Five Players to Watch this Pac-12 Basketball Season
There are a lot of players to watch in this conference this season – and a number of them are pretty under-the-radar. But I’m gonna whittle it down to the five I think are most worthy of your attention, and then give you an honorable mention section as a catch-all to try my best to not leave anyone out.
1. Shabazz Muhammad, UCLA
There’s not much argument about who the most must see Pac-12 player should be. Shabazz Muhammad is probably the conference’s most hyped freshman since O.J. Mayo, who was famously heralded as the next LeBron by many. Hell, Draft Express has Shabazz as the best prospect in the 2013 draft and projects him to be chosen first overall. Throw in a little controversy about eligibility (even Flea got in on the action) and you got must see TV. Like Mayo though, Shabazz hasn’t quite lived up to the hype so far. In the time between being one of the top high school prospects in the country and making his debut for UCLA after missing a few games due to his eligibility battle, Shabazz gained a noticeable amount of weight (he must have been training with Joshua Smith). While he has been consistently scoring in double digits, he has had some subpar performances for a top draft pick, including a cringeworthy 4-13 shooting night in a loss against Cal-Poly. I have him as a +4, above average certinaly, but by no means fantastic. But don’t fret: this guy is averaging over 17 points per game with a true shooting percentage of 58% (including 47% from 3) in his first 7 college games in Ben Howland’s notably slow paced offense. Give him a little bit of time to adjust to the college game and by the end of the season he may well be one of the best players in the league if not the nation.
2. Andre Roberson, Colorado
Roberson came into the NCAA as a relative unknown two years ago. After his freshman season, I said “Andre Roberson had a monster freshman season, and could be one of the top players in the entire Pac this year.” I was right. Roberson found himself on the All Pac-12 First Team last season, was top three in the nation (!!) in rebounding as a swingman, and had an Estimated Impact of +11 (to compare, only Anthony Davis, Jared Sullinger, Cody Zeller, and Draymond Green had more impact in 1,000 or more minutes). While Roberson is a fantastic defender, questions remain about his offensive game. His playmaking has imporved since last season – his assist percentage is up 5% from last year – but his field goal efficiency and turnovers have worsened. This is all insignificant in the big picture of course because Roberson is still a +10 this season, and he’s the odds on favorite for Pac-12 Player of the Year. Still, it would be nice to see him improve his perimeter offensive game especially from behind the three point line because this could make him a very valuable small forward in the NBA – I think Kawhi Leonard is a great comparison.
3. Arsalan Kazemi, Oregon
This was an absolutely huge pick up for Oregon. Kazemi, who transferred from Rice, has been dominant his entire NCAA career. And although Rice doesn’t exactly face the toughest competition game in and game out, he has picked up where he left off in his first several games with Oregon. We’ll see how this plays out once league play gets in full swing. Like Roberson, Kazemi has been a top-3-in-the-nation rebounder his whole career. He is also super efficient from the field, particularly inside, though he doesn’t use a whole lot of possessions – this year, in fact, he appears to have found a spot for himself as a role player in Oregon’s offense. But he’s very active on defense, amassing a ton of steals, and his work on the boards is incredible. His Estimated Impact is +13.6 right now (good for 5th in the nation), but this is nothing too out of the ordinary – he has been among the nation’s best his whole career.Watch out for Oregon this year, if for no other reason because they have this monster.
4. Devon Collier, Oregon State
Collier is a 6-8 junior at Oregon State and although he would play power forward at pretty much any other team in the country, Oregon State’s abundance of size has forced the team to play Collier at small forward for many of his minutes. That hasn’t stopped him from doing work in the paint though. Collier was second in the league last year in true shooting percentage (behind Oregon’s Garrett Sim), and he scored about 20 points per 40 minutes. His role in the Beavers’ offense was somewhat limited last season thanks to playing next to Jared Cunningham though, and with Cunningham’s departure it has increased quite a bit this season. So far, he hasn’t disappointed. Collier is averaging 25 points per 40 minutes with the second highest field goal percentage among Pac-12 players this season while using 29 percent of his team’s posessions.
5. Nick Johnson, Arizona
Sophomore guard and elite athlete Nick Johnson has been completely unstoppable on offense so far this season, leading the nation’s eighth best offense in scoring and posting an offensive rating of 135 and an Estimated Impact of +10. Johnson’s true shooting percentage is 66% and he’s shooting 43% from long range. In addition, he ranks fourth among Pac-12 players in assist percentage, making him extremely difficult to guard. He’s also notably adept on the other end of the floor, second among all Pac-12 players in steal percentage. Johnson was a huge part of the Florida win, going 3-for-4 from long range and filling up the stat sheet with 3 assists, 3 rebounds, and 4 steals. He’s a standout on the league’s best team, and is definitely worthy of your attention this season.
Brock Motum, Washington State – led the league in scoring and effective field goal percentage last season.
Josh Huestis, Stanford and Eric Moreland, Oregon State – defensive monsters who are blocking huge percentages of their opponents’ shots so far this season. These guys are probably more impactful than even I’m giving them credit for – they’re almost certainly the league’s two best defensive players.
Solomon Hill -the heart of Arizona, and arguably the biggest reason for the team’s early success.
David Kravish, Justin Cobbs, and Allen Crabbe, Cal – returning trio that could make serious noise in the league this year.
Dewayne Dedmon, Southern Cal – went from picking up a basketball for the first time to being one of the league’s best players in just a few years.
UCLA and Arizona’s freshmen – seriously, the future of the league….if they stay, that is.
Ok, so I’m sure I missed some, but I think everyone I named here is worth keeping your eye on this season. Stay tuned, I’ll be offering more NCAA analysis as the season goes on.