If you followed college basketball closely last year, you knew who these guys were. If all goes according to plan in 2017-18, they could become household names.
A note before we go too far: The term “sleeper” can take on different meanings. There’s the deep sleeper, like former Wisconsin standout Frank Kaminsky, whose scoring average increased by almost 10 points between his sophomore and junior seasons. Then there are guys like these, who’ve been valuable contributors but are set to assume starring roles. Think Notre Dame’s Bonzie Colson, whose scoring average rose from 11.1 to 17.8 last season.
Here is NCAA.com’s all-sleeper team:
*G Kyle Guy, Virginia
Guy is going to need to break out in order for Virginia to be Virginia. A huge void must be filled in its backcourt. London Perrantes, Marial Shayok and Darius Thompson are gone.
Guy certainly has the potential to do so.
The 6-foot-3 guard will play without his notorious man-bun this season, much to the horror of college basketball Twitter. Virginia assistant coach Jason Williford says the sophomore has grown up. He just wants to be known for his play.
“That thing [the man bun]had a personality of its own,” Williford laughed. “It had its own Twitter account. I think life’s simpler for him now. He’s sort of found himself. He had a great summer.”
The Indianapolis native had a solid freshman year. Touted as one of the best shooters in the country, he made 50 percent from 3 on a smidge over three attempts a game. Virginia would like him to take more of those. Like, considerably more. That’s not easy given the Cavaliers’ pace. They were the slowest team in America last season.
More shots for Guy should come with more playing time and a newfound dedication to the weight room. Guy is especially interesting because he’s the polar opposite of the Virginia basketball identity. The Cavaliers are grit-and-grind, slow-paced, even-keeled … boring, even? Yes, you can be boring and effective. But there are more exciting teams to watch.
Guy is flashy, in a good way. He takes and makes shots that are foreign to the rest of the program. He’s tough, but his skill exceeds his toughness. Nothing about his game is boring.
For as good as Virginia has been, it hasn’t been able to break through in March. Williford likes the idea of Guy spicing things up for the Cavs.
“He’ll be used in different ways than how we used those big, physical wings, like a Malcolm Brogdon, a Justin Anderson or a Joe Harris,” Williford said. “We want him to be himself. We want him flying off screens, being aggressive. We’re going to have to find ways to get him his kind of shots.”
What does Williford see Guy’s role being as a sophomore?
“Scorer, scorer and scorer.”
Expect Guy to get buckets.
*G De’Anthony Melton, USC
In an era where offenses are more spread out than ever, elite perimeter defenders are more valuable than ever. That’s Melton.
Melton ranked in the Top 25 as a freshman in steal rate, but he’s more impressive through the eye test than the box score. He’s a 6-foot-4 guard who can sky for dunks and deflections. Melton averaged a block per game, which isn’t something dudes his size should be able to do. He’s also agile. Andy Enfield eased Melton into the defensive system last season, but expect him to draw the opponent’s best player from now on. Breaking: 6-foot-4 guys with long arms, lateral speed and hops are no fun to play against.
Melton does a bit of everything. He averaged 12.3 points, 7.0 rebounds, 5.1 assists, 2.8 steals and 1.5 blocks per 40 minutes. USC returns its key pieces, but expect him to see more offensive opportunities. He ranked seventh on the Trojans in usage rate. Melton is arguably the most talented player on the team, so that number should rise.
Melton could stand to improve his 3-point shooting. He shot only 28.4 percent from distance. But all signs point to him being a candidate to improve. He shot a respectable 71 percent from the line and regularly hit mid-range jumpers.
It wouldn’t be fair to call Melton a true two-way player as a freshman. The defense was there. The offense was hit-or-miss. But considering his talent, the offense should catch up to the defense.
When it does, look out.
*G Markus Howard, Marquette
If Howard shoots as well for his career as he did as a freshman, he’ll go down as the best shooter in college basketball history.
Howard made 55 percent of his 3s on almost five attempts a game. If someone shoots 55 percent from 3, it’s usually because they finished something like 11-for-20. Howard attempted 150 3s.
