If there is a common theme that unites the best wings in college basketball, it is potential. From Oklahoma State’s Le'Bryan Nash to San Diego State’s Winston Shepard to Michigan’s Caris LeVert, most of the players on the list below could develop into star players for their respective teams. That especially holds true for the freshmen. Among the newcomers, Arizona’s Stanley Johnson and Kansas’ Kelly Oubre could put up big scoring numbers right away.
With our previously stated intention to relax positional rigidity in the name of including the college game's best players, there’s a chance you might be scratching your head at some of the names below. A few could classify as guards in some contexts, others as big men. Still, all of them deserve to be recognized, even if they may not fit neatly into our categories. Without further delay, here are SI.com’s projected top 20 wing players in 2014-15.
Collinsworth tore his right ACL in the second half of BYU’s WCC tournament championship game loss to Gonzaga. The Cougars, a bubble team, still made the NCAA tournament, with many charging that they were over-seeded as a No. 10. Those complaints were validated somewhat when Oregon beat Dave Rose’s team by 19 points in the second round. The Cougars were shorthanded, and it showed. Collinsworth, who averaged 14 points, 8.1 rebounds and 4.6 assists and was named to the All-WCC first team last season, recently said he is ahead of schedule on his rehabilitation. "I feel like I will be ready for the opener," he said, according to The Salt Lake Tribune. "I really do." Gonzaga is the heavy favorite to win the conference title this season, but if Collinsworth’s recovery goes well, he should again be one of the league's best players.
Dawson missed nine games last season after breaking his hand when he slammed it on a table out of frustration while watching film. He played well after returning in mid-March, helping Michigan State close the regular season with consecutive wins over Final Four-bound Wisconsin and Elite Eight-bound Michigan. Dawson was even better in NCAA tournament wins over Harvard and No. 1 seed Virginia, against which he recorded 24 points and 10 rebounds. Yet he didn’t make much of an impact (five points on 1-of-3 shooting) in the Spartans’ Elite Eight loss to UConn. Dawson will need to be more consistent in his final season to help the Spartans compensate for the losses of big man Adreian Payne and guards Gary Harris and Keith Appling. I also recommend that from now on, Dawson wear wrist guards when studying game tape.
After averaging a career-high 15.8 points and 7.0 rebounds last season, Graham could see his numbers increase in 2014-15, with VCU losing standout forward Juvonte Reddic (11.8 ppg) and guard Rob Brandenburg (9.6 ppg). The Rams will again be defined by their trademark pressure defense, but VCU will need more consistent offense – it ranked 106th in points per possession last season, per Kenpom.com – to compete for an A-10 championship and earn another high seed in the NCAA tournament. Graham will be pivotal in that regard, as he’ll need to make good use of the larger share of possessions and shots likely coming his way following the departures of two top scorers. A strong supporting mix of returners and freshmen should help.
It will be interesting to see how Texas coach Rick Barnes manages the Longhorns’ glut of frontcourt talent this season. Center Cameron Ridley returns after making big strides as a sophomore, Holmes is back for his final season, and Texas welcomes in Myles Turner, one of the top freshmen big men in the country. If Turner and Ridley occupy the low block, Holmes will need to operate from the perimeter. Whether or not he’s comfortable playing there full-time is unclear. Holmes shot a career-high 33.3 percent from deep on 84 attempts last season. If he can maintain or improve his long-range accuracy, the Longhorns will be extremely tough to guard. Trying to dealing with Turner (who can also hit jump shots) and Ridley on the inside while also accounting for Holmes has the potential to stretch any defense to its breaking point.
Nik Stauskas emerged as Michigan’s go-to scorer last season after Trey Burke and Tim Hardaway Jr. left for the NBA and after Mitch McGary was sidelined for much of the season with a bad back. With Stauskas and Glenn Robinson entering the draft this offseason, the Wolverines will hope LeVert can make strides on both ends of the floor. That’s not to say LeVert hasn’t been good – he averaged 12.9 points (after averaging 2.3 in 2012-13) on 43.9 percent shooting with 4.3 rebounds and 2.9 assists as a sophomore last season and helped propel Michigan to the Elite Eight. Still, the Wolverines will need someone to step up after losing a big chunk of their scoring, and LeVert is a good bet. The 6-6 forward is already appearing in the first round of 2015 mock drafts.
Nash has yet to live up to the expectations that attended his arrival in Stillwater in 2011, when he was the No. 6-ranked recruit in the country, according to Rivals.com. He should have every opportunity to prove himself this season after the Cowboys lost most of their top players from 2013-14, including lottery-pick point guard Marcus Smart, second-round draft pick Markel Brown and forwards Kamari Murphy, Brian Williams and Gary Gaskins. (Their top recruit, shooting guard Jared Terrell, was released from his letter of intent.) No longer operating in a complementary role, Nash could become the Cowboys’ go-to scorer – though he’ll need to be more assertive. The Cowboys don’t figure to be very good this season, but there may be hope for a return to the NCAAs if Nash improves.
