20 Questions: Which Returning Player Will Make the Leap?

Posted by rtmsf on October 20th, 2011

Andrew Murawa is the Pac-12 and Mountain West correspondent and a regular contributor.

Question: Which Returning Player Will Make the Leap?

Two seasons ago, Derrick Williams was quite a find as a freshman for Arizona. He averaged 15.7 points, 7.1 rebounds and was the Pac-10 Freshman of the Year and a member of various freshman All-American teams. Despite those accomplishments, it was surprising the big leap forward he took last season, when he upped his averages to 19.5 points and 8.3 rebounds per game and did so in insanely efficient fashion, posting the second highest offensive efficiency rating  according to Ken Pomeroy (among players using at least 28% of his team’s possessions). After hitting just four three-pointers as a freshman, he hit 42 as a sophomore and did so at an superb 57% clip.  The year Williams was a freshman, Evan Turner was busy turning in a monster season in Columbus, averaging 20.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and 6.0 assists per game on his way to winning multiple National Player of the Year awards. While Turner wasn’t nearly the surprise bust-out that Williams was (he did, after all, average 17.3 PPG, 7.1 RPG and 4.0 APG the previous season), both players made huge leaps in their final collegiate seasons on their way to earning NPOY consideration.

Evan Turner & Derrick Williams Both Broke Out In Big Ways

This season, it looks like Ohio State’s Jared Sullinger and North Carolina’s Harrison Barnes are the two preseason co-favorites for National Player of the Year honors. But, will we see someone else come up from out of the pack to challenge the frontrunners? For the purposes of answering this question, I’m going to look for a dark horse candidate, and in doing so, eliminate guys like Jordan Taylor and Ashton Gibbs, two veterans who have proven themselves already and who will likely be All-American candidates. Likewise, I’ll eliminate Perry Jones and Terrence Jones from consideration as well — two youngsters who had good if not spectacular freshman seasons but whose amazing athletic ability any old dummy could see.

But beyond that, we’ve got candidates aplenty. With the Morris twins gone from Kansas, the Jayhawks don’t return any player that averaged more than 10 PPG, and they only return one frontcourt player who averaged more than 10 MPG. Luckily, that one player is junior Thomas Robinson, an absurd physical specimen who is already a better rebounder than either of the Morris twins ever were. He’s still got a lot of room to grow on the offensive end, but he’ll get plenty of scoring opportunities to prove himself as the Jayhawks rebuild. KU’s adversary in the Border War rivalry also has a player who could break out, in Marcus Denmon. As a junior at Missouri, Denmon was superbly efficient offensively, almost never turning the ball over while scoring almost 17 points per game and posting ridiculously good shooting percentages for a guy who shot 183 threes (at a 45% clip, mind you). Coming back for his senior year, Denmon may be due for a bit of an uptick in usage, however, as the Tigers’ second leading scorer, Lawrence Bowers, tore his ACL in early October and will miss the season. Another great candidate to become a household name nationally is Cal’s smooth sophomore wing, Allen Crabbe. Crabbe struggled out of the gates in his rookie campaign, but after fellow backcourt freshman Gary Franklin transferred abruptly in early January, Crabbe took his game to a whole new level. He missed or was limited in four games due to a midseason concussion, but throwing out those games, Crabbe averaged 18.4 points (while hitting almost 49% from deep) in the post-Franklin part of the season. Throw in the fact that he can cause trouble on the defensive end and even chip in on the glass (6 RPG), and Crabbe is a difference maker for the Golden Bears.

Jeremy Lamb is the Choice For Player to Make the Leap in 2011-12

While each of those three guys, and more (Seth Curry, Maalik Wayns, Terrence Ross, and Tim Hardaway, Jr., to name a few), are capable of making a big leap this year, my pick for the breakout player of the year is a guy who has already announced himself to the basketball world on a national stage: Connecticut’s Jeremy Lamb. While we’ll primarily remember UConn’s 2011 championship team as Kemba Walker’s team, the Huskies perhaps don’t make it to the Elite Eight without the aid of the wiry freshman. Against San Diego State in the regional semifinal round, Lamb and Walker combined to score the Huskies last 27 points (Lamb contributing 11), including a key three-pointer with just 90 seconds left that put the Aztecs away for good. Overall, Lamb averaged 16.2 points per game in the NCAA Tournament, and even added almost five rebounds per outing, while knocking down 12-19 three-pointers. And, as Butler’s Shelvin Mack learned, the long arms of Lamb were also especially troublesome on the defensive end. With Walker now ostensibly a Charlotte Bobcat, the Huskies are going to rely on Lamb even more this year, and with Andre Drummond keeping opponents busy down low, Lamb will have every opportunity to show that he can be the go-to guy on a national championship contender.

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