There's a plethora of preseason All-American lists out now, and there's a general consensus in the air. The two most common names are North Carolina's Harrison Barnes and Ohio State's Jared Sullinger. No complaints there. National championship winner Jeremy Lamb from Connecticut and Kentucky's own Terrence Jones are third and fourth, though some forward thinkers dare to dream with true freshman Anthony Davis. The point guard spot is a tossup between Wisconsin's Jordan Taylor and Xavier's Tu Holloway.
Of course, preseason and postseason awards tend to differ drastically. Last year, only two of the five preseason AP All-Americans ended up first team in the postseason--BYU's Jimmer Fredette and Purdue's JaJuan Johnson. So which not-quite-as-bright star will end up shining more than expected? I've got five guesses (plus a bonus Kentucky pick) after the jump.
Rationale: I'm amazed at how little publicity Pittsburgh's Ashton Gibbs is getting. Ken Pomeroy ranked Gibbs as the 17th most efficient offensive player in the nation last year (127.9 O-Rtg), partly due to an insanely good trigger finger (49.0% 3-pt FG% on 208 attempts, 88.9 FT% on 90 attempts). After declaring for the NBA Draft, he decided to return to Pitt for his senior season after finding the market for undersized gunners not very heavy on the demand-side.
With last year's starting point guard Brad Wanamaker gone due to graduation, there's a huge opportunity for Gibbs to seize. While he'll never be a true point guard, he has the talent to be a great combo guard. Last year's sixth man Tray Woodall slides into the starting "1" role, but Gibbs should be the lead guard on offense in a role similar to Kansas St.'s Jacob Pullen last year. We know Gibbs can score, but can he lead? If he can get raise the Panthers to new heights while improving his overall offensive (just 43.9% 2-pt FG%) and defensive games (0.8% Stl%), NBA scouts just may look at Gibbs in a whole new light.
Rationale: I was all set to go with Vanderbilt's John Jenkins here, but my Vandy pick for the All-Sleeper Final Four was met with the "obvious pick is obvious" meme. I still love Jenkins as an All-American, but I'll go a little deeper undercover by picking Terrence Ross at shooting guard. The Huskies lose their entire backcourt--Venoy Overton and Justin Holiday to graduation, and Isaiah Thomas as an NBA early entrant. This year, Washington is set to go with a new three-guard hydra. True freshman Tony Wroten turned heads in the McDonald's All-American game, and former McD All-American Abdul Gaddy was having a solid sophomore season before a torn ACL ended his year.
But it's Terrence Ross that may have the best season of them all next year. Officially, he probably starts at the 3 for the Huskies, but he has the size to be a prototypical NBA 2-guard. As a backup last year, Ross averaged 8.0 PPG and 2.8 RPG in 42.1% of available minutes. He was an effective scorer inside the arc (55.2% 2-pt FG%) but needs work either hitting the 3 (35.2% 3-pt FG%) or using his taller frame to score closer to the basket (125 3-pt attempts to just 105 2-pt attempts). Another thing: he's a remarkable athlete and contributes across the box score as a plus ball-handler and defender. Amongst a group of talented sophomores including his almost teammate and name twin Terrence Jones, Ross may well stand out.
SF: Le'Bryan Nash, Oklahoma St. Cowboys
Rationale: 5 years ago, Texas Longhorns wunderkind Kevin Durant became the first freshman ever to win the AP Player of the Year award. Since that year, a freshman has made the first team All-American team in every year but one (2008-09). There's a lot of diaper dandy talent this year, but none have quite the clear path as Oklahoma State's LeBryan Nash. Kentucky's class is too good for one freshman to hog the spotlight, and North Carolina is too upperclassmen heavy for James McAdoo or PJ Hairston to shine. Baylor's Quincy Miller is behind Perry Jones III; Florida's Bradley Beal has Kenny Boynton; Memphis' Adonis Thomas has Will Barton, and so forth.
