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Thursday, May 8, 2014
Players to watch: Power forwards

By Dana O'Neil

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

It’s always about the guards. The little guys have the ball in their hands, so we tend to pay them more heed. That’s fair.

Georges Niang
Georges Niang's injury affected Iowa State's NCAA tournament run, but he returns for another season with the Cyclones.
But to overlook the impact of the guys underneath, the ones doing the dirty work to help get the guards their glory, is foolish and unfair. Wonder how valuable a solid power forward is? Ask Iowa State, which lost Georges Niang in the NCAA tournament. Or Arizona, which had to regroup after Brandon Ashley was felled by a foot injury.

These guys matter, and this year, they might just get their due because of the talent not only spread across the country (as well as concentrated in Lexington, Ky.), but from the incoming class to the returners.

It’s a veritable big man parade, loaded with the real-deal centers and the tweener power forwards.

Here’s a short list of some of those power forwards worth keeping an eye on:

Top returnees to watch:

Montrezl Harrell, Louisville: Harrell’s surprising decision to forego the NBA draft and return for his junior year gives the Cardinals a huge boost. Harrell, a likely first-round pick, averaged 14 points and 8.4 rebounds as a sophomore and picked up steam at the end of the year. Over the Cards’ final 11 games, he averaged 17.2 points and 9 boards, including six double-doubles.

Georges Niang, Iowa State: Niang was the big "if" for the Cyclones -- if Niang didn’t break his foot, would Iowa State have gone further than the first weekend of the NCAA tournament? Heck, would UConn, which topped ISU in the third round, have won the national championship? Niang was and is that critical to Fred Hoiberg’s offense. He averaged 16.7 points, 4.5 rebounds and -- most telling of all as to how Hoiberg uses him -- 3.6 assists as a sophomore.

Brandon Ashley, Arizona: Like Niang, Ashley spent the end of the season on the bench, sidelined in February with a foot injury. Before his injury, the Wildcats were undefeated. Coincidence? Not entirely. Ashley was a big cog in Sean Miller’s machine, averaging 11.5 points and 5.8 rebounds per game. Without Aaron Gordon, he’ll get even more touches.

Perry Ellis, Kansas: Ellis was quite literally caught between two lottery picks -- Andrew Wiggins on the wing, Joel Embiid at center -- yet still managed to finish second on the team in scoring (13.5 points) and rebounds (6.7). Ellis will have another stud freshman to share the spotlight with in Cliff Alexander, but being arguably the most efficient and productive offensive player among the returning power forwards, this could be Ellis’ year to shine.

Bobby Portis, Arkansas: The freshman was a solid defensive presence for Mike Anderson, averaging a team-best 6.8 rebounds, as well as 1.6 blocks per game. His 230 boards marked the most by a freshman in school history. But expect Portis, who averaged a more than respectable 12.3 points per game, to be more of an offensive focal point for the Razorbacks this year.

Trey Lyles
Trey Lyles will have no problem breaking into Kentucky's already loaded frontcourt.
Top newcomers to watch:

Cliff Alexander, Kansas: The No. 3 player in the 2014 ESPN 100, Alexander is simply a beast. More than strong enough already to hold his own down low, he’s a rebounding machine, but don’t misread that as an absence of athleticism. Alexander wowed in the Jordan Brand Classic Game when he scored 23 points, all while squaring off against Duke commit Jahlil Okafor. The Chicago native broke Illinois’ fans hearts when he chose Kansas, and understandably so. Alexander will turn heads and move bodies in the Big 12.

Trey Lyles, Kentucky: Even in the Wildcats’ crowded frontcourt, it’s hard to imagine Lyles not standing out. Indiana’s Mr. Basketball, the state’s Gatorade player of the year, a McDonald’s All-American and so forth and so on, Lyles is the real deal. He averaged 23.9 points, 13 rebounds and 2.3 blocks in his senior season. He’s been a top prospect since his freshman year of high school and brings to Kentucky the ability to score in the low post or stretch out and shoot facing the hoop.

Kevon Looney, UCLA: A little more off the radar than the other two guys in this list, Looney could create some real fun for Steve Alford. Looney is more of a combo forward, able to step out on the wing for a 3 and score from underneath the bucket. With the Bruins’ regrouping after losing Jordan Adams, Kyle Anderson and Zach LaVine to the NBA, Looney will be even more vital.