College Basketball Talk’s Top 20 Most Improved Players

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Prior to the season, every pundit for every outlet across the country will put together his or her list of players with the potential to have a breakout season.

Which freshmen will have big sophomore seasons? Which seniors will finally get the chance to step into a starring role? What transfers spent their redshirt year transforming their body and perfecting their weaknesses? 

Sometimes, we’re spot on. Other times, we completely whiff. One month into the season, here is a look at this year’s Breakout Stars:

TOP 20 MOST IMPROVED PLAYERS

J.J. Avila, Colorado State: Avila, a transfer from Navy, has been the biggest reason that the Rams haven’t dropped off much this season. He’s averaging 19.5 points and 6.3 boards. Jon Octeus and Daniel Bejarano also could be listed here.

Cameron Bairstow, New Mexico: A solid role player for three years, Bairstow has turned into one of the nation’s best big men. He’s averaging 19.8 points, 7.1 boards and 2.8 assists.

Ron Baker, Wichita State: Ron Baker was a key role player for the Shockers last season. He’s turned into arguably their best player this year, a 6-foot-4 combo-guard averaging 15.3 points, 4.6 boards and 3.6 assists. Scouts that go to watch Cleanthony Early leave raving about Baker.

Cameron Clark and Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Many predicted Buddy Hield to develop into a star this season. He has, but the bigger surprise has been Clark. A top 30 recruit coming out of high school, Clark has turned into an all-Big 12 caliber wing.

Trevor Cooney, Syracuse: Amazing what a bit of confidence will do. Cooney’s averaging 15.3 points, shooting 48.4% from three and averaging 2.8 steals this season after playing last year as a liability.

Kellen Dunham, Butler: Dunham is doing his best to make Butler fans forget about Rotnei Clarke (and Ro Jones and Brad Stevens), averaging 19.1 points and shooting 46.4% from three while taking more than seven-per-game.

Perry Ellis, Kansas: Ellis has been the most consistent offensive option for Kansas this season, leading the team at 14.5 points while grabbing 6.8 boards per game.

source:  Yogi Ferrell, Indiana: Ferrell has become the leader that he needs to be for the Hoosiers to be competitive this season, averaging 17.0 points and 4.0 assists. His numbers take a bit of a hit because of the lack of scorers that Indiana has.

Shaq Goodwin, Memphis: On a team with a stable of perimeter weapons, Goodwin’s emergence has a presence on the block is key for the Tigers. He’s averaging 13.1 points and 6.1 boards as a sophomore this season.

Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: It happens every year. Bo Ryan somehow manages to turn a guy that’s spent a couple years as a big stiff into an all-Big Ten caliber post with three-point range. Kaminsky is averaging 14.6 points, 5.9 boards, 2.1 blocks and shooting 41.1% from three. He went for 43 points in a game earlier this year.

Cady Lalanne, UMass: Lalanne is finally living up to his talent this season, averaging 15.0 points and 10.4 boards as the Minutemen’s best interior presence. His emergence is a major reason why UMass will compete for the Atlantic 10 title.

Jake Layman, Maryland: Layman’s improvement will get lost in the shuffle in Maryland keeps sputtering, but he’s a 6-foot-8 wing that’s averaging 14.4 points and shooting 44.4% from three.

Caris LeVert and Nik Stauskas, Michigan: LeVert will get a lot of attention, going from a guy that saw limited minutes to a wing that averages 13.9 points. But Stauskas has made the real jump. He was a spot-up shooter last year. He’s one of the 20 best all-around offensive weapons in college basketball this season.

Codi Miller-McIntyre, Wake Forest: Miller-McIntyre still isn’t as consistent as he’d like to be from the perimeter, but it’s hard to nitpick a kid averaging 17.9 points, 4.4 assists and just 1.5 turnovers.

Marcus Paige, North Carolina: As good as North Carolina’s big men have been in wins over Louisville and Michigan State, it’s been Paige’s emergence as a star — 18.8 ppg, 4.5 apg, 39.2% 3PT — that has kept the Tar Heels afloat without P.J. Hairston.

Lamar Patterson, Pitt: Pitt will compete for the ACC title this year, and Patterson’s improvement in the biggest reason why. He’s averaging 16.2 points, 5.o boards, 5.1 assists and 1.8 steals this year.

Casey Prather, Florida: After three seasons of being a defensive stopper and a glue guy, Prather has turned into a big-time scorer this season, averaging 19.1 points. Yeah, I don’t get it either.

Xavier Thames, San Diego State: No Jamaal Franklin? No Chase Tapley? No problem. Thames has taken over the role of SDSU’s big-shot maker this year.

Other names considered: Devon Collier, Maurice Creek, Justin Jackson, Naz Long, Cameron Wright

Syracuse’s Tyus Battle to test NBA draft waters

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Syracuse announced on Friday afternoon that sophomore guard Tyus Battle will be declaring for the NBA draft without signing with an agent, giving him until the NCAA’s May 30th deadline to withdraw from contention and return to school.

Battle averaged 19.2 points as a sophomore for the Orange, who made a surprising run to the Sweet 16 of the NCAA tournament.

He is a projected late-first round or early-second round pick given his size, shooting ability and skill with the ball in his hands.

