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Young College Basketball Stars

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Young College Basketball Stars

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Steven Shrenkel, Staff Writer

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There are many young talented basketball stars scattered throughout the NCAA. A few select players, however, stand out above their peers. These players are simply on a different level when it comes to the game of college basketball.

I’ve chosen what I believe to be the top three players in the nation. These players were chosen based upon five different criteria. The criteria include scoring ability, playmaking (assisting/rebounding), player efficiency, schedule breakdown (key wins/losses) and the likelihood of succeeding in the tournament. Please note that these three players are in contention for National Player of the Year and will appear in the tourney.

I have also included an honorable mention. While the honorable mention excels in many of the criteria listed above, they are unfortunately on a team that will not make the tournament so I simply cannot include them in my top three. It may not be fair, but historically those on non-NCAA tournament teams are usually not in contention for these types of rankings.

Caleb Swanigan, Purdue

Who ever said dominant big men were a dying breed in basketball? If they did, nobody ever told the 6’9”, 250-pound sophomore forward. Purdue’s Swanigan is the shining example of being able to stand out from his peers in a predominantly guard driven league. This puts him atop my top three young college basketball stars.

Scoring Ability

Averaging 18.9 points a game, it’s no surprise that Swanigan is atop the chase for National Player of the Year. He is the go to scorer for Purdue and an offensive juggernaut. His scoring ability as a big man is second to none. No one in the country can guard Swanigan one on one in the paint. Everyone should know that by now. His combination of pure power and dizzying post moves makes him a huge presence on the inside.

However, he’s also expanded his offensive arsenal in a versatile way. Defenses have to worry about him on all three levels. While bullying people in the paint is his main game, he can also hit the mid-range jumper with ease making him deadly in the pick and pop. As a big man, you might brush off any thought of Swanigan having success behind the arc. You couldn’t be more wrong. He’s nailed 29 three pointers this year. That number only promises to go up as he continues to improve at that facet of his game.

A combination of all these factors makes Swanigan a nightmare for opposing defenses. Just take a look at the 6 games Purdue played this season against teams that were ranked at the time. He averaged a whopping 21.3 points between those games. His scoring ability when faced against these teams just seems to transcend to another level.

Playmaking (Assists, Rebounds)

Swanigan can do much more than just pound the rock in the paint and score with ease. His ability to find the open man when needed is crucial to his team’s success. Averaging 2.8 assists per game may seem like a measly number. It’s not how many assists that he has though, it’s the impact of his passes that makes him so special. His vision helps set up many easy baskets for his teammates when need be. Just take a look at when Purdue faced Maryland on February 4th, for example. Swanigan quickly grabbed the rebound and dished it out to an open P.J. Thompson for the three to put Purdue ahead 66 to 65 in the final minutes of the game. Purdue would go on to win that game 73 to 72. He simply knows where his teammates are in critical moments.

While Swanigan has many non-traditional big man skills, he still manages to excel at the traditional ones. Just taking a look at his rebounding numbers shows why he’s such a force to be reckoned with. Second in the nation with 13.0 rebounds per game, Swanigan encompasses what it’s like to be threat on all ends of the floor. He has 337 rebounds for the season and looks to shatter Joe Carroll’s 352 school rebounding record in 1979. His huge frame and determination to get the ball is why he leads this category. He can simply out muscle anyone in the paint that dares try to steal a rebound from him. His ability to box out anyone thrown at him makes tough matchups for any opposing big men.

Efficiency Across the Board

It’s this category that makes Swanigan so special. It’s one thing for a player to be able to score. The efficiency that the player scores at, however, is what separates great and good players. Swanigan is a great player when it comes to his efficiency. He’s shooting a scorching 56.9% from the field to go along with averaging 78.4 percent from the free throw line. He also has a 47.5 percent 3-point percentage that ranks 29th in the country.

This is a 6’9”, 250-pound power forward averaging those numbers. What’s even more impressive is the fact that Swanigan has twenty-two double-doubles to his name this season. This is a school record and also smashed the single season double-doubles record which was set before at 18. His efficiency across the board just makes him that much more special.

Schedule Breakdown (Key Wins/Losses)

Purdue currently sits at 22-5 overall. They are 11-3 in conference play making them first in the Big Ten. Their schedule is scattered with many key wins and losses throughout the year so far. Purdue’s schedule certainly wasn’t a cakewalk but at the same time wasn’t too difficult. Swanigan has certainly contributed in many of the key wins and losses.

