1. Caris LeVert, Michigan
The year is 2014 and Nik Stauskas, Glenn Robinson III, and Mitch McGary are on NBA rosters. The show is now Caris LeVert’s at U of M, and with the improvements he’s made to round out his game, it’s doubtful that he disappoints. The 6’7” guard is a versatile offensive player who oftentimes stole the show last year despite the presence of his NBA-caliber teammates. LeVert has bulked up, adding about 15 pounds and an inch of height, taking him from skinny and under-sized to ideal NBA shooting guard. He has developed a deadly outside shot, shooting over 40% from behind the arc last season. He has fairly explosive athleticism and is a good perimeter defender. After the drastic improvement he made from his freshman to his sophomore year, he could be primed for another breakout season. He is the seventh-highest returning scorer in the Big Ten, with the absence of both Stauskas and GRIII (that’s a 30.6 PPG departure), LeVert could very well become one of the nation’s finest players. He needs to become more efficient, particularly from mid-range, and his killer instinct (or the lack there0f) needs to be fine-tuned. But, LeVert is just a deep bag of goodies offensively, now is his chance to shine.
2. Montrezl Harrell, Louisville
Last season, Montrezl Harrell looked like a man amongst boys at times against the 4 or 5 bottom-feeder teams of the American Athletic Conference. This season, the Cardinals have moved to the ACC…but Harrell will no doubt continue to be dominant and continue to be huge. The 6’8” power forward has a ridiculous 7’3” wingspan that helped him to second in rebounding in the AAC conference last season. Harrell scored 32 in Louisville’s intrasquad scrimmage on Sunday, and appears to be "the guy" following the graduation of Russ Smith. The high-energy big man began to realize his potential last season, but the combination of his physical abilities and motor have NBA scouts and U of L fans alike drooling over what Harrell could do this upcoming season. He still needs to develop his post game, but he’s so physically imposing that he can dominate on the college level regardless of how skilled he is on offense.
3. Willie Cauley-Stein, Kentucky
When Willie Cauley-Stein committed to play for John Calipari’s NBA player factory of a program, he was signing up for a college career of never really owning the spotlight. Even this season, he’s expected to be one of the better big men in all of college basketball – but he won’t even be the stand-alone star in his own team’s frontcourt. Over his first two seasons, he averaged a mere 7.5 PPG (although he also chipped in 2.5 blocks a game) as teammates such as Nerlens Noel, Archie Goodwin, Alex Poythress, James Young, Julius Randle, and the Harrison brothers took on the bulk of the scoring load. This season, he’ll share frontcourt minutes with Dakari Johnson, Marcus Lee, Alex Polythress, and freshmen Karl Towns, Trey Lyles, and Derek Willis, but he’s hands-down the defensive anchor of this team. But after shooting nearly 60% from the field last season, Cauley-Stein is ready to take on a larger load of the offensive touches and should be an impact player on both ends of the floor.
4. AJ Hammons, Purdue
In his two years at Purdue, 7-foot center AJ Hammons has been long on potential and a bit short on results. The Boilermakers missed out on both the NCAA Tournament and the NIT in both Hammons’ seasons. And Hammons has often looked disengaged and ineffective on the court in that time while only averaging a modest 10.7 PPG. But the fact of the matter is that Hammons is a 260-lb. 7-footer with a good array of post moves, a great presence in the paint on defense, and a deft shooting touch from mid-range. He has Big Ten POY potential, and he’s shown flashes of dominance in the past. He scored 18, rebounded 16, and blocked 5 shots against Minnesota last season, and went off for 30 against Indiana as a freshman. If Hammons can put it all together, he should lead the Boilermakers to a tournament bid and maybe even earn a lottery selection for himself.