Nebraska reached the NCAA tournament last season for the first time since 1998. With only one major contributor (guard Ray Gallegos) gone, the Cornhuskers are well positioned to compete for another tourney run. Petteway, who sat out 2012-13 after transferring from Texas Tech, was named first-team All-Big Ten after leading his team in scoring (18.1 points) and delivering a series of big performances against conference competition – including a 35-point outburst against Minnesota in January and a 26-point effort to sink then-No. 9 Wisconsin in March. Even though Baylor easily topped Petteway and Nebraska in the first round of the NCAAs, Big Ten fans won’t go into this season overlooking the Huskers. Petteway has already established himself as one of the league’s best guards and should further that reputation this winter.
Pinkston overcame an injury scare to post his best college season yet in 2013-14, averaging 14.1 points and 6.1 rebounds as the Wildcats went 29-5 and earned a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Jay Wright’s team will need more out of him in 2014-15 after leading scorer James Bell graduated. Pinkston, a top-100 recruit from Brooklyn, N.Y., in the class of 2010, will team with guard Darrun Hilliard to help keep the Wildcats near the top of the Big East. Pinkston placed third, behind only Creighton’s Doug McDermott and Providence’s Bryce Cotton, in Ken Pomeroy’s Big East player of the year rankings last season. Even if he can’t claim to top spot in 2014-15, Pinkston is a proven scorer the Wildcats can lean on.
Maryland enters its first season in the Big Ten after enduring a rash of offseason departures. Fortunately for the Terrapins, Wells was not among them. He averaged 14.9 points and 4.3 rebounds last season as Maryland went 17-15 and missed the NCAA tournament for the third straight season under Turgeon, and will partner with highly touted freshman Romelo Trimble to form a strong backcourt. It will be fun to watch Wells, an explosive finisher built like a defensive back, play in a league whose calling card has long been physicality. While Wells may be best known for the questionable circumstances under which he left Xavier and was granted immediate eligibility at Maryland, his performance could play a huge role in determining the status of head coach Mark Turgeon beyond this season.
While fellow freshman wing Theo Pinson excels on the defensive end, Jackson’s biggest contributions should come on offense. With point guard Marcus Paige likely drawing most opponents’ attention, Jackson provides an essential complementary scorer. He can score inside and out and boasts an especially refined mid-range game. Recruiting analyst Eric Bossi described him as a “jack of all trades type.” Jackson’s length, versatility and high basketball IQ should earn him significant playing time in his first season under coach Roy Williams.
Johnson is capable of stepping in and playing major minutes -- and scoring a lot of points -- right away for an Arizona team that lost two NBA draft picks in guard Nick Johnson and forward Aaron Gordon. While not as athletic as Gordon or as explosive as Nick Johnson, Stanley Johnson is more advanced offensively and continues to refine his game. He’s also strong and versatile enough to guard a range of opponents, and he spent time at every position during his four years at Mater Dei (Calif.) High School. Coach Sean Miller could elect to play Johnson at small forward or shooting guard in a lineup that will also include Ashley and Hollis-Jefferson.
It will be tempting to compare Oubre to former Jayhawk and 2014 No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins. Oubre can’t defend as well as Wiggins because he’s not on the same level athletically – who is, really? – but he is a more polished offensive player. His ability to knock down shots from the outside and drive to the basket will complement a Kansas attack that will look to junior Perry Ellis and fellow incoming freshman Cliff Alexander, a top five-ranked recruit, for inside scoring. Oubre, who averaged 22 points in his final season at Findlay Prep (Nev.), should see the floor early and often, among a perimeter rotation featuring Selden, Frank Mason, Conner Frankamp and Brannen Greene.
After losing seven players this offseason – including guard Deville Smith, who would have been the team’s top returning scorer – the Rebels need Vaughn to produce immediately. Vaughn, who averaged 19.9 points per game in his senior season at Findlay (Nev.) Prep and was rated as the No. 8 player in the class of 2014 by Rivals.com, can attack the basket off the dribble and knock down outside shots. Though some have critiqued his shot selection, the Rebels will have to tolerate a larger volume of attempts than is ideal if it results in enough scoring; UNLV ranked 120th nationally in offensive efficiency last season. Vaughn headlines a heralded recruiting class that also features five-star wing Dwayne Morgan and big man Goodluck Okonoboh.