Thanks to the NBA lockout and some uncommonly mature decisions from some talented young players, this season in college basketball will feature the most loaded talent pool of the one-and-done NBA Draft era. Upperclassmen like North Carolina's Tyler Zeller and John Henson and Kansas' Thomas Robinson, along with Kentucky sophomore Terrence Jones, all were sure first-round draft picks but opted to spend another year in college. They'll provide a strong complement to the normal batch of incoming freshmen who are projected to have a significant impact.
But three of this season's returnees are even more unique. Ohio State's Jared Sullinger, North Carolina's Harrison Barnes and Baylor's Perry Jones III all were widely considered to be top-five picks had they entered the 2011 NBA Draft. By returning to school, they joined a very exclusive club. Since the one-and-done rule was implemented in 2005, only three freshmen who would have been lottery picks returned for their sophomore years: Oklahoma's Blake Griffin, Stanford's Brook Lopez and Georgetown's Greg Monroe.
How instrumental were their sophomore seasons in where they were drafted (Griffin was first overall in 2009, Lopez was third in 2008 and Monroe went seventh in 2010) and what do their performances suggest about what's in store for the current crop of super sophs? Let's start by asking two of the coaches who were there.
Current Duke assistant coach Jeff Capel was Griffin's head coach at Oklahoma. The Sooners went from 23-12 in Griffin's freshman year to a 30-6 team that was a No. 2 seed in the NCAAs and made the Elite Eight when he was a sophomore. Current LSU coach Trent Johnson was the head man at Stanford when Lopez (and his twin brother, Robin) patrolled the paint in Palo Alto. The twins helped the Cardinal go 18-13 their freshman year before spearheading a 28-8 Sweet 16 campaign the following season.
Both men has some pretty specific ideas on what fueled their stars' (and their teams') leaps.
The familiarity that comes with a second spin through a league can make a huge difference, but success can be spawned through better off-court habits.
"You can't put a premium on experience, but you also can't put a measure on time management, the social aspect of it," Johnson said. "That was the biggest thing for [Lopez] -- his time management, his maturity. When you're a freshman, I don't care what you say, there's an adjustment."
Johnson had to get Lopez's attention with an early-season suspension for missed classes and meetings while he was ineligible during Stanford's fall quarter. That was not the case for Capel with Griffin, but Capel believes spending an extra season in Norman helped prepare Griffin for the burden of being a high draft pick.
"In coming back for his sophomore year, one of the things that would happen for him was he would become the face of college basketball, he would become 'that guy,'" Capel said. "He would understand and be in a better position to handle going in and being the face of someone's franchise because of that experience, because of the pressure that goes with being that guy."
All three super sophs are going to face that type of scrutiny this season, as all three of their teams start the season in the top 12 and all three players are first-team All-America selections.
This may be the area in which freshmen turning into sophomores most clearly manifests itself. Simply being a year older, knowing how to train and eat better and what the physical demands of a college season will be is a huge advantage. Capel said that Griffin's increased commitment to fitness entering his sophomore year was a huge catalyst for his success.
"Really, the big change with him was how he approached [the season]," Capel said. "Number one, he got in incredible shape. He changed his body. He actually looked thinner his sophomore year, but he weighed more, so he changed his body. I think that's the thing he really understood."
If you're on Twitter, you've probably seen Sullinger's self-tweeted evidence of his markedly more toned body this season.
As Memphis found out last season, having a bunch of talented freshmen may not add up to great things if there isn't sufficient leadership from upperclassmen. Johnson has seen first hand what the less-heralded guys in the rotation can do for Kentucky.
"Much has been said about the freshmen classes that Kentucky's had, but you start looking at Darius Miller, start looking at the big kid who played the post [Josh Harrellson], [DeAndre] Liggins, those guys were all there the year we won [the SEC] my first year," Johnson said. "There's nothing they haven't seen, so that helps those freshmen."
Kentucky, Ohio State or North Carolina don't have a ton of upperclassmen that will play significant rotation minutes, but all have one or two guys who could provide that kind of steadying experience.
Capel said that Griffin scored more than 90 percent of his points his freshman year from within the paint, whether off post moves, offensive rebounds or in transition. When he made the decision to return for his sophomore season, Capel wanted him to work on aspects of his game that would not only make Oklahoma a more dangerous team but also would show NBA scouts more to support their theory that Griffin was worthy of high-lottery consideration.