5. Brice Johnson, North Carolina
The Tar Heels have been in need of a solid post presence since the Tyler Zeller/John Henson days in 2011-2012, and they may have found that in Brice Johnson. The 6’9” power forward was very efficient in his sophomore season, totaling over 10 points and 6 rebounds per game in under 20 minutes of action per contest. A former high school track star in the high jump, Johnson has great athleticism to complement his deft touch around the rim. He can finish chances at the basket, but he needs to bulk up to maintain his position in the post. He’s still pretty raw, but he showed flashes last year that indicate he’s ready to take the next step and be a premiere big man in the loaded ACC.
6. Sam Dekker, Wisconsin
Sam Dekker is a smooth, versatile swingman who can contribute a little bit of everything. A true Bo Ryan-type player, he teamed with Frank Kaminsky to finish second in the Big Ten and garner a 2 seed last season. Dekker, along with Kaminsky, is back this year to give Wisconsin the postseason success they’ve often lacked in the Bo Ryan era. Dekker is a smart, hard-working player with a good jump shot and passing ability. At 6’7”, Dekker is probably more suited to playing the 3, but he also puts in time as a face-up 4, which can create regular mismatches. Though Dekker can score, he’s probably as suited as anyone in the nation to being a complementary do-everything guy to team with Kaminsky, the high-volume scorer. The ceiling may be slightly limited for Dekker, but he’s already reached high levels as a player and contributes to all facets of the game like few other players can.
7. RJ Hunter, Georgia State
RJ Hunter is perhaps the most unknown quantity on this entire list. The 2014 Sun Belt POY has put up big numbers in his two years at Georgia State, but the shooting guard hasn’t garnered much draft buzz until recently. At 6’6”, Hunter has good size for a shooting guard and can hang with players from the big schools, as evidenced by his 21 against Vanderbilt, his 15 against Clemson, and his 14 against Duke in his very first college game. He’s a great outside shooter, connecting on nearly 40% of his threes on a very high volume (7.7 per game) last season, and while his defense is sometimes shaky, he causes a lot of turnovers that lead to easy points. He gives off a bit of a Damian Lillard/Steph Curry vibe as far as his potential to become that gutsy, high-volume mid-major scorer that becomes a household name by the end of the season. But for now, he just needs to try and bring the Panthers to the Big Dance for the first time since 2001.
8. Buddy Hield, Oklahoma
Buddy Hield is an interesting prospect as, though he goes to a major conference school that earned a 5 seed last season, he isn’t very well-known, in part because he attends a football school where basketball players seem to have a tendency to not always receive the hype they deserve. Hield broke out last season to score 16.5 PPG and led his team to a surprising successful season. He’s strong and smart and can shoot the ball fairly well, but there’s only so much he can do as a shot creator. He might be better suited as a role player on a good team, but there’s still a lot in his arsenal and with his work ethic, he could be more versatile and even more dangerous this upcoming season.
9. Olivier Hanlan, Boston College
After starting last season with six straight games with 18 or more points, Olivier Hanlan, a point guard who stands at an impressive 6’4”, received a lot of hype to start the year. But the Eagles went 8-24, the worst overall record in all of the high-major conferences, and Hanlan’s momentum diminished drastically. But he’s still the same crafty player that he was and may still light up scoreboards this year. Hanlan can score in a variety of ways, but is most effective driving to the basket and finishing. His great wingspan makes him a nightmare defensively for opposing point guards, and his ability to draw fouls and convert at the stripe are very desirable. It remains to be seen how well his game translates to the pros, where his lack of strength and elite shooting touch, along with his dependence on getting whistles may cause him trouble. But there’s no doubt Boston College will be better this year behind the stellar offensive versatility of Olivier Hanlan.
10. Marcus Paige, North Carolina
We mentioned Brice Johnson of UNC earlier? Well, here’s his point guard counterpart, Marcus Paige. Quick and athletic with great floor vision, Paige is the prototypical college point guard. His effort and instincts on defense help him stay in front of his man and cause turnovers, and with most of his supporting cast returning, the Tar Heels’ leading scorer from 2014 (17.5 PPG) should look even better as he distributes to his teammates fro the finish. Paige could be a little undersized for the pro game and hasn’t played great at camps against NBA players, but he should have an outstanding year for UNC.
