The last couple of weeks, I wrote about some former college basketball players transitioning to the next level. This week, I’m focusing on some who are returning to the college game next season.
Last week, Andy Katz, the former ESPN reporter and analyst and current NCAA.com correspondent rolled out his top 20 players returning to college basketball.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) July 6, 2018
Let’s start with the most relevant player on the list for us in Husker country. Coming in at No. 13 for Katz was James Palmer Jr., the senior-to-be wing at Nebraska who had a breakout season for the Huskers last year.
Here’s what Katz had to say about Palmer:
“He started his career at Miami, didn’t score that much at all, transferred to the Huskers and has been an outstanding player this past season in the Big Ten. He could be one of the reasons that Nebraska competes for the Big Ten regular season title this coming season. They fell short of getting into the NCAA Tournament. James Palmer flirted with the NBA Draft, came back and now expect him to contend for Big Ten Player of the Year. He’s going to have some competition, we’re going to talk about some other players, but certainly he’ll be in that race.”
Andy Katz' Top Returning Players:
15. Mike Daum – S. Dakota State
14. Bennie Boatwright – USC
13. James Palmer Jr – Nebraska
12. Juwan Morgan – Indiana
11. Grant Williams – Tennessee pic.twitter.com/xe0DTSjiEs
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) July 3, 2018
Palmer Jr. averaged 17.2 points on 44.4 percent from the field, 30.9 percent from 3 and 73.8 percent from the free-throw line while dishing out 3.0 assist and snagging 4.4 rebounds per game. He also turned the ball over 2.2 times per game and recorded 1.5 stocks (steals plus blocks) per game.
Palmer had a quality junior season that included one stretch during conference play where he looked like a legitimate Big Ten Player of the Year contender. However, he got off to a slower start and did not maintain that high level of play down the stretch, and as a result his overall efficiency was roughly average to slightly below average.
I think this lofty ranking for Palmer is expecting more consistency out of Palmer. If he can maintain the level of play he showed in January and February, he probably belongs on this list.
Palmer’s inclusion shouldn’t come as a surprise; Katz is as high on the Huskers in 2018-19 as anyone in the media. He had the Huskers ranked 16th nationally and second in the Big Ten in his initial Power 36 a while back. Katz recently stopped by Nebraska and spent some time with the Nebraska coaching staff, and my source close to the situation says Katz truly does see the Huskers as a Big Ten title contender as his ranking suggests.
Now, with that out of the way, let’s look at the list as a whole: what the heck, Mr. Katz? I’ve broken down the list, pulled season statistics for each of the players, and I can’t really make heads or tails of it. There doesn’t seem to be a consistent trend for what he values. It’s almost like he picked out 20 players and just threw them out in a random order.
Let’s start from the top. Katz tabbed Purdue guard Carsen Edwards as his No. 1 returning player in college basketball. That is certainly a justifiable pick. Edwards made massive strides from his freshman to his sophomore seasons, particularly in terms of his efficiency. He put up 18.5 points on 46-41-82 shooting splits for one of the better teams in the country. Edwards was invited to the NBA Combine but struggled and chose to return to West Lafayette for his junior season. If he can make another jump, he’ll not only be the favorite for Big Ten Player of the Year but he should make a strong push for National Player of the Year as well.
However, Edwards is the only returning starter for the Boilermakers. He has some solid pieces around him with 7-footer Matt Haarms, 6-foot-6 guard Nojel Eastern and senior sharp-shooter Ryan Cline, but this is going to be a very different Purdue team and opposing defenses are going to be able to devote far more attention to stopping Edwards than they did last season. Can he maintain his efficiency while taking on a larger role? How good will Purdue be? That remains to be seen.
When I posed the question to Twitter about who the best returning player in the country was, the most common response I got was another Big Ten player in Wisconsin’s Ethan Happ, who Katz has at No. 4. The Badger was an All-American as sophomore but was the only impact player who returned last season and as a result, Wisconsin struggled. Still, Happ averaged 17.9 points on 52.8 percent from the foul line, 8.0 rebounds and 3.7 assists. He’s a strong defender as well, as he was tied with another Big Ten player in Indiana’s Juwan Morgan for most stocks per game among the 20 players Katz picked at 2.6.
(Morgan is No. 12 on Katz’s list, one spot ahead of Palmer, and the last Big Ten player in Katz’s top 20; Minnesota double-double machine Jordan Murphy was one of the 12 honorable mentions.)
North Carolina forward Luke Maye rose from surprise Elite Eight hero as a sophomore to a force for the Tar Heels as a junior (16.9 points and 10.1 rebounds per game) and comes in at No. 2, while reigning Mountain West Player of the Year Caleb Martin (18.9 points and 5.4 rebounds per game as a junior) is at No. 3 and will lead one of the most stacked teams in the country in Nevada next season. Both of those are reasonable top-five selections.
Where things go off the rails is at No. 5, where Katz went with Virginia shooter Kyle Guy. Granted, Guy was named a third-team All-American by the AP, but that has more to do with the notion that the best teams deserve individual accolades and Guy was the team’s leading scorer. However, he only averaged 14.1 points and didn’t contribute much outside of scoring. He wasn’t even the team’s best player. De’Andre Hunter and Ty Jerome were both better, more valuable players last year.