A few key wins to point out on the schedule would be against #13 ranked Wisconsin and #17 ranked Maryland. In these games, Swanigan simply dominated. He went for 18 points and thirteen rebounds against Wisconsin, while also going off on Maryland with 26 points and ten rebounds. Notice a similarity between these two games? He was a double-double machine like so often before.

Some key losses to look at include against #3 ranked Villanova early in the season and Minnesota. Even in these losses Swanigan still looked great. Finishing with 20 points and eight rebounds against one of the top countries in the team is nothing to be ashamed off. Unfortunately for him and Purdue, it wasn’t enough to stop Villanova’s Josh Hart from willing his team to victory. Swanigan also finished with 28 points and twenty-two rebounds in Purdue’s overtime loss to Minnesota. Even when looking at some of the disappointing losses, he still seems to shine as a player.

Likelihood of Succeeding in the Tournament

Expect to see more of the same from Swanigan in the tournament.   Keep a tab on just how many double-doubles he finishes the season with as its bound to increase. Purdue has an extremely tough challenge ahead of them in the tournament. While there is a low chance that they advance deep into the tourney, don’t attribute that to Swanigan. It will take more than his efforts for Purdue having any chance, but they wouldn’t have a shot without him otherwise.

Frank Mason III, Kansas

Kansas guard Frank Mason III has all the right tools to be a top star in the NCAA. His deadly shot is something that most players don’t have in the league. The Senior is a terrific player that’s having the best season of his collegiate career. His ability to score along with his scorching hot shooting percentages puts him second on my list of young college basketball stars.

Scoring Ability

Mason III can score at will. He has one of the best jumpers in the league right now. Watching that jumper in action is like pure poetry. He’s averaging a career high 20.2 points per game. The half-court offense is when he’s at his best. It’s this shooting ability that has made him so dangerous on the court and the go to scorer for Kansas.

He thrives from the top of the key. He’s already nailed 60 3-pointers this season and that number promises to rise. The 5’11” guard is very crafty in his offense and can also take it to the rim when needed. It’s a combination of all these ways to score that makes him such a dangerous player on the offensive end.

Playmaking Ability (Assisting, Rebounding)

It’s extremely fun to watch Mason III score. He can do a little of everything though. Averaging 4.9 assists and 4.3 rebounds a game, Mason III can contribute on all facets of the game.

He looks to get his teammates involved when he’s struggling on offense. His ability to recognize when he should be looking for someone else to take the shot is what makes him such a high IQ basketball player. He can scan the court and make the best decision at that moment in time. He can also sneak in and grab the occasional board from time to time. Being 5’11” fighting for these rebounds makes him all that much more impressive of a player.

Efficiency Across the Board

This is strictly Mason III’s category. He owns it. He knows when and where the best shot for him his at all times. There isn’t a player in the NCAA right now that is shooting at a more efficient rate than him. Averaging a hot 48.8 percent from the field, he definitely knows how to shoot efficiently. What’s scary is the fact that his overall percentage isn’t even his most impressive efficiency statistic.

That would belong to his 3-point shooting percentage. Currently, Mason III is averaging a blazing 50.9 percent from behind the arc. What’s even more impressive about all this is the fact that he has one of the highest usage rates right now in the league. It just goes to show you how scarily efficient Mason III truly is.

Schedule Breakdown (Key Wins/Losses)

Kansas doesn’t have very many losses to their name. While being a very good team, this can be attributed to Mason III’s contributions to his team. Kansas currently sits at 24-3 overall. They are also 12-2 in conference play making them first in the Big 12. A few key wins and losses can be looked upon to see just how Mason III impacted his team.

Kansas’s victory against then #4 Kentucky before going on to defeat Baylor twice were extremely impressive wins. Kansas’s win against Kentucky was a battle throughout most of the game. They overcame Kentucky’s hot start though to win 79-73. Kansas was able to slow down the game’s pace, allowing for Mason III to brilliantly run the offense. He showcased why he is such a great player tallying 21 points, four assists, and two steals in that game. Another key win for Kansas was against Baylor on February 18th. It was a close game that ended when Mason III decided to take over the game. He finished with 23 points, eight assists, and two steals to rally the Jayhawks back from a deficit.

