At the start of each season, it’s easy to get caught up in the five-stars and the diaper dandies jumping onto the scene for the very first time. With James Wiseman at Memphis and Cole Anthony taking his talents to North Carolina, there will be plenty of impactful newbies.
But there are lots of returning names that could have a major impact in 2019–20 as they look to take their games to a new level. Some are sophomores who opted to come back to school and use another year to improve their NBA draft stock. Others are grad transfers who are looking to jump from mid- or low-majors to power conference teams and contend for a national title. And there are plenty of others in between.
Here’s a look at 11 guys whose potential breakout seasons could be critical for their teams’ chances:
Tre Jones, Duke, Sophomore
There weren’t a whole lot of surprises when it came to the NBA draft, but perhaps Jones pulling his name out of the conversation early and choosing to spend another year in Durham with Coach K was the biggest shocker. Tyus Jones, Tre’s older brother, turned pro after just one season (although his team won a national title in 2015) and the younger Jones certainly has the defensive chops already to compete at an NBA level.
Offensively, though, there is still much to be desired. Jones only scored 20-plus points once last year and he logged single digits in half of the Blue Devils’ 36 games. He also shot a meager 26.2% from beyond the arc and his assist numbers were helped by an impressive group of classmates (Zion Williamson, R.J. Barrett and Cam Reddish). Jones will have the chance to be a leader this year—he's already been named a team captain and Duke is going to need him to make an impact on the scoreboard this year as the Blue Devils’ only definitive starter.
Isaiah Livers, Michigan, Junior
Is there anyone still in Ann Arbor? The Wolverines have a new coach in former Fab Five member Juwan Howard and retain senior guard Zavier Simpson, but will have to replace more than two-thirds of their offensive production from last year. Enter Livers, who started just three games last season while tallying by far the most minutes off the Michigan bench.
Not only did Livers improve significantly as a three-point shooter last season (jumping up by more than 6% and averaging two more shots per game from deep), but the former Michigan Mr. Basketball proved himself capable of playing a wide range of roles. With Simpson running point and others now departed, Livers could easily double his points per game average from last season (7.9) and become the Wolverines’ star.
Lamarr “Fresh” Kimble, Louisville, Graduate Student
The former St. Joe’s standout is now in the ACC. Kimble, who only had offers from the Hawks, Creighton, Drexel, UMass and Temple when he graduated from high school in 2015, suffered a foot injury in his junior season opener, thus leaving him with an extra year of eligibility after graduating in May. He now joins a deep Louisville roster that is already bringing back a potential ACC Player of the Year in Jordan Nwora and has four others playing in their final collegiate season.
The Cards have lots of guys in the backcourt, but Kimble is the only true floor general. A pairing of him along with junior Darius Perry seems like a good bet, backed up by some dangerous shooting threats. And given Louisville’s six-man freshman class, a veteran like Fresh will be crucial to the development of Chris Mack’s young Cards.
Tyrese Haliburton, Iowa State, Sophomore
Few players have made more noise this summer than Haliburton, who starred as the point guard for the United States in the FIBA U19 World Cup. His 6.9 assists per game led the Americans as the Red, White, and Blue captured gold, winning all seven of their games in relatively comfortable fashion. Like at Iowa State, Haliburton wasn’t necessarily scoring, but there’s no reason he can’t add that to his game.
Haliburton is probably the best player on a team that lost multiple guys to the pros (Marial Shayok, Talen Horton-Tucker), and he’ll be tested pretty early in the season—the Cyclones will play in the Battle 4 Atlantis, starting out with a matchup against Michigan before going up against North Carolina or Alabama and then potentially Gonzaga, Seton Hall or Oregon.
Andrew Nembhard, Florida, Sophomore
Another second-year player, Nembhard was a top-25 recruit in the Class of 2018, just ahead of Coby White and Jalen Hoard—both of whom are now in the pros after one season of college ball. It wasn’t a particularly memorable freshman season for the Canadian, who averaged just 8.0 points but dished out 5.4 assists per game. Still, he helped the Gators get an NCAA tournament win and showed flashes of his potential.
