Sophomore breakout candidates
In addition to offensive burst, UCLA's Reeves Nelson can guard all five positions
Indiana's Christian Watford is the kind of player for whom this list was invented
Revisiting at last year's list, there are hits (Jason Clark) and misses (Tony Woods)
Good news, Hoopheads. It's time once again for America's favorite sophomoric exercise.
Every season around this time, I scour the country in search of 10 players who I expect will undergo a major improvement from their freshman to their sophomore season. Why do I focus on sophomores as opposed to another class? Because any coach will tell you that over the course of a player's career, he usually makes his greatest leap forward between his freshman and sophomore years in college.
There are three reasons for this. First and foremost, freshmen are usually not prepared for the physical rigors of college basketball. Most high schools don't have advanced strength and conditioning programs, so the players come in unprepared to take on older, stronger men.
Second, it generally takes a year to adjust to the speed of the college game. When their mind catches up, the pace slows down.
And finally, even if a freshman has the ability to put up numbers off the bat, he often has to wait until the incumbent at his position leaves, either via graduation or early entry to the NBA draft. So when his sophomore year begins, he gets the opportunity to play, and he is now more physically and mentally prepared to take advantage.
One of my goals here is to choose players who aren't overly obvious. So before I get to my list, here are the players I excused from consideration:
Jordan Hamilton, Texas; Kenny Boynton, Florida; Kawhi Leonard, San Diego State; Jordan Williams, Maryland; D.J. Richardson and Brandon Paul, Illinois; Derrick Williams and Solomon Hill, Arizona; Durand Scott, Miami.
Once again, at the bottom of this column I have revisited last year's list and provided an update on how they (and I) did. Here are my 10 breakout sophomores for 2010-11. I'm already looking forward to checking back a year from now to see how prescient I was -- or wasn't.
Abdul Gaddy, 6-3 guard, Washington
Freshman year: 18.2 min., 3.9 ppg, 1.4 rpg, 2.3 apg, 15.0% 3FG
Sophomore year: 22.0 min., 11.5 ppg, 2.5 rpg, 5.5 apg, 66.7% 3FG
Gaddy did have a chance to start as a freshman, but he was often overmatched and failed to live up to his billing as a McDonald's and Parade All-American. It's too early to know if his numbers jump will hold (especially that three-point percentage, which is based on only six attempts), but I saw enough of him in high school to believe that Gaddy has a great future in this game. Keep in mind that he did not turn 18 until January 26, so he was young last season even for a freshman.
John Henson, 6-10 forward, North Carolina
Freshman: 15.8 min., 5.7 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 1.6 blocks per game
Sophomore: 21.8 min., 8.3 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 2.5 bpg
I wondered if Henson should go in my too-obvious-to-choose list, but it just seems that between last year's disappointments and this year's arrival of Harrison Barnes, nobody has talked about Henson. He was terrific during the first three games, but only managed two points in Sunday's loss to Vanderbilt. Henson's freshman year turned around late last season when both he and coach Roy Williams realized just how foolish it was to try to play him on the perimeter. His rebound and blocks numbers are much-improved thus far, but the jury is still out on whether he's ready to be an impact player. Maybe next year I'll have to do a breakout juniors list for him.
John Jenkins, 6-4 guard, Vanderbilt
Freshman: 23.1 min., 11.0 ppg, 1.0 apg, 48.3% 3FG
Sophomore: 32.5 min., 18.8 ppg, 0.3 apg, 27.6% 3FG
Jenkins' overall stats don't make a great case for a second-year leap, but his stat line from the Commodores' loss to West Virginia in Puerto Rico sure does: 27 points, 10-for-10 from the foul line, 5-for-11 from three. Jenkins has surprisingly struggled a bit with his long-range shooting, but I don't expect that to last. Without Aussie center A.J. Ogilvy to man the post, the Commodores will need Jenkins to have a big year.
Rodney McGruder, 6-4 guard, Kansas State
Freshman: 12.5 min., 3.9 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 0.5 apg
Sophomore: 29.7 min., 11.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 3.0 apg
McGruder is a good shooter as well as a silky, bouncy athlete. He reminds me a little bit of former Memphis guard Rodney Carney. McGruder is going to benefit the most from the graduation of Denis Clemente, because not only can he create points for himself and others, he is also a terrific perimeter defender. Through three games he is the Wildcats' leading rebounder and second-leading scorer.
Reeves Nelson, 6-8 forward, UCLA
Freshman: 23.4 min., 11.1 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 0.4 apg, 64.7% FG
Sophomore: 29.3 min., 19.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 1.7 apg, 75.0% FG
As you can see, Nelson's minutes haven't gone up all that much, but the rest of his statistics have. Besides getting used to the physical rigors of college basketball, Nelson battled a variety of injuries last season, including a serious eye injury in February. I almost went with Nelson's classmate, Tyler Honeycutt, but I think Nelson is more of a leader who can help the Bruins in a lot of areas -- primarily on defense, where Nelson is tough, quick and smart enough to guard all five positions.
Alex Oriakhi, 6-9 forward, Connecticut
Freshman: 24.6 min., 5.0 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 53.8% FG
Sophomore: 26.0 min., 11.0 ppg, 12.5 rpg, 3.5 bpg, 57.1% FG
Oriakhi's rebound average looks inflated right now because he grabbed 18 boards in the home opener against Stony Brook. Unlike a lot of players on this list, Oriakhi started for most of last season, but even though he looks like a bruiser, offseason physicals revealed he had the weakest legs on the team. That should be much less of a problem in Year 2. Meanwhile, the real encouraging early sign is the improvement in Oriakhi's field goal percentage, because at this stage his offense is way behind his defense.
Mason Plumlee, 6-10 forward, Duke
Freshman: 14.1 min., 3.7 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 0.9 apg, 46.2% FG
Sophomore: 19.0 min., 8.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 2.0 apg, 58.8% FG
It's always a good sign when a sophomore's stats jump at a much higher proportion than his increase in minutes. Plumlee had a hard time recovering as a freshman after he missed the first six games with a wrist injury. But what really limited his playing time was the rapid improvement of senior center Brian Zoubek. With Zoubek gone, Plumlee can show off both his athleticism and understanding of the game. Notice how his assists have gone up, too. He is a good passer with a healthy nasty streak to boot.
Peyton Siva, 5-11 point guard, Louisville
Freshman: 11.3 min., 3.9 ppg, 0.8 rpg, 1.8 apg, 43.2% FG
Sophomore: 22.5 min., 10.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 4.5 apg, 46.2% FG
Siva's numbers would be better if he hadn't fouled out in just 15 minutes in the Cardinals' big win over Butler in the opener. Obviously Siva will have to be more disciplined on defense, but now that Edgar Sosa is gone, it's time for Louisville to get some steady leadership from the most important position on the floor. Rick Pitino has already said he's giving Siva, a former McDonald's All-American from Seattle, the keys to drive his new high-octane offense. I think he's up to the task.