But LeBryan Nash is walking into a tailor-made situation in Stillwater, where no one expects the Cowboys to be any good. Oklahoma State has limited returning talent--Keiton Page as an undersized gunner, J.P. Olukemi on the wing, and explosive redshirt freshman big Mike Cobbins. But they're sorely missing a star. Nash, who is an older freshman (he turns 20 during the year), should be able to step right in and shine. He's a plus ballhandler and scorer, and should easily be able to stuff the stat line. If the Cowboys can rack up the upsets and get to 20+ wins, Nash just might be your freshman of the year.
Rationale: How soon it is people forget that for much of the year, the best non-Kemba player on the Huskies was Alex Oriakhi, not Jeremy Lamb. With Walker at the helm, Oriakhi was free to unleash the beast on the interior. He was an offensive rebounding machine (14.5% O-Reb%) and, after a freshman year where he often looked lost, started to develop a competent post game. Likewise, he was a load on the defensive end. Though not quite Hasheem Thabeet good, Oriakhi patrolled the paint as a defensive swatter (5.6% blk%).
Two things should really help Oriakhi this year. First, Walker leaves and hands over point guard duties to Shabazz Napier. That reallocates the 739 (!) shot attempts taken by Walker elsewhere. (As an aside, between Kemba and Jimmer, that's a lot of frequent flyer miles that college basketball is losing.) Connecticut will run more of a post-entry offense with Napier at the helm, and even with Jeremy Lamb as the primary scoring threat, shot attempts should be more plentiful for Connecticut's interior players. Second, Oriakhi is now flanked by super-freshman Andre Drummond. With Drummond, a true center, occupying the 5, Oriakhi can play full-time at his natural power forward position without fear of crashing double-teams. Oriakhi vastly improved last year, but look for him to make yet another leap this year.
Rationale: What's an All-American list without a mid-major representative? Enter Robert Sacre, a tall drink of water plying his trade for the Gonzaga Bulldogs. Despite another WCC championship and Sweet 16 appearance, last year was a somewhat disappointing year for Gonzaga. After all, the Bulldogs started the season ranked #12 overall, but ended it with 10 losses and an 11 seed in the tournament. Still, Gonzaga is no longer a Cinderella; they just reload every year. With the loss of their two best wing players--small forward Steven Gray (graduation) and point guard Demetri Goodson (transfer to play football at Baylor)--the Bulldogs are focusing on their interior.
Gonzaga returns Elias Harris, their most talented player who struggled mightily last season, as well as big bodies Sam Dower and Kelly Olynyk. But the rock in the middle is Sacre, who's doesn't wow you with his athleticism but is extremely productive and consistent. He's a good solid presence (48.9% 2-pt FG%) that likes getting fouled (82.3% FT%). He's a good rebounder (6.3 RPG) and blocker (1.9 BPG) and could stand to be better at both. The big question: can make a senior year leap from better to best? He has the potential to be Gonzaga's best player. Maybe he'll be the best mid-major one too.
The Bluegrass Pick: Doron Lamb, Kentucky Wildcats
Rationale: We all saw the quote where John Calipari called him Kentucky's best player. You look at a team with Terrence Jones (a preseason All-American), Anthony Davis and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (top 10 lottery picks), and Marquis Teague (keys to the point guard kingdom), scratch your head, and say: huh?! But then, you look at the numbers. Last year, Lamb was by far Kentucky's most efficient player (121.9 O-rtg, 60.2 eFG%). He hit an I-can't-believe-that's-right 48.6% from beyond the arc, and hardly ever turned the ball over (14.5% TO rate) despite being the secondary ball-handling option.
That's not even accounting for his quietly effective dribble penetration and midrange game (50.5% 2-pt FG%), nor his ability to knock down free throws (79.0% FT%), nor his quick feet and ability to stay in front of his man on defense. No, it's not until you think about all that and realize, "hey, that Doron Lamb was pretty darn good last year." So yeah, even on this team, the Ken Pomeroy preseason best team in the nation, Lamb could legitimately be its best player. Let's just remember to ask Calipari what he thinks at the end of the year.