Friday, May 9, 2014
Players to watch: Centers
By Andy Katz
Traditional centers were once a fading fad. It was almost as if they weren't growing that way anymore.
But that is no longer the case. Suddenly, centers are plentiful.
And while 5-men today must be able to score facing the basket, the centers this past season and the top prospects coming in aren't afraid to get physical. The low post is no longer a toxic area.
Przemek Karnowski (24) has steadily improved his game in two seasons at Gonzaga.
This class of traditional big men could be the deepest college basketball has seen in the past few years. It might not have top NBA draft picks, but there is plenty of experience and potential, with players who can decide their team's fate. No team is as loaded with centers, both returnees and newcomers, as Kentucky. The Wildcats aren't the norm, but having one center a coach can trust to anchor the post is at least plausible for a number of national contenders.
Top returnees to watch
Kaleb Tarczewski, Arizona: Tarczewski was one of the most improved players in the country. He easily could have left for the NBA draft, but he chose to stay to continue to improve his overall game. The 7-footer was an anchor inside, balancing out the length, athleticism and flash of Aaron Gordon, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and (when he was healthy) Brandon Ashley. Tarczewski averaged 9.9 points and 6.3 rebounds and has the potential to be a double-figure scorer and perhaps a 10-rebound per game performer. He was honest in his own appraisal that he wasn't ready as a freshman and knew he needed to develop and mature. The soon-to-be junior did that, and he is one of the main reasons Arizona will be tabbed as a favorite in the Pac-12.
Przemek Karnowski, Gonzaga: The Zags pulled off a coup when they landed the 7-1 Polish national two years ago. But he was still a work in progress, and it showed as a freshman. While trying to find his footing in the American game, Karnowski averaged 5.4 points and 2.6 rebounds. He made a significant jump from his freshman to sophomore season, when he averaged 10.4 points and 7.1 rebounds, and was able to use his immense frame to be more than a space-eater. The Zags are expecting to have a team capable of making a deep run next season, and if that happens, Karnowski must be an immovable force on a regular basis. Karnowski could have taken the bait to play professionally overseas, but he realized he still has work to do.
Josh Scott, Colorado: Scott is the Buffaloes' top returning scorer since Spencer Dinwiddie decided to enter the NBA draft. The Buffaloes might shift their emphasis even more and take advantage of Scott's inside prowess. He was a coup of a recruit when Tad Boyle signed him two years ago, and Scott's development has been a real plus for the Buffaloes' coaching staff. Scott averaged 14.1 points and 8.4 rebounds last season, and those numbers could climb steadily as the Buffaloes feed him even more in the post. If the Buffaloes get back to the NCAA tournament, it will be largely due to Scott.
Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky: Cauley-Stein didn't play in his final three games due to a foot injury suffered against Louisville in the Sweet 16, but when healthy, he can be a game-changer. He will block, distract and alter shots. Cauley-Stein easily could have bolted for the NBA, but he didn't want to leave without making a major contribution. The Wildcats are loaded up front next season, and Cauley-Stein won't be the big man on campus, but he'll be even more important than he was this past season. With Julius Randle gone, Cauley-Stein must be the experienced big man who can finish.
Frank Kaminsky, Wisconsin: Kaminsky is the prototype fade-up 5-man. He can score in a variety of ways and was the difference in Wisconsin's run to the Final Four. Kaminsky easily could have gone to the NBA, but he wanted to stay to enjoy the college experience, diversify his game, and become even more forceful. He still needs to become more aggressive inside. He's a tough matchup on the perimeter but is even harder to guard when he drags a big out to the top of the key or the corners. He will be one of the toughest matchups at his position next season.
Top newcomers to watch
Karl Towns Jr. will be part of a deep and talented frontcourt at Kentucky.
Jahlil Okafor, Duke: With Jabari Parker and Rodney Hood leaving for the NBA, Okafor will flourish for the Blue Devils. Duke needed another star and got one in Okafor. Mike Krzyzewski has traditionally adjusted his coaching style and system to his personnel. The Blue Devils didn't have the frontcourt to lean on last season, but with Okafor, they will next season.
Myles Turner, Texas: Rick Barnes picked up the last elite recruit in the Class of 2014 when Turner, who is from Texas, stayed home. Like Coach K, Barnes adapts. He isn't set in his ways and can go inside when needed. He will have multiple options in the post. The Longhorns will have the deepest frontcourt in the league and should challenge for Big 12 title.
Karl Towns Jr., Kentucky: Towns played for John Calipari on the Dominican Republic national team. Once that happened, it was likely a lock he would land with the Wildcats. The return of Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee and Alex Poythress means Towns can find his footing as a freshman, develop and be allowed to make mistakes without serious consequences or pressure to produce immediately.