Iowa State's Georges Niang, North Carolina's Marcus Paige and Oklahoma's Buddy Hield among SI's top projected seniors for the 2015-16 season.
Before you ask: Yes, these guys are still in school. Early NBA draft entry has so influenced the general perception of college stardom that many high-impact seniors can seem like they have been in college forever. But any college senior knows that their tenure is not eternal, and that looming expiration date often serves as an urgent motivator in their final go-round. With pomp and circumstance and one last shot at one shining moment on the horizon, here are the 10 seniors most likely to shine this upcoming season.
For all the turnover in Ames, where former Murray State coach Steve Prohm is replacing new Chicago Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg, Cyclones fans can take solace in the continuity on the roster, especially in Niang. In his three seasons at Iowa State, Niang has proven to be a versatile stalwart as a scorer (a 36.8% career three-point shooter), solid rebounder (15.2% defensive rebounding rate last season), and quality passer (his 21.9% assist rate ranked 9th in the Big 12 in 2014-15). This summer there’s chatter about the 6’8”, 230-pound Niang even serving as Monte Morris’s backup at point guard. How’s that for versatile?
For two straight seasons, the 6’1” Iowa native has led the Tar Heels in scoring, averaging 15.7 points per game as a sophomore and junior. While many of his overall numbers dropped a bit this past season, Paige ranked third in the ACC during conference play in kenpom.com’s offensive efficiency rating (122.9), fourth in true shooting percentage (60.0%) and fourth in steal percentage (3.3%). All of this came while battling plantar fasciitis in his right foot and bone spurs in the same ankle, for which he underwent surgery in April. A healthier Paige may be the nation’s best point guard.
The reigning Big 12 Player of the Year is a premier transition scorer—his 1.133 points per transition possession ranked in the 90th percentile nationally, according to Synergy Sports. That sort of effectiveness on the run has helped Hield serve as a fairly efficient volume scorer for the Sooners. He took 30.4% of Oklahoma’s field goal attempts while on the floor last season and still managed to finish with the Big 12’s sixth-best offensive rating. His somewhat surprising decision to return to Norman for a fourth season should make Oklahoma a contender nationally, as he rejoins underrated classmates Isaiah Cousins and Ryan Spangler from last year’s Sweet 16 team.
Wiltjer’s debut season for the Bulldogs after transferring from Kentucky was a smashing success. After somewhat falling by the wayside among John Calipari’s annual flood of incoming blue-chippers (which, it should be noted, Wiltjer was as well), the 6’10” former SEC Sixth Man of the Year transferred closer to home and took a year to beef up and work on his flexibility and defense. The result: 16.8 points per game on 54% shooting from the floor and 46.6% from three with solid rebounding (17.9% defensive rebounding rate) and defense (0.76 PPP against, in the 74th percentile nationally) on a 35-3 Elite Eight team. More of the same will have the Bulldogs dancing deep again; another improvement could help them break through to the Final Four.
Baker’s time with the Shockers has coincided with the greatest three-year run in program history, beginning with a Final Four run in his freshman year, an undefeated regular season and conference title as a sophomore, and last season’s return to the Sweet 16, all with Baker as a key player. That’s a far cry from Baker’s well-known entry into the program as a walk-on redshirt who had just two D-I scholarship offers. But Baker has become a far cry from his high school self, filling out his 6’4” frame to 220 pounds and developing a well-rounded game on both ends. He spent this summer helping Team USA win a bronze medal at the Pan Am Games, averaging 8.2 points while playing 24.2 minutes per game, second most on the team.
It’s been a difficult year and a half for LeVert, who had surgery last May to repair a stress fracture in his foot, returned to play 17 games for the Wolverines, then aggravated the injury and was shut down for the rest of the season. What had already been a rough season for Michigan tumbled even further downhill as it finished 16-16 and missed even the NIT. But with LeVert back in the fold, the Wolverines have a rangy 6’7” guard who can handle the ball and shoot (40% from three the last two seasons) and could help them return deep into March before landing in the NBA draft lottery in June.
7. Fred VanVleet, guard, Wichita State
Baker’s backcourt mate and classmate has been the steady hand at the Shockers’ helm the past two seasons. During that time as a starter he has twice ranked in the nation’s top 35 in assist rate while posting a highly respectable turnover rate of 13.6%; as a sophomore, he even ranked 14th in the country in offensive efficiency, per kenpom.com. This summer, conditioning work has enabled the 6-footer to reportedly introduce a new move to his arsenal: dunks. Don’t expect the second coming of Steve Francis, but another dose of athleticism would be a welcome addition to his already robust game.
The 6’8” Ellis saw his efficiency drop last season (from 54.9% shooting as a sophomore to 45.7%) as he shouldered more of the Jayhawks’ offensive load after the departures of wunderkinds Andrew Wiggins and Joel Embiid. But Ellis is still a more than capable leading man, earning first-team All-Big 12 honors while leading Kansas in scoring (13.8 points per game) and rebounding (6.9). This season he will be the (much) more seasoned half of a formidable frontcourt alongside another five-star freshman, Cheick Diallo—assuming Diallo is ruled eligible by the NCAA.
This year’s Hoyas will be a young bunch, with sophomores L.J. Peak and Isaac Copeland ascending into central roles and a strong incoming freshman class likely being pressed into duty quickly. That will make Smith-Rivera’s veteran presence key to Georgetown’s Big East title aspirations—along with his quality outside shooting (38.7% from three last season) and ability to create offense both on his own and within the Hoyas’ offense. The steady crescendo of Smith-Rivera’s Hoyas—from the Big East’s all-rookie team as a freshman, to its all-conference second team as a sophomore, to its first team last spring—could end with him as the Big East’s player of the year and an All-American.
With all due respect to Gill’s teammate Malcolm Brogdon, the last spot goes to the Cavaliers’ most efficient offensive player. Gill, a 6’8” former South Carolina transfer, has been an ideal fit in coach Tony Bennett’s methodical system, shooting at a 58.2% clip while leading all high-usage ACC players (at least 24% of possessions used) in kenpom.com’s offensive rating. Given the Hoos’ deliberate balance and slow pace, there won’t be too many explosions like last December’s 25-point, 13-rebound outburst against Davidson; but even with solid traditional averages (11.6 points and 6.5 rebounds per game last season), Gill’s impact is best measured beyond raw totals.