Fall classes are starting at many colleges across the US. For most student athletes, the return to campus is smooth. For others, the start of the fall semester is an ugly reality check. The key phrases over the next month will be “academically ineligible”, “off-court incident”, and “illegal benefits”. If your team is out of the headlines in the next eight weeks, odds are your team’s outlook improved by default.
For some teams, the loss of a player can be devastating. Xavier expected to be rebuilding after losing Tu Holloway, Kenny Frease and Mark Lyons to the NBA, graduation and transfer. But the Musketeers expected to rebuild around super-sophomore Dezmine Wells. Instead, Wells has been expelled from the university, and Xavier’s chances of an at-large NCAA bid have taken a serious hit.
For other teams, the news is less devastating. With Cody Zeller electing not to declare for the NBA draft, Indiana has spent the summer with a scholarship crunch. The Hoosiers had 14 scholarship offers for 13 players. But with the news that Indiana recruit Ron Patterson would not qualify academically, Indiana head coach Tom Crean looks like a man with brilliant foresight, instead of a coach who recklessly over-signed.
For those of us hoping to project the season, these minor roster announcements mean tearing up current projections and crunching the numbers again. And as I recreate that process, I am reminded that nothing in college basketball is guaranteed.
If only everyone had as brilliant a development path as former Kansas forward Thomas Robinson. As a freshman, Thomas Robinson had some obvious flaws (see free throw shooting). But Robinson worked hard to overcome that weakness in his game. Robinson improved his finishing touch around the basket, and as a sophomore Robinson became one of the most efficient high volume shooters in the nation. And then, when Robinson saw his playing time double as a junior, his points per game (PPG) production more than doubled. Robinson maintained his prolific and efficient level of play, maintained his extreme defensive rebounding rate, and Robinson became a national player of the year candidate. Robinson was selected with the 5th pick in this year’s NBA draft. Sadly, not every journey is that smooth. The following list is a sober reminder that regardless of class, players can fail to live up to the hype:
Junior: Doneal Mack, 2009 at Memphis, High School RSCI Rank: 84th
Doneal Mack looked like he was on a Thomas Robinson-like trajectory. He was efficient as a freshmen (124 ORtg) and despite taking 23% of his team’s shots when on the floor as a sophomore, he maintained a 115 ORtg. But as a junior everything went wrong. Mack’s minutes doubled, but his points per game production increased from only 6.9 to 8.7. Mack was shooting less and converting fewer of his shots. Perhaps it was a simple bit of PG math (Derrick Rose loved to set up his teammates, Tyreke Evans loved to feed himself), or perhaps it was some bad karma after Mack threatened to transfer if he didn’t receive more playing time. Regardless, Mack’s fate is clear evidence that sometimes doubling a player’s minutes doesn’t mean twice the production.
Freshman: LeBryan Nash, 2012 at Oklahoma St., High School RSCI Rank: 8th
Feel free to insert your own example of an over-hyped freshman here. Perhaps you feel like Harrison Barnes was a bigger disappointment given his lofty expectations. Or perhaps you would stick with the stats and criticize what Lance Stephenson did at Cincinnati. But Nash in 2012 was a classic example of a highly rated high school prospect who failed to make an impact. LeBryan Nash’s 89 ORtg was poor to say the least, but the most shocking development was that at 6’7”, Nash was afraid to crash the offensive glass. Even Perry Jones III who was labeled as soft, grabbed 11% of the available misses on offense for Baylor. But for Oklahoma St., LeBryan Nash grabbed just 5% of the available misses on offense. Nash’s numbers did turn around a little bit late in the season as he realized his strength was getting to the free throw line and not taking perimeter jumpers. But Nash’s performance clearly did not match the hype.
Sophomore: Cameron Clark, 2012 at Oklahoma, High School RSCI Rank: 36th
You will often hear me refer to something known as the sophomore leap. That means that on average, the biggest improvement for a player comes between his freshman and sophomore seasons. And for players whose teammates improve, the growth trajectory is typically higher. And when you were highly ranked out of high school, the growth trajectory can be even higher. But for Oklahoma’s Cameron Clark, things didn’t exactly work out as planned. Between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Clark’s two pt FG% fell from 51% to 42%, he went from being a 37% three point shooter to a guy who couldn’t make any threes, and Clark didn’t add any other facets to his game. His steal, block, and assist rates remained mediocre, and he continued to fail to crash the glass on a regular basis. Overall, his ORtg fell from 107 to 91, and his lack of development held Oklahoma back from finishing in the middle of the pack in the Big 12.
Senior: Malcolm Grant, 2012 at Miami FL, Unranked Out of High School
Remember last summer when Frank Haith went from Miami (FL) to Missouri and everyone said Missouri settled? One NCAA tournament loss to Norfolk St. notwithstanding, I think it is fair to say that Haith has silenced his doubters. Not only has Haith led Missouri to a 30-5 season and put together a historic recruiting class of transfers, I think it is fair to ask whether we overlooked what he brought to a football school at Miami. Malcolm Grant averaged 15 PPG as a junior at Miami, but when Haith left, Grant’s production fell to 10 PPG as a senior. And that unexpected drop in production came in basically every facet of Grant’s game. Grant’s overall ORtg fell from 114 to 98, his 3 point percentage fell from 42% to 33%, his assist rate fell from 21% to 14%, and Grant’s free throw rate also plummeted.
The purpose of this post isn’t to single out any of these players. As Lance Stephenson went on to show, having a poor college season or two doesn’t mean the NBA won’t give you an opportunity. And while Doneal Mack has struggled to make an NBA roster, he has still earned some money playing in Turkey. No, the purpose of this post isn’t to pick on these individual players. The purpose is to say that no matter what we say we know over the next few months, all it takes is one player who cannot pass a summer class, or one undisclosed hand injury, and the world can be shaken upside down. In college basketball, crazy stuff happens every day.