College Hoops Preview: 15 Players with Breakout Potential

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Throughout the month of October, CollegeBasketballTalk will be rolling out our previews for the 2012-2013 season. Check back at 9 a.m. and just after lunch every day, Monday-Friday, for a new preview item.

To browse through the preview posts we’ve already published, click here. To look at the rest of The Lists we’ve published, click here. For a schedule of our previews for the month, click here.

There are a handful of different ways to predict what players are destined for breakout seasons. Were their minutes eaten up by players that have graduated or headed to the NBA? Did they produce high-efficiency numbers while playing limited minutes? Are they finally healthy? Was it simply a matter of a freshman becoming a sophomore or a player legitimately spending a summer improving?

The answer, simply, is yes. To all of the above.

So without further ado, here are 15 guys (plus a few extra) whose name we believe you will become familiar with by the end of the season:

Wayne Blackshear, Louisville: Blackshear, a sophomore, entered Louisville with a fair amount of hype, but spent the majority of last season dealing with a shoulder injury that, originally, was thought would end his season. He put together a couple of promising performances late in the season. A 6-foot-5 scorer on the wing, Blackshear gives Louisville a weapon that they were missing last season. He may not put up huge numbers next year — with how many bodies Louisville has, there may not be anyone that does — but he will be one of their biggest assets.

Michael Caffey and James Ennis, Long Beach State: Long Beach State was one of the nation’s best mid-majors last season, but lose five of their top seven scorers from last season. The two guys that do come back — Caffey and Ennis — should keep the 49ers atop the Big West this year. Caffey, a sophomore, is a dynamic back court presence who should fill the void left by Casper Ware while Ennis, a senior, is a rangy, 6-foot-6 wing whose athleticism is already drawing NBA scouts to Long Beach.

Michael Carter-Williams and CJ Fair, Syracuse: Carter-Williams is a perfect fit for Syracuse on both sides of the ball. A talented scorer in high school, Jim Boeheim recruited the 6-foot-5 guard with the intention of molding him into more of a play-maker. With Dion Waiters and Scoop Jardine gone, there will be plenty of minutes and touches available for the sophomore. Fair wasn’t as highly-regarded in high school as MCW, but the long and athletic — and lefty — 6-foot-8 forward has shown flashes of greatness in his two seasons with the Orange. As a primary option in the front court this season, don’t be surprised to see Fair become the best face-up power forward in the Big East.

Quinn Cook, Duke: As we wrote in our preview, Duke has a lot of potential this season, but whether they reach that potential is dependent of a number of factors. The most important is Cook, now a sophomore. The Blue Devils have some weapons offensively, but what they are missing — what they were missing last season — was a play-maker that could break down a defense. That’s precisely what Cook, who finally had a healthy summer to improve his game, is.

Sam Dower, Gonzaga: Despite playing limited minutes for the Bulldogs in his first two seasons in Spokane, Dower was actually quite a productive player. Last season, he scored 8.3 points and grabbed 3.7 boards despite playing a little more than 18 minutes a night. With Robert Sacre graduating, Dower will slide into a starting role as a junior alongside Elias Harris in Mark Few’s front court.

Anton Grady, Cleveland State: Cleveland State head coach Gary Waters has called Anton Grady his future, and he’s right. He was incredibly productive — 8.5 points, 6.4 boards, 1.4 blocks, the team lead in offensive and defensive rebounding percentages — in limited minutes as a freshman, and with so much of Cleveland State’s production from last season graduating, Grady will have plenty of opportunities. Even without Butler in the league, the Horizon has quite a bit of talent. Grady might be the best player in the league.

Treveon Graham, VCU: The Rams bring back the majority of their roster as they move to the Atlantic 10, but the piece they lost was arguably their most valuable: Brad Burgess. Graham, a sophomore, has the tools to fill his role. He’s a bigger wing that has proven that he can shoot the three and rebound the ball, both of which are important as he’ll play as a four in VCU’s pressing system.

Myck Kabongo, Texas: Kabongo entered his freshman season as one of the top point guard recruits in the country, but it took him a while to really learn how to be a point guard at the collegiate level. With J’Covan Brown gone, he’ll be responsible for running the show, and with a core of young talent around him, he’ll need to embrace that leadership role if Texas is to be a contender in the Big 12. All of this is pending a positive outcome to the current agent issue he’s dealing with.

