by Jon Jaques / @JJaques25
We’ve already used SLAM 153 to tell you about the Dream Team at UNC and the top freshmen in the land, but there’s still a lot of great college players we have yet to mention. Here’s a Sweet 16’s worth of talented future pros.
6-5, SG, Senior, Ohio State
Even the most skilled players can be overlooked in a program as stacked as Ohio State’s. Senior guard Buford arrived in Columbus the same year as former All-American and current Sixers’ forward Evan Turner. When it appeared the explosive leaper and knockdown shooter was poised to step out of his classmate’s shadow, he unselfishly took a backseat to freshmen phenoms Jared Sullinger and Aaron Craft and crafty veterans Jon Diebler and David Lighty. Buford has been nothing but solid in his first three seasons, but he should emerge as a star this season as the Buckeyes’ main perimeter scoring threat.
Tim Hardaway Jr
6-5, PG, Sophomore, Michigan
Taller than his old man but with the same unmistakable crossover, Hardaway Jr is well on his way to becoming the most significant Michigan basketball product since a certain fivesome of the Fab-ulous variety. He possesses a natural ability to break down defenses by getting paint touches at will. Last season, Hardaway’s assist average of 1.7 per contest was lower than a point guard’s should be, but without former Wolverine guard and current Laker Darius Morris, the ball will be in Jr’s hands more this season. Large point guards are clearly trending in the NBA, so Hardaway’s size is a definite plus.
6-8, PF, Senior, Nevada
If you’re looking for NBA-level talent in a mid-major program, Reno is a great place to start. Nevada, the school that produced recent pros like Ramon Sessions, Kirk Snyder, Nick Fazekas and JaVale McGee, might do it again. Wolfpack senior forward Dario Hunt emerged from nowhere to average close to a double double (12.5 points and 9.7 rebounds per game) as a junior. Even as a sophomore, Hunt recorded 7 boards a night, so the veteran’s energy and hustle were always plus skills. If Hunt’s offensive production can continue in the face of defensive game plans tailored to stop him, Hunt could be a first-round sleeper.
6-11, PF/C, Sophomore, Baylor
Some kids simply pass the NBA eye test, and that’s good enough to cement their high Lottery status. The 6-11 Jones is one of these individuals, which made his decision to stay in school for another season in spite of a looming five-game NCAA suspension for accepting impermissible benefits even more curious. It’s crazy to think of freshman numbers of 14 points and 7 rebounds as a disappointment, but Jones, who was widely labeled the top pro prospect in his class, failed to meet those lofty expectations. Growth from freshman to sophomore years is always the greatest, though, so expect a monstrous season from the Baylor star.
6-8, SF/PF, Sophomore, Kentucky
For the first two months of his freshman campaign, Terrence Jones looked like a Lamar Odom clone: a silky smooth southpaw forward with a deft handle, knack for finding open teammates and an ability to face up and beat defenders off the dribble or with a jumper. He was the Wildcats’ best player. But Jones gradually wore down and lost confidence as the season waned. He kicked off SEC play with 24- and 35-point outbursts versus Georgia and Auburn and wrapped it up with underwhelming consecutive 7-point performances. Expect more consistency from Jones, who will be a senior citizen on another baby-faced Kentucky team.
6-7, SF, Senior, Syracuse
There have been a few recent Syracuse players who have used the Dome as a premature launching pad to glory. Kris Joseph could easily have become the next Donte Green or Jonny Flynn, unquestionable talents who made questionable decisions to leave Central New York a year too early. Instead, Joseph has decided to enjoy extra time in orange. The Montreal-born small forward has steadily improved from an offensively limited sparkplug as a freshman to one of the most feared players in the Big East heading into his final season. Joseph’s second gear and athleticism make him one of college hoops’ truly frightening open-court matchups.
6-4, SG, Sophomore, Kentucky
Lamb is overshadowed on all fronts. He’s the “other Lamb” (not the one who won a national title last season) and the “other guy” on a Kentucky roster crowded with the flashy players Wildcat fans have come to expect. But Lamb was a McDonald’s All-American coming out of New York by way of Oak Hill Academy, and after a solid freshman season in which he lead the SEC with a blistering 48-percent mark from three-point range, his coach John Calipari labeled him the “best basketball player” on a team that has more than a few good ones. His game may be quieter than your average top-50 recruit, but don’t sleep on this Lamb.
