Back in the 2008 offseason, I tested out a statistical method of identifying breakout sophomores. It was based on a Basketball Prospectusstudy of players' possession usage over their first three seasons. BP concluded that freshmen who act like role players -- by using a low percentage of their team's possessions while on the floor -- are unlikely to ever grow into go-to guys. While playing time often changes between years 1-2 or 1-3, the data showed that a player's offensive mentality tends to stay largely the same.
When looking for breakout sophomores, then, it's important to make sure they behaved like major players as rookies, even if their per-game stats aren't overwhelming. My method is to start with a pool of incoming sophs who played around 50 percent or less of their team's available minutes as freshmen. Anything more than that, and the player is too obvious of a pick.
The next step is to find the players from that pool who used a significant (around 24 percent or more, on kenpom.com) percentage of possessions -- by either making a shot, missing a shot that isn't rebounded, or committing a turnover. High usage isn't a positive stat on its own; if it's not combined with efficiency, it just means the player's a ballhog who's adversely affecting his team. That's why the list must be filtered down further to incoming sophs with respectable Offensive Ratings.
What's respectable? For context, the two highest-usage stars on the nation's most-efficient offensive team, Duke, had Offensive Ratings of 116.2 (Kyle Singler) and 114.2 (Nolan Smith). The two highest-usage "stars" on the nation's least-efficient offensive team, Bryant, had Offensive Ratings of 77.4 (Raphael Jordan) and 88.8 (Vlad Kondratyev). I cut anyone below 100.0 -- essentially, a point per possession -- out of consideration.
The players who made the '08 column's cut did well. Baylor reserve LaceDarius Dunn was the perfect breakout candidate, with a %Minutes/%Possessions/ORating line of 51.2/25.9/119.3. Because the Bears had three guards with more minutes played returning, I wrote, "Dunn may have to wait until his junior season to fully break out, but he's already Baylor's most high-usage and high-efficiency scorer, which is a strong indicator of future stardom." His scoring average jumped from 13.6 points as a freshman, to 15.7 as a sophomore, to 19.6 as a junior, and now he enters his senior year with the reputation of the nation's best backcourt gunner.
The breakout method also tabbed DePaul's Dar Tucker; I wrote then that he "could easily blossom into an 18- or 19-point scorer," and his average rose from 13.6 points to 18.5 as a sophomore. It predicted the emergence of somewhat unknown Creighton juco transfer Booker Woodfox (who wasn't a sophomore, but was going into his second year); but it whiffed somewhat on Gonzaga's Austin Daye (although he still was a first-round draft pick after that season).
When I ran the same filter on the '10-11 sophomore class, there was unfortunately no Next LaceDarius Dunn -- a super high-usage, high-efficiency guy -- but what emerged was a believable Breakout Starting Five:
1. Christian Standhardinger, small forward, Nebraska
Percent minutes played in '09-10: 18.5
Percent possessions used: 30.7
Offensive Efficiency Rating: 103.9
Standhardinger had a weird freshman year. He was suspended by the NCAA for the first 15 games because of time spent with a pro club roster in Germany (a senseless rule that has since been changed). He wasn't focused enough on the defensive end to earn consistent, major minutes, but when coach Doc Sadler played Standhardinger in spurts of the bench, he became the focal point of the Huskers' offense. His usage level (30.7 percent) was equal to Omar Samhan's at St. Mary's, and even more than stars such as South Florida's Dominique Jones (29.2) and Xavier's Jordan Crawford (29.2).
Standhardinger's primary skill on offense was getting to the foul line using face-up moves on the perimeter. He has excellent driving skills for a 6-8 college player, and was hard for most big men to contain off the dribble without drawing whistles. He drew an average of 7.3 fouls per 40 minutes, and shot 78.3 percent from the stripe. He also created offense on the glass, with an offensive rebounding percentage (12.5) that was significantly better than anyone's from Nebraska's season-long rotation. We're only working with a small sample of Standhardinger data, and he has some flaws that prevented him from blowing up in Year 1, but the potential for stardom clearly exists.
2. Jordan Hamilton, wing, Texas
Percent minutes played in '09-10: 49.2
Percent possessions used: 23.8
Offensive Efficiency Rating: 105.7
Hamilton wasn't a starter as a freshman, but he took 28.3 percent of the Longhorns' shots while he was on the floor -- meaning he was more trigger-happy than anyone in Texas' mega-rotation. He didn't draw enough fouls (only 3.6 per 40 minutes) or shoot free throws well enough (57.8 percent) to be ultra-efficient, but he has a respectable three-point stroke (36.5 percent) and could evolve into featured scorer next season, and a go-to guy by his junior year. There will be plenty of available possessions for him as a sophomore, with Damion James (25.7 percent usage rate), Dexter Pittman (24.6 percent) and Avery Bradley (19.2 percent) gone to the NBA. And Hamilton should benefit from the arrival of freshman point guard Cory Joseph, who should be able to create open looks on the perimeter.
3. Maalik Wayns, Villanova
Percent minutes played in '09-10: 37.2
Percent possessions used: 23.3
Offensive Efficiency Rating: 102.8
I had Wayns tabbed as a breakout guy even before confirming it statistically. The veteran-level poise he showed while backing up Scottie Reynolds and Corey Fisher in Big East play was impressive. With Reynolds, whose usage rate was 26.5 percent, now playing in Italy, there's a clear void for Wayns to fill in the Wildcats' offense alongside Fisher. While wing guards Dominic Cheek and Corey Stokes will inherit some of Reynolds' shots, they're not hard-wired for high usage: Cheek used 18.2 percent of possessions as a frosh, and Stokes used just 15.8 percent as a junior.
4. Reggie Johnson, center, Miami
Percent minutes played in '09-10: 32.9
Percent possessions used: 23.2
Offensive Efficiency Rating: 122.4
Because the Hurricanes were in last place in the ACC, and perhaps because Johnson's YouTube reel consists only of an unrequited dap offer to a ref and a posterization/charge, I didn't pay much attention to him as a player. I realize, now, that I should have: He's like the next Dexter Pittman -- a high-efficiency big man who's a monster on the offensive glass (with a 16.7 OR percentage). And Johnson can actually make free throws, too; he shot 78.5 percent from the stripe as a freshman.
After redshirting his first year at Miami and dropping some serious weight, Johnson started to earn minutes in the frontcourt behind senior star Dwayne Collins. But when Collins went down with an injury in March, Johnson stepped up and had a huge ACC tournament, putting up 22 points against Wake Forest, five points and 12 rebounds (five offensive) against Virginia Tech, and 14 points and eight boards in a loss to Duke. There's probably a ceiling on Johnson's minutes due to the fact that he's a 300-pounder, but he should be an extremely valuable starting center in the ACC next season.
5. Reeves Nelson, power forward, UCLA
Percent minutes played in '09-10: 50.6
Percent possessions used: 23.7
Offensive Efficiency Rating: 105.5
Nelson, a fearless interior player who's perfect for Ben Howland's system, was the highest-usage player on the Bruins last season, ahead of Malcolm Lee (22.2 percent) and Nikola Dragovic (21.8). If Nelson can play 30 minutes a game and improve on his free-throw shooting (he made just 52.1 percent), he could emerge as the best forward in the Pac-10 as a sophomore. He's already hyper-efficient in the lane, making two-pointers at a 64.7 percent clip, and is aggressive enough on the glass to be a constant double-double threat. UCLA was so far off the national radar last season that Nelson didn't get L.A.-level hype, but he's clearly the Bruins' next star.