North Carolina Tar Heels: 2014 players to watch

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

In 2003, a young man from Akron, Ohio, excelled during his rookie season in the NBA (20.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 5.9 APG, 1.6 SPG) and crushed philosophies about specific roles and positions in 21st century basketball. Stat hub lists LeBron James as a shooting guard his first season, a small forward the next eight years and a power forward from 2012 to the present. That might be a typo. But James does everything. He pushes the ball, he flows in the midrange, he rebounds, he posts up and he guards wings and big men. What can’t he do?

[+] EnlargeRondae Hollis-Jefferson
Jeff Gross/Getty ImagesWith several departures, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson could be the focal point of Arizona's team next season.
At this level, there is a pool of “small forwards” who idolize the icon, and have expanded their games beyond the traditional descriptions of what a small forward should be and instead focused on what it could be. The college game, much like the pros, has been seized by lengthy forwards who demonstrate dexterity in everything they do. The elite small forwards play multiple slots and they’re often asked to stretch on defense, too. Guard/forward or combo forward is probably more accurate than small forward. Simply put, the following players are not one-dimensional:

Top returnees to watch

Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Arizona: As a reserve and occasional starter in the final weeks of the season, Hollis-Jefferson blossomed on one of the most talented rosters in the country. And that’s not easy to do, especially for a freshman. He averaged 9.1 PPG, 5.7 RPG and 1.1 BPG in just 25.3 MPG. He also accrued a 113.1 offensive rating. He’ll be even more pivotal for the Wildcats next season, now that Aaron Gordon and Nick Johnson have departed. The NBA prospect has All-America ability.

Sam Dekker, Wisconsin: With the key pieces returning from Bo Ryan’s first Final Four team, the Badgers will compete for the national championship in 2014-15, and Dekker is a significant component in the quest. The 6-foot-8 NBA prospect had a solid sophomore season, when he logged more minutes (29.8 MPG compared to 22.3 as a freshman) and improved his defense. His 3-point shooting numbers were down in 2013-14 (33 percent compared to 39 as a freshman), but Dekker also finished with 12.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG and 1.4 APG in a system that demands balance. Next season, Dekker could take the next step as he continues to evolve into an elite talent.

Treveon Graham, VCU: As a junior, Graham earned first-team all-Atlantic 10 honors last season after averaging 15.8 PPG, 7.0 RPG and 2.0 APG. Even though the Rams lost Rob Brandenberg and Juvonte Reddic, this will be Shaka Smart’s most talented VCU squad. It will also be Smart’s deepest VCU squad now that he has added the top recruiting class of his tenure. There were offensive issues all season for a program that averaged 75.4 PPG but finished 107th in adjusted offensive efficiency (per Ken Pomeroy), but Graham, the team’s top scorer, wasn’t the issue. He ended the year with a 111.2 offensive rating, No. 1 among A-10 players with a minimum 24 percent usage rate (per Pomeroy).

Branden Dawson, Michigan State: Dawson considered the NBA but ultimately returned to East Lansing, where he’ll be Michigan State’s featured act next season. The forward missed nearly a month of action last season with a hand injury, but he found a rhythm shortly after he returned. He wasn’t as effective as he could have been in Michigan State’s loss to Connecticut in the Elite Eight (1-for-3, five points, eight rebounds). But in the six previous games, he averaged 17.5 PPG and 8.1 RPG. If he brings that game into 2014-15, the Spartans will still be viable contenders in the Big Ten, despite losing Adreian Payne and Gary Harris.

Anthony Drmic, Boise State: The Broncos did not meet expectations last season. Although the anchors of an NCAA tourney squad, Drmic and Derrick Marks, returned to Leon Rice’s program, Boise State failed to earn a bid to the Big Dance. But Drmic and Marks are back again. And in a Mountain West that has absorbed many blows since the conclusion of the 2014-15 campaign, Drmic (111.2 offensive rating) could lead the Broncos back to March Madness, especially if he duplicates last season’s impressive numbers (15.9 PPG, 34 percent from the 3-point line).

Top newcomers to watch

[+] EnlargeJustise Winslow
Chris Williams/Icon SMIJustise Winslow isn't the highest-rated recruit in Duke's loaded class, but he could be the most important.
Justise Winslow, Duke: Rodney Hood and Jabari Parker are gone. Winslow, a 6-6 McDonald’s All-American from Texas, will help the program fill that void. The Blue Devils have ESPN RecruitingNation’s top recruiting class, which includes Tyus Jones, Jahlil Okafor and Grayson Allen, but Winslow might be the most significant recruit in that foursome considering what the program has lost.

Stanley Johnson, Arizona: One day, Johnson will explain how he and his 6-6, 225-pound NFL tight end frame found their way to a basketball court instead of a football field. This freshman is built like Colossus. He’s a physical player who embarrassed the boys in high school who tried to contain him. Things won’t be that easy at the college level, but Johnson, the No. 7 recruit in the 2014 class, will play early and often for Sean Miller.

