Desi Rodriguez

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College Basketball’s Most Improved Players

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On Wednesday, we released our Midseason Awards, which included the NBCSports.com All-American teams, the Player of the Year, the Coach of the Year and the Freshman of the Year.

We also named our Most Improved Player. That decision wasn’t quite as easy as it seemed, so here is a complete list of the nation’s most improved players:

THE BREAKOUT STARS

Ben Bentil, Providence: As we wrote yesterday, Bentil had some promising moments as a freshman and found his way onto a few Breakout Stars lists in the preseaosn, but I don’t anyone could have predicted that he would end up being a guy that averages 19 points and eight boards for a team ranked in the top ten. He’s got a legitimate case to be an all-american. Who saw that coming?

Buddy Hield, Oklahoma: Hield was the Big 12 Player of the Year last season and, depending on where you looked, he found his way onto some all-american teams as well. But he did all that as a guy that was more-or-less a spot-up shooter that did much of his damage in transition. This season, he’s become Oklahoma’s late-clock option. He’s getting isolations. He’s the ball handler in pick-and-roll actions, and he’s far more effective doing it as well. Last season, he scored 21 points in 42 totals isolations, according to Synergy’s logs. This season, he’s already had 29 isolation possessions and scored 31 points. When you factor in possessions that end in a pass, he’s creating 1.083 PPP in ball screen actions as compared to 0.825 PPP last season.

Kelan Martin, Butler: This may be a situation where Martin simply needed to get the opportunity, but he’s become the most consistent offensive weapon for a Butler team that’s currently ranked in the top 20. Martin, who is averaging 14.1 points after scoring 7.7 per game last season, began the season as Butler’s sixth-man but played his way into the starting lineup with Kellen Dunham’s shooting slump.

Elijah Brown, New Mexico: Brown has usurped coach’s son Cullen Neal as the star of the Lobo back court. A redshirt sophomore, Butler transfer and the son of former NBA coach Mike Brown, Elijah is averaging 19.4 points, 5.6 boards and 3.1 assists.

Moses Kingsley, Arkansas: As a freshman, Kingsley played 10 minutes a game and averaged just 3.4 points and 2.5 boards. As a sophomore, he’s averaging 17.1 points, 9.9 boards and 2.5 blocks, turning into a guy that may actually be the best big man in the SEC. Chew on that for a second.

Michael Gbinije, Syracuse: The fifth-year senior has become one of the best guards in the ACC and is one of the only reason that Syracuse has a reason to believe they can play their way into an NCAA tournament bid. He’s averaging 18.0 points, 4.7 boards and 4.3 assists.

Yante Maten, Georgia: Maten, a sophomore, has become the anchor on the interior for a Georgia team that still has NCAA tournament hopes. The 6-foot-8 Michigan native is averaging 16.5 points and 7.2 boards.

Desi Rodriguez, Seton Hall: When he’s not getting benched for yelling at his coach, Rodriguez is a pretty important piece for the Pirates, averaging 12.0 points and shooting 38.1 percent from three after going 1-for-12 as a freshmen.

Kendrick Nunn, Illinois: Nunn, along with Malcolm Hill, is the reason this season isn’t a total loss for the Illini. He’s averaging 18.5 points as a junior.

Zach LeDay, Virginia Tech: LeDay averaged 3.5 points for South Florida in 2013-14. He’s averaging 14.7 points and 9.5 boards for the Hokies this season and went for 22 points and seven boards in the win over No. 4 Virginia on Monday night.

George King, Colorado: King is a redshirt sophomore that didn’t play much as a freshman and then sat out last season as Tad Boyle knew that he wouldn’t get much playing time. It paid off, as King is Colorado’s second-leading scorer, averaging 13.9 points and shooting 43.1 percent from three.

Joel Berry II, North Carolina: Berry has embraced the point guard role for the Tar Heels, averaging 12.9 points and 4.4 assists as he’s allowed Marcus Paige to spend more time playing off the ball.

Bradley Hayes, Georgetown: Hayes was a total non-factor in his first three seasons with the Hoyas but has emerged as the best low-post scorer for this Georgetown team, averaging 9.4 points and 6.6 boards.

THE ALL-AMERICANS: There is also a small subset of guys that belong on the most improved list that were already pretty damn good.

  • Grayson Allen, Duke: I really struggled with whether or not to include Allen on this list at all, because I’m not convinced that he’s all that much better than he was last season. He’s having a sensational season — we have him as a second team all-american right now — but how much of that is simply a result of Allen finally seeing the floor? A lot of it, I think.
  • Jakob Poeltl, Utah: Poeltl could have been a lottery pick had he bolted for the NBA after last season, which means that some folks may not realize just how much better he is right now than he was at this time last season. He’s got post moves, he can pass out of double teams and he’s still one of the best defensive centers in college basketball.
  • Brice Johnson, North Carolina: Johnson has played himself into All-American consideration in the last seven games, as Kennedy Meeks has been out with a knee issue. It came to a head on Monday: 39 points, 23 boards, three steals, three blocks. Talent isn’t the issue. It’s assertiveness and aggressiveness. Let’s see if it lasts.
  • Denzel Valentine, Michigan State: Valentine has always seemed like one of those dudes where we’re going to say, “He’s a great college players.” Now, after his start to the 2015-16 season, there’s a real shot he ends up getting picked in the first round.