No year of college is more essential for basketball prospects than the sophomore season. The most talented players never see a second season, but those who remain in school rarely find NBA success if they do not show developmental progress as sophomores. Last season is a great example of both the harm that can come in returning for an additional year and the benefits a player can have when showing developmental progress.
Marcus Smart would likely have been a top-3 selection in the 2013 NBA Draft. While he did not fall far from that spot last season, his shortcomings on and off the court lowered his profile entering the draft. In addition to his issues off the court, his failure to improve his outside shooting reinforced scouts' view on his greatest flaw. Likewise, Gary Harris was a likely top-10 choice in 2013, yet his stock fell out of the lottery. Scouting is a harsh world and while Harris was more productive as a sophomore, there was no specific skill added to his game in his second year. The mistakes of freshmen are easily forgiven by scouts, yet sophomores are harshly condemned for the holes in their game. While Nik Stauskas and T.J. Warren played themselves into lottery picks in 2014, Kyle Anderson and Jerami Grant were severely undervalued despite significant improvement in their sophomore seasons. Fair or not, college sophomores are not given the benefit of the doubt developmentally as afforded to less experienced freshmen.
The 2015 group of college sophomores enters this season without a prospect as highly regarded as Marcus Smart or Gary Harris were last year. There is a great deal of volatility among the class that could result in no players taken in the lottery or as many as 3 or 4. Any of the 12 players being previewed here could be first-round selections or find themselves having little choice but to return to college for their junior season. Overall, it is a fairly average group of sophomore prospects, yet one that is heavy in SEC talent. In fact, this sophomore group represents the most NBA talent the SEC has seen in over a decade--particularly among non-Kentucky teams. As a result, many of the SEC prospects will be able to play against each other repeatedly in conference play. Those matchups could determine who leaves early for the NBA and who returns for another year.
Deeper profiles of each of these players will be shared later in the college season, but here are six pairs of sophomore prospects and what to watch for in their development this season:
Bobby Portis, PF, Arkansas (6'10, 235) and Chris Walker, PF, Florida (6'9, 205)
Walker was a potential one-and-done prospect when he arrived in Gainesville last year, but was unable to show much in his freshman year due to NCAA eligibility issues. Upon gaining eligibility, Walker was unable to find an impact role on a deep and experienced Gator squad. Meanwhile, Bobby Portis stuffed the Razorback stat sheet with 12.3 points and 6.8 rebounds while posting a shooting slash of 51/27/74. His shooting must grow, but his freshman season established a reasonable baseline on which to build. Portis could be a phenomenal defender (1.0 steals, 1.6 blocks) for his position but must show more consistent effort in the defensive post. Walker remains the highest rated sophomore by many scouting profiles due to his elite athletic ability, but Portis is more skilled and has comparable athletic ability at this point in his career. Walker has the potential to show the skill and production necessary to block and dunk his way to be the first sophomore selected, but I would choose Portis if the draft was held today due to a higher and more diverse level of basketball skills for the power forward position.
Jordan Mickey, PF, LSU (6'7, 234) and Jarell Martin, PF, LSU (6'7.5, 242)
Last season, Mickey and Martin mostly played alongside Johnny O'Bryant, but this season they will be on the floor together. Martin entered last season as the 5-star stud prospect, but Mickey was more productive and more reliable. While Martin continues to be highly regarded, Mickey has a clearer skill set for being a productive NBA power forward. Mickey scored nearly 13 points, 8 rebounds, and over 3 blocks per game last season while shooting 53% from the field and 70% from the free throw line. Effectively using a 7'2 wingspan, Mickey performed much better against elite competition. Martin is very talented, but is currently trapped between forward positions as a pro prospect. He produced 10.3 points and 4.6 rebounds while shooting 33% from the three-point line. He has the skill to develop as an impact player at power forward, yet too often drifts away from the basket where his handle and shot is not strong enough to thrive. In his 5 games matched with NBA talent versus Kentucky and Tennessee, Martin failed to score in double figures and never secured more than 3 rebounds. Martin may be the more athletic prospect perceived to have a higher ceiling, but he also has a lower floor. If the draft was held today, I would prefer betting on Mickey's current skill and desire over the unrealized potential flashed in Martin's game.
Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, SF, Arizona (6'6, 212) and Wayne Selden, SG/SF, Kansas (6'6, 223)
Selden and Hollis-Jefferson were similarly valued top-15 prospects entering their freshman seasons, but Hollis-Jefferson showed more progress. The Arizona forward projects as a stopper on the defensive end, yet must become a better shooter and playmaker to impact play on the offensive end. With a 49/20/68 shooting slash and more turnovers than assists, Rondae must develop a skill that is useful on the offensive end. It could be improving his first step, finishing near the basket, or improving his jump shot. Selden profiles very differently as more skilled on the offensive end with potential to be a dominant scorer. However, he too easily disappears from games on both ends and shows little commitment to defending his position at a level equivalent to his athletic ability. Selden has first-round skill and ability held back by a lack of toughness and resilience. If he displays growth in the latter areas, he could play himself into a top-10 selection. Hollis-Jefferson is a borderline lottery pick due to his defensive gifts, yet could rise or fall this season depending on his offensive development. Selden will have multiple opportunities to move up draft boards, but he enters the season with less value than Hollis-Jefferson.
Dakari Johnson, C, Kentucky (6'11, 263) and Amida Brimah, C, Connecticut (7'0, 217)
Here is the Olowo Candy show down between two prospects whose best gift on the court is their size. Johnson and Brimah met in the national title game where both prospects had disappointing performances. Brimah shoots 57% from the free-throw line which makes him look like Reggie Miller compared to Johnson's anemic 44%. Neither player shows much ability in the offensive post, although Johnson flashed some positive development with his post moves late in the season. Brimah does look like a player who could provide reliable post defense off the bench early in his NBA career, but he is extremely foul prone. He currently has little to no offensive skills that can be duplicated at the next level. Johnson only averaged a comparably poor 1.7 blocks per 40 minutes, yet he is a good on-ball defender who does not chase blocks or rebounds. Like Brimah, he struggles with getting in foul trouble, but commits more "productive" fouls. Johnson is well ahead of Brimah at this point in their careers and has the potential to develop into a two-way starting defensive center. Brimah may not be a first-round prospect due to his limitations, but that would be the floor for Dakari at this point.
Aaron Harrison, SG, Kentucky (6'5, 210) and Andrew Harrison, PG/SG, Kentucky (6'5, 207)
The Harrison twins were considered NBA-ready talents coming out of high school and evaluated to be in the same circle as Jabari Parker, Andrew Wiggins, and Julius Randle. Both disappointed as freshmen, although Aaron had a stronger season and displayed more NBA skills than Andrew who arrived in Lexington as the more impressive prospect. While scoring 13.7 points and 3 rebounds on a solid 42/36/79 shooting slash, Aaron closed the season by making three clutch shots to secure victory for the Big Blue during an unexpected tournament run to the Finals. His defense is underrated and he has and excellent handle for a wing player. Andrew averaged 4 assists per game last season as a point guard, but was underwhelming in a system set-up for him to be far more productive. He plays a little slow at times and makes too many disappointing decisions to be valued as a traditional point guard. On a positive, he has the size and shooting ability to play off the ball as a shooting guard despite his difficulties at finishing at the rim. His erratic play remains puzzling given his pedigree when he arrived in Lexington, but the opportunity remains for him to reverse a disappointing first college season. Competing for playing time with highly-touted freshman Tyler Ulis will be an interesting dynamic for the Wildcats. Andrew has a more diverse offensive profile, but Aaron projects as the better two-way player. Unless Andrew becomes more consistent on both ends of the floor, he will still be waiting to be selected when his brother goes off the board next summer somewhere in the first round.
Sindarius Thornwell, SG, South Carolina (6'5.5, 214) and Jabari Bird, SG, California (6'6, 199)
Two of the most underrated prospects for the upcoming season, Thornwell and Bird are wings who will be featured on lesser regarded college teams. Thornwell was forced into playing point guard for the Gamecocks last season despite not being ideal for the position. He will not be a point guard on a regular basis on the professional level, but his experience at the position has improved his overall development as an NBA wing. With a 6'9 wingspan, SIndarius is a resilient player who is unafraid of big games or big moments. He turned the ball over more than 3 times per game, yet his struggles were endured while learning a new position. Thornwell shot 37% from the three-point line and that number could improve as he is permitted to play more off the ball. Before being injured, Jabari Bird explodes on the college scene as one of the more surprising freshman in the PAC-12. His star fade as he struggle after returning from injury. Playing alongside or behind an excellent college senior in Justin Cobbs, Bird had difficulty getting on the court later in the season. His greatest gift is that he displays a top-end jumper where he releases the ball at the height of verticality on his jump shot. He has good handles, but makes lazy passes. With lapses on defense and a streaky shot, he has a lot of Ben Gordon in his game. He had his best games against tougher opponents and like Thornwell he is unafraid of having the ball in crucial moments. Bird projects as a player just out of the first round, but he has the profile to move up higher as a sixth man prospect. Thornwell is not listed as a top-60 player by many evaluations, but I view him as a first-round talent who could play three different positions off of an NBA bench. Thornwell and Bird are my early sleepers for players to be selected higher than their current projections.