Florida should be a whole lot better this season, giving Nembhard more to work with as the point guard. Kerry Blackshear Jr. will be a force down low and freshmen Scottie Lewis and Tre Mann add some firepower on offense.
Aaron Henry, Michigan State, Sophomore
When it’s coming from the horse’s mouth, you’ve got to believe it. Spartans head coach Tom Izzo told The Athletic’s Seth Davis that Henry is “bigger, stronger, and shooting the ball so much better.” There was a moment in the first round of the NCAA tournament when Izzo took a lot of heat for getting in Henry’s face and wagging his finger at the then-freshman.
But Izzo’s intensity always seems to pay off, and when it comes to Michigan State, there often is a lot of growth beyond a first season. Xavier Tillman is another name that should take another step this year, but at 6’6” and 218 pounds, Henry, a former three-star prospect, has the chance to be a crucial piece of a national championship puzzle in East Lansing.
Corey Kispert (Junior) and Filip Petrusev (Sophomore), Gonzaga
To include one of these two on this list and not the other would seem unfair. The Bulldogs will have to replace their four leading scorers from last season, as Rui Hachimura, Brandon Clarke, Zach Norvell Jr. and Josh Perkins are all now in the NBA. Although Kispert and Petrusev had somewhat similar numbers last season, the two play different games.
Kispert is going to have to find more of an identity as a scorer. He’s a wing player, but can shoot it at 6’6” and has a chance to work his way up toward 40% from downtown. Petrusev, on the other hand, could very well be the starter down low, filling a critical hole left by Clarke. The Serbian (who averaged 19.3 points this summer at the FIBA U19 World Cup) had a quietly impressive game in Maui against Duke, scoring 11 points with four rebounds in 13 minutes, but he played more than 20 minutes just once after November.
Reggie Perry, Mississippi State, Sophomore
The other star for the Americans in the FIBA U19 World Cup was Perry, who led the team in scoring. His 28 points against Russia in the quarterfinals came on 10-of-15 shooting, and he pulled down an impressive 14 rebounds in the next game, a semifinal matchup with Lithuania. After being named to the 2018-19 All-SEC Freshman team, there’s reason to think Perry is on his way to All-SEC honors this upcoming year.
Mississippi State could get an interesting early season test when it likely faces Villanova in the semifinals of the Myrtle Beach Invitational. Ben Howland’s squad made the NCAA tournament last year for the first time in a decade and could do so again. The Bulldogs need Perry to shine if that is going to happen.
Collin Gillespie, Villanova, junior
No program has had as much success as Villanova the last four seasons—but that’s to be expected when you win national titles twice in that span. Also to be expected: roster turnover. Just three scholarship players remain from the 2018 team that cut down the nets—Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, Jermaine Samuels and Gillespie.
While Gillespie was the only regular 2018–19 starter of the three, he was the least-touted prospect. The Warminster, Pa., native barely snuck into the top 200 in the 2017 class and didn’t have any other Division I offers, yet he’s grown into the Wildcats’ starting PG and scored 24 points in the United States’ bronze-medal game win against the Dominican Republic at this summer’s Pan Am Games. Even if he isn’t scoring for Villanova, Gillespie will have to be a leader for a young team with lots of new talent.
Kira Lewis, Alabama, sophomore
Another All-SEC Freshman Team honoree, Lewis (who was just 17 last season!) had an interesting end to his first year in Tuscaloosa. After leading the Crimson Tide with 2.9 assists per game and five 20-point performances, he considered a transfer once former head coach Avery Johnson was fired. But Lewis opted to stay with Alabama and play for new head coach Nate Oats.
Lewis played with Haliburton and Perry over the summer, but averaged just four points and never played more than 19 minutes in any game. At 6’3” and 167 pounds, he’s got plenty of room to grow and will need to fill out if he’s going to take the next step. Lewis, however, was a former five-star prospect that had the stuff to move up a year and start college early, so it’s not crazy to think he could soon be on his way to the pros if things go right this year.