Move down one spot and we see Syracuse’s Tyus Battle, another one that is hard to understand. Sure, Battle put up 19 points a game, and yes, he has a cool name. But he took a lot of shots to score those points (he shot under 40 percent from the field and under 33 percent from 3) while playing a lot of minutes (39.0 per game), averaged more turnovers than assists and grabbed less than three boards per game. Yay for points, though, right?
Skip ahead to No. 8 and there’s another pick I don’t quite get. He went with Gonzaga’s Rui Hachimura, the Japanese forward who NBA Draft prognosticators are high on but who has simply been a solid college player. He was Gonzaga’s sixth man last season and fifth-leading scorer. Now, Hachimura was the most productive scorer on the team on a per-minute basis. He’s a great athlete and a strong finisher who rebounds well but can’t shoot from the perimeter. With Jonathan Williams’ eligibility expired, there should be a larger role for Hachimura next season. That being said, Killian Tillie, Jonathan Perkins and Zach Novel Jr. — Gonzaga’s second-, third- and fourth-leading scorers — all return and heading into his second season, Norvell might be just as much of a breakout candidate as Hachimura is. All this is to ask if Hachimura is even going to be Gonzaga’s best player next season, let alone a top-10 player nationally.
I can’t complain about the likes of Marquette sniper Markus Howard and do-it-all point guards Shamorie Ponds (St. John’s) and Ky Bowman (Boston College) making the list, and while 11 strikes me as high for reigning SEC Player of the Year Grant Williams of Tennessee (a lesser case of the Top-Guy-good-team nomination), my next major issue is having South Dakota State big man Mike Daum all the way down at 15, one spot behind USC’s Bennie Boatwright.
Daum, a native of Kimball, Nebraska, is tied with Campbell’s Chris Clemons for the title of active career scoring leader in Division I. He should surpass 3,000 career points before the end of his senior season. At 6-foot-9, Daum is one of the best 3-point shooters in the country who also also the ability to score inside, making him one of the toughest match-ups in the country. He averaged 23.9 points and 7.5 rebounds while shooting 46.2 percent form the field and 42.5 percent from 3.
Perhaps Katz felt like Daum was somewhat of a case of a good player beating up on lesser opponents? If so, I don’t quite understand why Martin is all the way up at No. 3 or why Hachimura is at No. 8. The Mountain West and West Coast Conference are better leagues than the Summit, sure, but not enough for this much of a disparity.
Furthermore, Daum has played 11 career games against high-major opponents. In those 11 games, Daum averaged 18.5 points on 44.2 percent from the field, 47.1 percent from 3 and 80.4 percent from the free-throw line with 7.6 rebounds per game. Those numbers are on par with or better than everyone on the list ahead of him. Take just his junior season numbers against high-major foes and you get 25.3 points and 7.5 boards on 44.4 percent from the field, 46.3 percent from 3 and 74.2 percent from the free-throw line. Any way you look at it, Daum is much more deserving of a spot in the top five than at 15.
As for Boatwright, he hasn’t even played a full season since his freshman year. Last season, he averaged 13.6 points and 6.4 rebounds while shooting 41.5 percent from the field, 34.6 percent from 3 and 72.6 percent from the charity stripe. I’m struggling to find the area of the game where Boatwright is better than Daum. I also don’t see how he’s more deserving of a spot in the top 15 over some of the bigs Katz put on his honorable mention list like Stanford-to-Kentucky graduate transfer Reid Travis, Arkansas’ Daniel Gafford or Kansas State’s Dean Wade.
The last five players on Katz’s list are sophomores-to-be who had very promising freshman seasons, and it’s probably fair to project a sizable bump in their performance as sophomores.
— NCAA March Madness (@marchmadness) July 6, 2018
A handful of Katz’s honorable mentions — namely Travis, Gafford, Wade and Murphy — could easily replace a couple players in the top 20. Another honorable mention who Nebraska might see this season is Texas Tech guard Jarrett Culver who will take on a larger role after Keenan Evans graduated and Zaire Smith went one-and-done in Lubbock.
The biggest name that is nowhere to be found is Kansas’ Dedric Lawson. Katz didn’t specify what he meant by “returning player,” but Lawson’s omission suggests he was only looking at players who played college basketball last season as the 6-foot-8 forward sat out last season after transferring from Memphis. Lawson put up some ridiculous numbers as a sophomore for the Tigers, averaging 19.2 points, 9.9 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 3.4 stocks. He’s not in this top-32, but he will likely be a contender for Big 12 and National Player of the Year if Kansas has the kind of season many expect.
I may have issues with the order of this list (clearly by the length of this column, there are many of them), but when taken as a whole it’s a pretty good collection of the best returning players in college basketball. The only conference with more players in Katz’s 32 than the Big Ten with five is the SEC with seven, and the Big Ten is tied with the ACC for most players inside the top 20 with four.
As I wrote in my column in the aftermath of the 2018 NBA Draft, there really isn’t an excuse for the Big Ten not to show significant improvement as a conference in 2018-19. With one of the best players in the country leading the way and more chances for quality wins on the schedule, there really isn’t an excuse for Nebraska to miss the NCAA Tournament, either.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.