Alex Len, Maryland: Len is an interesting case. He’s a legitimate seven-footer who has put on 30 pounds of muscle during the offseason. He also now has a season under his belt to get used to American basketball. With a full offseason of practice with the team and a chance to spend a full season playing games (he was suspended for the first ten games last year), Len should be on track to become an integral part of Maryland’s offense. Oh, and he’s now able to communicate with his teammates, which is always a plus.

James Michael McAdoo, North Carolina: McAdoo had a chance of being a first round pick if he had left school after his freshman season. Instead, he decided to return, where the former top ten recruit will become the star of the North Carolina front court. And if the 15 points he scored against Thomas Robinson in the Elite 8 last season are any indication, McAdoo is in for a big season.

Otto Porter, Georgetown: Porter is a serious talent. A terrific rebounder and defender, the 6-foot-8 sophomore spent the offseason developing his offensive repertoire. Georgetown’s offense thrives on big men that are able to play on the perimeter and be a threat when facing the basket. That’s Porter. He may not be Jeff Green on the offensive side of the ball just yet, but he’s getting there. That, combined with the threat his imposes in the other aspects of the game, will make him a popular prospect among NBA scouts.

LaQuinton Ross, Ohio State: Ross was once the No. 1 recruit in the country, but a series of injuries and conditioning issues dulled the hype. As a freshman at Ohio State, he wasn’t cleared until December and then spent much of the season glued to the bench, playing a grand total of 35 minutes. The talent is still there, however, and with more minutes available as a sophomore, Ross is a guy who could thrive alongside Deshaun Thomas this season.

Jarnell Stokes, Tennessee: Stokes joined the Tennessee program last December, helping lead the Vols to a second place finish in the SEC despite the fact that he was supposed to be preparing for his high school prom. He finished with averages of 9.6 points and 7.4 boards last year. Don’t be surprised if turns into a 15 and 10 performer this year.

Gelaun Wheelwright, Weber State: Wheelwright was a pretty highly regarded prospect coming out of high school in California, as Weber State was able to beat out San Diego State and USC, according to his ESPN profile, on the recruiting trail. He averaged 5.6 points as a freshman backing up Damian Lillard. With Lillard gone to the NBA, the Wildcats offense will be his to commandeer.

Aaron White, Iowa: As a freshman, White averaged 11.1 points and 5.7 boards for an Iowa team that snuck up on some people. With quite a bit of talent returning on that team, Iowa is a sleeper in a loaded Big Ten. White is one of the more promising sophomores in that conference.

Five more breakout candidates to keep an eye on: Anthony Collins, USF; Cory Jefferson, Baylor; Ian Miller, Florida State; Seth Tuttle, Northern Iowa; Brad Waldow, St. Mary’s

Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @robdauster.

Bluiett back to Xavier for senior season

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Xavier lost one significant piece to the professional ranks this spring, but will return another.

Trevon Bluiett, the team’s leading scorer last year, announced via social media that he will be back to play his senior season with the Musketeers.

Chris Mack will return the bulk of a roster that struggled February only to make a run to the Elite Eight, but getting Bluiett for a final season makes the Musketeers especially dangerous. The 6-foot-6 Bluiett scored a team-high 18.5 points per game last year while also putting up 5.7 rebounds and 2.1 assists per night. He shot 37.1 percent from 3-point range, the second-best mark on the team. His return, even with point guard Edmond Sumner going pro amid his ACL tear recovery, makes Xavier one of the top teams in the Big East heading into the 2017-18 season.

Bluiett himself is enough to keep Xavier relevant in the league, but when he’s coupled with the likes of returners JP Macura, Sean O’Mara and Quentin Goodwin, plus a recruiting class featuring two four-star prospects, it’s not difficult to see a path for Mack’s group to a place where they can compete with the likes of Villanova and Seton Hall atop the league.

Welsh and Holiday returning to UCLA

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UCLA sustained some major, though expected, attrition from its roster this spring. On Tuesday, the Bruins announced a pair of significant contributors that will be back.

Thomas Welsh and Aaron Holiday will both return next season to the UCLA program, according to the school.

Welsh, a 7-foot center, averaged 10.8 points and 8.7 rebounds as a senior last year for the Bruins. He shot 58.5 percent from the floor and blocked 1.2 shots per game, and decided to declare for the NBA Draft without an agent before ultimately deciding to return to Westwood.