Is 55 percent sustainable?
“Well, the numbers say [it]is, so it’s hard to argue with the numbers,” Wojciechowski told NCAA.com. “But I don’t know. With the increased awareness of defenses, the increased number of attempts, a larger role — regression is possible. But he’s an elite shooter. If anyone can sustain that, Markus can.”
His per-40 numbers were similarly great. Howard averaged 24.1 points and five made 3s during that span. Expect a bump in playing time as a sophomore, considering Howard averaged only 22 minutes a game last year.
He’s not perfect. His defensive attention span comes and goes. Marquette had the eighth-ranked offense and perhaps the best shooting backcourt in the country in Howard and Andrew Rowsey (45 percent from 3).
“They’re two of the best shooters in the United States,” Wojciechowski said.
Yet the Golden Eagles won only 19 games. Howard and Rowsey are undersized, and Marquette ranked 165th defensively last year. Defensive prowess starts at the point of attack. Howard isn’t a freak athlete, but he’s a good one, so he can do a better job of fighting through screens and staying in front of his man.
Offensively, he’s the whole package. Howard is a better shooter than a driver, but he can make a variety of plays out of the pick-and-roll. His ability to shoot coming off of screens is Damian Lillard-esque.
Howard has a good chance to average 20-plus points this season.
*F Justin Jackson, Maryland
Wings who can do a little of everything are in high demand these days. That’s why Jackson is on this list.
He’s 6-foot-7. He’s a rock-solid defender. He shot 44 percent from 3 as a freshman. Those attributes alone make him an effective player. Guys who can shoot and defend multiple positions can help any lineup.
Jackson is a proven 3-and-D guy. Now, it’s time to improve other elements of his game, like creating offense. Melo Trimble is gone. Anthony Cowan figures to take on the lead ball-handling role, but Jackson has the potential to be a dynamite secondary creator.
“He’s a lot stronger now,” Maryland guard Kevin Huerter said. “And he’s focused on his shooting and ball-handling skills. I think he’ll make huge strides this season.”
“He’s entering this year as a much more mature and confident player,” assistant coach Bino Ranson said.
When you discuss Jackson with Maryland people, his confidence always comes up. As a freshman, he was unselfish to a fault. When you’re shooting 44 percent from 3, you should be taking more than three attempts per game. When you’re as talented as Jackson, your usage rate shouldn’t be eight percentage points lower than the team leader.
Luckily for Maryland, that’s what the summer is for. Build trust in yourself. Gain strength and quickness. Both will allow Jackson to become more assertive. If Jackson adds that, he’ll be one of the best players in the Big Ten.
*C Jo Lual-Acuil, Baylor
Baylor produced a Top 20 defense last season without any standout individual defenders. Well, besides Acuil. If you can protect the rim, you’re bound to have a pretty good defense.
Acuil is the ultimate paint deterrent.
As a junior, he averaged 3.8 blocks and 10.8 rebounds per 40 minutes. Acuil is the classic modern center who can switch onto ball-handlers and protect the rim. He averaged 9.2 points mainly on lobs, offensive rebounds and putbacks. Acuil’s game on that end isn’t always sexy, but it’s effective. Bottom line, he helps your team win. Baylor had some big names last season, such as Johnathan Motley, Manu Lecomte, Al Freeman and Ish Wainright. The Bears scored 110.6 points per 100 possessions with Acuil on the floor. Only Lecomte had a better mark on the team last year.
Of course, that’s not to say Acuil was, or will be a better offensive player than Motley. There’s some noise in that number. Motley rarely played against second units, for instance.
But the number suggests Acuil is more effective than you might think. Defenses must account for his length and athleticism on rim runs. It’s unfair to compare him to present-day DeAndre Jordan, the Los Angeles Clippers star (via Texas A&M). But it’s fair to call Acuil the DeAndre Jordan of this time in college basketball.
Motley, Wainright and Freeman are gone, so offensive chances should come more readily for Acuil this season. He’s shown flashes of a post game, too, something Baylor will need given those losses. Expect him to have a big year.