Theo Pinson, North Carolina: Maybe he’ll end up playing more of a true wing role, but the 6-6 small forward is the type of explosive athlete that Roy Williams will need to compete in a conference that will add Louisville next season. Pinson, the No. 10 recruit in the 2014 recruiting class per RecruitingNation, is a fearless youngster who could crack the Tar Heels’ starting rotation early.

Kelly Oubre, Kansas: Andrew Wiggins is gone, but Oubre, a McDonald’s All-American, could be the next one-and-done small forward at Kansas.
This week will feature a position-by-position look at players to watch for the 2014-15 season.

Point guard might be the single most important position. The potential for postseason success increases substantially for teams that have an elite point guard.

If you didn’t already know from watching Connecticut’s Shabazz Napier guide the Huskies to their fourth national championship, college basketball remains a guards’ game. Napier followed the blueprint set before him with strong leadership and, when needed, clutch shooting. With the ball in his hands, Napier was in full control of the game’s tempo.

Now everyone wants a Napier; whether in the form of a pure point guard like Arizona’s T.J. McConnell or a scoring point like Indiana’s Yogi Ferrell. Here are the point guards to keep an eye on next season.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Harrison and Fred VanVleet
AP Photo/Charlie RiedelKentucky's Andrew Harrison and Wichita State's Fred VanVleet are among the nation's top returning point guards.
Top returnees to watch

Fred VanVleet, Wichita State: He epitomizes the definition of a true point guard. Simply put, he makes everybody better. VanVleet doesn’t overwhelm with speed, but he does with his decision-making, especially when it comes to using ball screens. Opposing coaches leave impressed by his poise because he never seems to force the action and he never appears rattled. The rising junior had 22 games last season in which he didn’t commit more than one turnover. Defensively, VanVleet sets the tone for the Shockers, too, as he led the team with 69 steals.

Marcus Paige, North Carolina: He is one of the nation’s best point guards when it comes to taking over a game scoring. He also might be the nation’s most reluctant leading scorer. Because of P.J. Hairston losing his eligibility, Paige had to be more of a scoring point guard than he was accustomed to being. The newness of Paige’s scoring role meant he generally waited until the second half of games before aggressively looking for his shot. He still managed to lead the Tar Heels with 17.5 points and 4.2 assists as a sophomore last season.

Monte Morris, Iowa State. He didn’t crack the starting lineup until the final 17 games of the season. But when he did, the Cyclones operated at a higher level, as evidenced by their 13-4 mark in that span. Morris led the nation in assist-turnover ratio as a freshman last season. His 4.79 mark smashed the old record of 3.96 set by Utah State’s Tyler Newbold in 2009. Morris played roughly half the season as a backup, but next season he’ll fully inherit the offensive reins from the start.

Kenneth Smith, Louisiana Tech: Folks in Ruston, La., call him “Speedy.” Whatever he’s referred to as, his name belongs in any conversation of elite college point guards. Check the stats. He’ll return next season as the nation’s leader in assists per game with 7.7. (He finished second last season to LIU Brooklyn’s Jason Brickman, who graduated.) Smith also ranked ninth nationally with 2.5 steals per game. The rising senior is joined by three other returning starters and makes the Bulldogs one of those experienced teams the power conferences don’t want to face.

Andrew Harrison, Kentucky: He ranked 241st in assist-turnover ratio last season. He’s not what you would call a pure point guard. But Kentucky doesn’t reach the final game if not for Harrison’s development down the stretch of the season. When he looks to distribute more than he looks for his own shot, the Wildcats are a different team. No one can question his toughness. Harrison endured much criticism last season but didn’t wilt under the pressure. By deciding to put off the NBA and return for his sophomore season, Harrison could again have Kentucky playing for a national title.

Top newcomers to watch

Emmanuel Mudiay, SMU: How good is the Mustangs freshman? Some prognosticators are already predicting 6-foot-5 Mudiay as the No. 1 pick in the 2015 NBA draft. He has a rare combination of speed, quickness and athleticism for a big guard. A native of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mudiay attended high school in Arlington, Texas. He’s unquestionably the biggest recruit of SMU coach Larry Brown’s tenure and arguably program history.

Tyus Jones, Duke: Don’t be surprised if Jones joins all-everything center Jahlil Okafor in the Blue Devils' starting lineup next season. Jones will have tougher competition to beat out than Okafor, with Quinn Cook and Rasheed Sulaimon returning, but he has the skills to do it. Jones seems to, almost instinctively, read the court and make solid decisions. He is as polished as they come for freshman point guards.

Romelo Trimble, Maryland. The Seth Allen and Roddy Peters decisions to transfer from Maryland will be softened by the arrival of Trimble. He’s the first McDonald's All American coach Mark Turgeon has signed in his tenure. Trimble is a natural scorer who can play either guard, but having Allen and Peters gone paves the way for him to start from the opening tip.