“Thomas has worked hard all spring,” UCLA coach Steve Alford said in a statement. “We supported him testing the NBA waters and are excited to have him returning for his senior year. He simply continues to develop each and every season.

“Thomas will be one of the top centers in college basketball next year and, undoubtedly, has a great chance to be a first-round pick in next season’s draft.”

The 6-foot-1 Holiday averaged 12.3 points and 4.4 assists last season while sharing a backcourt with Lonzo Ball, whose departure, along with those of TJ Leaf, Bryce Alford and Isaac Hamilton will leave UCLA with a very different look next season. The positive results, however, may not fluctuate too significantly with Welsh and Holiday coming back to play alongside two five-star recruits, Kris Wilkes and Jaylen Hands, as well as Lonzo’s younger brother LiAngelo.

West Virginia’s Macon forgoing final year

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West Virginia’s attempt to dethrone Kansas atop the Big 12 took a bit of a hit Tuesday.

Elijah Macon, a 6-foot-9 forward, announced his decision to forego a fifth year in Morgantown in order to pursue a professional career.

“First things first I would like to say thank you Bob Huggins and Erik Martin for believing in a young 15-year-old boy growing up from the Southside of Columbus, OH losing my mother and still having you guys push me to be the man I have become,” Macon said according to the school. “I can do nothing but thank you for all you and Mountaineer Nation (have) done for me. Unfortunately, I will not be returning for my senior season at WVU and instead sign with a(n) agent and play professional basketball. Thank you guys for all the love and support!”

Macon wasn’t a major contributor for the Mountaineers last season, averaging 6.3 points and 4.2 rebounds in 16 minutes per game, but he was an experienced and tough player who was well-versed in Huggins’ style and demands. Given the pace that the newly-fashioned Press Virginia plays at, depth is also paramount for them as a program.

Macon’s departure, though, may have been expected or at least partly anticipated by West Virginia. The Mountaineers signed five players in its most recent recruiting class, putting them one over their allotment of 13, so something had to give. West VIrginia will stay have interior depth, anchored by junior Esa Ahmad, so the loss of Macon is one they likely can weather, even if it may take some time to acclimate the newcomers.

“Elijah is in the process of completing classes during this summer school period that ends June 2 and will graduate with a bachelor’s degree in August,” Huggins said in a statement released by the school. “I respect his decision to become a professional basketball player and to go make money to support his family. He had a great four years with us, and we wish him nothing but the best.”

Key returning to Alabama for sophomore season

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Alabama’s top scorer is returning to school.

Braxton Key has withdrawn his name from the NBA draft and will be back with the Tide for his sophomore season, the school announced Tuesday.

“I spoke to coach Avery (Johnson) just over a week ago and informed him of my decision to withdraw my name from the NBA Draft and return to the University of Alabama for my sophomore season,” Key said in a statement. “I made that official when I sent my paperwork to the NBA league office Monday morning. I want to express my appreciation to my teammates, Coach Johnson and the entire coaching staff for giving me their full support while I went through this process.

“I am excited for the future of the Alabama basketball program and looking forward to getting to work as we prepare for next season. Roll Tide and Buckle Up!”

The 6-foot-8 forward averaged 12 points and 5.7 rebounds per game while shooting 43.3 percent from the field as a freshman. He gives Alabama four returning starts to pair with one of the country’s highest-regarded recruiting classes, headlined by five-star guard Collin Sexton. The Tide will also have an eligible Daniel Giddens, who previously transferred in from Ohio State.

Key didn’t seem likely to stay in the NBA draft, especially after he wasn’t invited to the combine, but his ultimate decision is a huge one for Avery Johnson as he looks to break through in his third season in Tuscaloosa with his first NCAA tournament appearance. 

Report: Justin Jackson to return to Maryland

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Maryland forward Justin Jackson is expected to return to school for his sophomore season, according to a report from FanRag Sports.

Jackson is an intriguing talent, a 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-3 wingspan that shoots 44 percent from three. But he’s also still developing his offensive game and consistency on the defensive end of the floor, which is why he was projected as a second round pick in this year’s draft.

With Jackson back in the fold, Maryland is a borderline top 25 team. They lost Melo Trimble to the professional ranks, but that’s something that Mark Turgeon has prepared for. With a sophomore class that also includes highly-regarded point guard Anthony Cowan and sharp-shooter Kevin Huerter, the Terps have a promising season ahead of them.