There are a couple losses that need to be addressed. Kansas’s losses against West Virginia and Iowa State were clearly a disappointment for the Jayhawks. The loss against West Virginia clearly wasn’t Mason III’s greatest game. He still, however, managed to contribute with 15 points, two assists, and four rebounds. Many college basketball players would love to have numbers like those. This was simply not good enough of a performance though for some on Mason III’s level. Kansas’s loss against Iowa State in overtime may look disappointing to some. When you take a look at how Mason III finished that game though shows just how truly talented of a player he his. In that loss, he finished with a career high 32 points on 9-10 shooting. Those types of numbers even in a loss are simply amazing.

Likelihood to Succeed in the Tournament

Frank Mason III has a huge chance to make even more of an impact than he already has. If he can keep shooting the lights out, there’s no reason to believe he’ll have nothing but success in the tournament. His ability to get hot will lead Kansas deep into the tourney where I believe Mason III can cement his status as one of the best players in the NCAA.

Lonzo Ball, UCLA

Freshman Lonzo Ball from UCLA is everything you envision when thinking of a typical point guard. He’s a playmaker first and foremost. That doesn’t mean he can’t excel in other areas of the game though. It’s his ability to make his team better overall, that lands him a spot in my top three young college basketball stars.

Scoring Ability

Don’t let the fact that Ball is only UCLA’s third leading scorer fool you. He can flat out score. Averaging 15.4 points per game may not seem like that much, but when you look at how the Bruins offense runs, that’s just about where he should be. He has no problem taking a backseat to his many explosive teammates. The 6’6” guard is capable of scoring in bunches when needed from all areas of the floor. He has also been known to step up in key moments when the Bruins need to score. He possesses an unorthodox yet effective shooting stroke that allows him to be a vital threat on the offensive end.

Playmaking (Assisting, Rebounding)

This is where Ball really shines and showcases his talents. Averaging 7.6 assists per game, it’s easy to see why many think of him as deserving National Player of the Year. If there was a book on the art of passing, he would be on the front cover. His court vision is simply amazing. His passes can be anywhere from simple to flashy, but one thing is for certain, Ball can see the whole floor with ease.

Driving to the paint and kicking out the rock is one of his greatest talents. This vision has allowed him to elevate his teammates on offense every game. It’s also quite the treat to watch him run the fast break and nearly guaranteeing a basket. Ball always sets up his teammates for the best shot possible.

He also has allowed for UCLA’s offense to become one of the most efficient that anyone has ever been seen before. They have a historically great offense that has scored at least 100 points eight different times. His playmaking ability clearly makes his teammates better in a stunning way. This can be demoralizing to opposing teams that are caught off guard by his efficient distribution.

Ball may be the Bruins best distributor, but that doesn’t stop him from crashing the boards. He averages 6.0 rebounds per game. Ball can get into the paint when needed and snatch the ball away from opposing defenders. This allows for many second chance points that simply wouldn’t be there if it wasn’t for him.

Ball also leads UCLA on the defensive end. This is the Bruins weakest area and it shows. They allow more than 76 points per game. Ball, however, is the exception to their defense. He works extremely hard on the defensive end and it shows. He averages 1.8 steals per game with 37 total steals throughout his collegiate career. He can be seen as a lockdown defender that gives opposing offensive players’ major issues.

Efficiency Across the Board

Ball is pretty efficient in the multiple facets of his game. He’s shooting 55.1 percent from the field and 43.2 percent from 3-point range. He also shoots a decent 67.2 percent from the charity stripe.

Those numbers are impressive for scoring not being the primary asset of his game. These types of numbers can be attributed to his great shot selection. Rarely taking a bad shot, Ball takes advantage of every opportunity he gets.

Schedule Breakdown (Key Wins/Losses)

The Bruins rarely lose a game when Ball is on his game. This has led to them sitting at 24-3 overall. They are 11-3 in their conference allowing them to be third in the Pac-12. UCLA’s schedule has many wins and not very many losses as it stands. There are, however, a few key games that need to be pointed out.

