his body this summer. He has a talented group to work with, but UNC will still rely heavily on the 6'9" former McDonald's All-American. If he can play more than the 23 minutes per game he logged last season and maintain his per-40 minutes averages of 19.5 and 12.7 rebounds, the Tar Heels will be especially dangerous. Carolina looks like a leading national title contender with Marcus Paige and Justin Jackson on the perimeter and Isaiah Hicks and Brice Johnson complementing Meeks up front. The better shape the big fella is in, the better shape the Tar Heels will be in, too.
6. Troy Williams, forward, Indiana
It’s a critical year for the Hoosiers, who return their four top scorers from a team that lost in the NCAA tournament's Round of 64. With punishment still unclear for touted freshman center Thomas Bryant after an illegal alcohol citation, Williams could be even more critical, particularly as a rebounder, for Tom Crean’s team. He made big strides last season, averaging 13 points and 7.4 boards (up from 7.3 and 4.4 as a freshman in 2013-14), and he will again play major minutes on a guard-driven team. At 6'7", he’s a terrific leaper with decent ball skills who can do a bit of everything—and Indiana will certainly need everything. Some development on his jumper and as a decision-maker would be an added bonus for his draft stock.
7. Tim Quarterman, guard, LSU
The versatile 6’6” point and SEC sixth man of the year award-winner returns with some new talent to play with in freshmen Ben Simmons and Antonio Blakeney. Though Quarterman's close friends Jarell Martin and Jordan Mickey are off to the NBA, LSU’s new-look roster leans guard-heavy and on paper begs to get out in transition. That creates quite the opportunity for Quarterman, who will help push the tempo and serve as a veteran leader for a gifted team that looks like an SEC sleeper.
8. Wayne Selden, guard, Kansas
Two disappointing years in Lawrence for the once-highly rated Selden—he has yet to average double figures in points for a season despite playing more than 29 minutes both years—were temporarily forgotten about this summer with his strong performance at the World University Games. He won MVP honors at the little-watched tournament while averaging 19.3 points per game, which portends a belated emergence as a go-to player for the Jayhawks. A powerful wing scorer, the 6'5" Selden has plenty on the line this season and a talented roster begging for someone to step up.
9. E.C. Matthews, guard, Rhode Island
Is he a 19th century poet or the Atlantic 10’s best-kept secret? Matthews, a talented scorer who’s played major minutes each of his first two seasons under Dan Hurley, will be the centerpiece again for the Rams as they seek their first NCAA tournament berth since 1999. He averaged 16.9 points and 4.6 rebounds per game last season and his scoring output could improve for the third straight year if he develops as a perimeter shooter (32.5% from three in 2014-15, 34.8% as a freshman). Matthews should make a case for conference player of the year honors, and if all goes well, both player and team are due for another step forward.
10. Marcus Lee, forward/center, Kentucky
Yes, Kentucky has upperclassmen. Lee, a former McDonald’s All-American, has averaged just 2.5 point and 2.2 rebounds while playing 9.1 minutes per game his first two seasons because he was buried behind Lottery talent. This year, however, he should finally receive playing time worthy of his hype. He has shown shot-blocking skills (2.8 per 40 minutes) and great athleticism in limited minutes and, just as important, he was able to develop by practicing against the likes of since-drafted big men Julius Randle, Karl-Anthony Towns, Trey Lyles, Willie Cauley-Stein and Dakari Johnson. In 2015-16 Lee will join wing Alex Poythress and touted 6'11" freshman Skal Labissiere in yet another terrifying John Calipari frontcourt, and he will benefit from the increased playing time and from the lobs point guard Tyler Ulis will throw in his direction all season. Lee could seize the opportunity and run with it, perhaps all the way into the first round of next year’s draft.