In the age of the transfer portal, it’s easy for much of the preseason analysis done this time of year to center around who added who. Of course, that forgets a huge part of what makes the great teams in college basketball great: player development. Last year’s national-title-winning Baylor saw significant growth from Jared Butler and Davion Mitchell en route to cutting down the nets, while Gonzaga’s Drew Timme went from impressive freshman to one of the best players in the country as a sophomore. Who are some of the candidates to explode this season and lead their teams to new heights?
Andre Curbelo, Illinois
The country saw glimpses of what Curbelo could become in the future when Ayo Dosunmu went down with a nose injury late last season. In the three games that Dosunmu missed and Curbelo was forced to play a more prominent role in the offense, the Puerto Rican point guard averaged nearly 15 points, eight rebounds and four assists in three Illini wins. That included 17 points in 19 minutes in a road win at Michigan. The only clear hole in Curbelo’s game a season ago was his shooting ability, but word from Champaign is he has made major strides in that area, particularly off the bounce. If those improvements make their way into game action, Curbelo could be an All-American.
Jaden Ivey, Purdue
Ivey has so often been labeled a breakout star of 2021–22 that he almost feels more overrated than underrated entering the season, but his numbers should take a big leap in 2021–22 after an impressive freshman season. The uber-athletic guard was thrust into a lead scoring role late last season and thrived, though at times lacked the efficiency necessary to be the alpha-dog for an elite offense. And after an impressive performance in Latvia with the USA U19 team this summer, expectations are rightfully sky-high for one of the most explosive players in college hoops.
Mark Williams, Duke
Duke figured things out late in the season once Williams became a more prominent part of the Blue Devil rotation. Per T-Rank, Duke was the 16th-best team in the country once Williams was inserted into the starting lineup for good on Feb. 6, compared to No. 67 before that. Williams thrived down the stretch with regular minutes. In the season’s final six games, Williams averaged 16.7 points, 7.8 rebounds and shot 75% from the field. He likely won’t replicate those numbers over a full year, but expect the 7-footer to blossom into one of the nation’s premier big men as a sophomore.
Davonte "Devo" Davis, Arkansas
Eventual first-round pick Moses Moody earned most of the spotlight from Arkansas’s talented freshman class a season ago, but it was Davis that became the team’s heart and soul and set the tone at both ends for the best Razorback team in a quarter-century. He made just two threes all season long, but found ways to impact the game as a menace in transition, a high-impact defender and a guy who always seemed to be in the right spots. Davis scored in double figures in all four NCAA tournament games for the Hogs and should continue to find more ways to score as he polishes his offensive game.
Adama Sanogo, UConn
Playing much of the season as an 18-year-old freshman after reclassifying into the 2020 class, Sanogo showed flashes of future stardom. He’s physically imposing at 6’ 9” and 240 pounds and has impressive touch and footwork around the basket for such a young prospect. After a full offseason of development, it’s almost scary thinking about how good Sanogo could be in 2021–22. The biggest thing that could hold him back might be the depth of the UConn frontcourt, as the presence of the likes of Isaiah Whaley and Akok Akok could eat into Sanogo’s minutes.
Keegan Murray, Iowa
A year ago at this time, Murray was an unknown three-star recruit who, on paper, looked likely to sit on the bench on an experienced Iowa team. Now, he’s a potential first-round pick in next year’s NBA draft after flashing an intriguing skillset thanks to his combination of fluidity, perimeter skill and toughness on the inside. He’ll be the centerpiece of this year’s Hawkeyes team, with the ability to play either the four or the five and create mismatches because of his versatility. How his offensive game evolves from being mostly a glue guy into one of the stars will tell us a lot about his pro future, but expect a big sophomore campaign from the Cedar Rapids, Iowa native.
Efe Abogidi, Washington State
There’s no doubt the Nigerian big man possesses elite physical tools, and the fact that he was as productive as he was in a power conference as a freshman speaks volumes about Abogidi’s long-term upside. Perhaps as intriguing as his 6’ 10” frame and long wingspan is his shooting ability: Abogidi made 15 threes a season ago at a 27% clip, numbers that could improve over time. Kyle Smith is known as a high-level developer of talent, and Abogidi could be his next successful project.
Femi Odukale, Pittsburgh
A late-season exodus a season ago at Pitt, including by starting point guard Xavier Johnson, paved the way for Odukale to showcase his skills down the stretch. The Brooklyn native shined, including a 28-point, six-rebound, three-assist performance against Miami in Pitt’s season finale. Now, he’s expected to be a key piece of a rebuilding Panthers team that loses its top three scorers from a season ago. Jeff Capel desperately needs Odukale to prove to be a worthy building block as the fourth-year head coach looks to show progress after a disappointing 2020–21 season.
Jabari Walker, Colorado
Colorado was one of the most experienced teams in the country a season ago, but good things usually happened for the Buffs when Walker, then a freshman, stepped on the floor. He proved to be a dynamic floor-spacer with the athleticism and length to battle on the boards with Pac-12 foes. Walker's biggest explosion, however, came in the NCAA tournament against Georgetown, when he scored 24 points on 9-for-10 shooting in 20 minutes of action. With three starters departing from last season, expect Walker to step into a much bigger role this season and thrive.
Colby Jones, Xavier
Jones possesses one of the more intriguing skill sets in the sport as a do-it-all wing who can play three different position and impact the game in a multitude of ways. He’s strong enough to more than hold his own on the glass, has tremendous feel for the game as a passer and a solid stroke from deep that should continue to improve. He was also 18 years old for his entire freshman season, something that is increasingly rare in college basketball. The sky is the limit here.
Ten more to watch:
- Caleb Murphy, South Florida
- Julian Strawther, Gonzaga
- Jaylin Williams, Arkansas
- Cliff Omoruyi, Rutgers
- Johnny Davis, Wisconsin
- Jesse Edwards, Syracuse
- Tramon Mark, Houston
- Jalen Bridges, West Virginia
- Caleb Lohner, BYU
- Isaiah Adams, UCF
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