6-5, SG, Sophomore, Connecticut
Kemba Walker was the best player on the floor for UConn during its title game win over Butler…but not by much. Jeremy Lamb, who capped off his surprising rookie season with a heady 12-point, 7-rebound performance in Houston, was right there with Walker. After a summer spent as the obvious go-to scorer on Team USA’s U-19 World Championship team, it’s clear that Lamb is the fastest rising star in the Big East. His cartoonish 7-1 wingspan and basketball instincts make him a prime candidate for NBA stardom as well.
6-9, SF/PF, Sophomore, North Carolina State
CJ Leslie was born to be an NBA player. A landmark recruit for NC State, Leslie possesses incredible length, uncanny versatility and jaw-dropping athleticism. During his freshman season, though, Leslie looked like a pro trying to play college ball. The rising sophomore knew he was easily the struggling Wolfpack’s most talented player and would try to do too much. Leslie’s potential makes him a first-round lock, but if he learns to use his abilities to make his less endowed teammates better, the Draft Lottery is his future.
6-8, PF, Senior, Minnesota
Tubby Smith’s workhorse has taken a circuitous route to success (a transfer from Marquette and a felony assault charge that was eventually dropped but robbed him of a year of eligibility), but you have to figure that experience has shaped the player Mbakwe has become. Stats don’t lie, but they never express the full truth either. Mbakwe averaging a double double in a conference as rugged as the Big Ten is noteworthy, but the hustle plays the senior provides are potentially even more valuable to an NBA team. He has Nuggets’ 2011 first rounder Kenneth Faried’s motor with an even more advanced offensive skill set.
6-7, SG/SF, Junior, Texas A&M
Middleton has two things NBA evaluators will fall in love with: a beautiful stroke from pretty much every spot on the floor and the size to play his position at the next level. The junior has enough potential to advance way beyond this level, but James Jones—a nails shooter who is a smart, team basketball player—comes to mind as Middleton’s worst-case pro comparison. The Aggie needs to improve his strength if he wants to get to his spots and create his own shot in the pros, but Middleton has shown tremendous growth before, so there’s no reason to think he can’t do it again.
6-9, PF, Senior, St. Bonaventure
The best pro prospect in the Atlantic 10 is no longer an unknown. What people still don’t realize, though, is how impressive this guy truly is. For Nicholson to spit out averages of 21 points, 7.5 rebounds and 1.5 blocks while peering over double teams and battling through triple teams inspired by his lack of surrounding weapons is insane. St. Bonaventure should be proud of its finally rising program, but let’s not kid ourselves. Nicholson has resurrected this program from basement dweller to Tournament hopeful with very little help. That alone should earn Nicholson first-round consideration.
6-9, PF, Junior, Kansas
This is the season we finally learn how good Thomas Robinson can be. Despite losing his mother and both grandparents within an unimaginable three-week span last winter, the DC native was admirably able to execute his role as one of the Jayhawks’ most reliable reserves. With the productive Morris twins off to the Association, Robinson will be counted on for much more than his 8-point sophomore average this season. His post footwork and skills need refinement, but as the only frontcourt holdover from the dominant Kansas teams of the past couple seasons, the explosive forward will be given every opportunity to be a go-to guy this season.
6-6, SG, Sophomore, Washington
In a Husky backcourt full of graceful and long-legged guards (Abdul Gaddy, Tony Wroten), sophomore guard Ross has the makings of a top dog. Lorenzo Romar didn’t ask much of Ross during his freshman season, but even in just 17 minutes per contest, it was clear why the kid was so coveted coming out of high school. If you were to use your favorite video game’s create-a-player option to build an NBA shooting guard, you would end up with Terrence Ross: ideal size, effortless leaper, confident jump shot and quickness to be an elite defender. Expect huge progression from Ross in his sophomore season.
6-9, PF, Sophomore, Ohio State
On top of the larger-than- average heap of current college standouts sits a larger-than-average man. Sullinger should be a top-five selection whenever he leaves Ohio State. His footwork, feathery touch in the paint, ability to pass out of frequent double-teams and developing outside game make him an impossible matchup for 99 percent of college big men. He’ll rarely be the better athlete in a head-to-head NBA matchup, though, so he’ll have to learn how to better create scoring opportunities with positioning and craftiness.
6-10, PF/C, Junior, Mississippi State
If the NBA Draft were conducted before the college season, the tantalizing Sidney would be in the thick of the crapshoot known as the second round. NBA teams watch over these players, especially the hyped ones like Sidney, from the time they can grab a 10-foot rim with two hands, so you know GMs are familiar with the Mississippi product’s baggage. Another turbulent season filled with shoddy play and ghastly immaturity might finally put an end to his NBA future. On the other hand, a breakthrough year will have scouts salivating over the size and skill that once made him a can’t-miss prospect.