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Tuesday, May 6, 2014
Players to watch: Shooting guards

By Eamonn Brennan

This week ESPN.com will feature a position-by-position look at players to watch for the 2014-15 season.

The term "shooting guard" has never been so meaningless.

Ron Baker, Jeremy Morgan
Wichita State guard Ron Baker averaged 13.1 points per game in 2013-14.
This is true of all of the game's positional designations; the traditional responsibilities associated with each spot on the floor have become less and less helpful in describing what players actually do. The old traditional conception of the shooting guard is the most outdated. The Reggie Miller/Rip Hamilton run-off-screens-and-get-open model is gone. The NBA is now a league full of small guards who drive and shoot first; perimeter shooting is considered a must-have tool in a pro guard's total package; off-guards must handle the ball; small forwards are knockdown shooters. The Venn diagram of perimeter skills looks more like an eclipse.

Everything in the NBA trickles down, which makes today's exercise -- an early list of shooting guards to watch in the 2014-15 season -- a difficult one. There might be some slight cheating involved (you'll see). Some of the below are traditional shooting guards; some are just guards. All will be fascinating to watch in 2014-15 for a variety of reasons.

Top returnees to watch

Ron Baker, Wichita State: The Shockers return both members of their starting backcourt from 2013-14, and Baker and Fred VanVleet actually do fit the traditional mold. VanVleet was a masterful pass-first point guard who steadily anchored WSU's offense; Baker attempted 179 3s and 141 2s and finished with a 120.9 offensive rating. If you're wondering why the Shockers can lose Cleanthony Early and still be the subject of huge expectations going forward, look no further.

Rasheed Sulaimon, Duke: It's a bit hard to believe that after a stellar freshman campaign Sulaimon found himself so deep in Mike Krzyzewski's doghouse that, in early December, Coach K buried him on the bench in the equivalent of a DNP-CD. Transfer rumors and status questions abounded. Sulaimon eventually earned his way out of purgatory and back into regular minutes, and when he did he flourished. In his junior season, Sulaimon and Quinn Cook will have to take on leadership roles alongside the most talented Duke class in decades -- one with Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen and Justise Winslow ready to gobble up perimeter minutes. It's a huge season on deck for Sulaimon.

Michael Frazier II, Florida: Frazier is that rarest of modern college hoops birds: a traditional, almost literal, shooting guard. In 2013-14, Frazier shot 264 3s and made 118 of them, good for 44.7 percent -- a sterling percentage at that volume. He attempted exactly 79 shots from inside the arc. Frazier is an old-school, lights-out catch-and-shoot guy, albeit one who might need to expand his game in a Florida offense that will lose Scottie Wilbekin, Casey Prather and Patric Young. But he's already the college game's best pure shooter, and that's a hugely valuable skill to have.

Aaron Harrison, Kentucky: Harrison, on the other hand, is a fantastic example of a player for whom the term shooting guard doesn't always quite fit. Despite a torrid postseason pace -- and those big-time clutch shots in Kentucky's surprise runner-up run -- Harrison finished the season having made just 62 of his 174 3s. That's not terrible, but it's not great, either. The presence of Harrison's twin brother, Andrew, as Kentucky's ostensible point guard drives the lack of distinction home. Still, Harrison's fundamental productivity -- and the odds of him improving his shot, and keeping defenders off balance, after a summer spent drilling in Lexington, Kentucky -- makes him as frightening a sophomore prospect as any player in the country.

Caris LeVert, Michigan: Was Nik Stauskas a shooting guard? Not really, which is why NBA scouts love him so much: As a sophomore, Stauskas flashed all of the Stephen Curry-esque tools (lights-out shooting, penetration work, athleticism and great passing) in a 6-foot-6 frame. Stauskas has NBA people all worked up, and understandably so. LeVert is a similar player. He's an excellent shooter whom coach John Beilein loves to run through pick-and-roll sets; according to Synergy an almost identical number of LeVert's possessions came in spot-ups (24.5 percent) as screen-and-roll plays (24.3). LeVert shot 40.8 percent from 3, 46 percent from 2, didn't turn the ball over often, and will get a ton of shots without Stauskas and Glenn Robinson III around this season. He has huge, Big Ten Player of the Year-level potential in his third year in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Top newcomers to watch

D'Angelo Russell
Top-ranked shooting guard D'Angelo Russell, who is ranked No. 13 in the ESPN 100, could provide instant offense for the Buckeyes.
Rodney Purvis, Connecticut: OK, so this is kind of cheating: Purvis is a transfer, not a recruit. But I had to sneak him in here somewhere, because he might end up being the most important player on the list. With a post-national title Shabazz Napier graduating this spring, a suddenly starry Ryan Boatright can slide over to the point guard spot, allowing plenty of room for Purvis -- whom UConn coach Kevin Ollie called a "Ferrari sitting in the garage" at the Final Four in April -- to get big minutes and lots of touches in his first season in Storrs, Connecticut. How that configuration works may be the difference between another scrappy national title contender and an understandable step back in Ollie's third year.

D'Angelo Russell, Ohio State: The top-ranked shooting guard in the class of 2014 arrives at OSU with a reputation for sweet shooting and deep range. The timing is perfect, because another offense-free season like last season might drive coach Thad Matta over the edge.

Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall: The best recruit Seton Hall has signed in … wait, don't answer that … Whitehead is a physical scorer who explodes to the rim and absorbs contact while there. He could make Seton Hall's season really interesting for the first time in a while.

Devin Booker, Kentucky: The return of the Harrisons shrank Booker's minutes by a big margin; the fact that he might be the fourth guy off Kentucky's bench tells you all you need to know about next season's Wildcats.

James Blackmon Jr., Indiana: Indiana's wealth of perimeter talent gets Lannister-esque with the addition of Blackmon; whether the Hoosiers will have anybody to play on the low block is a different and more pertinent question.