Losing Battle would be a massive blow to a Syracuse team that is already going to be without Matthew Moyer, who transferred out of the program, and Dareus Bazley, who is heading to the G League instead of enrolling in college.

Maryland’s Kevin Huerter declares for NBA draft, won’t hire agent

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Maryland wing Kevin Huerter announced on Friday afternoon that he will be declaring for the NBA draft without hiring an agent, giving him the option of returning to school by May 30th.

“This will be a great experience for Kevin to get honest feedback from NBA teams and executives,” said head coach Mark Turgeon. “Taking advantage of this opportunity will allow Kevin and his family to make an informed decision about his future.”

Huerter is a 6-foot-7 wing known for his ability to shoot from the perimeter. He averaged 14.8 points and shot 42 percent from three as a sophomore.

He is also the third player from Maryland to declare for the 2018 NBA Draft. Justin Jackson, a borderline first round pick who missed time last season with a shoulder injury, has signed with an agent while Bruno Fernando is testing the waters. Maryland, who has an excellent recruiting class coming in, will be a preseason top 20 team if Huerter and Fernando both return to school.

Huerter is a borderline first round pick.

Michigan’s Charles Matthews to test NBA draft waters

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Michigan guard Charles Matthews announced on Friday that he will be declaring for the NBA draft, but that he does not intend to sign with an agent, meaning he has until May 30th to withdraw from the draft and return to school.

“After careful consideration with my parents and coaching staff, I am excited to announce that I will be declaring for the 2018 NBA Draft without hiring an agent,” said Matthews. “I give thanks to the Lord for this amazing opportunity, as well as the entire University of Michigan for their support. Go Blue!”

Matthews, a redshirt sophomore that averaged 13.0 points and 5.5 boards for the national runners-up, was a four-star prospect coming out of Chicago and spent his freshman season at Kentucky.

Matthews is a likely second round pick with the potential to climb into the first round should he prove to be a more consistent three-point shooter. He shot just 31.8 percent from beyond the arc this past season.

Virginia’s Hunter to return to school for sophomore season

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De’Andre Hunter announced on Friday afternoon that he will not be entering his name into the NBA draft and will return to Virginia for his redshirt sophomore season, a decision that will have as much of an impact on the 2018-19 college basketball season as any that is made this spring.

Hunter, now a potential top ten pick in the 2019 NBA Draft, was one of the breakout stars of the 2017-18 season. A 6-foot-7 combo-forward with a 7-foot-1 wingspan, Hunter averaged 9.2 points and 3.5 boards while shooting 38.2 percent from three in just under 20 minutes a night for a Virginia team whose pace severely limits the kind of numbers a player like him can put up.

Throw in his ability to defend on the perimeter and in the paint, and Hunter is precisely the kind of player that NBA teams are looking to land as basketball becomes more and more built on positional versatility and the ability to space the floor.

And it’s that versatility that will make Hunter so important for the Cavaliers next season.

Let’s go beyond the simple fact that he is going to be the only guy on the Virginia roster that can create his own shot against length and athleticism and that there is a chance that he could end up being an all-american next season if things play out the right way. What makes Hunter so important to Virginia his that his defensive versatility is what allows Virginia to matchup with teams that want to try and play small-ball against them.

That’s precisely what UMBC did in the first round of the NCAA tournament, a game that Hunter missed with a broken wrist. We all know how that played out, and I’m not even dumb enough to pin all the blame of a 20-point loss to a No. 16 seed on a guy that played less than 20 minutes a night.

Virginia choked once they realized that there was a chance this could happen, but I would argue that a major reason they couldn’t ever truly assert their dominance was because they were unable to matchup with UMBC’s four-guard lineup without Hunter.

With Hunter back, Virginia is the No. 6 team in the NBC Sports Preseason Top 25. If he had declared for the draft and signed with an agent, I’m not sure I would have had the Wahoos in the top 20.

He takes Tony Bennett’s club from simply being good to once against being a contender for the ACC regular season title.

Vanderbilt the sixth Kentucky player declares for the NBA draft

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Jarred Vanderbilt is now the sixth Kentucky Wildcat to declare for the NBA draft this spring, joining P.J. Washington and Wenyen Gabriel in testing the waters without signing with an agent.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kevin Knox and Hamidou Diallo have all declared for the draft and signed with an agent.

Vanderbilt announced his decision on Friday afternoon.

“This season wasn’t easy for me,” Vanderbilt said. “At the end of the day, my goal has always been to make it to the NBA.”

“I know I have more to my game to show, but now I’ve got to figure out if the time is right for me to do it at the next level or if I would be better to return to school.”

Vanderbilt missed the first 17 games of his freshman season with a left foot injury, a foot that he had injured twice before during his high school career. He then missed all four of Kentucky’s postseason games with a left ankle injury, and there is a chance that he could end up needing surgery to correct this issue this offseason.

All told, the 6-foot-9 Vanderbilt played in 14 games as a freshman, averaging 5.9 points and 7.9 boards in just 17 minutes a night. But issues with his ability to shoot from the perimeter and a lower left leg that has proven to be extremely problematic, there is a good chance that Vanderbilt would go undrafted should he decide to turn pro.