"We really tried to work on him shooting the basketball," Capel said. "Pick-and-pop, being able to face up out of the post -- and he got really good with the little bank shot, especially on the left side."
In large part due to Griffin's improvements, the Sooners went from the nation's 73rd-best offensive efficiency in 2008 to sixth-best in 2009, with an improvement of almost nine points per 100 possessions. Likewise, Stanford went from 69th Lopez's freshmen year to 25th when he was a sophomore.
So how does all of this project the current trio expected to perform this season?
Jared Sullinger, Ohio State
Sullinger is the most easily comparable of the bunch as a true center on the college level who employs a solid back-to-the-basket game. While not the physical specimen Lopez and Griffin were, Sullinger is starting off from a much higher base performance, having been in the mix for national Player of the Year as a freshman. In fact, Sullinger may not necessarily have to improve on many of his baseline stats to have a bigger season if those numbers can hold as he carries an even larger possession usage burden for the Buckeyes now that David Lighty and Jon Diebler are gone. Still, look at how Lopez and Griffin settled in as undisputed main threats as sophomores (all numbers from KenPom.com):
Sullinger is already a much better offensive player than Lopez was in college, and his freshman year is a superior version of what Griffin did as a freshman when he was splitting frontcourt usage with Longar Longar. Toss in that Sullinger has whipped himself into much better shape and something similar to Griffin's sophomore campaign (when he won the Naismith Award) seems very possible. At the very least, Sullinger should convert more readily around the basket, so his eFG% should pop, which should drive an even great efficiency level.
Harrison Barnes, North Carolina
Since the initial trio was comprised solely of bigs, Barnes requires a look at another two-year college player who ended up as a high lottery selection. While obviously not the same exact type of player (or size), the best comparable for a "We're not really sure you're a great outside shooter even though you're decent from there" wing type who's not a superior athlete is former Arizona State star James Harden. Look at the numerical comparison, especially between Harden's sophomore campaign and what Barnes already did as a freshman:
Harden was a more efficient player than Barnes has been thus far, in large part because Harden was better off the dribble and finishing around the rim than Barnes was for most of last season, when he was curiously passive at times. That changed later in the season, though, and having a full season under his belt should provide a platform for more consistently assertive performances.
Barnes could become one of North Carolina's primary threats from the arc this season, but the Heels may be better off if Barnes can score more consistently from inside the arc, from where he took over 300 shots last season. Barnes may not have to take quite as many shots as Harden did his second season (when he led a team with efficient-but-moderate-usage forward Jeff Pendergraph and some solid role players), but it's not unthinkable that Barnes could split the difference between he and Harden this season while maintaining a similar level of shot-taking burden. If he does, UNC very well will have an All-America wing.
Perry Jones III, Baylor
Again, not an exact comparable in style, but Georgetown's Monroe was an expected lottery pick who returned for his sophomore year and featured more of a face-up game than solely a traditional big man's post repertoire. Like Jones with LaceDarius Dunn, Monroe was able to take somewhat of a shot-taking back seat to DaJuan Summers as a freshman. And like Jones very well may as a sophomore, Monroe upped his responsibility after Summers' departure. Their freshman year numbers are very similar:
Monroe was widely considered to have had a less-than-expected sophomore campaign that hurt him a bit in the draft process, although he still went seventh overall to the Pistons. You wonder if the same thing will happen to Jones. He's slated to miss the first five games of the season, so he may be a bit out of sync at first, and Baylor still is figuring out its point guard responsibilities for a team that has a lot of frontcourt guys who need to be fed. With a core around him that's still young in spots and Dunn's almost 20 points per game to make up, it wouldn't be surprising to see Jones' numbers follow a similar trend slightly down as his shot-taking increases. With additional complementary firepower around him this season that still could be a ticket to a successful campaign.
Accurate projections or not, there's little doubt these three players (and all of the other top non-freshmen who chose to return this season) will add a significant level of performance and intrigue to this college season. Make sure you don't miss out. You may not see anything like this again for a number of years, or at least until the NBA's next collective bargaining agreement expires.