The mighty are bound to fall every once in a while. That’s exactly what happened when UCLA took on then #1 ranked Kentucky and won 97-92. This was the game that ended UK’s home win streak at 42 and shocked the nation. Ball was a steady contributor in this game with 14 points, seven assists, six rebounds, and one steal. He really showcased how he operated the Bruins offense with ease. Another key win for UCLA came later on in the season when they defeated #5 ranked Oregon 82-79. This game was a struggle in the first half for the Bruins. They turned it around in the second though with Ball leading the way. He hit a step back dagger to close out the game and finished with 15 points and eleven rebounds.

There are a few losses that also need to be addressed. The first came against #14 ranked Arizona that saw UCLA lose 96-85. While it was the Bruins horrible defense that led to their downfall, Ball still managed to be brilliant. He finished the game with 22 points, eight assists, and six rebounds. The other loss comes at the hands of USC. The Trojans defeated the Bruins 84-76 in a disappointing loss for UCLA. Ball had 15 points, ten rebounds, and four assists. While still putting up impressive numbers, he was overshadowed by his seven turnovers. This was a rare bad game for him. When you put into perspective that this constitutes a bad game for him, you truly see how great of a player that Ball is.

Likelihood of Success in the Tournament

UCLA will be nearly unstoppable in the tourney if Ball continues his offensive reign of terror. He’s just that type of special player that elevates his teammates to another level. From his scoring, to his passing, to his defense, Ball can do it all. Expect his special playmaking ability to steer the Bruins to treasure trove of success in the tournament.

Honorable Mention: Markelle Fultz, Washington

The freshman guard from Washington deserves to be recognized. The potential top pick in the 2017 NBA draft just has too much talent to be ignored. While he may be on a sinking Huskies team that won’t even make the tournament, Fultz is one of the most skilled and polished players in the NCAA.

Scoring Ability

Fultz is one of the best scorers in the nation. Averaging 23.2 points per game, it’s silly sometimes how easily the 6’4” guard can put the ball into the hoop. Creating his own shot is a huge advantage that Fultz has over many of his peers.

He can knock down a shot from nearly any part of the floor allowing him to tear up opposing defenses. His mid-range stroke is one of the best in the NCAA. One of his best ways that he scores, though, is when he drives to the paint. Fultz can dash through defenders and finish with ease. Watching him in the open floor attacking the rim is one of the best facets of his game.

Playmaking (Assists, Rebounds)

Fultz can be nearly as good a playmaker as UCLA’s Lonzo Ball is. He averages 5.9 assists per game along with 5.7 rebounds per game. Fultz has good court vision that allows him to lead his teammates to an open shot. He can distribute the rock when his shot rarely doesn’t fall. He does, however, need to cut down on his turnovers.

Fultz is an elite defender. He can shut down opposing team’s best players easily. He’s averaging 1.6 steals per game and is a headache for rival offenses. Fultz knows how to play lockdown defense and is a constant irritant.

Efficiency Across the Board

Fultz is an efficient scorer from all over the court. He’s averaging 47.6 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from behind the arc. He also is averaging 64.9 percent from the free throw line. Fultz simply knows when to shoot the ball. His midrange jumper is extremely efficient. It’s his ability to slash to the basket, though, that allows for all these high percentage looks.

Schedule Breakdown (Key Wins/Losses)

No matter how talented Fultz may be, the Washington Huskies are not a good team. They have a 9-18 record overall and are eleventh in the Pac-12 conference. There are a few key wins and losses that he was able to showcase his talent.

The Huskies had a dominating win against Oregon State when they won 87-61. Fultz scored a game best 20 points to go along with five assists and three rebounds. He really got to show off and lead his team to victory in this win. Another key win was in overtime when they defeated Colorado 85-83 earlier in the season. Fultz was a statistical monster this game with 37 points, eight assists, three blocks, and four steals.

While Washington has loss some key games, Fultz has still managed to look like a star in them. It was a battle of the guards when the Huskies took on UCLA and Lonzo Ball. While Washington may have lost that game, Fultz fully proved that he belonged at the top of elite college guards. In the huge defeat, he still managed 25 points, five assists, and three steals. This game was simply an offensive showcase between Fultz and his talented companion Ball.

Likelihood of Succeeding in the Tournament

This is the criteria that unfortunately disqualifies Fultz for being considered in my top three picks for college basketball’s young stars. Washington is not making the tournament. Besides Fultz, they just aren’t a good team. It’s unfortunate, because he would have most likely put on an offensive showcase that would have dazzled tourney watchers.

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