Welcome to the Show: Breakout Freshmen in the Former SEC East

Posted by Christian D'Andrea on November 12th, 2014

Playing in the SEC means facing off against some of the most talented freshmen in the country, week in and week out. While Kentucky rightfully gets most of the credit for bringing in a cache of five-star prospects every season, the rest of the conference has produced plenty of gems of their own. Last season, players like Vanderbilt’s Damian Jones, South Carolina’s Sindarius Thornwell and LSU’s Jordan Mickey all broke on to the scene and made themselves potential first round NBA Draft picks. So who will be next?

Today, we’ll break down the first-year players who are primed to have the biggest impact for their teams in 2014-15. We’ll start with the side of the conference formerly known as the SEC East.

Georgia: Yante Maten. Maten, a 6’8″, 240-lb power forward, impressed in Georgia’s closer-than-expected exhibition win over Georgia Southwestern last week. He posted a 12/10/4 pts/reb/ast line and added a pair of blocks while playing the most minutes of anyone on the roster. He’s strong in the paint and has shown capable of passing from the low blocks when called upon, but he’s not the kind of shooter that will stretch the floor or pull defenders away from the basket. If Nemanja Djurisic stays at power forward all season (rather than sliding over to the three), he seems destined for a primary role off the bench this winter. Even in that capacity, he’ll have plenty of time to prep himself for a potential starting role in 2015-16.

Yante Maten

Yante Maten Was Impressive in Georgia’s Exhibition Game Last Week

Florida: Devin Robinson. Robinson had a disappointing unofficial start to his Gators tenure in the team’s exhibition win over Barry last week. The five-star freshman made just two of his 10 shots and picked up four fouls in 17 minutes of action. Even so, big things are expected from the small forward from Virginia. Robinson has the speed and athleticism to guard three positions and the shooting range to create match-up nightmares for opposing wings. He’ll have to prove that the Barry performance was just a case of the nerves catching up to him, but he’ll have several opportunities to find playing time on a team that must replace four seniors from last year’s squad.

Kentucky: Karl-Anthony Towns. It was a toss-up between Towns and fellow five-star big man Trey Lyles for this spot. Both players will vie for playing time in a stacked frontcourt that features Willie Cauley-Stein, Dakari Johnson and Marcus Lee. Towns earned a starting spot in both of the team’s exhibition games and showed no difficulties scoring against overmatched opponents, so it stands to reason that he’ll have a slight edge over Lyles when it comes to playing time this season. He’s also shown a better-than-advertised defensive skill set, but we’ll have to wait and see if his shot-blocking and help defense will hold up against SEC offenses.

Missouri: Montaque Gill-Caesar. Gill-Caesar has already slid into a starting spot on the wing and his NCAA-ready offensive game should help him retain that position throughout his Tigers career. The 6’6″ Canadian is also a long and strong defender who should give head coach Kim Anderson a versatile weapon in his first year guiding Mizzou. Gill-Caesar’s long-range shooting has been rusty this preseason, but a big performance against Missouri-Saint Louis showcased his ability to get to the rim and score efficiently (19 points, 6-of-7 FG on shots inside the three-point line).

Montaque Gill-Caesar

Montaque Gill-Caesar Appears Already Locked In as a Mizzou Starter

South Carolina: Marcus Stroman. Based on the results of South Carolina’s only exhibition game (which came back in October), head coach Frank Martin seems content with redshirting all his first-year players except for Stroman. He has strong court vision from the point and possesses the ability to get into the lane and either finish at the rim or find an open man once he’s met with help defense. However, a penchant for turnovers (seven against Benedict College) and a just-average shooting touch may prevent him from seeing too much playing time – especially when veterans like Duane Notice and Ty Johnson can hold down the point guard position for the Gamecocks.

Tennessee: Kevin Punter. This is cheating since Punter is a junior college transfer, but there’s little doubt that he’ll be the most impactful newcomer on a rebuilding Volunteers squad this season. He’s been Tennessee’s de facto point guard so far this season, but he’s more of a shooter and scorer than a distributor. That will lead Robert Hubbs III and Josh Richardson to facilitate much of the team’s offense from the half-court set, but Punter’s microwave-style scoring will be a net benefit for the Vols this season. At 6’4″, he’ll give Donnie Tyndall the opportunity to roll out a huge defensive backcourt that can stop the ball and create numerous fast break opportunities.

Vanderbilt: Riley LaChance. A packed recruiting class (five freshmen!) will give Kevin Stallings plenty of new talent to work with this winter. While players like Shelton Mitchell and Wade Baldwin IV may have stronger overall games, LaChance’s shooting skill will make him one of Stallings’ go-to guys early on. The 6’2″ combo guard is Vanderbilt’s best pure shooter since John Jenkins was busy slinging three-pointers in Nashville. His ability to make big shots both off the dribble or in a catch-and-shoot situation means that he’ll get plenty of scoring opportunities for the Commodores this season.

Christian D'Andrea (20 Posts)

Christian D'Andrea is a SEC microsite contributor. He also manages and writes for the Vanderbilt blog Anchor of Gold. You can find him on Twitter at @TrainIsland

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