11. Terran Petteway, Nebraska
One of the bigger breakout stories of 2013-2014 was Terran Petteway, who led the Nebraska basketball program out of complete obscurity and into the NIT last season. He averaged over 18 PPG in his first season with the team and just has a knack for putting the ball in the basket. He likes to shoot it from the outside and, though his long jumper is still improving, he’s had some success with it. The main thing for Petteway is becoming more efficient. He shot the ball a lot last year, and Tim Miles is going to want to see him become more efficient with the ball. Nebraska had to settle for the NIT last year after being ranked for a decent part of the season, but this time, they’re looking to finish the job., and the key to their success is Terran Petteway.
12. Alex Poythress, Kentucky
Like Cauley-Stein, Poythress has never quite had a chance to be "the guy" for the Wildcats, and that may not be any different this season. His physical tools are off the charts. He’s an excellent athlete with a big (7-foot) wingspan, and he has added some muscle to his frame. His skills, however, are still a work in progress. He is a bit of a tweener, but at the same time, this can mean that he has the versatility to play in the post and knock down some outside shots. He will likely continue on as a complementary scorer to the Harrison twins and the talented incoming freshmen. After a 5+ point drop in his scoring average from his freshman to sophomore season, he should rebound and become a key cog for this young Kentucky team.
13. Shawn Long, Louisiana-Lafayette
If you are a college basketball fan, you were probably familiar with Elfrid Payton by the end of last season. The talented guard out of Louisiana-Lafayette had a great season and went on to be selected by the Orlando Magic in the tenth pick of the draft. What you may not have known is that Shawn Long played the role of Mr. Inside to Payton’s Mr. Outside. While Payton was earning national attention, Long was averaging 17.8 PPG along with 10.3 RPG. At 6’10”, 256 lbs., with a 7-foot wingspan, Long is a man among boys in the Sun Belt Conference. He could very likely be as dominant this year as Payton was last year. Long uses his strength to grab boards and score inside, but he’s also a surprisingly good shooter from the outside, connecting on 41% of his 2.4 attempts per game last season. He also blocked 2.7 shots per game last season, so there are not a lot of facets of the game where he does not make an impact. He has got the full package and it won’t be long before he’s making his presence known big-time to both basketball fans and NBA scouts across the country.
14. Perry Ellis, Kansas
Ellis has been surrounded by superstars during his two years at KU and the 6’8” forward has always gotten a little lost in the shuffle. He’s a very sound player who doesn’t really do any one thing outstandingly. His fundamentals make him an incredibly efficient player and he may continue to chug along as a high-quality supporting character as Kansas brings in another deadly recruiting class. Ellis is a high-IQ player who does all the little things well and all the big things, such as rebounding and defending and scoring in the post, deceptively solidly. It will be interesting to see if he demands the ball more and carves out a larger role for himself or if he continues to contribute as the 2nd or 3rd or 4th option. Regardless, Perry Ellis is the kind of unselfish player that plays a big role on winning teams, and he has star potential that may soon be realized.
15. Winston Shepard, San Diego State
Though Shepard has shown flashes in the past, this is more of a speculative pick for the last spot on our list. Shepard, not the most famous name you’ll hear on the college basketball landscape, is a lanky, super-athletic small forward who averaged 11.4 PPG last season for the Aztecs. Following the departure of point guard Xavier Thames, the show is now Shepard’s to run. He made some improvements last year and relied a lot on his quickness and leaping ability to finish in transition and at the rim. His defense is stellar, as his length and athleticism make him very good at staying in front of his man. On the defensive end of the floor, Shepard shows his good instincts and demonstrates that that facet of his game is much more complete than the rest. His outside shooting still leaves much to be desired and he only shot 41% from the field last season. All-around, he needs to improve his efficiency. But he’s making strides and could be an intriguing player for the Aztecs with his excellent athleticism.