NCAA: Top 5 Seniors With Upside
Senior NBA Writer & College Basketball Editor
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This season, even more so than previous ones, is far from ideal for seniors with aspirations of being a first round pick in the draft. While it’s been trendy in the past for prospects to stay in school for as little time as possible, the well-placed fear over the labor situation in the NBA convinced a large group of top-ranked underclassmen to stick around. Plus, the 2011 recruiting class is project to be star-studded, making it even tougher than ever for four-year players to become a top-30 pick.
That does not mean that it’s completely out of the question. Most importantly what NBA general managers and scouts look for in players is upside. It’s because freshmen and sophomores are perceived to have more room to improve that they often get chosen over their elders. But, there are cases where the more experienced players can still prove that they are far from peaking as well. And in HOOPSWORLD’s latest feature getting you prepped for the 2011-2012 college basketball season we take a look at the top five seniors with the potential to continue their development at a high enough rate to justify first round expectations.
Festus Ezeli (Vanderbilt) – 6’11, 255 lbs. Center
The big fella from Nigeria really took a huge leap forward as a junior after being fairly unproductive during his first two years as a commodore. Unfortunately, he has already suffered an injury setback to his right knee that could keep him out until late 2011/early 2012.
The Commodores will certainly miss him inside during that time as he was set to be a serious difference maker for them on both ends of the court. Last year he was one of the premier shot blockers in the country, averaging 2.6 a contest. They have tough games during their preconference schedule against Oregon, North Carolina State, Florida, Xavier, Louisville and Marquette before entering the brutally-tough SEC.
The time off could turn out to be a blessing in disguise for Ezeli if he looks to learn as much as he can during it. What he should really be keeping an eye on is the way games are officiated in order to try to keep out of foul trouble, something that has been a real weakness of his up to this point.
Andrew Nicholson (St. Bonaventure) – 6’9, 225 lbs. Power Forward/Center
In a conference that is full of extremely-talented players, Nicholson has relatively flown under the radar for his entire collegiate career despite great production. He averaged 20 points, seven rebounds and 1.5 blocks as a junior, and even started to showcase a newly-improved jump shot as a reliable weapon in his offensive arsenal.
While Nicholson’s production is noteworthy, there are some things he’s lacking that are pretty vital for NBA big men. He’s got a long way to go in terms of strength and has yet to average more than seven rebounds a game. That will be a problem at the next level when he’s not the centerpiece offensively like he is with the Bonnies.
It’s important for Nicholson to make the most of his head-to-head matchups with future pros, reduce his turnovers and be dominant in Atlantic-10 play. He also can’t leave talent evaluators with the impression that he isn’t leaving it all out on the floor.
Tyler Zeller (North Carolina) – 7’0, 220 lbs. Center
For the first time in his career last year, Zeller managed to stay healthy for an entire season . He really delivered, posting up career-highs of 15 points and seven rebounds a night. Zeller will win over a lot of front office personnel because you simply know what you’re going to get with him. He possesses a high basketball IQ, a motor that doesn’t quit and an efficient approach to the game.
The problem that he could run into is that it’s going to be quite difficult for him to top the year that he had last year. The Tar Heels are loaded from top to bottom. At most other programs in the country Zeller would be the primary option, but he’s playing with Harrison Barnes, John Henson and James McAdoo, three projected lottery picks, on the frontline.
As long as Zeller doesn’t let him point production affect his all-around game, he should be able to withstand the hit his stock will take from his point production staying around 15 a game.
Tu Holloway (Xavier) – 6’0, 185 lbs. Point Guard
Just like Zeller, Holloway has also set the bar very high for himself in his final year of eligibility. He exploded as a junior, averaging 19 points, five rebounds and five assists a game. He really put the Musketeers on his back and carried them to the NCAA tournament, but had his worst game of the season then against the guard-dominant Marquette Golden Eagles.
With the Musketeers improving overall, Holloway likely won’t have to carry the same load offensively that he did last year. He’ll still be the floor general, though, with a chance to really shine as the facilitator of the offense and team leader.
Teams are going to be playing close attention to his three-point shooting and assist-to-turnover ratio. If those improve, he’s going to have a strong argument against the young point guards who are currently ranked ahead of them.
Darius Johnson-Odom (Marquette) – 6’2, 215 lbs. Point Guard/Shooting Guard
From an NBA draft perspective, Johnson-Odom is a classic example of a tweener in a system that uses him as a point guard and shooting guard, but neither position exclusively. That’s going to make it very hard for him to really prove himself capable of playing either full-time at the next level until individual and group workouts at the end of the season.
All he can do during his final campaign as a Golden Eagle is produce at a rate that is undeniable. He’s going to have the opportunity to have a big year as he’ll be the featured option in the backcourt. And, we all know that Buzz Williams is going to encourage him to push the pace and capitalize on the scoring chances that he creates.
At 6’2, he should feel the need to make sure that he shows he can create for his teammates as well as himself because that’s the position teams are going to feel most comfortable with him at defensively. As of right now, his 1:1 assist-to-turnover ratio is going to immediately turn some teams off.
Make Sure to Watch: Jeffery Taylor (Vanderbilt) – 6’7, 225 lbs. Small Forward
One of the requirements to be on this list was steady or noticeable improvement from one year to another. Taylor doesn’t fit that criteria. In fact, he’s actually digressed in some areas, but he is quite possibly the most talented player in the class and undoubtedly someone to keep an eye on as far as the draft is concerned.
Taylor fits the bill as far as a prototypical NBA small forward is concerned. He’s very skilled and has finally started to develop a jump shot from beyond the arc that demands some respect, something he lacked as a freshman and sophomore.
With Ezeli missing nearly all of the preconference games, Taylor could really give his stock an early push that gets him into the first round. The depth of talent at the small forward position cuts Taylor’s work out for him, but he’s good enough to move past them.
Honorable Mentions: Trevor Mbakwe (Minnesota), Kris Joseph (Syracuse), Jordan Taylor (Wisconsin), Robert Sacre (Gonzaga) and Ashton Gibbs (Pittsburgh).